A few days ago, I got an email from a reader and thought, “Wow–she needs to talk with my friend, Sarah!” I started to connect them, then realized we all could benefit from hearing Sarah’s behind-the-scenes account of her author’s journey. From writing through the publication process, Sarah has inspired many with her courage and graceful good humor. So grab a cuppa and enjoy this author interview with Sarah Blizzard–I know you’ll find treasure here 🙂
When did you first know you wanted to write a book?
My memoir evolved organically, from a series of essays, short stories and poems I composed over the course of fifteen years. I never dreamed I’d actually write a book, I just loved to write, still do, every day—at my laptop most mornings; scribbling on pieces of scrap paper at red lights, etc. But memoir was the furthest thing from my mind.
Over the years, Creative Nonfiction became my genre of choice. My mentor, Mary Lucille DeBerry, kept repeating, “That’s going in your memoir someday” after I shared a number of new works in class workshops. Though I trusted her opinion, I thought her feedback was just her way of validating my writing. I never dreamed my compositions would link into a cohesive collection, a permanent chronicle of the lessons I’ve learned.
One memorable weekend about six years ago, I drew myself away from everything for several days, stayed in a Hampton Inn in my hometown of Wheeling (where much of my memoir takes place) only lifting my head for a quick bite of take-out from T.J.’s restaurant across the street from the hotel. For forty-eight hours or so, I scoured each and every document I had written about my childhood, my coming-of-age, my grief, my marriage, and my recovery from alcoholism. “As a Result” was born.
New writers often feel frustrated about choosing a topic. They know they want to write a book, but they’re not sure what it should be. Some have a lot of ideas and struggle to pick one and stick with it. Did you feel that way?
When you write like I do, the topic will choose itself. Just write. See what’s begging to come out. Read your work aloud to trusted writer-friends, or have them read for themselves. They will often hear what’s behind the words. Listen to their feedback and don’t take it personally when they say, “That’s not really working,” or, “You’re on to something here, but it could be better.”
My editors shocked me with their feedback early-on in the process of bringing my memoir to fruition. They said, “This books actually begins in what you currently have as chapter 12. Your book is about you, your recovery from a dysfunctional family life.” I had thought it was mostly my tribute to my brother John and his tortured soul, our childhoods…sparked by his sudden death.
I highly recommend getting professional feedback on your memoir before plunging into self-publishing. When you believe you really have something worth sharing, can you let go, trust your instincts (what drew you to the editors) enough to give him/her/them full control over the final format? Then make an appointment with an editor. My first consultation with Populore’s Rae Jean Sielen was free, for one hour.
Your memoir was incredible, and so bittersweet. How did you find the courage to tell your story? When did you feel the timing was right?
Thank you. Four years ago, I met with an agent at a Creative Nonfiction conference at Point Park University. She put me at ease. After sharing with her my joy at having an essay published just months before online (“Burnt Sienna”, a section that also ended up in my memoir, is in Heartwood Literary Magazine) and informing her as to how I’d grown up in an alcoholic home, she started asking me more questions. I just mentioned my recovery from alcoholism, and the fact that my husband and I got sober at the same time, and were celebrating (at that time) over thirty years of sobriety, and forty years of marriage. Her reaction was unforgettable. Her eyes got real big and she seemed blown away by the little I had divulged. She wanted to know more. She suggested I submit more essays for publication. During that crucial meeting and for days afterward, I began to accept on a deeper level how my personal stories could impact readers. But they needed work, and belonged in an entertaining, readable format.
An article in Wall Street Journal, “The Psychological Benefits of Writing a Memoir” by Lisa Ward, says what I felt. “Perhaps this is an exercise in self-affirmation, that one’s existence has been worthwhile and possibly even memorable. Or does it have a higher purpose, to fill in the gaps for future generations…or a desire to explain to one’s children why one is the way one is. It might even be interesting for them to identify characteristics in themselves they may have inherited!” The article makes another critical point: “Through writing, the memory of the experience can be broken down into small parts, allowing the event to be more easily processed and then laid to rest.” As cliché as it sounds, writing my memoir was therapy.
I’m sure the writing was emotionally difficult. Can you share some self-care tips and your strategies for writing tough stories?
Keep tissues handy. If you’re like me, when very painful memories become ingrained in the words/poems/stories you write, they can cause deep grief to resurface. You may cry, wail, and have red, puffy eyes day after day. Hopefully, you have a supportive partner who is there to listen to your readings, because you need a safe sounding board.
I’ve always had an uncanny ability to recall my childhood, adolescence, coming-of-age, the whole works, in conversations (practically verbatim) and vivid scenes. I didn’t realize how valuable my memory was.
Your writing takes you back to those people, those places; those words that were said. I read, studied and devoured Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir.” I will always feel a certain indebtedness to her. She writes, “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page. Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.”
She also says, “Truth is not your enemy. It’s the bannister you grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”
How did you organize your book content and choose a structure you liked?
Early in the process, I explored the possibility of opening my book with one of the worst days of my life. I had the first chapter showing the dramatic scene where our parents, who were living in rural West Virginia, are confronted with the news of their son’s shocking death.
- Sheriff pulls into their driveway
- Inebriated parents peer out the window, reluctantly open the seldom-used front door
- Sheriff removes his hat, delivers the dreadful news
- Mom collapses
- Dad calls me, after going down the line, calling all my siblings
But my editors, after reading through the entire manuscript, confronted me. They said something like, “Sarah, this book is about you. Your childhood, your marriage, and your recovery.”
Their decision floored me, in a good way. I said to myself, “Maybe you were trying to hide behind your brother’s story.” From that moment on, I trusted the process. I embraced the fact that I had a team I trusted: God, my Referee, to whom I prayed; my husband (Team Captain) had my back; and my editors were my Coaches.
It was a BIG change, leading off the pages of “As a Result” with a prologue–a pivotal moment in my marriage–and then going back through early years and picking up where the prologue leaves off, later on; Lord knows, I needed help with that format! After I changed his name to “Grant” my husband was more comfortable with me telling so much of our story, and changing nearly everyone else’s names made sense, too.
What other advice can you offer those who want to tell their life story? What are the unexpected benefits and/or drawbacks?
Be prepared for any and all responses, but take them all in stride. I trusted my spouse and editors to confront me about passages they thought were too explicit or possibly hurtful to my family. Two of my siblings (there were six of us—three have died) are still living. Their wounds are different than mine, and I prayed fervently not to further hurt them. One sister expressed her disappointment and anger at having our family’s trials published. This was after she compared my book with Jeanette Wall’s “The Glass Castle.” I had sent both sisters excerpts early on. They seemed indifferent to my work. But once “As a Result” was being read, opinions changed. Your family has a right to their feelings, and may write their own books one day; who knows?
My former babysitter, who knew nothing of my past since I was about two years sober when she began babysitting for us, messaged me privately. She said my book was a cautionary tale for her personally, and she had since decided not to drink alcohol. I receive periodic updates from her, and I cannot fully express how rewarding her testimony has been to me personally.
Both reactions have shown me how important it has been for me to fully embrace and accept the consequences–the impact–of telling such personal stories.
Finally, I’m extremely pleased by the excellent reviews, which I attribute to the wonderful edits. Though they changed none of my words, my editors were savvy when it came to making major cuts and producing a very readable memoir. I’ll never forget saying to the editor who made the most major cuts: “My friends and writer groups have read through many excerpts of the manuscript already, and I tried to edit it as best I could based on their feedback.”
Her response: “You’ve got to pay for brutal.”
What are your favorite memoirs?
Where can we find you and your book?
There are three ways to buy my memoir:
- At live events. I’m available for your Book Club, your library, your women’s group, your recovery group…I sell my book for $15.00. (A little extra since you get to hear a presentation—and it’s easy to make change from a $20.00) I advertise my book talks on social media. Contact me:
Sarah Blizzard Robinson on Facebook,
and I also have a Facebook page called Memoir: As a Result.
On Instagram, I’m salou3.
On Twitter, I’m @satisfiedsarah.
My email is salou3[at]hotmail[dot]com
- Simply message me by email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn
for a signed copy (at only 12.00).
Print books are 12.00 and ebooks are 3.99.
Sarah Blizzard Robinson is a writer and speaker from West Virginia and is grateful to report her hope is alive and well.
In her book talks, the author highlights the restoration of her marriage, her faith, and the unconditional love of God.
Sarah and her husband celebrate over forty years together.
Her essays, short stories, poems and profile articles appear in newspapers, literary journals, magazines and anthologies.