As a memoir writer for over fifteen years, the word “memoir,” has become ingrained in my thoughts and actions. The word or any form of it draws my attention like a magnet, urging me to record the captured reflections and takeaways. The journey to my completed memoir, Under the Birch Tree, to be published next year, is a result of tuning into all things memoir.
My learning process continues as I study cover designs, back cover copy, and blurbs of other memoirs to make mine as best it can be. And so I sought my like-minded memoirists at the recent Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago to speak with them about their books while garnering its look and feel in my hands. I would pay particular attention to what books draw me (and others) in for closer inspection and why I want to continue posing questions to the author. I owe it to my memoir to apply my due diligence to its publishing process.
With 150 booksellers and over 200 authors and presenters at the Lit Fest, an encounter with a memoirist or two was sure to happen. Large white tents bisected the streets of Dearborn and Polk creating walking paths on either side of and in between the tent sites. Arriving when the Fest opened, the early time and open aisles allowed me space to browse books and opportunities to chat with those sitting behind the tables. I noticed the seemingly endless white line of tents, acknowledging the extent of the fest’s layout. The myriad of all things writing and print reminded me how free we are to stake public spots, and to share our minds and talents for others to witness. I grabbed a newspaper from The Point, a literary magazine of ideas and ideals. The paper, an excerpt of essays and excerpts from Issue 13, was titled, “What Is America For?” We are fortunate to have the ability to not only pen our thoughts and ideas but also to share them for others to read. I continued on with this jump-start to my inspiration.
This year’s Lit Feast featured more authors, small presses and indie publishers than I can remember. Local vendors–Chicago Review Press, Northwestern University Press, University of Chicago Press–to name a few, offered me more knowledge about my city and those who live in it. The Chicago Writer’s Association and the Midwest Writer’s Association were eager to tell me what they were about. I not only identified more with my love for the city, but also felt a kinship among fellow Chicago writers.
I noticed the increase of self-published authors who produced quality books from memoir to science fiction to speculative fiction. I could not pass up an opportunity to meet a lone author who sat behind a table with his accomplishment in paperbacks stacked in neat piles in front of him.
Memoir writing is personal, individual, a one-of-a-kind with universal themes and an ability to heal with its reflections. Memoirs have a story to tell. Our memories are our stories. And each memoirist has his own story. I thought how every memoir is an extension of its writer. I discovered it wasn’t necessarily about an author’s book, but also about the writer.
I met Kenneth Rogers Jr. His story, Raped Black Male: A Memoir, is divided into three parts—“raped,” “black,” and “male”—and covers what it means “to be black, a father, a teacher, and a survivor of sexual abuse.” Rogers Jr. followed up this book with a new release, Heroes, Villains, and Healing, a guide for male survivors using DC superheroes and villains to heal childhood sexual abuse. This book, also divided into three sections, was written to help male survivors. I could not have been more impressed with Rogers Jr.’s ability to take his deeply personal story and extract meaning to teach others. His articulated message matched his unusual book cover design using superheroes, both drawing me in, wanting to know more.
And then there was Marcus Jones, a former gang member. In 1995, he became paralyzed from the waist down, got arrested and incarcerated for the third time. Marcus was passionate with his words, defiant with his message and wiser with his experiences. His memoir, Everyone Has A Story, And This Is Mine, conveys defining moments of success over failure, hope over despair and redemption over incarceration. I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying Jones’ book was a healing process, providing closure and avenues to transform his life-changing experience into a book of inspiration from one who truly knows how bad it can get.
As I discovered through my table-hopping, engaging with writers wasn’t limited to the memoirist. Derrick Blackwell tells of his book, Scars of A Magician, “about a teenage magician who is fighting his emotional demons on whether to walk a good path in life or dive head first into darkness.” As Blackwell, who is into computer drafting and design, talked about his fiction, fantasy book, his ability to apply his imagination to a universal theme amazed me.
As I headed home, I took a one-last-glance at vendor tents, and solitary writers commanding their own tables. I learned the value of articulating what my book is about and to weave in myself, not holding back on who I am as an author and why I wrote my book. I was assured that my memoir would be all that it’s meant to be. Talking with self-published writers instilled confidence, offering not only their books but also themselves to me and to Under the Birch Tree.