My Muse

Okay, so I went MIA with this blog. I started a new job, which is awesome – I love it. One unexpected benefit – my creative juices are bubbling. One reason for the return – my commute. Now I ride the train. I actually worried I would hate the commute, but I enjoy the time to read and edit. In the 7 weeks I’ve been working, I have read 3 books and one manuscript. This simple act of reading has become my muse.

I also have my first writing group meeting this week, and I’m really looking forward to it. Writing groups help keep writers honest, productive.

I do have to admit I have been stuck on the whole mystery baby thing. I can’t, however, let that stump me and stop me from writing the memoir. I have to accept that I might never find the answers. Today, a former student suggested that I hire a detective. I hadn’t really considered that.

Ultimately, I would love to spend a week in Massachusetts and New Hampshire sleuthing around myself, preparing to digest whatever tidbits of information I might find.

For now, however, I just need to write.


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Hopefully Not Stuck…

I haven’t posted much recently because I’ve been busy with work and clients. This, of course, means that I haven’t been doing any writing either. There is a write-a-thon coming up next weekend and I intend to take full advantage of the 12 hours of dedicated writing time.

So what am I going to do with those 12 hours?

Writing the vignettes wasn’t difficult, easier than writing chapters in a novel because I could bounce around depending on my mood and what I wanted to explore. I know there are a few more vignettes I need to write, but I need to revisit what I’ve written because I think I have only scratched the surface.

Authenticity is by far the most important aspect of memoir writing. I’ve been honest, but I am wondering how deep that honesty runs? By that I mean, have I found the raw truth, the truth that hurts, the truth that exposes emotions trapped by years in the recesses of our minds?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but without knowing it, I know I can’t write more, or rather more with any true meaning.

So, at the write-a-thon I will re-read what I’ve written, figure out the tough questions, and prepare to revise. It is both exciting and terrifying because there is that possibility that I won’t be able to accomplish my goal. It is imperative to me that I write about my mother, our relationship, truthfully, while also showing readers just how important she was to me, how she made me the person I am today, while also showing that she was human, she made mistakes, she made choices I understand and don’t understand, but that I was her world, and above all she loved me so deeply.

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What’s the Difference?

About a week ago I received a call from a woman who had a few questions about getting an agent. She had written a memoir. I asked her to send me her query letter and a few sample chapters, which she did. In her query letter she referred to her manuscript as both a memoir and an autobiography. So what’s the difference?


While they are both grounded in truth, the autobiography must adhere to the truth. For example, every detail must be meticulously researched and reported accurately. There is no room for interpretation. For example, before the writer can write that her walk from her house to her school was one mile, she better be sure it was one mile not a quarter of a mile. Now that is a small detail, one many likely wouldn’t catch or care about. But bigger inaccuracies will be caught and cause readers to question everything else. For example, to write about being involved in something in which one was not…well, although he verbalized his claims, we all know how that turned out for Brian Williams.

The memoir, while grounded in truth, has room for interpretation. The word memoir comes from the French word memoire meaning memory or reminiscence. If two people witness a crime and are asked to recount the details, from memory, a couple of weeks later, each person would like report the basics of the crime similarly, but the details might differ. One might remember the thief’s shirt as yellow, while the other swears it’s blue? Memory is a funny thing. Over time, for a variety of reasons, it can, and often does, get distorted. That doesn’t give a writer the permission to pull a James Frey and fictionalize their past – that is called fiction, not memoir. But misremembering in memoir happens. As the writer journeys through her past, she pulls from their arsenal of memories, some accurate and some not so accurate. It is important for the memoirist to do her research, but understand as the reader, what you are reading is simply one person’s version of the truth.


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Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day


The other day I was pondering my mother’s view on holidays. Christmas was by far her favorite, but she never let others slip by without some sort of acknowledgement. It was often a Hallmark card, maybe it was a box of Peeps, or a little trinket.Despite her worries, her workload, she never forgot.

Those little efforts meant a great deal to me as a kid and as an adult. While I was in college, the Valentine’s Day card was sent to me. When I was working in Boston, it was also mailed. She never wrote a long note – she usually signed it “Luv, Mum” and the date. I always thought it was funny she wrote the date with her fountain pen, but now I treasure that. I don’t have many of those cards, but the few I have, I always find myself looking at the date and thinking about how old I was when I received the card. In some weird cosmic way, it makes me feel closer to her.

Like most people, my behavior is influenced by the traditions my mother instilled. I too recognize the holidays. Yesterday, I went to the pharmacy to pick out two Hallmark cards. $6.99 a card – and all I could think – Mum would flip over in her grave at that price. I put the cards back and came home and made my cards.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Photo: Courtesy of

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A Memoir Recipe

A couple of days ago I began working with a student who is editing a memoir as part of her thesis project. Most of my editorial experience is with fiction, and the student was originally working with a novel, but had to switch due to circumstances out of her control. As I began to outline my expectations for the student, I thought about the primary elements of memoir.

Like fiction, well like any type of writing, there are certain elements utilized in crafting works within a specific genre. In fiction, characterization, plot, structure top the list. In memoir, there is the tricky little issue with telling the truth. Truth is the pinnacle of memoir – obviously, but memoir is not an autobiography, it is based on the writer’s perception, which is sometimes slightly to the left of a true reality. I’m not suggesting memoir is a sloppy version of the truth, after all, writer’s can’t manufacture events or people – no James Frey moments, please! But unlike an autobiography where every detail must be, should be, meticulously researched, memoir leaves room for the writer’s interpretation. For example, when I am writing about Mum, I am sometimes pulling from fuzzy memories. I hadn’t thought my memories were fuzzy until I found a journal I had written while my mother was sick. I remembered the timeline quite differently than it had played out. I would not have been wrong if I had written it as I remembered it, that is, unless I decided to add a fictitious event or person, such as a heart attack (which never happened) to amp up the story. Part of the story is the way we remember the events that shape our lives.

Besides truth, memoir must also rely on plot, structure, character, and description. Wait, doesn’t that sound like fiction? Yes, but because all of these are centered around truth, they must be executed with truth in mind. That being said, the plot has to flow and move forward, and keep the reader engaged. The structure has to work, i.e. is there a hook to grab the reader? Is it told in a linear manner, if not does it work, does the middle flow, and what type of resolution is there? The word character implies “made up,” but in memoir the characters, or people in the book, must still have a character arc. There must be growth or change. Finally, without description, the story the writer is trying to tell will be flat, leaving the reader unable to envision those necessary details that make a story rich.

All of these elements are necessary when writing memoir. Without them, the project would be a hot mess that at a minimum would likely never get published, and at the other end of the spectrum, could get one sued.

When will you begin your memoir?



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Thoughts on Editing Help…

While I have a couple more vignettes to write, my editor brain is chomping at the bit to dig in and get to work. Anne Lamont wrote a wonderful essay entitled, “Shitty First Drafts” and I have no doubt that much of what I have written to date will impress few. But I know the guts are there, nuggets that will help paint a picture for whomever choses to read this memoir when it is complete.

So where will I begin? At this very moment, I can’t say. I recently told a colleague that I would sit on the floor with all of the vignettes to figure out what I actually have. She gave me that Oh honey no look and then told me about this software, Scrivener. She explained it wouldn’t work for a short story, but for longer projects, it makes it easy to move pieces and parts around as one edits. From the little bit of research I have done, it serves as both a word processor, as well as a project management tool.

It isn’t that expensive, and this is by no means an endorsement for this product as I haven’t used it, but I am thinking about getting it and taking it for an editorial test run.

Before I press the purchase button, I would ask you – do you use any type of project management tool to write or edit your work? If so, I would love to hear about your experience.


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A Reading Makes it Real

Last week I read one of the vignettes from this memoir journey at the Rosemont College MFA monthly reading. I was invited to read as an alum. I chose to read the one in which I discover the mystery baby because it was such a shocking moment, and one that I continue to obsess over.

I looked out at the audience as I read; it felt as if each word tapped on the door leading into my mother’s life. I know I will likely never know whom this mystery baby is, or was, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know. But what I hadn’t considered prior to reading last week was how, and what, this may have meant to Mum. First, was this baby hers? Did the baby die? I can recall her saying, “There is nothing worse than losing a child.” Were those words born out of a painful experience or just words we all say upon occasion?

My point is that standing there looking out at the audience, talking so publicly about my mother’s private life, I felt my heart rip a tiny bit. It isn’t that I feel as if I am betraying her, but rather aching for her. It could all be for nothing. This mystery baby might simply be a neighbor’s child, but something inside me says no, there is more to this mystery baby.


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It’s Five O’Clock


Yes, I took advantage of the snow, the 2 feet of snow, to do a little writing. The first piece I wrote about was a Nor ‘Easter that nearly killed good friends on Mums and how they came to stay with us after they nearly drowned in the lower level of their Drakes Island home.

It’s the second piece, however, that has left me with both perspective and a sense of loss. The piece is entitled A Case of the Blues. As I wrote about my mother’s lack of happiness trying to understand if it was depression, or sadness from a string of unhappy events combined with fears and worries, or something else I hadn’t considered, I couldn’t help by question my role. Did the things I chose to do, add to her sadness?

I would not change the fact that I left Maine and her to pursue my dreams, my life, but I wondered if I could have changed how I responded to her pain and her fear. The answer is a clear, yes. I could have been more understanding. I could have been kinder. With the things I could have changed, there was one thing I did right. Mum so desperately wanted to be involved in my life. Some would argue she lived vicariously through me. Perhaps that is true. Regardless, the truth is I wanted to share my life with her. So nearly every evening (weekday, not as much on the weekends), I called my mother around 5:00 p.m. – the cocktail hour, and we talked about our respective days.

Even now, nearly 20 years after her death, my internal alarm clock goes off letting me know it’s five o’clock – time to call Mum.


Photo courtesy of

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Let it Snow…

Snow, snow, snow…


To some the fluffy white stuff means shoveling and inconvenience. To me, snow means time to write.

So I’ve been getting amped up like a school kid since last night when the snow predictions began rolling in. When I got up this morning, the predictions called for 8-12 inches falling on Saturday. By the time I got to work, the predictions ranged from 8-24+ inches of snow for the greater Philadelphia area. Yes, that was a potential for TWO FEET of snow.

I could already envision myself setting up at the dining room table, looking out as the snow fell, heavy at times, maybe even blizzard conditions. As the snow fell, my mind would be churning out more stories about Mum. I would look up from my laptop every so often, take a sip of my steaming tea, take a bite of a fresh chocolate chip cookie, and smile as the wind whipped the snow around in the back yard, feeling the urge to get up and measure the accumulation every couple of hours.

It was easy to envision because two years ago during three separate snow events, I wrote and revised, and revised again, until I finished what would be the final draft of my young adult novel. After a final read and copyediting, I’m now querying agents.

The only problem…the weather forecasters are all over the place. As of this evening, the totals for my neighborhood have dropped from 2+ feet to less than 6 inches. If it snows, even for a few hours, I will sit and write, but if it is a complete bust, I’ll likely be out of the house doing “other” non-writing things.

There is still time for things to shift. I’m hoping the shift will be in the write direction. I’d like to write about the storm we had one Christmas, I was maybe 4 or 5, and a huge pain in the ass. It was the Christmas when I got the kitchen set, the baby doll carriage, and other larger things. When we got home after being away for a couple of days, the snowdrifts in our driveway were taller than 5 or 6 feet. Mum wanted to leave everything in the car until morning, but I whined and whined until she brought it all inside. Or I might write about the last snowstorm Mum and I were together, I was 27. It was a late storm and we got dumped with 3 feet of snow.

Whether I write about a Mum and snow, I will most certainly write another vignette about Mum as I continue down this journey to discover my mother – the real Barbara Hilton Converse.


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Pennies from Heaven

Pennies: some shiny and new, others old and grimy.


Mum was rather superstitious. If a black cat crossed our path, we had to turn around and find another route, and if one was not available, Mum worried about it for the rest of the day, and if something happened, you get it – the black cat was blamed. Bad things happen in threes, walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella in the house were all superstitions Mum didn’t care to challenge. My favorite, however, was if your nosed itched, Mum would say, “Gonna have a fight or kiss a fool.”

While I am not nearly as superstitious as my mother was, I have a tendency here and there. For example, if I am looking down at a sidewalk, I still try not to step on the cracks – step on a crack and break your mother’s back – why, since my mother is dead, would it matter – just something held over from middle school. Now, I have two black cats, both cross my path multiple times a day, but broken mirrors cause some concern.

At any rate, years ago I stopped picking up pennies on the street when someone told me that it was bad luck. I likely had had a bad week at work or just broken up with a boyfriend, so not wanting to bring forth any additional bad juju, I avoided picking up pennies. Then in November as I began this project, I heard someone (I honestly can’t recall where) say that when you find a penny on the ground it’s a sign from someone in heaven letting you know s/he is thinking about you. From that moment on I began seeing pennies everywhere. One day, I decided to pick one up and hold it in my hand. Now when I see a penny, I think Mum is sending me a little message to keep going.


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