How Oprah Saved My Life

by Memoir Mentor on June 15, 2009

oprahIf the title of this post snagged your attention, good! It was meant to. Actually, I fudged a bit on the truth here…for effect. It really wasn’t Oprah who saved my life, but Oprah’s magazine, and it was my writing life, not my life life. To be specific, it’s the July issue that worked the magic on me, the one on newstands now, the one with Oprah peeking coyly over the top of a yellow book.  Here’s what happened.  

You see, I’ve been feeling bummed about my writing recently, wondering what the heck I was thnking when I decided some years back to write the family history of my paternal line–the Parrotts. I’ve done tons of research, have THREE file boxes jam-packed with well-organized material I’ve gleaned from libraries, the Internet, and expensive research trips to the Parrott ancestral lands. I have written several chapters, which are still mostly in the rough draft stages. Since my writing classes ended last month, I’ve dedicated blocks of time to really focus on my writing, struggling all the while with niggling guilt that drives me to wonder if my time would be more effectively spent elsewhere. When people ask me what I’ve been doing lately, I feel uneasy telling them I’ve been writing. I always suspect these people wonder who the heck has the luxury to spend her time writing and, worse, wonder who I think I am anyway…a writer? Cough, Cough. 

My doubts have multiplied lately because my writing hasn’t been going well. I’m trying to put my Parrott folks in the historical context of their times, and it isn’t easy getting in all the relevant historical facts and still keeping the story interesting and personal–about them, and not a textbook about the beginnings of Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio. I keep struggling with tone and point of view. Should this be chatty and informal, or more serious? How much should I inject myself into the story, using the “I” to explain my interpretation of things? Originally, I had planned the book  for a larger audience than my own relatives. In my current mood, I’m thinking maybe I’ve been aiming too high.

Last week I snatched up a copy of Martha Stewart’s new cupcake book and made two of her recipes. I feel happy and creative when I’m in the kitchen. I even think about the next  recipe I’m going to make when I’m exercising in the morning. You always hear that success comes naturally when you do what you love. I love to bake.  Can I honestly say I love to write? No. I love having written…when I’m happy with the result. I’ve loved the rare occasions when everything’s clicking in my head and the ideas and sentences that evolve from them flow through my fingers in a seemingly seamless stream of clarity and genius…or so I like to think. But on the whole, I find it all rather grueling. So, while I was making my last batch of cupcakes the other day, I was thinking my college years may have been more productively and joyfully spent at the Cordon Bleu cooking school instead of  at UCLA majoring in English. 

My pity-party was going full blast when Oprah came to my rescue. I sat down for lunch and opened her magazine to the literature pages, the first section I usually read. Turns out page 120 focuses on writing, and how writers do it, and how they struggle to do it well. Here’s a quote from the first article, by Jim Shepard, that began to breathe some life into my deflated psyche: “When writing is going well, it’s hard, and for most of us, most of the time it’s not going all that well.” Amen. I’ve read this kind of stuff before from other writers, but I needed to hear it again from someone else–today! 

Shepard goes on to make this monumentally helpful observation: “When students ask, ‘When did you know you might be a writer? How did you know?,’ one of the things I tell them is that they may be designed for that life if (a) they need to do it in order to feel good about themselves, even though (b) doing it almost never makes them feel good about themselves.”

Bingo. Lightbulb. That’s me! Maybe I don’t have to throw in the towel and admit that my life has been a waste. I just need to keep plodding, accepting that misery and doubt go with the territory, that it’s normal. Heck, I can do misery if I know it’s normal.

If you can relate to anything I’ve said here, do yourself a favor and buy the magazine. There are some encouraging words from Toni Morrison after Shepard’s article. And if Shepard and Morrison don’t lift your spirit’s , Oprah has an article about finding the right “Have you lost weight” dress–something I’ll surely need if I keep making Martha’s cupcakes. Here’s a thought: Writing is more slimming than baking!

It’s all that misery.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dana Tibbitts June 15, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Dawn, thanks for your honesty about the heartache of writing that plagues most of us much of the time. And the niggling voices that call to question the merit of the thing in the first place–not to mention the authenticity of the writer. I’m off to teach a class on writing – which is easier I think than sitting down and doing it! Then maybe I’ll bake some cupcakes. Bless you.

2 Jasia June 16, 2009 at 5:31 am

I needed to hear this. I’ve been procrastinating with my family history just like you have for the same reasons. The thing is, I feel better when I’m writing, when I can get in a rhythm. The problem is, I can only “get in a rhythm” when I’m writing fiction. If I have to stop to look up dates, spellings, facts, etc. it totally breaks my rhythm and I stall out. And without accurate dates, facts, etc. it’s hard to write an accurate family history 😉

Maybe I should try the cupcakes…

3 Elaine June 16, 2009 at 5:39 am

Dawn – Thanks for giving me a little push to get going this morning. I needed that. Next time someone asks you what you’ve been doing lately, you can tell them – making eye contact – and you might be surprised at their response. I bet one out of five will admit it’s something they’ve always wanted to do but are afraid to fail!

4 Penelope Przekop June 17, 2009 at 5:31 am

Hi Dawn,

I also loved the Castles in the Mind article! I blogged about it, too, and thought you might like to take a peek at what I had to say. Here’s the direct link:

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the article, and how it lifted your spirits. It was great for me as well. Good luck!

5 Matt Thurston June 22, 2009 at 9:45 am

Well said, Mom. While I’ve never attempted a writing project as ambitious as a book, I can definitely relate to the sentiments expressed in your blog post and the Oprah article. With some rare exceptions when you find yourself “in the zone,” writing is usually only enjoyable after the fact.

As for tone, whether serious or informal, I’m sure your Parrott history will be a great read. Personally, I’d prefer a more informal, “chatty” approach, with liberal doses of yourself inserted into the narrative. It’s often just and interesting (and fun) to learn about the author as the subject — especially what the author thinks/feels *about* the subject. And since you are a Parrott yourself, you might as well make it both biography and semi-autobiography.

6 Rose Marie Morrell July 9, 2009 at 12:33 pm


I went to your websight today to get some ideas for a class I am teaching tonight. I’m trying to find time to do a blog, so I looked at yours–you already know I’m your fan.

This blog article was what I needed today–not in June. The old Hu-M-I virus has been active a lot lately and I was rejuvinated by your thoughts and suggestions. It’s nice to know others occasionally have “those days” as well.

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