A few years ago, Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat participant Wendy Staley Colbert left a corporate position to pursue her dream of writing. Transforming experiences of loss into poignant personal essays, Colbert has been recently published on Salon, Whole Life Times, ParentMap, This Great Society, Writing in Public, Feel More Better and Writing Is My Drink and in the anthologies We Came to Say and We Came Back to Say.
Theo Pauline Nestor: How did you get started writing memoir?
Wendy Staley Colbert: When I was a teenager, I remember telling my parents I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t feel I had enough life experience yet. I took the practical route. I majored in journalism, wrote for my college newspaper and magazine, and found I enjoyed writing personal profiles best. (I interviewed a sculptor, a male stripper, and a halfway house owner, among others.)
I graduated and went to work for a corporation. Then 9/11 and some difficult personal events occurred, spurring me back to pursuing my passion. I completed a couple of certificate programs at the University of Washington, first in Literary Fiction, then Memoir. (I tried fictionalizing my stories, but didn’t find that as satisfying.)
TPN: You’ve had a number of publications in the last year. Do you have a strategy for developing essays and getting them into print (or online)? How has it felt to have these personal stories come out into the world?
WSC: I try to keep my essays short (around 2,000 words) and the scope tight. I track where each essay is in the revision process – whether both of my writers’ groups have reviewed it. I spend hours researching potential publications, and have created a spreadsheet where I track each of my essays along with the publications I’m targeting, including audience size, whether simultaneous submissions are accepted, pay rate, turnaround time, date submitted, date accepted/rejected, etc.
I think about timeliness and newsworthiness when submitting. (For example, I submit breast cancer pieces in September, just prior to Breast Cancer Awareness month, when online publications are most likely to be hungry for that type of content).
It feels great to see my stories published. I enjoy making sense of life events by turning them into a form of art (imperfect as it may be).
TPN: What are you working on now?
WSC: I’m actively submitting an essay I just completed about a difficult situation – giving birth to a stillborn baby. I’ve drafted a few other essays that I’m in the process of revising. And I’ve got a couple of ideas for book-length memoirs. I’m beginning to work on a book proposal.
TPN: What are some of your favorite memoirs? Favorite writers?
WSC: I love The Year of Magical Thinking, The Memory Palace, The Boy in the Moon, Just Kids, and What Disturbs Our Blood. Some of my favorite writers are Joan Didion, Ian Brown, James Fitzgerald, Phillip Lopate. I’m discovering new favorites all the time, through magazines like Ploughshares, Creative Nonfiction, and Narrative.