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Memoir Writer Shares Tips with Students

Alum Publishes Book About Her Teen Pregnancy

Judith Dickerman-Nelson at UMass Lowell
Author and alum Judith Dickerman-Nelson recently spoke to a writing class about her new book, "Believe in Me: A Teen Mom's Story."

By Julia Gavin

Judith Dickerman-Nelson’s first book, “Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story,” is one of love, challenges and success with a bit of scandal thrown in for good measure. And it’s her story.

The 1991 graduate of UMass Lowell begins the story shortly after her own birth:

“My mother abandoned me in 1963 when I was three months old. She didn't give me up at the hospital when I was born. She waited, giving herself some time. For 90 days she left me in foster care, and I like to believe she came to see me every day, thinking she might take me back, that she wanted to find a way to keep me.”

Tips for Memoir Writers
  1. Be ready to change identifying features if you’re sharing a true story to protect those involved.
  2. Write down every line wherever you can as soon as they occur to you. Those scraps might be the key line you need in a later draft.
  3. Your imagined audience might not be the actual one you reach.
  4. If there’s something you really don’t want to talk about, that’s what you need to write, for yourself and for others in the same situation.
The story goes on to chronicle the life of Dickerman-Nelson, who is adopted and eventually becomes a popular student at a Catholic girls' high school in Massachusetts. When her boyfriend, Kevin, proposes marriage, she feels as if her life is perfect. But her pregnancy that follows changes everything. Kevin's parents don't want him to start a family at such a young age, and his mother pressures the teen to get an abortion. As a Catholic and an adopted child, the young author must make difficult decisions regarding her own and her baby's future.

Dickerman-Nelson thought her story would be well-received by teens and young parents, which it has been, but she’s been surprised by the comments she’s received from other readers. One surprise was contact from a woman her own age who was given the book by her 90-year-old father who enjoyed Dickerman-Nelson’s story.

The author used teenage diaries, photos, letters and memories to share her experiences as an adopted child and then a teen mother. Dickerman-Nelson’s use of imagination in the telling of her life – admittedly, she doesn’t know her birth mother’s thoughts or remember important conversations word for word – was one of many writing tricks she shared with Prof. Sandra Miller’s writing classes during a recent visit.

“I can show students memoirs and personal writings by authors and teach strategies for successful writing, but having a published author like Judith come to class and share her work brings a new level to the class,” says Miller.

Dickerman-Nelson, who ended up keeping her baby, attended UMass Lowell when her son was young and returned to finish her studies several years later. During her time at the University, she helped found the literary journal and went on to teach in the English Department. Her connections to the University also led to the publication of “Believe in Me,” as Prof. Hilary Holladay, formerly of the same department, encouraged Dickerman-Nelson to write the book, edited it and began a publishing house, Jefferson Park Press, to launch it.

“I loved my time at UMass Lowell,” says Dickerman-Nelson. “It’s a great place to write and make connections.”

While the author has participated in prominent literary festivals and panels about her book, she says that speaking with students and young people is always interesting because their questions lead her to new discoveries about her own work. Dickerman-Nelson also hopes that sharing her strategies, such as writing a potential line down in the moment rather than trying to remember it later, will help young writers.

“Memoir is one of my favorite genres and small group visits with authors like Judith are really helpful,” says David Kwan, a philosophy major minoring in English, who won a copy of Dickerman-Nelson’s book. “I’m going to go home, read it and see how I can apply her approach to my work. I have a similar organic writing process of lines on scraps of paper. It’s time to hunt them all down and get writing.”

For more on Dickerman-Nelson and “Believe in Me,” visit the Jefferson Park Press website or her webpage.