Friday, March 22, 2013

All about Publishing Excerpts from Your Book to Build a Platform: An Interview with Memoirist Mary Collins

I met Mary Collins in a workshop I taught at Grub Street writing school in Boston a few years ago.  Her writing--and her enthusiasm--stayed with me.  I was fortunate to have Mary join me again in an online class later that year and a weeklong retreat on Madeline Island in the summer.   

I watched her memoir take shape, change, and reform.  She is writing about her growing-up years in England, and her brother's untimely death.

Recently, Mary was honored by the illustrious Brevity  magazine when "Leap," an excerpt from her manuscript won second-place and was published by Brevity.  You can read it here.  
I knew Mary was keenly interested in getting her work out there, to build name recognition and a platform before her memoir is finished.  
Here's an interview with Mary, explaining her unique way of approaching memoir and how she won the Brevity contest.

When did you first start writing your memoir?
I began about four years ago, once my son was in kindergarten and I had some time to get quiet enough to dig deep.  

I’m not sure that I thought of what I was doing as writing a memoir. I started to write simply as a means of creating order from the jumble of memories I found arising in the years after my brother Daniel’s death.  

What began as a means of getting the memories straight evolved into an exploration of some key themes, mostly around the impact of the stories we hear as children, and how those stories come to shape who we think we are, and the expectations we have and choices we make as we mature through adulthood (or don’t).

What was the biggest stumbling block?
Well, I suppose it would have to be naivete. Before I’d read many books on the art and craft of writing, or taken any workshops, I had the idea that I’d, you know, take a year and write a book. I cringe when I think about that now.  

Apparently, it takes, on average, eight years to put together a memoir.  

I also bled a lot on the page in that first year: lots of over-wrought, over-lyrical prose of the throat-clutching kind. I didn’t know about the art of restraint in writing, about subtlety and allusion, so I overwrote everything. I love lyrical writing, but any feedback I was getting invariably mentioned a feeling of overwhelm (of both the writer and the reader).  

I needed to learn that less is more. It’s taken me a while. So it’s very amusing to me that my first submission should be a flash piece, of all things, and a contest that asked for a complete story with a twist, in fewer than 500 words.

An equally large stumbling block was the difficulty I had in compartmentalizing the writing. And by that I don’t mean having trouble ear-marking the time for writing, I mean the way in which the stirrings of painful memories and the attendant inner disquiet seeped into all the other areas of my life. This wasn’t something I was aware of at a conscious level.   

But one evening I went to a reading given by Jeannette Walls, author of the amazingly successful and harrowing memoir, The Glass Castle, and asked her how she had coped living with the murkiness that comes of poking a stick into the pond of troubling memories and stirring it around.  

She replied, very candidly, that she had not coped. She’d worked on the book for two years and grown steadily more and more depressed until she felt herself close to breakdown and having to stop. Her husband told her to find another man. Luckily, he meant a therapist. 

Which is what she did, and having a place to dump the emotion about what she was addressing in her writing enabled her to avoid spilling it onto the page. Her story moved forward in a way that made her feel so much more in control and the writing so much more restrained.  

This was just what I needed to hear. It got me thinking about the idea of therapist-as-co-pilot to the writer engaged in “tragic” memoir.  

I went out and found myself someone to hold the painful bits for me so I could better examine them and create from them, rather than flail around drowning in them. It really helped me through that sticky patch.

I think, too, when you’re writing memoir pieces, there’s that whole anguish about washing your dirty laundry in public. Ours was very much a “don’t ask, don’t tell” upbringing and I struggled over breaching the taboo against revealing family mythology.  

I still do, but have become much clearer about the need to wrest ownership of our stories from the “don’t tell” demon and give them voice when we feel driven to do so.  

But, “Don’t tell,” has been as powerful an inner critic for me as “Who does she think she is?”

What was the biggest breakthrough so far?
Having an essay picked up by Brevity. It’s a journal I so admire. Dinty W. Moore, the editor, is a huge presence out there in the world of creative non-fiction. He brings together such wonderful voices and authorities in this evolving genre. So it means a great deal to me to have in some small way been invited to swim in  the shallow end of that beautiful pool--with my floaties on.

Winning scholarships to the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown did so much to move me forward as a new writer. I was lucky enough to find a fabulous memoir teacher and mentor in Kaylie Jones. She was the one to staunch my “bleeding.” 

And as for figuring out issues of book structure--which, for me, have been one of the hardest parts of the writing process--well, I have you to thank for that, Mary. I’m finally getting really clear about how I see a book coming together. I’m envisaging a framework on which I might hang a sequence of non-chronological short pieces connected by theme, hopefully telling an entire story through brief windows into an interior. If that makes sense. (Er, so where’s the “W” in that structure? I hear you asking.... Bear with me).

How much have you written, where are you in the process?
Before I took your Part 2 online class last spring I printed out for the first time all the pieces I’d churned out over the previous three years, to see whether I had anything approaching enough to start looking for a narrative shape and some themes.  

Your Book Starts Here recommends doing this once you have about 200 pages (I think?). I found that I had 400, and almost fell over. Where had they come from? Had they been breeding? They are up to about 600 by now, but that’s not to say that I expect to use even half of what I’ve written.   

Those pages represent the journey of discovery, of writing in order to find out what it is I’m writing about. I’ve come to think of what I’ve been doing as mining. Just getting it all down on the page and then sifting through the raw material in search of any precious stones. I’m at the stage now of poking around on my hands and knees, pulling out those stones, rubbing at them with an old rag, seeing what lies beneath, shaving away to create a shape with multiple facets, and then polishing, polishing, polishing, till what I have is something small and, hopefully, sharp, bright and durable.  

Each piece seems to suggest to me others that I can link with it or place it against to form some kind of subtle chain. Often one memory triggers another, which then has me writing new material for the chain. At some point, of course, I’m going to have to stop and just get working on putting the book together (i.e. the hard part), otherwise this is going to end up long enough for a whole series, something like Fifty Shades of Grey (I mean that in terms of the sequencing, not the content: sorry to disappoint...).

How did you decide to start submitting parts of your memoir for publication and why?
It’s taken me a long time to feel ready to send anything out into the world. I needed to get to a point where I could feel reasonably confident that rejection or, worse, ambivalence, wouldn’t just stop me writing.  

I needed to feel that I’d really found the right place to write “from”, that the voice I write “with” is the one I can trust to bring me to the most “real” and honest version of a story. I mean that in terms of finding the emotional truth in the story, not simply the factual truth.

I suppose, too, that I’d been feeling the mounting pressure to build some kind of platform in the writing world, based on the idea that one can’t expect to be published unless one has a demonstrable following and publication credentials. Part of me rails against the idea of this as a necessity, though.  

Writers, perhaps especially nonfiction writers, are, by definition, very often retiring, even reclusive, types. Engaging in social networking lies somewhere between anathema and torture. But I came to the point of needing to know whether what I’m trying to convey in my stories is what the reader is actually seeing in them. And to see whether my ultimate objective--creating something of beauty--had any hope of being fulfilled.

Timing was everything, too. It happened that I had just devoured the craft book that this particular writing contest grew out of. It’s an absolutely incredible collection of essays on the art, craft and practice of writing creative non-fiction in the short form. And, as I’ve said, that was a skill that I really needed to learn. So I decided to try my hand while what I was learning was all still fresh.  

For the first time, I actually felt really excited about the idea of writing something for submission, so I paid attention to that novel feeling and took the plunge. (The book is called The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction and is edited by Dinty W. Moore, the editor of Brevity journal). Coincidentally, I was just about to start a Loft online class on exploring the short form. Rochelle Hurt is a masterfully incisive teacher.

Tell us about the process of getting published in Brevity.
After submitting the piece (about four-and-a-half minutes before the month-long deadline), I waited about four-and-a-half weeks to hear the outcome, which came by way of an email from the editor last week. I nearly fell over (I’m seeing a pattern here in the area of writing-causing-falling-over: better give up the drinking).  

Winners were announced the following day, and the winning stories posted a few days later.  

It occurred to me, once I’d picked myself up and run around the kitchen screaming a few dozen times, that I should write and thank the contest judge and let him know how life-changing the moment felt for me. I like the idea of striving to be a good writer-citizen and taking a moment to let others in our writing world know when they’ve touched us in some way--whether through their writing, their blog-posts, or their judging.  

I also wrote and thanked my handful of writing teachers from over the years, eager to show them: “Look, look! I finally stopped bleeding!”
Anything else you’d like to share about the benefits of publishing short pieces in advance of a memoir?
Well, beyond that whole thing of just trying to build up some name-recognition out there as one minnow in a sea of minnows (not to mention the schools of big fish), there’s the issue of building some confidence and starting to build up the muscles that I’m going to need for the excruciating heavy-lifting that self-promotion is.  

It’s clear that promotion is something that writers today are having to do for themselves, unless Oprah happens to be your auntie, or Terry Gross your mother.

Writing can make for an insular life if we’re already inclined to be reclusive: I’m a stay-at-home mom who probably stays at home more than she ought.  

But having a sense that there is a community of readers out there who might actually know you’re alive and even respond warmly to your writing is a powerful, albeit invisible, source of comfort and support along the way.  

Getting the shot in the arm that any kind of publication brings is a huge boost to confidence, and inoculates, for a time at least, against the feelings of despair that one will ever get one’s book done or out into the world. While I spoke earlier about needing to wait until I had the confidence to send something out, there is, paradoxically, a sense, for me, of needing finally to send something out in order to find the confidence to really take myself seriously as a writer.  

This is particularly so in the face of all the talk of the market being over-saturated by memoirs in recent years, and the need to single one’s own story out as worthy of consideration.  

The question we are told that publishers will want to know is, What makes your story special? As if we are being asked to account for the space that we’ve taken up in the world, and that we hope to take up on a shelf some day. We nurture our stories as we might our children.  

And, perhaps, as with children, it’s unnecessary to justify their existence, only to guide them into becoming the best versions of themselves as they move out, little by little, into a world which we hope will embrace them.


  1. Enjoyed this interview. Mary Collins' Brevity piece is riveting! Thanks for the link.

  2. Very inspiring, thank you! Would have loved to have shared it with my social media tribe. Would you consider adding the Share app to your blog?

    1. Blogger has a very clumsy Share link. I will keep trying to load something that works better. . . suggestions welcome!

      Thanks for visiting!

  3. Adair,

    The share buttons are in place now--Enjoy! (scroll to bottom of post)


  4. Thanks so much Mary! I always learn so much from you and your newsletters! Such a smartie pants! xo

  5. Thanks, Karen! I'm always glad to hear from you. Maybe see you at Writers' Day?