What is the Gist of Your Story? #10

A sound premise and compelling themes are undoubtedly the hallmarks of great writing. In another addition to the SERIES on literary themes and premise, I’d like you to join me in welcoming Madeline Tasky Sharples. You can connect with her here: Facebook / Website / Twitter:@madeline40.

Madeline’s bio

Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and was recently released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer.

She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have appeared online and in print magazines. Madeline’s articles appear regularly in Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, Aging Bodies, and Open to Hope. She posts at her blog, Choices, and at Red Room and is currently writing a novel.

Madeline on her memoir

I joined a writing workshop four months after my son Paul’s suicide death that ended his seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder. Every week for about a year I shared my deep dark prose and poetry about Paul’s life and death and our family’s grief when my instructor and classmates began to tell me I needed to get my writing work out into the world. They said people needed my words to inspire them to survive their own tragedies.

I put that advice on hold for a while, mainly because I didn’t have any idea about how to go about it. Should it be a book of poetry or a memoir? Then I met a former literary agent through my surviving son. She advised a memoir would be more saleable and suggested I create an outline according to the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. Once I had this organizing plan, I began to fit my journal entries and other material – pieces from writing classes and workshops, poems, new writing – within that outline.

It took years more work to write, rewrite, edit, and revise my memoir, which has poems interspersed within the prose text, but in the end I had a story about our struggles to take care of our adult son with bipolar disorder and the steps I took in surviving after his suicide. First and foremost I chose to live and take care of myself as a woman, wife, mother, writer.

The premise of Madeline’s story

Every parent’s darkest nightmare—surviving the tragic death of a child—is universally regarded as the worst tragedy to befall a family. While celebrity status might be a fast track to raising awareness of a cause or spreading a message of hope, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, is the story of a normal suburban woman who has experienced and overcome such adversity. Plus I didn’t do anything drastic during my survival process. I didn’t get a divorce, I didn’t have a breakdown, I didn’t have an affair with a beautiful younger man, and I didn’t go into years of therapy. Instead I learned to live again, accepting the new normal, and found ways to make my life meaningful. Things that helped included working out regularly; going back to a full-time job outside my home; writing a journal entry, a poem, or a prose piece every single day, and seeking out diversions such as going to plays and movies, reading, and traveling to take my mind off of the realities of my life.

The themes that drive Madeline’s story

The main theme of my memoir is that it is possible to live after such a tragic experience. Although I will never get over my son’s death, I was able to come out on the other side whole and productive. I didn’t resort to taking my own life as I thought about early on. In fact, I realized I had received many gifts as a result of this tragedy:

  • I became a much stronger and fitter me – mentally and physically
  • My marriage survived. My husband and I will celebrate forty-three years of marriage this month. It’s not uncommon for people to ask how we managed to stay together under so much stress. I like to say because we gave each other the space to grieve in our own way
  • I created a wonderful relationship with our surviving son Ben and his wife Marissa – I’m proud to say I’m a new mother-in-law
  • I created a book with the goals of keeping the memory of my son alive and sharing my experiences with others who might benefit from them.

My reinvention into the career I wanted to have my whole life as a full-time writer – author, poet, web journalist – is a major a subtheme. Much of my writing stresses the benefits of writing to heal. Another subtheme is my new mission in life - to work and write about the realities of mental illness and suicide in hopes of erasing stigma and saving lives.

Remember, effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. 

Promotional opportunities for Madeline’s book

I use these themes extensively in promoting my book through my blog, virtual book tours, writing articles for several websites, participating in Facebook pages that focus on mental illness and suicide, and speaking about erasing stigma, writing to heal, my reinvention, and my work to educate and bring awareness about mental illness and suicide. I’ve also volunteered at a mental health facility to organize a walk/run to raise funds for its suicide prevention program, and I’m currently a volunteer administrator on Facebook’s Putting a Face on Suicide page that memorializes our loved ones who have died by suicide. In addition my publisher, Dream of Things, and I do special book promotions that coincide with national suicide prevention and mental health events. This month we’re focusing on mental health awareness.

Please note that this blog series will draw to a close at the end of May. A new 6-part series on goal-setting will start soon after.