Janet Lee Carey-Dreamwalks DreamWalks Janet Lee Carey Award-winning author of novels for children and young adults

Searching For Mom

Dreamwalkers, I’m honored to have author, Sara Easterly here with us this month to talk about her new Memoir SEARCHING FOR MOM.

Sara’s beautifully written memoir can be described as a story of adoption, but Sara broadens the conversation, speaking to the complexity of mother/daughter relationships. Her story invites us on a quest toward spiritual authenticity and illuminates the deep need each one of us has to feel loved and to belong.

© 2019 Heart Voices

A complicated but vividly portrayed search for identity – Kirkus

Sara is offering a free signed copy to some lucky Dreamwalker! (Giveaway details below.)

Janet: First of all, thank you for writing this vital, timely memoir. For asking fierce questions, exploring the deep need we all have for true acceptance and belonging, and for sharing profound truths in your authentic journey toward the meaning of motherhood and love. Searching for Mom is a beautiful book.

There are many ways to approach a memoir. I’m curious about your process. Did you start by writing all the memories chronologically? Work with the most impactful memories first? Or did you work more thematically?

Sara: At the time I began the search for my birth mother, a friend mentioned the newly defined art form of the immersion memoir, where a writer immerses themselves in the subject of the book they’re writing about for the purpose of self-reflection. Without much research or study into the process, the term “immersion memoir” alone caught my attention. I was already immersing myself in my search at that very moment. As a writer, of course I’d want to write about this pivotal moment in my life, I thought. Why not do it while it was still fresh? I immediately paused the YA novel I’d been working on and switched gears.

As I lived through my search, I wrote what I envisioned to be the main scenes and chapters, organizing them in Scrivener chronologically. Of course, as life carried on, I came to realize that my story was about more than solely the search for my birth mother. Within a year, my adoptive mother (mom) went into rejection from her double lung transplant. My great fear, that searching for my birth mother might kill my mom, seemed to be coming true. Her premature death ended up launching a spiritual epiphany, and I came to understand how my personal story of mother-longing, the complicated relationship with my adoptive mother, and my reticent faith were interwoven. Suddenly it was clear that I had three thematic acts, and at that point it became a matter of re-organizing and plotting and arranging. I tinkered a lot with the flow and style—made equally tempting and easy, thanks to the awesomeness of Scrivener. I wrote and rewrote and wrote more, until I finally landed on a clear starting/ending point and figured out how to weave in the necessary back-story mostly chronologically.

Janet: That’s fascinating, Sara. I felt those deep themes reading the memoir. You moved seamlessly from deep dives into the past to stories in the present.

( Sara with Mom, Linda Easterly, wearing Mom-sewn holiday outfits.)

Your rare ability to evoke childhood’s terrors and wonders and describe the emotional intensity of the teen years brought back the feelings I’d had at those ages. How did you find a way to tell those stories in such rich emotional detail?

Sara: Thank you. That means a lot to me to hear this feedback. A part of me wants to shrug and respond with something like, “Well they were intense, traumatic moments that were seared into me, so it was as simple as jotting them down.” According to Jim Hopper, a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard University, trauma often “alters the function of the hippocampus and puts it into a super-encoding mode.” How Trauma Affects Memory  I do think that was indeed part of it for me, but I also recognize that there are layers to memory and that there’s a difference between episodic and emotional memory.

There certainly was laboring to tap into my emotional memory. (And I use the term “labor” intentionally because writing is so much like the birthing process—any hard work almost immediately dismissed after the baby is born.) Reflecting more deeply, I realize my creative process is probably what helped me match emotions to my episodic memories.

Janet: We’re so interested in the creative process here on Dreamwalks. Tell us more!

Sara: While writing Searching for Mom, I relied a lot on music and images. In Scrivener, I placed either a personal photo and/or stock image that represented each scene into the Notes panel, to make it visible right there on screen as I wrote. I also picked one song for each scene that evoked the mood and memories I needed to access (and added a note about the song as a memory jog). Then, when I went to write or rewrite each scene, I’d don headphones and play the related song on repeat. Over and over it played while I wrote, seeping into my head until I no longer heard the lyrics and the mood became a part of me, until the emotions in my memories surfaced. It probably looked weird (there was some eye-closing and swaying involved), which is why I’ve stopped writing in coffee shops like I used to!

When I write this way, I’ve found I can access a different part of my brain. I lose the critic/perfectionist who wants to control too much, and in a way, it becomes just a matter of channeling the story. It switches from “work” mode to “play” mode, if you will, which is where my heart shows up.

(Ten-month-old Sara with Grandma left, and Mom, Linda Easterly on right. “I stood, ready to conquer the world in my yellow terrycloth swimsuit that matched Mom’s sunshine yellow bikini.”)

Janet: What a fabulous way to access mood and emotion to enter memories and write scenes. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. In your post Giving This Girl a Voice, you share a profound realization that came after doing a writing exercise. Would you talk about that here on Dreamwalks?

Sara: Through writing Searching for Mom, I came to see what emotional havoc had been playing out for the first 35-some years of my life, quietly wondering about my birth mother and feeling unconsciously torn over the fact that she hadn’t come to find me yet. I became aware of ways I’d desperately been working to prove myself worthy of being alive, to live up to the “special” label that I (along with many adoptees) had been given, and to be noticed. Originally, this was all unconscious, in hopes that my birth mother would finally come and find me, but the drive became scattered and affected many areas of my life.

On the other side of healing from this and writing my story, I felt so much healthier, free from the vast amounts of energy I’d been spending with all of this working-to-be-noticed and proving myself “good enough” business. And then I began shopping my finished manuscript.

I kept hearing really wonderful things about the literary merits of my writing. I received some nice professional accolades and early endorsements. And yet, agents were outright telling me that platform is more important than quality writing, or that adoption books don’t sell. (Translation: truthful adoption books don’t sell, because our culture devours adoptive parents’ happy tales and joyful reunion stories, but I’ll save that rant for a different time.)

And so, I spent a year working on my platform. I thought about starting a podcast, but as a mom, event planner, and writer, my time is already pushed to the limit. Would I really have what was needed to sustain such an endeavor for the long-haul? Did I want to podcast about my mother, or adoption, indefinitely? As I mulled over ideas, none of it felt genuine. It felt too fabricated, false: working to get social media numbers up purely to prove my worth as a writer, while polishing my proposal weekly to try and present myself as special. Didn’t I just write a memoir about shedding that very same dynamic? I thought. In the meantime, a writer friend shared with me that she was approached to ghost-write a memoir for an Instagram Influencer—a young man with a tremendous online following. She couldn’t tell from his scattered notes what he wanted to share. The guy couldn’t even write a coherent thought, and yet he’d been handed a massive book deal. This all made my soul sick. I prepared to trash my memoir and move on to my next project.

Hoping to get rejuvenated, I attended a writing workshop where the instructor had us write out our life story with only one minute on the clock, using our non-dominant hand. Here is what I wrote:

I was born. I was left. I loved. I lost. I was left. I forgave. I loved more. I was left. But not. I learned love never goes away. I healed. I loved more. I am still learning to keep loving. I am still here. I am me. Learning to love me. All of me.

The child I’d seemingly channeled out of my woman’s hand had spoken! She scared me, too. I hadn’t invited her to join me at the workshop. I hadn’t invited her anywhere, in fact. As a young child suffering from the trauma of adoption relinquishment, I had decided myself unworthy. I hid my true self from everyone. As in, literally, everyone—I’d kept that young child locked away, even from myself … until that day.

That day I realized that I couldn’t keep waiting for someone else to validate my story’s worth. That young girl had been desperately waiting to be noticed—and I was the only one who could honor her now. I looked back at her pictures and knew I couldn’t tell her to be quiet anymore. I couldn’t tell her to patiently wait while I kept striving for us to be noticed, for the perfect agent to come along and rescue us, for the big publishing deal that would prove that she mattered, that our story mattered. I owed this memoir to that little girl I’d silenced all of my life. She had important things to share that had been bottled up for far too long. She needed her voice to finally be allowed a chance to speak.

I’m not opposed to the necessities of running a business, nor am I against traditional publishing. In fact, I’ve been running my own business for 17 years and in that time have been steeped in traditional publishing in many different ways—as publicist, reviewer, and regional advisor for SCBWI Western Washington. But I know that for this very personal book, twisting myself up in ways that seemed in direct opposition to my emotional growth and wellness suddenly felt like a matter of life or death. I chose life—via independent publishing.

And, I’m happy to share that having my story out there has indeed been life-giving—not only for the little girl in me who’s felt immense relief now that her story’s been told, but also because I’m connecting with real readers who have written to me after the story has touched them. It feels good that it’s not only about me, but about reaching out into the world with a broader, meaningful message.

Janet: I’m so glad you took this life-giving path and gave your younger self the place to stand and be heard. This girl has a lot to say.

The rocky relationship between you and your adoptive mom changed over time, ultimately culminating in surprising revelations. I was grateful to witness the hard-earned moments of connection you shared so generously in this book. What was the most challenging part about depicting this core relationship?

Sara: Since the bulk of my memoir was written after my mom’s death, it gave me more room for honesty than would have been possible had she lived. However, without an opportunity for my mom to read, respond, share her perspective, argue with, or bless my words, it was a challenge not to feel like I was betraying her—especially in writing about things I hadn’t been courageous enough to share with her while she was alive, and also in writing some of the scenes where she wasn’t depicted at her best.
I worked hard to balance the story with input from early readers that included other family members and one of my mom’s closest friends. I also had to keep reminding myself of my mom’s dying words to me, “Just keep writing and talking, Sara,” she said. “You have so much in that heart of yours that needs to come out.” Over time, I came to take this as her blessing to write my story, and knew that after a lifetime of keeping secrets from my mother, it would be most honoring to write about our relationship truthfully and fully in the way I had experienced it … even if doing so had its challenges.

Janet: What did writing Searching for Mom teach you?

Sara: Writing the memoir really helped me make sense of how my life had come together in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise paused to reflect upon. In the finishing stages, it felt truly magical, as if I were writing a piece of fiction that perfectly clicked. It filled me with a completely different perspective on, and appreciation for, the joys and sufferings of my life—how they come together to make not just a compelling story, but a wonderful life.

Also, writing Searching for Mom taught me to appreciate the grey—that nothing is black and white. A mother labeled with the buzzword of Narcissist isn’t exclusively that, because that same mother can be simultaneously be nurturing, caring, fun-loving, and supportive. Adoption isn’t purely terrible, but it isn’t completely saccharine-sweet, either. Death can be tragic, but it can also bring out immense love, caring and growth. It’s easy to slip into polarized thinking going through life day to day. But knowing that a memoir must be fair and balanced required me to push beyond this and find value in complexity.

Along that line, I also came to understand relationships, and love, as permanent—even if not always perfectly executed.

Janet: Beautifully said. One last question. What are your hopes for this book?

Sara: My hope is that it will touch anyone with a complicated mother-daughter relationship. As we all know, relationships between mothers and daughters can be complex—full of immense love and also sometimes totally charged, either by the minute or all at once. It can be the safest of relationships and sometimes also a dangerous relationship. We’re not always our idealized selves—as mothers or as daughters. I hope to inspire others to take comfort in the mix that’s an inherent part of the relationship and learn to love each other deeper before it’s too late.

In the adoption space, my hope is that Searching for Mom will help normalize feelings for adoptees—as well as help others in the adoption constellation (adoptive parents/grandparents, therapists, agency workers) understand our often-misunderstood hearts.

I also hope that the book inspires other adoptees to step forward with their stories. It’s complicated for us to tell the full truth. We often hide our stories and our pain—especially from our adoptive mothers—who are psychologically the most dangerous because our first mothers were lost from relinquishment. Our brains, wired for survival, can’t risk losing another mother. But the more we stay secret and hold our truths close, the more we perpetuate the false narratives of adoption.

That leads me back to my earlier rant … I hope that as more of us speak up, adoptees’ voices will begin to be taken seriously in the publishing space—and this will either inspire or represent a cultural shift. We’re making headway in giving marginalized voices more room in this industry, and that needs to continue. It’s time to also recognize that adoptees’ voices are among the marginalized voices that have been silenced for decades. #ownvoices is as important when it comes to adoption as it is for other marginalized groups.

Janet: Yes to all your hopes, Sara. And Rant on! I know this book will touch many. And hopefully your courageous memoir will encourage others to tell their stories. Thank you so much for taking us all on this very personal Dreamwalk.

Sara: Thank you so much for this conversation, Janet. I’ve loved these questions and they’ve given me a lot to reflect upon and write about. I’m so honored to be here on your beautiful Dreamwalks blog.

Learn more about Sara’s book and her speaking engagements on her website.
Buy a copy from Indie Bound

And Now for the Book Giveaway!
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6 comments on “Searching For Mom

    1. Laura Moe – first responder. Thanks for stopping by to read Sara’s interview and comment. This brilliant memoir gave us so much to talk about. Have you tried that writing exercise using the non dominant hand, Laura?

  1. I read this twice and am keeping this for inspiration and validation while I work on my graphic memoir. And yes, I think I will try that writing exercise. Though I’d love to know what workshop that was. I’d love to go to something like that.

    Such a powerful motivation and determination. Your strength and insight are mighty, Sara.

    1. Buzzing from the news that you’re working on a graphic memoir, Wendy W. I love hearing this. And so glad to see fellow Dreamwalkers creating new paths for each other.
      What the blog is for.

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