really good memoir combines the art of storytelling with subject matter many often consider taboo. These books have all the same elements of a best-selling work of fiction: engaging characters, snappy dialogue, enticing setting, and a story that opens up slowly, drawing the reader in with each word. This is what I call, “Talking Taboo With Style.” Today, I have four amazing authors who have done just that and are sharing their tips on how to talk about those taboo subjects while telling an engaging story.
Please join me in welcoming Michelle O’Neil (Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar), Jill Talbot (Loaded), Lisa Vaughn (The Gifted Ones), and Nicole Johns (Purge: Rehab Diaries). Each of these authors has dealt with very different issues, but share one thing in common: they have each told a beautiful, well-written story that makes us laugh, cry, and cheer.
WOW: Ladies, I am thrilled to have you all here. Why don’t we start with each of you giving us a peek into your writing background?
Michelle: I worked in radio and radio news for a few years when I first got out of college. Then I threw the baby out with the bathwater when I decided I no longer wanted to be part of that business. I thought my writing days were over. Having a special needs child gave me my writing back. It was a way to process the intense experience I was going through and also saved a part of myself when so much was being given over to mothering. I began writing, thinking I would write a book about my daughter; but it turned out, I needed to write about another little girl, me, before I could do that. I don’t think I’ll ever “not write” again. I love it too much.
Jill: I remember typing on my mother’s electric typewriter in fourth grade, a book project I titled The Coach’s Daughter. I felt compelled to tell (who?) what it was like being the daughter of a head football coach in Texas (think Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans). I had no idea that what I was doing was writing. In fact, I thought of it as simply telling my story; but I remember feeling as if I were doing something important, necessary. A good friend from my junior high days mentioned not long ago that she still has some of the poems I had written then. While I don’t remember that, I clearly recall writing poems to boys in high school. I never gave those poems to the boys, and they might still be tucked inside one of the drawers of my desk to be honest (the poems, not the boys) because I sat at that white wicker desk in my room writing line after line.
I won a poetry contest sponsored by a literary festival my senior year of high school, but that, I felt, was accidental, as my teacher required us to submit. I had no idea the significance of winning a poetry prize, let alone a substantial monetary prize. Jump ahead to graduate school when I was in a PhD program in American literature, and a professor asked me when I was going to face the fact that I was a writer and to forgo the scholarship writing and focus on the creative writing. I told him when I finished my doctorate. And that’s exactly what I did! I went to University of Colorado at Boulder for a second master’s [degree] a few years later and gave myself over to the pursuit of writing poems, then personal essays, which is what I do now.
Lisa: Well, brief is an understatement, as my memoir is my writing debut! To be quite honest, I never thought, dreamt, or even fathomed I’d ever write anything in my lifetime—let alone author a book! But to be fair, I must add that I’ve been blessed with the creative gene all my life, handed down from my mother’s side. So I’ve always dabbled in the arts. The concept of writing a book came to me as “just another art project,” really.
Nicole: I have always been a book nerd, but I discovered that I loved to write in high school. I was lucky enough to have teachers and friends who encouraged me to write. In college, I started out as a history major; but after one term, I switched to creative writing because I knew I wanted to write and study the art of writing more than anything else. I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing, so I would have the opportunity to hone my craft, have time to write, and get invaluable teaching experience. I focused on nonfiction in the MFA program, but I also took several poetry courses. Learning about and writing poetry benefited me in that I started paying more attention to sentence structure and word choice. It helped me tighten up my prose. Right now, I’m focusing on nonfiction and poetry, although I have a novel on the backburner.
WOW: Fantastic! Each of you has such amazing experience. Poetry is a genre I wish I had more talent in. Now, let’s get straight to it. Each of you has written a book on a very tough subject. Give us a brief overview of your book’s topic, and how you gained the strength to write about and share your story with the world. Was it tough finding a publisher to get your story out there?
Michelle: My memoir is about growing up “alcoholic poor” in middle-class America, during the eighties. My father had a job, but all our money went to feed his addiction. It is about a girl growing up amidst the deterioration of her family. It is about friendship, off-beat spirituality, and coming of age. It is also about the confusing topic of nonphysical sexual abuse.
I had to do a lot of personal inner work to get to the point where I could tell the story without it being one big rant. Spiritual study, an intensive martial arts regimen, and therapy, were all part of my process. I decided to share it in hopes of alleviating shame in myself and in others who may have had similar experiences.
I only queried a handful of agencies before deciding to publish my book independently. Given the current state of the publishing industry, it seemed like good timing to go that route.
Jill: When my daughter was four months old, her father abandoned us. I was in the creative writing program at CU then, and I was enrolled in a personal essay class. I wrote every essay in that class to my daughter’s father in hopes of writing him back home. (I literally wrote an essay, gave it to him, wrote another, on and on. One came close to working once, I thought, but not close enough.) I was also writing as a means to go back to my past, to my patterns with men, to figure out how I had come to be where I was: alone, at least that’s how I saw myself then. I started with my family—the patterns of alcoholism in my family—then turned to my own predilections with men and my experiences with loving, and losing, this one man.
Essentially, the book traces my self-destructive patterns (what one friend calls self-sabotage) with booze and men from my first drink at thirteen to rehab to balance (not abstinence).
Tough to find publisher? No. A friend of mine had read an interview with Brooke Warner, then acquisitions editor for Seal Press, and he e-mailed immediately after, urging me to query her. Actually, I pitched an idea to her about a book I was working on with another woman. We called it South of 35, which was about women after the age of, well, thirty-five. I sent her the query, along with writing samples by both of us, and my essay, “Home,” detailing my move from Colorado to Utah following the final custody hearing with my daughter’s father. Within a couple of days, Brooke e-mailed back, wanting to read more of my writing. She’s actually written about the acquisition of Loaded in a monthly newsletter she writes.
She spoke about how I got lucky because, as she says, I’m a good writer; and even though I didn’t have a good hook, the writing was powerful enough to pursue. I recall we spoke on the phone, and I mentioned I had done a stint in a rehab facility. At that point, we knew we had something we could work with and around. In addition, I wanted to expand the idea of addiction beyond substance abuse to other ways in women I know have been addicted: to privacy, to heartbreak, to types of men, to secrets, and to sorrow, which explains the book’s subtitle of Women and Addiction.
Lisa: The Gifted Ones is really a love story at its core . . . with a taboo twist. Set back in the seventies when the world was even more closed-minded than it is today, it’s an honest story of what it truly means to love someone, and how sometimes you can find that love in the most unexpected places. But it’s also a story of what it’s like not being accepted by the masses. When not everyone is as accepting as you are of your newfound love and the struggles that come with going against the grain of the majority, you’re forced to find out just how far you’ll go, when pushed, to defend your beliefs.
The day I realized I had to write this book was the day I finally told a friend my story—the secret I had held inside my head for thirty plus years! I have no idea why I told her, and I certainly didn’t intend to tell her all the gory details. But when I opened my mouth, my words just spilled out as I purged my soul to her—every detail—the good, bad, and ugly. And as I finished up my tale, she looked at me with a tear-soaked face and said, “You have to write a book!” I just sat there stunned. I always knew my story was special, but I never fathomed telling anyone, let alone writing a book or sharing it with the world! But as I chewed on the idea, I knew that now was the time to share my journey: for myself as a healing tool and for society to realize at our core, we are all the same. Love is love, period. Gender really has nothing to do with it.
As far as publishing goes, I self-published for a few reasons. I’ve never been known for my patience. After getting a few of those dreaded rejection letters, I decided to take matters into my own hands and do it myself. For some reason, I had a real urgency about this project. I had to get it out there now . . . maybe before I lost my nerve? Perhaps. But I strongly felt it was my new purpose in life to spread the word of acceptance. After all, we are in the twenty-first century, and unbelievably, the topic of homosexuality is still an issue! Something I just cannot wrap my head around. So as they say, if my book can open just one mind, then it was more than worth the effort.
Nicole: My memoir, Purge: Rehab Diaries, chronicles the eighty-eight days I spent in residential treatment for Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) during the summer of 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. I went to treatment the summer after my first year in the University of Minnesota MFA program; and at the time, I kept a journal that I would write in multiple times a day. I did this in treatment, too. At the time, I didn’t realize I would write a book about my experience. But when I came back to the MFA program, I found that it was all I could write about; so I started writing short essays for my nonfiction workshop. Then I just kept going from there. It became my graduate thesis, which then became my book.
It was hard to put my book out into the world, but there were lots of small steps on the way to publication. It was still a scary prospect though. I knew I wanted to help other people with EDNOS realize that they aren’t alone, and I wanted to dispel some of the common myths about eating disorders, such as a person has to weigh seventy-some pounds to have an eating disorder or that only teenage girls get eating disorders, etc.
My agent shopped my book around for about a year, and Seal Press picked it up. I don’t know if that’s a long time to shop it around or not! I have friends whose books got snapped up right away, but I know some people have to shop their book around for quite a while.
“Life is filled with humor, even in tragic situations.”
~ Michelle O’Neil
WOW: I think it’s a very brave move to self-publish. Oftentimes, that’s the best way to go with these kinds of books. Great job! Those ladies at Seal Press were smart to grab up your books, Jill and Nicole. Very important subjects to have discussed! Now, some of you have touched on this already, but let’s go a bit deeper. You’ve all heard the expression, “Everyone has a story to tell,” but not all of us are able to tell that story effectively. Please share with us your writing process. How were you able to tell your story on such a tough subject and still make the story empathetic and entertaining?
Michelle: Well, I hope the story is empathetic and entertaining! I think the key is to have enough distance and healing to be able to make the characters fully human. As in life, no one in my book is all good or all bad. My father had moments of love and kindness; and as the narrator, I don’t leave out my own absolutely bratty and evil behavior. Also, humor is important. Life is filled with humor, even in tragic situations. Many of the people in the small town I grew up in were hilarious and had a depth of character I really wanted to capture, even if they were rough around the edges.
Jill: I believe writing and storytelling are inextricably linked. I also think that to be a good essayist, you have to be a good thinker because that’s what a true essay is, a writer’s thought process. An essay—from the French verb essai meaning to try, to attempt—involves a writer attempting to get at something. This is a misconception about the memoir, the essay—that all questions have answers and all conflicts are resolved. The essay is the questions it asks, and one of my favorite quotes: “Conflict is the soul of literature.” (Erika Jong) I also believe the true memoir not to be about healing from the experience (though so many are), but the experience and its significance.
After all, most of us are not fully healed from our experiences, and that’s why I think the memoir or the essay collection that lands on “all is well, all is forgiven, all is fine” is far from where most of us are in our lives. The true memoir, to me, is the one that leaves some doors left unopened, some answers still beyond the page.
If you’re a writer of nonfiction, you have no choice but to tell your story; and to make yourself empathetic, you have to be willing to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to admit your own missteps and self-doubts and to also convey others (including those who have hurt you) as empathetic as well. Not all writers are willing to go there.
Tips for readers, let’s see. It’s the same tips I offer my students: If you’re not willing to write it, you’re not ready to write it. And the other thing I always tell my students: the story is not enough. Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it mean something to someone else. Find the universality in your experience. Make a connection with a reader. Make the reader feel, as essayist Phillip Lopate describes, “Less lonely and freakish.”
I’d like to add something about me as a person and how it relates to my writing, which I think is important here. I have always been an extremely open person, daringly open. Writing my life, my problems, my hurts has always been a natural extension of that part of my personality. Yet the writer of the memoir/essay has to be vulnerable, and I’m not. Ever. Writing gives me the space to be vulnerable because I don’t allow myself that in my life. Those two qualities/traits combine in my writing well, I believe: daring honesty and unabashed vulnerability.
“Find the universality in your experience.”
~ Jill Talbot
Lisa: I’ve always been a big fan of memoirs and biographies, even before I ever dreamed I’d write one myself. I joked that they have got to be the easiest books to write, as the story is basically already written for you! That is, until I sat down to write one. Boy, was I wrong. When the “characters” of which you write are you and people you know, suddenly it becomes very personal and tricky to portray in story form. For sure, it takes a lot of self-discovery and honesty with yourself; and to tell you the truth, my writing process actually started out as a healing tool. After my mom died in 2005, I was surprised to find that I held a lot of pent-up anger towards her regarding the years in which I wrote my memoir about, even though it was thirty years later! I literally sat down at my keyboard and just started typing.
I started at the beginning, as they say, and just let my feelings purge onto the page. If I felt it, I wrote it. Through many tearful nights, I told my story as I had lived it. I finished my first draft in two weeks! It was like a huge weight being lifted from my soul. Not only had I released my pent-up issues, I also saw the story unfold in front of me in black and white, connecting the dots and realizing why things happened the way they did and why I reacted the way I did. Writing my memoir gave me the gift to view my story from overhead, instead of only from inside my head.
But please note, my first draft may have only taken two weeks to pound out, but it would be another two years of re-hashing, re-working, and re-doing—too many times to count actually—to get to the final copy. Oh, those dreaded edits!
Nicole: I feel that I was lucky with Purge: Rehab Diaries in that when I was ready to tell the story, I was in the perfect environment to do so. My book started with journal entries I wrote in treatment and then expanded to essays I wrote in workshop. And those became my thesis, which then became my book. I started writing the book in earnest in 2005 when I was in the second year of the MFA program; so I had time to write, and I was in a community of writers. These were ideal book-writing conditions.
As for the technical aspects of my process, I would go to coffee shops in Minneapolis and write there because I always had noisy roommates and found it difficult to concentrate at home. When I was trying to structure the book, I printed out all of the individual essays, spread them out on the floor, then I tried to put them together in a way that made sense.
I think the story had to be somewhat entertaining and humorous at times, otherwise I would lose my reader. I wrote about a lot of emotionally heavy subject matter, and I needed to occasionally lighten it up. Besides, treatment was hard, but not every single moment was gloom and doom. There were some light moments, funny moments, and ironic moments. I thought it was important to show those, too. I tried to treat the characters in my book (including myself) with empathy, and I hope that comes across.
WOW: Fantastic insight and advice, ladies. And I particularly love that you all pointed out the importance of mixing humor into the story. I believe that humor makes the story more—human. That and including our own “brattiness,” as Michelle stated. That’s awesome. Ladies, we’ve almost come to the end of our chat. Before we let you go, I have one last question for our many memoir writers-in-progress out there. What pearls of wisdom can you give them?
Michelle: When I first started writing Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar, I kept a small notebook with me and jotted down ideas for scenes as the memories arose. Once I opened those floodgates, scenes came to me quickly—way more than ever made it into the book. I listened to a lot of music, studied family photos, and watched TV shows from the era I was writing about to help me remember the time and the scenes better. Then (I think this was my writing mentor Jennifer Lauck’s idea), I put all of those potential scenes on Post-it notes and stuck them all over the wall. At my designated writing time, I would scan the wall, and one of those scenes would call out to me louder than the rest; and that would be the one I’d write that day. I didn’t put them in order ‘til later.
Under the adage of “We teach what we need to learn,” I would tell other writers to love writing but to find their personal value outside of writing. Whether they sell one book or millions, they are brave just to be in the game.
Jill: I’m not sure about wisdom, but I will say that you should write your memoir because it’s something you must do. I hear all the time people say they have a good story. We all do. There’s a conversation right now about the memoir and whether or not it’s necessary to have memoirs about ordinary lives. I think if the writing is compelling enough, it doesn’t matter what the memoir is about; it’s what it can reveal about the human experience. Something I always keep in mind when I’m writing—whether it’s a book or a single essay—will this make a difference to someone else? Does someone need to read this so that she or he might feel less alone? If the answer is yes, I keep writing.
“How you tell the story is just as important as the story itself.” ~ Lisa Vaughn
Lisa: I had the most trouble with the beginning of the story. I didn’t know how to start it—how to pull the reader into my world, making them feel what I felt from the start without being stiff or coming off as just reporting facts. So in the end, I got the idea to envision my story like a movie. If my story was on the big screen, how would I like to see it open? That’s where I got the idea to start with one of the most crucial and emotional parts of the story: the day my diary was discovered. From there, it all fell into place. How you tell the story is just as important as the story itself. Keep it interesting; leave a little teaser at the end of your chapters to make the reader wanting more. Be open, honest, and speak from your heart—not always from your head. Forget about being PC and the stuffy literary rules. Just be yourself, and express your truth.
The reader will feel this and want to join you in your journey, cheering you along the way! But the most important thing, I think, is leaving them with a WOW in the end, to remember your story apart from the others. I always say a sign of a great book is one that haunts you long after the last word is read.
Nicole: The best advice I can give any writer is to turn off your inner censor and write. Be selfish. Don’t think about what other people will say. You have to write for yourself. Other pearls of wisdom include being gentle with yourself, especially if you’re writing about emotionally difficult material. Also, have patience. Writing is often frustrating and crazy-making. Sometimes you need to just step away from the computer or pen and pad. Having perseverance is good, too. It may seem like you are so far from publication, but you just have to keep plugging away at the writing. You’ll get there.
WOW: Those are some amazing pearls. I hope our readers take those to heart. Thank you to Michelle, Jill, Nicole, and Lisa for taking time out of their busy schedules to join us here today. What an amazing group of ladies who have not only braved telling their stories but truly showed the art of “Talking Taboo With Style.”
CHYNNA LAIRD is a psychology student, freelance writer, and multi- award-winning author living in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner, Steve, and their three daughters [Jaimie (nine), Jordhan (seven), and baby Sophie (three)] and beautiful boy, Xander (five). Her passion is helping children and families living with Sensory Processing Disorder and other special needs. You’ll find her work in many online and print parenting, inspirational, Christian, and writing publications in Canada, United States, Australia, and Britain.
In addition, she’s authored an award-winning children’s book (I’m Not Weird, I Have SPD), two memoirs (the multi-award-winning Not Just Spirited: A Mom’s Sensational Journey With SPD and White Elephants), two young adult novels (Blackbird Flies and Undertow) and an adult suspense/thriller (Out of Sync).
Want more on memoir writing? Check out these related articles on WOW!:
Beginning Your Memoir and Creating Your Narrative Arc
Drawing From Your Life to Create Your Story & Universal Theme List
People Are Characters Too: A Guide for Bringing the People in Your Memoir to Life
Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir