How my memoir came to be

I wrote the following piece a little over a year ago for the Women’s Writing Circle. I’d like to share it with you now.

When I Knew I Had A Memoir

Original Cover

Original Cover

I returned to writing regularly when our son Paul was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in March 1993. He had just turned 21 and was a senior at the New School in New York City. Early on during his illness I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992), and her suggestion to write morning pages resonated with me. Because I was employed full-time then, I didn’t always write in the morning, but I always finished my three pages before the end of the day.

So writing about my son’s bipolar disorder and later about his 1999 suicide death became my therapy. Writing during the most stressful time of my life became an obsession and a balm. It gave me a way to organize my fears, pain, and thoughts.

Besides journaling I began to take writing workshops at the UCLA Extension Writers Program and Esalen Institute in Big Sur California. Then four months after Paul died, I started working with Jack Grapes, a Los Angeles based instructor who teaches method writing.

After writing about Paul and our family in poetry and prose in Jack’s workshop for about a year, he and my classmates started to say I had to get my story out in the world. Jack suggested I write a memoir. But, I put it off for a while. I was still too engulfed in grief to think about taking on such a project. Finally about a year later I began to take my journal entries, pieces from writing classes and workshops, poems, and new writing – and turn them into a book.

However, I didn’t have clue what to do next. Author John McPhee says in “The New Yorker”: “I had done all the research I was going to do, assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.”

My first thought was to write a memoir in poems since I already had a poetry manuscript. However, I met a former literary agent through our younger son Ben who read my poems. She suggested I organize a book in prose, which included poetry, according to the order of the poems in the manuscript. She also gave me writing prompts that helped me round out my material.

Then I began compiling – first by reading through my journals, underlining everything I thought applicable, and transferring that material into book files on my computer. It took a long time. Once in a file I moved pieces around according to my outline. Then I wrote some more, edited, worked with a paid editor, revised according to my editor’s notes, edited, revised again until I had a draft manuscript. At that point the work really began.

I began to query agents and small presses, sending out my manuscript whenever I got a request for it. And two years and 68 queries later I finally had a book contract with a small press.

New eBook Cover

New eBook Cover

But, not so fast. My publisher asked me to revise the second half of the book completely. That took another six months with a lot of help from three writing friends in organizing, looking for repetition and inconsistencies, and line by line editing.

Finally after writing journal entries, workshop pieces, new pieces, and poems from as early as 1993 I had a memoir that was first published in May 2011 – pretty close to twenty years later.

Using a lot of my source documents helped me create a raw and honest book that offers parents and siblings who have experienced a child’s or a brother or sister’s death ways to get out of the deep dark hole they are in. I have created my book for anyone who has experienced some kind of grief in his or her lives.

The major reason I decided to write my memoir was to keep my son’s memory alive and share my experiences with others who might benefit from them. Through that process I also discovered my lifelong mission – to work to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide in the hope of saving lives.

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Comments

  1. Dear M,

    you by now know how grateful I am to you for sharing your story and journey with us. I know about grief, pain, hurt, healing, mental illness, you name it and yet, I am younger than, of course your sons :). Thus, what you wrote, is indeed for all. My awe is in how long it took for the whole process to materialize into a book and get published and all. Hmm, I still have just so much to learn but as Frank Sinatra sang My Way, I think that is how I will proceed for the larger chunk on works. Thank you once more 🙂

  2. Madeline Sharples says:

    Definitely do it your way, Marie. We all do. Thanks for sharing your story and your life with me.

  3. Hi Madeline – found your lovely post and blog via Susan Weidener’s blog. Just a note to say thanks for sharing your memoir journey and deepest sympathy over the loss of your son. I lost my brother in 1973 (automobile accident) and still miss him greatly so really feel for your other son.

    I’m also working on a memoir and by the time the first draft is finished it will also have been many,many years. You’re a real inspiration 🙂

    Cheers and I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Madeline Sharples says:

      I’m so glad you found me, Carolyn. I’m a huge fan of Susan Weidener’s work. I wish you much luck on your memoir. Remember not to rush it – take as much time as you need. You’ll definitely have a better product as a result. All best, Madeline

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