I was stunned by the e-mail I received from a Canadian editor in December 2003:
“From a technical writing point of view the manuscript was not bad at all. You are a very good technical writer… Perhaps technical writing is your niche.”
The message referred to the book I had just written as a ghostwriter. After completing this challenging project, I was so upset I considering giving up my craft of the past fourteen years—helping others tell their life stories.
Then a post from a member of my professional organization piqued my interest. “Would anyone be interested in joining a memoir-writing group? If so, please contact me.”
Joining the group and writing my own story would give me the chance to prove I could write. I signed up immediately in hopes that telling the story of my youth would lift my spirits and also help others who’ve experienced great loss. I had no particular audience in mind. At the time I never dreamed that it would take nearly ten years and many rewrites to tell the story that I’d wanted to share for over forty years.
The memoir-writing group I joined began with several enthusiastic members. Each month we wrote on a specific topic and shared our work, requesting feedback. Meeting a monthly deadline was the incentive I needed to make my words and feelings flow onto the page. Suddenly the tale of my tumultuous youth that I’d wanted to tell for nearly forty years began to take form—one tale at a time.
Unfortunately, ten months after the group began, it dissolved. But I was determined to finish my tale and needed motivation. I wrote chapters on my own between writing other people’s stories to earn my living.
In 2007 I joined a class called “Writing Your Personal History” and had to adhere to weekly deadlines and attend classes where I read my work aloud. Although there were days when my voice quivered and tears fell, the positive feedback I received made me continue.
My biggest challenge was reliving the past, which was often difficult. I had written the hardest stories first and decided that to balance the sad material, I needed to write the happy stories from my youth. Paradoxically, those seemed harder to write, yet I felt it was important that my book begin with the happy days, descend into the dark material, and end looking forward to a brighter future. I wanted my eternal optimism to appear and not write a book that left readers sad.
On June 29, 2012, I completed my memoir. Finishing it was a reward in itself because I tend to write and rewrite until I think a manuscript is the best I can produce. Other rewards followed after I entrusted my manuscript to colleagues for review. Their encouragement made me realize I had written a book that others wanted to read, and writing my story brought catharsis and healing.
Telling my own story was something I needed to do. I’m happy that many who have read it can relate to my journey, but that was not my primary reason for writing it. The ability to review and reflect on my formative years and understand how they shaped the adult I’ve become has helped me a great deal. After a dear friend of forty years read it, she said, “I’ve known you for a long time, but now I understand you.” I think I understand myself a lot better, too.