It’s Complicated: 3 Rules for Writing about Difficult Relationships

It’s Complicated: 3 Rules for Writing about Difficult Relationships

“Love truth, but pardon error.” – Voltaire

If my mother hadn’t died, she would have been 89 on March 1st. And if she hadn’t died, I might not have written Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink because I’m not sure I would have taken up running. Sorry for the cliffhanger, but the book tells that story.

When I posted a photo of Mom on social media, as I do nearly every year on her birthday, friends and family commented with fond memories. They weren’t making it up. She could be kind, thoughtful, generous, creative, witty, and brilliant.

But she was the most confusing person in my life.

Mom only appears on a few pages of my running and mental health memoir, but she might be the most interesting person in the story. The year after she died, I wrote a first draft of a memoir about our relationship. I found the writing so painful that I set it aside to heal and gain perspective.

Her birthday and my reaction to the social media comments (curiosity and a bit of terror at the thought of what people who loved her might think after they read the book) led me to ponder how we can love someone so much yet also find the relationship so hard. As a writer, I reflected on how to write about difficult relationships.

Did her death grant me artistic license to tell the truth?

I’ve written before
about Mary Karr’s admonition to memoirists. Karr, author of the memoir The Liar’s Club, one of the first memoirs about dysfunctional families to hit the best-seller list, has been referred to as “grande dame memoirista.” When she spoke at a nonfiction conference I attended years ago, Karr didn’t mince words. “Don’t make shit up.”

When I wrote this memoir (and the other memoir drafts sitting in files on my computer and in boxes in our basement) I heeded Karr’s words. “Don’t make shit up” was my canon, my lodestar, my guiding light. I wrote with abandon while compulsively checking journals, running logs, and datebooks to ensure accuracy.

Then came the revisions where I had to decide what I really wanted to say. How could I portray my experience without making any of the people in the book, and especially my mother, look like either monsters or saints?

Here are three rules I used in both parts of the process:

1. BE BRUTAL. I wrote it all down. I used full names, actual places, true occupations. I wrote what everyone said and how it made me feel. I laughed, screamed, and cried. I put myself back in the scene and relived it on the page.

2. BE KIND. I summoned empathy. I asked myself what the other person might say if they could tell their side of the story. I asked myself if I could be wrong about what happened or why it happened and I wrote that too. While I told the story from my perspective, it’s more interesting (and honest) to see all aspects. Perhaps it’s my legal training or my “mediator” personality, but after the dust of the first draft had settled, I found great relief in asking these questions. It added depth to a story that might otherwise lie flat.

3. CHOP IT IN HALF. Then I cut, cut, cut. My first drafts are gargantuan creatures, unwieldy and wild. Trimming and tightening helped me see where I may have been mistaken and (I hope) allows the truth to shine through.

It Might Be Time to Party

“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

The holidays are over. Perhaps you have extra time on your hands. You’re back at work, but bored. Maybe you also have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in your pocket. I’m here to help.

Just head over to and type “Nita Sweeney” in the search box.

In the late 1960s, a grade school girl from a central Ohio farm presented her project, a handmade book, to her teacher. The plot of “Sheshak the Wild Stallion” closely followed that of Black Beauty. The book’s pages stuck out, the cover edges didn’t meet, and the ragged construction paper letters making up the title formed more of a jagged scar than a straight line.

Regardless, the girl beamed as she held the book. She didn’t even mind the B+ she received. The book represented something she always wanted: her name on a cover.

If you were in central Ohio last Friday, you might have heard that young girl (now a 57-year old woman) cry with joy after she typed her name into the Amazon search box.

This is a long way of telling you that my memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, is available for preorder.

We’re still working on the cover. Endorsements continue to come in. The editor will send revisions. The book won’t be released until May. This process is far from over.

But that little girl? She doesn’t care about all those big girl details. She’s says it’s time to party!

Six Reasons NOT to Submit Your NaNoWriMo Novel in December

“Even the greats don’t nail it on the first try.” ~ Emily Temple

Each year in November, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, everyday people across the world take a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction in thirty days. It’s called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’ve done this challenge many times. Since I know how effective it is in helping writers complete a very rough first draft, I often suggest NaNoWriMo in my classes and newsletter.

Each year in December, a fraction of those same people send their unedited or barely revised 50,000 words, the same words they just wrote in November, to agents and editors.

Here are six reasons why you do not want to do that:

1. They will hate you forever.

2. They will hate you forever.

3. They will hate you forever.

4. They will hate you forever.

5. They will hate you forever.

6. They will hate you forever.

Last month my husband and I attended a Veterans Day luncheon at the local senior center. A friend of Ed’s who happens to be a retired editor, greeted me by saying, “I hate your newsletter!”

Um. Thanks.

He didn’t hate my newsletter. What he hated was receiving submissions that weren’t ready for an editor’s eyes. I had to agree with him. I don’t know if any of those submissions were written during NaNoWriMo, but the point remains – YOUR WORK MUST BE REVISED.

Please. I beg you. If you participated in NaNoWriMo this year, don’t let the excitement (mania?) of November (or any writing spree for that matter) lull you into believing your work is ready to go out right away. Let your manuscript rest. Then, in January (or August), bring it out again. Revise, revise, revise. Have other people read it. Then revise again before submitting it anywhere.

You get one shot with an agent or editor. Don’t waste it.

Turning Down the Screws

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” – Henry David Thoreau in a letter to Harrison Blake, November 16, 1857

In elementary and high school, I belonged to a 4-H club to train dogs for obedience. My rat terrier, Tony, and I won first place at the Ohio State Fair two years in a row. We had a great trainer, a retired factory superintendent, Louie Levengood who had raised and trained award-winning golden retrievers for decades.

As a big show approached, Louie would run a hand through his white hair and remind us it was time to “turn down the screws.” We were to become precise, tightening our training the way a woodworker might give a screw a few final turns so the head is flush with the wood. Minor imperfections we’d let slide earlier in the season took on new importance.

If Tony did not sit close enough to my heel or was not looking straight ahead as he sat next to me, I gently corrected him. If he did not come quickly enough, I corrected him. Every detail was important. This paid off. Both years, the state fair judges explained, these details were what led each judge to place Tony and I a few points ahead of the nearly perfect Doberman, Precious, and his young woman owner.

It’s time once again to turn down the screws – this time with my memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target.

My deadline, December 1st, approaches like an oncoming train. While I trim, trim, trim, I’m also fixing lingering problems: info dumps, too much telling, and dialogue that doesn’t carry its weight. These tasks require focus reminiscent of those days I spent in the large yard near our barn, walking Tony around and around. Stopping and starting again and again. Correcting. Praising. Perfecting. Over and over and over.

I’m under no illusions that the book will be perfect. This isn’t the state fair. But I know I have the skill and patience to improve it. With Louie’s voice in my ear, I will do my best.

Not Time to Party Yet!

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ~ T. S. Eliot

It’s official!

This morning I signed a contract with Mango Publishing to publish my re-titled memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought me Back from the Brink.

Yes, I’m over the moon!

But it’s not time to party. Now the real work begins.

The editor made suggestions and I have my own ideas of what still needs work. I have until December 1st to submit a “final” draft. (Is any writing project ever final in the writer’s mind even after it’s published?) That will be edited and returned to me. I’ll make those additional revisions and then it will be submitted to the copy editor.

Boom! Boom! Boom! The published book is expected in Spring of 2019.

In the meantime, if it seems I’ve disappeared, my apologies. I’m head down, working, blinders on.

Don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted as developments occur.

We party in the Spring!!

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