44. When Friends Don’t Like Your Book


Someone who was my very best friend when we were children (Vivian in Book One, and our parents were close friends too) started reading the first book of my memoir trilogy, then stopped when she got to the hard parts. Almost a year later, at my second request, she did read the rest. She praised the writing style, but never commented about any of the content, the story itself. She’s a great person, very perceptive, brilliant really, professionally accomplished and financially successful. I wondered why she stopped. I wondered if these truths about me and my family, never told before but never secret either, had somehow put me into a new category. Not so simple as we were then. My life would be full of mistakes and flaws. I took a different path from hers, one that led to much less monetary success, but much more adventure and wild beauty, and I wouldn’t change any of it.

I think it must have been uncomfortable for her to read about what I went through, back then as a kid when my parents’ marriage was falling apart, and then as a young woman when my desolate marriage did also. It’s possible that my truth now was embarrassing or even repellent to her. But to her credit, she stuck it out, and eventually did read it, for me.

I am arguably the black-sheep, the po’ white trash of our peer group. She was probably shocked to learn the painful extent of my birthmother’s descent into alcohol when I was eleven, and me stealing food from the grocery store and the wilted-produce dumpster by the loading dock. I am not ashamed of those things.

In my long life since then, among my careers I was a caregiver in an always-overwhelmed hospital emergency room for two decades. I have seen other souls in trouble, thousands, from alcohol, drugs, or other traps and addictions. I know that people do what they can. I don’t blame my birthmother for her addiction. I know it was not her first choice for dealing with the hardships of her life that were so painful and so many. Now, older and wiser, I don’t devalue her for her mistakes, or devalue myself for taking whatever means I could to feed myself and keep my spirit alive, as a child and as an adult. My story gets rough at times, it isn’t all pretty, but there are some incredibly brave and beautiful times too.

Another longtime friend (Lois in Book Two) read the first two chapters of Book One for me when I asked her to be a beta reader and give me some feedback. She marked a few typos and said nothing more. No comments about content, or having found any sort of meaning in the story, though there was some, for sure. She didn’t “get it.” She too is someone who is well-established in the traditional model of success. She didn’t need it. But I reminded myself that this doesn’t mean that nobody will “get” my book, or that nobody will need it.

After my initial disappointment, I wondered, Why don’t these intelligent, kind, honest women get it? Why don’t they see anything meaningful here? And the answer that came from the Wiser Voice Within said, “Maybe it’s not so much that they can’t see, but that they don’t want to see.” 

So there it is. If your friends and family give you lukewarm or even chilly reviews, consider that they have baggage too, unknown to you, that may be as heavy as your own. Or – maybe they really are dumber than a rock, and have no literary intelligence whatsoever. (The first one is much more likely than the second, though both are often found.) I know only too well– The truth is dangerous, and often painful. As I look back from a distance now, one possibility seems embarrassingly obvious:

Maybe these friends don’t want to know the person that I really am, or who I was back then, unknown to them. They want me to be forever the person they knew, or thought they knew, back when.

Victory Is My Name is not about that. Victory is an adventure tale, a mystery story, and a love-letter to Life. As for myself, telling the truth has set me free. I love this latch-key kid from the not-so-great side of town. I admire her resourcefulness, her survival instincts, her courage and grit. I respect the young woman she became who tried so hard to do things right and then was used and abused for her innocence. I respect her courage in breaking away, more than once, from everything she had, and the sheer ferocity with which this least-likely darkhorse sought the most brave of dreams, and got there.

And I respect my absent alcoholic birthmother just as much, who did her best even while her life fell apart and the trap of alcohol made everything so much worse. The truth is, millions of good people have made the same mistakes. I know, as you know, that even now these things are still happening to many of us, and we hide it in some sort of undeserved shame.

When you write your truth, no matter what it is, you’re going to find that some of your friends or family may not like it, may not be able to embrace it, or even accept it. This is not your fault, or theirs either. And this is not a reflection of your writing’s value and worth to the waiting world. To write from Life is a calling. It’s not a job, not a beauty contest. It may cost you some things that are more comfortable in life. Write anyway. Tell your truth anyway. You know you must. And share it whenever and wherever you can.

Traditional storytellers, Nonfiction narrative and memoir writers of the world: Take courage, take faith, and take honest pride in your gift. Not everyone will want it, so don’t harbor any regrets for the ones who don’t. You aren’t here to do it for them, but for your own spirit’s calling. Write for the many more who do need it, who have made mistakes while honestly seeking life, just like you.



Victory Is My Name, Book One: The Burning Barrel
Paperback 288 pgs   ISBN#  978-0-9841730-9-9
E-book   ISBN#   978-0-9841730-4-4
Read a sampler:

43. Writing As A Present


I ease into the morning with coffee and some quiet time to meditate, read, or think. Today I picked up again one of my favorite sources of inspiration even after all these years. It was the first book of hers I ever read, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird – Some Instructions About Writing and Life. It fell open to page 173, the start of a chapter titled: Writing As A Present, and in it she talks about what I still think is the best possible reason to write. So I’ll send this out to you, all the writers I love who are not famous, not the most gifted or the most successful, whatever that means to you. You are gifted, with a truth that is your own, worth sharing.

In “Writing As A Present” Anne Lamott says: “Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems… will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and will probably not make you any richer…” and she provides some other reasons, such as, “the potential for rich reward where your sense of self and abundance really can be changed.” And then, “Twice now I have written books that began as presents for people I loved who were going to die.”

As I’m gathering notes for a course I’m building about “Writing As a Spiritual Practice: Journaling, Memoir, and Legacy” I’m discovering more good reasons to write, whether you want to get published or not. My own mother began and didn’t have time to finish a legacy, writing about our family. It would never have made the bestseller list, but we who loved her all treasure it. She told us things she’d never told us before when we were too young or too busy to understand. Now as I write my memoir, I’m seeing all of our lives in stunning ways I never saw back then at the time I was experiencing those events. I was too young to know. Age, or something, has given me greater insight now, and greater compassion.

As the chapter goes on, Lamott quotes Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else…” And I must add: to free yourself in doing so. She continues, “if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else.” And to this she adds: “Not everybody will be glad you did it. Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets.”

Is this arrogance? This idea of creating something that is a truthful picture of a life, your own or someone you love? Telling the truth about the changes, the joys and sorrows, how it felt, and what it meant to you? I don’t think so. No, it’s a gift you give. It’s a gift that no one else but you can give.

And then, oddly enough, I remembered that my first book of essays and poetry actually was a present, a birthday card for a writer friend, Wilfred Galila. It was a sort-of random collection of poems, stories, and essays from my “bone pile” of pieces that were cut from longer works for page-count, or orphaned bits that had never had a home, but were too good, too sweet or too true to be shredded. Together they became a little chapbook, off the cuff, just for fun, that also shared some personal feelings and thoughts about life that I thought my friend might understand. He did, and he paid me the most magnificent compliment I’ve ever received in my life, ever. He said “I didn’t have time to read it, but I decided to read just a couple of stories. I read it all the way thru, cover to cover.”

Wow. Something simple in there had meaning for someone else besides me. Originally it was about 24 pages. A year or so later I added some more odd pieces and published the book, now 56 pages, Inchworms: Poems, Sketches, and Stories. The back cover says: “A surprising little flea-market of a book…” and it was truly that. The moral of this tale: Don’t rush to throw anything away.

She says of the book for Pammy: “It was really a love letter, mostly to her and her daughter Rebecca. So she knew that there was something that was going to exist on paper after she was gone. That would be, in a sort of way, a little bit of immortality.”

Anne Lamott confessed that a story she once sent to an editor got this response: “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.” She says, “Then I took out everything that sounded self-indulgent. I wasn’t trying to hitchhike into history, I just wanted to write a book for my father that might also help someone going through a similar situation.” (italics mine) “Some people may have found this book too personal, too confidential. But what these people think about me, is none of my business. I wrote for an audience of two, whom I loved and respected, who loved and respected me.”

The next chapter, “Finding Your Voice” begins when she asks her writing students why they want to write. “Over and over, they said in effect, ‘I will not be silenced again.’ They were good children who often felt invisible, and who saw some awful stuff… They didn’t tell what they saw because when they tried, they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives, and at life. But now it is very hard to find their own voice.”

Amen to all of that. I am exactly like the writing student she describes so perfectly. But I am finding my own voice in my book, and yes, there are disappointments, and people I love and respect who don’t like it. Shall I then stop? And write something for people to like, instead? Of course not. I am here to tell the truth as I know it, my own truth. To help and to heal, and yes, to free someone else, who probably I will never meet. I’m okay with that.

Getting older has some gifts. A big one is that you don’t have to give a damn about a lot of things that you worried about, feared, regretted, or were ashamed of when you were young. You don’t have to feel the need to apologize for anything you did in innocence, or any honest mistake you made. You can tell your truth.

Whatever age you are, you can dare to tell the truth if you want to, and I think we all know the world right now is in tragic need of more of us telling the truth. Go ahead. Do it.


If you’d like to read some of Inchworms, http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-inch.html



23. Query Letters and Cowboy Boots

As I write my book, along the way I’m putting together the necessary “query letter” for potential agents/publishers– the first level of approach/sales-pitch to get published. I scribble bits of ideas that come to me at odd times. Today sitting in my little neighborhood church in Oakland, I was not thinking about the book and certainly not the query letter, when a new segment of “my readership” suggested itself:  Gay men… and everyone else who has a sensibility that’s strong but gentle and vulnerable, who probably has had to be on guard for most of their lives, even ashamed, lest that gentleness at their center might be found out, rejected, or abused. Though this will certainly be catalogued as a “women’s” book,  the fact of the matter is, all of us struggle to fit Who We Are  into What The World Expects of us instead, and usually demands from us. That’s one of the themes of the book of course, and truth be told, we all spend most of our lives trying to understand who we are, and then find the courage to dare to genuinely be that. The greatest obstacles are the deeply-embedded lies we were taught about ourselves when we were children, either by people who should have loved us but didn’t, or more often by people who did, and lied because they loved us, and wanted to protect us from life. The book is about a skinny little girl who loves horses and fire engines. She gets repeatedly told by the big people “You can’t have that, you can’t do that, you can’t be that” (about these and most of the things she wants) because you’re a girl. And what’s worse, there is the powerful unspoken mandate: “You shouldn’t want those things,” (because) girls don’t. “Who says?” She demands, to no avail. Again and again she asks, “Why not?” and gets no reasonable answer. “Those things are for boys,” they say. What the child hears clearly is: Who you are is not okay. It’s not okay to want what you want. It’s a big fat lie, and somewhere in every child’s heart we know this, but what can we do? We’re just a kid. Some of the same lies are passed along for generations, always  when we’re young and vulnerable and trusting, newly-learning about what life’s supposed to be. By words or actions, many of us were informed, “You shouldn’t be who you are, and it’s wrong to want to be.”  If you’re a boy, you’ve got to like baseball, not art or music or poetry. If you’re a girl, you must like dolls and dresses and tea-sets, not horses and fire engines. I remember with crystal clarity, the day my brother got cowboy boots. I got all excited and asked, “Ooooh! Do I get some cowboy boots too?” My parents laughed and said, “Oh no honey, cowboy boots are for boys. You can have some pretty ballet slippers…” I was four years old. “Ballet slippers?” I was stunned. “WHO wants THAT?” I begged for cowboy boots too. It didn’t do any good. Even now I can still feel the ache and sting of being so terribly wronged and cheated. I pleaded, in my own defense, “I couldn’t help it that I was born a girl! I didn’t get to choose!” For the next decade I was a closet-tomboy, sneaking out to climb trees and roofs and fire-escapes and gallop around the neighborhood pretending I was a racehorse. Eventually I grew up and turned out straight, which made things easier, especially in Texas in the 1950’s and 60’s. I learned to “act like a lady” and I obeyed the rules. I married and worked two jobs, the telephone company and a department store, to put my young husband through graduate school. I was a good wife. I spent the 4 1/2 loneliest years of my life like that, until finally I realized that I had no Life, and I had no Self. I was living in his shadow, and whoever I used to be had gotten lost somewhere in the dark. Not his fault– we both played the roles we were brought up to play. This works sometimes for some people. Not this time, not for me. Leaving was hard. It felt like more than a failure, it felt like a death, but I knew it had to happen. I got a divorce. I took my life back. I bought myself a pair of cowboy boots. ______________________________________________________

Of the trilogy, Victory Is My Name, Book 1: The Burning Barrel is now available from Internet or brick and mortar bookshops. The e-book is available at your favorite web booksellers. Search by author, Victoria Chames.

If you are interested in being a Beta Reader for the first draft of Victory Is My Name, Book Two: The West Bank, now in progress., please contact me through “Victory” at Darkhorse Press. Thank you.

Victory Is My Name, a Memoir. This is a trilogy, and the first section, Book One: The Burning-Barrel launched in February and is available everywhere in paperback and e-book. Publishers’s sampler: http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-victory.html

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