Here’s the second half of my recent discussion with Libby Atwater who began telling people’s stories professionally after a career in education. As a writer and editor, she has worked for individuals, families, businesses, nonprofits, universities, and community newspapers. Tales from her life have been published in several anthologies. Her memoir What Lies Within covers her first twenty-one years. Click here for Part 1 of this interview.
Denis Ledoux: Will you write another memoir? Why or why not? If so, what is your book’s topic?
Libby Atwater: I have three sequels in progress: Out Into the World, which covers my adult years; What Took You So Long?, the story about finding my birth family in 2004; and Beloved Horse, a tribute to my son Ross, who died suddenly at age thirty-five, only one day after I announced the publication of What Lies Within.
DL: There are those who accuse memoir writing of being confessional. Do you agree? How do you distinguish between confessional writing and a memoir in which there are confessions? Or, do you make distinctions? Any “rule” you would advise for writing a memoir that is, or tends to be, confessional?
LA: I don’t see my memoir as confessional, although I did show behaviors that I’m not proud of, such as teasing a girl at camp and eventually running away. My book dealt more with how I responded to others behavior and survived it. My advice to anyone writing a confessional memoir is to stick to the truth as you perceive it and try not to sound angry.
DL: How do you recommend people deal with sensitive material that relatives might take offense at? This is a “telling the truth” question.
LA: I changed some names because I did not want to encourage legal action, even though what I wrote was true. I also toned down some writing about relatives because I did not want to upset or alienate family members. Many read between the lines and understood what I was trying to say.
Two of my biggest fans are my cousins, featured in the first chapter, who returned to my life when I was thirty-four after a thirty-year absence. The one person who has not read the book is my sister, and I’m not sure what her reaction would be. She left my life nearly thirty-five years ago, although she will also be featured in my sequel.
DL: Was writing this memoir a healing experience? In which way?
LA: I found writing this memoir cathartic because I finally told a story that had been within me for fifty years. My early losses affected me deeply, but I was fortunate to meet people who cared deeply about me and helped me through those rough years. My husband became the hero in my story, and rightfully so. I’m fortunate we still have each other forty-five years later.
Few of us get through life unscathed, but it is not what happens to us that makes us who we are. Rather it is how we deal with what happens to us that defines who we are.
DL: Can you describe your publication option? Was it the right choice for you? If not, what might have been better and why?
LA: I chose to self-publish because it was a realistic option. This meant I had to hire my own editor, book designer, and printer, which was not inexpensive. However, I’m a realist, and I could not see a major publisher “discovering” me, although I’ve been a professional writer since 1989. When I browse in bookstores, I find many memoirs prominently displayed. Most of them are written by celebrities. That shows how our society operates today.
If I print a second edition, I might choose a print-on-demand (POD) publisher to keep expenses down.
I also published an e-version of my book, which I had not planned to do. E-books are less expensive than paperbacks or hardbound books, and I thought I would be competing with myself at first. However, I decided an e-book would enlarge my audience, and it has. We have friends and family around the world, and they can easily purchase an e-book, while a paperback would be costly to send.
DL: Any last word of advice to the working writer reading this?
LA: Believe in yourself and the work you are creating. When writing, leave self-doubt outside, and write from your heart. The words will come.
We have helped many people whose lives demanded to be recorded but who themselves were not writers to create interesting and well-written memoirs.
We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.
Over time, your story develops into a memoir—one that you have shaped at every stage of the writing process.
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