Island writers on writing

Nancy Slonim Aronie talks about her newest book, in bookstores this week.


It began when she gave up. Her computer irretrievably and maliciously devoured the first 68 pages of a memoir she was working on, what Nancy Slonim Aronie calls the best piece of writing she had ever done. There was no getting it back. The geniuses at the Genius Bar couldn’t recover it, nor could the genius she is married to. “I couldn’t do it again,” Aronie said. “I was devastated.” 

A year or so later, a Grammy-nominated standup comedian taking Aronie’s “Writing from the Heart” workshop (this was not in Chilmark, but at Esalen, in Big Sur) encouraged Aronie to do a one-woman show, and connected her to a producer. Aronie has the extraordinary ability to laugh and cry — and to get others to laugh and cry — in the course of a single sentence, and it didn’t take long for her to channel her inner Nichols and May and start working on a monologue. The producer praised her work, strung her along for a while, and finally admitted she had too many projects in the works to move forward. At this point Aronie’s drive to do a one-woman show faltered.

“I went back to writing, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and I found out about Google Docs,” said Aronie. “You don’t lose anything with Google Docs.”

This time she finished her memoir, and gave it to her agent who shopped it around at the big publishing houses, and the rejections rolled in. 

The next incarnation of her memoir brought together Aronie’s work facilitating writing workshops, which give people a safe space to tell their stories, and her own story. Aronie’s youngest son Dan was diagnosed with diabetes at 9 months of age and multiple sclerosis at 22. Dan died at the age of 38. “I knew that how we navigated that tsunami was unusual,” said Aronie. “I knew I needed to write about it.”

When she was 78, Aronie had said she wanted to have a book published when she was 80 years old (she even bought an outfit for the book launch party). Aronie, who will turn 81 in May, has met her goal. “Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story” (New World Library) will be in bookstores this week. 

In advance of this summer’s Islanders Write, The MV Times will sit down with writers who will be at this year’s event to talk about their writing process. The following is from a conversation I had with Aronie last weekend at her house in Chilmark. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Why did you originally want to write a memoir?

I knew I had to write my story to get this s___ out of my body. I’ve always taught that you’re carrying your sorrow. It’s in your liver. It’s in your pancreas. It’s in your heart, and if you don’t get it on the page, it’s going to marinate. It’s now called narrative medicine. Telling your story is healing. I don’t know how I knew that intuitively, but I knew it. Of course, I thought it would be great if this were a book, but it was mostly I’ve just got to get this out. 

When you got back to writing the memoir, how did you approach it?

I tried to pretend that I was doing a monologue. I tried to pretend that I was on a stage talking to people.

Other than finding a publisher, what were some of the challenges you faced during this process? 

I’m not great at rereading, and I’m not great at editing. My NPR pieces were 750 words, and I got them almost perfect the first time I’d write them. I was very lucky about not having to anguish. Well, this I anguished over. I would read it and I’d change it, and I’d print and I’d fix it, and then I’d write some more.

Were you discouraged when you got the rejections from publishers?

No. This book is the result of having written a memoir and getting 17 rejections. The rejections didn’t seem to bother me when I got them. They were all from Random House and Simon & Schuster and everybody big, but they said things like, ‘Thank you for sending me Nancy Slonim Aronie’s beautiful, powerful memoir. I cried and I laughed.’ They were saying no to a book they liked. 

But then when you found the editor that you really wanted to work with, you discovered he wasn’t a fan of memoir. 

I knew [Jason Gardner] was my guy. [New World Library publishes Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.] But when I heard him say he hates memoirs, I thought, I can’t send him the memoir. So I went to sleep and I was laying there, thinking, All right, so what’s the deal with this book? The next day I looked up his list [of books published], and they were all how-to and self-help. I teach how to jumpstart your memoir. Hello! I’m gonna write how to jumpstart your memoir.

And that was that? 

It poured out so easily because it’s what I sit and do every week with the workshops. It was very easy to write, much different from the memoir, but I put about five chapters of the memoir in there to illustrate how to use dialogue, and that you need to be funny, but you need to be serious at the same time. I think writing helps give you a new perspective and insights. It can help you let go of the rough edges and make peace with the hard stuff. I sent the new book to him, and it has been the most professional, beautiful, wonderful experience. They’ve been so great, and the book is coming out. And I’m 80!

“Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story” will be available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Islanders Write will take place on July 31 and August 1 at Featherstone Center for the Arts.