October 4th, 2021

Navigating a Story Identity Crisis

by Karen Debonis

If I had a dollar for every time I asked myself, “What is my memoir really about?” I’d probably have enough money to hire a pricey publicist. Although at the rate my manuscript is coming together, I may never need a publicist.

My endless work-in-progress has been “finished” five times since I started writing it in 1999, two years after my eleven-year-old son, Matthew, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Each time I typed “The End,” I believed I had told the story I needed to tell.

Each time, I realized I was wrong.

In the past five years, since writing became my full-time occupation, I’ve done my due diligence: workshopping the manuscript with critique partners, submitting it for feedback from beta readers, paying a professional book editor. My manuscript has had a half-dozen working titles and subtitles, and the theme changed from “medical mystery” to “people-pleasing” to “personal growth.” I finally settled on people-pleasing.

I promised myself this was IT.

Then recently, it changed again.

My memoir’s narrative follows my young son's (and my) downward spiral due to his undiagnosed brain tumor, his painfully slow recovery, and our ultimate personal growth. His diagnosis was delayed, in part, because I was too afraid of conflict to stand up to doctors and loved ones who dismissed my concerns.

Last year, I was so convinced my universal theme was the destructive power of people-pleasing, I hired a web designer to update my website, and I reinforced my brand around that topic by creating and teaching a workshop, Wipe Your Feet before You Walk all over Me, (now on YouTube), and running focus groups and mother-daughter discussions.

Then, this summer, I asked my IRL beta readers to read my latest revision, Portrait of a People-Pleaser and the Son who Paid the Price. (Yes, it was a mouthful, but I’m a sucker for alliteration.)

Their main take-away: The story wasn’t enough about people-pleasing to support that theme.

I was stunned. After all this time, I’m back to the writing board?

Then, I quickly realized I’d heard similar feedback before—from editors, critique partners, my family. This time, the message got through and I realized my beta readers were right. But I worried that my carefully-built author platform would crumble—my website, my brand, my classes, my social media profiles.

My Book’s (and My) Identity Crisis

My story had a serious identity crisis. What was it really about? I asked my beta readers, and they suggested it had to do with motherhood. It sounded at once expansive, but commonplace.

In the people-pleasing publishing space, I had considered myself a big fish in a small sea because no other traditionally published, literary memoir with a focus on this topic existed. But the sea was so small, I couldn't find it. My tribe didn’t hang together like a school of fish; they were scattered.

When I tweeted my dilemma, Gail Boenning, a self-admitted "recovering people-pleaser” and author of two books, replied that, although many people occasionally say yes when they want to say no, not everyone identifies as a “people-pleaser.” It made sense.

But I feared entering the motherhood publishing space. I was certain to be a minnow in an ocean of  “mom-oirs,” half of them by mothers of a sick child. And I'm a weak swimmer. How would I stand out? How would my memoir survive?

I turned to those who’d survived these rough waters

Three pieces of advice to understand your manuscript:

Fellow memoirists on Facebook generously gave me advice, and three points stood out.

1) Let your book tell you what it’s about.

Kari L. O’Driscoll, author of Truth has a Different Shape: A Memoir, said, “Congratulations on letting your book tell you what it's about!”

I didn’t feel worthy of praise, because apparently, I hadn’t listened to my book, leaving mere humans to point me in the right direction. But knowing that my memoir had an opinion made me determined to tune in better.

2) Ask your story what it needs

Lorraine Segal, author of the memoir-in-progress Angels and Earthworms: An Unexpected Journey to Love, Joy, and Miracles took it a step further. She said,

“Allow the memoir to unfold. Allow it to be what it wants to be and ask it what it needs.

I took her advice. Closing my eyes, I rested my fingertips on my laptop and asked, “My beautiful memoir—What do you need?"

Almost immediately, it replied, as if the answer was there all along.

“I need to be read,” it said. “Yes, I’m about people-pleasing—that is an integral part of the story—but if that's all it is, and the sea is empty of readers, no one will read the story. I'm too important to gather dust on a shelf, so let's make a deal. I'll go broad in what I have to teach, and you (Karen) go broad in finding me readers. Deal?”

Deal. I hadn’t known how wise my manuscript was.

3) Your memoir (or story) is the only fish in your sea.

Judith Hannan, author of Motherhood Exaggerated addressed my fear of getting lost in the overcrowded sea. She wrote,

“You are not a minnow but the same size fish as everyone else. There is only one Karen DeBonis ocean and you are the only fish in it. Write that story.”

It hit home. And, now that my manuscript and I are communicating better, this is what I know about its identity at this stage:

The new title reflects not only the story, but the work I’ve done to get it this far: Growth: A Mother, her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived. This version is about the clash between a woman’s naive expectations of motherhood and her son’s crushing needs, which destroys her confidence and threatens her stability.

I accept now that this identity may change, that my memoir and I may still miscommunicate, and that is all part of the process. Perhaps “finished memoir” is an oxymoron.

My critique group recently shared their feedback on my last chapter, and I finished my revisions. Now, I’ll go back to chapter 1 and start again.

I’ll keep asking “What is my memoir really about?” And this time, I’ll be all ears.

Have you had a book identity crisis? How did you resolve it? Please share your story with us down in the comments section!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Karen

Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, perseverance, and people-pleasing, an entangled mix told in her memoir GROWTH: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived, available for representation.

A happy empty-nester, she lives in an old house in upstate New with her husband of thirty-nine years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.

Top Photo by Kaushal Moradiya from Pexels

18 responses to “Navigating a Story Identity Crisis”

  1. Thank you, Karen, for your excellent honesty. I am currently writing fiction, and your experience has import for my novel.

  2. Our youngest daughter's life has been complicated by an undiagnosed and extremely 'rare in sighted females' sleep disorder. I've blogged about it, will post once more now that the solution has been published as a case study, and have arranged to have one of the medical mystery people at a major newspaper write it up - because sleep disorders are more common, I believe, in teens; sleep doctors seem not to see them or even consider them properly as a diagnosis; and they brand your child as mentally ill instead. It cost her years of her life, and a rocky path through college, but she has a working solution - how much do I worry about other kids and how could I reach them?

    It's a good story, certainly not worth a whole book right now, and I understand a bit of what you went through, as the 'brain tumor' is one of the largest of parent fears.

    Part of what you will be doing is educating other parents to what not to miss, as I hope to do on a lesser scale. Tough one: do you get it out unfinished not to miss the people who could be benefiting right now if it were out? Or do you wait until it's right in some other definition? Hope you can do both.

    • Alicia- I'm so sorry about all you went through with your daughter's medical mystery. It brings to mind "Brain on Fire" by Susannah Cahalan--she was almost put in a psychiatric hospital before one determined neurologist diagnosed her rare condition, which was treatable. As for my memoir increasing awareness ...yes, it will, but not about brain tumors per se; my son's symptoms were too anomalous. The awareness will be more about learning to trust your gut and find your voice. I hope not to make parents wait too long. Fingers crossed...

      • It is important to get the information out there, somehow. 'Anomalous symptoms' are the exact reason you have to publish.

        My posts are about my daughter being an okapi, not just rarer than horses, but rarer than zebras! Doctors who focus on horses, without even acknowledging the existence of other ungulates, do an incredible amount of damage. You can't find what you're not even looking for.

        • No wonder your daughter was written up as a case study and a big paper is interested. I wrote in my memoir something about my son's doctor's looking only horses, not zebras. It's a great metaphor.

  3. Karen, your post hit home.

    I can relate these three points to my writing. Sometimes working on the manuscripts feels like long channeling sessions with the story taking me where I need to go.

    This is a small thing, but once a character insisted on a name change. He in now Hugo.

    Thank you for this thoughtful blog post!

    • Ellen, I'm so glad this resonated with you. I love that your character wanted a name-change, and I love even more that you heard and honored his request! I was surprised that when I asked my memoir what it was about, it had a ready answer, just like Hugo did. Maybe there's more to the phrase "bringing a story to life" than we know!

  4. Jae says:

    I think #1 is true of any story and is really great advice! Maybe it's more of a problem for plotters (at least in fiction) but you have to let your story lead you where it does. It's good to a have a plan, sure, but you also have to let it ultimately go where it does.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Jae. I'd often heard that fiction writers let the story lead them. It was an eye-opener to find that memoir can do the same thing. It proves how powerful stories and words truly are!

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    After getting a bunch of feedback and realizing my story couldn't be fixed the way I was advised, I decided a rewrite would be a better course.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I know writers who have re-written stories 3-4 times. Sometimes you need to get those early drafts out of the way so you can find the true story. But it's hard to give up that much time. That's the heartbreaking part to me about writing.

    • Ouch. I feel your pain, Denise. But sometimes, like Jenny said, you have to get those early drafts out of the way. When I was in the midst of this recent book identity crisis, a manuscript editor suggested I start from scratch and rewrite the whole thing. I knew if I had to do that, I'd probably quit instead. I think I salvaged my story (actually, I think it's better than ever) but I guess I'll have to see. I'm curious - have you started the rewrite? If so, how is that working for you?

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    The rewrite I'm doing is basically a new story, but it shares the heart of the old one. I should just call it a new story, but I can borrow from the other one some. Characters with new names, different, but similar jobs, and a clear focus.

    It will accomplish the goals of what I was advised I needed, but I get to control the story. Some of the changes just wouldn't work for my vision, nor for theirs. And rather than creating a patchwork which wasn't going to sell, a fresh start made so much more sense. I just needed to hash it out with another friend, and she helped me out of the rut.

  7. Peg Conway says:

    I relate to the dilemma! What ultimately helped me was incorporating a visual art practice -- Soul Collage -- to help me get out of my head and gain perspective. Good luck!! I can't wait to read your story.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Peg! I'll have to check out the Soul Collage. I did something somewhat similar, in concept, at least. I bought a fun book--Doodling for Writers by Rebecca Fish Ewan. It was a fun distraction. I'll have to remember it for my next identity crisis, unless, (hopefully), there is none!

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