Two of my longtime memoir students brought a copy of their new books to class last week. Both used a different company to self-publish, both wrote beautiful, meaningful books, both had different goals in putting their stories out in the world. Both of their experiences, too, have good lessons for us all. I describe Sharon’s experience in this month’s blog. September’s blog will tell the story of Ernest’s journey, with I Should Have Smelled the Roses, written for friends and family about his travels and experiences. Ernest used CreateSpace.com (Amazon’s publishing company). Sharon went with iUniverse.
Sharon Porter Moxley’s goal was to write for her own pleasure and to expand her understanding of this time in her life and how it affected her over the years. She also wanted to write for family and for the wider world out there, people who could enjoy her unusual story. In July 2012 she published Among the Silent Giants: A Young Girl’s True Adventures and Survival in a Wild Country. The publishing company saw the book’s potential right away, gave her the Rising Star award before the book was even printed, offered her a redo of the cover (on their dime), and provided valuable marketing assistance and social media marketing advice only granted their “rising stars.”
Sharon’s story describes life as a child in an area called “The Lost Coast,” on California’s rugged redwood-studded north coast, in the late 1940s in first-person present tense. It is a story of being an adventurous only child in logging country, where culture is divided into “the bar people and the church people.” A captivating story told in a convincing, fiercely independent child’s voice, I looked forward to hearing the stories week after week in the seven years Sharon was in my class. At that time she called the book she envisioned, “Somewhere On the Lost Coast.”
This is an excerpt from her memoir’s back cover:
When Sharon Porter was a gutsy, precocious kid, she lived in the giant redwoods of Northern California, high up in a remote logging camp called Whitethorn. Told from young Sharon’s point of view, Among the Silent Giants is a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, and often unexpected narrative of her adventures and struggles coping with life in and around the camp and gaining a sense of her identity. On her horse Stardust, she explores the timber country, fishes, traps, and hunts for food in mountains with the big, ancient trees so quiet and still that she believes they have spirits in them. Sharon grows up fast and is tested by adult prejudices-and occasionally violence-against Native Americans, Chinese, and “city slickers” The larger-than-life members of her family boast brains and wit but are trapped in poverty and drink. Their carefree unconcern and benign neglect test Sharon’s mettle to fend for herself early in her life. At other times, her impractical mother inadvertently challenges her to take on an adult role to protect and save both of them. In the rough-and-tumble, vanished Americana of the logging camps of the 1940s, quick-witted, scrappy Sharon grows and brings to life a nostalgic time of this country’s more simple, natural, and wild self.
The lessons to keep and share:
(1) Sharon chose a focus for her memoir, a time period with a distinct beginning, middle and end that showed her development as a character. The story had narrative arc, as it’s called — the character developed and grew because of circumstances that brought her from the beginning to the end of the story. By writing about a specific period of time Sharon gave herself a manageable chunk of time to handle as she turned truth to art.
(2) Sharon was open to finding the subject that moved her the most and set aside other topics that interested her so she could buckle down and get this done. She starting writing in her late 60s and has lived a long and varied life. In 2005 she started off writing her partner’s story of tracing her ancestry in post-war Hungary. Within two months she changed her mind about writing that and decided to explore part of her own story. She knew the couple of years she lived “somewhere on the Lost Coast” were extraordinary and influenced the rest of her life in ways she was only beginning to realize. This is where the energy was for her, she realized, where she found the spark that would fire up her creativity and inspire her to write a true tale readers would want to follow.
(3) Sharon learned to create a book from a series of separate stories. Once she finished the story, which ended with moving away from the Lost Coast at eleven years old, she read through all of the stories and put them into chronology so readers could easily follow along. Each week she came to class Sharon had brought stories of up to 1500 words, the weekly length limit for the class. Each had its own title and each involved a separate anecdote. She didn’t write chronologically and there was overlap of information. When she finished the first draft of the entire story she read it over and wrote stories to fill in obvious missing pieces. Then she read the entire memoir again and added details to show time moving — mentioning seasons and weather, and using words like “two weeks later…” or “the next month.” In these and other ways she wove a gorgeous quilt from patchwork pieces. The book now has 21 chapters.
If you have an e-reader you can download the e-book version for only $3.99 using the link, above. Or you can buy the book. Whatever you do, remember when you read this book that it started with a gut feeling she had a story to tell and a continued belief that others would be interested in her story. (More on that next month, when I blog about “Why would anyone want to read about me?” — the nagging inner critic who tries to discourage us from telling our stories — and share one person’s story of overcoming it.
There’s more about writing and memoir at http://www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a American Girl: True Stories of Girlhood 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And this fall I’m offering a one-on-one program through Story Circle Network, so check out the September class schedule and sign up to get personalized help with your writing.