Yesterday, I attended the “Crafting of a Memoir” workshop facilitated by author Sue Williams at the University of Guelph. An occupational therapist with over thirty years of experience, Sue has written a memoir, Ready to Come About, the story of a mother’s sailing adventure on the high seas.
For most of Sue’s life, fibre arts (appliqué) was her primary creative outlet. In her fifties, she experienced a perfect storm of personal events, among them her husband’s health crisis and his sudden job loss, her sons’ tumultuous road to adulthood, and her struggle as a parent to let go.
Sue decided to help her husband realize his dream to cross an ocean. Together, they set sail for the North Atlantic. Toward the end of their journey, Sue realized she had a story to tell, one filled with drama, plot, emotion, and interesting people.
At yesterday’s meetup, Sue shared anecdotes and insights from her life-changing trip and advice about the memoir-writing process. A short Q & A period followed.
Here are eight nuggets that captured my interest:
• Take note of the difference between narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Biographies and autobiographies are written using narrative nonfiction. This approach is fact-based and includes more telling. Creative nonfiction involves many of the elements—plot, imagery, setting, dialogue—used in novel writing. The writer can also inject personal thoughts, feelings, or opinions into the manuscript. This approach is recommended for memoir writing.
• Write from your real self, not how you would like others to see you. Include your strengths and insecurities. You must be believable if you want readers to relate to your story.
• At the editing stage, ask yourself: “Does it matter?” Sue took 30K words out of the first draft.
• Don’t repeat the same story twice. In the first draft, Sue shared details of all the storms encountered. After receiving input from a beta reader, Sue decided to limit herself to one “storm” story.
• Don’t write as a vanity project. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
• Use a journal if you need to vent about a failed marriage or other crisis. Get rid of the bitterness before writing the memoir.
• Prepare yourself to face the risks involved in writing a memoir. Do the opinions of others concern you? You may tick off the people who appear in your memoir and those who aren’t mentioned.
• Be patient and persistent. After six years and many drafts, Dundurn Publishing released Ready to Come About in May of 2019.
Three hundred nautical miles from shore, I‘m cold and sick and afraid. I pray for reprieve. I long for solid ground. And I can‘t help but ask myself, What the hell was I thinking?
When Sue Williams set sail for the North Atlantic, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis. She had no affinity for the sea. And she didn’t have an adventure-seeking bone in her body.
In the wake of a perfect storm of personal events, it suddenly became clear: her sons were adults now; they needed freedom to figure things out for themselves; she had to get out of their way. And it was now or never for her husband, David, to realize his dream to cross an ocean. So she’d go too.
Ready to Come About is the story of a mother’s improbable adventure on the high seas and her profound journey within, through which she grew to believe that there is no gift more precious than the liberty to chart one’s own course, and that risk is a good thing … sometimes, at least.
Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
All the Wrong Moves by Sasha Chapin
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Swing Low by Miriam Toews
All My Puny Sorrows (a novel based on real life) Miriam Toews
Thanks to Karen Ralph and Vocamus Press for organizing this event.