The truth is in the fiction: A conversation with Donna Morrissey

Donna Morrissey, best-selling author of six novels including Kit’s Law and Sylvanus Now, is working on her memoir, tentatively titled Rocking Her Babies, a journey through love, grief and mental illness, and back to life again. She shared some of the memoir-writing experience with Kimberley Hicks.
Donna Morrissey, relaxing at home.

 

KH: It took you just five months to write your memoir. Did you give up eating and sleeping!?

DM: Whenever I’m writing, I get obsessed. Up in the morning at 6 or 7, beeline to the computer, stay until at least 12 or 2 pm.  Then, I’ll mop the floors or do something that needs to be done. In the evening, I’m usually working with students because I mentor and edit for Humber College as well.

KH: Did you have to do any research for this book?

DM: No! That’s the beautiful thing. That’s why I did it in five months. No research—I knew everything.

KH: So was knowing everything, and making yourself the protagonist, much easier than creating a character for a novel?

DM: Two things tripped me up hugely during the first month of writing. I felt too indulgent, so I reverted to the fiction approach. I treated myself like I was a character, instead of narrating events, and that really worked for me. 

The other difficulty was that I’d already cherry-picked, writing important parts of my life exactly as they’d happened for my novels, so writing the memoir was a challenge. I thought, I can’t make up my memoir or copy what I’d written already, so how do I rewrite those moments? 

I also had to find the entry point and learn how to discriminate between things that were interesting but not relevant to the main thread. There were a lot of beautiful little moments I wanted to write about, but I had to keep focus on the heart of my memoir, which was my mother, my growing consciousness around imagination and my feelings of loss and love.

KH: Writing a memoir is putting it all out there—your most vulnerable self—for people to know your secrets and possibly judge you. Do you need a thick skin to survive that?

DM: When you’re dealing with loss of family and mental illness, people have to be sympathetic. If not, I’m really in trouble. What I worry about is boredom. Will it hold their interest and capture their imagination? Because it’s not a novel, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of conflict, intrigue, mystery. It just has drama and emotion. 

KH: Reliving those profound memories and experiences must have been excruciating.

DM: I cried a lot, and I got scared writing about PTSD. Usually, no one wants to look back and focus on those experiences, but I had to, though I was afraid talking about it might trigger it again. Somedays, I walked around holding myself, wondering why I was bringing it to the page. The answer was always clear: I have something to say. My brother manifested himself to me in many ways, and reliving that was beautiful, but there were moments that were incredibly painful. Since I’ve been done [the memoir], I feel so close to those I’ve lost—my brother, my mother, my father. I lost a beautiful niece as well, but I couldn’t put her in the book—it was too much. In writing the memoir, they surrounded me again. 

Rocking her Babies is slated for publication in 2020. ■

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Kimberley Hicks is a teacher, editor and writer. Her work has appeared in Today’s Parent, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail and Saltscapes Magazine. She works as a communications course editor at Saint Mary’s University.

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