On Writing a Memoir
Norelis: What made you decide to write a memoir on your parents’ lives—and particularly your mother’s?
Diane: When I compiled the list of “Margeryisms” (her sayings) and was reminded how funny and unique some of them were, I wanted others to share in the enjoyment of them as well.
Norelis: When did you realize that you wanted to write a memoir about your mother? Can you describe that moment?
Diane: The trigger for me was the time I found my mother’s golfing jacket in the hall closet. It was on my birthday, and as I held it I remembered that her habit had been to call me on my birthday and recite the touch-and-go circumstances of my birth, always ending her story with the high-pitched line, “But Mistinguett is dead.” My memory was filled with that and other recollections of her quirky sayings, and the events surrounding when she said them. I started to write down her Margeryisms first, then the events in which she unleashed her sayings on the world.
Norelis: Was your mom still alive at the time you first thought about writing a memoir about her?
Diane: Margery had passed away two years before the chance finding of her jacket in the hall closet.
Norelis: What did you hope to capture and convey in Bless Your Little Cotton Socks?
Diane: That my mother lived in the moment, and savored life. I wanted to convey her warmth and sense of humor, her attitude towards life.
Norelis: What is the meaning behind the title, Bless Your Little Cotton Socks? Of all your mother’s, Margery’s, sayings, why did you choose this one for the title of the memoir?
Diane: It was her special blessing to me. Some might say, “Bless the cockles of your heart,” or “Bless you,” but Margery said, “Bless your little cotton socks.” I chose this one because I feel warm and protected when I hear it. The other main contender for the title was, “What did your last servant die of?” but Margery would have been appalled that I chose a sentence ending with a preposition.
The Process of Writing a Memoir
Norelis: How did you start the memoir process? Did you start journaling first?
Diane: I started with the sayings, then the vignettes around when she said them. Those recollections grew into the book.
Norelis: Did you know you wanted the book to be a collection of essays or how did you decide upon the format?
Diane: I considered a more classic memoir structure, however as I wrote and compiled each narrative it seemed that each one could be read independently of the others.
Norelis: Did you create an outline or was the process more free flowing? How did you remember all of your mother’s humorous sayings?
Diane: I did create an outline, dividing the essays up by where my parents were living at the time. The outline helped me see where each essay should appear in the final work. I have very vivid memories of both parents. In my mind I can see my mother talking to me, and recall her mannerisms. Those “mind movies” made it easier to describe the events on paper.
Norelis: Was writing about your parents challenging at times? Or was it enjoyable? And how so?
Diane: Overall very enjoyable, because we had so many happy times together. Writing about their deaths was more challenging.
Norelis: Did you reach out for input from others during the writing of Bless Your Little Cotton Socks? Did you get a wide array of input, from friends or family or even other writers? At what times did you ask for this input?
Diane: Several of the essays were critiqued by faculty of Dr. Julie Silver’s Harvard Writers Course which I found very helpful. Book Coach Lisa Tener has been extremely involved throughout the creation of the book, providing input and advice. Donna Heckler, who wrote Living Like a Lady When You Have Cancer, Ann Pietrangelo, and Melanie Miburne all gave me guidance as the book took shape.
Norelis: What do you think your mother, Margery, would say about reading Bless Your Little Cotton Socks?
Diane: She would be very pleased and honored to have her words immortalized in this way. As we say in the UK, she’d be chuffed.
About the Memoir, Bless Your Little Cotton Socks
Norelis: What is your favorite of your mother’s sayings?
Diane: It’s hard to answer that, because she had so many. I’d have to say, “Bless your little cotton socks” is my favorite.
Norelis: Some of your mom’s sayings seemed like they might be Scottish sayings and others seemed very particular to her. How many of the sayings do you think came from her upbringing or the culture? How do you think Scottish culture or local language played a role in your mother’s sayings?
Diane: Growing up in England but spending most of her life in Scotland, I’m sure she picked up some of these sayings from her upbringing, and adapted them. She was an avid learner, very curious, always wanting to know more. She loved language. As you noted, many of her sayings were very unique and of her own invention.
Norelis: So many of Margery’s sayings are humorous. Can you say a bit about your mother’s sense of humor? How you experienced it? What role her humor played in your life?
Diane: There were times all three of us would be doubled up laughing at something my mother said. Margery was very sharp, very witty – a quick thinker. Her humor brought her through the tough times, like the bombings in WW2.
Norelis: Do you have a favorite chapter or story in the book, and what makes it a favorite?
Diane: One of my favorites is “A Golden Treasury of Verse” about the Halloween I decided to recite Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha as I visited neighbors’ houses. It’s a favorite because I have such lucid memories of that evening, the preparation leading up to the guising (dressing up for Halloween), and my mother’s reaction.
Norelis: Whom did you write for? Who did you imagine as your readers?
Diane: I imagine the book will appeal to four major groups of people:
- Female baby-boomers
- Anglophiles, residents of the west coast of Scotland, people of Scottish descent worldwide, and travelers to Scotland
- Lovers of humorous essay collections and memoir
- Daughters or sons buying gifts for their mother
Norelis: While your mother is certainly the central character, the town of Troon, Scotland, where you grew up, plays a large role in the book. Can you say a bit about your mother’s relationship with Troon and what you hoped to capture about the setting of most of the essays?
Diane: Simply put, Margery loved Troon. She and Sidney moved there in the mid 1950s and lived there 50 years. The setting for most of the essays is Troon and its environs because that’s where these events actually took place. I can’t think of Margery and Sid without thinking of Troon as a backdrop.
Norelis: I found Bless Your Little Cotton Socks to be more uplifting and full of love and happiness than your average modern memoir. Do you tend to enjoy memoirs or collections of personal essays that are in a similar style? Are there particular authors who inspired you?
Diane: I’m a great admirer of David Sedaris and have been fortunate to talk with him several times at his book signings. I enjoy reading Erma Bombeck and like her style of humor. I enjoy the work of Justin Halpern—he writes about his father in Sh*t My Dad Says.
Norelis: How did you feel knowing that your mom, right before her passing, was accepting of Pam and saying to her, “You are the right one”?
Diane: Happy and content, warm inside.
Norelis: Were there stories that didn’t make it into the book? If so, how did you decide what goes in and what gets left out?
Diane: There are more essays that didn’t make it into the book. I looked at the overall work and felt that these essays didn’t really fit.
Norelis: If some stories got left out, will you repurpose them as blog posts or in another book or just let them go?
Diane: Another book is in the works.
Norelis: In the chapter, Bless Your Little Cotton Socks that discusses the story of your wedding, was it hard for you to tell your mom that you were a lesbian? Why or why not?
Diane: That topic will be featured in another book. My mother had known I was a lesbian for many years before the wedding. As any mother should be, she was always very concerned about my overall wellbeing, fearing I would face discrimination. She was so delighted to meet Pam. I’m sad she was too infirm to attend the wedding in person. She passed away the following month.
Challenges In Writing a Memoir and How to Overcome Them Tweet This
Norelis: Did you struggle with some essays and find others easier to write? If so, what made some chapters harder?
Diane: No real struggles. It was a joy to remember my parents as I wrote. I had to research facts for several of them, to weave historical information into the story, for example, the history of Culzean Castle. The research took time.
I can’t say there were any really hard chapters, even the chapters near the end as my parents aged. My parents were always pragmatic and accepted their lives would come to an end. I could recall the poignant moments but not be numbed by sadness. There is humor even in the chapter about my dad and his RAF service. Those are the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, Margery would have told you.
Steps to Self Publishing and The How-To Tweet This
Norelis: What were the steps you took to self publishing?
Diane: I took the advice of Donna Heckler who had a very good experience with AuthorHouse. Choosing the cover design, more autonomy on the format and layout of the book, corrections and changes were easy.
Norelis: Any tips for our readers about self publishing?
Diane: Explore your options, research the various companies available, seek counsel from those who have self published.
Tips in The Writing and Publishing Process Tweet This
Norelis: What are some tips you would give to individuals wanting to write a memoir? What are some good first steps to write a memoir?
Diane: Define the period of time or the event you want to write about. I used a board on which I attached the Margeryisms I wanted to write about, and grouped them according to my memories of when they were said and where we were living at the time. By doing that, it was apparent that the book should be divided up by where we or they were living at the time.
Norelis: What was your writing experience prior to writing a memoir? Did you have to “unlearn” anything in order to write for a lay audience, as opposed to an academic one?
Diane: I had published in Chicken Soup for the Soul Books. Creative writing is so different from academic writing. Nothing had to be unlearned, rather I switched into a different gear.
Norelis: Did you encounter any roadblocks during writing and publishing processes? How did you overcome these? What are some tips that you may have?
Diane: Moving cities and jobs during the writing of the manuscript did make it hard to maintain continuity. Perseverance is the key.
Norelis: Has writing a book always been something you wanted to do? Had you considered other stories?
Diane: Since I began work on Bless I’ve had ideas for several other projects on varying topics…more to come.
The End Result of Bless Your Little Cotton Socks
Norelis: What feedback/responses have you received from early readers about Bless Your Little Cotton Socks?
Diane: Very positive, from the Harvard Writers Course faculty who read individual chapters, to beta readers who read the whole work. They laugh and cry at the right parts. That’s a compliment.
Norelis: What plans do you have to reach specific markets or groups or readers such as tourists, Scottish expats, LGBT communities, Americans of Scots ancestry or other markets you see for the book?
Diane: I plan to market via Scottish groups such as St. Andrew Societies in the US, tourist magazines, the Scottish Tourist Board in the UK, alumni societies such as Glasgow University.
Note: We have a copy of the book to offer one lucky reader for the most insightful question or comment–so please do share your comments below.
Diane Radford, MD is a breast surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. She grew up in Troon on the west coast of Scotland and started medical school at the University of Glasgow at the age of 16. Early on in her surgical career she knew her vocation was the care of patients with breast cancer and benign breast diseases and she sought out the best training to obtain additional expertise. She is the author of Bless Your Little Cotton Socks.