Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat is open to writers of all experience levels. Some attendees will be “emerging writers” at the beginnings of their exploration of how to bring their lives to the page. Others will bring much experience with writing and publishing to the retreat.
I wanted to highlight Wild Mountain Retreat participant Jen Singer today because I think she models a lifelong-learner approach to her development as a writer. An author of five books, including the Stop Second-Guessing Yourself guides to parenting, Jen is the editor-in-chief of two web sites: MommaSaid.net and ParentingWithCancer.com. She writes about parenting, health and more for such publications as Parenting, Newsweek, the New York Times, Redbook, PBS Next Avenue, Living with Cancer and more. She is writing a new ebook series, “If Momma Ain’t Happy.”
For years Jen has been using her personal stories in her books, articles, and blog posts, and now she’s interested in the craft of writing a full-length memoir that goes beyond her own story of “the bad thing that happened to me” to highlight the universal experience in her personal one.
You can learn more about Jen and her interest in memoir in the interview below.
Theo Pauline Nestor: Tell us a little about the memoir you started a couple years ago.
Jen Singer: I wrote a memoir called, If Cancer is a Gift, Where Can I Return it? to sort through my experience of nearly leaving my children motherless from Stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007. I sorted through it alright, but that’s about it. In fact, the title could be, “This is the Bad Thing that Happened to Me.”
My friend Joni Rodgers, bestselling memoirist and ghostwriter, read through it – or parts of it – and showed me that it lacked scenes. I had written it like an 80,000-word essay or, dare I say, blog post, when it needed to be something else entirely, something with a story arc, not just a chronologically accounting of chemo and fear.
Part of the problem was that I wrote it too soon after the traumatic event. I wasn’t even two years in remission, and I wasn’t sure yet what it all meant. Worse, my Aunt Nancy was dying of a rare cancer, and it was heart-wrenching to write about and deal with cancer at once.
During treatments, I had had a pain in my chest where the six-inch tumor was, and, right when I was writing the memoir, it returned. I then spent a year of scans, tests and pain doctors getting nowhere, until finally, I decided something had to change or I’d always get sick.
I started two unique therapies: myofascial release, which is like a specialized massage, and Focusing, which helped me figure out the emotional issues that were manifesting as physical pain. I realized that I’d long had a hypervigilant hamster wheel of sorts running in my chest, so it’s no wonder I wound up with a tumor the size of a hamster wheel in my left lung. Since then, I’ve done the hard and unpopular work of making the changes that the cancer should have brought about, including a divorce.
Maybe someday I’ll pick up the memoir again. At least I have a record of the bad thing that happened to me, because I wouldn’t remember such details now that I’m five years in remission.
Nestor: What qualities do you admire in a memoir? Examples?
Singer: I love memoirs that have a universal appeal and an unwavering truth. For instance, I’ve never been a homeless child, but “The Glass Castle” appealed to me, because I’m a mother. As I read the book, I worried about author Jeannette Walls, even though I knew she grew up fine. Plus, her writing is exquisite.
I think memoirs should be honest without being sensational, and humorous where possible. Joni Rodgers wrote with great humor in “Bald in the Land of Big Hair,” which I read long before I had cancer. Her humor made a tough subject go down more smoothly.
Nestor: What do you hope to get out of attending Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat?
Singer: I hope to soak in the brilliance of the speakers and walk away with clear steps on how to write a really good memoir. I’m also looking forward to meeting other writers and authors at a venue that’s not all business cards and “working the room,” but also a place to share thoughts and ideas with other creative types who, like me, have no clue what to wear there.
Nestor: How does memoir writing fit in with the bigger picture of your career?
Singer: I am editing a memoir for a first-time author (with plenty of scenes!) and I’d like to write more of them, especially my own. To me, writing is about validating people’s emotions and making them feel less alone, and memoir is among the best genres in which to do that.