How photos, poems, and quotes can add to your writing

Our poetry reading yesterday afternoon at Pages: a bookstore was a huge success. I read many of the poems included in my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, plus a few newer poems. Using that material and receiving so many kudos from those in attendance yesterday makes me so happy that I never faltered about adding poems (and photos and quotes) to the book.

eBook Cover

eBook Cover

Almost as soon as my memoir was published one of the first reviewers said, “….The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality of what is being described on the page….” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.

I really hadn’t thought of putting photos in my book until my publisher suggested it. And of course I was delighted. At first she suggested photos interspersed within the chapters, but my book didn’t lend itself to that. So I picked out photos in groups: of my son Paul – the main subject of the book, of him and his brother, family photos, views of my office, garden, and one of the memorials to Paul – a bench dedicated to him on the greenbelt outside our home. At the time I had no idea what an impact these photos would have on the message of the book. However, I am currently reading Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees. It has a photo at the beginning and the end of every chapter. I keep going back to these photos as I get to know more about the characters in her book. (By the way, I’m loving the read.)

Inserting my poems was another story. I never considered leaving them out because they were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from. But my poetry manuscript was key. I arranged my book’s chapters according the order of the poems in the manuscript. Even so, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago now says he can relate to them better because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who liked the poems I initially had in the book and asked for more.

Original cover

Original cover

Because I collect quotes – I usually note them down when I read and continually post them on my Facebook author page – I decided to insert three quotes in my book– two from books and one from a song. And that turned out to be the biggest problem in finally getting my book to print. Since I felt they were integral to my story I was adamant, but it took months to get the necessary permissions (see my blog posts dated September 15, September 29, and November 13, 2010). The main lesson is: if you want to include other authors’ words in your book, start getting permission early.

All in all I felt it was well worth the extra time it took to include other works in my memoir. My writing is very personal and I feel the photos, poems, and quotes helped deepen the personal message of my words.

Here’s a poem I read yesterday:

Making It Hard

The bright room is almost full.
All four walls of mirrors reflect women and men
in baggy shorts and sleek black tights.
The music is so loud
the woman in front of me stuffs plugs in her ears.
Lisa G says, “work from the core;
your workout relates to your real life.”
I want to get on with it.
I don’t come here at 6 A.M. to listen to a lecture.
The neon sign on the wall says “sweat,”
and that’s what I want to do.
The woman behind me complains.
I don’t know her name, but she’s here every week
always in the same spot, always complaining, always in black.
Black tights, black sports bra, black thong leotard,
black headband on her head of black hair.
Even her lipstick looks black.
A drill sergeant in baseball cap and high-top aerobic shoes,
Lisa begins her litany.
“If it were easy, everyone would be fit,” she shouts,
“Don’t come here and expect it to be easy.”
She doesn’t know my name. I like it that way.
I like being anonymous here.
I don’t know anyone and no one knows me.
No one knows about Paul, that he died
or anything else about me.
Being anonymous is a benefit.
It keeps me in shape, calms my mind,
gives me the space to be myself.
So I thank Lisa
for getting me moving,
for making it hard,
for making it hurt,
for showing me how to
trade one pain for another.

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