This is Young Single Mothers’ Month on Memories Into Story. Below, Judith Dickerman-Nelson, the author of Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, writes about how she completed her first book, which as of Mother’s Day is number one in Amazon Kindle’s Parenting Teenagers and Women’s Studies categories.
See the Book Reviews section on this website for a review of her book and two other memoirs by young mothers.
What advice would you give to young single mothers today?
When I was in elementary school, I wrote poems and stories and kept a diary, my love of words beginning early on. The thrill of telling a good story grew when I gossiped with girlfriends about who liked who and what had happened in the woods after school—spin the bottle and quick kisses underneath the pine trees.
Later, when I fell in love in high school, I still kept a diary, but I also kept a journal and wrote letters to my boyfriend. He became my fiancé the summer before my senior year, and we began to imagine a life shared together. We talked about our future and the children we would have. I went to a Catholic all-girls high school, and when he went away to a prep private school in another state, even though we’d just found out that I was pregnant, I felt like my world was falling apart.
The events that unfolded that year became the basis of my first book, Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story that was published this year by Jefferson Park Press. The story looks closely at that time through the eyes of my sixteen-year-old self. I explore the hard choices I had to make and how much I wanted to believe in the young man I loved. In writing the book, I chose the voice of my teenage self. To get back to my younger point of view, though, I had to sit quietly and recall my life as a teen.
I am thankful that I saved the letters my then-fiancé wrote and the pictures of our proms and of our times together. I am thankful to have my journals and diaries from that time. These items helped me when I started to write the book, allowing me to get inside myself and remember the feelings from when I was sixteen and seventeen.
Going back and reliving that time helped me to get to a place where I could write the book. Now that the book is published people have asked me how long it took to write. At first when I’ve answered, I’ve faltered because, in many ways, I feel like I’ve been writing this book since my son was born. I turned the events over and over again in my mind, remembering. It was a way of saving details until later, until I could actually sit down and put pen to paper.
I had dreamed about being a published writer, but when I became pregnant the summer before my senior year, it felt as if everything was suddenly uncertain, as if the things I’d imagined couldn’t possibly come true. I was afraid I might not graduate from high school let alone go on to college. How could I be a single teen mom and still go to college and continue to write?
I didn’t know the answer at first, but I knew that I had to keep reaching for my dreams. As someone who has been a teen mom, I would advise all single moms to dream big and to hold onto those dreams. Then make a plan to go out and meet those dreams—step by step, even if you can only take baby steps in the beginning.
I wrote poems about being a young mom. I wrote stories—sometimes from my point of view, sometimes from my son’s birth father’s point of view. I took writing classes at college and in correspondence courses, too. And all the while, I kept holding onto my dreams. It took me longer but eventually I got my bachelor’s degree and then my masters of fine arts in writing.
My book took me a bit longer, too, because sometimes the remembering hurt. But I kept at it. Now when people ask me how long it took to write the book, I say “about six years.” And that’s probably about right, though I am not counting the twenty-plus years when I thought about my story and told my story to dear friends who would listen. Those years, I think the book was taking shape in my mind.
This shape included making use of the writing material that I’d saved. I used letters, diary excerpts and some poems. They give the book a sense of immediacy, I think, bringing the reader into the chaos and confusion of my life at that time. But I had to change the letters, altering originals into something new while keeping the essence of their meaning.
I also changed the names of people and places to protect the birthfather’s family, and I changed the number of kids in his family. My publisher had me change the type of business my then-fiancé’s family worked in—all in an effort to conceal their identity. Then, at the request of my sister, I did not include her in the book.
So my memoir became a book with fictionalized aspects.
I tried not to think about those things while I was writing and re-writing. Instead, I focused on telling the truth, using spare, clean scenes that would draw the reader in. I chose shorter chapters to keep the story moving at a quick clip, knowing that sometimes I get bored if a book gets bogged down with too many details.
But it is the details and the characters that make a story strong, so I had to choose carefully where to cut when it came to editing. At first, I had a number of flashback scenes, but my editor and publisher encouraged me to re-order the book and rewrite in some places. Sometimes it was difficult to let go of what I’d written because I was writing my own life, difficult to accept the constructive criticism, too. But I learned to keep working at it, to make the hard choices, and in the end, I believe, the story I’ve told is stronger. So believe in yourselves. Keep writing!
Order the book from: https://sites.google.com/site/jeffersonparkpress/