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How to Write A Successful Memoir: Stepping Stones [Part 1]

Today’s guest writer is Marilea Rabasa for whose memoir Stepping Stones I had the pleasure of writing a book blurb. Her story—a journey of self-discovery through the hell of substance use disorder— is a moving one. Today we offer the first half of the email interview we conducted with her. The second half will follow in the next blog publication.

Marilea Rabasa in conversation

Denis Ledoux: Can you tell our readers what your book is about and why you were impelled to write it? What was driving you to spend the time, energy and money to get this book out into the world?

Marilea Rabasa: This sequel memoir continues my journey of self-discovery through the hell of substance use disorder. I realized after my first book came out that I hadn’t been entirely aware and/or honest, that I needed to come out of denial and shine the light back on myself and deal with my alcoholism. I needed to finish my story. My immediate family  and friends are the greatest beneficiaries of my recovery

DL: Can you tell us how long it took from the time you conceived the book to the time you had it published? How many years did you spend in active writing? Were there long breaks in between active writing periods? If so, what happened to get you writing again?

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MR: It took me five years to complete the writing. There were no breaks; I wrote nonstop but went through many, many drafts.

DL: You must have had periods of time in which you were discouraged or at least less enthusiastic. Can you tell us about how you kept yourself going? What worked for you?

MR: Early on, after a couple of beta readers told me it needed work, I started working with a developmental editor. It’s the best thing I ever did, investing in time with her.

DL: Tell us what the theme of your book was. How did you come upon this theme? Do you feel you were successful in getting your theme across to the reader?

MR: Substance use disorder is the book’s theme. Yes, I reached many readers since it’s a burning epidemic in our country, and even worse now with Covid-19.

DL: Is there anything in particular you would say was the most difficult thing to succeed at in this book? Was it scheduling, research, plotting, point of view, believing in yourself, or what else?

MR: The biggest hurdle for me was in crafting a whole new structure for the unfolding events in my life. I had to distill fifty-nine years into a reasonable book length and make it readable. I remember one of my early drafts had a chapter called “The Seven-Year Itch.” I was attempting to squeeze seven years into ten pages! My editor was spot-on when she told me that these things can’t be rushed; events, feelings, scenes and dialogue. I was hiding so much in summary, and because of the unusual case of my theme spanning so many years, I had to find a better way to recall events. She was an early editor who suggested the vignette structure. Instead of using the traditional chapter format, my memoir is comprised of 132 vignettes. By shortening the pieces, the writing now relies on the power of the images among the vignettes resonating and deepening the emotional impact on the reader.

DL: Was there a success trait you have discerned for the process of writing? That is, are there best practices you would recommend to readers that would facilitate completing her/his memoir? EG.: working on schedule, quitting not being an option, external physical or emotional support from someone, etc.

MR: My only writing experience is in non-fiction. With the lifewriting I have published, the only success trait I can think of is the ability to be fearless and honest. It is absolutely necessary to tell the truth, if only because your readers are smart and will see through you. I read somewhere that “memoir is about the truth of memory, not of history.” It’s not about what happened to us so much as our perception of those events. So our “truth” may be very different from that of others, and that’s all right. One of my early writing teachers told me to dig deep, as though I were hoping to reach China. It can be painful; it’s not for the faint of heart. But the rewards are magnificent. Writing has always been the best form of therapy for me.

DL: How have you dealt with self-doubt?

MR: Self-doubt is part of my life, but I’m glad I’ve let go of the arrogance of youth that had me barreling ahead with my plans, ignoring the advice of others, thinking my way was the best way. This can be applied to us as writers. If I felt that other people (editors) didn’t know anything and that I was the best judge of my own writing, my books would not be as successful. I am deeply indebted to all of my editors who have helped me shape both of my books. I don’t know how writers can manage without good editors. I am, above all, more humble and teachable than ever. There is so much that I have to learn, both as a writer and a human being.

DL: What makes for a successful memoir? Do you feel your memoir was a success?

MR: I’m carrying my message to others, showing on the page how I’m recovering from substance use disorder. I have done this by highlighting certain incidents in my life that shaped my self-concept and made me vulnerable to this illness: in my youth, in middle age, and in recent years. If other women can relate to my story and consider my solutions, then I’m making a difference with them, assuring them that there is a better way to deal with sorrows than by self-destructing. Because of the responses I’ve received, I feel that my journey in self-discovery and healing—which is the essence of this memoir—has been successful.

Also, an objective measure of the book’s success is that it was recognized as a Finalist in th2 2020 International Book Awards. I’ve received some terrific  reviews, as well.

DL: How do you recommend people deal with sensitive material that relatives might take offense at?

MR: I used a pen name with my first memoir, and I changed the names of several characters, most importantly my daughter’s. That book was a harrowing journey through the hell of her substance use disorder—from methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin—and I left nothing to the imagination as I detailed her life under the influence of drugs. By changing her name (and mine), I wanted to protect her from such candid exposure. There were some honest details of my life growing up, as well, that my siblings are unable to discuss openly. I changed their names, too; I was being cautious. The possibility of lawsuits, fortunately, was not a fear of mine. But it is a real fear in the lives of many others where anger and open conflict within the family are present. Protect yourself by any means possible; the legal department of your publisher can help.

This sequel  memoir, however, focuses mostly on me. There was less need to protect others, and I didn’t care about exposing myself. My parents are both dead. The little exposure of my siblings is compassionate and hopeful. My daughter, too, is viewed with compassion and understanding that she is a victim of a cruel illness—substance use disorder—and not a flagrantly immoral human being. At the end of the day, the only villain in both my memoirs is the family disease of substance use disorder, which I make clear in Stepping Stones.

In the next issue of the Memoir Writer’s blog, we will run the conclusion of this interview.

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