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By Judy Mandel, Author & NAMW Featured Member for November 2010

One of the frequent questions I get about my memoir, Replacement Child, is why? Why unearth the difficult truth about a tragedy, family relationships and secrets?

For me, it was necessary to dive into the details of the plane crash that killed my sister along with the specific episodes of my own childhood.  I’ve said many times that writing my story was a journey of discovery for me.  It wasn’t until I was immersed in the writing of the book for at least two years that I stumbled on the term “replacement child.” I was reading psychology books trying to understand the kind of grief process my parents went through when they lost their eldest daughter.  As a mother myself, I couldn’t imagine how they could survive it, let alone have the courage to have another child.  Understanding their state of mind when they made the decision to have that child (me) gave me a window into how our future relationships developed, and how they affected my life.

Ask Yourself Why

My suggestion to memoir writers is to ask yourself why you are writing your story. One of the reasons I needed to write mine was to understand my role in my family, to discover my place in the narrative.

One Scene at a Time

I only uncovered my place in the story by doing the work, step by step, chapter by chapter, scene by scene.  The details were what illuminated my own journey.  The scenes I remembered with my sister, the ones with my mother, and –then –importantly, with my father.  One of the biggest issues for replacement children, as I began to think of myself, is one of identity.  Replacing one sister, and having another that needed a great deal of care after being badly burned and injured in the plane crash, my childhood was pretty much obscured.

When I was working on Replacement Child, I would go through family photos constantly.  I’d hit on a picture that brought up a memory and write it. Later, I might edit it out, but it was the only way I could wade through the information and determine what was meaningful to the story.

Edit Until it Hurts

And it will! You’ll write many chapters that you love, and then discover that they do nothing to illuminate the story for your reader.  They have to go, or they will suck the life out of your story like a brown leaf left on a healthy plant.

At times you may think you are editing out the truth, but the pruning will actually reveal your story more starkly. So, be not afraid of your red pen—or your editor’s.

Understanding Yields Healing

When you are all through, you may or may not have a publishable book—but you will most likely have a greater understanding of yourself and your motivations in your life choices.  I can only speak for myself, but writing through the underlying issues I’ve been working through, unconsciously, all my life turned out to be my own healing salve.

About Judy Mandel:

Judy was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but her family quickly moved to the more suburban Cranford. The town she lives in now in Connecticut is nearly a duplicate of her childhood hometown.

In college, she tried several different majors over the course of finding her way. First communications, then theater, then she developed a major in playwriting. Finally, she settled on English and Journalism. Having taken a break after her sophomore year to get married, getting her degree part-time took a while. She worked her way through those last college years singing and playing guitar in coffee shops and clubs.

Her writing life began as a reporter, which she actually loved. Then, she added a public relations stint at a hospital, a short time in advertising and somehow found herself in corporate communications at various insurance companies–where she earned a living for 20 years. She had only meant to stay for a few paychecks. More recently, she provides marketing writing for corporate clients in addition to continuing her own writing.

She is blessed with a wonderful son, an equally wonderful husband who brought three fantastic stepsons into her life, and a very large orange cat that sometimes types long lines of zzzzzz’s by laying across her computer keyboard.

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