Last week I posted a review of Libby Atwater’s memoir, What Lies Within. Today I offer this interview with Libby, one of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians, of which she has been a member since 1997. We served together on the association’s board in 2007-2008.
Sarah: So many personal historians never get around to writing our own stories, but you did! How did that came about?
Libby: At the end of 2003 an APH member named Laurie North sent an email asking if anyone was interested in forming a memoir writing group. She offered to head it and give a monthly assignment. I joined along with several others, who are listed in the acknowledgments in What Lies Within.
First we had to write about a holiday, so I wrote “A Memorable December,” which became the first chapter in my book, “An Unknown Uncle.” It evolved many, many times since that first draft in 2003.
Each month we got assignments, such as to write about your mother, your father, best friends, neighbors, or turning points.
Sarah: Do you think she chose the topics so that they would add up to a book and weren’t just anecdotes?
Libby: No. I think she was just trying to get people to start writing. Over time the others slowly dropped out but I continued. Then in September 2004, nine months after I started the book, I met my birth family. I wrote a piece about that which is in the APH anthology. I stopped writing for a while because I was overwhelmed by all these new people in my life. I’m not sure when I went back to my book, but I began picking up pieces between client projects.
Sarah: It sounds like you got going with group work, continued with solo work, and then sought one-on-one feedback.
Libby: Actually, a friend was attending a “Writing your Personal History” class at Santa Barbara City College and invited me to join her in 2007. I started going to class with her and the teacher, Ann Lowenkopf was amazing, but I had to produce. As long as I had a deadline, I wrote.
I continued until 2009, when I had some health issues to deal with and stopped going to class. But I was motivated to complete my book and even took it with me on a laptop when Don and I traveled. While he attended meetings, I worked on my book.
I went back to the class toward the end of 2010, but sadly, our teacher died shortly after that. However, I had enough material and enough prodding from my husband and friends that I finished writing this book on June 29th, 2012. I was really, really happy. Then I realized I needed to find an editor!
Sue Hessel from APH called and said, “I’ll read it for you.” After that, Pam Daugavietis and Deb Moore wanted to read it. Paula Stahel also read parts of it and sent me comments. My book designer asked to read it, and then we began laying out the book. I would recommend to anyone who writes a book to get a good copyedit before doing the layout. By that time, I’d had so much feedback that I asked Rae Jean Sielen of Populore to proof the final draft of the layout, which she kindly reviewed.
Sarah: I think it’s lovely. I like the bigger page because it gives your photos room to breathe. When I create books at the 6×9 paperback size, I feel like I’m always short-changing the photos.
Libby: The size allowed me to use a larger font, which is easier to read. When you use a 6×9 size, you really have to limit your font size.
Sarah: I’d like to ask you about your organizing and sequencing decisions.
Libby: I wrote the most important stories—which contained the darkest material—first. Then I looked at what I’d written and said, “What’s missing?” Writing the dark material, was very challenging. There were days when I would come away from the word processor and be really down. Then I wanted to write the stories about the happy days of my youth. Those actually seemed harder to write, but I felt it was important that the book begin with the happy days, descend into the dark material, and end looking forward to a brighter future. I didn’t want to write one of those books where people say, “Oh, I feel awful” after they finish it.
Sarah: I think anybody who is in a writing group will ask about sequencing. Most can place events in chronological sequence, but does that really work? How did you transition from pieces that are written as one-offs to pieces that work as a whole in a memoir?
Libby: I had a real challenge with sequencing, especially with the early material because there were a lot of backstories. I kept shuffling and reshuffling the chapters until I got the sequence right based on chronology. I must also thank Mary Harrison who suggested organizing a book on turning points in an APH listserv post. She was so influential, and I don’t think she knows it. My sequel will be organized around turning points, too.
Sarah: You allow yourself to break out of chronology both forward and backward when it helps the story makes sense in its own context. I generally got the sense that you moved forward through time, but the narrative wasn’t a slave to the calendar either.
Sarah: Let’s talk a bit about what it’s like to write your sad or difficult life experiences. There are two parts to that question. One is, “Can I tell this story? Who would be upset with me?” The other half of the question is how do you keep yourself safe, emotionally, when writing about difficult experiences? Let’s start with the first.
Libby: I was concerned about what Blanche would think, only I don’t know where she is.
Sarah: Blanche, your older sister, was also adopted and had behavioral problems and maybe mental problems, too. She broke your collarbone, as I recall. Yours was definitely a difficult relationship.
Libby: I have attempted over the past few years to find her, but she does not want to be found. The running joke in this household has been, “Wait until Blanche reads the book. She’ll come out of the woodwork and kill me.” But there’s nothing untrue, and we don’t even know if she’s alive. Other family members, such as my cousins Neil and Marty, absolutely love the book. They will come in to more play in the second book because we had this 30-year absence. I didn’t see them from the time I was 4 until I was 34.
Sarah: Did you show them parts of it before you published it?
Libby: Yes. Marty and his wife read the early chapters because he was in them. He made a few corrections and provided new information. Marty said I nailed it with Blanche. I did not want our relationship to be all black or all white or to sound angry. That was a tough balancing act.
Sarah: What came through are the complications that mental illness and other disabilities create. At the time there were no diagnoses and no real professional help. To me this aspect conveys the setting and the social history of your personal story. This is what it was like for people who had to deal with children and adolescents with mental illness.
Libby: There was also the whole “nature versus nurture” aspect, because we were both adopted but from different families.
Sarah: These stories could bring shame to people who are still alive, if we still cared about community opinion as people did in the ’60s. One of the real changes in today’s world is that shame does not drive behavior as it did years ago. Maybe we’ve become too confessional?
Libby: When I grew up, people did not discuss their problems. This book really is a tribute to my mother Ruth and the fact that she gave me such a good loving secure basis for maturing. (I don’t think she’d approve of it.) My uncle carried on that love. My father was a loving kind person, but he had his own demons.
Sarah: And again, you don’t seem angry or judgmental, simply showed the effects of his behavior on the family and your financial situation. You’ve given us a good example that you can write these difficult stories with respect for the people who deserve respect and compassion for the people whose behavior doesn’t earn any respect.
Let’s move to the second part of the question. When you finish your writing session and you feel really sad and down, what do you do to keep yourself motivated? Did you develop any rituals or habits that helped you stay emotionally safe?
Libby: I walked the dogs, which is very therapeutic and had some sessions with a therapist, too, because it’s really hard to write this stuff.
When I’m writing about dark things or going through difficult times, I find diversions like funny books. Someone introduced me to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum stories. These books were completely opposite to my writing and helped me escape.
Also, I was working with a client who had an amazing life, and I enjoyed hearing her stories. She and her sister recorded their 1948 trip to Europe in 2008, when they were in their early 80s. Mark Edwards helped me create a CD with tracks and photos. To hear these two sisters giggling and telling their stories really made me smile. When I felt down, I put their CD on.
Sarah: Escaping into other stories is certainly a good tip. One last question: what do you hope your book does for other people?
Libby: I wrote the book was for myself—for life review and reminiscence. I also wrote the book to show people that you can overcome great adversity and still lead a normal life. It helps to have good people enter your life who inspire and encourage you. I was certainly lucky that my uncle and then Don came into my life. Without the two of them, I don’t think I would have been successful. I hope that others realize they can overcome serious losses and obstacles and still lead good productive lives.
Sarah: You must feel tremendous satisfaction in having your book done and knowing that it’s out there. Anywhere that you’re shining a light on a path that other people are walking, you’re going to find eager readers. I wish you and your book all the best!
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To buy the Kindle version of What Lies Within on Amazon, click here.
To order the print edition, click here.