Three Writers Write a Book: You Might Want to Consider Their Approach

by Matilda Butler on February 17, 2015

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #116 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler



memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: I’m pleased to welcome Ruth Cox, Patricia Cavanaugh and Meredith Stout to Women’s Memoirs. Greetings. I’m excited to learn what you have to say about publishing a book that reflects your individual writing interests.

I’ve read your newly released book, A Basket of Words and want to congratulate you. I’m delighted to have you here so that you can share some of your experiences. I understand that A Basket of Words was 20 years in the making and encompasses the stories of you three. The typical model is one author, one book. I’d love to have you tell our readers a little about how this book came to be.

Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: The seeds for our small writing group were planted more than twenty years ago when we met in a writing class. We were nervous writers, apologetic and self-critical, but we wanted to be heard in a safe place. Eventually, when the class dissolved, a few of us formed our own group, and in time, we winnowed down to a committed, inseparable three.

Over the years, we met at least one afternoon each month or for an occasional weekend at the beach. Our basic routine was, and is, invariably the same. With a lighted candle for inspiration, we each wrote “prompt” words on scraps of paper and put them in a basket, simple words like turnip, kiss, or button. After a meditation, we chose one of the prompts at random, and for ten minutes, we disappeared into our own creative worlds and wrote whatever came to mind, be it poems, story beginnings or memoir snapshots.

We listened to each other read with open hearts. No judgment, no critique, just gentle encouragement. We began to recognize each other’s voices and to develop our individual styles, and over time, we had collected a considerable mass of writing we thought others might enjoy. Taking a deep breath, we decided to “come out” with our work and publish a book.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: I can see the logic behind the title of your book, A Basket of Words. It turned out to be an intriguing one. How did you choose it, or did it seem to choose itself?

Click on book cover to purchase the Kindle version.

Patricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: We debated about the title for a long time. We liked the idea of photographing an actual basket for the cover that would be both aesthetic and reflect our ongoing creative practice of pulling a word from a basket. After long collaborative discussions, we finally agreed on A Basket of Words: Twenty Years of Writing Together.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: As I read A Basket of Words, I found a fascinating mixture of fiction and memoir, prose and poetry. When the three of you started working together did you already know the genre you wanted to write or did that change over the years?

Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout:
The journey of discovering voice and form was different for each of us.



Patricia Cavanaugh, authorPatricia: I had no set idea about genre, though in our group it seemed mainly to be writing story beginnings and mysteries, always in the third person. Gradually, the other forms emerged–poetry and futuristic fantasy fiction.



Meredith Stout, authorMeredith: I have always wanted to write memoir. I rarely write in the third person. My life has been filled with stories, and I wanted a way to leave them for my family and generations to come. Through memoir writing, my life’s themes begin to emerge in a new way, particularly my concerns with class and race.

Ruth Cox, authorRuth: I have always written a mix of poetry, essay (usually with a nature related theme), memoir, and short fiction. The short writing provided a launch pad for longer pieces—I was constantly surprised at what emerged when tapping into this stream of consciousness process.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: As you just mentioned, the three of you have written together for 20 years. That sounds like piles and piles and piles of stories you must have as a result. Yet your book seems so well honed. How did you select what would be in the book? Of course, that makes it seem as if the selections were for the book as a whole. Perhaps a better question would be how did each of you select pieces to go in your section of the book?

Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: To create our collection of “prompt” writings, we didn’t have any editorial criteria or direction; we simply began cross-referencing lists of our short writing pieces that we all could still locate. They emerged from old notebooks, tote bags, and storage lockers. It was a bit chaotic as we began an informal process of reading and re-reading them aloud, sifting through the sets we liked, narrowing down our choices (from hundreds) until we arrived at a final selection of seven.

Each of our individual sections had their own processes:

Ruth: I polished my short story, “Roy,” and focused on finding short writing pieces created in the context of the group that I was fond of, but had not been selected for our “Seven.” I also wanted to include a range of genres, so found poems and a section of novella to include.

Meredith: I felt I did not have enough memoir pieces, but I finally organized ones I particularly liked into some kind of chronological order with huge gaps. As the form of my section developed, the larger book I am working on now began to come into focus.

Patricia: I collected everything I had written. It didn’t seem like enough until Ruth and Meredith encouraged me to dig deeper for pieces that I had packed away and actually forgotten about. After they came to light, I worked them together into the structure I use for A Basket of Words.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: I have several questions about producing your book. You’ve shared the background of your writing group and the process of selecting material for the book. So with that in place, think now about what you viewed as the hardest/easiest parts?

Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: Being constantly interrupted by life and derailed by personal challenges. Since there were three of us, there were that many more distractions. But that’s the lesson. Things are always going to be falling apart—we need to keep going in spite of this. Life pulls us away from creative expression, but we have to carve out time each day for what matters most.?

Communicating when we weren’t together was difficult at times. During the publishing phase, we used conference calls to connect more frequently. Version control was a challenge with the final drafts of the manuscript.

Once we decided to publish our anthology, having a timeline helped. Yet it was important to let go of fixed deadlines when they didn’t work. Every step of the way we worked at being sensitive to the current of what worked, personal styles and editing.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: What do you think took the most time in arriving at a book you could distribute?

Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/Stout

Patricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: Deciding to actually publish our work. It took a long time to get the courage to come out with our writing and then to sift, edit and polish. We underestimated the importance of proofing and had to keep re-proofing when we found mistakes.

We strongly suggest that you hire a good copy editor to help you shape and clean up your manuscript.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: What was the biggest expense?



Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout:
Hiring a book designer was our biggest expense. We were lucky to work locally with Irene Rietschel, a sensitive, reflective book designer who listened and responded to our multiple design ideas. She guided our process in shaping the final file every step of the way, from font choices to page and cover layout. (irene@studioitalics.com)

Book design services and file preparation for publishing in different formats, paperback, Kindle and iBooks cost approximately $2,500. Well worth it!

Print on demand services—once we did a proof copy, we ordered a run of 200 paperback books. (We used Lulu print on demand. Book Baby or Create Space are other great services.)

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Knowing what you now know, what would you do differently next time?



Authors Cavanaugh/Cox/StoutPatricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout: Here are some lessons we want to pass on:

  • Trust that someday you may publish your work.
  • Don’t throw anything away.
  • Hire a copy editor earlier in the process.
  • Clarify version control (standardize MS word versions if you are working on a collaborative project).
  • Meet together face-to-face for collaborative discussion as often as possible during the pre-publishing process.


  • And here’s one final lesson with our specific solution. The issue of having three versions…print…Kindle…IBook is still complicated.

  • Once you have your final manuscript, consider using a company such as Book Baby [http://www.bookbaby.com/] to consolidate distribution for your eBooks and printed books in one affordable package. We were happy with the quality of print on demand with LuLu, but had to create discreet accounts with Kindle and iBook as well.

  • memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Patricia, Meredith, and Ruth. I want to thank all three of you for sharing your experiences with our readers. And I love that you all worked together on your responses–continuing your collaborative process. I do have one final question. What advice do you have for women or other writing groups who might decide to publish the best of what they have written?

    Patricia Cavanaugh, Ruth Cox, Meredith Stout:

    First word of advice—don’t throw anything away! Even if you don’t like a piece of writing, you never know when it, or even a paragraph of it, may be useful to include in what you are currently working on.

    Read your work aloud to others. Don’t be afraid to re-work it, read it aloud, and re-work it again. And again. Like polishing silver, it begins to shine.

    Challenge the forces of denial and self-criticism, and take your work seriously. It doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s; it’s yours and it matters. Your stories are unique and may help your readers get in touch with their own. As Barry Lopez says, “Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.” We agree.

    If you’re afraid to self-publish your own writings, take the step to publish an anthology of work with another person or a group. This will give you the courage to keep moving forward with your own book. Create your own press. Meredith came up with “Driftword Press” and we loved it! There is no need to search for approval from publishers. Each of us can now apply what we have learned about the self-publishing process and have the courage to keep going with our own individual books.

    memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Great advice. Thanks so much for joining Women’s Memoirs today and sharing. And on a personal note, I recommend getting a copy of A Basket of Words: Twenty Years of Writing Together

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