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[SWP: Behind the Book] Writing Is Hard--But Not the Way You Think
Contributor
Written by
Marcia Mabee Bell
February 2016
Contributor
Written by
Marcia Mabee Bell
February 2016

As a federal lobbyist for twenty-five years, I had a great deal of experience advocating on paper:  speech-writing, congressional testimony, talking points, fact sheets and probably thousands of letters. I was a whiz at Dear Mr. President, Dear Senator and Dear Mr. Chairman. Those letters entailed stating the “ask” right up front, justifying it for two or three paragraphs with facts, then finishing by restating and stroking the addressee’s ego--praising his or her past leadership on “X” and declaring that doing the right thing on this one would make him or her a hero.

That is not a recipe for writing a memoir: Show don’t tell; let the reader discover; make it personal, not an arm’s length essay supported by a multitude of facts; liven it with dialogue; don’t summarize what you just showed–give the reader a little credit. Lobbyists never assume the reader gets it--you hammer them over the head with the facts to break through the maze of thousands of pressing issues. So, writing a memoir for me was like learning to walk and talk again after a stroke--hard. 

I turned for help to professional editors. My first, who happened to be a family member, read my initial manuscript, three years in the making, out of the goodness of her heart. Gently, she explained that a memoir is like a novel; it’s a story. It should be personal, not a disjointed series of essays on topics that interested me no matter how nicely and thoroughly described. I took her counsel to heart and reworked the manuscript putting myself more strongly at the center of the story and weaving in transitions between scenes. Still terribly rough, she praised my effort and then confessed that my initial manuscript was worse than most she sees. That was a blow. I was a pretty successful lobbyist. I was good at advocating for public health issues, among them winning seriously needed resources at all levels of government to prepare the United States in the event of a bioterrorism attack, pandemic flu or other disaster. But I began to see that my professional success was an obstacle when it came to writing memoir.  

I secured the help of another talented editor, Annie Tucker. With her guidance through a second round of developmental editing that honed the right themes, and shaped a compelling arc, I felt confident enough to consider publishing with She Writes Press. Then I reworked the book in three rounds of heavy copy editing with my new husband, a film producer, veteran script writer and lover of story-telling. Slowly, painstakingly, we reworked each paragraph until the book finally became a continuing discovery of what happens next.

Now the manuscript is back with Annie for a final copyedit. Yet she still finds places where I summarize for the reader. It’s hard to set aside that need to “make the case.” In my professional career, lives literally hung in the balance on being able to do that well.

After eight years, the book is nearly done. It tells the Naked Mountain story, a true tale of falling in love with the natural world and becoming passionate about protecting a small, but ecologically precious place nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was never meant to be a cancer story, let alone a double cancer story and then a narrative about grieving, recovering and finding new love late in life. But if you take eight years to write a memoir, watch out! The story you had in mind might need to change–a lot. It’s still the story of Naked Mountain because the mountain is in my DNA and woven into every life event. But it’s a deeper tale now, as deep as the soil.

There was another really difficult facet to writing this book. The amount of editing I had to do to shape events into a story fit for readers meant repeatedly reviewing and re-working chapter 19, the one that describes my husband’s death. Over and over again, I had to relive the most painful moment in my life. It never got easier and it wasn’t therapeutic, probably the opposite. I strongly believe that writing memoir can be immensely therapeutic, but I think it depends on the nature of the pain and how each individual has experienced it. After reading George Bonanno’s book, The Other Side of Sadness:  What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, I concluded that I was in danger of doing myself harm if I didn’t work at finding balance in my life. After each review of chapter 19, I needed to consciously leave it behind and focus on positive elements in my life. Otherwise, I was in danger of falling into a depression dominated by yearning for someone I loved that I could never see, hear or hold again. Fortunately, I had plenty of positives to turn to. And one of those is the excitement of publishing Naked Mountain.

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Comments
  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Bella.  

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    I know what you mean about memoirs turning into something other than you expected over the course of time. Same thing happened to me over a five-year period. Congrats on your book! 

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Rose. I appreciate and agree with your comment. 

  • Rose O'Connor

    Thanks so much Marcia. This retelling of how your story came about brings a sense of great humility to my heart, to realize that life is the journey and that a story worth writing is one worth working for. Thank you for sharing your story with the world. I look forward to its publication.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thanks, Karen. Best wishes on your own journey wherever it takes you.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for sharing your memoir story, Marcia.  I wish  you the best for its success.  Considered writing a memoir myself, but have kept into the question of "why go back there?"  Glad for you that you enjoyed so much support!

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Patricia, I think for some people the writing itself provides perspective, then insight and that leads to healing. Sharing takes it further, especially when you get feedback that is supportive, or provides a sense you are not alone.  But it takes courage and super support as you do it so you can balance yourself. Best wishes!

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Irene, you said just the right words:  labor of love.  It was ... all of it! I am so glad you love the cover; so do I. This is the view I see from my home on Naked Mountain...

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Annie!  No better salve than hearing from my talented, beleaguered editor that she feels the book turned out well... 

  • Patricia Robertson

    Appreciate the discussion on reliving past hurts through writing. I've always been of the mindset that writing about these events is therapeutic. It has been for me in the past. But now I'm considering revisiting hurts I've left behind for many years and finding reluctance. Not sure I want to go there. I think this also helps me understand some of the problems I'm running into with a book I have once again put on the shelf.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Jean Rhude you have added salve to my battered writing soul. See my comment to Marcia yesterday. This morning I read your words and fell in awe of the phrase "in going back that I'm able to introduce and reinforce those themes better." I have been "talking" to myself and making notes for things I feel now I've left undone so when I go back, I'm hoping my draft will be better yet. Thanks to you and Marcia for the encouragement found here.

    in going back that I'm able to introduce and reinforce those themes better

  • Irene Allison

    Marcia, thank you for sharing the interesting and gruelling journey behind your memoir. What a labour of love and commitment! And I was deeply touched by your courage to relive such painful loss in order to share your story with the world. I'm very much looking forward to reading your book and wishing you great success. BTW, I absolutely love your cover! 

  • Annie Tucker

    The best news is, after all the hard work you did to undertake this shift from lobbyist to memoirist, and despite the emotional difficulties you encountered over those many years of writing, you ended up with a beautiful book! I am proud to have worked on it with you and grateful for all the conscientiousness and endurance you brought to the process.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Sherrey, I can certainly understand what happened to you with all that immersion into such painful episodes in your life. Make sure you have loving family and friends around you as you complete this difficult task.  I am sure your motivation includes hoping your experience will rescue, or at least inform others in way that can help.  Keep that foremost in your mind and, yes, take those breaks!

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Mardith, I can recommend Bonanno's book if you haven't already read it:  The Other Side of Sadness.  The book is written for the general public, but is based on the new science of grieving.  I think he would say in your case that where you want to get to is memories that are happy, comforting so your loved one is with you, but not painfully. Reliving the loss over and over actually literally strengthens the neuronal pathways of that particular memory.  You want to let go, but not let go the loved one -- family and friends can be very healing in getting you to that comfort zone.  I had alot of rewarding relationships around me, but to keep them front and center in my life while reliving my husband's death meant working at leaving it behind for awhile before revisting.  My best wishes! 

  • Sherrey Meyer

    A most timely post for me and likely many others. While revising and editing my memoir, I read my own story with my own eyes. I didn't expect the strength and power of memory recall while attempting to "clean up" my draft into a publishable manuscript. Soon, after about the 4th or 5th reading, I realized I was becoming sick and my days were slowly darkening. Eventually, the herald of a free ebook of the benefits of writing your story, I found myself suffering from depression and PTSD. Someone very wise explained that I had been "reliving childhood abuses" and therefore, reinflicted the pains and hurts of a lifetime on myself. I am currently waiting patiently through a time of refreshing and renewal before I move my hands toward the binder waiting in a corner of my writing space. I will go back to it, but from now on I know to take breaks for my emotional health. Thanks for your post and honesty.

  • Mardith Louisell

    HI, Marcia, I completely agree that writing about grief over and over is not  therapeutic, at least it wasn't for me when I worked for 10 yeras on a memoir about my sister's death. Everyone always said to me, "It must have been therapeutic."  It wasn't. It was unrelenting grief and hard. There several different opinions about the grief business these days, though in the American culture as whole, the belief remains that reliving is good. Not necessarily so. I love that you had editors and did it often. The sign of a true professional. Thanks for the post and the honest picture of what it takes.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    That sounds like good advice, Jean.  I know I would take breaks between drafts and major edits to try and gain perspective.  And bouncing off a third party is probably critical to success.  Writing is hard...

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Monica.  Good for you!!  NIce to hear you used the best of your professional training to be expressive in the creative realm. I do think the passion of advocacy helped me write my memoir... just had to turn it on its head! Please accept my empathy for what lies ahead for you in writing about the loss of your husband.  I have nothing to offer to make it easier, but if you are compelled as I was to put it down on paper, it will come out right in the end. 

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Charlene. Greatly appreciated!

  • Jean Rhude

    Thank you for this.  After I sent what I had hoped was my final edit to an agent and it came back with "suggestions" I couldn't write at all for months.  I felt so close and yet so far from completion.  I realized that when I pushed that "send" button I was freer of my grief than I had been in many years.  Going back has been both edifying and excruciating.  When a work takes many years themes emerge we were not initially aware of.  I find in going back that I'm able to introduce and reinforce those themes better.  I do resist it still however, and yet, it won't let me go.

  • Monica Starkman

    Hi Marcia. What a beautiful and deeply-felt post.  I, too, had to make the transition from scientific and clinical writing(professor of Psychiatry at U of Michigan Med School) to novel-writing (The End of Miracles with the marvelous She Writes Press).  There was a serious learning curve to teaching myself how to write fiction, yet I was well served by skills I had learned at my day job writing clinical and  research papers and NIH grant applications:  how each sentence has to count and do something to move plot or characterization ahead; attention to detail;  ruthless editing, even the painful task of discarding whole sections and chapters if they distract from the important trajectory or disrupt the pacing (sigh, some were really good).  With the novel coming out in May, I am hoping - though there is still so much to do re: publicity and marketing -  to get back to my memoir.  Your points are so important.  I, too, am facing writing chapters on the illness and death of a beloved spouse,  and very much appreciate your frank comments which will help me understand better what I know I will be experiencing, too.  Thanks for this wonderful post.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    Thank you, Karen, for sharing!  Wow, what dedication! I am impressed... I bet your book is wonderful. I know what you mean about an unanticipated publishing journey... mind-boggling, but wonderful too.  

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Marcia, I am encouraged by your confession it has taken 8 years to write this memoir. Your blog here conveys the ardour of the process as well as that flesh scraping experience of writing about loss. I am particularly drawn to your statement "...the mountain is in my DNA and woven into every life event." Compelling. Thank you.

  • Karen Elizabeth Lee

    HI Marcia - I think we all may be in a similar boat when coming to memoir writing.  I too had to learn a whole new way of writing from the business and academic publications that I was used to writing.  I went to writing classes, conferences and blue pencil sessions and then ordered lots of "memoir how-to" books from Amazon and set out to teach myself this whole new genre. It has taken 8 years of intense work, and I am not the same person as when I began the memoir project - but the personal growth, skill building and sense of accomplishment are things I can carry forward with pride into my "post-memoir" life.  On the impending eve of my publishing date I am involved with things that I could never have foreseen when I began this journey.  Thank you for sharing your experience.