From the Desk of Denise Low: How Long Does It Take To Write a Memoir?

The following contribution is from Denise Low, author of The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (January 2017).

How Long Does It Take To Write a Memoir?

People ask how long it took me to write The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival,  a memoir about my family’s Indigenous American heritage. The easy answer is, “All my life.” But few are satisfied with this short answer, but really, it took a lifetime.

From birth I learned the family story. My parents taught values of sharing, listening, and respect for other ethnicities. Their teachings about our origins, though, were vague.

My father occasionally made a comment about my mother’s Native heritage. My mother praised her German and Irish mother’s backgrounds and ignored her father’s. In the 1950s, schools promoted the United States melting pot paradigm, how everyone assimilates into one populace—except for those who do not. In this pre-Civil Rights era, divisions were apparent in my hometown of Emporia, Kansas. Grandfather, with his dark skin, was ignored.

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When I started my own family, I was too busy to think about heritage, even as I continued my family’s values in child-rearing practices. “Don’t interrupt,” I would order, and “Sit still and listen.” Mother’s voice echoed in my own. Between ball games I began to dabble in family genealogy because I like history in general.

In my forties, finally, I had time to talk with my parents and older relatives. Mother revealed a trove of photographs stored in the basement. This is where my memoir really began, 1990s, as I saw obvious cognitive breaks in the family myths. My mother claimed her relatives were blond northern Europeans, yet picture albums showed many handsome relatives with black hair and dark skin.

I began informal interviews with relatives and Native friends, especially members of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma. Oral tradition corroborated documents. Genealogical websites like Ancestry.com provided census records that verified, or dispelled, family assumptions. More years passed.

Algonquin-related names appeared frequently in these annals, and the Delaware identity of the family become more clear. In both New Jersey and Ohio, the family lived on or near Native lands. In earlier centuries, these were refugee camps where related groups of Lenape, Mohicans, and others came together for survival.

I found great allies in cousins who had more photographs and stories. Mi’kmaq author Alice Azure recommended that I speak with Mitchell Bush (Onondaga), who remembered a New Jersey Delaware man who was a Bruner. My preface lists dozens who contributed to the effort, but I had no definite goal beyond recovering the family story.

Joseph Harrington’s book Things Come On: An Amneoir  gave me impetus to put fingers to keyboard. Joe, a friend, is a poet and professor at the University of Kansas. His mixed-genre book maps memory of his mother’s life wound into historic events of her time. He coined the word “Amneoir,” a compound of “amnesia” and “memoir.” The term is provocative and fits many histories that are fragmented, suppressed, and ignored. Joe was an ally. In 2011, I created folders on my computer for an electronic scrapbook of images, poetry, prose, and historic quotations. I typed the first paragraph. And the next.

Great good luck occurred in 2012 when I contacted Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser (Ojibwa), a board member of the University of Nebraska Press’s series American Indian Lives. I emailed a query, would she consider endorsing my memoir? She suggested that I consider submitting the book to UNP. I am grateful to her and all others associated with the series: Brenda J. Child, R. David Edmunds, Clara Sue Kidwell, and Tsianina K. Lomawaima. In that first year, Kimberly reviewed and helped with style and structure.

In 2013, I mailed a new draft to Lincoln. Thus began the lengthy review process. One of the press readers liked poems, another wanted them removed. One wanted less history, another wanted more. One thought a diaspora theme required academic scholarship. I despaired and hoped and rewrote. Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. Poet Laureate and then a fellow board member of Associated Writers and Writing Programs, inspired me to keep pursuing the story of mixed identity. Her history-based poetry books were models for the task of blending lyricism and factual exposition.

Numerous friends offered writerly suggestions, as well as emotional support. My siblings reviewed the manuscript and added important information. A memoir discloses sensitive personal information. Setbacks like a negative review challenged my identity to the core.  No other genre, not even poetry, opens a person so fully to the vagaries of audience reactions. I felt stripped bare.

Another year passed. One hot summer day, when I was about to throw the manuscript into the Kaw River, I called for help. UNP editor Matthew Bokovoy picked up the phone. We talked, and he suggested the need for a single narration, without the distractions of other genres. Two days later, I realized he was right.

A writer is a person who writes, and I rewrote the book again, 2014. A friend loaned me her kitchen as a makeshift writing studio. I holed up in a bed and breakfast. I wrote at home. The book finally assumed its own shape and voice, despite me.

Motivation throughout this process was my grandfather and people like him, who lived difficult lives because of Indigenous American heritage and had no voice. Stereotypes abound, and this book challenges an essentialist idea of Native experience.

In 2015, after I signed a contract, another UNP cast came forward for final revisions. Freelance editor Elizabeth Gratch became my daily friend as we emailed about fine points of syntax. A project manager, a copyeditor, designers, publicists—all played their roles. I wish I could meet them in person. They all honored me with their support during this year of work.

So many people and so many years. How long did it take to write this memoir? Seven years or sixty-seven years, depending on how you count. It must be about time to start the next one.