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How to Write a Successful Memoir: With No Extraordinary Power

Mary Ellen Ellwell was a writing client with whom I especially enjoyed working. She brought to the relationship a sense of the value of collaboration. This made the time together a creative one for both of us as we worked together, first with coaching and then with editing—the two often not separable—to write a successful memoir. Below is her account of writing her book. Mary Ellen departed from the Q/A format but very smoothly managed to cover all the same points that the other interviewees had.

My book, With No Extraordinary Power: A Social Worker’s Life, (2008), is a memoir with an emphasis on my professional life. Written after I retired, the memoir enabled me, as well as the reader, to see the arch of a social worker’s life in the last half of the twentieth century. Also included as background is some personal family history.

I did not intend to write my memoir with a professional focus. Originally, I hoped to link some memory pieces I had produced in a writing group at my retirement community into a readable booklet for family and close friends. I was encouraged to contact Denis Ledoux by a member of the writing group.

As I state in the introduction to the book:

Denis became my writing coach and editor, guiding me to memories I had not planned to explore. This book, which is not the one I expected to write, owes much to his gentle mentoring.

The title states the theme of my memoir. I am a person with “no extraordinary power”, who is committed to making a difference in people’s lives. The phrase “no extraordinary power” comes from a poem by Adrienne Rich. I found this poem when I was beginning my work as a volunteer rape counselor, an activity that came rather late in my social work career. I felt it summed up who I have become

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

When I started working with Denis, I was an experienced writer. As a practicing social worker, I wrote case studies and reports. As a college professor, I wrote articles for professional journals and several editorial pieces published in the Baltimore Sun. I also wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation as well as lengthy reports for academic accreditation organizations. Presenting facts in written form was something I was comfortable with.

But a major personal work was a new and different challenge. I worked on my memoir for five years. My first few years, with a loosely organized memoir-writing group, were primarily a social experience and a hobby. The last three years working with Denis were private, secluded and intense. Once I committed to the memoir, I persevered until it was published. I wrote, or rewrote, five or six days a week for anywhere from one to three hours. I was able to devote this much time to the book because I had retired. Also I enjoyed the work.

There was a crisis of commitment toward the end of my writing when I had to describe an inter-personal conflict which ultimately caused me to leave a job I loved. You might compare this experience to a difficult, painful divorce. “Are you sure you want to relive all that?” asked my husband when I checked a detail of my recollections with him for accuracy. This was my most difficult writing challenge. It was the only time I almost quit.

I discussed my dilemma with a close friend. “I have to include it, or I omit a major part of my lifestory. I have to write about it, even if it hurts. I think now I could have/should have handled it better.” I had support for this part of the writing from significant people whom I trusted, but it was painful to be totally honest.

Exploring the past by discussing it with friends and colleagues was helpful. I asked some colleagues to review chapters which covered events with which they were involved. For example, a sister rape counselor read my chapter on that experience. My questions for her: Is my memory accurate? Have I have left out anything important?

A more fundamental issue arose when I asked a former student to read the material on my experience in the doctoral program at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. (I was a late doctoral student, beginning at age 47 and finishing seven years later.) My former student was on the faculty at the school. He was concerned that my account of a sexual harassment incident directed at me by the head of my dissertation committee would cause serious trouble…even, possibly, a law suit!! At his suggestion, I changed the names of all the faculty I was involved with at the university. Anyone who taught there would have easily identified the people described, so it seemed like minimum protection to me. But I followed my former student’s advice.

Once I started regular coaching sessions with Denis, I committed to working to complete my memoir—not only complete but write a successful memoir! I had a lot to learn about this kind of writing. Rewriting turned out to be essential, but difficult, work. I think now, looking back, that rewriting was the most important skill I learned in coaching. Stretching my vision was also something that Denis encouraged. He was genuinely interested in my life experiences, and this helped me delve more deeply into my memories.

I feel good about my completed memoir. The finished product is attractive, and I am pleased to have my footnotes at the bottom of the pages. I suppose footnotes are a holdover from academic writing, but they were important to me. Feedback from readers has been positive. They have told me that what I did was write a successful memoir.

I did not pursue sales with much rigor. The gift shop here at my retirement community handled my largest sale volume. I purposely did not promote the book at the colleges where I taught. The college I sadly “divorced” is my alma mater and I remain strongly loyal to its history and goals. I didn’t want a negative picture of the school to circulate. My former student’s reaction to the material about my doctoral studies kept me from promoting the book to people in that setting. I sold enough books to cover my expenses and that was satisfying to me. I guess that’s how I define “to write a successful memoir.”

Will I write another memoir? No, of course not. I am 87 years old. There have been events in my retirement years which might merit exploring in writing, but I don’t have that urge. My supportive husband died seven years ago. That experience has been captured in writing by several established authors. I’ve read their work, but have no desire to join that sisterhood and write a successful memoir about grief.

I do still consider myself a writer, however. For the last four years, I have written a monthly book review which is published in our community newsletter. I have a column to fill—300 words. Being held to this limit improved my writing. I am more focused and precise.

The experience of reviewing my life in social work was therapeutic, as well as creative. I will always appreciate the care and concern I received from Denis in this process. Going it alone is possible, I suppose. But the book I produced would not have been written without professional guidance.

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