Please welcome Debra Borden.
The ultimate moment of joy and validation in my life came on a morning in January 2006. I know this is where I’m supposed to say that was the day I gave birth to my first or second child. Of course, those were momentous events, but I never felt as validated giving birth as I did getting published. I’m sorry but it’s true.
When the doctor said, ‘you have a little girl’ and three years later, ‘a boy’, I held those babies close and then asked my husband to get me a cheese Danish. When the call came from my agent announcing that my first novel had sold, I sank to my knees and cried. And cried some more. For about an hour.
When the second novel was published, I finally began to believe that I was a writer. And I was sure that fiction was my game. But with the confidence came not more fiction, but instead light-hearted essays --spilling out as if I was born to write humorous truths. In retrospect, the essays weren’t all that different from my novels, which were both told in first person and made liberal use of my personal history—events and feelings, miscues and fantasies. A type of faction.
At the time, I didn’t realize that the essays might also be transitional. But as an LCSW I know something about the word compulsion. I’ve used it to describe clinical features as well as what writing is to me; with a nod to Descartes, I write, therefore I am.
So, it’s not so surprising that I transitioned from fiction to memoir and self-help. I often say that my work as a former school social worker informed my fiction. After all, when doing an evaluation or assessment, I was exploring family dynamics, human development, cultural norms, and home situations: essentially, a job that’s an inadvertent master class in character development and plot. Later, when working with challenging adult clients and I stumbled upon an amazing experiential therapy through cooking, naturally I was compelled to write about it, this time in article, essay, and self-help forms
But when writing novels, I was used to writing in stream-of-consciousness, a method I encourage. My mandate is to get the story down while it’s coming. If I stop too long to edit or correct I fall into the black hole of perfecting the language and I end up with five sentences, all with perfect grammar but no music at all. It seems to me a story or essay is a little word symphony with cadence and melody that needs to be played first. Create now, edit later.
Except, this often didn’t work for me with nonfiction. Yes, I still wanted it to have a snappy beat and the right key, but for me, nonfiction is more linear, more formatted and defined (sometimes even governed by AP Style). I needed to attend to research, too. And when I began to shape what I had in mind into a book idea, I realized I could best present my material in forms that repeat in some chapters, with similar instructions.
My publisher also was lobbying for some visual and organizational ideas that rankled: boxes and bullet points. Yikes, bullet points? What fresh hell is this? In keeping with the music metaphor, I was discovering that the kind of book I was attempting was not a medley of hits, but a series of singles. Which is not to say it can’t be entertaining, anecdotal, or creative. I learned to ‘write within the lines’, and I certainly hope every page, chapter, and even bullet point is still delightful.
When I write fiction, I do outline, but it’s loose. I scope out the general arc of the story before I begin with several blank spaces for my characters to weigh in or solutions to unfold. Much of my outline happens in my head when I’m doing other things, like chopping vegetables or not sleeping. But when I tried to write a self-help book in my usual way, I lost structure and forward motion and it caused everyone fits, including me. No sooner would I finish one section and start another that I realized I had to go back and insert or delete from the first.
I was also finding it difficult to bring the uniformity to the chapters that my original publisher envisioned. While the steps to treating The Stale Marriage and The Sexually-Out-Of-Sync Marriage may be similar, the behaviors they mirror, the recipes I choose, and the reflective processes differ. I’m also a bit creative with fonts and indentations and spacing. And by creative I of course mean incompetent. Six copy editors later (one a famous and expensive New York Times bestselling author) I’ve learned my lesson. And maybe how to write nonfiction in a way that doesn’t require my team to need a sabbatical on a remote island to destress. Yes, I exaggerate.
Writing Cook Your Marriage Happy, the first in my planned Cook Yourself Happy series was at times frustrating, annoying, daunting and of course, immensely gratifying. I’m so grateful to be able to write and to my readers. But also, to learn. I often say I wrote fictional characters I’d like to emulate, characters that grow and evolve. Going from fiction to fact has also been an evolution for me, although a year ago ‘evolution’ was not the word I would have used. This is why the next volume in the series is called, Cook Your Stressed-Out Self Happy.