Memoir Author Interview: Women’s Memoirs Talks with Cathy Sherman Freemen

by Matilda Butler on June 6, 2012

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #83 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Women’s Memoirs Welcomes Author Cathy Sherman Freeman

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Kendra Bonnett and I are delighted to have Cathy Sherman Freeman visit Women’s Memoirs today. Cathy, we want to congratulate you on the publication of A Disney Childhood: Comic Books to Sailing Ships – A Memoir. You are getting great reviews. Disney directly influenced your life and indirectly influenced so many generations of children. We appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with our readers. Let’s get started:

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs Question #1: Cathy, although you have long been involved in a creative endeavor — a graphics company that you and your husband operate — I know you never imagined yourself as an author. I’m sure some of our readers will identify. They never thought of themselves as authors and then suddenly they are writing. I wonder when you decided that writing the story of your life and your father’s tenure at Disney was your passion?

Cathy-Sherman-Freeman, memoir author, memoirCathy Sherman Freeman: My father died of a rare cancer when I was sixteen years old. My mother’s coping strategy was to slam the door on my past, early childhood and any mention of my father or his executive job at Disney and move on. When I was 50, a tumor was discovered in my stomach. It wasn’t a normal tumor. It was dad’s cancer. He was the tenth known case in the world. Thirty-five years later I am one of a dozen with this disease: Wildtype GIST/Paraganglioma.

I have always found writing very comforting. With the death of my mother in October 2009, I felt I could delve into the subject of Dad’s history with Disney and my childhood living a block from the Burbank Studios. I desperately needed to look at the positive in my life in order to make sense of my cancer.

I’ve worked as a professional editor and copywriter in our graphics business, writing copy for ads and brochures, but writing a book never occurred to me because Dad was the writer in the family. But I was born with the ‘passion’ to write. I define ‘passion’ as something you do regardless of whether it is profitable. In my case I got lucky. I had a story I felt worth telling and with help from others I managed to produce a publishable manuscript.

One day a title leaped into my head—“A Disney Childhood.” I thought, how many children are invited to sit on Walt’s lap as he played Santa Claus at the annual employee Christmas party? I was privileged.

Finding stories for my book was easy—I’d already lived them.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #2. Over how long a period of time did you work on your memoir? Can you view that time as stages? If so, please share your timeline with our readers. For example, there was the decision to write, the research, finding resources, writing, seeking publication, etc. At what point did you begin to see your story taking shape with certain stories included and others excluded?

Cathy-Sherman-Freeman, memoir author, memoirCathy Sherman Freeman: My first step in looking into writing a cohesive book was to gather the many vignettes of my childhood that I’d typed up over the years and sent to my three brothers at Christmas. Our childhood had been anything but ordinary.

Step two came after my mother’s death, I realized I could try to contact Dad’s colleagues and friends even though it had been thirty-five years since they’d last heard from the family. I Googled names on the Internet with the chance hope the person I was looking for was still alive and living in California. I sent random letters/emails asking these names I remembered from when I was 8, if they’d ever met my father. I had so many heartwarming responses of: “Your father was my best friend, how can I help?” These long ago Disney associates now became my mentors. They read my rough manuscript, made suggestions and fed me stories about traveling with father. Dad’s sense of humor went beyond the Disney comic book stories he wrote and edited. He also must have felt he had political immunity working for Disney. Father would try to find a sense of humor where none existed—from a German Border Patrol Officer who wasn’t impressed with dad’s flippant remarks. Dad found he was soon being escorted to the inspector’s private quarters for a strip search.

One year into my book’s process I had people helping me who’d been at the top of their fields: Vice President of Disney Publications; CEO of more than one million dollar business, owner of a 100-year-old publishing company, mayor of Bromley, England with privileges that included the Queen’s Garden Parties, and many other kind giving individuals.

When I felt the manuscript was solid, I ran one chapter at a time passed a friend. Diana was great at catching where I jumped subjects or changed verb tenses and would ask questions to make me further define or clarify incidents a chapter at a time.

In October 2011, almost exactly two years after my mother’s death, I was ready to pitch the book to a publisher. One of my Disney contacts, Didier Ghez, said to send him the manuscript electronically to Spain and he’d edit and comment. After one weekend he sent me back a long list of questions to further define my writing and a very embarrassing list of typos. He also said, “I’ll find you a publisher.” He gave me one name and said, “If this publisher doesn’t work out I’ll send you another name.”

I sent a four-page synopsis to this first publisher, BearManor Media and thirty minutes later, by email, I had a “Yes, I’ll publish it.”

It was two and a half years from initial concept to printed book and ebook available for purchase.

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #3: I know that when you contacted some of your father’s friends at Disney, they told you stories about your father. In what ways did learning this information change your feelings as well as knowledge about him?

Cathy Sherman Freeman: What the Disney colleagues told me confirmed what I’d remembered. Father was highly creative—continually thinking of new characters or situations Disney comics could go. One night in Germany, his friend Peter Woods and Dad, came up with the idea for Disney comics’ super hero named “Super Goof.” Dad gave the idea to Del Conner to flush out and Conner has been attributed with the character’s creation. This was how Disney Studios worked. Many creative people produced quality, behind the scenes, work that never got a byline or any credit. Fortunately my father wasn’t one who needed recognition. Peter also told me, “Your father loved his work and would have worked for free.”

Mark Evanier, a Disney comic book writer, said he remember father buying his first comic book script. He also said Dad would tell struggling writers to submit long manuscripts. Disney paid by the page. Father and his colleague, Tom Golberg, would take these 20 page stories and edit them down to the 6 pages required for an “Uncle Scrooge” story. One such writer temporary down on his luck was a creative individual named Jerry Siegel. Jerry was the co-creator of the comic book hero “Superman.”

There were stories I was told—Stories that never would have gotten “out of the Studio” at the time. A simple business trip to South America to discuss comic books turned into my father’s cab being surrounded by radical South American guerrilla soldiers holding guns to father and his co-workers’ heads. I had no idea father’s travels abroad involved such dangers.

I was proud I had inherited so many of father’s positive traits; thinking outside the box, finding the humorous twist in what would otherwise be dire circumstances, or just taking time to laugh.

These last few years I’ve been struggling with my own mortality. I found that my father’s presence was still alive in the memories of many others. He’d touched people in a far reaching geographically and emotionally way. This meant to me I could positively impact the world as well, even if tomorrow I got a fatal cancer diagnosis. What more could any child, who felt abandoned through death by a parent, wish for?

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Question #4: Many memoir writers say that writing is healing. In what ways did you find that to be true in your life?

Cathy-Sherman-Freeman, memoir author, memoirCathy Sherman Freeman: Writing my memoir was extremely healing. First, being able to mention my father’s name without my mother giving me a scowling look allowed me to think about and research my youth living in Burbank.

I struggled to be perfect for my mother. This was impossible and she didn’t notice, she’d moved on from caring. Knowing I could never really please my mother, I now know I would have pleased my father. The day I took two copies of my book to donate to our public library, was the day I felt I’d accomplished something. It also helps my current situation. If someone asks how I am doing, I can easily and with animation say, “I wrote a book about my childhood and it got published.” Instead of the dour, “I have an incurable cancer.”

My future consists of quarterly CT scans. In reality this is scary. Every three months I drive to Portland Oregon, a five-hour drive, to get a torso CT scan and meet with a head oncologist and surgeon. In this one day I learn whether more surgery is in my immediate future or if I’m good . . . for another three months.

The process of writing the book was much more emotionally fulfilling than I ever expected. This will translate to when I’m in the hospital, post-surgery, and am ordered to walk three times a day that I will have others at my side (in my mind or by letter and email rooting for me). I’ll take hold of that walker and with all my strength walk the required steps around the nurses’ station and back to my room in excruciating pain because . . . that is what is necessary to heal. And I hope when the time comes and my doctors say, “Sorry, we can’t operate,” that I go into the next journey with the generations honed sense of humor, adventure, and curiosity I learned as a babe in the “Forest of No Return.”

memoir, memoir writing, journaling, autobiographyWomen’s Memoirs: Cathy, Kendra and I thank you for sharing your story — so much more than a story of someone who decided to write a memoir. For you have shared both your history and caused us to look down the road with you. Please know that you have picked up more friends who will walk next to you into your future journeys.

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Want to know more about Cathy? Here’s what she shared with us.

Cathy-Sherman-Freeman, memoir author, memoirI was born in the late 1950s in Southern California. We lived one short block from Disney Studios on Parkside Ave. Father was Head of Publications and Foreign relations for Walt Disney for 20 years beginning in the 1950s. The studio felt like an extended family with father’s colleagues and foreign publishing representatives came to our house to meet a “typical American family” and have dinner. We’d then be their personal escorts to Disneyland. From an early age I was encouraged to be curious about the world, and other cultures. I was also encouraged to be artistic. In the world of the arts, there are no “wrong” answers only “possibilities.” This curiosity and imagination served me well on my many adventures. I didn’t think twice about possible dangers. It also taught me to make the best out of what I was given.

Life threw me some curve balls. And I found I needed to rely on four basics:

1. If I don’t know (such as my cancer), then research. Knowledge brings understanding, which brings control and hope. Be pro-active not victim based.
2. Go with my instinct. It holds generations upon generations of learned knowledge.
3. Crises—Wait 24 hours and everything will have shifted.
4. Go for my dreams (learned directly from Walt although my mother had less successful results)

I am blessed by the people I know, and having enough of a writing skill to put my story into a format that can be shared by others.

You can connect with Cathy through her FaceBook page.

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