March 29, 2011

Take My Advice: Write What You Know

Behind the Book by
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My new book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them, is an affectionate memoir of my experience as a single mother. The book spans the 18 years I spent raising my daughter, Emily, with the help of my family.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, however. My intention was to write a how-to book, full of tips, hints and useful information. Because I’m a syndicated advice columnist, I’m used to telling people “how to”—how to cure a heartache, how to confront a friend or how to manage an obnoxious mother-in-law. Due to the success of my column, writing an advice book seemed like a natural fit. My agent and various editors referred to the advice book project as a “slam dunk.”
I was pondering the challenges of writing my how-to book during a trip I took from my home in Chicago to visit family in Freeville, the little farming village in upstate New York where generations of my family have grown up and grown old.

While there, I went to the village school—the same one I attended as a child—to watch my niece’s kindergarten play. On the very same creaky wooden stage where I poured out my own pint-sized aspirations as a kindergartner, I watched my niece and her classmates act out and reflect the story of our lives in this small community. The kids were dressed as chickens, pigs and Holstein cows. They sang and danced in a make-believe barnyard.
It was adorable.
I looked around. The audience was populated with people, many of whom I’ve known all my life. I sat in my folding chair, flanked by my daughter, sister and mother in the old auditorium my grandfather and other men in the village had helped to build.
Given my surroundings, I couldn’t help but think about the arc of my own life. My how-to book idea went away in that moment and I decided instead to write my own story.

In my work as an advice columnist, people often challenge me by asking how I know what I know. I’m not a counselor. I don’t have an advanced degree. I got here the hard way, by living my life and making my share of mistakes. I took the back roads of life, through marriage and divorce and raising my daughter as a single parent. I got here with the help and support of the people in my little world.

My agent was skeptical when I told her I wanted to write about my daughter, aunts and cousins, my sisters and mother. We are ordinary people whose lives, nonetheless, have been blessed with incident. I told her I wanted to write about people and livestock and the little community I come from. 
My agent asked me to write a chapter. She said, “I want to see if there is any there there.”

The first chapter I wrote detailed the loss and longing I felt when my own father abandoned our family farm, leaving his four children to run our failing dairy. And then I wrote another chapter, about the fumbling hilarity of coping with the livestock he had left behind. As I was writing the book, Emily graduated from high school in Chicago and I made the decision to move back to Freeville permanently. Once again, I was surrounded by my family—the women Emily refers to as “the Mighty Queens.”

I wrote about blind dates and my work life. I wrote about my faith and personal failings. I wrote about sending Emily to college and saying goodbye to the person I had raised and was now launching into adulthood. I wrote about “the Mighty Queens,” those women who had supported us, championed our successes and wept with us during our difficult times.

During the course of working on the book, my dear aunt Lena died and we buried her in our family plot in Freeville. I reconnected with the people in my hometown who are all characters in my life story. I fell in love with a man I had known since childhood. And finally, my story felt complete.
 In my work giving advice to other people, I often feel that the two hardest questions for any of us to answer are, “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” I’ve struggled with those questions myself—but finally, through telling my own story, I found the answers.

Amy Dickinson succeeded the legendary Ann Landers as the advice columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 2003. Her column, “Ask Amy,” is now syndicated in 200 newspapers. She is also a regular panelist on the NPR quiz show, “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me.”

The Mighty Queens of Freeville
By Amy Dickinson

ISBN 9781401322854


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