I met Amy Bickers on March 24, 2011, the night of the very first See Jane Write Birmingham event. That night Amy told me about a book she wanted to publish — a memoir. “What’s it about?” I asked jovially. “Well,” she said, “my husband killed himself in front of me.”
I was speechless. I wanted to know how she could survive something like that. I wanted to know how she could ever be whole again. But I didn’t ask her because I knew these were questions only a memoir could answer.
Now four years later, Amy has written that book — The Geography of Me and You: A Memoir — and she’s raising money via Kickstarter to self-publish.
In this candid interview Amy talks about how she found the courage to finally share her story.
When did you decide to write this memoir and how long did it take you to do it?
I kept a journal in the year following my ex-husband’s suicide and writing in it was incredibly therapeutic. Writing everything down as I felt it was a huge part of my healing process.
The idea of a book was always there, though. I’ve been writing since childhood, when I first wrote short stories that were very obvious rip-offs of Sweet Valley High. For me, the best way to give myself peace from something is to write it down. I told myself that maybe if I told the story now I wouldn’t have to spend my entire life rewriting it in my head. It was, in part, an exercise in acceptance.
It took me about a year and a half to complete the memoir. I began it one evening in the summer of 2010 at the Hoover Library in one of the study carrels. Now I can’t remember how many words I wrote that first time, but I remember feeling a great sense of accomplishment. I wrote most of the book in that library or at coffee shops. Cliché, I know! But I cannot write at home unless everyone is gone and all the laundry is done. Otherwise, I’ll just procrastinate, fold clothes, and watch Sex and the City reruns.
What doubts did you face about writing this memoir and how did you overcome them?
The amazing thing is that I never really had any doubts about writing this book. I felt driven to do it. Since childhood, I’ve wanted to write a book, although I always thought it would be fictional, and, as an adult, I always worried a bit about revealing too much (even in fiction). Something about the traumatic experience loosened whatever chains I’d put on expressing myself for so long.
Whenever I did worry about what others would think, I would remind myself that I wanted to share the truth of this experience so that others could know they weren’t alone. I wanted to give people, who otherwise might not understand, a glimpse inside depression and grief and the complexities of grappling with suicide. And I was very focused on sharing that truth from a place of love and understanding for the humanity of everyone concerned.
You’ve described the book as “a memoir of suicide, grief, healing, dark humor, too much cursing, some vodka, and a perfectly healthy fixation on George Clooney.” How did you approach writing about a topic like suicide with the care and compassionate one might assume it would call for while still maintaining a bit of an irreverent tone?
I’ve always been a fan of dark humor. I love Kurt Vonnegut, who had an excellent way of expressing serious things with humor. I love comics like Louis CK who can take something rooted in sadness and make you laugh your ass off about it. I adore Tig Notaro. She did a set about her cancer diagnosis that became sort of legendary in stand-up circles, and it is one of the most raw, funny, real examples of how we can use humor to find a way through the hardest times.
Humor has been my coping mechanism for as long as I can remember. It’s my go-to for alleviating some of the weight of a difficult experience. Plus, it’s a good reminder that things aren’t always going to be so terrible. You can find a way to laugh again. I often call my mom crying and I always, always get off the phone laughing. She’s like a magician. That laughter is a sign that I’ve regained some perspective.
Humor also can be a way to share an experience with someone else while making it easier for them. It can put the other person at ease. I would rather make someone laugh than cry, but if I can make them laugh AND cry, all the better. Feel the emotions, people!
All that said, I write early on in the book about how my go-to coping mechanism was no longer the appropriate one and it left me lost. I had relied on that so heavily all my life. Eventually, I found it again, that balance between grappling with trauma and putting it into perspective with humor. One of the ways I did this, for my children, and myself was to tell them funny things their dad said or did. I wanted them to remember those things, how he danced to “Ice Ice Baby” or made up silly words to country songs, and I wanted them to know they were free to laugh. Sometimes people feel like the rules of mourning are that you must wear black, you must cry, you must never laugh heartily. I say laugh heartily as often as possible, because it is going to give you the strength to make it through the crying you do alone.
Tell us a bit about your writing background.
I began my career at The Times, a newspaper in Shreveport, Louisiana. I spent about seven years there as a features writer. In 2003, I moved to Birmingham to work for Southern Living, where I was a homes editor and then a travel editor until 2010. I’ve also written freelance articles for shelter magazines like HGTV Magazine and Coastal Living. If I weren’t a writer, I would love it if people would just pay me to pick out their paint colors and then paint their rooms for them.
Any advice or words of wisdom for other women who want to write a memoir, especially those struggling to do so because the topic is so difficult?
I think my first piece of advice would be to keep a journal. Write about the experience for your eyes only. And then, when you’re ready, you can refer back to those emotions and experiences you wrote about freely. Remind yourself of the things you said when no one was looking.
Too often we write as if there is an audience already there judging every sentence we put down. There is no better way to stymie your writing voice than to turn every sentence into an imagined public performance. People say of public speaking to imagine the audience naked; writing a memoir is to actually force yourself to be naked in front of a mirror. You cannot write a memoir without acknowledging painful truths about yourself.
Like, yes, you do have cellulite and so does everybody else. No matter what “secret shame” you share about yourself, so many people will say, “Oh, me too!” This is a gift we can give to one another.
So write it the way you want it. No boundaries. For me, nothing was more important than putting the truth into words. Too many people try to make things a little glossier, a little flashier, a little more socially acceptable. I wanted it to be real.
My other piece of advice is, if you have experienced something traumatic, to go to therapy. Therapy was incredibly helpful to me and it helped me to say aloud the things that kept me up at night, to have someone else say those things back to me and make me see how hard I was being on myself.
Take plenty of breaks! Unless you already have a book deal – and if you do, shut up, don’t talk to me, I’m kidding, I’m so happy for you – there is no deadline. Don’t tell yourself you have to get it all down in a month or a year or even two years. If you need to take a two-month break to do nothing more than drink cocktails on the back patio with a cute guy all summer, do it. OK, yes, I did that. I needed a break from all the thinking and feeling. And I gave myself that break. When I was ready, I came back to the story I needed to tell.
Over the course of this, I’ve given myself several breaks along the way. Somehow, during those breaks, I was finding my way back to being the person I want to be.
Your Kickstarter campaign has been a huge success. What do you think you did right to promote it and why do you think so many people were willing to back this project?
Over the past week, I’ve joked a few times that the key is to “Write a blog and, in that blog, be sure to whine for three years about how no agent will take you on as a client.”
And that’s really just a funny way of saying what is true, and what is the most annoying phrase writers will hear today, and that is “Build a platform.” My blog readers are loyal and ready to support this book. And that only happened over time by sharing my story, my love for George Clooney, my taste for vodka and cranberry cocktails, in bits and pieces on the blog.
Once I knew I was going to do a Kickstarter, I did a lot of research. I looked at successful Kickstarter campaigns. I looked at unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns. I watched videos. I read article after article about what to do and how to do it. And only after I’d done all that for months did I begin my own campaign. This sounds like I’m very organized, but this process was probably two-parts preparation, one-part procrastination. Sex and the City airs daily on E!
I mentioned before that I love to paint rooms (crazy, I know) and I always say that prep work is the secret to a good paint job. It’s no different for Kickstarter. Prepare your product, prepare your pitch, prepare your emotions. It’s a roller coaster, to say the least. I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the success of this. The first day, I burst into tears every time a pledge came through.
The best piece of advice is to build a team of people who believe in you and believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. Have people in your corner who are ready to celebrate with you or comfort you.
What other advice would you offer to aspiring authors?
If you’re thinking of writing about something, do it. Just begin with one sentence, even if that sentence is only “Once upon a time this really crappy thing happened.” The rest will come. Eventually, you’ll find yourself looking at a word count that seems incredible. It’s really kind of thrilling. It’s like adding steps to your pedometer! (I just got a Fitbit and I’m obsessed with my step count.)
If you need a break from writing, take it. Be kind to yourself. Self-care is vital in a world so full of expectations and rushing about. Write your book for you first. Forget everyone else.
If you become discouraged, wallow in it a bit. You’re allowed. The world is full of dumb celebrities writing dumb books and getting huge, dumb book deals! Rant and rave and curse. (I love cursing.) But then try again. If one road is blocked to you, stomp your feet a bit and then find another path.
I like to listen to a certain Ludacris song when I’m angry as hell and I can’t take it anymore. I highly recommend this. I believe the best way to tackle any challenge is to enter it the way Ludacris enters a song – with boldness and by telling the world your name. Luda!
When you ask yourself “Why bother?” remember this quote from Kurt Vonnegut in response to that question: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”
This story originally appeared on SeeJaneWriteMag.com.