When Idaho author Mindy Cameron began writing "Leaving the Boys," a personal and compelling account of her life with respect to motherhood, work, feminism and romance, the idea of writing and publishing a book was somewhat daunting.
Her career began "a far cry from memoir writing," she said.
Cameron has written consistently since her teenage years when she decided to join her high school's newspaper. An unplanned pregnancy near the end of her senior year at Pacific University would put her plans for a career in journalism on hold. But eventually, she was able to renew that pursuit as she went on to write and edit for publications like the Seattle Times, the Lewiston Morning Tribune and the Idaho Statesman, as well as public television stations in Boise and Rochester, New York.
She retired after 20 years at the Seattle Times, wanting a change of pace and the ability to take a more active role supporting public education where she and her husband live in Sagle, Idaho, just south of Sandpoint. "South of the long bridge, as they say," she said.
As a journalist, Cameron had always been interested in public education and wrote often about it while writing for and editing the Seattle Times editorial page.
"So when we moved to Sandpoint, that was one of the things I wanted to do, not as a journalist, but to get my arms around a community that I'd already fallen in love with," Cameron said.
After a year or two of living in the area and talking with people in the community, she found that while families were happy with their children's teachers, leadership issues at the superintendent level had begun to threaten the system. She and her husband founded the Panhandle Alliance for Education, a nonprofit that exists to this day raising money for teacher grants and other special projects to help the district advance its curriculum and improve management training.
When there was an opening on her district's school board, she ran and served for the next 11 years. She also would go on to serve on the board of the Inland Northwest Community Foundation (now Innovia) and the Idaho Humanities Council.
"That kept me pretty busy," she said.
But eventually, the nostalgia of her writing days started calling out to her, and after completing a term as chairwoman of Pacific University's board of directors, she applied to its MFA program. It was during this time that her dream of writing a memoir really started growing legs.
"It was one of the highlights of my life," she said. She took full advantage of the opportunity to immerse herself in a community of writers, advisers and writing coaches. "It really got me to understand what it took to write a memoir."
She learned to show, not tell. "That was really hard," she said.
But she already had some experience to draw on from her time writing a few more personally focused editorial and opinion pieces.
"I was one of the first people in journalism to write a personal column on the opinion page about having had an abortion. That's when it was a very quiet thing," she said.
"I got ... a few beautiful letters from older women who'd gone through that and had always kept it very private all their lives. They appreciated me writing about it openly," she said, explaining the impact she felt she could make with this kind of personal writing. "That touched me a lot. I realized when you get into that voice, people really connect."
Around this time, she also had developed a passion for reading women's memoirs. She wanted to write one herself but worried that lacking the more obviously dramatic aspects of memoirs like Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," it would be, as her son Matt put it, "so boring, Mom."
But she eventually came to see it differently.
"I think in the interior, intimate parts of your life, there is drama there," she said. "That's what I realized I needed to get into to really find and open myself up in ways I had never before."
To aspiring writers, Cameron offered the following advice:
"If it's at all possible -- I think an MFA program is a fabulous experience. Immersing yourself in that community of writers and getting critiques, working in small critic groups so you have peers at the same level you are, plus having great writing coaches. That feedback is wonderful. Short of that, find a local community of writers. I don't think you can sit alone in a room and churn out great literature unless you're really something quite special. Most of us ordinary writers, the critiquing and editing process is just essential."