I'm delighted to be hosting Sandra Beasley on 1st Books today. The Boston Globe calls Sandra's memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, “charming” and says “Beasley is a warm and lively guide to the quirky world of allergies…a vital call to arms for allergy awareness.” Sandra is also a poet, and her path to becoming a memoirist as well makes for great reading. I hope you enjoy it! - Meg
I never meant to be a nonfiction writer. I am a poet. I wandered my grandparents’ living room as a child, memorizing Emily Dickinson. Instead of “doctor” or “lawyer,” I told my high school teachers I wanted to be PoetLaureate when I grew up. I took a workshop every single semester of college, and I went straight into an MFA program where I insisted on editing poetry for the literary journal. See? Poet poet poet. I used to joke to the prose writers at American University, “You’ll never lure me over to the dark side.”
With a first collection already under my belt, I won a contest—the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Exchange Award—that sent me to New York City for a week to further my career by arranging meetings with a wish list of writers, editors, and agents. What would it hurt to meet with one agent? I requested one with a few poets on his client list. When we met, after the conversation about the financial opportunities attached to poetry ran its course (duration time: 2 minutes), I tried to fill the silence with odd facts about my life. I mentioned that I had grown up with a multitude of deadly food allergies.
Suddenly I had his full attention again. “If that’s ever a story you decide to tell,” he said. “You let me know. I would be interested in that.”
I did what any ambitious writer would do: I went home and Googled the hell out of “book proposal.” The next two months were spent in a blur of outlining, drafting, revising, and drafting again. I tried to figure out how to marry the humor of Steve Almond’s Candyfreak to the pathos of Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. I agonized over my lack of a platform. Did a blog called Chicks Dig Poetry count? All the online guides said a sample chapter should be 15-20 pages long, but they didn’t specify a font. I discovered 15 pages in Times New Roman equaled 20 pages in Courier. Was I overwriting? Was I underwriting? This never came up in poetry.
I sent off the proposal and sample chapter on the Friday afternoon going into a holiday weekend. That Monday—January 20, 2009—I was in my little DC apartment with my boyfriend and my shivering sister, who I was trying to warm with soup after her morning attempt to attend the festivities on the National Mall had gone seriously awry thanks to zero-degree weather and the Purple Tunnel of Doom. We watched Barack Obama on TV, who just been sworn in as our president. And when I checked my email, there it was: “We like your proposal very much, and think that it's basically ready to be sold.”
Just like that.
I panicked. How had I fooled them into thinking I was qualified to handle the scientific dimensions of food allergy? What if I didn’t have the chops to sustain a full-length prose narrative? Would the people I’d said would talk to me actually talk to me? Where would I need to travel? Why on earth had I said I could write the entire book in just a year?
I kept my panic to myself. I signed a contract with Writer’s Representatives; I went to New York to meet with editors; my agent made a deal; I told my job I was leaving to write a book. None of it felt quite real. I should have felt like Cinderella, but I didn’t trust it. I was waiting for someone to come along and point out that I was really was the ugly stepsister, trying to jam her toes into an unfamiliar shoe.
In early spring I bumped into a beloved creative writing professor on the streets of Dupont Circle, a neighborhood we shared. I tried to explain my discomfort. “It’s a risk,” I said, looking at him.
Then I finished the sentence before he could. ”But—it’s a risk I have to take.”
The key to writing the book, I realized, was to admit that I didn’t have all the answers going in, and to make the act of questioning part of the book’s conscious narrative. Sure, I might only now be learning the technical definition of “variable epitope,” or the specifics of the Catholic church’s stance on wheat-free communion wafers for those with wheat allergy. But I also had 30 years of firsthand experience with this topic. I had to stop letting my brain intimidate my gut, and value both sets of reactions on the page.
So when I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the sophisticated data that I gathered from panels was only one half of the story. The other half of the story was found in the act of gathering that data. I admitted failing to recognize one of the world’s leading allergy experts my first morning there. I recounted the strangeness of riding the escalator behind doctors, overhearing allergic patients like me referred to in terms of our blood samples (“Soy is impossible to get!” “Are you looking for egg?”). Yes, sitting in on a press conference announcing breakthrough studies on oral immunotherapy was why I’d flown to New Orleans. But so was being greeted by a pharmaceutical-company robot who roamed the trade show floor and periodically broke into a dance routine themed to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
Every time I froze up in writing Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, it was because I was afraid, I’m not doing this right. Every time I broke through, it was because I realized This is not about doing this right. It’s about doing it my way.
We have all had the conversations with people in professions outside writing who, upon learning we are authors, say, “Oh, I’ve always written poems here and there,” or “Oh! I have an idea for this novel…..” We smile and accept these comments in the spirit in which they are offered: the blissful, ignorance of someone who probably would not want to run the obstacle course from idea to publication. But memoir seems to make outsiders of us all. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a gifted, accomplished writer with a life far more interesting than my own say, “You know, I’ve always thought this would make a great memoir, but…”
There is no but. I say that even as a perfectionist. I understand not truly committing to a poem draft until the title and last line are already in my head. I understand not being ready to start a novella until the central character is fully realized in my heart. But when it comes to memoir, you are trying to wrangle your life onto the page. Your job isn’t to win the battle. Your job is to make it an interesting fight. - Sandra
Photo by Matthew Worden
For more stories about how award-winning and bestselling authors got their starts, please visit Meg's 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started