My Next Big Thing

My first crocheted hat

It’s been awhile since I posted on this blog. I’ve been busy maintaining the DimeStories website, the I WRITE BECAUSE project, teaching a class on Writing Grief, contributing to A Writer’s March, and revising my memoir.  Oh and working for money too as a freelance writer.

I was first tagged for this Next Big Thing thing back in November by the talented  Jean Ryan (author of Survival Skills, forthcoming from Ashland Creek Press April 2013).  It’s been on my To Do list since then…  now my friend Elizabeth Tannen (author of the in-progress Close: A Family Memoir) has tagged me and you know what they say:  2nd time’s a charm!  (or something like that).

And so, I bring you MY Next Big Thing:

What is the working title of the book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea that I even had a book in me came when I attended the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2005. I’d signed up for a beginning memoir class with Greg Martin (author of Mountain City and most recently Stories for Boys). In the welcome letter, Greg asked us to send 15 pages of a “manuscript.” That was when the seed was planted (after the initial panic, of course).

I didn’t know it, but I needed to write this book, and I couldn’t have written it if I hadn’t come to Albuquerque to pursue my MFA in creative writing.

I thought the book was going to be: hero (me) goes on a journey to reconstruct her mother—the mother that died when hero (me) was just 13. By sifting through family memorabilia, interviewing old friends and family, hero (me) gets what she wants– to know her mother as a person and finds some sense of closure.

What the book has turned into instead is an exploration of grief, specifically grief in children, the effects of loss on families, and of course my personal story driving this exploration. The book has become not a journey to reconstruct my mother, but rather a journey to reconstruct myself. These shifts in theme would not have happened had I not come to Albuquerque.

First, the MFA program and specifically working with Greg helped me hone my craft and Greg encouraged me to go into the deep dark places and write. Second, I began volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center as a bereavement group facilitator, an experience that continues to inform my narrative voice, not to mention the person that I am now.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary memoir, specifically grief memoir.

What other book might you compare to RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER within this genre?

I hesitate… there are so many grief memoirs out there which makes it sound like the market is saturated. But really, it’s not. Grief is the one thing we all have in common, and something we will all go through at one point or another and there are so many lenses through which we can write about grief and connect with others who have lost. (I compiled an ever-growing list of literature about grief for a class I taught on Writing Grief—check it out and drop me a note if you want to add something)

The obvious—everyone’s go-to grief book—THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion. I’d LIKE to say my book is just like that, if only for the fact that I respect Didion’s prose style. I’d also like to say Cheryl Strayed’s book WILD is just like my book. In fact, I’d love to say that I was bold enough to hike the Pacific Crest trail alone, but I was never quite as “wild” as Strayed (and probably won’t be).

The closest I’ve found so far (though I continue to learn from all the books I’ve read) is RULES OF INHERITANCE by Claire Bidwell Smith. In fact I have a literary crush on her… she wrote some of the most beautiful passages that made me cry and jealous that I’d not written them myself. I think her book resonated with me because was she young when her mother died (she was in her first year of college), she responded by making some not-so-great choices in behavior, and now she works as a grief counselor…

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I hate this question. I can’t imagine my book as a movie… I can imagine it as a one-woman play though, starring me. (confirming that memoirists are narcissistic, I suppose)

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Set against the backdrop of turning 40, watching her only sister battle breast cancer, RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER chronicles Jennifer’s journey to get to know her mother who died when she was just 13; ultimately, however, it is a journey to get to know herself.

(like Elizabeth Tannen, I too am a fan of the semi-colon)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I feel like it’s taken my whole life! Seriously it’s hard to say. The first thing I actually called a draft, was me being audacious. I took everything I’d ever written about my mother, three-hole-punched it and submitted to a Master Class in Memoir in 2007, two years after that first class at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. That draft took two years, but as I said, it really wasn’t a draft.  There was a lot of writing but there was no narrative arc, and 90% of what was in that pseudo draft has vanished.

My first “real” whole draft was completed for my MFA defense, April 2012, seven years after that first memoir class. I’m working on revising now.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Although both my parents are now dead, I would say they continue to inspire me to write this book. My mother because I feel an urge to memorialize her through my writing. And my father as well, though that is more complicated:  my dad exemplified unresolved grief. I’m also inspired by the work of the Children’s Grief Center.  One life-changing lesson I’ve learned by volunteering there is how important it is to learn to tell our grief story. Whether it’s being able to say, “I’m Jennifer, my mom died when I was 13” or writing an essay, book, or poem about the experience, by constructing our narratives we heal. And by sharing our narratives, we help others heal.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Through all this, my sister continues to battle breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 2001 she was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer—but it returned in 2004 as Stage IV breast cancer. She seems to be one of the lucky ones enjoying long-term survival managing the cancer. Good natured sibling rivalry makes me want to leave her out of this book, but she is such an integral part of my life, and my biggest fan, she is a part of the story whether I want her to be or not.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope to have an agent-ready manuscript by the end of summer…

For the NEXT big thing, I’m tagging (to start… I think I’m supposed to tag five. Check back I’ll post links to the responses):

Cynthia Patton

Barbara Zaragoza

Karen Hogan






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