Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing about Your Life--The Good, the Hard, and the Beautiful


Two of my students/clients have just published memoirs this month.  Both have compelling--and difficult--stories to tell. The process of writing about your life for publication is not for the faint-hearted, as Chris Bauer and Mary Knutson can attest.

I also know their books have taken a lot of time, years, in fact. They have each experienced discouragement and exhilaration. I interviewed them for my blog this week, knowing they'd have good insights to share.

 
Mary Rose Knutson's memoir is Maja and Me: My Journey with My Lesbian Daughter.  Mary is an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, but she didn't start out that way. I met Mary at one of my Madeline Island retreats and she's a quiet, sincere woman in her seventies who loves her Lutheran church, her family, and her Danish heritage. But when her daughter, Maja, came out to the family, Mary began a new path in her own life. And her memoir, Maja and Me: A Journey with My Lesbian Daughter, was born.


She said the idea for the book began when she was sitting in her church sanctuary praying alone and felt a soft tap on her shoulder, a calling of sorts, to write a book about their journey together. The words to a hymn came into her mind, she said, which talks about being sent to "hold your people in my heart." She interpreted "people" to mean the LBGTQ community, and she was being sent to advocate for them by writing this book. "It is the story of Maja coming out and the response from family," she says. "It is the painful story of rejection by some, but also about positive acceptance by others. It is also the story of unconditional love and of the constant challenges. It feels like being in a canoe and straining with every fiber of my being to force canoe paddles to overcome turbulent waters."

When Mary first began she felt a sense of naiveté about the book-writing process. "That was a blessing!" she says. At first she planned a pamphlet to tell her story about her growing awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. She took classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and my five-day summer workshop at Madeline Island School of the Arts in the Apostle Islands off the coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior. She had about fifteen pages written and no clue how to proceed.

"I have always been an avid reader," Mary says, "and when Maja first came out to me I read as much as possible to have a better understanding of who Maja was becoming and who I was becoming as her mom in the support role. One of the books Maja and I read together was Love, Ellen by Betty DeGeneres." It helped Mary see that her journey was just as important as Maja's, for this book.
Instead of using an outline set in stone, she used the "W" format taught in my classes with Post-it notes to write subjects for each chapter. "I had one W for Maja and one for me; they changed many times over the development of the book," she says. Themes in the book seemed to evolve and intertwine as each chapter became more defined. Mary worked on the book most mornings when her mind was clear and there were fewer interruptions. "The best advice I can give is... DO NOT CHECK E-MAIL first," she adds. Her bubble would burst and creativity flatten if she did.

She also joined several writing groups. "It helped to have encouragement from other writers and to have them look at my writing from a different point of view," she says. "I first started to think about writing this memoir in 2010. It took eight years from the beginning until the book came out in 2018." She worked with editor Beth Wright. "Revision was a three-year challenge," Mary says. "The manuscript went from about 300 pages to 140 pages. Beth would point out when I would veer off my point of view and I sometimes felt that my work was being slashed, but in the end I could see understand the reasoning behind the cuts. Beth had a team of editors ready to assist in the publishing process from book cover to design."

"To be an advocate for the LGBTQ community by writing my story is an ongoing journey," Mary says. "I hope that more people will feel brave enough to come out and that includes family members being able to talk openly about having members of their family that are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning. To know that they are loved unconditionally and are not alone is one of the messages of this book."

Check out Mary's book by clicking here!

Chris Bauer's memoir is Those Three Words: A Birth Mother's Story of Choice, Chance, and Motherhood.  Chris started writing her memoir thirty years ago. She felt she had an important story to tell, she says, "about the importance of choice, the bond of motherhood, and the love of family." Because when Chris was eighteen, just weeks into her freshman year of college, she found out she was pregnant. "I was devastated," she says. "I was not ready to be a mother. I considered an abortion and in the end, chose to have my baby and place her for adoption. The decision affected me greatly throughout out my life, especially as I became the mother of two boys. My daughter did come back into my life and I feel it was all meant to be." 

Chris kept a journal for much of her life so she had that to build on when writing her book. She stopped and started it so many times and finally finished it ten years ago. "I stopped along the way for many reasons. One was that it was hard to write: it was so emotional and so personal. Even now, when it is close to going to print, it freaks me out a little bit to be exposing so much of myself. I also stopped for long periods of time because I was busy with my job as a director of communications and marketing and as the mom of two busy boys." 

Thewriting had many up and downs, Chris says, but mostly ups. She learned how important it was to have other people's input to make the story and the writing better. "To get my early drafts done, on several occasions I rented a hotel room and locked myself up for a few days with no distractions. I also took classes and sought out people to help me to give me honest, in-depth feedback." 

Deciding to share her life like this was at times scary and challenging, she says, but it was also cathartic. "When I gave early drafts to my Mom and sister and they didn't have much feedback, I knew it wasn't very good. I almost gave up, but instead I sought out help."


"The scariest thing about publishing this book is sharing so much of myself," Chris says. "It's scary to put myself out there like this.  But I knew if I didn't, it would bother me forever. It's a great feeling to achieve this and cross it off my bucket list." 

Deciding to publish with an indie (partner) publisher was a pivotal decision for Chris. She tried for many years to get her book published through the traditional route, got good responses from agents, but ultimately no one was willing to take a chance on an unknown writer.  About a year ago, she engaged the help of WISE, Ink. publishing to bring the book to print. 

The most helpful input I got," Chris says, "was from working privately with you then the editors at WISE Ink.  A developmental editor who helped me flesh out parts of the story that were weak or incomplete; I cut some sections that didn't add to the story. Then a line editor helped with sentence structure and tightening. As a writer, you get too close to it to see thing objectively, so it really is imperative to get objective feedback." 

During the long haul of writing the book, Chris said her children and her work ethic kept her going.  "My boys met their older sister when they were four and seven, and they accepted her with open arms and open hearts. It was a personal goal of mine to share my voice about women's right to choose."  

Chris's book was released on May 5 and you can order by clicking here.  Chris's website is www.authorcbauer.com.