Your Dull Suburban Heart Writing Memoir

There’s a way of expressing language that makes me want to slurp it up like melted ice cream, or a Killer Coconut Cocktail. For example, the following was taken from a speech Charlotte Wood made to an Emerging Writers’ Festival in New South Wales:

Allow your writing to expose your shameful ordinariness, your dull suburban heart, your fear, your humanity. Write truthfully into your frailties not away from them.

Your shameful ordinariness. Your dull suburban heart.

That’s what I mean. Using words we all know, Charlotte puts together phrases that make me want to read everything she’s ever written, want to feast on it hoping somehow it will nourish the same brilliance in me.

When I started the memoir, I didn’t know about writing truthfully into my frailties. But I did find myself stopping often in mid-sentence to ask, “Was that how it happened? Or is that just the story I’ve always told myself?”

I wrote the initial draft in first person present, reliving everything as though I was once again in that moment. It was tough. Really tough. The narrative was raw because my life was raw. I rehashed events taking no notice of the lessons they were meant to teach. But I finished it without slitting my wrists.

And sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said two things, 1) at 160,000 words it was too long, and 2) I hadn’t resolved the issues. She suggested slimming it to 80,000 words, an acceptable count for first time authors.

Okay, she wanted me to chop it in half. Sure, I could do that. And I did. But the second time through I told the story in third person past. It was me, older, wiser, pondering my younger self. As I wrote, it was obvious that of course I hadn’t resolved the issues; I hadn’t even recognized them. That’s when I started to question. Perhaps I hadn’t been the ravaged heroine I’d imagined. Perhaps I’d had more culpability in my tragedies than I’d been willing to admit. Victim energy leaked through the narrative and made me nauseous. Oooo. Ouch! Unacceptable.

That rewrite took the better part of a year. An entirely different story emerged, a truer one, and the word count was just a hair over 80,000.

I sent it off to agents.

One answered. She said, 1) the current market prefers to have memoir told in first person. There was no number two. As soon as I read it, I knew she was right. A compelling gut feeling told me that I’d needed that perspective for myself. But for the reader, the third person past point of view left too much distance between the main character and the action.

I’m currently in the third rewrite and once again it’s narrated in first person. But it’s coming from a much different place now. I won’t be well liked but I’ll be real. I won’t be a victim but readers will sympathize once they get over my serial stupidity. And the issues? Are they ever truly resolved? At least it will be clear that I’ve learned from my mistakes.

More than any therapist ever could, this labor of self-love, this monumental undertaking that has already spanned four years of my life, has helped me own my demons. Nobody really cares about Ms. Perfect. It’s the shadow that makes us interesting. In writing and rewriting life’s journey from three different perspectives, I’ve become honest about who I was and fiercely grateful for who I’ve become.

I’m about to send it off to agents…again!

Hiding out in the past


I’ve been writing my memoir for three years. It seems like forever until I think about the 67 years it took me to live it.

On Tuesday, September 19th, 2017, at 11:30 p.m. Bali time, after once again reading through the entire 99,327 word manuscript, I deleted an unnecessary adjective on page 181, took a weary breath, and hit send. A kind woman in New York City will take a look at it. She’s been in the publishing industry for a long time. The fate of my labors hangs on her advice.

I didn’t anticipate the feelings that would arise in the absence of that project. I expected relief and little else. There’s been a little relief and a lot else. Every morning for the past three years I’ve awakened knowing I had work to do. September 20th, dawned with an entire day empty. That’s how it felt: empty. The truth is, I’m retired. Every hour is mine to fill or not in any way I choose. But I’d committed the previous thirty-six months to writing, and that gave my life focus. Finished now, at least for the moment, what would I do with all that available time?

Before I could swing my legs over the side of the bed for morning ablutions, a realization hit: I was back in the present. I’d spent three years reliving the past. I don’t mean remembering – remembering is passive. Reliving is active involvement, re-experiencing, re-feeling, bringing up old emotions to craft into words so future readers can connect with something real. Sending the manuscript on its way detached me from that former time and catapulted me into the present.

A huge portion of mental real estate was wiped clean. My mind, scrubbed and shiny, felt new. The sensation expanded throughout my body. It made sense. The tens of thousands of words I’d dredged up to tell my story had been at the expense of every nerve and cell where traumas were stored. My entire being had existed in the past for the duration of the writing, and now I was free.

The present is a new experience, and I’m not yet altogether comfortable with it. Although much of the past was unpleasant, it was familiar. I could always duck into it, hide for days believing that I was working – writing – which I was. I was also healing. Mucking around in those stories, retelling them, gave me the opportunity to see things in a different light. In so doing, wounds healed. But at the same time, I was stuck there, using the past as a buffer to cushion myself from – from what?

From getting old. Yes. From the very real, very present evidence of encroaching old age. To be fully present means accepting who I am now. I’ve heard many mature adults say that inside they still feel sixteen, or twenty-five. I used to say the same. But writing the memoir has brought me current. I’ve lived those years, twice. I’ve learned the lessons, finally, and have earned the earmarks of the elder: sags, wrinkles, and wisdom, one would hope!

There have been other shifts like this, seismic upheavals that heralded a new way of being, and all have come through writing. It’s a profound tool for self-discovery, and writing memoir is the ultimate challenge. For me, reliving my life through memoir accomplished what the first incarnation hadn’t: I grew up. But I’m not so adult as to pass on a pair of totally outrageous earrings at the Smile Shop – aren’t they great?!


SIX DEGREES…Who do YOU know?

Gypsy egc.

From blond to redhead, from drifting to anchored, from caterpillar to butterfly. Metamorphosis!

I’ve been writing this blog religiously since February, 2012, spilling my beans, airing laundry both dirty and clean, transparently sharing my life with anyone who cares to read. Is that the height of narcissism or the depth of depravity? Maybe both.

Simultaneously, I’ve written a book. Two actually. The first is 100% fiction, a psychological suspense novel entitled, A Subtle Revenge. It sits in manuscript form in a bottom drawer collecting gecko leavings and volcano dust.

The second is creative non-fiction, the real story of my life. Not that the blog isn’t real. It is. But Mating Season for Butterflies, the memoir, goes back to the beginning. It traces the troubled path through my mother’s illness when I was a child, five marriages and five divorces, a court case and the resulting prison sentence. It portrays a conflicted woman without a sense of self, who cycles through the same mistakes and never seems to learn from them. The picture it paints isn’t pretty because the choices I made often had disturbing consequences. But it resolves with an awakening to self-awareness and a second chance. Once I let go of who I thought I should be, and trusted the unfolding of who I was, opportunities appeared that catapulted me into a reality beyond anything I could have dreamed.

The story is finished. No, wait! The book is finished! The story is still very much being lived. But the time has come to search for an agent and a publisher. It’s who you know, the six degrees of separation connections that make the difference. So I’m asking those of you who have enjoyed reading my Writing for Self-Discovery posts over the past four years: Do you know a literary agent who would be willing to take a look at Mating Season for Butterflies? If you do, I’d love to be introduced. My market is women of all ages. The message is hope: It’s never too late to change the course of your life.


When You’re Real


“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit – by Margery Williams

For a long, long time I tried to be perfect. It was a need as deep as breathing and I fooled a lot of people including myself. “Oh Sherry, you’re so together. You’re always calm.” I heard it all the time and loved it. That was the image I created to cover the inside that was littered with guilt, shame, and blame.

But perfection’s a tough gig. Not only that, it lacks substance. Perfect is a china doll, an airbrushed painting, a lacquered wig. Somewhere along the way I began to suspect I was shallow, colorless. I was so tightly held, so carefully constructed there was no room for inspiration which, of course, added to the self-contempt. From age 26 to 56, this was my modus.

But something happened at midlife. It was like waking up from a Rip Van Winkle slumber. Who am I and where have I been for thirty years? Confused and disoriented, I consulted an insightful woman who told me to muck around in the nitty-gritty and don’t be afraid to get dirty. “I’m already dirty,” I said through tears. “I’ve tried so hard to get clean.”

“You’re not dirty, Sherry.” She plumbed to the depths of my soul with her eyes. “You’ve never been anything but perfect. The perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. I’m just asking you to be real.”

That may be the single, most profound thing anybody ever said to me. Putting perfect up beside real and seeing that the one made the other impossible, was revelation. As soon as she said it I knew it was true. I had no hope of being me unless I let go of perfect.

Of course, the person who emerged as the ‘perfect pictures’ slipped into the sinkhole of my shadow, was neither shallow, nor colorless. I found that I liked her irreverent, gutsy self. At first I protected her, didn’t say much about her past, just let her evolve and mature. But the more real she became, the less need I felt to gloss over the too-obvious flaws. The liberation that came when there was nothing left to hide, was the ultimate freedom.

Writing my memoir has been the full disclosure. I’ve filleted myself wide open to judgement but I’ve also let go at last of every shred of the need to look good as a disguise. I’m willing to let my hair be loved off, get loose in the joints and shabby, because at last I’m real, and I can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Photo credits to Sharon Lyon

Memoir is Subversive Literature


Memoir is subversive literature.

Just so we’re all on the same page with the definition of subversive, here goes:

Subversive: tending or intending to subvert or overthrow, destroy, or undermine an established or existing system, especially a legally constituted government or a set of beliefs.

I didn’t know that about memoir when I started writing mine. I had stories to tell, an unusual life to share with anyone who cared to read about it. I wasn’t in the business of overthrowing or undermining anything. Had you told me that’s what I’d be doing I’d have laughed you out of the room.

So I began and the stories rolled off my fingers like old friends. Sort of. At least the first one did, the story of my mother’s illness when I was five. I’ve rehearsed it many times over the years and it’s part of my belief system. It’s become a reason, an excuse, a foundational principal on which to hang dysfunction and irresponsible choices throughout my life. I didn’t know that until I wrote it down. When committed to paper it became blatantly obvious, and I cringed under that painful awareness.

It wasn’t an auspicious start, but I continued. I’d describe an event, render it alive again by the power of words, then sit there as it stared back at me in black and white. Is that what really happened? Is that how I felt? It’s the story I’ve always told myself so it must be true, mustn’t it?

Whether by virtue of the kindness of time, or a different perspective, or maturity, when I took a close look at my particular rendering of personal history I was dumbstruck. They were stories, some even compelling, but the act of writing them down demanded a certain adherence to fact, and memory tended to give me impressions, nuances of remembered emotion, but nothing concrete. When I dug them up, the aura around old enemies was softer, pastels instead of intense reds. The ones I’d blamed seemed less culpable than I was myself.

Disturbing. Yes, in a word it was disturbing to realize that my existing system of beliefs was nothing more than a network of interwoven stories, many of which were no longer true. Often during the writing of my life I’d stop and scratch my head, Really? and attempt to put myself back into the scene for a replay.

What happened as a result was the biggest surprise of all. Clarity. I gained clarity about who I was then and how that person is different from who I am now. I saw the forces that were driving me, some good, some not, and took note. Are those same forces still at work? And my belief system was shot full of holes. I couldn’t believe my own stories and that called into question…everything!

The other big word was opportunity. Memoir gave me the opportunity to rewrite the script, literally and figuratively. I have huge compassion for the woman who lived that life. There were reasons she remembered things as she did. And where it seems fitting, I’ve told the stories her way. But for me, now, the revelations gained through that process have reminded me of a basic truth: life is made up of the stories we tell ourselves. At any point we can decide to frame it differently and the power of that can transform our present reality.

Every life is a treasure trove of stories, and telling them can be a healthy exercise for anyone who’s lived a bit. The insights gained are valuable beyond measure.

But memoir is subversive literature. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.




Have I Married You Yet?

I’ve learned not to take offense when people call attention to the number of marriages I’ve entered and left. I can’t fault them for being a little shocked and more than a little curious. After all, I seem so normal. And although my Capricorn sun cringes at every indication of my tarnished past, my Leo moon can more than handle the spotlight.

So the other night at a very merry un-birthday dinner with friends (remember Alice in Wonderland) the talk turned to writing as it is wont to do in these circles. My memoir was up for discussion. One of the gents and I made an identical comment in unison and he turned to me and said, “Are we married?”

“Not yet,” was my instant comeback.  Being the sharp tack that he is, he got excited.

“That should be the title of your book, Have I Married You Yet?”

After the laughter died down, I have to admit that I gave it some thought. But to me it sounds like the name of a lighthearted, comedic story. Mine is far from that. Out of curiosity I checked Amazon for the titles of best-selling memoirs. Here are a few of them:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


The Motorcycle Diaries

The Color of Water

Running With Scissors

Coming of Age in Mississippi

Not a shred of humor.

I’m torn. What do you think? I’d like to hear opinions other than my own. Anyone who cares to weigh in with a comment or suggestion, please do. Does Have I Married You Yet? sound like a full-on comedy or could it work for a story that has humor only in moderate doses?




A High Holy No-No

I’m writing my story, a memoir of sorts, and I’m at a difficult part. In one sense there’s a feeling of release when I make my way through something that I’ve stuffed so far down it’s hard to even bring it back.
That happened today.
Then a Balinese friend stopped by. He blew my mind with kindness and I dissolved into tears. There was a mixed group around us and they absolutely did not know what to do. His random act was so complete and so unexpected it overwhelmed me. Then, just to make matters even more unacceptable (crying is frowned upon here) I hugged him. That is, of course, a high holy no-no in Bali!
His friends laughed, whether in nervous embarrassment for him, or for me, or for some unrelated reason I don’t know, but it accomplished what was needed. I disappeared until I could muster up a little decorum.



When I tried to sit down and write again after all that, it was impossible. Enough emotion for today. I made a cup of coffee, found a quiet spot and allowed myself a few more grateful tears.

One thing is certain, and writing makes that clearer every day. I wouldn’t trade this crazy life for anything. Not for anything!

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