Navigating a Story Identity Crisis

by Karen Debonis

If I had a dollar for every time I asked myself, “What is my memoir really about?” I’d probably have enough money to hire a pricey publicist. Although at the rate my manuscript is coming together, I may never need a publicist.

My endless work-in-progress has been “finished” five times since I started writing it in 1999, two years after my eleven-year-old son, Matthew, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Each time I typed “The End,” I believed I had told the story I needed to tell.

Each time, I realized I was wrong.

In the past five years, since writing became my full-time occupation, I’ve done my due diligence: workshopping the manuscript with critique partners, submitting it for feedback from beta readers, paying a professional book editor. My manuscript has had a half-dozen working titles and subtitles, and the theme changed from “medical mystery” to “people-pleasing” to “personal growth.” I finally settled on people-pleasing.

I promised myself this was IT.

Then recently, it changed again.

My memoir’s narrative follows my young son’s (and my) downward spiral due to his undiagnosed brain tumor, his painfully slow recovery, and our ultimate personal growth. His diagnosis was delayed, in part, because I was too afraid of conflict to stand up to doctors and loved ones who dismissed my concerns.

Last year, I was so convinced my universal theme was the destructive power of people-pleasing, I hired a web designer to update my website, and I reinforced my brand around that topic by creating and teaching a workshop, Wipe Your Feet before You Walk all over Me, (now on YouTube), and running focus groups and mother-daughter discussions.

Then, this summer, I asked my IRL beta readers to read my latest revision, Portrait of a People-Pleaser and the Son who Paid the Price. (Yes, it was a mouthful, but I’m a sucker for alliteration.)

Their main take-away: The story wasn’t enough about people-pleasing to support that theme.

I was stunned. After all this time, I’m back to the writing board?

Then, I quickly realized I’d heard similar feedback before—from editors, critique partners, my family. This time, the message got through and I realized my beta readers were right. But I worried that my carefully-built author platform would crumble—my website, my brand, my classes, my social media profiles.

My Book’s (and My) Identity Crisis

My story had a serious identity crisis. What was it really about? I asked my beta readers, and they suggested it had to do with motherhood. It sounded at once expansive, but commonplace.

In the people-pleasing publishing space, I had considered myself a big fish in a small sea because no other traditionally published, literary memoir with a focus on this topic existed. But the sea was so small, I couldn’t find it. My tribe didn’t hang together like a school of fish; they were scattered.

When I tweeted my dilemma, Gail Boenning, a self-admitted “recovering people-pleaser” and author of two books, replied that, although many people occasionally say yes when they want to say no, not everyone identifies as a “people-pleaser.” It made sense.

But I feared entering the motherhood publishing space. I was certain to be a minnow in an ocean of  “mom-oirs,” half of them by mothers of a sick child. And I’m a weak swimmer. How would I stand out? How would my memoir survive?

I turned to those who’d survived these rough waters

Three pieces of advice to understand your manuscript:

Fellow memoirists on Facebook generously gave me advice, and three points stood out.

1) Let your book tell you what it’s about.

Kari L. O’Driscoll, author of Truth has a Different Shape: A Memoir, said, “Congratulations on letting your book tell you what it’s about!”

I didn’t feel worthy of praise, because apparently, I hadn’t listened to my book, leaving mere humans to point me in the right direction. But knowing that my memoir had an opinion made me determined to tune in better.

2) Ask your story what it needs

Lorraine Segel, author of the memoir-in-progress Angels and Earthworms: An Unexpected Journey to Love, Joy, and Miracles took it a step further. She said,

“Allow the memoir to unfold. Allow it to be what it wants to be and ask it what it needs.

I took her advice. Closing my eyes, I rested my fingertips on my laptop and asked, “My beautiful memoir—What do you need?”

Almost immediately, it replied, as if the answer was there all along.

“I need to be read,” it said. “Yes, I’m about people-pleasing—that is an integral part of the story—but if that’s all it is, and the sea is empty of readers, no one will read the story. I’m too important to gather dust on a shelf, so let’s make a deal. I’ll go broad in what I have to teach, and you (Karen) go broad in finding me readers. Deal?”

Deal. I hadn’t known how wise my manuscript was.

3) Your memoir (or story) is the only fish in your sea.

Judith Hannan, author of Motherhood Exaggerated addressed my fear of getting lost in the overcrowded sea. She wrote,

“You are not a minnow but the same size fish as everyone else. There is only one Karen DeBonis ocean and you are the only fish in it. Write that story.”

It hit home. And, now that my manuscript and I are communicating better, this is what I know about its identity at this stage:

The new title reflects not only the story, but the work I’ve done to get it this far: Growth: A Mother, her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived. This version is about the clash between a woman’s naive expectations of motherhood and her son’s crushing needs, which destroys her confidence and threatens her stability.

I accept now that this identity may change, that my memoir and I may still miscommunicate, and that is all part of the process. Perhaps “finished memoir” is an oxymoron.

My critique group recently shared their feedback on my last chapter, and I finished my revisions. Now, I’ll go back to chapter 1 and start again.

I’ll keep asking “What is my memoir really about?” And this time, I’ll be all ears.

Have you had a book identity crisis? How did you resolve it? Please share your story with us down in the comments section!

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About Karen

Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she’s to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently available for representation.

A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-nine years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at

Top Photo by Kaushal Moradiya from Pexels

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