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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] The Long and Grueling Birth of a Book
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[SWP: Behind the Book] The Long and Grueling Birth of a Book
Written by
Hollye Dexter
July 2014
Written by
Hollye Dexter
July 2014

When I was ten years old, distressed about my life circumstances, I wrote a little book about my crisis on a pocket-sized Hello Kitty notepad and hid it inside a rock wall, hoping some kindred spirit would find it and that we would be forever connected through that common understanding. I suppose you could say that was my first attempt at publishing.

As an adult, I spent eight years writing a memoir about my childhood, and then tucked it away into a drawer. I never wrote to be published, I just wrote because it was in me and had to come out. Eventually, with a bit of pressure from teachers, friends and family, I began to publish some of my writing, including excerpts from my first memoir. For too long I had buried the truth about who I was and where I came from. It was time to throw open the door to that closet and air it all out. In 2010, my friend Amy Ferris and I put together an anthology about women (including ourselves) becoming empowered after liberating themselves from shame that had held them back. Dancing at the Shame Prom was published by Seal Press in 2012, and it was a great experience. Amy and I began traveling and teaching workshops, encouraging writers to break the taboo and write a story they had never told. All the while there was still a story inside of me that hadn’t been told, and soon another book began to emerge.

So here is that story: On the morning of November 18th, 1994, my family seemingly had it all: a strong marriage, two kids and a gaggle of rescue pets. My husband Troy and I each had our own businesses that we ran from the home we were renting. We volunteered at our kids’ schools, threw parties, took business trips — it was a great life.

But that night, we went to bed in a burning house. A freak electrical short began smoldering in the walls as we slept, erupting into hellfire in the middle of the night. The fire pressed us up against the windows, gasping for air, our skin burning. We were forced to jump from second-story ledges with our children onto the cement below. The inferno raged, windows blowing out, as the life we had built vanished before our eyes.

We were released from the hospital the next day, injured, homeless and jobless. We had no renter’s insurance. We had not a single possession. Our lives were a blank canvas, all at once terrifying and liberating.

Until that night, I was a strong, independent woman, but as one catastrophe after the next hit — bankruptcy, cars blowing up and a child in need of surgery — I unraveled. I became clinically depressed, struggling with persistent suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder from both our fire and events in my childhood. I was a complete mess.

For years I couldn’t talk about the fire. I couldn’t allow myself to look back at how I came so close to losing my children. I also didn’t want to remember how I came so close to losing my mind. But it was a grey cloud following me through life, never letting me sleep through the night, never letting me go. Another Amy friend of mine, author Amy Friedman, said my only escape was to write this book. And so I did.

What I learned in the grueling process of writing and reflecting was that though yes, I was an emotional disaster, I also fought harder than I ever knew I could to find something to believe in again. Faith is hard earned and, like a beating heart, is a muscle that must be worked. I worked to find mine so that my children would not grow up in a hopeless world. Instead of focusing on the loss, I focused on the hope that can be found in the most disastrous of circumstances — like the kindness of others who came to lift us back on our feet. I found, while bankrupt and destitute, we still had our ability to dream, to love, to create, to hope and to remember. And in writing, I discovered that though we had lost everything, on a deeper level we really hadn’t lost anything. These are the jewels we unearth when excavating our complicated histories.

In the three years it took me to write Fire Season, the publishing industry had completely changed. So once again I sat on the book, and hemmed and hawed for over a year, deciding what direction to take. I attended conferences, lectures, read books about it, asked the counsel of my friends. I did send it out to about a dozen or so agents and publishers but in many ways I felt again like that little girl tucking her story inside a rock wall, hoping someone would find it. Because my stories are the only thing of true value that I own, I decided I had to move forward in a way that felt right to me, and that meant having more control over the book’s destiny. Time and again, friends had recommended She Writes Press, and because I have deep respect for and trust in Brooke Warner after working with her at Seal, I finally committed.

My book is slated for release in March and I am still furiously editing, doubting myself, hemming and hawing, but the final manuscript will be turned in within a week. I am excited and a little bit pukey over the prospect of venturing out into this brand new uncharted territory, but I know that I am in good hands and good company. And so I release these pages into the world, just like my young self did those forty years ago, hoping that many kindred spirits will find them, and that we will be forever connected through a common understanding.

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  • Great post! Love the imagery, especially tucking your story in rock walls - real and metaphoric. And I love the word pukey!

  • Nina Gaby

    Wow. And thanks for reminding me, I bought "Shame Prom" for work- I'm a psych nurse practitioner in an addictions rehab- where women are brought to their knees in shame- and I lent it out and never got it back. Will have to order another one. Your blog piece hit home as we just avoided a similar situation with faulty wiring, and I sit here thinking about your 'blank canvas' and how does one begin again. I also treat a lot of PTSD and this story will likely resonate with my patients, again I will order a copy and lose it. Most of all, the description of your first effort at publishing is a delight and will carry me through the day. Many thanks.

  • Hollye Dexter

    Wow Joyce, I am honored and so happy that my story connected with you today. This is why I think it is essential for us all, especially women, to share our stories. You never know who might need to hear what you have to say today- so yes, please push through those challenges and keep writing, and I will, too.

  • Hello Hollye. Sorry I left off the e and don't know how to fix it.

  • Hello Holly,

    I'm overwhelmed with joy and thanks for your story because of several reasons. First, I must tell you that goose bumps, like ones when something unseen touches me, ran throughout my body. Second, your childhood story about the rocks remind me of when I buried my writing under the twin bed my sister and I slept on -- her at the foot and me at the head. Third, it reminds me of the memoirs and poem collection I've sat on because of near death experiences of both myself and my husband along with platters and more platters filled with unpleasantries, complications of overwhelming problems that years of search for answers have gone unfounded. Despite relentless efforts, I mean really, my hand to God, have left me feeling hopeless. Most important but not last, your abiding lessons about faith, value and appreciation of what you have -- not tangibles you no longer have -- is a message I needed to hear today. I woke up down in the dumps -- clinical mental issues, fear of more life threatening health problems for me right now and my husband with longer shelf life. I struggled to get behind this machine to write a chapter on our  co-authored memoir that I need only three weeks to finish -- still three weeks to complete.  (That's been going on since May 2012... Every day I have to find something that gives me strength to get out of bed and make an effort to do life things. Then I beg for juice to stay up a while longer to write a few paragraphs. Thank you for saving me today for I now have strength to push past the weak heart beat, weak feeling, sickness, and extreme pain all over. Docs know about it...I opened She Writes -- My Home Page -- and started reading. (Also wanted to write one of my long list of blogs about writing sabotage issues) Not enough physical or mental strength to get there. But now I'm going to push forward with every drop of blood I have left. Thank you. I'm going to buy your book for family and friends I know who need it like drinking water and food. God bless you.

  • Hollye Dexter

    I am honored by all your encouragement and kind responses. Shary- we were in San Miguel together! What a magical place. Hope you loved it as much as I did. Judith- can't wait to read yours either. I just ordered it.

  • Rossandra White

    As someone who just published a memoir (SWP, April 2014) I feel your trepidation. Do I ever. In my case, I knew I had to write the book. No doubt. Buoyed by this knowledge, I headed into publication. But then halfway through, about where you are now in the process, regret and fear set in. I couldn't publish. I couldn't lay my life and those in it out there for the entire world to sit in judgment upon. But then friends and mentors would urge me forward, one of whom asked me a powerful question. Could I live with sticking the book in a drawer and forgetting about it? The answer was an unequivocal no. But was I being selfish?

    Now, beneath all this questioning and wrestling, in that place I call upon the greater me, I kept getting this deep feeling of reassurance, like the steady blip of a heartbeat. That’s what kept me going, even though I didn't really trust this feeling (a theme in my life and in my memoir).


    And now, three months later, what I found is that I'll probably never be completely comfortable with having "exposed" myself, but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have realized a whole other part of myself. A more powerful me. To paraphrase Linda Joy Meyers, " When you write a memoir, you draw upon layers of your consciousness and discover your true nature, your essential self, and are transformed the process.” But I believe it's in publication that you claim your story and set it free.

  • Shary

    May your new book be received in the most magnificent of ways

    and may you keep writing to and for us, Hollye. 

    Hearing you speak at San Miguel this year, you have much to share with us in your quiet, gentle, but fierce voice.

    Can't wait for more.  

  • Good for you, Holle! Just by the way you wrote this post I can tell you have the heart of a writer, and the words. And the story. I predict your book will do very well. Good luck!

  • Cheryl Rice

    Thank you for your courage, Hollye.

    I wrote your words, "My stories are the only thing of true value that I own..." in my writing journal. Beautiful.   

  • Judith Newton

    Can't wait to read it, Hollye.