On Tuesday I published an excerpt from my friend Debra Zaslow’s memoir, Bringing Bubbe Home. The book is a deeply personal account of Zaslow’s decision to take her 103-year-old grandmother, Bubbe, out of a nursing facility and into her home.
Today I’m talking to Debra Zaslow about the process of writing the book.
JM: Why did you decide to write this book?
DZ: In the same way that I was seized with an overwhelming sense of “yes” about bringing my grandmother home to die with my family, as soon as she died I was seized with another wave of “yes” to write a book about it. I’d always been told I was a good writer and should write a book, but until this experience I didn’t have anything I cared enough to write about. Now I felt like I had to do this, no matter what.
JM: How long did it take you to write?
DZ: The book took sixteen years! It was a good thing I felt so compelled to write it, or I would have given up.
JM: Wow, that’s a long time. What was the most challenging part about the writing process for you?
DZ: The most challenging part was writing about painful family history. The narrative of caring for my grandmother needed the context of backstory, which was mostly about her abuse—by her mother—and how that abuse trickled through the generations of our family. This made the story real and honest, but it also made it emotionally very difficult to keep writing. I was often crying at the keyboard, or avoiding writing to avoid feeling so much.
JM: That sounds hard.
DZ: It was, but I was determined to go on. You can read more about surviving the emotions of writing about family in this article I was inspired to write along the way.
JM: What advice do you have for people who want to write memoirs but aren’t sure where to begin?
DZ: I think it’s good to zero in on what part of your life you want to write about, and start there. Start by free-writing scenes from that time in your life. Don’t over-think it, just dive in. Use your senses to add details to make the narrative come alive. More memories will start to flow, and a theme will begin to take shape. At some point you have to decide—what’s this memoir about? That’s when you begin to eliminate the things that don’t contribute to the theme of the memoir, and focus on building the arc of the story.
JM: A lot of people feel like it would be too hard to bring a dying relative into their home. Weren’t you scared it would be too much to handle? How did you manage?
DZ: It is very difficult to bring a dying person into your home. It entirely shifts the focus of the family, and it often puts too much of the burden on one person. I was afraid I would be overwhelmed, and I actually was much of the time.
A big part of managing was hiring caregivers to be with my grandma around the clock, so I would be able to work, be with my kids, and continue to have a life. It was still an enormous stress because I had to manage the caregivers in my home along with finding time to actually be with Bubbe, which was the whole point of bringing her home. Ultimately we were able to create a very loving cocoon from which she made her transition and exited this world. In retrospect, it was worth the effort because the time we spent together was life-changing for both of us.
JM: Your mom died when you were pretty young. What was that like for you?
DZ: My mom died of pancreatic cancer when I was 23, and it was devastating. I was in Oregon in college and I went back and forth to L.A. to be with her in her last few months. It’s taken me years to process the grief, because at 23 I was emotionally immature, didn’t have the proper support, and was going through a divorce at the same time. Part of the unexpected journey of bringing my grandmother home to die was to look squarely at the loss of my mother, and feel the magnitude of it. She was kind of the missing link between my grandmother and me, and I felt her presence very strongly while my grandmother was in my home.
JM: How many years has it been since your grandma died? Do you still think about her?
It’s been nineteen years since she died. Since I worked on the book for so long, and now give talks about the book, and about death and dying, I think about her often.
DZ: Any words of inspiration for people taking care of sick loved ones?
Death is a time when the to-do lists of life fade to the background. It’s a time when deeper issues come into focus, often allowing love to rise to the surface. Sharing this passage (or a time of profound illness), offers fertile ground for deep communication, and sometimes unexpected healing.
Still, not every death or illness belongs at home. Sometimes it makes sense to use a nursing facility, especially one that you can visit frequently, and leave the heavier caretaking to professionals.
DZ: Any words of inspiration for people wanting to write who are feeling blocked by self-doubt?
Self-doubt is one of my demons. I sometimes get paralyzed because I think I can’t write well enough. I have a hard time completing big projects since I have ADD, and I’m a perfectionist—a lethal combination.
So, about two years into writing this memoir, I enrolled in an MFA in writing program to get professional mentoring, deadlines, and motivation to keep going. Even after I earned my MFA, I hired a life coach to help me stay on track.
It’s important to give yourself a regular writing time, even if it’s only once a week, and allow yourself the freedom to write whatever comes—you can always edit later. I also recommend aspiring memoirists take a class, attend writing workshops, or join a writer’s group. Those activities give you outside accountability and encouragement. I teach classes on memoir writing. You can find the schedule here.
But my best advice is to stick with it, even if it takes 16 years!
Debra Gordon Zaslow travels nationwide leading writing workshops and performing storytelling programs. She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches storytelling at Southern Oregon University, leads memoir–writing courses in the community, and is a private writing coach and editor. Her memoir, Bringing Bubbe Home, A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death, chronicles the life-changing experience of caring for her grandmother in the last months of her life, and her CD, Return Again, features inspirational Jewish stories.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, Fulbright grantee, and the author/editor of seven nonfiction books, including Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner 2015).