My mom abandoned her ceramic studio and started her writing career when she realized that my sister did not know where our mother had been born. Clay projects were left partially completed, with tools scattered on her work table. The kiln was never used again. From that day on all my mom’s energy was focused on documenting the story of her large chaotic family during the 1940’s and 1950’s. She joined a writing group in Fergus Falls, and in the following years attended classes and workshops to improve her skills. She made a lot of progress in a few years, including having several short stories published in the Otter Tail Review and Lake Region Review, anthologies with stories, essays and poems by regional authors.
In the early years of this period my mom was successfully doing her writing thing. I was busy with my own life, job, and family three hours away in Minneapolis. At that time I wasn’t paying much attention to the details of her memoir in progress. Computers and technology were never her strength though, and as she got older and farther along in the project, my sister and I starting receiving regular panicky phone calls asking for assistance to figure out what happened to sentences, paragraphs, or entire documents that had gotten accidentally deleted or moved, or she simply could not locate. We both helped as well as we could from afar. I don’t know how many times we tried to explain “undo”, but she never did get it.
Around this time I started using Google Docs at work, which allows document sharing so that more than one person can see and edit the same text in real time. I could see how Google Docs would be a good way to help my mom with editing from a distance.
I also realized that assistance was needed to get the memoir beyond a large number of disorganized files and into a format suitable for publication. I did not need another activity, but without spending a lot of money that was not in her budget there was no one else to do it. I had the right skill set, so I made a commitment to be her book’s “project manager”. It took over the next three years of my life, but I would do it again.
One thing my mom had not understood was “save” versus “save as”, so there were three or four versions of each section of text or story. There were also multiple chapters saved inside one document, resulting in versions of chapters being buried in a document with a different name. My first task as project manager was to create a single Google Document for each chapter, and then paste the text from all the versions into the appropriate document.
After we had worked together to edit the text down to one workable document for each chapter, I shared them with myself so I could see what my mom was doing as she continued to make revisions and add more material. I made minor edits, fixed typos, moved paragraphs around at her request, and restored text that she accidentally deleted (regularly), and most importantly, saved backup copies. To be clear, the writing was all my mom’s. All I did was the most basic editing. This was not like Rose Wilder Lane collaborating with Laura Ingalls Wilder to transform Laura’s stories into the polished books that were published.
Other book project tasks that I helped with were fact checking, looking for instances where the same anecdote or story was used in two or more places, making sure events and text were in the correct order, making minor wording suggestions, formatting a family tree for use in the book, scanning photos, helping write captions for the photos and suggesting where they could be placed, creating the table of contents, and doing research on options for publishing.
One example of fact checking related to my grandmother’s younger sister. She had married young and had a daughter. Both sets of parents were unhappy about the union. We knew the birth date of the child, but we had trouble determining the marriage date. It seemed like it might have been a shotgun wedding, and my mom had written her first drafts under that assumption but without really saying it in so many words. Even though all the people concerned were no longer with us, it seemed right to confirm the dates. The records office in Des Moines where the marriage took place had the information but would not give me the date over the phone. We considered making a 400 mile road trip to Des Moines, which could also include visiting my dad’s older sister who we had not seen in many years. After finding out she had passed on, we gave up on that idea. I learned that we could hire someone to go to the records office for us, so we determined the marriage date that way. It turned out that my grandmother’s sister did not “have” to get married. My mom edited some of the text accordingly, and we were glad we made the effort to verify the information.
Eventually all the chapters were combined into one large cumbersome Microsoft Word document. After a lot more updating, a professional editor that my mom had taken a class from reviewed the document, providing helpful input for changing the flow of the story and making other improvements. Several trusted friends and relatives also proof read the text.
My husband designed the book cover using part of a painting my mom had done in 1957. My artist sister-in-law created a professional looking map of my mom’s childhood neighborhood from a sketch my mom had drawn. My cousin’s photographer wife, Kim Eriksson, took the author photo for the back of the book.
After considering options for self publishing, we hired a woman in Fergus Falls to format the text for publication using the software Adobe InDesign. She would format 10 or 12 pages at a time and email them to me and to my mom for proofreading. This was supposed to be final checking for typos or mistakes, but my mom never stopped rewriting sentences and making editing changes until the last possible opportunity. She wanted it to be perfect. Finally, paperback copies of the book were printed in Fergus Falls in the fall of 2014. I later published the book in Amazon print-on-demand format. After that I prepared the book text for Amazon Kindle which included removing page numbers and most of the other formatting, reducing the number of photos in half, and other changes so that it would work across many different Kindle platforms. You can find the Amazon paper and Kindle book listings here.
There is a page on my blog about the book which you can get to here. Following is the front cover.
The next image is the back of the book with the author bio and a short summary of the memoir.
When we received the first proof copy from the printer, it seemed like such a huge accomplishment that I started to cry. We were all very pleased with the outcome and got positive feedback from friends and family, people who lived or had lived in Otter Tail County or in the neighborhood where my mom’s family had settled in Minneapolis, and others including complete strangers. Despite a couple of not so great comments on Amazon, most of the responses were good. My mom loved getting emails and praise from people she knew who had read the book.
In retrospect, there were times when I pushed my mom a little too hard to accomplish a lot in a short period of time. Since I was working full time and had other responsibilities, the time I had available to work with her was usually in the evening when she was starting to get tired. Also, it was around this time when I first noticed that she was starting to have some memory challenges, which was unsettling to realize, and caused frustration for both of us. I could see that we needed to finish this project sooner rather than later, if it was going to happen at all. My sister and I are very grateful that the project was completed before it was too late.
I assumed we would be able to place a copy in the Hennepin County Library system in the Twin Cities. It turns out there are some big hoops to jump through in order for that to happen. There is not enough room for every self published book, and many are not very well done. I believe that the writing quality and presentation of my mom’s book is of a higher caliber than many of the memoirs I have checked out of the library, but we decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. On the other hand, the Fergus Falls library was happy to take several copies.
My mom’s two youngest brothers both objected to the way their grandfather, Leonard Eriksson, was portrayed. Some of the information about Leonard was written from my grandmother’s point of view of a young bride living in her father-in-law’s male dominated household in the 1930’s. My grandmother also may have been mistaken about some information that she shared with my mom. My uncles knew Grandpa Leonard at a different time in his life, and had a different relationship with him. They felt that some of the statements about Grandpa Leonard were unfair and possibly even slanderous.
There were seven siblings in my mom’s family with a 14 year age difference. My mom was the second oldest. She consulted with her older sister for memories and information about their parents’ early marriage and some of the details relating to their grandfather’s law practice. Grandpa Leonard had many positive qualities and accomplishments that were portrayed in the book as well as his more problematic traits. The four oldest children lived a very different life from the youngest three. Each person in the family would inevitably have a different story or version or memory of the same events, and not everyone was present during every event. Memories are not perfect.
I know that my mom made an effort to be accurate and produce a quality product. I believe she accomplished her goal, in spite of varying perspectives, imperfect memories, and possible misinformation. I loved participating in the book project despite the amount of time and energy it consumed. I learned a lot about my family history, spent many hours of quality time with my mom, and learned new skills. I am so happy to have the resulting product for my children, extended family, and anyone who likes memoirs.