From Idea to Publication: Rhonda Wiley-Jones on Her Memoir Project

This is a special edition article from Writing It ReaL:  WHEN MEMBER RHONDA WILEY-JONES PUBLISHED HER TRAVEL/COMING-OF-AGE MEMOIR, PARTS OF WHICH SHE HAD WORKED ON THROUGH WRITING IT REAL CONTESTS AND EDITORIAL HELP, I WAS EAGER TO HEAR WHAT SHE’D LEARNED IN HER PROCESS OF MOVING FROM THE INITIAL ESSAYS TO A BOOK-LENGTH MANUSCRIPT. WHAT FOLLOWS ARE HER INTERESTING AND THOUGHTFUL REPLIES TO THE QUESTIONS I POSED CONCERNING WRITING, PUBLISHING AND NOW PROMOTING AT HOME IN THE WORLD: TRAVEL STORIES OF GROWING UP AND GROWING AWAY.

When did you get the idea for your book?
In 2009, when I arrived back home from a month’s trip to Mexico with my husband. We had met a woman who had written a book of letters home from a trip to Italy. I read it and thought, I can write as well as that—plus the book had more grammatical and spelling mistakes than I expected in a published book. (And she had not self-published!)

During the same month of my return from Mexico, I checked out Frances Mayes’ book, A Year in the World: The Journeys of a Passionate Traveller from the library. I envy Mayes’ writing and enjoy her stories. But this book didn’t hang together for me, because it constituted travel that had extended over five years so her title, A Year in the World felt forced. Travel memoirs and women’s stories kept my reading stack high, and again I thought, I could write as good or better.

I had grown up in a stable, rural Arkansas home, but had unusual travel peppered throughout my teens, because of my involvement with my church. As a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, I pulled a backpack on and traveled alone to the United Kingdom and Ireland. When I married, I continued to collect unusual international experiences through his work. I had a story to tell—albeit, a long story.

Did you have a particular audience you wanted to serve?
I wanted my four young nieces, ages twelve to nineteen at the time, to read the story. I wanted them to see a model of living independently and without a man. I hoped they would realize they could make their life story happen. And finally, I wanted to motivate them to see the world, expand their own horizons.

Beyond them,  I was not clear about an audience. As the book progressed, the question kept coming up. Still no clear answers. Until recently, I believed my audience tended to be women, until two of my male high school classmates became my best promoters. I also think baby boomers that have traveled tend to be most interested in my book. A potential audience is parents raising teens.

What was your drafting process for the book–individual essays that then seemed to be becoming a book or the desire to write a book and starting it as individual essays that became chapters?
I started with the story that most intrigued me, my trip to the UK. I hopscotched around in sequence of writing my travels. One trip, then another, then another, the last one I wrote would be the most difficult to write emotionally and because I did not have a journal to draw from.

Over time, the book changed shapes. I thought I would write about all my life travels. At one point I reconciled myself to the fact that if I did that, I would never get my book finished. I decided instead to narrow my focus to my travels as a young girl and a single young woman. That was much more manageable.

As I wrote one story after another, I submitted some of them or parts of the chapters to contest. As I got feedback from you, Sheila, and from my writers’ groups, I learned that the stories contained a thread about the role of my mother enabling my travels. So then, I started to focus on my mother’s role in these stories and develop that thread in each chapter.

As time went along, I also realized that another thread in my book was about my relationship to my home church, the denominational organization, and my call to be a missionary. I did not want to write about this. How does one take a rope, I wondered, and pull one thread out of it to emphasize its part in the rope that has hundreds of other threads?

As I read books on writing memoirs and read other people’s memoirs, I came to grips with the fact that I must write about this thread or the memoir would be incomplete or even insincere. I did not, however, want to sound whiny, bitter, or arrogant about needing to leave the church of my youth. I wanted the reader to understand that I realized all the good things that had come from my church experience, as a true believer. I also wanted the reader to grasp that my experiences out in the world had led me to different criteria than the ones for continued involvement with my church. How to convey that would be tricky. It took months of revision and rewriting to come to the place that I felt like the words on the page expressed my true feelings—honestly and nonjudgmentally.

The final realization came about a year before I completed the book. The travel stories could stand alone, but they would make much more sense if the reader had context for each trip. I became convinced that the memoir needed a story arc, as fiction has. That required a way to offer context of my life that led up to each trip and its purpose.

During another year’s vacation time on our Mexican island, I read a book by Jane Juska entitled, The Round-Heeled Woman: My Late Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. The structure of her book proved to be the organization I needed for my book. She told her tales of sex and romance, but also provided chapters surrounding the tales that put them into the context of her life at those points in time. I could now see that my travel stories needed the context of where I was in my life to make sense of how important, how unexpected, how life affirming or challenging each travel trip had been for me. This approach created the story arc that the book needed.

Most of the last year of writing consisted of revising the completed chapters and writing what I came to call my “context” chapters. These provided background of what was going on in my life as a teen, my relationship with my mom, and with my church. They portrayed who I was and what I was becoming.

What did you discover about yourself as you worked on the book, about yourself as a writer, about your writing process and about why you were writing this book?

About myself. I discovered that I wanted to tell my story to help young women and even young men become intentional about the way they live their lives and about the decisions they make. I believe, however, they are not likely to read my stories. Reflection is a force in our lives as we age, not when we are younger.

While writing the chapter on being a Baptist missionary on a college campus in Salt Lake City, I could admit that the responsibility was too great for me. There was a great deal of hurt and discouragement during that year. It took my reflection to realize this.

About myself as a writer. I recognized how much fun I had writing. I enjoyed digging through my old journals and letters home. I reconnected with old friends, asked them to re-remember with me about our time together. I didn’t mind the research about the “times” to ground my stories in what was going on culturally, such as song titles or when Coca Cola introduced canned Coke, or who was college president at the time.

My husband Lynn says that I need recognition for my accomplishments. Since he is almost always right, I suspect he is on target with this assessment of me. However, I want to say that I also love the challenge of accomplishing something that requires substantial time and effort, skill and persistence. Writing is a natural high for me.

About my writing process. I wrote to discover my stories. I wrote, rewrote, cut, rewrote, revised and tried again. Sometimes I didn’t know what the story was about until I had written a different story. As an example, I had crafted the story of my travels to the UK. Then I decided that part of that story would be about me coming to trust Lynn and choosing to marry him while I was in the UK, which in reality I did. I wrote that into the story with great trepidation. When I was done, I knew something was wrong with the insertion of Lynn to the story, but didn’t know what or why. One reader said Lynn had nothing to do with the story I was writing. Then it occurred to me. The story was about independence. If I included my decision to marry Lynn while there, I muddied the story with two themes, experiencing independence and accepting interdependence. I had to leave Lynn out of the story to capture the story of independence in a clean, clear way.

Some people underwrite; while others overwrite. I overwrite. I write more than I need, then return to the work to cut, whittle, and tighten.

About why I was writing the book. I wrote the book because I could and because I thought I had unique stories. Because I had always wanted to write a book and I never had. Because I had the basic skills for writing, which I had done professionally as well. As most writers, I believe, I wanted to make sense of the world—my world. I needed to untangle the threads within the cord or rope of my life and see them as separate, and also as intertwined. Writing this book did that.

What are your “marketing” plans and ideas?
CURRENTLY DONE

  • Sent email announcement directly to family and friends (455 emails)
  • Announced the publication of the book on my Facebook page
  • Developed and used my website to tell more about the book, endorsement of it, me as an author, workshops I can conduct, and how to reach me.
  • Posted the publication news, where and how to purchase the book on my high school and college Facebook sites
  • Placed books in a hometown store at the offer of the owner
  • Developed business cards to hand out to friends and strangers with my logo, along with where to buy book and how to get to my homepage
  • Prepared and sent a press release to my hometown local newspaper; they followed up with an article after the editor interviewed me (I sent a photo).
  • Submitted a proposal to deliver a seminar at Story Circle Network’s annual conference

TO BE DONE

  • Develop a blog on my website that elaborates on traveling
  • Plan and coordinate book signings where I have lived in the past and present (Arkansas, Iowa and now Texas)
  • Give my book to bookstore owners to consider having a book signing
  • Market and conduct travel journal writing workshops more actively
  • Develop and conduct workshop on how to use CreateSpace locally for other writers
  • Contact local university to speak to English or journalism classes about writing and publishing
  • Make a free copy of my next book (due out in December 2013) available to the first person to write a review of my book on Amazon.com.

What would you do differently if you knew what you now know about writing and publishing a book?
There is nothing I can think of that I would have done differently again. I learn by doing. I did what I could as I proceeded.

Tips for others who have a memoir they want to get out into the world
Take your time. Explore the stories within your bigger story. Take your time. Get your story on paper. Realize that writing is rewriting. Take your time. Rethink and revision your story, if needed. Take your time. If you know what to do next, just do it. Don’t hold back from telling the hard parts. Tackle them with enthusiasm or at least persistence. Take courage, the big story will come together someday. Trust your instincts about the story. Own your story; make it yours.

 


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