It takes a village …
… and not just to raise a child.
It takes a village to write a memoir, too.
This post is about the villagers in my village, the people I’ve turned to, looked to, and learned from as I’ve plowed away at making At Home On the Kazakh Steppe the best memoir it can be.
You might think, indeed many have written, that writing is a solitary task. Mostly, it is.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t needed a village.
First, I had to learn how to write a memoir.
I thought, when I began this project back in January of 2007, that all I had to do was put my memories down, in chronological order, using good grammar and punctuation. I thought agents and publishing houses would be pleased.
After all, I calculated, I’d written a column for both my high school and my college newspapers. And been an editor at both as well. I’d co-authored an award-winning textbook just ten years before. I obviously knew how to write. What else could I need?
I’d kept copies of all my email correspondence from the two years we were in Peace Corps, and I still had the seventeen “e-mail updates” I’d composed and sent to the 108 folks who’d at some point said, “Yes; send them to me too.” How hard could it be?
I had my Strunk and White at hand; I’d even read it once upon a time. What more could I need?
To my early villagers — those neighbors, friends, and members of my local writers’ groups, first in Virginia (under the watchful eye of novelist Lenore Hart) and then in Vermont (in the warm, gentle embrace of author and essayist Reeve Lindbergh) who never once said, “Better keep your day job,” or words to that effect — who read or listened to my early drafts, and who made generally positive comments…
To them I say, “I’m so sorry.”
I had no idea an early draft could be so BORING. I hadn’t yet learned about pace, or voice, or narrative tension.
I hadn’t yet read that one should NEVER show a first draft to anyone. It’s just cruel.
So, I’ll also say to them, “thank you for continuing to have anything to do with me.”
In my defense, I can only say, “I didn’t know any better.” I’m grateful for every one of you.
You live on in my Acknowledgments.
While I also noticed they never said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever read,” the real gift they gave me was to encourage me to keep on keeping on. In the early years, that’s all it took.
My village encompasses the now-defunct website, www.peacecorpswriters.org through whom I met Alison Stewart and Bonne Lee Black, RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) whose fine editing skills helped me reduce my too-big tome from 450 pages to 340 and again from 380 to 310, respectively.
That they did this separately, and about five years apart, speaks to the fact that writer’s block has never been one of my challenges.
WritersDigest.com and later WritersDigestUniversity.com offered me a smorgasbord of information and guidance.
It was during one of the many writing workshops I took through a Writer’s Digest online workshop that I first heard the term “narrative arc” applied to memoir.
Who knew a memoir needed a beginning, middle, and an end? Not me; at least not then.
Through Writers’ Digest, I found another two editors in Kelly Boyer Sagert and Ginger Moran, both of whom helped me find my narrative arc.
It was also during one of these workshops that the idea of social media began to take hold.
I’d had an email address since before some of my villagers were born, and a Facebook account since February 2009. I knew my way around the Internet.
But then I learned that any future publisher or agent wasn’t going to be interested only in good writing; they’d want to see that I had a “following,” that I’d established a “platform.” To do that I needed to know my “brand.”
I could only say, “Huh?”
Just about then, a new villager happened along: Kristen Lamb and her “Blogging for Brand” workshop.
Kristen runs the website WANATribe.com whose WANA (We Are Not Alone) tribe members constantly remind me that as I negotiate this strange new world of social media, there are other folks doing the same thing and we’re all cheering each other as we go.
My village was starting to grow.
Kristen insisted we all join Twitter where I now have found 216 people who want to be my
closest friends followers and 445 people I’m running after following. I’ve learned that’s a good ratio, although it should be ten times that many, minimum.
I learned I should be TWEETING three times a day. Now, I could schedule these TWEETS ahead of time, spend an hour or so once a week and get them all done. This is doable; I know. But, alas, this is also still on my To Do list.
In addition to my fellow tribe members,through WANA, I met Lisa Hall-Wilson and learned that Facebook could be more than a collection of photos and breezy chats with old high school buds. In fact, if I wanted to eventually SELL my book, Lisa taught, my Facebook presence had to expand.
I could take my existing Profile page and expand it to include public postings, or I could add an Author Page, and use that to help build an audience of people interested in a book about Kazakhstan, or cultural differences, or a middle-aged grandmother who made a major change in direction at 55. Those weren’t necessarily the same folks who had become my Friends on Facebook. (Although they could be).
After explaining the WHY, Lisa walked me through the HOW. And, since Facebook changes its HOW quite often, Lisa continues to answer HOW by hosting a closed Facebook group for anyone who’s ever taken one of her workshops.
Thank you, Lisa.
Through Kristen, I also met Marcy Kennedy who brought me face-to-face with Google+ and helped me maneuver my way around Twitter with slightly less angst than I’d had before.
Both Lisa’s and Marcy’s courses, btw, cost less than $50.
Somewhere in there, I discovered Goodreads, Flickr, and Pinterest. I’m sure that was Kristen’s doing too. Fortunately, she made it clear we should choose our battles. I didn’t have to conquer all the social media that was out there. Not, at least, all at once.
That was good. My head was spinning. One step at a time, I kept reminding myself.
I saw social media as a strange new world, a foreign soil with its own language, culture, norms, and people. Still, I was an RPCV, I’d remind myself. This wasn’t the first time I’d been on a foreign soil surrounded by an unknown language, strange culture, different norms, and new people.
Bring it on!
Through Twitter, I met Kathy Pooler and her blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey.
Here’s when my Village began to bloom. (Is that a good metaphor? Not sure; I’ll ask my buds.)
When I first met Kathy, she had been writing her memoir for fewer years than I. But she was years ahead of me in social media.
And she generously offered me her hand.
She asked me to guest blog on her website, which I did in May, which introduced me to other memoir writers, who followed me on Twitter, befriended me on Facebook, and liked my Facebook Author Page.
As a result, I’ve met countless numbers of memoir writers who share their struggles, their successes, and their process on their own respective blogs, their Tweets, and their Facebook Pages.
Here are two:
Sonia Marsh (Gutsy Writer) and her Facebook group, Gutsy Indie Publishers, and Shirley Showalter are among them. I did a guest blog on Sonia’s website in August, which led to meeting more villagers.
When I first found Shirley’s website it included a list of over 100 memoirs, categorized by type. I had no idea there were so many ways to organize memoirs.
Was mine a travel memoir, a quest memoir, or a survival memoir? There were elements of all three (at the time) in mine.
These past few years have been ones with a steep learning curve. Fortunately, my village is large enough now to provide support, guidance, and fun (not to be forgotten) just when I need it most.
My village keeps growing.
This year I’ve been the grateful recipient of help, support, feedback, or friendship from no less than all the above PLUS
- SheWrites.com and Brook Warner, through whom I met editor extraordinaire and author Cami Ostman,
- the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) and Linda Joy Meyers,
- Dan Blank’s WeGrowMedia.com, through whom I have a whole other family, and
- Ant Press, Victoria Twead and all the fun folks Vicky has brought together at the Facebook Group, We Love Memoirs.
With apologies to the American poet Walt Whitman, I say,
My village is large. It contains multitudes.
And, I trust it will continue to grow as At Home On the Kazakh Steppe sees the light of day.
How about you? Who’s in your village?
Janet, your post reminds me of the Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs I am following, with names I recognize on your list. Like you, I have credits in academic journals and even co-authored a textbook, but as we both know, memoir writing is a different animal (wrong metaphor!) entirely.
I find keeping up with social media both invigorating and wearisome. When do I have time to actually write? However, I have met so many wonderful “villagers,” as you call, them in the process. Some, like Shirley Showalter and Sherrey Meyer have become my mentors. When I began this journey last February I had no idea it actually “takes a village,” but it does. I will return to this post as my writing evolves, that’s for sure. Thanks so much!
Ah Marian, You are indeed one of my villagers and I’m so glad. Your comments are always a pleasure for me and I’ve enjoyed your blog these past few weeks. I’ve been on the road most of today, leaving just before your Comment came in, to get to the IKEA in Boston by lunch. And so conscious as I drove of all the villagers I did not mention. I missed my own tech guru, Jay Donovan, for exmple, who may well exact his pound of flesh when I’m least expecting. (Hi TechSurgeon Jay). Belinda, Carol, Madeline, Sharon, Jerry, Linda; so many. I think what I’m most grateful for is that I have villagers in my life. And I know it. It’s a good feeling. Thank you for being one of them.
Janet, You have captured the agony and ecstasy of memoir writing perfectly! It truly does take a village and I am honored to be cited as one of “villagers” among so many people I admire and respect.Your candor is refreshing. I too can recall starting out on this journey without a clue where it would take me. We all help each other to grow and keep moving forward. Thank you for your generous comments and link. I wish you the best as you move forward toward the publication of your much anticipated Peace Corps memoir!
Hi Kathy, Well, I didn’t get the musical background, as you did. I’ll aim for that one next year. How true that we so often don’t know where we will wind up when we start. No matter what the path. I like it that way. As for My generous comments: in the early part of this social media journey, I reached out to a few people as I came across them. You were the one to respond. And i shall always remember that. As my childhood idol used to say, “Happy Trails.”
Shirley Hershey Showalter
The village metaphor works well for memoir writers. And after we have been at this task for several years, it’s easy to forget the path we have taken. Thanks for including me and those lists in your village. I’m glad to have made a contribution, and I’m also glad for another chance to see many other names of people who have become good online friends. I’m looking forward to your memoir. Every former peace corps person I’ve met has been a kindred spirit, and you set the example!
Thanks so much, Shirley. I’m particularly pleased to have your help in launching a new thread here on And So It Goes, starting in the new year. And, btw, I’m enjoying your memoir, Blush. Only wish I had more time. Off now to check out your new post. Thanks for stopping by.
I can certainly identify with your experience, especially with WANA! Growing, learning and building our own happy, faithful, supportive tribe has mean so much to me and I’m a better writer and a better person because of it. I love and appreciate all my WANA peeps!
HI Joy, Hasn’t this been a grand journey? So glad to have you in my tribe. And, might as well tell you here — I downloaded a copy of your Keeper Of My Heart some time ago. Not sure you want a review from a grandma for your teen-age romance series, but it was a fun read for this then 64 year old and I had a ball swishing through it. Thanks for swinging by my Blog today.
So glad to be in your village, Janet!
This is incredibly generous Janet!
Bonnie Lee Black
Wonderful to be counted among your impressive villagers, Janet! I can’t wait to hold your published memoir in my hands.
Cami, Dan, and Bonnie: You three should know each other. Cami, Dan; Dan, Bonnie; Bonnie, Cami. There you go. Can I get you a drink?
So glad to have you swing by and leave a note. I’ve learned much from each of you.
Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living
Thanks for including me in our BIG LOVING FAMILY of memoir writers. You also know my desire to do Peace Corps work so I’m excited to read your memoir.
Hi Sonia. And, again, thank you. Next year, when I write about my book tour, you will really be my muse.
Thank you for including me! It’s an honor to be able to help others along their writing path.
It was my pleasure, Marcy. Thanks for stopping by.