Patricia Charpentier began her writing career at the age of 14 as the “Teen Talk” columnist of her small town newspaper. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from
and a master’s degree in creative writing from the Louisiana State University . She worked briefly as a feature writer and photographer before settling into a twenty-eight-year career in the IT side of mortgage banking. She returned to writing and became interested in her family history but realized all those who held the answers to her questions were gone. She turned her own loss into passion, ghostwriting memoirs on behalf of others, as well as co-authoring, editing, teaching and speaking. She is the author of the award-winning book, Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time, owner of Writing Your Life, a company devoted to personal and family history writing, and artist in residence at the University of Central Florida in M.D. Anderson Cancer Center . In May she will lead a writing workshop onboard Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas en route to Orlando, Florida , Labadee, Haiti , Jamaica Grand Cayman, and . (Visit http://www.writingyourlife.org/writing-the-waves/.) Cozumel, Mexico
This interview first appeared in the Story Circle Journal, the quarterly magazine of the Story Circle Network, a women's life-writing organization. For information visit: http://www.storycircle.org
Lisa: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you think are the primary reasons you became a writer and a teacher?
Patricia: I was born in the deep bayous of
South Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country. My relatives
represented a good portion of the 400 people who lived in the tiny town of , approximately 120 miles southwest of Charenton . When I was in
my twenties, my mother gave me a copy of our family tree that dated back to
1642. I glanced at it briefly and threw it in a desk drawer. I came across the
genealogy twenty years later in a move and was now fascinated by the names,
dates, and places. I wanted to know more but everyone who held the stories was
gone. That deep regret motivated me. I did not want anyone else to lose the
opportunity to know where they came from, so I started to encourage others to
write their life stories for those who came after them. New Orleans
Lisa: What were some other turning points in your life journey?
Patricia: A huge turning point in my life occurred when I quit my job as a feature writer and photographer. It was the exact job I had wanted since I was fourteen years old, and when I gave up on it, I gave up on myself. That decision ushered in a world of hurt, and I wandered around lost, not knowing who I was or what I wanted, for ten years. From my perspective now, I can see I was afraid and didn’t know how I was going to continue to sustain the success I was experiencing. I didn’t know enough at the time to ask for help. I know it now, so fear no longer makes my decisions for me.
Lisa: What made you decide to write Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time?
Patricia: I began to hear from those in my classes, “You need to write a book. You need to be able to help people all over write their stories.” I pushed the notion aside for many years, but in 2010, I decided I’d give it a try. I bought a stack of index cards and wrote one topic I’d like to cover in the book on each card. Every time I thought of something else, I wrote it on a card and slipped it in the pile held together with a red rubber band. When I had a stack about two inches tall, I figured I had a book. I wrote it for anyone who has a story to tell but especially for those who don’t think they have to skills to do so.
Lisa: What was the biggest challenge you faced writing it?
Patricia: Carving out the time to do it! In February 2010, I was laid off of my last mortgage technology job. My husband I decided it might be time for me to try teaching and writing personal and family history as a full-time endeavor. I was starting a business, trying to make enough money writing, editing and teaching to stay afloat, marketing, saying yes to every speaking, teaching and writing opportunity that came my way. I couldn’t imagine how I’d find the time to write a book, so I did what I encouraged my students to do: write one bite at a time. I grabbed my stack of index cards and began writing the book one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time until I finally ran out of index cards and topics.
Lisa: What is the most important message in your book?
Lisa: What was your favorite part of writing it?
Patricia: I loved sharing my Cajun culture with people, writing the glossary and coming up with examples that were reflective of the people and the place where I grew up. I had a number of nice conversations with my mother as I ran some of my Cajun spellings and French words by her to make sure they were accurate. I had a lot of fun writing this book. I sought to make it entertaining and humorous as well as helpful.
Lisa: Do you have a writing practice or any special rituals?
Patricia: That’s a good question. Between teaching, speaking, and writing for others, my own writing routinely gets shoved to the bottom of the pile. One thing I’ve done faithfully for more than eight years now is write in a five-year journal every night. Each night before we go to sleep, my husband, Bob, and I pull out the journal and fill in the five or six lines with the events of the day, thoughts, hopes, dreams, whatever happens to be on our mind. Then we read back over the past years—five years show up on the same page—and relive those moments together. Those few minutes each night have become a nice time for us. After not being pleased with the quality of the few five-year journals on the market, I finally published my own last year. People can read more about it on my website at http://www.writingyourlife.org/five-year-journals-2/.
Lisa: What are some of your favorite “bites” from Eating an Elephant?
Patricia: I love Bite #18 and its admonition to be careful with writing rituals if they involve fire. It tells a sweet story about young love and the time I burned a hole in my laptop because I was too focused on my then boyfriend, now my husband, and not on the candle I’d left burning!
Bite #104 – Stop in the Middle. This is one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received. Instead of looking for a natural break to end a writing session, stop right in the middle of a thought. It’s so contrary to my nature, but when I do it, I pick it right up the next time without a lot of running in place.
Lisa: Why do you think we “set ourselves up for failure” when we try to write our life stories chronologically from birth to the present?
Patricia: Our minds don’t typically work in a linear fashion, so when we try to write that way, we are going against our natural creativity. I believe we have to be out of control to write well, and requiring ourselves to write chronologically forces us to write in a controlled manner. I encourage people to write what’s on their heart. That’s where the power is. Write now, organize later.
Lisa: What are some of your favorite ways to conjure up buried memories?
Patricia: Our sense of smell is so closely tied to our memories. We can use that to our advantage by seeking out scents associated with our childhoods. When I want to write about my dad who was a carpenter, I roam the aisles of Home Depot and absorb the smells of the lumber. It takes me right back to hanging out with him in his shop behind our house.
Lisa: Let’s talk a little bit about voice. How can a writer find her own voice?
Patricia: I believe the only way a person can find his or her voice is to write. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. We can’t think or wish our way into a voice; we have to write our way into it. It helps to try on different styles of writing, to mimic other writers as an exercise to see what fits and what doesn’t, but in the end, our style must be our own. Write when no one is looking. Write something that you know you’ll never allow someone to read. Write for only your eyes, and through that, I believe some of your true voice can be heard.
Lisa: Describe your own journey to find your voice.
Patricia: I did everything they tell you not to do. I wasn’t interested in sounding like me; I wanted to have a voice like some famous writer. I remember wanting to write like E.B. White. I loved his folksy, down-to-earth style. What he wrote seemed so simple and straightforward. I tried and tried to write like him. I dissected his sentences and superimposed them on my own writing, but it all fell flat. I got so frustrated because it seemed so simple. Why couldn’t I do that? I tried to be a nature writer…. I read naturalist authors, went to conferences, read how-to books, but nothing I ever wrote had a genuine feel to it. It all felt written. I finally had to quit trying to be some other writer and settle for just being me. But all those misguided attempts did me a lot of good. I learned a great deal about writing in the process and found that I was drawn to certain writers and particular writing styles because my voice shared some of the same characteristics. My voice is simple. I don’t use a lot of fancy words. I write about ordinary things. I add humor in whenever possible, and I love to poke fun at myself with my words.
Lisa: What are you looking forward to these days?
Patricia: I’m excited about the Writing the Waves cruise. The writing workshops will be small and intimate, so everyone will get lots of personal attention with their stories. I’m also in the pre-writing stages of a workbook to go along with Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time. The workbook will guide people through the process of writing their life stories with specific assignments and exercises, using the contents of Eating an Elephant as a guide.
Lisa: Any last words for us?
Patricia: I always like to leave people with the motto of all my talks, classes and workshops: The only way to do this wrong is to not do it at all!
For more about Patricia, her classes, books and events visit her website: http://www.writingyourlife.org/.
“Most people don’t even write their life stories for fear of doing it wrong. We all have a ninth-grade English teacher sitting on our shoulders, red pen in hand, whispering in our ears, ‘What makes you think you can write?’”
“My advice? Start anywhere. Write now. Organize later.”
“You can’t go wrong writing what’s in your heart.”
“I often tell my friends that I don’t have a memory problem; I have a filing problem. I know whatever I need is in my brain, somewhere; it’s merely misfiled.”
“Making a list is one of the best ways I’ve found to begin eating an elephant. The bites are small, you can eat them quickly and they are easy to digest.”
“The only way through writer’s block is to write your way out. If you consistently show up at the page, your chances of recovery are great. If you don’t, your disease is fatal.”
“No perfect writing schedule exists; you just have to find one which works for you.”
“Writing is a creative activity; editing is a logical process, and they don’t play well together.”
“Power resides in pain. These strong emotions have an energy, which transfers mightily to the page.”