November is #NationalMemoirWritingMonth

Each time I sit down to write a memoir essay or work on my book I have to fight off the Critic Dragon screaming, “Who cares about your piddly life?” If you are a memoir writer, or considering writing a memoir, you may have the same Critic Dragon breathing fire at your keyboard.

Guess what? Even though your life experience may seem unique, many others are going through similar experiences and challenges. Your perspective just may help them get through it.

“But there are already so many books about (abuse, divorce, trauma, recovery—whatever).”

Remember this: No one has written about the experience the way you will.  James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien—and scores of others have written about war, and no two books are alike. A multitude of writers have written about death and loss, but it didn’t stop Joan Dideon from writing about the topic in her unique voice in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. I could go on, there are endless examples.

When I wrote Replacement Childhaving no experience whatsoever writing memoir, I was blindsided during the writing by the revelation that I was writing about the loss of a child. It was the kernel of the story which drew the largest feedback from readers and spoke to them in a way I had not anticipated. Memoir can be surprising, even to the author.

Now, writing a new memoir, I fend off the Critic Dragon telling me I have no new perspectives on addiction and the opioid epidemic. But I continue to follow the breadcrumbs of my story and find something new around each curve in the path.

Write your story! It is more than your own.

#NationalMemoirWritingMonth

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~Anne Lamott

“I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.” ~Susan Cheever

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” ~Graham Greene

“I love all insider memoirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s truck-drivers or doctors. I think everybody likes to go backstage, find out what people think and what they talk about and what specialized job they have.” ~David Mamet

“I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.” ~Isabel Allende

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~William Faulkner

 

Are You Struggling with Your #Memoir Structure?

When should you start thinking about the structure of your memoir? Will an outline help? What are some tips to help you organize the memories of your lifetime into a coherent story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page?

How do you start thinking about the structure of your memoir?

You already have all the information for your memoir, after all it’s your life! Now, it’s a matter of structuring and including the pieces that will best tell your story in a logical way. Otherwise you may have a jumble of wonderful chapters and scenes that are disconnected. It comes down to what to leave in and what to leave out.

What’s the Story?

The big question to ask yourself is—what is your memoir about? It’s not enough to know it’s about your life and your memories. How to connect the stories of your lifetime, which may seem unrelated, in a way that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. Essentially, keep them turning the page.

Find Your Own Method

Everyone has their own writing method. Mine was to write a scene from memory that had to do with the larger story of my memoir—the plane crash and aftermath that changed the course of my life. I didn’t write an outline, but I applaud those who do. It may save you a good deal of time if you know the theme of your memoir, where you want to start and where you intend to end.  Even if you change course later on, this will give you a compass. I might have written Replacement Child in less than the four years it took me if I had more of an idea of where I was headed. That said, I’m not sure it was possible in my case. The writing of the book was such a journey of discovery for me.  When I began, for instance, I had not even heard of the term “replacement child” let alone applied it to myself. So, this is a long way around of telling you that it will be a very personal decision how to tackle the writing of your story.

The Virtues of an Outline

I will tell you that if you are hoping to sell your book, an outline is almost essential. Agents and publishers want to see sample chapters and then an outline of the whole book. If you bite the bullet early on and do an outline, you’ll be saving yourself a good deal of angst when you get that request from an interested agent or publisher that they want an outline tomorrow! Been there!

The Three Act Structure

I have heard it said that you can simplify your story into the three-act structure ala Aristotle. This may work for some of you, but I believe it’s a difficult fit for memoir. I won’t belabor the detail of that structure here—you can find many references to it on the web or various books about story structure. Or, you can simplify it further by just thinking about your memoir in terms of a beginning, a middle and an end.  If you know roughly what will be included in those three parts of your memoir, you’ll have a giant head start.

Visual Aids May Help

To show you just what a struggle it was for me to find my own structure for Replacement Child, take a look at the photos I took when I shuffled the index cards describing my chapters and re-arranged them on bulletin boards that lined my hallways.

Piecing it together
Piecing it together

After this attempt, and feeling that I had to have the ENTIRE chapter at my fingertips to find the story structure, I took over my porch with the full hard copy chapters.

reorderOur house turned into a giant book outline for a time while I obsessed about structure. I realize I could have done this on my computer with various software programs, but I had to have it in my hands for some reason. I’m the same way with proofreading my work, always revising in hard copy before I return to my computer.

I would love to hear about some of your methods of organization as you go about creating your memoir. There may be as many techniques as there are writers!

So meaningful to me

butterfliesYou know, it’s hard to figure out what to share here, and I know self promotion is rampant and I am as tired of it as you are, but sometimes I get emails from people who have found my book, #Replacement Child, and I am so moved I want to tell you all about it. Just this morning, I got this email from a woman in Ireland who found my book referenced online. This kind of email is why I wrote the book, and why I am glad I did.

Hi judy,
I have just ordered your book and can’t wait to read it.
For some reason last night when I lay in bed, I started to get upset about childhood issues. I decided to look up a child that comes after death of a sibling. Wow! One click on google and I realise something at the age of 36! I was a replacement child. I always knew my position in the family in that I came after death of a brother. But now suddenly I have an actual position that is recognised! I felt huge relief is all I can say but also amazement at how I did not realise that’s what I was , a replacement child! Feel a bit stupid too. I ordered your book and I am looking forward to reading it. I don’t feel so alone now.   I am married with kids but have always felt alone and different. Why am I telling you this?! Why email you?! I don’t know. You are a stranger who knows what I am feeling somewhat and after last night revelation I had to tell someone 🙂! Thank you,
B. in Ireland

I wrote back and asked her if I could share this, and she wrote:

Thanks for your reply. Yes of course you may use my mail for your blog. I actually feel found judy. It’s actually the single most exciting thing I feel to have happened for me. Struggling all my life with guilt of being on this earth in place of my brother. I don’t blame anyone, I always said, it’s just life , no ones fault. But the pain and unworthy feeling all my life has been crushing. Grateful to you and others for being there on Google , thank you from the bottom of my heart. When others verbalise another’s secret pain it is so liberating. Happy beyond words. Excited for a new chapter in life . Bless you X 

Read my new story in 34th Parallel Magazine

Read my new story, Legacy, at 34th Parallel Magazine’s site. You can also order the print copy on the their website. It’s a pretty cool pub with some outstanding writers. This is my first published piece of fiction, so I am pretty pumped! Thanks 34th Parallel!

Thanks for reading!

 

OMG! #Replacement Child is NY Times Best Seller!

Just heard that Replacement Child is a NY Times Best Seller! Thank you Seal Press! Thank you anyone who has read Replacement Child. Of course, thank you Al, Florence, Linda and Donna.#NYTimesBestseller @SealPress

Surreal day – Replacement Child is #1 on Amazon in overall memoir category

Amazon Best Sellers- Best Memoirs_Page_1

When a child dies and another is born: response to Yahoo article

Recently, I was interviewed following the news that a family just welcomed a new child into their family after tragically losing their six-year-old in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting two years ago. You can see the article here:   https://www.yahoo.com/parenting/when-a-child-dies-and-another-is-born-103051055797.html.

The reporter asked me some relevant questions about my own experience, being born after a sibling has died, that was the topic of my memoir, Replacement Child. It was also in relation to a new book coming out in the Spring of 2015, Replacement Children: Personal Journeys, co-written by Dr. Abigail Brenner, a San Francisco Psychiatrist, and Rita Battat Silverman. In full disclosure, the three of us have formed a unique friendship over the past few years, bonded by this very topic.

I thought the article was a good one, well written and sourced, and I was unprepared for the backlash in many of the comments on the Yahoo Parenting website. Most of the negative comments were in reaction to the very term ‘replacement child.’ I’ve known for quite some time that this term is offensive to some; especially parents who have lost a child and had a subsequent child. And, frankly, my own mother would have hated it if she had ever had a chance to weigh in on the title of my book. Sadly, she had passed away by that time. I also would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I have had misgivings about that title. Perhaps Healing Child may have been better? And, in my case, accurate to a degree. But not entirely.

The response on the website, over 450 comments at this writing, also highlights the reason why this psychological categorization has been so ignored for so long. Who wants to think they treat their child as a replacement, or that we may be one?

As the article points out, the term ‘replacement child’ was coined in the 60’s by husband and wife psychiatrist team Albert and Barbara Cain—not by me or Dr. Brenner or Rita Battat Silverman. The truth is that people like Rita and myself find great comfort in understanding the reasons behind our complicated issues of identity and self-worth; to be able to recognize our value as unique individuals. Our goal in writing our stories is to bring awareness to a sometimes-ignored psychological syndrome, for those who may find they identify with its characteristics, and for psychiatrists to be able to identify in their patients.

Following the death of their daughter when a plane crashed into their home, my parents didn’t have access to the kind of in-depth grief counseling that is available today, which would have prepared them more fully to welcome a new family member. It would have made the transition easier for them, and for me growing up.

No subsequent child need be a replacement of any kind. When a child is honored as a new, special individual, and parents have been able to adequately grieve for their previous loss, the new child can be the healing, joyful addition to the family that the parents intended.

Reaction to the 3-year-old girl in Miss., asked to leave restaurant because of scars

Lin Garden Drive010The story this morning about the three-year-old girl who was asked to leave a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Miss. by an employee there who said her scars were disturbing customers, gave me a chill and brought back sharp memories of my sister.

Her grandmother had stopped there, on the way home from the hospital, to get her mashed potatoes because she had trouble swallowing after surviving an attack by three pit bulls. Even though that incident is horrendous, and my heart goes out to this little girl for her physical suffering, it is the action of the restaurant employee that is most disturbing to me.

We could file it under “what is wrong with people?” And, maybe we should feel equally sorry for the employee who was insensitive enough to inflict unnecessary harm, undoubtedly adding psychological scars to the visible ones.

I can’t help thinking back to my sister, Linda, who was badly scarred from a fire that resulted from a plane crash when she was just two. Like this little girl today, Linda was often stared at, avoided, and ostracized for the way she looked. As her sister, I was witness through the years to how cruel people can be when presented with someone different than themselves. I wrote about many of those instances in my book, Replacement Child, when I would stare down other children who stared at her. But, it wasn’t only children. They can be forgiven for their curiosity, until an adult explains that the object of their curiosity is a child just like themselves, and instills understanding and empathy.

My mother was the one who took on the role of educating teachers and parents at the first school my sister attended. She knew what Linda would face, because she had seen it on bus rides, department stores and walks through town. The PTA allowed her to make presentations at meetings, so that by the time my sister entered kindergarten, the teachers were poised to prepare her class.

My parents assured her that inside beauty counted most of all, and that she was indeed beautiful.

I’m hoping that parents who read about this most recent incident in Miss., use it as a teachable moment for their children. Kindness is not inherent, it needs to be taught and modeled time after time by sensitive, caring parents.

You can read the story I am referring to here.

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Writers! I am leading a workshop at the Write Your Memoir Now workshop retreat, sponsored by the National Association of Memoir Writers, in October. Sign up now for discounts and special bonus!

Dad: Re-Visited on #Father’s Day

Dad beach 1953012I can see my dad bent over his watchmaker’s bench, jeweler’s monocle in his right eye, squinting the left shut while he scrutinized a diamond. Dad didn’t have much hair from the time I could remember, but in this crouch there was always one wayward black-gray strand dangling in front of the monocle.

He proudly displayed his framed Gemologist certificate behind the diamond showcase in his small shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a kid, I could never figure out why that piece of paper, earned after a short course in identifying the quality of diamonds and other gems, meant so much to him. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it was the only graduation certificate he ever received. Another reason he insisted I get a college education.

My dad and I operated like far-flung planets in the same solar system; my mom and my sister our shared moons, but never sharing the same orbit. I worshipped him as a child. At first because he could pick me up over the waves at Bradley Beach, protecting me from their washing machine swirl, the sand-caked bathing suit, gulps of ocean and salt-stung eyes, if I stayed close enough for him to grab me and lift me at just the right moment when the wave peaked its highest.

Staying close was not always easy. He would wade ahead of me in the surf until I got up the courage to run after him and cling to an arm or leg. Off the beach, he was home for only a couple of hours each night before bedtime, just one full day each week on Sunday. He never left his shop in someone else’s hands. “That was just asking for trouble,” he said.

Sunday was his bowling league, and I would beg to be taken along to watch or play pinball in the arcade area. I remember him being reluctant, giving me a fist full of quarters to keep me occupied while he competed with his team. He was pretty good too, and taught me how to hit a split for a spare.

He was always reading a couple of books at a time. Usually the newest popular fiction by his favorite authors: James Michener, Herman Wouk or Leon Uris. When he was propped up in bed, book leaning on his tummy and his black reading glasses balanced on his nose, I knew not to interrupt. Sometimes his bedside radio played softly.

Dad was the one who went out into the unknown world, encountering strangers daily, slaying the dragon of commerce with a very small sword. I was right to think him brave, even if I didn’t know why.

He was fifty when his shop went under, I suspect because of his generosity in extending credit and cutting prices when someone “needed” an engagement ring or a gift for Mother’s Day. Just 10 then, I remember he and Mom telling us the news, assuring us that everything would be fine. And, it was fine. Dad got a job with a jewelry chain and probably had the most productive years of his life. He won prizes for his incredible salesmanship, beating his own goals year after year. After his death, I found a letter from one of those bosses, folded into a tiny square of yellowed stationary and tucked into a strong box under his bed, praising his skill and expertise. It made me think of that Gemologist certificate, lost long ago.

I tried to stay close over the years, hoping he would always lift me over dangerous waves. It wasn’t until I wrote my memoir, Replacement Child, that I understood the illusive chasm between us. That the memory of my sister, killed in a plane crash when she was seven, was never far from his mind. What could be more of a reminder than a daughter who looked, and for all I know sounded, similar to his lost girl?

I learned a great deal about Dad from writing through his ordeal following that horrendous accident, pieced together from often-told stories, news articles and family notes. The hurt at being his “replaced” daughter faded and I came to understand just how brave a man he really was.

Off to the #IPPY!

It is actually surreal. Last year at this time I was recovering from major surgery and reading the news of books being awarded the IPPY in New York City just prior to the Book Expo. My book had just come out, and I had missed some opportunities to promote it because of illness. Winning an award was the farthest thing from my mind. But, how cool would it be to be with all those writers in a room celebrating an accomplishment like that?

I can’t help thinking back to when I was deep in the quagmire of finding my way through writing Replacement Child. Struggling with the voice for the story, the structure that would tell it best, the paralyzing responsibility to tell it right. A memoir does that to you. It’s deeper than a story. It’s your story. Often, your family’s story.

I know that all of the writers that I will be meeting tonight at the IPPY celebration have gone through the same angst with their own books, and it will be a little like meeting long lost relatives. I can’t wait!