Inspired by Sue Williams

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.

Sue’s Backstory

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.

Blurb

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.

Amazon (Canada) | Amazon (US) | Indigo | Dundurn Publishing

Memoirs Mentioned

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.


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Spotlight on The Road to Reality

I’m happy to welcome author and producer Dianne Burnett. Today, Dianne shares her inspiring memoir, The Road to Reality.

Blurb

Get ready to laugh. Get ready to cry. Get ready for a whirlwind of an adventure. Settle in for a powerful, poignant story of inner strength and courage-and get a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the making of Survivor, the world’s most popular reality show.

Spinning their mutual love of exotic adventure into gold, Dianne Burnett and her former husband, TV producer Mark Burnett, co-created Eco-Challenge, an expedition-length racing event televised on Discovery Channel that catapulted them into the arena of reality TV and set the stage for Survivor-a modern-day Robinson Crusoe with a million-dollar prize. But Dianne and Mark’s fairytale marriage did not survive their Hollywood success . . . she found herself left behind, her contributions unrecognized. She lost her partner in life and began to lose her identity. In that experience, she found an opportunity to grow.

A fascinating, fast-paced, heart-warming “page-turner,” The Road to Reality takes readers on a roller-coaster ride-complete with a zesty romance, as well as the ups and downs of going for your dreams-while it imparts the lessons learned as Dianne discovers what really matters in life is something beyond fortune and fame.

Excerpt

What I learned writing The Road to Reality

I couldn’t be quiet anymore. That would have been the polite thing to do; zipping it was the societally-preferred course of action. Just smile and take it. For years I did just that.

We do, after all, have two wonderful sons. I didn’t want them to feel torn in what was happening between me and my husband, Mark Burnett. I smiled at dinner parties, showing up with guy friends, explaining my husband was “on location” with Survivor or attending another awards dinner in New York. I explained to the boys that Daddy had a new clubhouse where they could play and where he could work.

The impact of an absent husband no longer living at home, however, sent my world into new orbit. I went from “Does not compute” to the realization I had to find my own path again. The one I’d been on before I met Mark—who, like me, came from a modest background, but who took me gallivanting around the world–the handsome Brit with whom I had a synergy and shared a belief that we were unstoppable. And we were.

We had no background in doing what we were doing, no fancy degrees, no connections. We had nothing but sheer will, and the willingness to research, put together proposals and run through our pitches again and again. But we did it—first with Eco-Challenge, the world’s premiere endurance-adventure race. And then with the idea for a TV show, that was a modern-day Robin Crusoe story. I gave the name to the program that would catapult reality TV into new directions. “Survivor.” And my handsome hubby finessed the concept, developed it, and pitched it.

Nobody bit. Ever single network gave it a red light. But Mark kept honing his pitches and I kept coaching him and encouraging him—“Honey, I know it will fly!”

And it did.

But winning at the lottery machine of life destroyed our marriage. Nobody preps you for success, for the way your credit cards suddenly don’t have limits, and you cause a sensation walking into a room. We went from “aspiring” to “golden” in six months time. And after another year, the union that had defined me for over a decade was seriously unraveling.

The truth is I didn’t know my marriage was effectively over until radio host Howard Stern announced it to the 18-34 male listening demographic. As calls came flooding in from friends asking if Mark and I were divorcing I took it calmly, still believing we’d get back together, that our trial separation wasn’t permanent. But then, as another year, then another went by, with Mark and I both dating other people, I understood that I had to get back on my own road. I didn’t want to be defined by my relationships any more. I wanted to have my own life again.

It wasn’t easy. At first, I felt like Chevy Chase in Vacation, caught on the roundabout, trying to forge my own way, trying to find my road again. I could see where I wanted to be but I wasn’t yet there. Writing this book proved to be the ideal exit.

I began writing it when I realized that I couldn’t get to where I was going until I understood where I’d been. So I went back and traveled my past, back to Commack, Long Island and the talent shows we put on at the swimming pools, back when I dreamed of entering showbiz. I relived my life discovering a tale of making one own way, with a love story at the heart, and a lot of adventure in between.

I understood finally that it wasn’t the destination that mattered, it’s the journey. And as I wrote the last words of The Road to Reality on a balmy, palm-breezy evening in the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, I turned off the computer, walked into the night and felt like at last I’d found my road again.

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Author Bio and Links

Dianne Burnett is an author, producer, and actor of stage and screen. She is also a philanthropist and entrepreneur. Dianne and her ex-husband, Mark Burnett, joined their creative forces to invent Eco-Challenge, the impetus for Survivor, which kickstarted America’s reality-television show craze and went on to become the longest-running and most lucrative reality TV series of all time.

Following the success of Survivor, Dianne produced and acted in the stage play Beyond Therapy at the Santa Monica Playhouse, served as Executive Producer of the indie film Jam (which won Best Narrative Feature at the Santa Fe Film Festival), and acted in Everybody Loves Raymond. In memory of her mother, Joan, who lost her battle with esophageal cancer in 2010, Dianne formed Joan Valentine—A Foundation for Natural Cures, a nonprofit organization that serves as a resource for those seeking alternatives to traditional medicine.

She also recently launched a multimedia platform and social network: called theotherside.com, it explores alternative views on everything from relationships to health. Formerly of New York, Dianne now lives in Malibu, California, with her family.

Website | Facebook

All the elements are there—romance, adventure, betrayal, divorce—set against the backdrop of the world’s most exotic locales. The storyline alternates between the author’s childhood and adolescence on Long Island, New York and her globe-trotting adventures with television powerhouse Mark Burnett. An excellent storyteller, Dianne Burnett has provided an honest, often heart-wrenching, account of a fairytale marriage that didn’t survive the success and acclaim of the world’s most popular reality show. Intertwined with the narrative are the lessons and wisdom acquired on this extraordinary journey.

Definitely a survivor’s tale!

Giveaway

Dianne Burnett will award a $50 Amazon/Barnes & Noble gift card to a lucky winner via Rafflecopter. Find out more here.

Follow Dianne on the rest of her Goddess Fish tour here.


Inspired by Dr. Ross Pennie

This past Saturday, I attended the “Writing Your Life & Other Personal Stories” workshop facilitated by Brian Henry in Guelph. A book editor and professor, Brian teaches creative writing at Ryerson University in Toronto and has led workshops everywhere from Boston to Buffalo and from Sarnia to Saint John. You can find out more about Brian here.

In the morning session, Brian shared tips and techniques for writing creative non-fiction. In the afternoon, one of his star students—Dr. Ross Pennie—shared his fascinating writing journey.

A bit of history…

In 1977, at the age of twenty-five, Dr. Pennie set off for a two-year posting at a Catholic Mission on a remote island in the South Pacific. He spent his days dealing with tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases. Evenings, he would read, write letters and update his diary.

At the end of his posting, he returned to Canada and spent the next twenty years working as an infectious-disease specialist and daydreaming about writing his memoirs.

Finally, he took action and signed up for creative writing courses and workshops. He also analyzed other memoirs, read books on writers’ craft, and joined a writing group. It took him two and a half years to complete The Unforgiving Tides, which was released in 2004.

The logline is a tantalizing one: A young doctor encounters mud, medicine, and magic on a remote South Pacific Island.

He then tried his hand at fiction and wrote the well-received Dr. Zol Szabo medical mysteries. The first of these, Tainted, came out in 2010 and won the Arts Hamilton Literary Award for Fiction. He followed up with three more medical mysteries: Tampered, Up in Smoke, and Beneath the Wake.

After 39 years of working as an intensive-care pediatrician and infectious-diseases specialist at McMaster and Brantford General Hospital, Ross retired.

But he is not retired from writing.

In a 2017 interview with Hamilton News, he shared his love of the creative process: “I love spending time with the characters. They seem very real … it’s almost as though they live with us. I also find writing meditative. I enjoy being on my own, so there is a meditative and reflective aspect to it.”

At Saturday’s workshop, Ross shared practical advice about the memoir process.

Here are ten nuggets that resonated with me:

• Dribble the dry facts gradually into your story so that any one page is not filled with a laundry list of details. Do not confuse the reader with too many characters and too much technical jargon.

• Keep the narrator humble, vulnerable, embarrassed, noble, quirky, smart, but never arrogant.

• Leave yourself open to memories that bubble up unexpectedly.

• Exaggerate your deficiencies. (You will probably be telling it like it is!)

• Imagine that your mother and Grade 8 teacher are never going to read your memoir. This leaves you free to add healthy naughtiness. Some examples of healthy naughtiness include embarrassing situations, swear words, family secrets, petty criminal acts, and sexual encounters.

• Break grammar rules with pizzaz. But first, learn the grammar rules.

• Show the action and dialogue up close. Don’t just talk about it from a distance.

• Punctuate your stories with newsworthy events. Make a dated list of earth-shattering events that occurred during the period of the memoir such as wars, elections, assassinations, and natural disasters. Include some of these events in the memoir.

• Write frankly without bitterness.

• And most important of all … Persistence Writes the Memoir.

Find more about Dr. Ross Pennie here.