Memoirs are true accounts of real lives told with style. They are a way to learn from another person’s perspective while being entertained. My favorite memoirs are insightful, uplifting and funny. Marcia Cebulska’s upcoming memoir Lovers, Dreamers & Thieves checks all of those boxes. (The book will be available for check out soon.) Cebulska’s memoir is a coming-of-age tale set in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago. It’s the story of the community who made her into the writer she is today. Her story has quite the quirky cast.
“Lovers, Dreamers, & Thieves is about the warm, rowdy, lovable, and sometimes criminal characters of my early life,” Cebulska said. “ This includes a grandfather who staged fake Polish weddings, a great-grandmother who was a blacksmith and a cousin who collects nun dolls. But also a father taken away in handcuffs, a mother in love with a priest and an uncle in the Mafia. The memoir is written in a series of vignettes, individual worlds in themselves. Woven together, these stories tell a larger tale, one of desire and struggle, passion and defeat, dancing and joy.”
Moving from stories to a memoir
Cebulska is a published playwright, poet and novelist. She did not set out to write a memoir. After sharing several essays about her family with friends and family, she received encouragement to share more. As she shared the work with others, people said she had a memoir on her hands. Cebulska decided to tackle the project. She still wasn’t sure about calling it a memoir, though.
“I thought of the word “memoir” as haughty and Frenchy, so I started referring to the series of essays as “memoir-ish,” Cebulska said. “When I had a sizable number, I sent the collection to a friend who is a literary agent and former bookstore owner. He said that it was, most definitely, a memoir. So, I caved and started referring to it as such.”
Reads like storytelling
Cebulska organized her memoir the way we tell stories with family and friends – by theme rather than a chronologically. She focused on her early years, setting aside many stories that didn’t fit this particular thread. Each short chapter in the final book is a vignette that sparkles on its own, coming together to tell the story of a family and of one girl growing up.
Book launch with Cebulska at the library
You can meet the author and ask her about the scenes she left out at the library on Tue, May 2, 7pm in person or via Zoom. Register for a zoom link and email updates or just drop in to attend in Marvin Auditorium. Q&A and book sales and signing will follow the presentation. Email Miranda at email@example.com with questions.
Cebulska is also a memoir reader. Check out her recommendations for memorable true tales, and then read on for an insightful interview with the author.
Full Interview with Marcia Cebulska
What is this book about and why should people be interested in reading?
Lovers, Dreamers, & Thieves is about the warm, rowdy, lovable, and sometimes criminal characters of my early life, including: a grandfather who staged fake Polish weddings; a great-grandmother who was a blacksmith; a cousin who collects nun dolls. But also, a father taken away in handcuffs; a mother in love with a priest; an uncle in the Mafia. The memoir is written in a series of vignettes, individual worlds in themselves. Woven together, these stories tell a larger tale, one of desire and struggle, passion and defeat, dancing and joy.
You are a playwright, poet and novelist. You even published a wonderful book about how to journal. What made you decide to take on a memoir as your next project?
I did not set out to write a memoir. I started writing short vignettes about my family members, as a 15-minute self-indulgence after my daily work on my novel, Watching Men Dance. After writing several, I thought maybe my daughter and grandson might enjoy reading them. Later, I sent several vignettes to friends and fellow writers to see if they thought there might be an audience beyond my family. They gave me an enthusiastic Yes, so I continued.
I sent the growing collection to a former poet laureate, a book reviewer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a therapist. (I am the kind of writer who likes to get advice on her work.) They told me they thought what I had was a book, a memoir. I thought of the word “memoir” as haughty and Frenchy, so I started referring to the series of essays as “memoir-ish.” When I had a sizable number, I sent the collection to a friend who is a literary agent and former bookstore owner. He said that it was, most definitely, a memoir. So, I caved and started referring to it as such. My fellow writer friends cheered me on. It was kind of like an unexpected but welcome pregnancy.
Your delightful book contains so many stories! It’s funny, touching, and insightful. How did you decide what scenes to include and what to leave out?
I probably wrote twice as many vignettes as appear in the final book. Once I had accepted that I was writing a memoir, I made an attempt to pay attention to some of the conventions of that form. My first cut had to do with time. Memoirs are supposed to be about a specific part of one’s life. I decided to limit myself to my early years. Out went the episode of being accidentally locked in the empty United Nations General Assembly Hall with my friend Xenia. Out went the stories of my living in Peru, Chile, Greece, Mexico and other travel adventures.
As opposed to many memoirs, I decided I would not sequence the vignettes chronologically. We learn the stories of our families not in the order that they happened, after all. Instead, I grouped by subject. This turned out to be extremely hard. Some fell easily into categories, others stood out like sore thumbs. I said good-bye to some. Wrote new pieces to fill gaps. Despite my not writing in strict chronology, I did want the book to end with endings, with saying good-bye to people and places. An overall story arc emerged in spite of myself. As my editor and other friendly readers read the manuscript, they noticed repetitions. Parts and whole other stories were excised. Thea Rademacher, my publisher, noted that despite dance being important to me, there was no piece about me and dance. So, I came up with the piece called “Miss Gloria” quite recently.
Did writing your memoir require research? Did you spend some time digging into family history to prepare?
I did not set out to write a memoir but at one point I did set out to clean a closet. I had two large tubs of old photos that had belonged to my mother and grandmother that I wanted to pare down. I sent dozens of photos off to my cousins. I spread the remaining contents out on the dining room table. The photos startled memories out of me, some joyful or soothing, others unsettling. I’ve included some of the more characterful photos in the memoir.
There was other memorabilia. A postcard from 1915 or so addressed to my teenage grandmother-to-be with an address on Division Street in Chicago. My historian husband traced down the location and the shipping manifest from her transatlantic journey. My cousin Wally and I both drew floor plans of the bakery where I grew up and compared notes. Eric McHenry helped me do newspaper research into my father’s arrest. A cousin sent me the translation of some letters from Poland written after my visits there when I had investigated family history. When I was writing about my father’s death, I received a surprise packet from an old friend containing letters that I had sent him at that time. I asked a few questions of my cousins, but mostly I relied on my memory and my own impressions.
What do you personally love about reading memoirs? Can you recommend more stories of real life people that readers might enjoy?
Reading a memoir is like peeking behind a curtain into another’s life and time. I think we all want to know what other lives are like, how similar or different they may be from our own. I particularly like to read memoirs that relate to my own interests. Below are some of my favorites:
Ruth Reichl (chef and then food critic for L.A. Times and New York Times) wrote three that I’m particularly fond of are Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table and most recently Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir. No surprise that I’m drawn to them since I always write quite a bit about food in my own books. In the upcoming Kansas Book Festival, I will be on a Food in Literature panel.
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite novelists and I’m also quite taken with her nonfiction books that are personal histories. These include Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and most recently (and perhaps my very favorite), These Precious Days.
Not a memoir, but related to the subject matter of Lovers, Dreamers, & Thieves: My people, Chicago, & the bakery where I grew up is Dominic Pacyga’s historical account American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago. Pacyga is an historian who has written several fascinating and accessible books on Polish Americans in Chicago.
Topeka people who know my play Visions of Right might be interested in Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper.
Going back a bit in time, I was strongly influenced as a writing teacher by Natalie Goldberg who wrote about her own journey in Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America.