“I wrote to honor myself” ~ A conversation with memoirist Mary Montanye

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Mary Montanye is the author of the memoir Above Tree Line, which I had the joy of reading recently. To quote her website, it’s “the story of one woman’s spiral downward into physical and mental breakdown and her return to wholeness by courageously, and some would say recklessly, following her intuition.”

Mary and I got on the phone to talk about her experience of writing and publishing the memoir, and how she found support for the process of bringing it into the world. Mary is one of my fellow coaches in The Writer’s Circle, and she’s become one of my favorite people, too. I’m so pleased she took the time to talk with me, and my hope is that creators who are struggling to share their work with the world — or even to begin the process of creating — will gain courage and comfort from Mary’s writing journey.

You can learn more about Mary’s memoir (and read her terrific blog posts!) at her website, here.

Read highlights from our conversation below, or find the link to listen to our whole conversation at the bottom of the post (please note this more of a casual conversation, not a “formal” interview!).

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Jill: I imagine some parts of this were much harder to write than others, emotionally.

Mary: Yeah, they were. And there were two things about that: Whenever I was getting close to writing something that I knew was gonna be really, really difficult, there were two things I did: One is, I reminded myself that all I had to do was write it. I didn’t have to share it; I didn’t have to publish it. There were many other reasons I was writing it. One is, I was learning how to write. Two, I was learning about me. I was honoring me.

That’s another thing, I think that many times writers have, somewhere in their childhood, been shut down. “Oh, we don’t want to hear about that,” or whatever. So, by me putting it down, I was honoring myself, and my voice, and my experiences, and my life.

So I told myself that, even if I choose not to publish this down the line somewhere, I still benefit. And when I did that, it made the writing of the hard stuff doable, and it also made it possible for me to be as honest as possible.

… And second of all, I told myself that even if I did choose to publish it somewhere down the line, I could remove anything that I didn’t want to have in there. If it was really too tough, if I was too afraid to have it out there, I would just remove it from the book.

And it ended up that I didn’t remove anything from the book. I mean, of course I tightened it … But it works to just let yourself do it, just write whatever. And then tighten, or delete.

Jill: So it sounds like there was a lot of permission to write it and not have to publish it, and then there was also permission to not have to put in those more difficult parts – that you could cut those out if you wanted to.

Mary: Yeah. I just had to constantly remind myself that, I have control over this. Just because I write it down doesn’t mean that I have to publish it. And it ended up that I did publish it, and actually, a lot of the fears that I had about that never came true: that other people would hate me, or judge me, or not want me in their life, or be hurt.

… I think you have to just bite off small pieces as you go along, and not think of it as some great big huge thing that’s gonna change the rest of your life, because that would be paralyzing. At least for me. But when I did it bits and pieces at a time, every piece that I did was beneficial.

And that even included the publishing. I mean, I’ve had people, especially younger women, that I never thought would even read it, say how much it has meant to them, and why. And that’s made it all worthwhile. This is why it was meant to be out there. And I can take fear.

Jill: So basically, then, it sounds like you were writing this for yourself. So would you say that if you had any audience in mind, it was just yourself? Kind of your own listening ear?

Mary: Yeah. Well, I also had a reader in that Mary [Allen, writer and writing teacher] was reading. She wasn’t changing things so much as she was just saying, “Tell me more about this. This is really interesting, could you write more here?”… So I had her as a reader, but she was a very loving, supportive, gentle reader. And in fact, having one person like that is really helpful in that she normalized some of this for me. Like, I was feeling so awful about myself, even this many years later, for doing some of the things that I did, and she would go, “Well, that’s really not all that bad.” And that sort of helped, too.

So I’m not saying never have a reader and just put it out there before you’ve ever had a reader, or never have a reader in mind. [But] have the perfect reader in mind: like, for a memoir, the most wonderfully accepting, gentle person that you could possibly imagine, who really wants to sit down and hear about your life, and not judge you for it. Because if you think about just a general “other” out there, like some big massive social media kind of other, it would be terrifying. I don’t know how anybody could write an honest memoir like that.

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Jill: Another point that I wanted to bring up is self-care around this process of writing something that brings up so much stuff for us. That is bound to be emotionally taxing. And physically exhausting too, probably.

Mary: Yeah. Everything. Sometimes I’d just feel like all I wanted to do was go to bed. So I got to the point where I just let myself go to bed. You know, it’s okay. Or take time off, too. Take a week off. Or write something easier, write a little bit of history of the area, or something that isn’t like one trauma after another.

Jill: That makes a lot of sense. I think that as writers we can get into a mentally of, I’ve gotta sit there and I’ve gotta push through, especially maybe if we have some resistance coming up for us around a particular thing. And it sounds like you were very aware of your own exhaustion, and you must have had a lot of trust in your process in order to give yourself breaks when you needed it.

Mary: Well, I got it [trust]. I don’t think I had it right off the bat. But as time went on and I did it, I’d say, oh yeah, I’m noticing every time I write some really hard scene, that I don’t want to do anything but go to bed. Well, maybe it would be a good idea to just go to bed. It was through the process that I learned about me and what I needed, and what I could do and what I couldn’t. And that there was only a certain length of time I could write every day. About an hour, for this book, was it. When I got into editing, I could spend a lot more time, but the actual writing was not more than probably about an hour a day.

***

Jill: What would you say to people who have a story – or not even just a story but some piece of creative work, something they want to share with the world, but they’re feeling stuck or scared around that? Let’s say it’s a dream right now. It’s in sort of baby dream phase and nobody else knows about it, it’s just something they really feel strongly about but they haven’t taken any action to create it. What would be the first thing you would tell them?

Mary: Well, I would tell them first that, if they’re feeling this pull, this little dream, this tug, whatever you want to call it, that that’s your intuition saying that you need to do it. You don’t know why you need to do it, but there’s a tug there, there’s that intuition. I think we tend to ignore our intuition, and I’m somebody who doesn’t ignore her intuition most of the time.

And most of the time, or 99.9 percent of the time, I find out why it was important that I didn’t ignore it. It may not be what you think – it may not BE about publishing it in the world. It may be you’ll help one person. It may be that you will learn something about yourself that you need to learn. But whatever it is, the very first thing I would say is don’t ignore, don’t minimize the fact that we have that tug to do it. That would be my first.

And then my second would be to just begin. Don’t think very far in advance, and set aside some alone time where you won’t be bothered. And make it, like we say in the Writer’s Circle, make it sacred. And just begin. Simple. Twenty minutes, five minutes, ten minutes. And then just do something else the next day, and the next day. And just see where it goes. Because we can’t figure out in our head what the reason is. We can’t figure out the reason, we can’t figure out the end result. We can only figure that out by the actual doing of it.

So those would be my two main things. Don’t ignore, and then begin.

***

Check out the recording to hear more about Mary’s take on: being a writer who’s an introvert and a highly sensitive person; how Mary “discovered” she was writing a memoir; Mary’s process of sharing the draft of the book with people close to her; her publishing and marketing experience; and more!

 

Why I write (the My Writing Process blog tour!)

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My friend Mary Montanye, author of the recently-published memoir Above Tree Line, tagged me in the My Writing Process blog tour and I’m so grateful. I absolutely adore talking to other writers about why, and how, they write. It’s never exactly the same for any two people, and I love that.

So thanks, Mary, for the tag (and I hope you’ll visit her beautiful site and read her post). At the end of this post, I’ll be tagging another writer and the tour will continue! (Do click through and check out the previous writers on this tour — I’ve been having such a great time reading about everyone’s process!)

Just for fun, here’s my first memory of myself writing: I wrote a tiny book (on index cards, with purple Magic Marker) about our dog, Rosie. I drew pictures, too. My dad bound it in a little leather cover. I imagine he still has it somewhere. I was about five, I think. I wrote the book because I could hardly contain the joy our dog created in me. It simply had to be expressed.

So let me launch into the questions for this blog tour and let’s see if I still write for the reasons I did at five!

Why do you write what you do? 

For me, journaling is the hub of all my writing. I am a compulsive journaler and have been since I was about thirteen (one of my earliest journals is pictured above, modeled by kitty. Yes, I still have it!).

I journal to understand, process, and integrate what I’m going through. And my journaling leaps off my notebook into other forms of writing — fiction, essays, blog posts, short stories. No matter what I’m writing, I’m always doing it for the same reason: I want to know and understand myself better.

Even when I write a fictional character, that character is often an aspect of me, perhaps a shadowy part of me that I don’t know very well, and maybe am afraid to know. In that sense, all of my writing is about moving myself toward wholeness.

And, there is always the hope that what I write will reach that person who truly needs to read it.

What are you working on?

In a nutshell, I’m revising a novel draft about a forty-year-old woman who realizes she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up (and her life is not exactly set up to allow her to find out). I’m also working on a short story about a sixteen-year-old girl who’s in that tender and sometimes treacherous transition place between child and adult (ouch!).

My characters are often “seekers” who are idealistic and struggle with the question of what it means to be a “happy adult” in this world. I feel I have a nonfiction book in me, too, but it’s not letting me know exactly what it is yet.

What is your writing process?

I am a “pantser” and an intuitive writer — I don’t do a lot of planning or outlining, I like to jump in and write. I’m a big believer in “spaghetti on the wall” first drafts. I want to get it all out there and see what sticks (which isn’t always easy for me as I have a pretty powerful inner perfectionist).

I almost always start the day with morning pages; I find I’m more grounded and centered throughout the day when I do, and very often an almost-complete blog post or idea for a short story or solution to the issue I’m having with my novel comes out of my morning pages. From morning pages, I jump off into my other writing.

I don’t write for hours at a time — at about 90 minutes max, I usually reach a point where I’ve had enough and it’s time to put away the writing and let my subconscious chew on it for a while before I return to it. Lately, I’m rediscovering how important it is to step away from the writing and come back to it with fresh eyes.

And it’s hard for me to talk about my writing process without mentioning the wonderful creative writing program at Columbia College Chicago. It was there that I learned to trust my writer’s voice and my innate sense of story, and I still picture the semi-circle of open, curious faces in those classes when I write. More recently, I’ve received tremendous daily support for my writing from The Writer’s Circle.

Oh, and coffee! I absolutely must have my coffee before I start writing. And — if there’s time — a good, long walk. And, if I’m writing at home, my cat on my lap.

And now I’d like to tag Michele Alishahi — a memoirist who writes beautiful blog posts. Her story is so compelling — I hope you’ll bookmark her site and visit it on June 23, as the My Writing Process blog tour continues!

I really want to hear about YOUR writing process, if you’re a writer. I’d love it if you’d share in the comments.