Dear Lisa, I am writing a memoir about growing up feeling unloved and unwanted by my mother. My oldest son is a writer too. Originally, his MFA thesis was a fictional piece about a group of churches we encountered. Recently, he changed genres and presented his work as...
Dear Lisa, My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I...
Lisa, I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain. Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met,...
Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir
Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.
Dear Lisa, I began a memoir project with my dad four years ago. It's been an incredibly healing process to write together about his alcoholism and how it affected our family, as well as how his commitment to sobriety changed everything for the better. There are...
Dear Lisa, They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement. My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got...
“One of the last taboos is writing about children,” my workshop leader said. I found this ridiculous. I was a mommy blogger. My closest friends were mommy bloggers. I knew many women who wrote about
“The internet goes dark when children reach ten or twelve,” she explained. It’s not considered fair to write about the struggles of our children, particularly their negative behavior. The workshop leader directed us to read an essay written by a woman whose teenaged son stole her jewelry. A man in the class was livid.
“How dare she put such things in writing about her child?” he demanded. I came to the writer’s defense—this woman was writing her truth in a heartbreaking way that was relevant to me personally as a mother. The essay was wrought with this woman’s agony. It wasn’t an attempt to shame the child. And yet, the man argued, we only see the mother’s side. The son has no voice. He found it appalling.
When I was shopping my first memoir, Girlish, I started writing Mama, Mama, Only Mama—my love song to my single mama years. It was happy and bright and exactly what I needed to write after the darkness of my first memoir. Skyhorse Publishing offered a contract on Girlish with an option on my next work. I told them about Only Mama and
Two years later, they were ready to move forward with Only Mama. By then the book had gone through several major revisions. A friend read it and said Only Mama didn’t reflect the hardship of being a single parent—it made it seem like a fun and upbeat jaunt. I kept revising.
Girlish came out, and readers commented on the honesty of the book and what it meant to them. People talked about the beauty of the writing. I realized that writing Only Mama as a fun, shallow, humorous book wasn’t honest, as my friend pointed out, and more than that, it felt like a betrayal to my readers. I had already bared my soul in Girlish. I couldn’t be coy, say, “that’s too personal”, gloss over the hard stuff, and get away with it.
I didn’t want my kids to read the whole book yet—I wrote about my divorce from their father and my subsequent dating. At 10 and 13, neither of my kids are old enough to read about their mother’s sex life–if they ever will be. Before I sent my final revision to my editor, I offered my eldest child the chance to read the chapters about him and his brother and gave him the right to veto anything that bothered him. He had read some of my blogs online and decided that he didn’t want to read more than that. He was supportive of my writing and not unduly concerned.
I kept revising and deepening the work. In the end, Only Mama was less funny than it started
Finally, my editor had
My eldest—now in high school—was excited and curious. We looked at some chapters together. He was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to see I had dropped the F-bomb more than once. He is against swearing by anyone and everyone. I reminded him the book wasn’t written for children.
He asked to read the chicken casserole chapter—one of our favorite stories about his brother successfully carrying out an 18-hour hunger strike. I agreed—I didn’t recall anything objectionable in it. He read the first few paragraphs and burst into tears. My heart tore into half a dozen bloody, jagged pieces.
The offending sentence read, “Big Pants is sometimes well-behaved because he is good by nature and sometimes well-behaved just to make his brother look bad.”
He wanted me to change it to clarify that this was only my opinion of his motivation—not the absolute truth. I had already hit send and my editor had forwarded it to the printer as her last piece of business before leaving for the holidays.
The rest of the family sat down to eat, but my son and I sat side by side on the couch in my mother’s living room. We talked about the difference between the person and the page and the person in real life. We discussed how the intended audience of the book—single mothers—would know I did not speak for him and his motives, only my interpretation. We talked about how much love I had written into the book that I was sure would shine through. I reminded him that we have different last names, and I never use even his first name in the book. No one would find the book if they googled him.
I kept talking. I told him for the first time that my parents weren’t happy about Girlish coming out. We had barely spoken for several months. Yet, here we were celebrating the holidays together. We had lived through the experience.
I told him that that chapter was actually about one of my biggest failures as a mother—I had tried to
“I guess it’s like that Dragon Force album,” he said. “It’s a really happy album, except for that one song. If that was all you listened to, you’d get the wrong idea of the band.”
“Right,” I agreed, and said something along the lines of, “the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.”
I was honest with him about my sales figures for my first book, and the unlikelihood that Only Mama would become a NY Times
Eventually, we joined the family at the dinner table.
The next day my son asked, “Do you feel better about the book, Mama?”
“I only do if you do,” I answered. But I didn’t. Anxiety had moved
Writing memoir is hard on a family. So why do we risk it?
…raising children has been the single most important thing in my life. Not writing about it seemed to nullify its significance. Children matter, and parenting matters, and mothers are still women with needs of their own.
Writing about mothering is for me an act of feminism as much as it is
I wrote this book to give hope to newly single parents. I wanted people to see themselves on the page and know that they could not only survive but thrive after divorce. I have to trust that in the end, my children will agree it was worth it. As much anxiety and