Post #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.”
Women’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?
Sheila 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.
Women’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?
Sheila 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.
Women’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?
Sheila 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.
How 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.
Women’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.
Sheila 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: http://sheilakcollins.com/about/publications/warrior-mother
[And that free book giveaway? One person who comments below will receive a copy of Sheila's memoir. We invite you to participate.]