The Guts to Tell My Story
April 3, 2020 § 20 Comments
By Karen DeBonis
I met my future freelance book editor in 2001 at a memoir-writing class. Robyn’s writing was beautiful, her smile magnetic, and I trusted her to hear my story. One of the biggest fears memoirists have is that readers will dislike or even hate us for our faulty decisions and bad behaviors. With Robyn, I felt safe.
After a few years of shared critique groups, lunches, and coffee, we lost touch. I stopped working on my memoir because it got too painful. In fact, I stopped writing completely. Then a medical leave from work in 2016 presented me the opportunity to pick up where I’d left off. I looked Robyn up and saw that she had earned an MFA, taught creative writing, and started an editorial business. We met at a coffee shop and I told her I needed an editor. A month or two later, I handed over the goods—my first 100 pages—hoping they were good enough.
Years passed, or maybe it just felt that way, before we sat at Robyn’s dining room table, where she met most of her clients, where her fat cat plopped himself down on my dog-eared manuscript. I felt as nervous as I do with a new gynecologist who will peer into my most private places. Robyn flipped through some notes as if deciding where to start.
“It was riveting,” she finally said. “A page-turner.” Her husband poked his head in from the kitchen, where he had been opening cabinet doors and clanging dishes.
“I’ve never heard her say that to anyone,” he said with a wink. “So you should believe her.” And I did.
Riveting didn’t mean finished, though, and I had a year’s worth of work before our next meeting. Finally, I hit “send” and waited for what seemed like millennia for Robyn to say her edits were ready. This time, we rendezvoused in a library.
In the last chapter, I had added a scene that took place in 2018. In it, my husband, Mike, and I discussed the pediatrician who, from 1994 to 1997, had dismissed my concerns about our young son, missing what turned out to be symptoms of a brain tumor. Mike had dismissed my concerns, too, so he didn’t want to cast blame. I wanted to hold the pediatrician accountable for her stubbornness only as much as I held myself accountable for my complacency. At the time, my compulsive people-pleasing kept me mute. I didn’t know how to be assertive. I couldn’t speak up on behalf of my son. I was to blame, too, for the delay in his diagnosis. Papaji, an Indian guru, says it well: “If you’re acting like a sheep, do not blame the shepherd.”
“I hated you when I read that scene,” Robyn said. Her laugh told me she didn’t really hate me, so my people-pleasing kicked in and I smiled.
“I hate you now,” she said with a bigger laugh, in a very un-library-like voice. I experienced the disconnect that happens when my heart feels a jab that it can’t communicate to my face.
“Just be prepared,” she said, “Women will hate your guts.”
Robyn is a gun-control activist, an outspoken feminist. She’s worn her pink pussyhat at women’s marches where she’s commanded the megaphone to lead the chanting. She does not represent my target audience. She is not who needs my book. It was an awakening.
“I don’t fucking care what those women think,” I hissed in a somewhat library-appropriate whisper. I leaned toward her, my heart and face in sync. “I didn’t write this book for them and I couldn’t care less if they ever read it. I wrote it for the millions of women like me who need to learn to speak up.”
We looked at each other, speechless. The sun streamed in through the windows and lit the space between us like a photo shoot. The room seemed to have cleared, leaving Robyn and me and my empowered words.
“Write that down,” she said, breaking our impasse. Pointing her pen at my yellow legal tablet, she said, “Right now—write that down. That will go in your marketing proposal.” Her voice was urgent, her eyes intense.
The moment was a turning point, one of many as my spine grows straighter and my skin grows thicker. I can’t say that I’m not still anxious about telling my story, but I’m not as fearful as I used to be.
Now, I picture myself facing a reader who tries to shame me for my weakness.
“This is not the book for you,” I will say. “Find a friend who needs it, a friend who will grow because I had the guts to share my faulty decisions and bad behaviors.”
With those readers, I have no fear. I trust them to hear my story.
Karen DeBonis began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she’s to save herself and her son. Agreeable Mom: A Harrowing Story of People-pleasing is currently available for representation. A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.