Friday, March 25, 2016

"Never Give Up!"--The Inspiring Story of Elizabeth Di Grazia's New Memoir

Elizabeth came to my classes a few years ago with her memoir-in-progress.  She was obviously a talented writer, but what struck me even more was her determination to tell this story, and tell it as well as she could.

At my July week-long retreat on Madeline Island, I watched her dismantle her book as she knew it--much writing already completed, but the structure not yet working--and we talked a lot about her options with timelines, backstory and present story, the threading of her life now and her childhood.  She came up with a unique and workable structure during that week and continued building her book through classes and mentorships. 

Not long ago, I got the announcement that her memoir was being published.  House of Fire has just been released by North Star Press. 

I interviewed Elizabeth for the blog this week.

Q: How long have you been working on this book?
I began Hamline University's MFA program in Spring 2000. I was 41 years old (I'm now 57). It was then that I began experimenting with how best to tell my story - through poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. I tried all the genre's and settled on nonfiction. All of my writing, regardless of genre, worked its way into the memoir. 
My first instructor at Hamline requested that I receive special instruction because I had the words to say but didn't know how to say it. She was right. When I look back at those early writings, I didn't even know how to string a sentence together or start a paragraph. She was concerned that I wouldn't continue with the program because of her criticism.
She didn't know me. You don't have a past like mine and quit because of criticism. It drives you forward to become better than who you are. I needed to tell my story for myself and others. In my early twenties, I wanted proof that a person could not only survive abuse but thrive. I want to be a role model for others who have endured trauma and be an example that abuse doesn't need to define you.
Never give up. That has been my motto in writing and in life. 16 years later, after first starting to write my story, I have a published memoir. One that I'm proud of. One that my first instructor at Hamline would be proud of.

Q:  What did you learn about structuring, and what methods did you try--and what ended up working best for you?  

I tried everything. Absolutely everything. Some suggested that I had two books. One book was my abuse story. One book was the adoption story. So, I wrote two books. That never seemed right to me. I tried putting the two together - one chapter abuse--the next chapter adoption. I tried using my poetry to tell my story. In October 2012, I took a class with you. It was the first time that I heard about the W [storyboard].

A spark ignited. It helped me map out the book. I now had a road map. I started, again.

While working with you on Madeline Island, you suggested that I put both abuse and present story together--even in the same paragraph or one following it. I thought that was impossible. Yet, by working with scent, colors, emotion, and place--I was able to do it.

It made me see how we naturally carry that ability within us and actually how we live our life. Aren't we often going about our day and a song, a smell, or an event will trigger a memory?

Elizabeth's first storyboard for her memoir--the two colors represent the two storylines (her childhood abuse story and her present-time adoption story).
Q:  What was your biggest low and biggest ah-ha! moment during the process of writing this book?   
My biggest low was right before your class. I thought that I'd never get the book published. I thought I had tried everything. I didn't think there was anything that I could learn. Your class not only gave me a road map, it inspired in me the want to take more classes from you and others. I found my interest in learning again and saw a vastness of what was out there for me.
My biggest ah-ha! moment was being able to trust that I could make connections from past to present and readers would be able to follow me. And, that it was natural. I started to look for connections.

Q:  Did you have to choose not to include anything or include stuff you didn't want to write about? 

I put myself out there. People who have gone through abuse needed to know that I knew what they were talking about and that I had experienced it. I was fortunate that my partner was okay with me revealing our relationship. Our relationship had links to my past and what I was experiencing. It was important to include. Also, I needed to have the courage to reveal our ups and downs and the stresses that were a part of our relationship.
It helped being a part of the Loft Mentor Series and having Mark Anthony Rollo as a mentor. He encouraged me to include the 'not so nice' stuff about my relationship with my partner. He taught me that tension was needed in the book.
For the book to be ready, I also had to be ready to come out as having two pregnancies by my brothers.
I used my writers' group to tell me if I was being too revealing about family members. There was a scene that I removed (with my son) because of their feedback.

Also, the scenes with my daughter's diagnosis of articulation disorder was one that I had to work and rework. My group was very effective in telling me if something was working or not. If they had problems with a section I took that to mean that I hadn't done my work as a writer. If I felt strong about keeping something in the book, I kept working until it did work.

Q:  How did you handle concern about people in your past reading this book?  Was it a concern?   
This story needs to be told. I can't imagine my surviving siblings getting past page 10 and continuing to read. In my Author's note, I wrote, This is my story. No one can say it didn't happen. I owed it to myself to write this story. This was my destiny. I wanted what I went through to have purpose. This book does that.
I was having some anxiety with my brothers and sisters about publishing the book. I imagined a brother lying in the weeds with a gun to sniper me as I walked into my house, imagined them talking to each other about me on the phone--like birds on a wire.  

Mostly for me, it was taking all the Likes I had on Facebook as people surrounding me and putting a barrier between me and these brothers and sisters.  As well as saying to myself, You can't hurt me. And, It is done. I didn't ask for permission and I won't ask for forgiveness.

That I fulfilled my destiny. The world knows. My story is out there.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy) helped me a lot.  We  know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes "frozen in time," and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven't changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.

EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.
The following day, after my EMDR session, I noticed I wasn't fixated on my siblings. My mind didn't go to images with them. I was less worried. I felt more free and much, much less afraid. They weren't part of my consciousness.

Q:  Tell us about your publishing process.   
Don't quit. I sent it to hundreds of agents. I had a number of them interested in the book. The end result was that they didn't think they could sell the book. I was okay with that. Who better to sell it than me? My goal is to reach the people who need it the most. Those men and women who want to know that it is possible to survive and thrive.
I continued to send it out. North Star Press expressed interest. I went to see them. It was a good fit. All through this process, I used my writers group for feedback as well as an agent, Scott Edelstein.  Scott was always available to talk with me about my concerns. I had him read the contract and offer suggestions.

Q:  One tip you'd give writers trying to get a book finished and published?  
Keep writing. Never give up.

House of Fire by Elizabeth Di Grazia is available on  Click here to read more.

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