Why I Finally Wrote My Memoir at Age 67
I was raised in a world of advantage and thought I had no right to tell family secrets. And then my sister killed herself
At the age of 67, I wrote my first book; and there’s no one more surprised than me!
I’ve been a visual artist all my life, and writing was never my wheelhouse even long ago, when I was in college. I always thought my family’s story was an interesting one. Often enough, I said to myself I should write a book, but there were always bigger reasons why I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t a writer. I was busy, and writing a book was too big a task. The story was too personal, and who would want to read it? I also knew there were people still living who would have been hurt if I told the truth, and what good was the story, if it wasn’t truthful?
A Death Creates an Inflexion Point
Years passed while I hesitated, and then my sister, Debbie, committed suicide.
When she died, my biggest excuse was suddenly gone. By then, everyone who was a major player in the story had passed away except my sister, Carolyn. That’s when I decided to write down some of the stories, one by one. I worried that if I didn’t do at least that much, our history would disappear into the ether as if it never existed. My son, Nelson, had never met most of the people in the story, and I felt a responsibility to preserve what I could for him. I would also do it for the others in my family who hadn’t been there either.
They might not know my father or mother’s fascinating and tragic backstories of arranged marriages, and burlesque, poverty and suicide. They certainly didn’t know what it was like to live as we did, where staff members were more involved in children’s care than their own parents. They also couldn’t have known about the strange and surreal life we led in the wealthy town of Palm Beach, where royalty and captains of industry strolled the same avenues with an escapist kangaroo and a friendly Galapagos tortoise. Our everyday lives were unusual in so many ways, and I felt it was important to preserve those stories.
My life was busy, but even so, over the next few years, I managed to write down a few of the stories. They were rough, but at least I was doing something in that direction. At some point, I even managed to take a couple of adult ed classes in town on memoir writing. I wanted to reassure myself that I was on the right track, acquainting myself with the medium in some general way. I had already written maybe eight or nine vignettes when I began the memoir class, but now they began to take shape in my mind as chapters in a much longer piece of writing.
Around this time, I went to my sister Carolyn and asked her how she would feel if I wrote a book about us and our whole family. I wanted to know how she would feel if I described particular aspects of her life that I might include in the book. I was overjoyed when she gave her blessing on all of it.
The Pandemic Creates an Urgency to Tell My Story
And then the pandemic hit.
Time stretched out before me with no vaccine, and no one was sure if one was ever coming. My partner and I were in our sixties, and clearly at risk. Aside from my weekly memoir class on Zoom, my partner and I were effectively in a state of nearly total isolation. Even though I was an artist, the low hum of stress made it strangely impossible for me to pick up a paintbrush or even my camera. Everything felt different.
I can remember being out in our front yard planting the bulbs I had purchased on the internet, wondering if we would still be there in spring to see them emerge. It seemed the whole world had stopped in its tracks and we were no exception. And then it came to me. What did I have to lose? Now I had time, endless and unrelenting time, to do whatever it was I wanted to do.
The emotions rising inside of me needed some sort of outlet, and I found that writing brought me some comfort. It felt like I was doing something vital, something for posterity. So what if I’d never written a book before! I would do my best, and if I failed, at least I failed trying.
Every day during the pandemic, my computer became my best friend. I poured my heart out, filling in the story of my family and all of the people around us as we were growing up. I could explain Debbie’s suicide. I could write a tribute to the flawed and painful past we had all shared and somehow give it meaning. I wrote like a person possessed. The pandemic drove me forward as nothing else might have. I needed to get it done, just in case I might not survive. For the months to come, I continued to write at a furious pace until, at last, I felt I was nearing the end.
By then, it was a year and a half into the pandemic and my memoir class teacher, Andrea, took me aside to say she had edited books before, and that she would be willing to serve as my editor. Of course, I accepted enthusiastically. I had no idea what kind of editor she might be, or even what kind of task I was signing on for. All I knew was that every writer needs an editor, and I would be grateful for whatever guidance she might offer me in order to get the story in proper shape for publication. I was very lucky. Andrea knew all the ins and outs of preparing a written work for publication. I had no doubt she understood my book, and we got on beautifully. I had devoted a huge chunk of time to the book, and now, I was all in with her.
Finding an Editor Who Understands My Story
During the months that followed, I learned a lot about another process that was entirely new to me. It was more fascinating and arduous than I ever imagined, and I gained a new appreciation for what it means not only to write a book, but then to edit and polish one for publication. I read and adjusted and reread the book so many times during that period that I came to know nearly every sentence by heart. It was exhausting. We searched for the hidden squirrels: the typos and the words that needed improvement. Andrea attended to all the punctuation (a weak spot for me), and we both combed the text for sentences that needed tweaking. At some point, we even laid the whole book out on my dining table and eyed the chapters for continuity, checking and re-checking dates and facts to be sure that everything lined up properly. Some chapters were ultimately thrown out, while others were combined until we were both satisfied that the book was complete.
Fortunately, Andrea knew a wonderful formatter and brought her on board to fit the text properly into book form for publication. The cover photo was a no-brainer, once I thought of it. I had taken the photograph four days after Debbie’s memorial service, never imagining back then that it would serve as my own book cover, but it was perfect. The girl in the photograph even looked like Debbie! The title was harder to settle on, but once it came to me, the rest was easy — well, almost.
Deciding to Self-Publish on Amazon
I had to decide whether to look for a publisher or to self-publish on Amazon, but I knew that having a publisher would likely mean handing over the reins to them. They could change the cover, and the title, and they would even have the right to alter the text in significant ways. Ultimately, I decided to protect what I had done, and publish the book myself. I’m so glad I did. The book I have now on my bookshelf is, in every detail, the one I chose to create.
Now, the one thing that kept me up at night was wondering how it might be received by those people who were closest to me. After all, it wasn’t the happy story they might be hoping for, as I revealed many things which are most often kept private, even among family members. I had always felt a private sense of shame for the advantages I’d had growing up. I also knew that with massive dysfunction of my family considering our circumstances, some might find it shocking and difficult to read.
When the book was done, I mailed a few copies to relatives, and then friends and acquaintances began to buy it on Amazon. Nervously, I awaited their response. I was not only surprised but delighted when my family actually thanked me for writing the book! They told me that it explained so much about their own experiences, and as it turned out, my friends also found the story fascinating and inspirational despite the darker portions of the book. I have to say, it was a tremendous relief. These days, the book is still doing well, but now it is being read by people who never knew me, or my family.
I remember thinking that no one could relate to my story or even want to read the book I could write.
I was wrong.
Helen Morse was born in New York City in 1954. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, and then Kirkland College in Clinton, NY, where she majored in fine art photography. Aside from writing, Morse has been exhibiting her photographs and artwork both nationally and internationally for over 40 years. Morse now lives in Newbury, Massachusetts.
Find her memoir, The Difficult Girl, on Amazon.