Interview with the Memoir: A Foreign Country, by Emjay Wilson-Scott

For my ongoing series of interviews with memoir writers, I spoke with Emjay Wilson-Scott, writer, artist and wine maker. Her book, A Foreign Country, shares her adventures in Sweden and Europe when she was a hippo,exchange student in the 1970’s/

Emjay has an MFA in Video Art from the SF Art Institute and a Masters in Scandinavian Language and Literature from U.C.Berkeley. Her poetry has been published in periodicals in Sweden and the United States. She and her husband own a small vineyard in Potter Valley, California, where they grow and bottle award winning Pinot Noir. Click the link to Naughty Boy Vineyards for more information.

Why did you pick this particular moment in your life to write about?

Despite my dyslexia, I have always felt a need to write, I wrote my first poems at seven (that I am aware of) and I wrote a children’s book as a child. I have written and published poetry all of my life, read poetry in San Francisco, and worked in Performance Poetry. I entered the Art Institute in order to start working with Video and poetry in the 80’s. I have some work in the Museum of Modern Art and had a show at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

After living in Europe, I felt a need to chronicle events in my life in order to understand them. I tried many times but never really completed a book. My Brother was killed in a car accident in 2001. It made me realize how little time we have. I decided to seriously start writing at that time. I actually took him with me to Sweden in the Character of Fred. He is the only semi-fictitious character in the book, but represents the American side of me that I attempted to hide.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

I was not very computer literate at the time and had a great deal of trouble with spell-check and Swedish words. I met with two other writers, but would only write and send them without reviewing as it was emotionally draining to write my history. They were amazingly patient with my messy manuscript.

Place is very strong in your book. You really feel the landscape and cultural difference. How did you achieve that?

I have a very good memory, which is sometimes a curse. Because it was such a milestone in my life, I was able to sit and remember and write. The most difficult part was actually sitting down to do it and rewriting.

You self-published. Did you consider a traditional route?

I submitted it to one publishing house and was rejected. It sat for another couple years. Like most of us, I fear rejection. I then figured since I had gone to all of the trouble to write it, I would like to share it with friends. I do not feel it is a great work of art, but I like having on record a time that is lost forever.

Do you plan to write another book?

I’m writing a children’s book right now.

Interview with the Memoir: Shannon Drury

This is the first in a series of interviews I’m doing with memoir writers. By interviewing memoirists, I hope to showcase excellent writers, as well as helping beginning writers and others tell their own story.
Ebook cover 978-0-9797152-2-8
Shannon Drury’s memoir, The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, was published in 2014 by Medusa’s Muse Press (disclaimer – I am the publisher). In her book she writes about her struggle as a “stay-at-home” mom and feminists. Can you call yourself a feminist if you’re a stay at home mom and homemaker? Get a copy of her book and find out.
Thank you so much Shannon for taking the time to answer my questions. 
Your book really shows the intersection of politics and personal life. How hard was it to write a book that is both political and personal? 
It wasn’t hard to write at all. As a lifelong feminist I’m acutely aware of how social and political movements intersect with and influence our lived experiences. I couldn’t write about being a stay-at-home mom without reflecting on the unique set of circumstances that made that possible, even practical, for me. And I couldn’t write about feminism without reflecting on its influence on my life, including how it affects the way I raise my children.
But what was easy for me to write was very difficult to market. A hybrid anything is less marketable than “if you love Jessica Valenti’s polemics, you will love this!’ or “if you love Cheryl Strayed’s memoirs, you’ll love this!” In fact, my neighbor just told me yesterday that she finished the book but can’t decide where to shelve it. I told her I’d sell her another copy!
How long did it take to write your book? Would you change anything about your book? 
Writing the book was the easy part, especially since I was building a framework on some previously published columns and blogs. I would guess that writing took a year. Editing, on the other hand, took some time. You can ask my publisher how she feels about that….!
You are very vulnerable in much of your book. How were you able to open yourself up so much, especially knowing there would be criticism?
I am of the opinion that the non-vulnerable memoir is not worth writing. I recently read a memoir that I thought I would love, as it was written by a fellow lefty mom like me, but the author barely revealed anything substantive about herself and her life. Without that glimpse of humanity, there is no opportunity for connection. Writing can be lovely for its own sake, but I write for a deeper purpose–to connect in some small way to the beating heart of humanity. That may sound corny or even quasi-religious, but it’s true.
Years of writing a column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and keeping up a personal blog have helped thicken my skin to criticism, especially from the online commentariat. One person on Goodreads said she knocked off a star because I cursed too much, and I can handle that. When I’m called evil and a rotten mother (which happened on Twitter recently), I know it’s not about me, it’s about their fear of what I represent.
That’s not to say that it still isn’t hard. Members of my extended family have the book but have yet to talk with me about it.  And I don’t mean in-depth analysis–I mean I have yet to hear “Hey Shannon, I read your book.” There is intergenerational discomfort about parenting, economic class, and mental health in most American families, not just mine.
 
What was the hardest thing for you to overcome when writing this book?
Ironically, for a dedicated feminist convinced that women’s stories have the power to change the world, I had to fight daily against the quiet but insistent fear that I am a nobody who has nothing to say. Impostor syndrome can suck the life out of you if you’ll let it.
Why was it important for you to write your book? What do you hope the reader gains?
I truly believe that feminism provides the best, most sane and compassionate parenting philosophy out there, but we’re still letting the conservative right own the narrative of “family values.” I think it’s essential for feminist moms to tell our stories, to connect the struggles of our own families to the broader failures of American society.
My readership looks a lot like me: white, middle class, educated parents. We’re privileged, and to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. It’s time that we stopped judging and/or arguing with one another for what we feed our kids (organic or conventional? breast or bottle?) and asked larger questions about the systems that have more control over families than individual parents do. As I write in the book, “when is a choice not a choice?” I think most American parents would “choose” to take a year of paid family leave when their babies are born, like they do in Sweden. The manufactured war between working moms and at-home moms is ridiculous–the real battle should be parents demanding that government officials make “family values” a reality, not a campaign slogan.
What advice can you give to other memoirists?
I have no better advice than “write like a motherfucker,” the directive of the aforementioned Cheryl Strayed. For me this means that the process is embarrassing, painful, and exhausting. If I look at it and can say “damn, this makes me sound ridiculous,” I am probably on the right track.
Can you recommend some good memoirs to read? 
One of my all-time favorite books of any genre is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home.” It is so smart, so revealing, so funny, and so tragic at the same time. And of course it’s beautifully drawn and designed. Other classic graphic memoirs are “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Majane Satrapi.
I am always late to trends, which means that I only recently read Jeanette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” In the last few months I read the new memoirs by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Viv Albertine of the Slits, but I still haven’t gotten to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which everyone raves about. I have yet to even read “Wild”! Reading comic books takes up a lot of my time, apparently.
Shannon Drury is a writer, at-home parent, and feminist activist. She writes a regular column for the Minnesota Women’s Press and served six years as the president of Minnesota NOW. She lives in Minneapolis with her family. Read more from Shannon at her blog The Radical Housewife
You can buy her book from Medusa’s Muse Press, Amazon.com, Powells, and wherever books are sold. Also available as an ebook.

Thank you Andrea Lundgren for allowing me to be a guest

Andrea Lundgren, author and editor, has invited me to be a guest on her blog. She just posted my post about how a memoir needs a plot.  You can read the post here:

https://andrealundgren.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/spotlight-saturday-12-plotting-a-memoir/

Thank you so much Andrea for the support. Looking forward to reading more from you.

Even professional editors forget to follow their own advice when writing.

Feeling exuberant, I plunged into writing the first chapter of my memoir. My fingers ached from typing so much as the sentences flowed. After 700 words I happily read what I’d written.

It was awful.

Seriously, what the hell was I trying to say?

Who was going to read any of this?

And that was my problem. I’d forgotten who I was writing for. Instead of keeping my imaginary writer in mind, I wrote lovely prose all for myself. My memoir had turned into masterbation and I honestly thought someone would pay to watch.

I deleted every word I’d written and stared at that blank screen so long I stopped blinking.

After a few days of self pity, during which I decided I was the worst writer in the world and no one would buy any book of mine and how dare I think I had a story anyone would want to read, I thought about why I was writing a memoir. I want to help struggling parents who are raising special needs children while coping with their own complex emotions. Who were those parents? I remembered myself at age 29 with a tiny, medically fragile baby and no idea how I could save her. Slowly, I wrote to the young woman I used to be, realizing that the world was filled with terrified parents clutching fragile children. I wrote what I had longed to hear those first few weeks.

Remembering why I was writing my memoir, and who I was writing it for, put me back on track. I finished chapter one knowing my words have purpose and the book has a point. We’ll see what my editor thinks, but for now, I am grounded enough in the writing to finish this book.

When I edit, I always ask authors what the book is about and who they are writing for. It was surprising to realize I had forgotten to follow my own advice.

If you think your memoir doesn’t need a plot, you’re making a big mistake.

Memoir is a story about someone’s life, right? Sure, if you want it to be boring.

A good memoir is not just a series of events shared chronologically. It is a tale with heroes, villains, conflict, subtext, and a great plot to keep the pages turning. Writing events down chronologically might be fine for a history book or genealogy, but if you want to engage your readers, you need to think about action. One event in a life has a direct impact on the next event. Everything you do effects the people around you and how your life develops.

A scene is action. Plot is a series of actions. When you outline your memoir, think about the actions that shaped your life and made you who you are.

Perhaps you were born in Cleveland, then you moved to LA when you were 10. Those are facts, and you might want to mention them briefly as backstory. Unless Cleveland essentially shaped who you are, or the move created a lot of conflict, none of that matters to your plot, and especially not to your reader. Mention it, and then get back to the story.

Or lets say you longed to get back to Cleveland and hated LA and your story is about moving back to where you feel you belong. Then be sure and add in every detail about Cleveland and why it meant so much to you.

Think about the person you know who comes to all the parties and becomes the center of attention because she tells the best stories. People listen attentively as this person weaves a story about something probably mundane, like a trip to the grocery store. It’s the way she tells how she went to the market for a quart of milk. What is she doing that makes her trips to get milk sound so much more interesting than your trips to the store?

Or what about the elderly uncle who knows everything about family history, but instead of just boring you with facts and names, he makes you feel like you know the people he remembers? What makes his stories about people who died before you were born so captivating?

It all goes back to knowing what your book is about. If you know that, you can create a strong plot that will make readers want to know more about you. Don’t make the mistake of sticking to a linear format. Writing a memoir is more than creating a calendar, it is writing about the meaning of life.

How do I start writing a memoir?

Recently I was asked if I had any pointers for starting a memoir. As a matter of fact I do. 

First, you need to know what your book is about. I’m not being snarky. It is vitally important that you know from page one what your book’s purpose is. The book shouldn’t just be about you. Your story needs to resonate with total strangers. Your story is about something bigger than you; you are simply the catalyst for the story. 

Think of your favorite memoirs. Why are they a favorite? Could you understand the writer’s struggle? Identify with it? Did you care about the writer and cheer for her? 

That’s what you want to happen with your own memoir; your story needs to capture the imagination of people you don’t know. How do you do that?

Write what your book is about. It might be easier to write a description in the third person instead of writing about yourself. Use several pages to write down all your ideas, then work toward narrowing it down to only a paragraph. When you understand what your book is really about, then you can imagine who your reader is and why that person will care about your story. Describe her needs and hopes. 

As you write your memoir you will re-read this exercise to help you stay on track. Your memoir is you personal story, but that story will have greater meaning for your readers. If you write something that doesn’t reflect what the book is about, cut. But don’t make things up! Readers want honesty. Vulnerability. Blood. 

Fiction is so much easier to write.