Over the past year-and-a-half since writing an adoption memoir Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parent’s Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children, I’ve been approached by many who consider themselves aspiring authors. Most commonly, they express, “I’ve always wanted to write a book!” and proceed to describe a life experience that they feel they must share with the world.
I’ve been asked several times about the process of writing a book, finding a publisher, and producing something worthy of a reader’s money and time. This is when I flashback to the months and months of staying up until the early morning hours, my eyes bloodshot and my vision fuzzy, while I either typed furiously on the keyboard or stared blankly at the screen. I was equally driven, scared-to-death, and frustrated. Writing a book is one of the most time-consuming, stressful, elating experiences of my life.
Few who decide they want to write a book actually write the book. Even fewer of these reach the point of publication. One such author, Claudia Chapman, author of Hypothetical Future Baby: An Unsentimental Adoption Memoir, offers advice and tips to those who consider their story book-worthy:
Rachel: Tell me about yourself, personally and professionally.
Claudia: I’m an Australian married to an Englishman, living near London with our adopted Ethiopian son and daughter and our outrageously handsome cat. To sum us up, when our children created an imaginary shop last week, they told me it stocked two things: bibles and wine. They definitely have this family figured out. I work two days a week at our local University and Jay works in London for the other three. We share the childcare between us and neither of us have any idea what we’ll be doing with ourselves when the children start school for the first time in September. I’m hoping it’s going to involve the couch and a whole lotta bonbons. If I’m wrong, please don’t burst my bubble.
Rachel: Your book wasn’t, as you say, a “how to” guide, but in some ways, it was. You carefully walked the line between a tell-all adoption memoir and helping other parents navigate the process. Can you explain your goals for the book?
Claudia: What I was trying to write was a book that I, personally, would have liked to read as a prospective adoptive parent. The audience is wider than that, of course, but these were the people I was really thinking about while I was writing. I was trying to write a story that people (okay, mostly women!) would emotionally connect with, especially if they had experienced fertility difficulties. While we were waiting, I read a few books that made me think oh, I’m not the only one feeling like this! and I hoped that Hypothetical Future Baby would make other people think the same thing. That was my primary goal, I suppose—to write something honest that might make other people feel less alone in what can be an incredibly isolating time. As a Christian, I also wanted to be honest about how what we went through had challenged my faith. And while I didn’t want to tell people what to do in a ‘how to’ sense, I did want to make my readers think, because thinking is my favourite thing. Oh, and I wanted it to be funny, because I can only take heavy books if they’re funny. By the end though, I pretty much just wanted it to be finished!
Rachel: There’s a lot of controversy in the adoption community regarding adoptive parents sharing too much about their children in writing. Some argue that it’s the adoptee’s story, and he or she deserves privacy. You share this same idea in your book. So, in your opinion, what are the “deal breakers”—what won’t you share and what’s ok to share?
Claudia: That’s a tough one, and I doubt any two people would have quite the same view on this. In the social media age, I think that we’ve all seen people who seem to be addicted to an oversharing buzz, and anybody who blogs, especially about family, needs to be aware of this and careful about it. Ultimately, the aim of any kind of personal writing should be connection, not exhibitionism. I share a lot of myself when I write, but I certainly don’t share everything, because that would be weird and gross. I try to share even less about my children. It’s very tricky, though, because while I have the right to tell my own story, it intersects with my children’s stories and there aren’t many clear lines. My principle is that anything that belongs entirely to them—their birth history, especially, and their family—is completely off limits. It’s not about me at all, so I don’t get to share it in any kind of a public forum. Now that they are getting older, and we have much more of a shared history, it’s more difficult to work out where the lines are, especially on issues like how our parenting philosophy works out in practice. Sometimes when I’m thinking about writing something, I have to ask myself exactly why I want to share it, and whether it might be more appropriate to just vent on the phone to my sister. But I still think that there is a lot we can share without violating family trust.
I hope I haven’t said anything about my children that would make them feel embarrassed or upset, but writing anything at all means that I have to be open to the possibility that I’ve gotten it wrong. I don’t think there’s a rule on this one. I think the key has to be kindness—I shouldn’t write anything about anybody, not just my children, that I wouldn’t be willing to have written about myself. And then, if I have got it wrong, then I hope they will be kind to me when they tell me about it in family therapy.
Rachel: In a culture where “telling all” is valued, even expected, and privacy seems to be disappearing, how do you, as an adoptive parent, help maintain your family’s privacy while being so obvious, so spotlighted (as a transracial adoptive family)?
Claudia: The great thing about being British is that people are much less direct than they are in the US. If people are being inappropriately curious, they are much more likely to ask oblique questions than get right in my face. As my kids get older, I mostly get around this by playing dumb and pretending that I have no idea what they are asking about. It might not be cool to be deliberately obtuse but I’ve gotta say, so far it’s working pretty well.
Rachel: Who should consider writing an adoption memoir? Why?
Claudia: Ha! Well, my opinion is that you should only consider writing an adoption memoir if you would enjoy standing naked in a public place and having people point at you, because that’s what it feels like. Seriously. In nearly all adoption stories, the main tension is emotional and personal—the reader already knows the adoption will be successful before they pick up the book, so they aren’t turning the pages just to see if that works out. The real story isn’t about whether you ended up becoming a mother (or a father!) it’s about what happened to you on the way there. So if you aren’t willing to lay your heart open, bloody and raw, it’s probably not going to be an interesting story. Conversely, if it’s all just passion and emotion with no real narrative—no sense of so what happened next? to draw the reader in—it’s not going to be very interesting either. You have to be able to cut fiercely, to get rid of at least ninety percent of all that rawness in order to turn a bunch of stuff that happened into a story, because that’s what a memoir has to be; ultimately it’s a story. It takes a huge amount of discipline to dig in deep, pull out the raw and broken parts of yourself, lay them on the page and then be detached enough to polish nearly all of it away until what you have left is nothing but the kernel, the nub, the diamond heart of that bloody meaty slab you started with. I think this is the hardest thing I found about writing a memoir—you need to be both extremely raw and then extremely disciplined. Also it should look effortless. If that sounds fun to you, start sharpening your pencils!
Rachel: Give some advice regarding the process of writing your book. How did you find time?
Claudia: When I started writing, I honestly had no idea how much time it was going to take or what an intense process it was going to be. Because I had blogged a lot, I thought I was most of the way there, and I could not have been more wrong. It took an astonishing amount of time, and honestly I can hardly tell you where I found it. I did it because I loved the process and the challenge and having a project that had nothing to do with the daily tasks of mothering or working, but it was my only hobby for several years. Often, it felt like having a third job, mostly because I am a very very slow writer and an even slower editor. All together I think I did seven drafts, and I guess I found the time by not doing other stuff. As a mother of little kids, the only way to do anything like this is to decide that you want to do it more than everything else that you could use your spare time for. I don’t think I baked a cake or got out my sewing machine for three years, and for me that was a totally worthwhile trade because I like writing more than I like to bake and sew. The worst part is that there is zero instant gratification—unless you’re going to get the project finished, there’s not much point starting. By year three, it was the thought of everything I’d already done in years one and two that kicked me over the finish line.
Rachel: Did you think people would buy the book?
Claudia: Honestly, I had no idea! Fortunately they did. There’s no money in books, none at all, but it means more than I can say when readers tell me they’ve read and loved the book. A few times, people have got in touch with me to say what HFB meant to them, and then every minute spent not baking snicker doodles is worth it, ten times over.
Rachel: What makes a memoir intriguing enough for someone to purchase?
Claudia: I read a lot of books about writing, and specifically about writing memoir, and they all said the same thing—this is only going to be worth reading if it reads like a proper story, with a real narrative arc and proper pacing and characters that people will care about. I thought I had this after my third draft but got some outside feedback saying no, you’re not quite there yet, this structure isn’t working. It was vital to get this kind of honesty from someone who wasn’t wrapped up in the process like I was, even though the feedback made me want to throw the unfinished book against the wall! After three drafts I think it’s impossible not to have writing snow-blindness and I just couldn’t see this myself, even though it was absolutely true. So I picked myself back up, cut even more chapters out, added two more in, moved the three essays to the end and finally I realized oh, right, this reads like a proper book now. I think it’s impossible to overestimate just how brutal it is to have to shoehorn your life into a narrative arc, but it’s also impossible to overestimate how important it is if a memoir is going to make people want to turn the pages. A book is not open ended, like a blog, and you have to force yourself to be detached enough to know what to cut out. (Spoiler alert: the answer is almost everything). The main thing to remember is: just because it happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
Rachel: What advice to have for anyone considering writing an adoption memoir?
Claudia: My main advice would be to think hard about everything I’ve said above about writing it as a story. And I’ll pass on the advice I got from others: read, read, read! Read memoirs (dozens of them) and work out what you like and what you don’t, and whether it’s a genre that you really do enjoy enough to add to it. Read books about writing. Read books about writing memoir. Read blogs about writing. Crucially, read blogs about publishing because the missing link between a manuscript and an audience is a publisher and knowing how that link works should influence your writing from the beginning. After all that reading, decide whether this is something you really want to spend all your spare time on. And, if the answer is yes, do as Hemingway said—apply the seat of your pants the seat of the chair and begin!