Barbara Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and a poetry collection, Here at Least. Her award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops and speaks on women’s and poverty-related issues. Visit her website and blog at bmorrison.com. See a review of Morrison’s book in the book review section of this website.
I never planned to write a memoir. My efforts all went toward poetry and fiction, short stories and the beginning of a novel. Plus, my life seemed pretty unremarkable; I wasn’t the First Lady or a movie star.
Then I met Marita Golden, author of After and other amazing novels and memoirs. We talked about opening up stereotypes, and I confessed that part of my mission as a writer was to show the real lives of people living in poverty, having myself been on welfare as a young, single mother. She suggested that writing a memoir –telling my real story– would be more powerful than fiction. The truth of this was brought home to me a little while later when I started reading what I thought was a memoir. About halfway through I realized that it was a novel, and immediately the huge power I’d found in the narrative just melted away.
Writing a book-length manuscript requires a different kind of approach than short forms like stories or essays. I floundered around redoing the first chapter a zillion times until a member of my critique group finally advised me to push through the first draft, no matter how awful it seemed, and the shape of the book would become clear to me, the threads that I’d want to weave through the story, the way I needed to begin and end it.
She was right! The critique group was also hugely helpful in that I used our monthly meetings as a deadline: I had to have a chapter ready for each meeting. Plus their comments and our discussion helped me see where I was going astray. Once I finished the first draft, I stepped back and looked at the not-very-detailed outline I’d been following. I revised the outline and identified the threads that would provide some consistency, like motifs in a piece of music. It took multiple drafts to get the manuscript where I wanted it, and my long-suffering critique group faithfully read and re-read chapters as well as one final read-through of the whole thing.
I thought writing the book was hard, but it was nothing compared to selling it. I knew I’d have a hard time finding a publisher. A memoir about welfare was not an intuitively popular subject, and with the economy tanking and the publishing industry in an uproar over e-books, publishers were unwilling to take a chance on a book that would take a while to find an audience.
Also, I had no platform. I had no reputation as an author or as an authority on poverty. So I set to work to fix that. I began a weekly book blog which I continue today and got involved in several social networks. I self-published a collection of my poetry in order to learn how to approach bookstores and set up readings. I became active in my local writer’s association and volunteered to staff our booth at book fairs. I submitted excerpts of the manuscript as stand-alone essays for contests and publication. With a few prizes and publication credits to my name, I finally had the credentials to begin selling the book.
I queried agents. I queried editors. I received many rejections and came to treasure the few with hand-written notes on the form letter saying how much they liked the manuscript even though they couldn’t publish it. I went to a pitch conference to perfect my approach. I ran down any contact offered by a friend. I took advantage of opportunities to meet with agents and editors at writing conferences. Some asked to see the manuscript, but even if not, talking with them was still good practice. I even paid a professional editor to review the manuscript and provide comments on how it could be improved, though that was a waste of money, the comments being quite minimal and not much use.
When I finally found a publisher, I could hardly believe it. In fact, I didn’t believe it for a long time because the tiny detail of a contract somehow slipped through the cracks. In retrospect, I should have asked much earlier, because when I did finally — hesitantly!– ask about the contract it was sent to me immediately. Obviously if I’d had an agent, she or he would have dealt with all that, but now that the book was sold, I didn’t see much purpose in approaching an agent, especially since I couldn’t find one to represent me before. I still don’t know if that was the right decision, but I’ve certainly enjoyed working directly with my publisher.
If selling the book was hard, getting people to buy it has been ten times harder. Like most small presses, my publisher expected me to promote the book. And, even though selling is not my strong point, I had planned ahead and so was ready to jump right in. The problem is that there are a thousand and one ways to promote a book, so it is pretty much a never-ending task. However, it all doesn’t have to be done at once, so I keep plugging away at it.
And I also am well aware that having to promote my published work is a good problem to have! My book has been published, and that’s pretty great. However, if it were not for the support, both emotional and technical, that I received from my critique group and my colleagues in the local writer’s association, I never would have made it this far. The book is their accomplishment too. So my advice to writers and to other young, single mothers is: surround yourself with supportive people; speak from your heart; and never give up.