Friday, September 25, 2020

When Your Book Has a Mission--How Do You Keep the Story Personal and Engaging?

Mindy Greiling was a Minnesota state legislator when her son Jim threatened to kill her. It was his first psychotic episode. Mindy's new book, Fix What You Can,is an account of twenty years with her son's schizophrenia and her lawmaking efforts to change policy for people with mental illness.

It launches next week (October 8) from the University of Minnesota Press. (Click on the title for more information or to preorder.)

Mindy came to me for coaching a few years ago, challenged by the teaching points she wanted to bring into her memoir as a member of her state's legislature and the mother of a son. She wanted to make sure the story itself wasn't overwhelmed by the book's mission. She also wanted help on writing about the very tough subject of living with mental illness in her family while working a high-profile job.

After years of hard work, her book will soon be in the hands of readers. It's a book to be proud of. I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

What started you on this journey? What was the reason you began writing this book?

I always dreamed of writing a book but never did anything about it until I was invited to join a writing group seven years ago. This led me to take classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Fortunately for me, one of my first teachers was you. You got me started on story boards and inner and outer story.

Initially I wrote about a variety of topics but quickly came to see I was meant to write about Jim’s mental illness. From my 20 years serving in the Minnesota Legislature, I knew a good story moved people to action, not facts and figures. I definitely had an agenda with the book, seeking empathy for people like Jim and their families, but I really wanted to hook readers through the story.

How long did you work on each draft? Tell us about the length of the journey, what you learned, obstacles you met, how you overcame them.

It took me five years to complete my first draft, more time than I ever could have imagined. It was a hard memoir to write. Even though I had journals to jog my memory about concrete happenings and dates, I had much internal processing to do before I could write about things like being afraid of my own son because his delusion demanded he kill me, his suicide attempts and victimization. I credit the regular deadlines for my writing group and their encouragement and gentle criticisms for keeping me going, along with my pride in completing the book I had bragged about writing.

Also, once I am on a scent, I am driven.

My biggest obstacle was worrying about how my family would react, especially Jim.

Most of the graphic details were about him, never mind that they affected us all. I decided to involve him right away so I could gauge his displeasure. I was greatly relieved when his first time reading a chapter went well. I looked forward to his input after that, and he even assigned chapter ratings on a scale of one to ten. He liked chapters about himself the best.

His input was vital to making the book richer and more accurate. He says he has mixed feelings about his life being out there, but guesses it’s worth it if it will help others. I also dreaded my husband and daughter’s reactions about how I portrayed them, but they generously approved as well.

It helped that our family was used to me talking about them in public as an elected official for so many years and that they are altruistic about helping other people.

Total editing time took nearly two years, counting with my publisher. I used what I had learned about such things as story arcs, dialogue and setting. I gave my beta readers--a variety of professional editors and people experienced with mental illness--another two months after which I incorporated their input and worked with another editor for three more months. The University of Minnesota Press editing process took another year, counting wait time and editing, copy editing and proof reading.

What did you have to let go of, from your original vision?

I started out thinking I could cover everything--every crisis, every hospital from beginning to end. I soon found that was boring even to me. You helped me make sure my chapters and stories had a purpose that fit in with the overall story and moved it forward. Some stories I had slaved over--and even whole chapters--had to go.

(I salvaged one for the first blog post on my book webpage.)

Some backstory bogged the story down so also fell on the scrap heap. It was worth it. Early readers have called my book riveting. I doubt anyone would have said that about my first draft.

I also initially avoided writing about my work in the Legislature. I thought I would just make this our family’s personal story, separate from my public life, which seemed boring to me. My writing group quickly relieved me of that notion. The work I did in the Minnesota House of Representatives was a big part of my story.

When I was grieving most, being able to do something constructive saved me from despair and helped many people at the same time. When I was seeking a publisher, I found that having been a legislator was a unique selling point.

How did you change as a writer during this process?

The biggest thing I learned was that I had to share my emotions if I was going to let readers in.

Even though I had shed many tears while writing in my journal and reporting happenings as I wrote early pieces at home, I wasn’t letting the reader know that. I was afraid of sharing too much emotion for fear of sounding weak or that my voice would crack during my writing group.

Once I finally let go and allowed that to happen, my writing improved exponentially, and I became a more balanced person about sharing how Jim’s illness affected me.

I had to learn to consider the reader more and not just myself. Readers pointed out that--despite our family’s trials and tribulations--I was privileged to be white, educated, middle class with insurance and politically well-connected. I needed to reflect about that and acknowledge the more challenging struggles less privileged people faced.

Now that I have more knowledge about writing, my first drafts are a bit more successful from the beginning.

The material in your memoir is very difficult--how did you keep your motivation?

When I despaired our story would never let up enough for me to ever finish, spending time with Jim and all he and our family were going through convinced me I had to.

Our story begged to be told.

When I counseled families new to mental illness, I wished I could hand them the book so they would see they weren’t alone. They could see our family suffered too but persevered and advocated.

I’m told the best way to fight ambiguous loss, which mental illness certainly is, is to not be helpless. Families and friends need to advocate alongside those they love in order to obtain needed care, which will help everyone become stronger, and because such help is rarely awarded.

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