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Writing a Memoir Guest Interview

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>> Hi, I'm Lindsey Smith, one of the course leaders in Launch Your Dream Book. And today we have a very, very special guest, her name is Leigh Newman. And she is the author of a book called Still Points North which is a memoir. And she's gonna inspire us and talk with us all about her career and writing the memoir and what all of that means. So welcome, Leigh. >> Hi. >> Thanks for being here and bringing your book today, which I'm really excited to chat with you about. Tell us a little bit just about your book, your career, how you kind of got into all of this. >> I had actually started as a fiction writer. >> Okay. >> And as a magazine writer. So I had always wanted to write fiction, used to write it sort of in my room alone. And in my early 20s I immediately knew that, you know, I couldn't live on that because... You know how when you're 21 years old and you graduate from college. But I got a job in magazines and did pretty well with that, so I was writing travel stories. And kind of living around the world writing about travel and I would sort of write fiction at night but I always wanted to write a book. And I wrote, I think, two and both of them were not publishable. They were just... I don't, I mean, I'm sort of proud of them, I feel like I finished them, but they just... Even I knew they were not good. And then I got... Well, the recession of 2009 happened. And people had always told me to write a memoir because I had grown up in the Alaskan Bush. My father was a bush pilot. And I lived a lot in the wild, you know, hunting and fishing and flying airplanes and climbing mountains and hunting animals like sheep and caribou and moose and, you know, chopping wood and building cabins. And no one could really reconcile that with the person they would meet. You know, all my magazine editors would be like, what? And I would also never tell anyone ever that I was from Alaska. I think a lot of the reason too because it was quite painful how I left, my parents had this kind of cataclysmic violent divorce. And I ended up living between Alaska where my dad lived in the wilderness and Baltimore, where my mom relocated and I had to fly back and forth for my parent, between my parents, every three months. They had joint custody. So I never really wanted to talk about it, much less write about it, which is I think probably the number one piece of advice for any memoir writer is to write about what you at least want to talk about. And... >> It's very healing. >> Yeah, also it's where the richest material is, right? It's the most complicated and emotionally rich material. And basically what happened was in 2009 the economy crashed and I was working freelance and all my magazine jobs just dried up overnight and I was pregnant. So I had like no job, I had a second baby on the way, my husband's job was in peril and so someone said, "Why don't you just write a memoir? Just see what you can do." And I was, I was really afraid but I just sat down and wrote it and I think I wrote 60 pages, I sold it on 60 pages by the time. >> Wow. >> Yeah, I just... >> And how long did it take you? I'm curious. >> Three years. >> Oh, three years, wow. >> Yeah, I astonished everyone. Yeah, it went much slower than people had hoped. >> So, tell me about the experience of actually writing that just is there anything, I know it can be very taxing, it's emotional, things come up, how do you deal with that? >> Well, one way I dealt with it and I'm not sure whether I consciously knew this or whether I didn't know this, is that, I did not think about publication. I did not... Even though the book was sold and it was sold to Dial Press, which is a part of Random House. I mean, it was a big sale. When I was writing it, I would just mentally shut down that whole part about publishing it. So, I would be writing it so that no one would ever see it. That's how I sort of thought about it. And I know that's probably, it leads to a very rude awakening when actually the book does come out and people see it and they get upset or they talk to you about it, and there's all these things you have do, but what that allows you to do is be really free on the page and say all the things that you need to say. And say all the things that you were forbidden to say. And then later, you know, you can pare that back if it goes too far. And another thing was, I would just let myself feel it. I mean, it would be, like, I would wake up very early in the morning, so my kids couldn't see. So I'd wake up at five in the morning and I would write. And sometimes I would like, I would find myself crying because there was a lot of painful material, like, my mother was struggling with a lot of mental health issues. They were compounded by either pill use or alcoholism. I've never been able to figure out what was going on there. And I had not thought about those things for, I mean, I hadn't thought them for 20 years. Or if I had thought about them, I certainly didn't talk about them. So, writing became extremely painful, I think that's what took so long. The parts about Alaska and all the adventures and the airplanes and everything were very easy to write. The parts about my mom kind of going downhill and tossing me in the back of a car and driving all over the country and into Mexico and not knowing where I was going were not so fun, you know. >> Yeah, I find a lot of our authors in the course are writing books that are very personal, maybe they overcame an eating disorder or something very traumatic happened to them and that's kind of one of the things that always come up is that it's sometimes very painful. >> Yeah. >> And, you know, but sometimes I think on the other side it can also be very therapeutic, you know, you're getting it out there. >> It is, but I think you have to be careful of confusing memoir and therapy. Like, I think that actually should be a rule. >> Okay. >> Like, you're there to create an experience and even though you have lots of feelings, you have to treat it differently than you would therapy. >> Okay. >> Because I think what happens in memoirs when you're not careful is that you begin to impose the narrative of your injury over the narrative of the book. And then you begin to get very angry at the other people in the story. So, for example, in therapy you might say to your therapist, "I cannot believe that my mom got drunk at my college graduation and yelled at all the people at the table. She is such a jerk. I hate her so much." But if you wrote that in your memoir, actually how that comes off is you come off as really ungrateful at a parent who's trying very hard or as best as they can. >> You lose the compassion, I think. >> Yeah, you do, you lose the compassionate side because therapy is about examining your feelings and feeling them. Memoir is about examining your life and creating feeling in the reader. >> Okay, I love that. Because I think that's something that people need to know. >> Right, there is a difference between feeling and yourself and feeling in the reader. >> Yeah. >> Right. And how you do that revolves a lot around what in fiction, people in fiction call the show and tell. Like the way to create feeling in the reader is to show something rather than tell it. For example, "Shut up," she said. That's showing because you're showing what she said, right? "Shut up, she said angrily without any reason at all." Now you're explaining what she said and why she is doing it. But what you want to do is let the reader figure out why the person is telling you to shut up. And whether that's a good thing or a bad thing or both things. Like, she could be angry and sad at the same time. If you stop explaining it, you're allowing the reader to make up all these explanations. And usually, it becomes quite obvious, you know, if you're showing in the right way. >> Yeah, yeah, so what, what would you say is a difference, a big difference between a memoir and a self-help book? >> Okay, I think memoir is... I think a self-help book is prescriptive. It's telling you how to live. And a memoir is saying here is how I lived, make of it what you will. And they can both be incredibly instructive, right? >> Absolutely. >> I mean, because if you see how a person has gone through their life and how they've reacted or thought about things, you can say, "Wow, I want to do, I want to do some of what they've done, but I can't do all of it, so I'm gonna do it my way." You know, it's like by example. Whereas a self-help book, which is also equally helpful but in a different way, tells you what to do. You know, stop that voice in your head. Put down the carbs. You know what I mean? Get on the treadmill. I mean, or whatever it is or go for your dreams. And it's just a different way of messaging. >> And I think people relate through experience as well. I think that's a huge key. Even, you know, I'm a self-help junkie and writer and that's kind of what I've seen is trying to shed my light you know, share some of the stories because people really connect to those. So I see a memoir serving -- can serve, both of those purposes but I think you hit the nail on the head when you said about, you know, remembering your reader. I think that's a huge part of it. >> Right. >> With the memoir that makes it a little bit different is your reader and also your characters essentially, even if they're characters in your life. >> Yeah, I mean, and I don't think in a memoir that means you can't explain some of the wisdom or the ways you think. I comment very overtly about love and forgiveness throughout the book. And in the epilogue I actually, at the end of the book, I make this kind of little essay where I explain exactly what I'm hoping people will get out of it, the kind of message of forgiveness and like survival, not just physical survival, obviously, like you know, surviving a plane falling out of the sky or surviving a bear attacking you is one kind of survival and there's plenty of that. But the other kind of survival, which is where you grew up really young and had to start making adult decisions and taking care of yourself at a very young age. And so, I overtly comment on that at the end though because I do think the power of a memoir or even of self-help I mean, I'm thinking of some people like Tony Robbins really understand this, is the power of anecdote, right, where it feels like a film in your head but it's words on a page. >> Yeah. Which is, you know, I'm thinking of Eat, Pray, Love. >> Yeah. Great, a great example. A great example of somebody who takes you to Italy, doesn't explain too much, just she needs to eat, eat, eat, eat, eat all this food, right? And the reason why, she is like grieving, grieving, grieving. She's alone. >> And so many people I think connected with that on that personal level where they felt oh, my goodness, maybe I didn't go to Italy but I've experienced that. >> Of course, yeah, I don't think that and I don't think the power of memoir is that because you did that and I did that too we relate. It has nothing to do with that. It's you felt that and I have felt that too. >> In whatever way. >> In whatever way. >> So the survive... I loved your point about being in the woods and there is a bear chasing you and you have to survive but how many of us need to survive in other ways. >> Yeah, I mean, a lot of it too was, you know, being parentless and having to deal with tough situations and all the people that have written me have said, yes, okay, it's true, I didn't, you know, didn't have to confront a bear alone or figure out how to do, you know, [navigate] rapids, but you know, my parents would leave me alone for hours alone after school or I had to walk home alone and I was terrified. And so I do think all you need is the creation of the feeling in the reader, that's the point, you know. >> So, if someone is interested in writing a memoir right now, if that's their goal in the book course and that's what they've been really thinking, what is maybe one or two pieces of advice that you would give them before starting or before considering maybe going down this path? >> Well, I actually don't think that there is anything, I think the advices to not consider. I think that if I, when I look back on everything I've done with writing, my biggest problem is thinking about it. Because it's so easy to convince yourself that you're not ready, we keep saying to ourselves, "Oh, first I need to publish an essay somewhere" or "first I need to write a treatment" or "first I need to interview these people." Or "First I need to go back and research the town where it happened." And the truth is like all of that it's just delaying and I have done it all. PS, I've done every single bit of this. >> And I love you because that is amazing advice. >> Yeah, just really, you just need to sit down and write chunks, just write scenes and set up a time for yourself. I'm very, very rig... I'm boring. I'm the most boring writer you'd meet. I write like two hours every day, I write 500 words every day, rain or shine. Sometimes I write a lot more but really I write every single day for just two hours. But however you're working, you just need to start writing regularly enough that things start to come in place and not worry about chronology and not being worried about being ready or not ready. Just start at some startling moment in the story and go. >> I love that, and I think people get so focused on, "I have to start from the beginning and have an ending." >> Yeah, start at the most impressionable moment in your life. Like, I started my book actually, and it never changed, the first 80 pages of this never changed. I started talking about the Great Alaskan Dad, which is a phrase like there is the Great Alaskan Earthquake and the Great Alaskan Salmon Bake and the Alaskan Lumberjack Show, so I just started talking about Great Alaskan Dads. What they wore, how they wore it and then I moved right into the scene, I mean, literally within three paragraphs of describing this Great Alaskan Dad of my dad trying to cut off all my hair after I got lice and my mom wasn't there and he didn't know what to do. How to detangle all my hair, I had all these terrible matts and so he was like trying to cut it off with like big, actually with a fork. He was trying to comb it with the fork and cut it out with scissors. And that was sort of the first memory I had of my dad and I being alone without my mom. And I think that you need to go right into a moment like... I mean, it was a very, very, very sad moment but it had like real... It came back to me as viscerally as if it was happening now and I think that's where you need to go in in a memoir. Even if that scene is moved somewhere else later when you're organizing the book. >> Got you. So start from anywhere and just start. >> Start from feeling and move in. >> I love that. That's great advice. So, when writing your book now that you've published and you've been successful at your book and have had all these other amazing opportunities, what is one thing that you maybe wish that you would have known? >> Well, one thing I wish I would've known is something that we were talking about earlier in that, you know, I was kind of in denial about the book going public and what the public nature is of publishing a book, especially in memoir. And so I was really unready for the amount of attention and being kind of a public figure. And probably I'm not someone who'd naturally want to be a public figure, you know, it was, it was extremely overwhelming to me. And some things I did, some advice I got from people along the way was really helpful. I happened to go to a dinner party and someone I knew had been the daughter of a writer and when she found out I was turning in my book, she said to me, "I hope before you turn your book to your editor, you give it to some family members, so they just don't see it on the shelf." And I guess that depends on everyone's personal situation but, you know, I wrote my book out of love. You know, and I was not gonna break up my family over a book. So I sent the book to my parents and anyone else who was involved so that they could read it and we could have a dialogue about it. That was super helpful. >> Yeah, especially for writing a memoir. >> Yeah, no, no, it's super helpful and I would have never thought of it if someone hadn't told me. Who had been injured in such a way and I think it just changes the whole dialogue about what you do with the memoir. And another thing was getting yourself ready to talk about the memoir. I had a publicist to help me sort of come up with, she came up with some talking points. I didn't really use those talking points because I believe in creating your own talking points, but it was helpful for me to think about how am I gonna talk this? So like I don't just cry on camera. >> Yeah. >> You know what I mean? >>Yeah. >> And like, you know, what am I gonna say when this person comes up and goes, "Oh honey, are you okay?" You know, you know. >> What's your book about? >> Yeah, what's your book about, that's actually a great one. And mine was exceptionally hard because it seems like an Alaskan book but there's large sections set in Baltimore and in Tokyo and in Italy where I was working as an adult. A large part of the book is about, the second part of the book is about the dissolution of my own marriage. So, it became really a book that had two halves, about my parents' marriage falling apart in Alaska and then my own marriage falling part. And so it became kind of two love stories. Bizarrely enough, divorce can be a love story. And how to talk about the complexities of that was really tough but it's important that you sit down and think about it. >> I have to tell you, this is just a really funny side note. My first TV interview that I ever gave, they said, "So, you know, we hear that this..." It was with my first book called Junk Foods and Junk Moods and it takes place when I was a kid and it's the emotional connection that I had towards food. She is like, "So, tell me a little bit about this," and I was like, "Well, you know, whenever I was four, my mom would, you know, she wasn't there for me and then she would just give me candy," and like it was just so bad, it was so bad. >> Was it bad because it was painful or was it bad because you didn't know what to say? >> It was bad because I didn't know how to articulate it and all I kept thinking of was, "Oh my goodness, my parents are watching this and I'm just, I'm just throwing them under the bus." You know, I felt, I felt like I was throwing them under the bus. I was able to quickly come out of that and I was able to say, "What I'm really trying to say is that when I was a kid, my parents were doing the best they knew for me and if I was sad or upset, they would hand me, you know, a piece of candy like, 'Oh, come on cheer up,' but that had effected me and this is how it effects me and this is why I'm passionate about it, so I was able to... >> Turn it around. >> Turn it around but the first five seconds of that, it was like yes, my parents were just neglecting and-- >> I know, you have to be careful not to misrepresent yourself and also you'll make mistakes. I mean, I just made one because I was talking about my divorce but actually my husband, I didn't get divorce. Like we separated, almost got divorce and got back together. But you're moving so quickly and you're talking so quickly, that's why it really helps to have like concise points. And also, I mean, I'm just gonna backtrack a little bit but I also think the only way to write a memoir in the same way that you were just talking about is to write with compassion. Like, if you're going in there with love towards everybody involved, you're gonna write a so much more of resonant story. That doesn't mean you're gonna write about people as though they're perfect, you're not gonna write about them as though they, you know, did the right thing every time and that they didn't hurt you because sometimes they did. But approaching it with love changes it and I think sometimes people go into a memoir and they get wrapped up in their memory and then they just start punishing everybody because they're still so upset. And that's an impulse that's like so crucial that you distance yourself from. >> I think you have to really be at a place where you're not in it but where you're... I think you're right. Like, I don't think I could have written this book until I'd had my kids. There was something about having my kids that made me whole, I guess because I hadn't had parents who'd been around, I'd been so much, I finally had a family of my own. You know, I had two kids of my own, there was something that was like, I mean, swear to God, I hate to use these words but I use them all the time but it was like cracked my soul open and I like completely stepped into a new, a new way of living in the world. >> I love that. >> So it was easier for me to write the book. >> But I... >> I wasn't so mad. >> Yeah, because yes, I think you really have to get out of that place and be in a place where you can talk about this. >> And you can write your way into that place, you know, like I feel like that's sometimes part of the process. >> Okay. >> You can write your way into that place of like compassion and understanding. What you do is you go through and you write the story and even if you're like yelling at everybody at the story, then you hand the manuscript to your friend, have her cross out all the punitive horrible things you're saying. And then just what you have left, you're like oh, I'm that furious, wow, three fourths of this manuscript got exed out, you know. If you can find some people to do that for you. >> Yeah, you know, it's funny, I did that in my first book. It's this opening introduction of this woman that I saw at the airport and it was kind of this Junk Food Junk Mood thing where I was witnessing it. And when it first happened though, and I would talk to people about it, I put that woman down. >> I know, yeah. >> Like I put her down and then I had this epiphany of, oh my goodness, that woman is no different than me in my struggles. >> Right. >> And that's what made the piece so compelling. >> That's writing. That's the difference between writing and venting. You know, and I think like it's one of those things that every single really good writer you look at does that, you know. >> Yeah, where you can get to that full circle place. >> Yeah, what you're doing is what I'm doing. Or what you're doing is not what I'm doing but I understand why you're doing it, stop it. >> Yeah. These are how to do it. >> Yeah. >> Great, well, thank you so much for sharing today. This has been wonderful I'm so excited. Lots of great information for everyone and in this whole writing process we could probably talk for another 10 hours about writing. >> Yeah. >> But where... So your book is on Amazon, Still Points North. >> Yeah, this is hard cover, came up from Dial Press and then this is the paperback that just came out two months ago, they did a trade paperback. >> Cool, and you can get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all that. >> Yeah, I think you can get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound. >> Great. >> Some random bookstores. Yeah. >> Awesome, and where can people find more information about you if they want to check out? >> They can just go to Leigh Newman. >> Okay. >> I think it's, Leigh-Newman.com. But if just put the name Leigh Newman into the Google thing, it pops right up. >> Right. I love Google. >> And there is a trailer. I think Dial Random House made a little trailer that actually shows pictures of Alaskan scenes. >> It's so cute, I love your trailer. >> Oh, thank you. >> So everyone needs to watch that, it's amazing. So again, thank you so much for sharing with us today and I hope everyone enjoyed this and really got something out of it. And if you want to connect with Leigh, it's just Leigh-Newman.com and if you have any questions for us or if you want to share about the video, please feel free to do so in our online community.

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Posted by: integrativenutrition on Feb 1, 2016

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