Lisa Romeo's newly released memoir “Starting with Goodbye,” is about rediscovering “her enigmatic father after his death.” She first started exploring her relationship with her father through writing a series of essays, before turning her writing into a memoir. Lisa has also been published in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, among many others. I first met Lisa Romeo at the HippoCamp Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, where she has led energetic workshops that renew the writers’ spirits. My own father passed away when I was twenty years old, so I’m fascinated with the idea of how a parent lives on through the memory of their children. I wanted to ask Lisa about the process of writing her insightful memoir.
Jim: Your dad was generous with his children and others, but he wasn't overly talkative. You write about how he'd ask the same few questions during a phone call before handing the phone to your mom. How did writing the memoir help you understand your father?
Lisa: When I used to try to talk to my father when he was alive, it seemed to take a long time and a lot of patience for him to loosen up in conversations that were serious. On the surface, he was a very friendly person, interested in others, easy to laugh with. But if you wanted to have a deeper conversation, that took time and frankly, I was impatient with him, rarely sitting still long enough. His first instinct seemed to be to deflect attention from himself and lighten the situation, and my first instinct is to get right to the point. We were mismatched as discussion partners.
After he was gone however, I got more curious about his small talk, and the ways in which he communicated by staying quiet. When I was writing about the grief process and what was going through my mind, I felt able to figure him out for the first time, to appreciate his communication style for what it was—not a way to push others away, but a way to assure himself that his counsel was valued enough in an exchange to offer his deepest thoughts and guidance and be taken seriously. Once I understood that, I had many “conversations” with him, or I should say, with his absent presence.
Jim: Your memoir started as a series of essays. Can you tell us about the moment you thought these could/should be a memoir? Was that a flash where you realized it was inevitable or did the thought strike doubt and fear at first?
Lisa: After I’d published a half-dozen or so essays on various aspects of this experience, and still kept writing more, I envisioned a collection of linked essays. By the time I had 13 pieces, I pulled them together, wrote a few more essays, and began to think of it as a book. Alas, others didn’t agree! I got very similar feedback from various people I trusted – a few publishers, a couple of beta readers, a mentor, and a book coach – along the lines of, “These are lovely individually but not as a book.” The advice was that it would work better as a more traditional narrative memoir.
I put off acting on that for a few years. An essayist at heart, I wasn’t ready to abandon the form (and I also worried it would take years). Finally, I realized that even if it never sold, I had to take the plunge and transform the essays into memoir, if only for the experience of doing so, to grow and develop as a writer and see what happened. As it turned out, the process was more fun than I anticipated, and took only four months. Breaking down those essays, having the choice to delete and move things around, opened up many new possibilities. The essays became kindling, not mandatory blocks, freeing me in many ways.
Jim: Towards the end of the book you state that if an unexamined life isn't worth living, you believe that an unexamined grief is a bigger loss. I love that sentiment. We live in a culture where people don't want to examine the inevitable death and loss. How has examining your grief changed your perspective on life?
Lisa: It’s had an unexpectedly calming effect, in the sense that death, grief, and end-of-life now seem much more normal to me, more of a regular part of life, which is how I think it should be. Unfortunately, in our culture those things are so often taboo to think and talk about. In some ways I’ve given myself permission to engage with these natural aspects of our human condition, and that has made them somewhat less scary. Aside from personal, selfish ramifications, I hope too that this experience has made me more able to talk with others about their death, grief, and end-of-life experiences, to be more compassionate and open minded; to listen more deeply.
Jim: Has your family read the memoir yet? If so, how did they react?
Lisa: Unless there are major issues I’m unclear about, I’m not the sort of writer who typically shares my work with others until publication. It’s my story and I tend not to want to hear others’ memories. I did ask my husband and older son to read the manuscript late in the process, and they had some helpful thoughts on final revisions. Where I was writing about my parents’ lives before I was born, I read some passages over the phone to my brother, and had my sister read some pages because they’re 8 and 12 years older than I am. As for reactions, I don’t know: I specifically didn’t ask if anyone “liked” what they read because I didn’t want to get caught up in making revisions to gain approval.
Jim: Your HippoCamp Class on Submission Strategy was motivation for us writers who don't stay on top of submitting our work. What's your one bit of advice for staying on top of the submission game?
Lisa: Regularity. Keep at it, a little bit here, a little bit there. Keep the pipeline filled. There’s no sense in having completed, polished (short) work biding time in your computer because you are wary about the outcome. That’s like rejecting yourself before you’ve even given an editor a chance to reject—or accept!
Jim: Thanks Lisa!