I work with many memoir writers (and am one myself) and I know that we have things to say that may help other aspiring memoirists. Every month I feature excerpts from my interviews with those who have written and published a memoir, and here’s the next one.
This month my interview is with Teresa Rhyne, author of The Dog Lived (and So Will I) to be published next month, October 2012. You can buy this book online at Teresa’s website, www.teresarhyne.com or Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
The Dog Lived (and So Will I) is an uplifting, charming and often mischievous story of the relationship between the author and her dog Seamus, including his diagnosis of cancer and her dedication to healing him, followed by her own cancer diagnosis. Teresa’s story shows how dogs come into our lives for a reason, how they steal our hearts, show us how to live, and teach us how to love.
Q: Why was it important for you to write your memoir? (ie, leave a legacy to your descendants; educate, enlighten, or inspire others in similar situations; heal your emotional wounds; entertain; make money; etc.)
Teresa: When my dog was diagnosed with cancer and I was given such a grim prognosis for him, I immediately started researching and reading trying to find out more about his particular cancer and possible treatments. In other words, I was trying to find hope. There was little I could find. Much the same happened when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There are plenty of human cancer memoirs out there, but I only found one or two that really spoke to me and helped me find my way. I wanted to write Seamus’ story and mine because of the hope it offers for anyone going through a difficult and perhaps hopeless-seeming time. And yes, it was also good therapy for me!
Q: What was the most challenging part of your memoir to write? Why?
Teresa: I found writing about myself, particularly the more emotional parts, most difficult. It was much easier, on one level, to tell my dog’s story—because I happen to think he’s wildly adorable and everyone should feel for him. But when it came to writing about my battle with cancer, I struggled with not wanting to come across as needy, or pathetic, or overly-dramatic. I had to get out of my own way and just write what happened and how I felt. It was however also very difficult to relive the diagnosis and prognosis stage of my beagle’s cancer, because it was such a terrible time in my life for many reasons. It’s painful to scratch off those scabs.
Q: What part of writing your memoir came easiest to you? Why?
Teresa: Writing the funny anecdotes about my dog and my boyfriend came the easiest, simply because I love the stories and I loved reminiscing. I also find writing the funny parts much easier than writing the darker moments because humor is how I deal with most everything. It’s a much more natural voice for me.
Q: How long did it take you to write your memoir? Did you write every day?
Teresa: My memoir started as a blog, in January of 2009 shortly after my own cancer diagnosis. After that I was blogging daily. I didn’t start writing it as a memoir until that summer. After I had a rough draft of the first half of the book, I learned that non-fiction requires a proposal, not a finished memoir. So I turned my attention to the proposal and then the agent search. After the proposal got me an agent, I diligently went to work on more chapters, but also was revising the proposal. I signed with my publisher in October, 2011 and wrote like a mad woman until my due date for the completed manuscript—January 4, 2012.
I don’t write every day. I wish I did, but I’m a full-time lawyer with my own law practice, so that’s a tough one. I write on weekends, sometimes in the evenings during the week, and I take week-long writing retreat vacations as often as possible. In the last few months before my manuscript was due, I did indeed write every day.
Q: What is your favorite memoir, other than your own? Why?
Teresa: It’s difficult to choose. One that quickly came to mind is Cheap Cabernet: A Friendship by Cathie Beck. It resonated with me in so many ways, but particularly relating to a close friend I had had a falling out with and recently renewed the friendship in a much healthier way. When I was in breast cancer treatment I was devoted to Cancer Vixen by Marissa Acocella Marchetta and I still keep it on my bookshelves (many other “cancer books” were donated to a local breast cancer resource center). I loved how she dealt with the whole experience with such humor but at the same time was brutally honest. She let me know what to expect in a way that was approachable and not frightening (well, not too frightening). Ironically, though I love them all, I have a hard time reading dog memoirs because that is the one time I will cry like a hysterical newborn—I can’t handle dogs being injured or dying. That’s actually why my memoir has the title it has—so wimps like me will know up front that the dog lives! I did love The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery. In fact, I loved it so much I queried her agent, Sarah Jane Freymann…and that’s who I ended up with as well.
Q: Which element do you think is most important in a memoir – setting of time and place; underlying theme or focus; storytelling plot; characterization? Why?
Teresa: I think voice is the most important. Memoir is so intensely personal that if the voice doesn’t come through, it’s not going to sound authentic. I believe that’s why I struggled so much with the more emotional parts of my memoir—I’m not a person who cries easily; I’m very low drama, very logical, and in fact unemotional. So I had to find a way to convey the drama and pain that was occurring while still being true to my voice and my character. I kept hearing from my beta readers “where’s the emotion?” And I heard that as “you need to cry.” But since I never did cry throughout my cancer odyssey, it seemed inauthentic to have my “character” crying or carrying on outwardly. Eventually a beta reader said “I don’t need to see you cry. I need to understand why you are not crying.” That one piece of advice made all the difference. The story had to be told in my authentic voice and it had to be honest.
Teresa has more interesting things to say about the process of writing a memoir, so Part 2 of her interview will be next month. I hope you’ll check back. And I hope you buy her book! (I too am a sucker for dog books – after all, I wrote one myself.)