10 Questions with Gotham Writers’ Workshop Participant Juliette Borda

April 6, 2010

Photo Illustrated and Provided by Juliette Borda

When I attended the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop almost two weeks ago, I sat next to a woman who caught my attention when she asked about writing a memoir for children. Juliette Borda, 42, an illustrator and Brooklyn resident, recently answered some questions for me about her views on memoir:

1. Define memoir.

One’s recounting of what they consider to be pivotal or transformative events in their lives; the story of the struggles that built their character. It’s the writer’s job to turn the random series of events in their life into a story and to find meaning in the events.

2. Have you taken memoir writing classes before?

Nope, never.

3. Why did you attend the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop?

Because committing to a 12-week class sounds like a lot for someone who doesn’t consider herself a serious writer. Also I’m impatient. Oh, and it was not far from home. And free.

4. Do you want to write a memoir?

Yes, I have a draft of a story written about my impoverished childhood in a trailer park. I did not set out to write about my life and I think that one takes one’s own upbringing for granted and not as sensational material–no matter if it’s modest or fancy. In other words, I never thought, ‘Wow, do I have a great story to tell.’

I have been an illustrator for 17 years. Recently I created a series of images from quirky-yet-sweet moments from my childhood. I’m acquaintances with a children’s book publisher and at the time I was working on another book for them. They were in my studio and saw these sketches on the wall, loved them and asked if I’d expand my images into a story. I did that, but ultimately the publisher rejected my proposal.  The problem was that I had edited out all the grit since this was for children. I rewrote it in a version that is more well-rounded and true to life, and now the story sounds much more believable. I’m continuing to improve the manuscript before I resubmit. It will be fully illustrated, obviously!

5. What did you learn from the workshop?

Some ‘rules’ of writing I find limiting. I don’t think there are rules if you can find a compelling way to say what you need to say. The rule, ‘show, don’t tell’ doesn’t apply to me because I will be ‘showing’ with images, so my writing will be the telling. But I did enjoy that the instructor didn’t know how her own memoir would wrap-up, what the universal takeaway would be–that was heartening. It made the process of writing seem organic and at times murky for everyone, not just a novice like myself.

6. Do you like to read memoir?

Yes, I absolutely love to; otherwise, I’m not a huge reader. I’m a psychological kind of person. I enjoy hearing how others ‘make sense of’ their own experiences. I like to see the road one has traveled and the way someone, for example, who was given very little as a child can not only go on to have a relatively happy life, but how they were able to ‘rise above’ that hardship. I like to see what it was, what moments of inspiration or character traits guided the writer to a place where their words are not whines, but truly elicit compassion and admiration.

7. Do you blog?

No, I don’t have the urge to.

8. What do you think of the idea of blogging as a form of modern memoir?

It could be, but isn’t blogging an endless event? A book or story has a definitive beginning and end; it’s much deeper and more serious an experience for the reader and writer. A book has a more thoughtful conclusion because there is no ‘next week’s post’ to add your collection of thoughts to.

9. What is your favorite memoir and why?

Hmm, I would have to say Mary Karr’s books. It’s not so much the events, but her descriptive language and her ability to describe an emotion from its first glimmerings, to the height of the feeling and to moving on to the processing of that feeling–back when it happened. I don’t know how she was able to relive events to fulfill the reader the way she does. Her stories are incredibly rich and satisfying.

10. Do you think there is a connection between writing a memoir and wanting fame?

No. I think once you’ve lived a while, you can’t simply let go of every moment that’s passed. If you’re an introspective person, some memories keep coming back to you as if they happened yesterday. Sometimes there’s a compulsion to turn those experiences around and around and look at them from different angles, to try to find patterns and make sense of your experience. Memoir writing can be beautifully cathartic. You know how when you’ve had a bad week, you just gotta write in your journal about it? This principle can also be applied to a bad life, or just life. It’s human to have the urge to create, and storytelling is a creative act.

Make sure to check out Juliette’s Web site to see her amazing illustrations.


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