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Tom Migdale on Writing His First Memoir
The first-time author opens up about his journey documenting the disability he and his family kept hidden from most of the world.
Welcome to Writers On Writing, an ongoing series profiling passionate writers behind the scenes. Today, we hear from Tom Migdale, a first-time author and memoirist.
In which genre do you write? Tell us about as much – or as little – as you feel comfortable.
I’m writing a memoir about growing up legally blind from age 4 to age 20. My disability was discovered 2 months before I turned 5 in a doctor’s office in Wayne, NJ, the town and state where I grew up. I really didn’t know I had a serious eye problem until maybe I was 9 or 10. I thought everyone had the same vision I did. By the time I was 11 or 12, I came to realize that I was, indeed, legally blind and did not see the same as everyone else. It was a day-to-day struggle trying to see anything, things far away mainly—faces, objects…
What’s the main message of your work, and what do you hope your readers will gain from reading your writing?
My main message to readers is that no matter how disabled you are, keep going and never lose hope, never quit at anything, you only have one life, and make the best of it. I feel that a lot of people feel stuck and they shouldn’t. Every day is a new day.
Was there a moment of inspiration that inspired you to launch this project?
For almost 40 years, I’ve wanted to write this story but had no idea how to go about doing it. I’m a huge movie buff, and after watching movies like Forrest Gump, Men of Honor, Rudy, Coach Carter, Hoosiers, Invincible, Stand by Me, The Sandlot, and recently The Tender Bar (which blew me away) — AND reading memoirs like Breaking Night, Angela’s Ashes, Dry, The Liar’s Club — I thought to myself, “This is possible.” Still, the question of how kept knocking at my brain.
Who or what inspires you as a writer?
I would say that reading other writers inspires me as a writer. If you read enough books, you kind of get a feel of how you want to write, how you want to come across to people. My real skill is dialogue, so when I’m reading a memoir, I seek out quality dialogue, whether it’s truncated, old-fashioned, modern… If you write it well, it will work.
How would you describe your writing life?
Writing consumes me, in a good way. Always hacking at the keyboard on a regular basis, sometimes I’ll write a paragraph, delete it, rewrite it, delete that, then write something so unexpected that in quite a few cases I’m happy with. I need to be in the zone or somewhat deep in thought for something to sound right, to work to my liking. I usually have the entire scene in my head before writing it, even the dialogue. It’s pretty insane.
What would we see if we walked into your writing workspace(s)?
My writing workspace, if you must call it that, is also my full-time job workspace. I have a Lenovo Thinkpad 17” laptop (not big enough, next time 23”), an old-fashioned desk lamp on my right, a stapler to my left, a scotch tape dispenser to my right, a stack of my business cards, and also business cards of my real estate agent friend and accountant friend—cards of which I send out on a regular basis. I have a twirly thing, actually, 7 twirly things I spin, rotate, and play with while staring out of the window to form a scene in my head. Lastly, I have a huge glass diamond that I rub in hopes that someday someone out there will take a liking to my story and give me a shot.
Do you have an ideal time/place in which to write?
My ideal time to write is early in the morning OR whenever a sizzling idea comes to mind. It’s a bit difficult for me to write late at night—what I mean by late is after 7PM…I’m an early bird—anywhere from 5:30AM to 9AM is perfect. I also like writing on the weekend.
Where do you find your inspiration and ideas?
Inspiration and ideas come from watching movies, reading memoirs, remembering certain dates, times, events, and thinking to myself, “I have to include this in my story and write a scene around it,” if that can be done. I find myself remembering more and more things that happened during my 16 years—most of which the first 7 set the stage for this entire story. I’m also inspired when I listen to movie soundtracks and picture a scene from that movie in my head and write a scene with that music in my ears.
Who’s your audience for this project? Is it specific, or is it broad with disparate groups?
I think my audience will be anyone who loves reading memoirs, no matter what it’s about, anyone who was born with or has become disabled with an eye issue. It will hit home for many. Anyone who’s Jewish will be able to relate to what I had to go through growing up with generally non-religious parents wanting to devote more of their life to religion. Although I was young and took them seriously then, I now see how comical it all was and laugh about it. I think also family-oriented readers and anyone with a very tight-knit family. Having that growing up spoke volumes.
When are you most likely to write productively?
I write productively when I get the feel. I have to literally feel the vibe, the sensation, the words running through my head that I need to put down before it all goes away. The music helps, but sometimes I can write without the music. I’m not one to just sit down and write 4 or 5 pages of junk and keep going. What I do is pretty thought-out, and then I’ll bang out a paragraph or a page. If I like it, I’ll keep it, but most of the time it’s always changed.
What does your life look like when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I’m reading a good book — usually memoirs. I’m also a financial advisor by day for Prudential which is highly extensive. Every day I’m dealing with leads, calls, clients, life policies…it’s very time-consuming, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes fantastic. I could never see myself being anything other than a writer and an advisor. Spare time, if there’s any left over, I travel with Jan, my girlfriend of…18 years!! In fact, just today we decided to go to see the Yankees/Orioles in Baltimore in July and meet my friend Wendy and a few other people. We’re going to Myrtle Beach in August. Just came back from Key West. I always wanted to travel more for fun, nothing else. Nothing business-oriented or related, that’s not the goal here.
What are you most excited about for your memoir?
I think I’m most excited about getting it done and seeing my name on the cover. I’m excited to have other people read it, friends, colleagues. I’m excited for the impact it may make in someone else’s life. A parent reads this and it may blow them away or give them hope if their kid has a visual impairment.
What gives you the most angst about it?
I’d say…the rewrite. I’m dreading it honestly. I’ve been able to find my voice and a certain rhythm, and I go back and read these chapters I wrote a year ago and I’m like, “What the actual hell is this?” It infuriates me because I know I’m better now, so yes, the re-write is something I’m not looking forward to.
What’s been the most surprising part about taking on a project like this?
The most surprising part is that I’m doing it. I dreamed of doing this for many years, decades really. I just never had the umpf to sit down and take a crack at it — even if it failed, stunk, blew. I will tell you or anyone, the discipline is OFF THE CHARTS. The endurance is OFF THE CHARTS. I’m enjoying the process, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take this long. I guess I’m going about it the long way, writing down everything — every age, every feeling I felt. I’m slowly discovering that I don’t have to include everything. That’s where the rewrite will come in. Still, I’ve got the pace down and the voice.
How has this project changed you as a writer? As a person?
Being a “writer” is now my 2nd occupation, and it’s safe to say I like it. It took me many many tries to find my voice and my style. I’ve always lived under the mantra “never give up,” and it applies to everyone trying to write anything. Many years ago, I was much more harsh in my critiques toward other writers, but that’s changed; today, I’d give even the most timid, inexperienced writers the benefit of the doubt, sit down with them and see what I could do to help and encourage them. I think back then I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, and I don’t know why.
What advice would you offer someone who’s considering taking on a big writing
My advice to someone trying to write anything would be “GET A COACH!!!” for inspiration, support, and someone who’s cheering you on, because without that, all you have is yourself, really. I would also advise them to write every day, whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or a page. Just write. Don’t put it off, because you’ll only regret it. I had the idea of writing my memoir and actually wrote solid for 18 months, then shelved it because I had no idea what I was doing. Then, 7 years later, I convinced myself to take it out and start fresh. Timing is everything, and the time was right in May of 2020 to give it another go and continue. And now, I’m committed to writing it through to the end.
How do you jumpstart your motivation when it wanes?
I must say, it’s tough getting motivated to write. But what really motivates me is seeing the end. Having a vision of the end, someone reading my book and saying “Wow, this was fantastic,” or possibly a vision of someone reading my book somewhere and I pass by and say, “That’s me” and give them an autograph on the inside flap. Also, I see thousands of people NOW writing memoirs, getting them published — true stories, movies on Netflix, Prime — and that’s a BIG motivator for me, because if they can do it…I can, too.
How long did you think this process would take? How does that compare to
I never thought it would take this long, but then again, I’ve never written more than short-story-length pieces which varied between 2 hours to 2 days to write. I’ve heard these stories about how so-and-so worked on a novel for 10 years and I’d say to myself “Why the hell did it take so long?” When I first got a coach, I thought to myself “OK, now I have a coach I’ll be finished in one year.” It was a shock — and still is, kind of — that I’ve only cut into a third of the story. I think now with the pace I’ve developed, it’ll go much quicker.
Have you received support/feedback/guidance while writing? If so, what has that looked like? How has the input of others impacted your productivity and/or
My 2 biggest supporters are Christine Wolf, my writing coach, and my girlfriend Jan, who always corrects anything I’ve written once I read it to her. Hearing her critiques sometimes infuriates me to the point where I say “Really? Well, I’m not changing it.” Or “How can you say that doesn’t sound good?” I think maybe 20 people know I’m writing a memoir, and I’ve heard so much positive feedback to the point where I have a list of people who want a copy. Good feeling. Also, I guess my 3rd biggest supporter would be my parents and sister, even if they only just ask me, “How’s it’s going?” They’re not critiquing anything. A few people have said some interesting things and made some wacky comments — like “Good luck with your memoirs (plural)!” or “I never even knew you had an eyesore.” (what the hell was that?) Well, Pink T-Shirt (a character in my memoir), all I can say is: You will get yours. Read the memoir. I haven’t been affected by comments like that, and nothing will impact me in a negative way.
When you finally complete your project and hold the published work in your
hands, what do you think you — the published author — will say to a writer-in-progress?
I will give them some strong, sound advice from the heart: You can do it. Never give up. Keep going, even if you feel lousy and are having a bad day. I promise you, it can be done. And, I hope they pick my brain. I’m looking forward to it.
Christine Wolf is an award-winning essayist, memoir coach, and owner of Writers’ Haven LLC, a cooperative workspace for writers. Are you a writer in search of a coach? Would you like your writing profile featured in this series? Reach out to Christine at www.christinewolf.com/contact/.
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