“What I learned in writing the book was that my life was a story. And by extension, everyone’s life is a story. It’s how you perceive it and the extent to which you’re reactive or proactive that can make it a more or less interesting story. And even if you choose not to act, it’s an act that makes it a story if you can see yourself as the main actor in your drama. And knowing that, I was able to take distance from my story, observe it and learn from it. “
~ Rita Pomade, author of Seeker: A Sea Odyssey
Rita Pomade, an intrepid nomad hailing from New York, now lives and writes in Montreal. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in the ezine Mexconnect, and her monthly “Dear Rita” column was a regular feature in The Chapala Review during her last years in Mexico. Retired from teaching English as a Second Language at both Concordia University and McGill University, she now devotes herself to writing full time.
I first got to know Rita two years ago when she signed up for my Spark Your Outlier Story course, and was thrilled to read an advance copy of her book a few months ahead of its publication.
Print and kindle editions of Seeker: A Sea Odyssey were released on May 1, 2019 at Amazon.com. Congratulations, Rita, on this amazing milestone!
I hope you find Rita’s answers to my questions as enlightening and insightful as I did.
NB: What did you learn by writing the book?
RP: What I learned in writing the book was that my life was a story. And by extension, everyone’s life is a story. It’s how you perceive it and the extent to which you’re reactive or proactive that can make it a more or less interesting story. And even if you choose not to act, it’s an act that makes it a story if you can see yourself as the main actor in your drama. And knowing that, I was able to take distance from my story, observe it and learn from it.
But I only started to understand this in the process of writing. Sometimes I’d think my mind was completely empty, and then I’d start to write, and find I had an attic filled with yet to be opened pieces of luggage that had to be unlocked, dusted off and revisited again – this time with the eye of an observer. Suddenly, I saw the value of things I once thought ugly and had stored out of sight. It’s why this book is as much about love, betrayal and forgiveness as it is a book about adventure on the high seas. By revisiting the past, I was able to reshape my present.
RP: What I learned from this adventure was that I had a resiliency I never knew I possessed, having never been tested in this way. Every obstacle I tackled – whether from an emotional impact or physical challenge – taught me a bit more about my inner strength. I couldn’t call on anyone for help or escape to a better place, so I had to face my demons and those of others, including the powerful forces of nature, with my own resources. I could feel my inner strength growing, and I can still feel that grounding inside me.I also learned that courage is not necessarily heroism. It can be an instinctive act of survival for yourself and for those you care about. And if you care enough about humanity or the survival of the planet, that gives you courage to speak up and act out for their preservation. I found myself doing things I never thought I could when my life was at stake. I never panicked. My mind slowed down, and I would be focused and totally alert. After the fact, I could break down, but in the moment of danger I was very present.
NB: Can a parallel be drawn between your adventure on the high seas and writing a memoir — the willingness to take risk, invest time and effort, and learn what you didn’t know until you did it ?
RP: We don’t have to go to sea to tackle the unknown, to take a risk, invest time and effort. It’s what every writer does every time they put pen to paper or sit down at the computer. Every step out of our comfort zone is a step into the unknown and takes courage. I think writing, particularly memoir writing, takes tremendous courage. You never know what you’ll find stored in those unopened pieces of luggage or how you’ll respond to what you find there. What’s more, once the suitcase is opened, it turns into a Pandora’s box. Not to shut it again takes grit and commitment and a determination to see what you’ve started to the end. And then, when it’s done, you have to put all your bits and pieces out there for the world to see.
It’s like jumping off a roof with fairy wings. Those wings are your hopes and prayers that there will be a response – that you’ve written for others, not just yourself; that there is an echo in your readers who will find some part of themselves in your story. And even before that, there’s the sustained commitment of finding an agent or publisher who sees the value of what you’ve done, so you don’t lose this valued part of your journey on the high seas of publication. And in the end, it’s the completing of that journey and what you’ve learned in the process of getting there – all the insights that came to you in the process of writing.
Sometimes our goals aren’t what we think they’re going to be, but we gather so much along the way that the process becomes a goal in itself. In this way there is an enormous parallel between writing the book and setting out to sea. I read many years ago that being a writer is right up there with policemen, firemen and soldiers when it comes to being a risk taker. It takes courage to put oneself out there.
NB: Were memories of your voyage easy to access? Did you keep diaries that could later help you recreate your adventures on the page?
RP: When I started the adventure, I had hoped to write about it and took some notes in Taiwan. But there was too much to deal with, and I let it slide.However, I had a childhood friend living in Belgium and I sent her letters, never long, sometimes just a few words on a post card. When I wrote her after so many years that I couldn’t decide if I’d like to sail again, she sent me a packet of every piece of correspondence I had sent her from over 25 years before. She’d saved them all, and wrote that she hoped the letters would help.
Well, they did in an unexpected way. They helped me write this memoir. I now had a touchstone to memory from every place I’d been. Not a lot from each place, but enough to trigger a memory. Every time I connected with a sentence I’d written, whole scenes came back to me with sound, sight and even smell. I’d close my eyes and be there. Memories long forgotten floated back as though they’d just happened. When I told Bernard, my ex-husband whom I’d sailed with, that I planned to write the memoir, he sent me over 250 photos of the adventure.
Between the photos and my girlfriend’s letters, I relived the whole experience. I wish I had taken notes. But I was blessed by having a friend who thought enough about my adventure to save the story.
NB: Do you have another book project in mind? What did you learn about writing your first memoir that would make the process easier the second time around?
RP: I do have a second book in mind. It will be a memoir covering the first 11 years of my life from embryo to before the start of 7th grade. I feel after that, we’re pretty much programmed for the trajectory we’ll take with various road blocks, detours, and fresh starts shifting some of that early input. The need to do it came while writing Seeker. In the process of writing the memoir, I kept asking myself why did I take this direction? What in my childhood gave me my strengths and weaknesses? Who were the characters that influenced me? How much was family? How much was culture? How much was environment? What coping mechanisms did I seem to inherit? Which ones did I have to develop? These thoughts kept infringing on the writing, and I knew I’d have to get back to them.
It’s the back story of Seeker that will be a story in its own right. It’ll focus on love and validation and lack of…and how one child coped. And hopefully it’ll resonate with others that did or didn’t find ways towards self-realization.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll be an easier book to write. With Seeker I had a clear narrative. It was a voyage. Things happen sequentially in a voyage. Landscape is easy because you’re always in a unique place. The next memoir will be more elusive with a less clear time line. That’s why, Nicole, I’m looking forward to your [Spark Your Story] course. What will be easier is that I’m now more disciplined in my writing habits, and I have a better idea about the book publishing world. Still, I think every new book is again starting from square one. It’s a blank page, and there’s nothing there until you put it there.
NB: Do you have any tips on how first time memoirists can find a home for their book?
RP: It takes a lot of research. Every agency wants something different. Every independent publisher wants something different. You have to be prepared to have a long bio, a short bio, a catchy 50-word bio, a long synopsis, a short synopsis, a separate first chapter, a separate first three chapters, a separate table of contents, and a query letter that hooks in the first paragraph, is aware of other books like yours, knows your market, and can give the major point of your story and say why you’re the best to tell it – all on one page. So that’s a lot of extra time and energy beyond the work that’s gone into the book.
And most important, you’ve really got to know where you’re sending it. Research each place before you send because different places specialize in different types of books. Look at the titles of the books they’ve published, and see if it feels like your kind of book. And though it sounds less important, titles matter. Keep brainstorming until you have a title that makes the reader want to pull your book off the shelf. It took me two years and pages of scribbled possibilities to come up with a title. Also, I noticed if the book is high concept where there is a clear storyline and lots of linear action that can be summed up in a sentence or two, you have a better chance with an agency. If the book is more introspective, small publishing houses seem to be more interested.
NB: Did anything surprise you in the writing of your memoir?
RP: Bernard’s complete cooperation and encouragement in my writing the book. It was a testament to how much he had grown over the years. We are both so different in how we process emotions as well as how our brains are wired, so I expected him to be a bit more critical about how I went about writing. (I’m more episodic and less disciplined than he would have been.) But he wasn’t. He hasn’t read Seeker yet, and seems a bit fearful to do it. Yet, he’s seen to it that his friends and family all get copies. In the writing of the memoir, I understand him so much better. It’s opened up an even greater connection between us.
But in the end, I loved my son Stefan’s comment on reading Seeker. “Your sons sound remarkable. I’d love to meet them one day.”