Memoirist Sheila Collins Discusses Her Experiences

by Matilda Butler on September 13, 2013

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #106 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

[NOTE FROM WOMEN'S MEMOIRS: Be sure to read to the bottom for information about the free book giveaway. Sheila Collins is graciously giving a copy of her new memoir to one person who leaves a comment on this blog. So be sure to do that. We will contact the winner to get a mailing address.]

Women’s Memoirs is pleased to welcome Sheila Collins. Congratulations on the publication of your memoir, Warrior Mother: A Memoir of Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals That Heal. I’d like to thank you for your memoir. You are helping to open a conversation around the topic of how to handle the death of a child. When I conducted the interviews for the collective memoir Rosie’s Daughters, I had a standard pair of questions about the best and the worst thing that had ever happened. It is amazing how many women responded, “The worst thing in the world would be to lose a child. That hasn’t happened to me so I’d have to say that I haven’t had a worst thing.”
memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question 1. And so while losing one child is almost unthinkable, losing two seems to be almost unbearable. Your memoir addresses this issue. Could you briefly tell our readers about your story and what you want readers to get from it?

memoir writingSheila Collins: My youngest son Ken, was a gay man when AIDS became a pandemic in that subculture and western medicine had no effective treatments for it. Ken was diagnosed with the kind of pneumonia that defined AIDS when he was 27. My oldest, Corinne, a mother of three young children at the time, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few days after her 40th birthday. Warrior Mother deals with my advocacy for Ken through his diagnosis, treatment, and death. And five years later, when traditional treatments for breast cancer failed Corinne, I journeyed to Brazil to consult a healer on her behalf, returning home to become her caregiver as she underwent a bone marrow transplant.

Though the facts of my story are unique, I believe the fierce love I felt for my children is common in most mothers. I would hope that women reading my story will appreciate their own strength and commitment to their children. I actually did travel to what seemed the ends of the earth to help one of my children, but most mothers I know, when the life of their child is threatened, would do something equally outlandish.

You mention my book opening up the conversation about how to handle the death of a child. But I think as mothers we are all called on to be warriors when a young child has special learning needs, or health challenges, or is dealing with being bullied or the death of a close friend or relative. And when our children are grown, I think of what my mother used to say, “little children – little problems, big children – big problems.” Being a mother is a lifetime occupation and death is not the only way to lose a child. It isn’t even the worst way. Some mothers lose their children due to alcohol and drug abuse or addiction, mental illness, or when their children end up in prison.

I would wish that my stories will help people appreciate the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to be available to those we love. Let us appreciate the power of prayer and ritual as tools to endure, and the importance of asking for support from family members, friends and communities. We’re all in this life together. That’s how our family made it through, and how we still do.
 memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question 2. Memoir writing is an intense experience requiring the person to go deep into their own emotions as well as that of others in the story. For some people the process is healing and for others it causes too much pain. Could you describe your own experience in writing Warrior Mother?

memoir writingSheila Collins: When I began writing what turned out to be Warrior Mother, I had moved to another part of the country where I didn’t know anyone. This seemed to create an opening, a forced letting go of connections and responsibilities in Fort Worth, and a need to create a new life and life-style in Pittsburgh. Since it was my husband’s job that initiated the move, we decided together that I would not pursue a job in behavior health, which had been my professional field. In the two prior years, my primary job had been taking care of my adult daughter and helping with her three young children. That job ended when she died in 2004. I decided to focus on writing about my experiences accompanying my two adult children through their illness, treatments and deaths, and I used the improvisational tools of InterPlay to generate the stories.

It might sound strange but I felt it a privilege to have the time to sort, savor, and reflect on what we, as a family had been through. I knew that this would be a lonely journey so I made sure that I scheduled frequent outings in the community to meet people and to pursue another strong interest of mine, improvisational art based in dance. I had introduced InterPlay in four Texas cities, and here I was introducing it in Pittsburgh. I recruited people into a small troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players because that was what I needed to be able to show people what InterPlay was, and for my own self- care as I embarked on the writing. Just as I had used these improvisational tools of dance, song, storytelling and stillness to make it through the events I describe in the book, these same tools helped support the writing process as well. I believe it kept me from being bogged down by the sorrow, and it supported my “looking for the good” which is a principle of InterPlay.  

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question 3. Many people find that it takes them years and years to write their memoir. What was the primary factor that caused you to decide to write your memoir?

memoir writingSheila Collins: I had been a therapist for 20 plus years, accompanying many families through illnesses, divorces, family grief and losses. But in going through my own challenges there was so much I didn’t know. As a social work professor I was familiar with the literature on these topics and I knew that many of my experiences in these situations are not spoken of, not researched, so the wisdom of one generation is not passing on to the next. I remembered hearing that in my father’s family when he was a boy, and in that generation generally, no one ever spoke in public of a woman being pregnant. The whole subject of birthing was a taboo so each woman faced that situation and her fears of it alone. In my generation and since, we prepare for childbirth with spouses and family members involved. That kind of change is what’s needed around the process of death and dying and I wanted to be a part of that conversation, that evolution.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyHow long did it take?

I began writing short vignettes at the end of 2005. I joined a writers’ group sometime in 2006 and have been meeting with them every other week (with summers off) for the past seven years. I had written a self- help book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing published in 1992 but I wanted this book to contain the stories. I began using this writing project to learn how to write creative non-fiction and it was a formidable task. I’m grateful to my writers’ group and to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that I visited each year, for helping me acquire the skills I needed to tell my stories.
memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question 3. Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for women just now beginning to write their memoir–especially memoirs that deal with personal grief.

memoir writingSheila Collins: Find people to support you as you do the inner and outer work required in writing a memoir. Just like in the real life situations you are writing about, support from others is often the element that makes the difference. Don’t be surprised, as I was, by the fact that many people don’t understand why you would want to do such a thing. Our culture is big on “put it behind you and move on.” But putting aside the tough parts can mean losing our memories of the positive aspects as well. In much of my experience, the two were of one piece. The process of writing our experiences gives us, on the one hand, some distance from the experience, and on the other, a way to get inside the story and see what it has to teach us.

Sheila K.Collins is a dancer, social worker, and improvisational performance artist.

Want to learn more? Be sure to check out the book trailer for Warrior Mother.

In Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals That Heal (She Writes Press, August 28, 2013), Sheila shares how she survived the loss of two of her grown children.  Friend her on Facebook, and Tweet her @SheilaKCollins. You can reach Sheila through her website or learn more about her and her memoir:
[And that free book giveaway? One person who comments below will receive a copy of Sheila's memoir. We invite you to participate.]

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Graham-Waldon September 15, 2013 at

Thank you so much, Sheila for sharing your journey of loss, healing and transformation. You are truly an inspiration!

Nancy Julien Kopp September 15, 2013 at

I also lost two of my children, but in a totally different way. Mine were still infants when they died. I can’t help but think that the longer you have a child, the more difficult it is to lose him/her. Many years have passed but I have never ‘gotten over it’ as many people suggested would happen, but I have learned to live with it. The raw wounds are now soft heartaches. I would love to read your book. It took me 30 years to write about my losses but I found it to help with continued healing when I finally shared my experience with others.

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Nancy — Thanks for sharing a little of your own story here.

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Martha – You’ve put your finger on why memoir is so important — our lives help others to reflect on theirs.

Cindy Fields September 15, 2013 at

You show how we can hold a great sorrow but also face living. How we express or create to show our sorrows can take many forms, but are important.

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Cindy: I agree with you. Sheila opens us to new ways to express sorrow. Thanks for your comment.

Patricia Melanie September 15, 2013 at

Thank you for this interview.

As I watch Sheila perform her dance/improvisational movement in the video, I remind myself that as a child, the only outlet I had for real feelings was to make up movement to the classical music pieces on the radio (when no one was watching) – my made up ballets at ages 5 years through about 9 or 10. In that way I was able to relate to my own strong feelings (Beethoven & Tchaikovsky my favorites at that time) and find a release for them.

In recent years, my attempts to connect with how to begin my own memoir, I realize now that beginning with words leaves me feeling empty and I’d lose interest. Perhaps I’ll try some improvisational movement, for a change, to find a connection with the deeper, more difficult places. Thank you.

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Patricia — I’m glad that you have a new idea for ways to connect emotionally with your own story. Thanks for letting us know.

engemi ferreira September 15, 2013 at

This interview and the responses to it, again surprised me with the similarity of threads flowing through all our lives wherever we live. I also used to express my inner feelings as a child, like Patricia, in performing (as conducter ;~) the great musical works. I fully agree with Cindy that we have to share our sorrows and thus collected a gathering of short pieces for an anthology called By the Death of a Beloved, because like Nancy I lost my eldest child when he was still a baby. About his death I have been writing through the last 45 years.

I soon realised that his life was not for nothing; he came to teach me about love. It also taught me that life and death cannot be parted. And that death is nothing frightening – but a journey to where we truly belong, as we are not of this world.

Though, while we are here in this world, it has amazed me time and again how often we do find comfort in the words of others who accompanied there beloveds through the valley of death (in its enormous variety).

Even though I have not yet read Sheilla’s book, the title and subtitle drew me and almost told the full story, just leaving out the details. I am a warrior mother; I have deep and fierce love – not only for my children – but also for those who suffer in life, amongst whom many gay people, I dealt with unbearable loss, not only through the death of our eldest child, but also the diagnoses of two sons with schizophrenia; I too have intimate dealings with a labarynth, which I have layed out and incessantly walked on our farm and where I came to many insights while doing so.

Last but not least, Sheilla had the wisdom to leave her reader with hope: the most important ray of light of being healed somehow, whenever we humans are in the depths of despaired darkness.

I want to thank Sheilla from my heart, for reallising all of this, for writing the memoir, and for giving it this all revealing title. I commend you. I also want to thank Matilda and Kendra for keeping this page alive with wonderful true stories.

engemi ferreira September 15, 2013 at

Please forgive me for miss spelling Sheila’s name and not checking before posting …

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Engemi: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It means much to all of us. Finding the insights of our journey is a treasured gift.

Ronda Armstrong September 16, 2013 at

Sheila — Thank you for sharing your story, but more than that sharing it, describing how you made meaning of your experiences of loss, and your commitment to expanding the literature — encouraging others to address topics often kept silent. Now readers can discover their own insights and meaning, and perhaps they too will share their vulnerabilities with others.

mary September 16, 2013 at

I have been taking care of my Mother since returning to my hometown six months ago. She just turned 86 and is a shadow of the woman she once was. I am so torn with emotion everyday I am here…some good some bad. I would enjoy reading your entire memoir for the connection.

Matilda Butler September 16, 2013 at

Hi Ronda: It is good to hear from you. Each life story involves some kind of loss and I agree with you that making “meaning of your experiences of loss” is important. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Nancy, Thanks for sharing some of your story of loss. I believe it helps us all to hear these stories, to realize that loss is a part of life, and that we don’t need to face them silently and alone.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Just seeing your name helps me to appreciate how connected we all are. My mother’s maiden name was Graham and I just came back from Scotland where her family came from. Our stories are our gifts to one another.
Thank you for your kind words.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Yes, I think we can create from our sorrow because it is the other side of what we treasure, what we love. The best to you in your creative endeavors.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Patricia, I love your story of yourself as a child dancing to the music. This is our birthright. My grandchild is moving to music and she’s barely able to walk, so in a way she’s dancing before she’s walking. I would encourage you to move first and then write. In the improvisational system that I use, InterPlay there is a form called Dance/talk/Dance/talk. You repeat this three times and see what emerges for you. This helped me to generate the stories I wrote about in my memoir. Sounds like your lead creative system is movement, just as mine is.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Isn’t it amazing the similarities we have once we are telling our deep truths? Thanks for sharing some of your own story of love and loss and healing.

Sheila K. Collins September 16, 2013 at

Once the silence is broken, and people can speak from the heart, whether in person or on the page, we are all the richer for the dialogue and the lessons we teach one another.
Thanks for sharing,

Lileen September 16, 2013 at

Thank you so much for sharing your memories and feelings. I’ve experienced loss in many ways and when I hear about the death of a child — no matter whose child, I experience the distress and pain. Reading the interview reminds me, Oh, how precious our children are. Wonderful interview.

Matilda Butler September 16, 2013 at

Mary — How warm and wonderful you must seem to your mother–even though you are swinging back and forth between emotions. It is hard to know the important impact we have on others. Thank you for sharing with us.

George Collins September 17, 2013 at

You, Sheila, have done a marvelous job recalling those terrible times we shared. I’m sure your memoir will guide and help many folks.

Very Sincerely, your devoted “ex.”

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