“Between every line of a memoir is a pounding heart,” said Marjorie Simmins. In her presentation at the EAC conference in Halifax, Simmins, an award-winning writer who makes her living as a journalist, editor, and instructor, shared some of her wisdom about how an editor can make the most out of the sometimes intimate, sometimes delicate, and often rewarding relationship with a memoirist.
“Memoir is impossible to define,” said Simmins. “It’s a bit like a pool of mercury.” Memoirs can be poetry; they can be prose; they can be hybrid of genres. They can be illustrated; they can be literary. They can be about a regular person, a celebrity, or even a family. “Memoir,” Simmins explained, “is a chapter in someone’s life,” in contrast to an autobiography, which is a look at the whole life. “Memoir is supposed to be a piece of time, and it often relates to a particular event.”
Simmins brought along a selection of her favourite memoirs, from Linden MacIntyre’s Causeway to Laura Beatrice Berton’s I Married the Klondike to Joanna Claire Wong’s Wong Family Feast, to show us the vast range that memoirs can cover. Common to all good memoirs, however, is an affecting story, said Simmins, and it takes a skilled writer to achieve just the right balance of sentiment.
Editors can make a meaningful difference in the life of a memoirist, Simmins explained, but not every memoirist-editor pair will work. Luck, and chemistry, also factor into the relationship. “Trust your first impressions,” she advised, when considering whether to take on a project, and define the limits of the relationship through clear communication. “I try to avoid the phone,” she told us, “because people don’t think it takes you any time.” When she agrees to work on a memoir, Simmins first evaluates the manuscript, offering the author a candid overview of her response to the writing and detailing the sections that work well and those that don’t. Candour doesn’t mean insensitivity, of course, especially since memoirists often find it hard to separate themselves from the text and may take umbrage at what they perceive as criticism. After her evaluation, she performs careful line and copy editing to polish the text.
She’ll do her best to fact check, confirming names, dates, and historical references. Some manuscripts require a lot of fact checking, said Simmins, and you’ll generally know how intensive it will be from the first page. Some facts simply can’t be checked, however, and although truth and accuracy are important, so is imagination, Simmins emphasized: “No one can truly remember being three years old,” and even real people, when they are characters in a memoir, still need to be engaging and believable.
Making sure someone gets published, she said, is not her job. Having a work published may not even be a priority for some memoirists, who might write simply to unburden their souls. Memoirs are “truly written in heart’s blood,” said Simmins, and a memoirist might produce only one work in a lifetime, and so it’s particularly important for an editor to be diplomatic and open minded. She warned us that, especially for editors who work as writers, the work lines can get blurred. Occasionally she’ll catch herself thinking, “Oh, I can fix this!” but before she does, she has to remind herself to pull back and instead offer the author guidance and suggestions on what could improve the text.
Memoirists can take things very personally, and Simmins suggested that editors “learn to fend off bullies. They’re out there. Some people just want to criticize everything you do. But you know when you’ve done a good job, and you can beg to differ in a polite way.” She advocated keeping a professional distance from the work. If you get too invested, “you’ll be eaten alive.”
Not every editor is suited to working with memoirists. Some editors, for example, prefer not to work with people and might be better off quietly editing government documents. For Simmins, however, editing memoirs is enormously rewarding, as she knows that her contribution can bring a stranger “great psychic happiness.” She closed her talk with some terrific perspective, courtesy of Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
— Iva Cheung, Certified professional editor, Vancouver, B.C.
“Marjorie Simmins is a talented writer with inexhaustible energy, enthusiasm and curiosity. Her award-winning writing has tremendous scope and has appeared from coast to coast in Canada’s most respected publications. It was a pleasure to serve as Marjorie’s supervisor for her graduate work on memoir. I have found Marjorie to be highly conscientious, knowledgeable, dedicated, and focused. Her generosity and openness light up a room.”
— Dr. Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Professor, Mount Saint Vincent University, and mentor, University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction, Halifax, NS.
“The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia was delighted to engage Marjorie Simmins to lead ‘Tell Me Your Story’, an eight-week workshop session in writing memoir. Almost immediately, the workshop was oversubscribed and participation, enthusiastic. We’ve rarely had such positive written feedback:
“Please give ten out of ten to our instructor: I was especially impressed with her preparation, approachability, and generosity of feedback.”
“Marjorie was wonderful, supportive and knowledgeable. One of the strengths of this workshop was how well organized the instruction was and how well thought through, every assignment.”
“I’ve never felt so encouraged. Marjorie is a gem. Please persuade her to offer a Memoir Part 2!”
— Jane Buss, Executive Director, Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia
“Those in the freelance writing game quickly come to understand that to make a success of their careers they have to be many things. Resourceful to be sure. Adaptable to any challenge a client throws their way certainly. They must have an insatiable curiosity and the research skills to deal with that curiosity. And a track record of delivering on time and on budget. Those traits describe the sum and substance of Marjorie Simmins.
She brings a passion to whatever she does that is nothing short of infectious, along with a sense of purpose and determination that are second to none.”
— Colin Moorhouse, Freelance Speechwriter & Communications Instructor
“As a person, I have found Marjorie to be flexible, reliable, and easy to work with. She has an energetic, can-do attitude that has always made her a valuable member of any team. She’s an experienced and entertaining communicator, both at the podium and on the page. She’s published essays and articles in an impressive array of newspapers and magazines, and has won gold at the National Magazine Awards. She’s adventurous and resourceful, and a hard worker.
Marjorie Simmins comes at life with a spirited, irrepressible curiosity and a fundamentally positive outlook. She’s a pleasure to work with and to be around. I’m pleased to recommend her to you without qualification.”
— Andreas Schroeder, Rogers Communications Chair, Creative Nonfiction Program, UBC Creative Writing
“[The seminar] was packed with useful information and references, with some fun-filled activities to ‘stir the mind'”.
— D. Stevens
“I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar. I came away inspired and with ideas to begin writing.”
— R. Rudderham, 2009
“Marjorie is a gem. Please have her offer a Memoir Writing Course II .”
–D. Gallupe, 2008
“Ten out of 10 for the instructor. I was especially impressed with [Marjorie’s] preparation, approachability, generosity in both oral and written feedback, and her expertise in the area of ‘group cohesion’.”
–M. Comeau, 2008
“Great, thought-provoking assignments, great feedback from Marjorie, strongly supportive group dynamic. I really enjoyed this class, and would not hesitate to take others, or recommend.”
— A. Spurway, 2008
“Just finished reading your book — and loved it! There were many times I found myself saying ‘yes, yes’ to something you described in your life, sharing an experience or feeling that stirred my soul and/or brought a smile. What you wrote, and the beautiful way you wrote, made me – as a reader — feel like I was travelling along life with you. And always, there was a sparkle, an optimism, a spring to the walk, regardless of the reality of the moment. Inspiring, funny, thought-provoking, insightful, a life lived on many levels and a wonderful love story. Thank you!”
— Elle Andra-Warner, journalist and author
“I just finished Coastal Lives. WOW!
I did not start it right after our [memoir writing] workshop in Annopolis Royal this September. Instead I plunged into my own efforts in memoir writing. I got a fair start. But, then I started your work over the Thanksgiving weekend and I was blown away. Right from the beginning, I considered highlighting some of the passages. However I got caught up in the story and forgot the underlining task. I guess I’ll have to reread it to find those literary gems again.
Well done. [As I work on my own memoir], Coastal Lives will be my road map.
— Paul Colville, Annapolis Valley, NS, October 2014.
Responses to the workshop, Writing a Memoir with Heart & Power:
“Wonderful weekend writing seminar with Marjorie Simmins! Feeling greatly inspired.”
“I was delighted to participate, and came away feeling that this is the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience.”
— Kate Dwyer
“As our Keynote Speaker, Marjorie Simmins did a fantastic job of bringing to life how therapeutic writing in journals can be. The audience was completely engaged, inspired and motivated by Marjorie and she left each and every one of us feeling reflective and energized.”
— 2014 “It’s About You” Women’s Health Expo Planning Committee,
St. Peters, Nova Scotia.
(Sheri Bowen, Tiffany Peeples, Amanda Shepherd, Bonnie Gagnon, Cheryl Stone, Jean Frost-Stone, Jill MacLean)
“The workshop I attended with you in the spring really helped me to clarify my direction and helped me to actually get at the task of writing. Thanks so much for your inspiration!”
Lynda Johnson, Spring into Memoir, Thinkers Lodge, Pugwash, Nova Scotia, May 2015.
Testimonials from Marjorie Simmins Spring into Memoir workshop, held at the University of British Columbia, March 4, 2017:
“I loved the Spring into Memoir workshop. Marjorie Simmins is so knowledgeable and shares this knowledge concisely and humorously. The exercises were inspiring and drew out so much beautiful writing from the participants; sharing these was a joy to hear. The discussions were deep and rich and inspired us all to claim our own stories and share them, and gave us great ideas about how to do that more skillfully. I would highly recommend Marjorie’s workshops to anyone with tales to tell of their lives, their loved ones and their experiences.”
— Jo-Ann Whitham, M.Ed, Special Education, Vancouver, BC
“I was scared at first to take this workshop. Within minutes after meeting Marjorie, I was put at ease by her warm personality and her humour. Her workshop was over before I wanted it to be. The information acquired was very useful, and the writing exercises were fun, and self-revelatory. She loves to teach, and she has a fond, respectful regard for her students. I found myself taking risks because of this. If and when she comes to the West Coast again, I’d happily be her student!”
— J. Lynne, Activist & Métis Writer, Vancouver, BC
“Thanks heaps for the day, Marjorie! It was inspiring for sure and what a grand group of women you drew to you. Like a kaleidoscope for each of us to see the many facets of womanhood. To all my fellow writers, I look forward to watching the growth and productivity of all.”
— Sharon Gretzinger, retired nurse & social worker; president & registrar of a Buddhist Centre, Vancouver, BC.
“Thank you for the fabulous course — I so enjoyed the whole day and your wealth of teaching savviness and experience.”It was wonderful to meet everyone yesterday. As some of the others said, I woke up the day after the workshop energized and ready to take the next step in writing my memoir! Having your nudge has helped me achieve a breakthrough. Knowing you wanted to see an excerpt from my memoir got me to sit down and figure out the structure and story-line.”
Winner, PEN Canada / Ken Filkow Prize
“Thank you all for the gift of courage to put myself out there, in our discussions, to make sure my voice is heard. I am honoured to have been with such an amazing and accomplished group of women.
“To gather again in the future, as a writers’ group or just over a cup of tea, would be lovely. And yes, as queried, I would attend a future workshop led by Marjorie about finding a comfort zone in family matters, when writing a memoir.”
— L. Favel, Vancouver, BC
“On the page, Marjorie has a gift for turning seemingly ordinary moments into extraordinary stories full of insight and warmth. In person she’s no different. Marjorie’s enthusiasm for the memoir genre, for her students, and for writing in general is infectious. After taking her workshop I now feel hopeful, curious, and emboldened to shape my own experiences into satisfying stories. I’m anxiously awaiting her next book.”
— April Bosshard, Writer, Vancouver, BC