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Once Upon a Time

Many parents are putting their adoption stories in writing. Whether you publish or not, here’s how to create a moving, quality memoir.by Lee Tobin McClain, Ph.D.



It’s late at night, and the family’s finally quiet. You head for your journal or your computer and you write with passion—about your adoption experience. It calms you down. It lifts you up. And someday, it may even make you famous.

“It was not my intention to write a book,” says Shannon Turner, author of Miracles for Marlee. Turner had simply started a journal for her daughter, recounting various coincidences and small miracles that happened along the way. But friends who read the journal encouraged her to seek publication. The rest, as they say is...

Along with adoption itself, writing about adoption is a burgeoning trend. Carlene M. Bravo, president and owner of Tapestry Books, receives up to five new adoption-related books a week to be considered for publication. “Most of these are from adoptive parents,” she explains. Many are memoirs chronicling a family’s adoption experience or children’s books meant to help parents talk to their children about the way they formed their family.

From Musing to Manuscript

The unusual thing about adoption writing is that, whether already-published writers or not, most of the parent-writers I interviewed for this article didn’t start out planning to write a book. George Harrar, whose Parents Wanted tells the story of an 11-year-old boy adopted from the foster care system, says his children’s novel grew out of notes he took during the adoption process and after his son, Tony, was placed with his family—six years of notes. It was only later that Harrar, a writer by trade, realized the potential. “A writer is always looking for interesting stories,” he says, “and after a few years of taking notes, I realized I had one forming in front of me.”

The Waiting Child, by Cindy Champnella, grew out of e-mails the writer exchanged with friends interested in her daughter Jaclyn’s story. “If I’d sat down and tried to write a book, it never would have happened,” she says, busy as she was with a full-time job and three young children.

So, if you think you might be interested in writing, the first step is usually to keep notes, a journal, or e-mails related to your adoption. When the time is right, you’ll have the records you need to write something for others to see. If you already have notes or a journal, but haven’t considered using them to make a book, why not follow the example of Turner, Harrar, and Champnella? Look at your work with a critical eye, and you might find you have a book on your hands.

Why Write?

Most parents I spoke with started writing for themselves, often to relieve stress. “I wrote to keep myself sane,” says Elizabeth Mallory, who’s working on a book about her adoption experience and how it led to founding the charity, No Child Left Out. Mallory was caught up in the two-year Cambodian adoption shutdown. “At times I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep until I wrote and wrote and wrote,” she says.

Harrar says, “The journal was the place to pour out my emotions—particularly frustration—when things weren’t going well.” The challenges of older child adoption, difficult behaviors, and dealings with social workers, therapists, guidance counselors, and teachers got easier when he had a place to vent.

Another common motivation: your child. “Throughout the writing of my book, I had one aim in mind: to craft something lasting and meaningful as a legacy for my daughter,” says Hannah Amgott of her new memoir, In the Year of the Ox. Perhaps surprisingly, her book ends with the moment her daughter was placed in her arms. And writer Anita Gillespie noticed that her daughter’s favorite books all focused on adoption. “I wanted my daughter to know that someone across the ocean also loved her forever,” she says. That realization led to her writing a story about a birthmother.

Many parents write to help other families or to encourage others to adopt. “I wanted to write a book that prospective parents could read to understand what adopting an older child is like,” says Harrar. For that reason, he didn’t shy away from the realities of older-child adoption. Champnella wanted to inspire others to adopt, and many people have written to tell her it’s working. She donates her book’s profits to Half the Sky Foundation, a group that helps children in China’s orphanages.

Make it Real—Or Not

Whether you’re writing to relieve stress or to preserve your child’s story, it makes sense to write a nonfiction account. You may embellish, or recount conversations from memory, but anchor the story in reality.

However, some of us who are inspired by our adoptions elect to write fiction instead of nonfiction. In my case, I found myself wondering what my daughter’s life would have been like if she had grown up with her birthparents in China. That sparked the idea of a magic computer game that allows kids who were adopted to see what their lives would have been like had they grown up with their biological parents. Obviously, this wasn’t a true story, but it was the perfect seed for a series of novels about foster and adopted teens. The first publisher I contacted snapped it up. My Alternate Life has just been published by Dorchester Books. As Harrar says, “Fiction gave me the freedom to start with the bare bones of my own story, then take it wherever I wanted.”

There’s also a historical reason that our stories can work well in fiction: Orphans have always made popular literary protagonists. Think Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter. Taking parents out of the mix puts the action in the hands of the kids, a hallmark of good kid-lit. [For more on this, go to “Orphan Lit” at www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles. php?aid=750.]

Getting into Print

If you want to publish your writing, you have some decisions to make…and a long road in front of you. Extensive revisions are often necessary. Even for an experienced writer, getting a book ready for publication can be a hard process. Harrar rewrote twice over two years before Milkweed accepted Parents Wanted.

Cindy Champnella had to cut her journal from 600,000 words to 110,000. She sent out 80 proposals to agents. After she found an agent, she did another extensive rewrite with an editor before the book was accepted for publication. “If I had had any idea how impossible it is to actually sell a book, I would never have undertaken this project,” she admits. “So I’m glad I didn’t know.”

Aware of the challenges of the publishing business, Shannon Turner investigated self-publishing companies, or vanity presses. “You have complete control over the book, and it’s a much faster process,” she says. It’s important to find a legitimate self-publishing company, and you must be willing to take control of everything: cover, font choice, marketing, and publicity.

Altered States

Adoption is a life-changing experience. But those who write about it go into yet another dimension. Harrar, who tells his story from the perspective of a 12-year-old adopted child, gained a new view of his son’s experience. “I learned by looking at adoption through Andy/Tony’s eyes that we have unrealistic expectations for these children,” he says. “The life changes that they’re facing would knock any of us out.”

Many learn to embrace public speaking as they discuss their work with readers. “In the past year I have done more than 40 speaking engagements and 70 interviews, including one on NBC’s John Walsh Show,” Champnella says. “This from a lady whose knees knock when she talks in public!”

There’s real satisfaction in knowing your writing has had an impact on others. “I love knowing I was able to touch even a few lives through my book and hope that others will gain inspiration to conquer a challenge they may have,” says Turner. Champnella agrees, adding that she is humbled when people tell her of adoptions that have been inspired by The Waiting Child.

So go ahead: Write your story. It’s fine to start small, with a stress-free journal of your adoption experiences. But watch out. Soon you could be editing madly and learning about the publishing business. Pretty soon, you might find yourself speaking in public, educating others about adoption, and even changing other people’s lives as your writing inspires them. But even if you just write for your child and your family, the power of the written word is formidable. It’s up to you to use it to convey your adoption experience in the right way.

Dr. Lee Tobin McClain directs the graduate writing program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and is the author of My Alternate Life, the first in a series of teen novels about adoption. Visit her Web site, www.leemcclain.com, for more information.



Top Writing Tips

  • Show, don’t tell. Instead of, “My husband and I were so happy the morning we found out we could adopt the little boy we’d seen on the videotape,” show us your husband whipping off his towel and dancing naked around the bathroom.
  • Use all of your senses. Beyond visual description, write about the boiled-cabbage smell of the orphanage, the stickiness of the just-born baby in your arms, the wailing of the frightened child stumbling off the airplane.
  • Don’t forget the details. Fill your pages with specifics, like the Russian orphanage worker who dresses in a white lab coat and babushka, the driver who pours water on his windshield because his wipers have been stolen.
  • Put words in people’s mouths. Dialogue makes a story more interesting. Let readers hear the translator who mumbles when she can’t think of the right word, the woman at the Department of Justice who assures you that your missing fingerprints “could surface in a week or two.”
  • Show emotion. Readers want to know how you feel. “I felt happy” doesn’t say much. Let a physical response describe emotion: “Seeing my son on videotape for the first time, I felt my heart had grown too big for the space that contained it.”
  • Write in images. Imagine what you’re afraid of: getting on the plane home from China with only a paperback and an inflatable pillow. Picture what you long for: you and your child splashing in the sea.
  • Create tension. Let the reader know what’s at stake in every scene. When you write about your homestudy, for instance, describe your nervousness about failing if the social worker discovers how you clean by throwing everything in the closet.
  • Get a little help from your friends. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but from time to time, you’ll need feedback. Sign up for a writing class at a bookstore or community college. Form a writing group with others you meet there. They’ll push you to go deeper into your emotions, cut the self-indulgent parts about your childhood, stop using so many adverbs—and keep going.

—Janis Cooke Newman


Resources

  • Write from Life: Turning Your Personal Experiences into Compelling Stories, by Meg Files (Writer’s Digest Books).
    Helps would-be writers mine their lives for material and shape it into effective stories.
  • Your Life As Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, by Tristine Rainer (Tarcher/Putnam).
    In-depth exercises and analysis for serious memoir writers.

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