GETTING HELP WRITING MEMOIR can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. So why not make it simple? Help is sometimes as close as a sibling who offers to read your work. That is what happened with Sheila Johnson, author of the memoir, My Father, In Snow, when her brother asked her to dig out a book she had written years before and let him see it to publication. Lucky for me, Kevin emailed me and we began the process of getting this book in shape for the market. Just out, I think it is a marvel of a book.
Getting Help Writing Memoir
By Sheila Johnson
Dear Fellow Writers,
I am about to publish my first book My Father, in Snow in October 2014. While creation of the book has taken nearly two years, I wrote the original manuscript more than twenty years ago and tucked it away in my files – the way one writes an intimate letter and never sends it. I cannot explain this strange behavior but I believe many of you may understand, and perhaps have done the same with your own writings. Maybe we feel hiding it will protect the contents from the eyes of some dangerous force in the world. In my case, I was afraid someone would take it away – so like a precious jewel I had been given, I would take the work out now and then – cherish it – and return it to safe quarters.
All this changed one day when my brother Kevin came to call. Kevin has encouraged my passion for writing all my life and, in fact, paid my tuition to Breadloaf Writers Conference in the ‘90s when the fee exceeded my resources at the time.
He said he was also aware that I had manuscripts tucked away that I seem to be holding onto for some far away day. “I tell you what I’d like you to do. I’d like you to appoint me your literary executor. Then once you die, I can take your manuscripts and get one of them published.” The shock of this notion lit the fire under my proverbial you know what!
“Ok” I said, and stepped into my office, dug in my files and produced a manuscript. Kevin took it along, read it and the next day called me and said, “I want to do a memoir on Dad.”
“Your manuscript will be the centerpiece of the book and I will be your editor, “ he said. “And I am going to also interview and record stories about him from all nine kids starting with you.”
And so our two year journey began to create and publish My Father, in Snow including the happy discovery of Marion Roach Smith who helped us shape the book. We are so grateful for her astute insights.
My advice to my fellow writers is to follow MRS’s website and lessons closely – obviously you already found her, too. And to look around the circle of people in your life whom you trust and ask just one, like Kevin, to read your work and help you on your journey to publication. And the last and most important thing is this: Go into your files right now and select one or two pieces you have written (long or short) and decide that you are going share those with the world. You have already done most of the work, now all you have to do is bring your thoughtful secret pages to the light of day. If not now, when?
And if not now, you may have to have some kind of serious “literary intervention” like I did!
My Father, In Snow, an excerpt
Chapter 2: CASCADE PARK
Money was not endless. We rented rather than owned a house in Elyria. Ours was a modest two-story frame house with a small front porch on the corner of Dewey Avenue and Madison Street, one block from St. Agnes Catholic Church and one block from the elementary school. Someone once counted 53 children living on our square block; a family across the street had 14 children alone.
My father was always working. He was away so much that the prospect of his return always sent a thrill through us. We would wait many nights at 6 p.m. like puppies lined up on the curb for Dad to come down Dewey Avenue in his green ’51 Plymouth sedan with the plush gray upholstery, the seats higher than my head, the windows large and breezy. We would wait—my brothers, sisters, assorted neighbor kids, and sometimes kids it seemed we hardly knew—for my father to start down the hill at the top of our street.
In the summer, often we would persuade him to take us to Cascade, the town park, the ultimate destination. The road curved past houses, then by a big brown sign became steep, turning down through tall trees in a spiral. It continued along the big rocks, old, initialed, past the smell of chlorine from the pool where I took beginner’s lessons three times, the sledding hill, the baseball fields, the smells from the bears in their cages up the path from the swings, those big smelly black bears in cages under rocks that my father liked to see. Sometimes he would let us sit on the rocks by the river and look at the light on the water. Stopping there was okay, but I preferred to keep moving with him in the car, through the park, amid the soft green trees. It was as if the car had no motor, gliding effortlessly, smoothly, carried by the breeze through the windows. He, often quiet, thinking perhaps about the day, unwinding; and although there were many of us in the car and it was full of children’s voices, laughter, small disputes, it all seemed so orderly, so joyful, each of us respectful of this privilege, to be part of this adventure, this evening mission.
At the deepest point of the park the road forked. One path continued straight ahead; the other turned left across a low concrete path under the Black River. Not a bridge, but a ford.
When the water at the river was not too high, they would open the ford and we, given time, would cross in my father’s car, his great green car traversing the great green river, slowly, slowly, I clutching the seat, sitting behind him, eyes fixed on the back of his head, or beside him leaning into his arm as he negotiated the steering wheel, water rushing over the ford, our wheels cutting slowly through the water. Only in his car I thought, could I, would I ever want to do this, safe in the interior, him, talking to me, knowing he would never do anything to harm me. I trusted him, his ability to figure things out, the wheels still cutting through the water, slowly, slowly, sunlight glimmering on the river and glancing off his glasses. My father, after all, was an engineer. He was good at everything. He was smart. And when we came up finally, our tires rolling up the other bank out of the river onto the road, the whole car cheered, and I breathed at last and pried my head out from under his arm where I had wedged it and he had permitted me to do so.
And we would rise up, out through the other side of the park, where the town’s first families had lived, their long yards and big white houses stretching down a great wide street toward home where my mother had dinner waiting.
One of Kevin‘s anecdotes:
On Easter mornings it was mandatory to stay upstairs until everybody was ready to go down together. But one Easter, as we gathered with Mother at the top of the stairs, we saw Dad wandering around down in the living room all disheveled, in his dressing gown and slippers with his hair mussed, acting a little confused.
We shouted at him, “Dad, what are you doing! You’re not supposed to be down there! It’s Easter!”
“I must have fallen asleep on the couch last night.”
This was something he had never actually done.
“This morning I heard noises and jumped up and saw somebody or something running out the front door. Come down and look!”
So we all ran down and there was a trail of candy from the living room out into the front yard. Of course, we were all thrilled and amazed. It was magical.
In fact, a couple of years later when one of my classmates tried to tell me that Santa Claus was not real, I countered that my Dad had seen the Easter Bunny, and if he was real, believing in Santa Claus wasn’t so much of a stretch.
Sheila Johnson is a graduate of Cedar Crest College, Villanova University and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives on a park near friends and family. Jane Austin and Emily Dickinson are her favorite authors. She first published a poem in seventh grade on wet leaves in rain. Her new book, My Father, In Snow, is just out.
HOW TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, October 27, right in time for the next installment of Writing Lessons.