“I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson…”
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a journalist and author living her dream life with her husband and 5 dogs in a 480-square foot cabin in the Ozark Mountains. Her memoir, LIVING LARGE IN OUR LITTLE HOUSE is published by Reader’s Digest. One of her mottos: Living Large is a state of mind. She blogs at livinglargeinourlittlehouse.com.
Meredith: Given your affinity for large lives in small spaces, this question feels apropos: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?
KERRI: This was actually the hardest thing for me. I met my future agent in 2011 and wasn’t able to develop a book proposal for the story until 2014. At that point, the story was still changing and evolving and I also couldn’t put a finger to the takeaway. Luckily, my agent believed in my story and was patient with me until I felt I could bring that story to life. Once I felt I had the life lesson I needed to learn to put together a memoir; she then guided me in creating a proposal and a book she could sell. As it turned out, my story, as well as some of the others I tell in the book, continued to evolve even after the book was supposedly finished.
Meredith: Is waiting the hardest part for you—particularly waiting for a response from the outside about an idea, a piece of writing, a body of work? If so, how do you temper your anxiety? If not, how do you put it in perspective when something feels so personal and dear to your heart?
KERRI: I do not like having to wait on others to do things in general in my life, I like to be in control, so yes, I would say waiting is a hard part of the writing life. The best way I’ve found in my freelance life to get over the anxiety is to develop an idea, send it off and move onto the next project. I see so many young freelance writers agonizing over a pitch they sent to their dream publication, or a pitch that is dear to them. If they keep that up, they’re going to have very short, anxiety-fueled lives. My motto is to put it into the universe, follow up in 7 to 14 days and if I still don’t have a response, re-pitch to another publication and think of something else for that dream publication. I use the motto I try to use in other aspects of my life: Let it go. Everything in its own time.
Meredith: Corollary to the above: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?
KERRI: Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I look at my calendar, see I’m not making my financial goals for the next month and feel like a complete failure, I could stop pitching tomorrow and really live the dream, which is to write only what I want whenever I want! I have to remind myself that I’ve always manage to find the next assignment, even if it’s just enough to keep me going until the next month. If I need a reminder of how far faith in myself has brought me, I take my dogs for a long walk in our woods—you can never think life isn’t going your way while walking in the woods. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s always chocolate.
Meredith: When you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?
KERRI: I think anyone who writes essays or memoir, particularly in this day and age of judgmental and cruel online bullying, is brave. However, sometimes I do feel like some of the superpersonal confessions some writers are engaging in these days may be detrimental to them, or maybe to even society in general, in years to come. That remains to be seen. That being said, I think all of us as writers have a personal responsibility to be true to ourselves and our story. There are some things in my book that sometimes haunt me in the middle of the night about how that part of my story will be received. I think there are instances where you may have to retreat. I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson, not to mention putting me at risk for libel. That’s where a good editor comes in, to help guide you in telling your story or advising you to take a different approach or even removing it all together.
Meredith: You’re an accomplished journalist, so tell me this: what is it that many of us misunderstand about telling a story? About finding hooks in a story? How did you learn to master your understanding of storytelling (article writing, memoir writing) in terms of understanding what a story is supposed to do. Please share.
KERRI: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. I was actually a business school graduate who had a deep love of journalism from an early age. But because I went to business school, I had to spend a lot of time learning and honing the craft, but that unconventional route worked in my favor. Unfortunately, I believe our society is in one of those periods in which people don’t appreciate the value of journalism in a free society. They’re drifting away from the meat of the story and looking for the sensational headline that gets them to click on that site. My high school journalism teacher, Patrick Bosak, who, in my mind, will always be the most wonderful teacher I ever had told me on my first day of class that drawing your reader in with a compelling lede is the most important part of your story, but you have to also know how to keep them engaged by telling them why this story is important to them. These sensational headlines oftentimes fail to deliver the meat.
News hooks aren’t always sexy, they’re not always sensational. They should be something that interests the public and also informs them. Whether I’m writing a news story or writing an essay or memoir, I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the takeaway, what can I help my reader learn or understand and what makes it relevant to their lives?”
[Thank you, Kerri!]