My Story Must Be Told
An interview with Mary Jo Doig by B. Lynn Goodwin
We all have things we don’t remember. Some memories move over to make space for more important ones, and some get buried because they ignite pain or fear. In Mary Jo Doig’s memoir, Patchwork, a flashback following the death of a relative opens a passageway to horrific secrets buried since childhood.
Patchwork is the riveting story of one woman who strived to live a life full of love, only to endure tragedies with two of her children and struggles in her marriages—the consequences of a mysterious life-long behavior unnoticed by her family or teachers. Like a needle stitching together a quilt, the memories Mary Jo recovers show why her early years were threaded with a need to be invisible. You don’t want to miss her healing journey.
Mary Jo Doig has been editing life-writing and facilitating women’s writing circles for 20 years. Her stories have been published in Inside and Out: Women’s Truths, Women’s Storiesand Kitchen Table Stories.
She writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she enjoys quilting, gardening, hiking, and spending time with friends, family & her rescue pets.
Patchworkis her first book.
In the interview below she shares her experiences writing a memoir and discovering her truths.
BLG:Tell us about your writing journey before this memoir. Were there life stories you told that helped you prepare for this?
MJD: I majored in English in high school and college and was editor in high school of our literary magazine. I wrote short story fiction back then yet stopped writing when I married and my children arrived.
In my late 40s, after a stunning flashback, I started journaling. I embarked on a therapeutic and lengthy voyage to re-visit the childhood I thought I’d had. Instead, I uncovered a childhood that I’d “forgotten,” or—In psychological terms—that I’d dissociated from.
I began a detailed journal of that time. The end result was two full, three-inch binders of my daily entries, mostly single-spaced, double-sided word processor pages along with some handwritten notes. Ten years later I began to write some of those life stories I’d journaled.
BLG: How do you write objectively about people you know?
MJD: Once I read a memoir draft by a woman whose husband had left her to live his authentic gay life. She hadn’t known about his other life and was hugely angry and deeply hurt. I learned that venting personal anger is good in a journal, but it cannot sustain one’s reader as a final product.
My early drafts (Patchworkwas nearly twenty years—on and off—in its evolution) held negative feelings toward people who had harmed me as a child. In subsequent drafts, as I grew through those feelings, I also grew in my skills. I learned to write as a more impartial observerconveying detail, emotion, and factual information to accurately show my character, without any of my negative emotions.
BLG: How did you decide what to leave out, what to share, and what to emphasize? Were their scenes that you loved that had to be edited out?
MJD: I included everything I thought of in the early drafts, which grew into a manuscript of 115K words. I knew that 65K was a good, average size for memoir and that below 100K was a recommended ceiling.
My editors helped with this, noting parts that dragged with too much detail and some that didn’t move the story along. I edited them out. They also asked questions where I had omitted information that they said my readers would want to know. My skills grew under their wise observations and I began to see what parts I could cut.
Overall, though, my biggest reduction was learning to tighten my wording. I like to include a lot of detail so my reader can feel part of the story with me, but I write as I speak. Learning to become more succinct became a strength.
BLG: Did writing this book affect any relationships with friends and family, and if so, how?
MJD: Every family member has been affected by my writing the memoir in some way. My youngest sister learned about the nine years of our family before she was born. We’ve talked a little since she read the book. “This is so hard; this is my family,” she observed. Patchwork is not the family story I would have wanted for our lives, but it is my truth of living in our family.
One of my children, a professional editor, was involved in the final edits, and the dark parts were deeply painful for her. Another child is presently reading, while a third has not read it and may never. I mentioned that fact during a presentation at Story Circle Network’s July Conference and one class member said one of her children hadn’t read her story either and that she was glad to know there was someone else’s child who hadn’t. Our children will read our words if and when they become ready, I believe, and I honor their feelings.
BLG: What was your biggest challenge as you wrote Patchwork, and how did you overcome it?
MJD: The elephant-size challenge for me was speaking the truth of my childhood. After recovering those long-repressed memories, I was filled with shame and fear and felt my story was too awful to speak. I can remember feeling that I needed to protect the world from my story because there was too much loss.
When I started writing the stories, I learned to take tiny steps. At first, I wrote for myself only, for my healing. The journey from discovering my truth to writing it and healing has taken nearly twenty years. As I healed, I realized that my family could be strengthened by knowing my story and planned to write a tome only for them.
One day, a friend I deeply respected, told me my story must be told. I wrestled with her thought and, after a lot of inner conflict, decided I would give my story to the universe. I hoped to show how early trauma can affect a person’s entire life and wanted to help others heal and show some ways to do that. Each small step forward was huge.
BLG: What editing help did your publisher give you, and what tips did they give you about publicizing your work?
MJD: She Writes Press, my hybrid publisher, provided a hundred-page Author Handbook for each step of their process, with several pages devoted to marketing and publicity suggestions. This information was incredibly helpful to me as a first-time author. I especially appreciated suggestions for a successful book launch and followed them. The event turned out to be a warm, wonderful experience.
In addition, my publicist planned several pre-publication strategies such as purchasing my domain, maryjodoig.com, and developing it to have pages with a preorder purchase link, advance book reviews, a book excerpt, notices of author speaking engagements, as well as my blog posts. We keep in touch and may do some further work together.
I enjoy more intimate events and have scheduled a talk at my library. I am planning another event two counties away where I was part of the community for more than a decade. Also, on my list are talks with book clubs, and a visit to the Catskill Mountain community where I lived for over two decades, a place integral to the story. And more. I am thoroughly enjoying this post- writing part of publication.
BLG: Sounds like you’ve truly embraced the process. What recommendations would you give to people who know they have a story inside of them? How would you tell them to get started?
MJD: There are many courses offered, books written about, and organized events held, such as NaNoWriMo, see https://nanowrimo.org/, to help a person write their story with speed. The main focus is not to edit your work as you write, but to get it all out and onto paper without worrying about skills or anything else. That’s a first draft and there are many names for it.
Then you go back and find what I call the nuggets and start with them as you re-work the story. Or you can just sit down and write, finding a writing friend or group to work with, and eventually an editor. If you feel you have a story, then you do, and you can write a good book.
BLG: What is the best piece of writing advice you ever got from an editor?
MJD: Brooke Warner was our keynote speaker at the 2016 Story Circle Network National Conference. Along with her amazing talk about the changing face of book publication, she gave several individuals a meeting time. She told me during our time together words I will never forget, to the effect that anyone can write a good book if he or she is willing to put in the time. Brooke transformed my thinking about publication.
BLG:What are you working on now and where can readers learn more about you?
MJD:I’m enjoying this marketing aspect more right now than I dreamed I could, and it will keep me busy for more than a year. I’m also reading and reviewing independent women’s books. I have made early notes for two new books: one is a second memoir, a story that is presently unfolding, while the other is a fictionalized story based on true experiences. I’m also contemplating how to frame the next chapter of my life. It is a precious and joyful time.
Many thanks, B. Lynn Goodwin, for this opportunity to talk with you and your readers!
Thanks for sharing your writing journey with Writer Advice readers. I agree completely that anyone with a story and the persistence to bring it to life can write a book.
Learn more about Mary Jo Doig, whose story needed to be told at. http://www.maryjodoig.com. This is an important, revealing memoir.