Grief, Motherless Daughter, Writing Memoir, Writing on Grief

My Burning Desire to Write 'Briefly I Knew My Mother'

I’ve wanted to write my memoir, Briefly I Knew My Mother, for a long time. Keeping a daily diary since I was a child and journaling on and off for many years means it’s my second nature to put thoughts to paper. About ten years ago I determined to write about a loss that defined my life from a very early age. I began piecing it together. But I lacked confidence and wasn’t ready to dive deep into all that sorrow. I turned to other stories, completing one fictional story that I’ve yet to do anything with. The strong desire to write about Mam’s death, and our lives following her passing, never left me. Often I’d revisit the story, digging through papers to reread what was written. Most of it was terrible. But it was a start. My emotions tumbled out on to the page without structure, without a clear plan of where I wanted this book to go or where I wanted to take the reader. I’m so grateful I didn’t try to do anything with those poorly written first drafts. I just knew the timing wasn’t right.

One day a few years ago I received my subscribed Oprah magazine in the mail.On the cover I read that Oprah was relaunching her book club for a book called Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I turned to the article and discovered that Cheryl had lost her mother to cancer at age 22. My heart raced. Here was a woman I could connect with. I couldn’t wait to read more! Devastated by her loss she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone. This journey was what ultimately saved her. Intrigued and excited, I was also nervous. Somebody else had written a book about losing their mother to cancer. They had done it before me. And this amazing woman was also living in Portland, Oregon, the same city where I now lived. I wondered where my book would fit in to all of this. Would people want to read another book on motherloss? How would mine compare to this one, chosen by Oprah to relaunch her book club?

I went to see Cheryl read from her book and speak in Portland. I devoured Wild within days. Wild is a beautiful book, riveting and raw. I found myself crying and laughing in its pages.There were several things in the book that I could relate to but I realized I had nothing to be anxious about because one thing Wild wasn’t was my story. I understood then that it didn’t matter how many books were written about motherloss and grief. My memoir, told in my voice, would be different. Only I have lived my story and only I can tell it. Something inside me was immensely moved by Cheryl’s words, and I wasn’t the only one. Soon people all over the world were reading this book, following Cheryl on social media and thanking her for writing Wild. I saw how many people needed this book and how comforting it was for readers to recognize themselves in another person’s story. It was truly inspiring.

A couple of years later the time was right for me to tell my story. After ten years as kindergarten teacher I was completely burned out in that job. My four ten hour work days were wearing on me and my desire to write full time was like an itch I just couldn’t scratch. The story I needed to write was Briefly I Knew My Mother. I couldn’t think of anything else. My mind was consumed with ideas. I carried notepaper and pen with me everywhere I went so that I could write ideas down. I was so tired at the end of each work day and busy falling in love at the weekend, so instead of launching into my memoir I devoured books on writing, reading any chance I could get. I read Sol Stein’s books on writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I managed to save some money and gathered the courage to quit my job.

I immediately set to work on my memoir, getting up every morning with enthusiasm and often remaining at the computer for eight hours straight, pushing it away only when my boyfriend arrived in time for dinner.The story came together quite easily for me this time round although I’ve edited it nine times in all. I opened up to my friends about what I was writing and eventually shared my thoughts with people on my new author’s page. I expected to be met with skepticism and apprehension. Instead I received admiration, encouragement and applause. People believed in me and my story.

I’ve since come to realize a few things. Timing is everything. John Quincy Adams said:

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”

I’m so glad I held off on writing my story until now. My book wouldn’t be half the book it is had I written it ten years ago.

Also, I’ve learned that people are behind me, believing in me, even when I think they mightn’t be, or when I don’t fully believe in myself. Through story we relate to one another. I’m writing this story for myself, but more importantly I’m writing it for all those readers out there who might need it. I just finished reading The Rules of Inheritance  , a gem by Claire Bidwell Smith and another book on motherloss and grief The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke. Hope Edelman pioneered the Motherless Daughters movement with her book which I read several years ago when I first moved to the USA from Ireland. The theme is the same but our stories are all unique.

I’ve yet to query agents. I’ve a long way to go before my book is in print. There may be several more edits, headaches and heartache. But I’ll keep sending it out into the world hoping that someone will love it. I won’t give up on this story. I believe it is meant to be shared.

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


14 thoughts on “My Burning Desire to Write 'Briefly I Knew My Mother'

  1. M Hale says:

    Well done and good for you Carmel. It sure takes guts to write down your deepest feelings,you have great courage and you write beautiffuly 🌴

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Jessica Zavala B. says:


    Thank you for your post (Still My Mother’s Birthday). Your prior post lead me to this page about your book A Lovely Woman, which I support 100%. My mother passed away when I was 20 years old; I’m now 22 and I miss her like crazy. I’ll love to turn to writing to express what I feel but I’m not so good at “writing”. I hope to purchase your book once it’s published. Best of luck on this jouney!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jessica for your comment. I am so sorry for your loss. If you feel the desire to write maybe give it a try. It can be so helpful to write down what we are feeling without worrying about it being ‘good writing’. Writing has been the thing that has helped me most in the grieving process. Thank you for your kind words and I do hope to get my book out soon. I think that through sharing our stories there comes healing. Take care of yourself!


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