Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir

 

As I think about picking up my memoir manuscript and consider what next steps await me, I find myself reflecting over the words of other writers on the subject of writing memoir. The post you are about to read was initially posted on March 13, 2014. Yet, the comments made by Justice Sotomayor during her talk continue to strike me as the foundation we must keep in mind as we write our stories.

On Tuesday evening (March 11, 2014), my husband and I attended a simulcast of a talk presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The event, sponsored by Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, was held as part of the library’s Everybody Reads 2014 program. Justice Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, was the choice for this year (my review here).

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court, Supreme Court justice, author, memoir
Justice Sonia Sotomayor | Via Penguin Random House Author Bio, © Elena Seibert

Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is to “[c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.

Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.”

She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:

  • To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
  • To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
  • To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
  • To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.

As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.

I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”

At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes—you felt you were chatting with a friend. She possesses a contagious and spontaneous wit. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Justice Sotomayor exhibits a generosity with people that is humbling. Over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.

I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.

* * *

One last quote from the Justice:

Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.

 

Featured image attribution: Via Education Week; © Arthur Lien 12/1/2014; Caption reads as follows: “Lawyer John P. Elwood argues the case for the petitioners in Elonis v. United States. In its subsequent ruling, the court reversed the federal conviction of Anthony Elonis, who had made threats on Facebook that included rap-lyric-style musings about shooting up an elementary school. –Art Lien”

Timeline Story 5. Writing Abilities Carry Me from Medicine to the Law and Beyond

This is the fifth post in a series sharing my Timeline Story, a look at the events, experiences and occupations that have contributed to shaping my business and writing abilities to the present. The first post is found at this link, second herethird, and fourth.

 

WRITING ABILITIES MOVE ME UP IN MEDICAL COMMUNITY

When I left you in the fourth installment of my timeline story, I was leaving my first job in the medical field as an assistant to the Chair of the Anatomy Department of Vanderbilt Medical School. Until I felt more confident in my writing abilities, I chose to stay in the same field and searched the Nashville papers for openings in private medicine. After all, I did not want to be written out of a grant again.

I was fortunate to land a job managing the practice of an outstanding cardiologist in Nashville, who was also head of the Cardiology Department at St. Thomas Hospital, ironically the hospital in which I was born. Half of my salary came from the hospital plus their benefits, while the good doctor paid the other half. It was a perfect place to land.

The doctor was looking for what many decades before had been called a Girl Friday, and the hospital wanted someone with administrative experience to manage the Medicare and other insurance billings for cardiovascular procedures. Medicine was just entering the open heart surgical practice arena around the country, and St. Thomas had hopes of establishing itself as well. And Sherrey knew a leading edge when she saw one.

During my tenure in this position, I conceived my son and because of the risk of radiation exposure in areas where I had to walk each day to carry out my job, I went on maternity leave at the end of the second trimester. However, I had gained leadership as well as administrative and writing skills I did not have when I came to the job, something that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Unfortunately, I went through my divorce not long after leaving this job and when my son was 14 months old, I needed to return to work. One phone call was all it took to return to the place I had enjoyed much success. However, a few things had changed within the hospital administration and it soon became clear to me that other professional firms and/or organizations often paid more money for the skill set I could offer. Back I went to the two Nashville newspapers to cover my fingers in printer’s ink as I strolled through the classifieds.

AND I FIND MYSELF IN THE LAND OF THE LAWS

I was drawn to work in the legal community by a variety of things, including better pay and benefits. Yet, the organizational detail required in preparing documents, maintaining files, exploring the first days of electronic equipment, and moving from not only a combination of administrative assistant/legal secretary to office manager provided me with a sense of self-confidence a single mother in the 1970s needed.

The biggest step in the best of my legal positions was the opportunity to begin working as a documents drafter. Often this meant using boilerplate language to put a document together; other times it meant writing from scratch. This also called for researching the law, something I loved doing. Although I wasn’t writing the next great novel, I was writing! And someone was approving most of it!

In the early 1980s, I met my second husband, Bob, and within the first two years of our marriage we made the long and arduous move to Oregon. Initially, I took a job in a hospital near our home because getting around in the city called Portland was a bit daunting at first. Finally, with my webbed feet under me, I began seeking work back in the legal community. As it happened, I worked for three major firms in Portland and the greater Pacific NW area.

Brewery Blocks in Portland, home of Perkins Coie LLC
Brewery Blocks in Portland, home of Perkins Coie LLC

When I retired I had worked for Perkins Coie LLC for a period of 14 years and with the same attorney during those years. Although almost young enough to be my son, we established a great working relationship and built a rapport with one another creating the best employment situation I had ever had. My “partner” wanted someone to take care of his every need, and I did. Fortunately, this included what I’ve described above–drafting, managing case files, research, and more.

While working for him, I would be assigned at least one or two other attorneys to support, but not to the level that I enjoyed. Yet, it was manageable.

My primary relationship brought me to a new practice area, insolvency and reorganization. Yes, it’s usually called bankruptcy but times they were a-changing and trendy new names were popping up everywhere. We did work on both sides of the bankruptcy case, debtor and creditor, and we represented clients, such as The Boeing Company, WARN Industries, banks, investment bankers, real estate firms, and once in a while individuals.

The greatest challenge was the largest case I had ever worked on. This case came about for the saddest of reasons, accusations against the Catholic church and its priests for sexual abuse charges by former students and parishioners. In the end, we represented a committee formed to protect the property rights of individual parishes so that the church was not able to claim those properties as titled to the archdiocese. Under the protection of this committee were 120 something parishes across Oregon.

It was gratifying knowing we were working hard to protect properties in place and serving the parishes for sometimes over 100 years. Parishioners attending in the 1980s were, in some cases, descendants of those who founded the parish and donated land and money to build the facilities and support them.

SABBATICAL TIME AND THEN…

One of the best benefits this firm offered was a three-month sabbatical consisting of your accumulated vacation for that year with two months added on as a “bonus.” I dreamed about this on my commute. The pleasure of having three months to do with as you pleased!

My time came and I began my sabbatical in early July of 2005. When time came to return to work in October, Bob mentioned rather casually he certainly appreciated my mood and temperament when I wasn’t going in and spending my days with “those lawyers.” I laughed and said I could understand that. Then he said, “I think you should go back and give your notice of retirement.”

Steve Hedberg, Managing Partner at Perkins Coie LLC-Portland, and me on the big day
Steve Hedberg, Managing Partner at Perkins Coie LLC-Portland, and me on the big day

It took a few months as the firm policy read that if I gave notice before December 15th, I would not receive my annual bonus or retirement contribution. I told Bob I wasn’t walking away from those two healthy chunks, and so it was in February 2006, I walked away and never looked back.

Finally, I could begin my dream. I could write what I wanted to write when I wanted to write it. Although it took several months to settle into the business of writing my memoir, maintaining a blog, and all that falls under the umbrella labeled “building a platform,” ten years later I still love what I do with my days and sometimes my nights. Nothing could be better.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING SINCE CHILDHOOD? OR DID YOU COME TO THIS CREATIVE LIFE LATER IN YOUR LIFE? SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR WRITING LIFE, IF YOU WILL, BELOW.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Writing Memoir

On Tuesday evening, my husband and I attended a simulcast of a talk presented by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The event, sponsored by Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, was held as part of the library’s Everybody Reads 2014 program. Justice Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, was the choice for this year (my review here).

Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.

Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is “c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.

Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.” She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:

  • To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
  • To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
  • To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
  • To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.

As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.

I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”

At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes–you felt you were chatting with a friend. Her wit is contagious and spontaneous. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Her generosity with people humbling–over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.

I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.

* * *

One last quote from the Justice:

“Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.”