It started when she gave up. Her computer irretrievably and maliciously devoured the first 68 pages of a memoir she was working on, what Nancy Slonim Aronie calls the best piece of writing she has ever written. There was no way to get it back. The geniuses at the Genius Bar couldn’t get it back, nor could the genius she’s married to. “I couldn’t do it again,” Aronie said. “I was devastated.”
About a year later, a Grammy-nominated stand-up comedian attending Aronie’s “Writing from the Heart” workshop (it wasn’t in Chilmark, but in Esalen, Big Sur) encouraged Aronie to do a one-woman show and hooked her up with a producer. Aronie has the extraordinary ability to laugh and cry — and make others laugh and cry — in a single sentence, and it didn’t take him long to channel his inner Nichols and May and start working on a monologue. . The producer praised her work, chained her for a while, and finally admitted she had too many projects on the go to move on. At this point, Aronie’s will to do a solo show waned.
“I got back to writing, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I discovered Google Docs,” Aronie said. “You lose nothing with Google Docs.”
This time, she finished her memoirs and gave them to her agent who made the rounds of the major publishing houses, and the rejections piled up.
The next incarnation of her memoir brought together Aronie’s work by facilitating writing workshops, which provide a safe space for people to tell their stories, and her own story. Aronie’s youngest son, Dan, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 9 months old and multiple sclerosis when he was 22. Dan died at the age of 38.I knew the way we navigated through this tsunami was unusual,” Aronie said. “I knew I needed to write about this.”
When she was 78, Aronie said she wanted to get a book published when she was 80 (she even bought an outfit for the book launch party). Aronie, who turns 81 in May, has achieved his goal. “Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story” (New World Library) hits bookstores this week.
Ahead of this summer’s Islanders Write, The MV Times will meet writers who will be at this year’s event to talk about their writing process. The following is from a conversation I had with Aronie last weekend at her home in Chilmark. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Why did you want to write a memoir originally?
I knew I had to write my story to get this shit out of my body. I have always taught that you carry your sorrow. It’s in your liver. It’s in your pancreas. It’s in your heart, and if you don’t put it on the page, it’ll marinate. This is now called narrative medicine. Telling your story is healing. I don’t know how I knew it intuitively, but I knew it. Sure, I thought it would be awesome if it was a book, but it was mostly that I just had to get this out.
When you went back to writing the memoirs, how did you approach it?
I tried to pretend to do a monologue. I tried to pretend I was on a stage talking to people.
Besides finding a publisher, what challenges did you face during this process?
I’m not good at proofreading and I’m not good at editing. My NPR bits were 750 words, and I got them nearly perfect the first time I wrote them. I was very lucky not to have to suffer. Well, that freaked me out. I read it and I edited it, and I printed it and I corrected it, then I wrote some more.
Were you discouraged when you received rejections from publishers?
No. This book is the result of writing a memoir and getting 17 rejections. The rejections didn’t seem to bother me when I received them. They were all from Random House and Simon & Schuster and everybody big, but they said things like, ‘Thank you for sending me Nancy Slonim Aronie’s beautiful and powerful memoir. I cried and I laughed. They said no to a book they liked.
But when you found the editor you really wanted to work with, you discovered that he was not a fan of memoirs.
I knew [Jason Gardner] was my guy. [New World Library publishes Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.] But when I heard him say he hates memoirs, I thought, I can’t send him memoirs. So I fell asleep and lay there thinking, okay, so what’s wrong with this book? The next day I looked at his list [of books published], and they were all how-to and self-help. I teach how to revive your memories. Good morning! I will write how to start your memoirs.
And that was it?
It poured out so easily because that’s what I sit down and do every week with the workshops. It was very easy to write, very different from the memoirs, but I put in about five chapters of the memoirs to illustrate how to use dialogue, and that you have to be funny, but you have to be serious at the same time. I think writing helps give you a new perspective and ideas. It can help you let go of the rough edges and make peace with the difficult things. I sent her the new book, and it was the most professional, beautiful, and wonderful experience. They were so great, and the book is coming out. And I’m 80!
“Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Undiscipline (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story” will be available from Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Islanders Write will take place July 31 and August 1 at the Featherstone Center for the Arts. islanderswrite.com.