Writing Without My Mother – a story the writer felt had to be told

How to write a memoir

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This interview with Melissa Cistaro, author of Without My Mother, is part of our series of interviews with authors who have either self-published or worked with a publishing house. The earlier interviews in this series are:
Josh Steimle – author of CMOs At Work
Fiona Fenwick – author of Stand Out & Step Up: A Reputation Tool Kit For Life
Sharon Hart-Green – author of Come Back to Me
Heather Hansen – author of The Elegant Warrior: How to Win Life’s Trials Without Losing Yourself

At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to write Without My Mother?

It is a story I needed to tell. A story that wouldn’t let me go on without telling it.

As a child, I didn’t believe that I had a voice worth hearing. I was shy and soft-spoken – a quiet girl who kept everything inside. But something changed when I became a mother and it had to do with this need to understand my mother and how she came to walk away from her three children. When I became a mother, my memories of childhood became even more vivid. Becoming a mother is ultimately what turned me into a writer.

Writing a memoir
Melissa Cistaro

Telling a deeply personal story

Without My Mother is incredibly personal; you make yourself vulnerable by telling your story. You reveal your own truths and also what could be considered universal truths about the effects of abandonment. What has it taken for you to be able to do that?
It took many years and many attempts to whittle down my story to what was essential. We never stop longing for our mothers, but within us exists the power turn our grief into something tangible and transformational. For me, that came through writing this memoir.

Handling those who couldn’t understand the writer’s perspective

A small number reviewers and readers on Goodreads have been judgmental in that they’ve not been able to understand your feelings about your mother or some of your thoughts about the past. How does this make you feel and how are you handling it?
I stay away from reading reviews. All writers and especially memoirists will come under criticism and their books will undoubtedly be misunderstood by some readers. That’s part of the deal when you publish a book and make yourself vulnerable.

My book is ultimately about forgiveness and some readers may not have come to that place of forgiving whoever hurt them – and those are generally the readers who are upset with the idea that I could possibly find forgiveness for my mother.

I stand behind this sentence in the book – “I wouldn’t trade my mom for any other in the world.” Perhaps Aristotle says it better: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: “Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Twelve years to write Without My Mother

You’d never written a book before Without My Mother. When you embarked on it, how did it feel?
This is my first book – though I worked on it over the course of twelve years. It began as a series of short stories about growing up with my dad and brothers. I wrote about the unpredictable visits with my mom. Over time I began to see that it might become a complete book.

When I learned that my mother was dying, it felt even more urgent to tell the story. The US edition of the book Pieces of My Mother came out in the states before the HarperCollins Canadian edition Without My Mother.

Writing a book is an incredible amount of work, probably more than most people realize. How did you approach and manage writing your book, given that you are a busy mom and have other responsibilities?
We have to honor our obsessions – and writing is one of my obsessions. I took every opportunity I had to write. I’d drop the kids at school and go straight to a coffee shop to write. I’m grumpy if I don’t carve out time to write. If you want to write a book, you have to be in for the long journey and it most likely will take you way longer than you ever imagined.

If someone told me it was going to take me twelve years to write this book, I may not have made it to the finish line. If you have a story that needs to be told, you will make the time to do it.

Select publishing method based on audience

Did you ever consider self-publishing, or did you submit proposals to a number of publishers, including Sourcebooks?
I wanted this book to be curated with a mainstream publisher behind it. I was lucky to find two publishers that took an interest in the book – Sourcebooks in the US and HarperCollins in Canada. I also believe that self-publishing is a wonderful way for writers to put their work out into the world. I know many writers who have chosen self-publishing and been happy with doing so. It depends on your audience and what you most want from the experience.

In terms of structure and editing, did you work with an editor?
I was in writing group with published authors for many years in Los Angeles. After those years, I kept a few trusted readers who helped me stay on track. I think it’s important to have at least a completed first draft before showing your work to an editor. Remember too that your work will go through many revisions in the publishing process as well. It sometimes feels like the edits are never going to end!

Exhilarating to hold the first copy of Without My Mother!

How did it feel when your book was finished and you had a copy in your own hands?

Surreal. Exhilarating. Terrifying. Without My Mother landed on the Canadian bestseller list (Globe & Mail and The Toronto Star) for nine weeks. This was beyond any expectation I ever had for the book and I am immensely grateful to HarperCollins Canada.

I also had the opportunity after the book came out in May of 2019 to be featured on three Toronto television shows including CTV’s “The Social” – “Your Morning” with Kelsey McEwen and “Global Morning” with Jeff McArthur and Carolyn Mackenzie. These public experiences felt good after all my years of working on the book in silence.

Be flexible when working with a publisher

What key lessons did you learn from your first book and working with a publisher?
Be prepared to be flexible when working with your publisher. They most likely will try to change your title (my US editor later revealed that they change nearly 90 percent of the titles that come in!). The editing process was grueling but my editor ultimately helped tighten and shape the book.

Also be prepared to create your own presence on social media – pick and choose the platforms that best serve you as an author. You may or may not have a publicist in-house to help you out with navigating your social media presence.

What are the rewards of writing a book?
Connecting with readers. Receiving emails and letters from readers has been one of the unexpected rewards of writing this memoir. I learned how many people carry the pain or the loss of a parent – and every response I receive is meaningful. It is in these personal responses to the book that I receive – these unexpected gifts that arrive in my inbox.

A stranger from across the country takes the time to read my story and then makes the time to write me a personal and moving email. This keeps happening. And it is why we share our stories. To reach – as far as we can to corners of the world we will never visit in our lifetime. To faces we may never meet. We are hardwired for connection. This is how we survive.

Is an audio book in the works?
There is an audio version of the US title Pieces of My Mother by Blackstone Media. I’ve never listened to it – and am still kicking myself for not narrating it myself.

Marketing needs focus, but don’t let it consume you

How much attention should authors pay to marketing?
My suggestion is to focus on the writing first. Marketing and self-promotion will gobble up all your time and creativity (unless you’re good at it and love doing it). Do what you can but don’t dump all your time and energy into self-promotion. Pick one or two social media platforms and limit your time each day.

I was fortunate to have an in-house publicist prior to my book coming out. I have author friends who have greatly benefited from hiring an outside publicist or marketing specialist. It’s important to ask your publisher how much attention they will be giving your book. Always focus first on making the writing and storytelling as strong as you can – that’s what people are going to remember.

What advice do you have for first-time authors?

If you have a story you need to tell – there is no better time than right now to write it. There are so many options and ways for writers to publish their work today.

When I teach a memoir class I always share this quote by poet Mary Oliver: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”

Take writing classes and workshops if you can. Find your writing community. Go listen to authors read at bookstores (and buy their books!). Make time to write. And read, read, read. Find the authors who inspire you. And when you love a book, reach out and let the author know. This is being a literary citizen- and someday you may find yourself turning the pages of your own book.

Author Melissa Cistaro

Melissa Cistaro is an author and writer based in Northern California. Her stories and interviews have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, Bookish, PBS To The Contrary,  as well as the anthologies Cherished and Love and Profanity.

Melissa works a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, an esteemed independent bookstore in Corte Madera, California. You can find Melissa at Melissacistaro.com and Twitter.

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