by Sandy Cabada
Monica Holloway is the bestselling author of Cowboy & Wills, which shares the story of the golden retriever puppy that changed her autistic son’s life, and the critically acclaimed author of the memoir Driving With Dead People, a story about her dysfunctional and eccentric family. Described by Newsweek as “unforgettable,” christened by Glamour as “a classic,” and deemed “irresistible” by the Washington Post, Monica Holloway is a dynamic element to all things memoir. Her memoirs are deep, moving, and entertaining. She is one of our favorite writers!
Monica took time out of her busy schedule to share some tips about writing a memoir and give a sneak peek of what she’ll be teaching in her memoir workshop starting this Sunday, October 5th.
1. Why did you decide to write your first memoir and how did you get it published?
When I knew I wanted to write a book, the story of my childhood was the story I wanted to tell first. Period. There was no way I could write anything before Driving With Dead People (DWDP). It was practically bursting out of me.
To get it published, I made sure I attended plenty of workshops and classes taught by my favorite authors, and I read every book I could get my hands on. My first essay was published in “Mommy Wars,” and that opened up a few doors, thankfully. I attended a workshop at Sarah Lawrence the summer of 2005, and within a month of meeting the faculty and trips in and out of New York, I had DWDP sold. It was a fluke, really, and I was very fortunate.
2. How do you write about someone who has wronged you in a balanced way?
I always try to write the story from my own perspective at the age I was at the time the events took place. Therefore, in DWDP, I was able to remember my father as he was back when I was a child – before I understood everything so well.
In DWDP, it was important to me that the readers experience my life as I did, with information unfolding the way I had lived it. This enabled me to be more present in each moment instead of standing in judgment of what had happened to me.
Also, I think it’s imperative that you write with a great amount of compassion, and if this is difficult, there may be an editor, a friend or an instructor that can help you. The person you are writing about may not feel that you’ve written about them compassionately, but it’s important that you know. I don’t feel that there’s room for revenge in memoir writing. But the truth is the truth.
While I was writing “Cowboy & Wills,” my husband and I were in the middle of a horrible separation, and yet I needed to write the book. So I had to put away my “now” feelings about my husband, separate my present from my past, and write about my son, my husband and the way we were in my son’s early years. I could not let what was happening in my marriage poison what I was writing – even though I was really mad at him. So I told my editor to keep an eye on that, and I think we both did a good job.
Hopefully, the person that you’re having a difficult time writing about, is someone you have a bit of perspective on – in other words, there might be some distance between now and then. Time is not only a wonderful healer, but it gives us an incredibly helpful and important perspective.
3. What do you think the elements of a good memoir are?
The following was taught to me long ago, and, I think, still holds:
• Plot- your unique story
• Structure- how you choose to arrange events
• Description- details that appeal to the five senses
• Dialogue- a speaker’s words
• Characterization- showing what characters are like
• Point of view- the vantage point from which the story is told
• Voice- the writer’s unique personality
4. You’ve written three memoirs now. How do you know what time frame of your life to include in a memoir?
That’s a very good question, and I got anxious when I was writing DWDP that I was writing about a huge part of my life. How would I condense it? What was important to the reader and what could I leave out? Some of this was worked out with my editor at Simon & Schuster. When I first pitched the book, I’d only written two chapters, so I told the story to my publisher face-to-face, and they held me accountable to the story I’d pitched.
Sometimes an outline will help a person whittle down what’s most important to include. With “Cowboy & Wills” there’s a built in timeline and also with my new book, “There Goes Perfect,” there’s a timeline of six years. So that makes it MUCH easier. Talking through the book, writing key scenes, and sketching out chapters can be very helpful, too. Putting together a proposal is hugely beneficial (although not my favorite thing to do) because you must know the book and what each chapter will contain in order to complete it. So that’s a great way to figure out the shape or structure of the book.
5. Do you write with a sequel in mind?
I never write with a sequel in mind. In fact, my agent and I thought that the DWDP sequel would be my second book, and I started writing it. But Simon & Schuster heard my story about my son. Wills, and we ended up switching the books. So “Cowboy & Wills” was my second book instead.
Everyone is different, but I try to focus on exactly what’s in front of me. (And for me, that’s one book at a time.) For others, I know they work differently. I’m not sure that any way is the best way. Write what works best for you.
6. Did you have to exaggerate or enhance any real life events to make them story worthy?
Things in storytelling are exaggerated. Nobody wants to pick up my journal and read it; they’d be bored out of their minds. You have to describe and write out your stories. You have to recreate a place, person and conversation. None of us have perfect memory. These things have to be created from our memory. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to do the very best job we can in remembering.
I also found that research can help SO much. I went back to my hometown and sat in the basement of the library and copied articles off of microfiche. (Yes, in 2007, I was still dealing with microfiche.) But I found at through my research that most of my descriptions were spot on – like the opening of the book where I see the article about the dead little girl. She looked exactly as I’d remembered and that was a huge relief to me. BUT – I was nine when I saw that article, and I had written in the book that I was five years old. Big difference. I was sure I was younger, only I wasn’t. When I adjusted the entire book, moved it up by four years, SO much more made sense to me. No wonder I remembered so much, I was older. A nine-year-old would remember such things.
Also, get anyone and anything you can find to corroborate your story. It will pay off later. If someone else remembers it differently, it’s wonderful to have a back up (or two or three). And don’t EVER let someone else’s truth interfere with your own truth. It’s amazing how people in the exact same family can remember events differently. Three of us remember it one way, two of us remember it another way. Be your own truth – and never budge from that.
7. What will students learn in your class?
They’ll learn from each other as well as myself. They’ll learn what grabs their reader and what might be confusing. They will learn to trust their writing instincts, sharpen their skills (both writing and listening to learn), and hopefully, decide what it is that they want to work on the most. Which story, why, and how.)
8. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write – always. Read – always. And always, always, always put your work in front of authors and instructors who can help you become better writers and who can also get you in touch with agents or editors.
And the way I did this was to take classes and workshops from my favorite authors. I also met so many wonderful writers in those classes who were students like me. Many of them are now published, and we definitely help each other out. We now have a community of writers, and you will, too!
I wasn’t published until I was forty-two. If you stick with it, you will do it.
Thank you Monica for such a stimulating interview, it is always an honor to have such a celebrated author give us some insight.
Don’t miss the opportunity to take her memoir workshop Memorable Memoir Bootcamp: Writing a Compelling Past that starts this Sunday, October 5 at 6 p.m.