Thursday, May 23, 2013

Immortality and the Memoir

JANICE:  Immortality. We all yearn for it, and one way to get it is by writing a memoir. As the saying goes, "Write yourself into existence." I decided to do just that.

I began by reading other people's memoirs. My favorite was Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills. She is also the author of Eagle of the Ninth, a historical novel of Roman Britain that I keep on my desk at all times for inspiration.

Next I read books on writing a memoir, and the one that set me on fire was The Autobiographer's Handbook, edited by Jennifer Traig with an introduction by Dave Eggers. His first book, a memoir titled  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He said, "You should write your story because you will someday die, and without your story on paper, most of it will be forgotten." The Handbook is like a panel discussion among expert memoirists on all the elements of writing an autobiography.

As with any creative project, the hardest part is beginning. But as Goethe said, "First you must begin and then the mind grows heated."

I think the best way to begin is not at the beginning but with a vivid memory of an event in your life. Write it down. Each day write a memory. Chronology doesn't matter, just write what comes to mind. Doing so will bring up more memories day after day. When you have emptied your memory bank, read through them and look for a theme to learn what your memoir is about. I found that my story was about searching for the life in me.

As I began to put the pieces of memories together, I felt the need to bring them alive with dialogue - not that I always remembered the exact words people spoke, but I remembered the event and the characters
involved, and I invented dialogue. Suddenly the memory came alive, dragged out of the past.

William Faulkner said, "The past is not dead. It is not even past." And with a memoir as with historical fiction, the past becomes the present. It took me a year to put memories together, then another year to get the book published. Now the story of my life from birth to Tom is told in a bound hardcover book. It's not for sale anywhere. I made it for family and friends so that my story would not be forgotten.

Becoming Alive  is a prequel to Honeymoon Hobos, the story of our yearlong trip around the world. For more about this travel memoir, which is available to the public, see my 2011 blogs on September 1st and 23rd.

I intend to continue my life story in a third memoir while continuing to write children's books. So now, back to work!

Friday, May 3, 2013


JANICE:  Writing and illustrating books is hard but joyous work and has enormous rewards. The best reward of all is hearing about a reader relating to the story and being affected by it.

There are many other rewards and we recently had two. I was inducted into the august company of writers in the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) They have decided that children's books are literature. Hooray!

Out of 15 new members I was the only writer for children. Each of us was asked to read from one of our books, and I chose I, Vivaldi. Tom stood beside me and showed his illustrations. If only the organization was called the Texas Institute of Letters and Illustrations (TILI), Tom would be a member too.

I must say those august writers seemed to enjoy our picture book biography. It is indeed a book for all ages.

Even better was our experience at the Texas Library Association Conference in Fort Worth. Tom and I donated an original illustration from I, Vivaldi titled "First Lesson." It was raffled off at $5 per ticket to raise money for the Texas Library Disaster Relief Fund. Fortunately and unfortunately it will be used to help libraries in West, Texas, recover from the recent explosion tragedy.

Tom drew the winning ticket onstage before 4000 enthusiastic librarians. The illustration was won by Willie Braudaway, a library consultant. Congratulations and farewell "First Lesson."

First  Lesson
After the drawing we were ushered to front row seats for Neil Gaiman's speech that he titled, "What the Very Bad Swear Word Is a Children's Book?" a charming, thought-provoking performance by the winner of the Newbery Award for The Graveyard Book.

During the conference Tom and I signed copies of I, Vivaldi in our publisher's booth, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, with the help of editor Kathleen Merz. All very rewarding!