The day I unsealed the small white box that held the galley copy of my memoir, I was thankful I had the foresight to ask my husband to capture the moment. “That’s a moment you can never get back,” an author friend told me when she saw the video posted on social media.
Now that my memoir, Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism is actually beginning to look like a book, the several years of hard work is about to emerge as a fully developed writing project. I am not new to writing. I was a journalist, a newspaper writer and editor at seven daily newspapers over a span of more than four decades.
Now many people are asking me about my non-fiction writing journey. I plan to share some of my journey to help others reach their writing goals. (See tips below.)
Some who know of my work before this memoir are themselves interested in telling their own stories, whether their story is recovering from a serious illness, grieving the loss of a loved one, overcoming some kind of life-altering tragedy or chronicling a fabulous career despite the obstacles thrown in their way. In my case, the obstacles came early in life. As an African American who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during the era of Jim Crow laws, my family and I were among those victimized by the systematic restrictions of substandard education, restricted job opportunities, ghettoized neighborhoods and social segregation in every aspect of our lives.
Yet, despite my early legally restricted start in life and seeing no role models who looked like the people in my circles of family and friends, I dared to become a newspaperwoman, someone who would grow up to tell stories. It was a career that began for me in high school and college as the top editor of my student publications. By the time I was ready for my first professional newsroom, I was scarred by the vestiges of Jim Crow – shy, introverted, fearful of having conversations across racial lines, and always watching my back to be sure it was okay to go to certain public places like parks, movie theaters, libraries and restaurants.
When I retired from daily newspapers as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama’s capital city in 2013, many people asked me to share some of my life and career stories. Over those decades I had become a top editor in several newsrooms, founded and edited magazines, taught courses on university campuses, launched a program to teach journalism at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and I was a sought-after public speaker on topics of journalism, diversity and leadership.
I reached out to my author friend, the one who admired the recording of my memoir galley unveiling. Tina McElroy Ansa, herself a noted author of five novels and a journalist, was my freshman year roommate at Spelman College in Atlanta. As I approached retirement, Tina encouraged me to write a memoir. No, she did more than encourage me. As I say in the acknowledgements of my memoir, “Along the way of this book, she held my heart in her hands and gently led me through the process of writing, and she didn’t give up on me when life got in the way.”
And life did get in the way. Immediately after I retired from the newsroom I was invited to become the academic chair of the mass communications program at Savannah State University in my hometown. That was a good thing. But as a “new” person in town, I took on way too many volunteer leadership opportunities, which left me little time to think about the path toward writing the memoir. I had to learn how to say “no” to requests of my time. My husband encountered a debilitating disability that required me to become loving a caretaker. And a couple of surgeries slowed my physical steps but not my desire to write.
Yet, I managed to plunge forward and complete the manuscript that is now about to be presented to the universe of readers of non-fiction. In early 2020 my memoir will be in bookstores, and with the publication I look forward to invitations to talk about Coming Full Circle and my journey toward becoming a memoir writer.
Here are some tips for memoir success, gleaned from my own experience.
- Save everything! Devise your own system of filing away documents such as speeches, articles by you and about you, printed programs (even those from your early school years), report cards, family photographs, funeral programs, medical records, books about your writing topic, journals, awards and certificates, professional letters of commendation, military records and just about anything else that you can think of that might enhance your memory.
- Save or download relevant online resources such as articles, videos, podcasts, etc., so you can review them later. Don’t expect that everything online will always be there or easy to find later.
- The Internet can be a great tool for research, but remember to check every fact you find in at least three places to be sure your online sources are correct.
- Join one of the several online ancestry sites so you can do research on your family’s history. Even if your memoir is only about you, it helps to learn more about your ancestral heritage to help you write about your own place in the world.
- Read lots of books pertaining to your memoir’s topic. Also read well-received or popular memoirs to get the hang of the way others write their stories.
- Use your public library to research articles that might have information and statistics to help put your own life and memoir topic into perspective.
- Interview friends, family members, topic experts and others to get their perspectives about what happened on your journey. Sometimes what’s in your head might need help with developing a more accurate picture of your life experience.
- Make an outline of your book, even though the outline may change later. This will help you focus on your topic and keep your memoir on target. Avoid the temptation to tell every single aspect of your life. Stay in the lane of your topic.
- Find a safe zone for thinking and writing, a place where you will not only be productive but a space where you can safely store and reach for all of the documents you have saved.
- If possible, join a group (face-to-face or by phone) of memoir writers, or just writers in general so you can bounce ideas and share resources and experiences.