Dealing with family while writing your memoir

“Now it was time to stop the dance I had started . . .”

For several years, Kathy Pooler has been sharing her memoir writing experiences onKathy Pooler cover the Memoir Writer’s Journey blog. She is now celebrating the recent publication of Ever Faithful to His Lead, her memoir of overcoming emotional abuse. She is on a blog tour this month—and October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We think of violence as physical, as in the high profile cases of Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens punching his then-girlfriend unconscious and Victor Blackwell, then a USC football player, arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. Emotional abuse usually goes along with physical abuse, but also can be used alone. Kathy exposes the nature of not one, but two emotionally abusive relationships and how women can be vulnerable to this. Judging by all the people amazed that Janay Fisher married Ray Rice anyway, Kathy’s book is needed. I’m happy to have Kathy answer a few questions on my blog today, and I thank WOW! Women on Writing for fitting me into Kathy’s tour schedule.

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Kathy, a number of memoirs document abusive relationships. What made you decide to write and publish your particular story?

I didn’t start out thinking I was going to publish an “abuse” memoir. I knew I had been through several harrowing challenges in my life related to my mental and physical health. In later years, long after surviving those challenges, I looked around and saw the joyful life I was living. I wanted to share my story of hope. No matter how far down into the abyss you may sink, there is always hope for a better life. As I kept writing, the story revealed itself to me. There’s a big difference between journaling your thoughts and emotions and in shaping a story that will appeal to others. It starts with writing raw. If you want to publish, you keep writing until it’s right.

A no-no in writing memoir is to write while emotions are still high, while experiences are fresh. You have done a good job of telling your story in what I think is an objective manner and after you had time to reflect. Did you keep a journal throughout the timeframe of your memoir story and work from that, and when did you feel ready to start writing the book?

Yes, I have journaled for years and those journals became the seeds for my memoir. However, it wasn’t until I began taking memoir workshops and writing vignettes from that time period that I developed a full awareness of the impact those circumstances had on me. In other words, I became connected to the pain and regrets that were still brewing underneath the surface. Sometimes you think you have moved beyond the pain, but as in my case, despite physically moving forward, there were pockets of pain I had buried. They reared up at times when I least expected. When that happened, I had to pause and reflect. Sometimes I journaled. Sometimes I walked away and gave myself some time and space to absorb the truth.

I feel emotional distance from the event does help you see it objectively. Part of the process of writing a memoir is being willing to process the emotion of digging up the pain. The only way to the other side is through. You have to do whatever it takes to help yourself through that process in order to share the valuable lessons learned with your readers. In the beginning, I think it is important to write raw and for yourself. Let the words flow without censoring or editing. And don’t show it to anyone until you’re ready.

When did you first tell your family you were writing a memoir? Did you give your friends a heads up? What was everyone’s first reactions, and did you consult with family during the writing or just show them the final result and hope they were okay with it?

Yes to all the questions. I’ve never been secretive about expressing my desire to write a book so it came as no surprise to my family and friends when I began getting serious about doing so. For the most part, I shared my writing freely and enjoyed ongoing support and encouragement. During the first writing course I took through Writer’s Digest, I wrote stories about my reaction to my son’s substance abuse issues. I mailed him one story and he later told me when he opened the letter on the subway, he had to quickly put it away for fear he would break down in public. He read it when he returned to his apartment and called me to tearfully tell me how my story affected him. It opened up a dialogue between us that remains strong today. Both he and my daughter have read my memoir in its various stages of development. They both have offered their feedback and support. I consulted my family and friends often about details related to scenes in my memoir.

Were you at all afraid of either of your former husbands’ reactions to your memoir? How did you handle those situations?

The irony for me is that “Ed” in my memoir, the father of my children, died suddenly of cirrhosis  six weeks after my memoir was published. I was there at his bedside along with his family and my children. He knew I was writing a memoir, but we never discussed it while he was alive. (We had a civil relationship and mutual respect for our roles as parents.)  If he was alive, it is the consensus between my children that he would not have approved. I changed names and some identifying characteristics to protect his privacy. At any rate, it’s a very sticky issue and one I grappled with many times. In the end, I reconciled my concerns with the belief that this story is about my truth and my choices, and I made sure I did not intentionally disparage him in the story. Both my children read the memoir ahead of time and offered their commentary and blessings. I have lost complete touch with “Dan” and his family by choice and it has not been a concern. I did consult an attorney about liability issues.

When the book was released, did you or your children have second thoughts about strangers reading about your personal lives? That can be cringe-worthy!

Yes, I knew I had exposed my vulnerabilities and flaws and wondered how readers would react. However, by the time the memoir was published, I had addressed all the cringe-worthy scenes. It is tough to put yourself and all your poor choices out there. I’m happy to report that so far, the response from readers has been overwhelmingly positive. We all make mistakes and there is strength in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about writing or publishing your memoir?

Writing a memoir can be a transformational experience for the writer, as well as for the reader. Writing my memoir truly helped me to heal and shed the guilt and shame that had burdened me for years. If one person is able to connect to their story through my story and take away something valuable for themselves, I will feel I have accomplished my goal of sharing hope.

We all have a story to tell. Learn the art and craft of memoir writing. Start writing and keep writing. The story that’s meant to be written will reveal itself.

And one last thing: Enjoy the ride!

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Thank you, Kathy! I think many women will be able to understand and relate to your story. Your book is well-written, and I was surprised by some of your insights. For those who are not religious, religion and God are not the main focus. Congratulations on the publishing of your book, and I hope it helps many people understand the complexities of abusive relationships.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner. She is working on a sequel to Ever Faithful to His Lead entitled Hope Matters, about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer, and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

Kathy Pooler

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Silent for Sixty Years: A Holocaust survivor memoir

Several weeks ago I went to see Holocaust survivor Ben Fainer speak – his second booking at our library headquarters because the first one filled the auditorium to overflowing and many people (including me) had to be turned away. Mr. Fainer has a published memoir, Silent for Sixty Years, because Marcie from the Shoah Foundation St. Louis branch kept pestering him to break his silence about his painful past. He had kept his tattoo hidden even from his own children, but they knew their father was haunted by something big.

Ben Fainer is a character, a grandfatherly type with a silken mane and jovial attitude, a great storyteller. He said he survived the loss of his beloved mother and the six years in six different concentration camps because he was a big, strong boy encouraged by fellow prisoners. He was ten years old when taken by the Nazis and put to work, rising at 3:00 a.m. and threatened with death if he stopped to rest or could not go on. A lifetime later, he met one of the American soldiers who liberated his camp. Norris Nims called Ben after seeing a newpaper article about his Bar Mitzvah at age 70 – long overdue since he turned 13 in the camps.

I don’t know how many survivors are still alive now, but Ben is obviously a rarity around here, speaking at schools and to other groups almost daily and serving as docent at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. He has some heart problems and should slow down, but he doesn’t. Marcie, who insisted his stories were important, gave him a way to heal and gave him a passion to pass on the stories and to hope such a thing never happens again. Even though it still does. Even though it hurts him to tell these stories.

I’ve been reading Silent for Sixty Years and it’s like listening to Ben Fainer talk, you across the table with your dropped jaw and pained heart. Ben tells it like it is, no dressing it up or fancy literary talk. I like his book better than Elie Wiesel’s Night because it is so personal. You are watching and affected deep inside as your grandfather shows his arm and tells you nightmares that are not dreams. He tells you what he feels, what he thinks, what he wonders about. And he is gracious, big-hearted and open-minded despite all that was done to him. Grateful and respectful of the US military for his own rescue and all the times it has come to the rescue of others. And no, he doesn’t have answers for how the US can care better for its own people and still go out to save others. All he knows is he is thankful to have been saved and to have a place to live safely and happily ever after.

Silent for Sixty Years

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When a memoir isn’t all about you: Jerry Waxler examines memoir-biographies

Jerry Waxler of the Memory Writers Network studies memoirs. He examines how they are structured, what techniques were used, what works well. I like how he comes at it from a therapist’s perspective, providing a philosophical and almost scientific look at an author’s journey and how it was written. Very insightful. He gives us ideas to chew on while we read memoirs or write our own stories. By the way, Learn to Write Your Memoir and Memoir Revolution are among the books Jerry Waxler has written.

I found one of Jerry’s recent posts to be particularly interesting—and not just because he mentions my mother’s story, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. A great many memoirs are not just about the author. A story can also feature another person who is a key part of the journey. We tell their story, too, meshing it into ours. Sometimes the story is all about the other person! Jerry’s post uses examples to explain how some memoir authors have incorporated a second story into a combination memoir/biography, or in some cases given a voice to someone who wouldn’t, couldn’t, or just didn’t write their own story. Read These Memoirs Are Similar to Biography to learn about this kind of storytelling and maybe find a few new books to read.


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Finding and keeping cultural heritage

Besides the usual busyness of my life, I’ve been busy the last few weeks getting ready for the annual Japanese Festival in St. Louis. Per the last census, our area has a little over 3,000 people claiming Japanese heritage, way below the Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese local populations, but we have one of the largest Japanese festivals in the nation. Almost the entire community of us helps with the festival, and seems like everybody becomes Japanese during Labor Day weekend, dressing in happi coats, yukata and even kimono. Yukata is the casual, cotton summer kimono. Plenty of non-Japanese, including men, wear yukata to the festival and maybe even carry sun parasols.

kimono showThis year my younger daughter and I were honored to be models in the very popular kimono show, put on by a certified kimono expert with ten years of training in Japan. I looked so good I didn’t recognize myself, thanks to an elegant emerald kimono and the magic of a specialist hair stylist. My daughter was more beautiful than usual, wearing the long furisode sleeves of young, unmarried women. Women in Japan don’t wear kimono much anymore, and we could understand why! We were (barely) walking pillars, bound tightly by many narrow ties and our wide obi sash.

Since I have never really lived around other people of Japanese heritage before, except for my mother, I feel like I’ve finally found “my people.” I am immersing myself in the Japanese cultural offerings through the Japan America Society and several local universities. I eat Japanese home cooking in potluck lunches with my friends – nothing like what the restaurants serve. I’ve started Japanese language lessons at the Saturday language school because now I have plenty of people to practice with. All this without hopping a plane to cross the ocean.

Japanese food

I guess I’m so enamored with my cultural heritage because I’m so close to the immigrant generation (my mother). I have her stories and fresh culture she passed on to me. I try to pass on the culture to my quarter-Japanese children, and thankfully we have my mother’s stories in her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight book, but I think it’s all diluted by the river of America. We have to work at passing on the traditions and stories of our heritage and hope future generations care. As I’ve seen, though, our own future generations may not care, but somebody else’s might. Yukata for everyone!

bon dancing in yukata

bon dancing in yukata

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Who wanted war anyway?

My mother, who survived WWII as a civilian in Japan, asked this question in her memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. This week I have a guest post about war on fellow memoir author Gwen Plano’s blog. War and its effects are sadly always pertinent, and much on my mind now as I read the latest news and remember this month the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and of the end of WWII.

Whose idea is war, and who then is forced to fight it, and who are the ones dying

I like Gwen’s previous post, Can we build a bridge between our differences.

Gwen was featured on my blog a month ago in A Memoir of Overcoming:  Gwen Plano and Letting Go in Perfect Love


If there are still rainbows, there is still hope

If there are still rainbows, there is still hope

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Biography and Memoir: how important are approvals

Mockingbird Next DoorThe famously reclusive Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame is in the news recently denying she approved of and collaborated with Marja Mills writing the recently published The Mockingbird Next Door, about her and her sister Alice.What happened? Marja Mills, a former Chicago Tribune reporter swears she had Nelle Harper Lee’s years-long friendship and the go-ahead to write about her for publication. Nelle’s sister Alice and a close friend say Nelle knew Marja was writing a book about the sisters. The Guardian has a good article, “Should Marja Mills memoir have been published,” stating details of the situation. Marja seems like a nice woman and the book is very nice to Harper Lee. Marja and Penguin Press went ahead and published the book. What would you do?

So let’s look at this situation, because I think it could happen to anyone writing a memoir or biography. Nelle Harper Lee was 75 years old when Marja Mills knocked on her door in 2001. She was apparently in good health physically and mentally and became good friends with Marja until at least 2007 when she had a stroke at age 81. Five years later, the book’s rights sold and Harper Lee was angry. At that time her sister Alice wrote to Marja, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.” A close friend of the Lee sisters also verified Harper Lee’s collaboration. Had Alice, the friend, and Marja been going behind Nelle’s back for six years until the stroke? After watching my mother’s difficult journey through dementia, I’m thinking the stroke mixed with elder age affected Harper Lee’s mind a bit.

Marja Mills does not need Harper Lee’s approval. The memoir is not Harper Lee’s ghostwritten memoir or her biography, but is Marja’s writeup of the time she spent with the Lee sisters and the stories they told her. Nobody is saying the stories are lies, and Harper Lee knew (or soon discovered, as she said later) that Marja was a writer and putting together a book. I don’t see any devious behavior, but a lesson here is writers should think about somehow get proof that a subject is cooperating—while the subject is of sound mind. Saved letters or emails would work. Audio or video of interviews can be prefaced with a statement of full knowledge. If there is any question about the mental capacity of a willing person to begin with, there should be no book, or the family should be consulted, too. I have done that myself when capturing stories of a very elderly subject for educational and historical purposes, involving family so as to avoid possible trouble. Even so, if the subject changes her mind, a moral dilemma exists—to publish or not. I am putting together someone else’s historical memoir for publication, but if he balks at any time, I will not publish it despite all my hard work. To me, though, that is more clear cut than what Marja Mills is dealing with.

Marja Mills was honoring her own time and efforts and the still-lucid elder sister Alice’s wishes in publishing her book. She will have to make peace with herself in going against Harper Lee’s change of mind or diminished mental capacity.  She will have to cringe when others who don’t know all the details lambast her for being immoral. Anyone who writes biographies of living persons could have this problem. Everyone who writes a memoir could have this dilemma. Some solve it by waiting until the person dies. Some will forge ahead because they believe the story has an overriding value. Some will go ahead because they primarily hope to make money off someone else’s life. After reading all the details found in the news about this situation, I think Marja Mills could have waited until Harper Lee passed away—up to ten years. I don’t see her, however, as deceptive or money-grubbing. I see a woman who truly liked Harper Lee as a person, worked on the stories with the sisters’ full knowledge, and wanted to make sure they were represented correctly and kindly rather than by heresay and speculation after they died. Because if you don’t tell your stories, somebody else might make them up.


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A memoir of overcoming: Gwen Plano and Letting Go into Perfect Love

Letting Go Into Perfect LoveToday I am pleased to feature Gwendolyn Plano, author of the memoir Letting Go into Perfect Love:  Discovering the Extraordinary After Abuse. Plenty of people have written memoirs about surviving and overcoming abuse of different types, and these are valuable not only as inspiration for others trying to escape from similar situations, but as learning experiences for those who know nothing about these situations. How can a successful career woman come home and live and mother her children in a hostile environment? Who knows what kind of secret lives hide behind a bright exterior? Gwen, too, shows us that behind someone we might see every day, there are hidden demons at work.

I am impressed that Gwen goes beyond the recognition, struggle, and escape to finding personal and spiritual enlightenment. She seems not just a healed woman, but one who is now flying high embracing life and the goodness of God. Read on to see how writing her story helped her and how her story might help all of us. Thank you, Gwen, for being my guest and telling us about your journey.

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When I began writing my book, I expected to simply tell my story: a farm girl goes to the big city, falls in love, marries, experiences tragedy, falls in love again, marries but then knows abuse, and along the way has four beautiful children.  As the pages unfolded though, I realized that my story was everyone’s story. The details of my journey are unique to me of course, but the emotions accompanying those details are universal. We all know sorrow, fear, or regret, and we all travel through life trying to make sense of it all. Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I now understand the agony of which she speaks, for the story ultimately is not mine—it belongs to all of us. I simply held a version of it temporarily.

Writing Letting Go into Perfect Love was an integrative process for me. At times it tore open my heart, such that I could barely breathe. However, my tears and gasps came and went because they could. As I accepted and honored these emotions, compassion emerged; and, it was this development that redirected my writing, and quite frankly, my life.

Why did I write this book? I really did not have a choice. It demanded to be told, awakening me in the early morning and drawing me to my desk. That said, midway through my book, I explain a specific and heartfelt reason that many readers might miss.  The paragraph reads:

For more than two decades I had tried to shield my children from the sorrows in our home, but I now realize that my secret separated me from them. My closeted life held my heart, with its forgotten dreams and innocent longings—a heart that the healers had described as “shattered in little pieces” and “held together with tape and string.” Though I did not know how to bridge the years of hiding, I knew I needed to bring levity into our home and healing into our lives.

When we are not free to be ourselves, a vital part of us disappears under layers of numbness. It is this shell of a person that others see—not who we ultimately are.  As I disentangled myself from an abusive marriage, I re-discovered who I am—and why I had hidden for so many years. I also realized that I needed to bridge the chasm separating past and present—for me and for others.

When any of us come out of the proverbial closet, the fear of disclosure can be overwhelming, but the alternative is a lost life. I wrote Letting Go into Perfect Love to help others realize that they can open the door behind which they hide, and when they take this action, an amazing life awaits them.

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In writing about her own lessons, in learning the redemptive power of love through suffering, spiritual practice, and grace, Gwen Plano allows her readers to reconnect with the painful moments in their own lives and to use those moments to walk a path toward healing and life fulfillment. – from reviewer Bonnie Boron

Gwen Plano is quite an accomplished woman with four university degrees in different Gwen Planofields of study. She has worked mostly as an administrator at various colleges – including one in Japan! She is also a Reiki Master and certified Lifeline Practitioner. Letting Go into Perfect Love is her first book, but when you see her writing style you will think she’ll surely write more. Learn more about Gwen at her website and blog, From Sorrow to Joy, where you will also find she has a Goodreads giveaway that will run from July 1-8.

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