Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir

Before anti-war activism

Since publishing Open Borders in 2018, I have been writing about another segment of my life as fiction. It seemed necessary to fictionalize the story because when I wrote it true, even while changing the protagonist’s name, my writing peers recognized him. He was dead but his family and former colleagues were not. Dozens of grateful parents remembered him from the way he understood and provided options for their precocious children.

Writing the story of my professional and not so professional relationship with the protagonist helped me understand my past behavior. Layers of the past needed to be stripped back. But every time I shared a chapter with my writing class, people recognized him on the page. This story of mine could not be written as memoir.

Sometimes we write for our eyes only, telling our story to know ourselves. I discover what I know through writing, but even more through conversation. I wanted to write what felt to me to be a universal woman’s tale, of flattery, seduction, loss of Self, victimization.

If not memoir, why not fiction.

I have spent the last four-and-a-half-years turning the story into fiction. I needed a different world with different back-stories. Annie Proulx is a master at building a concrete world that convinces the reader putting him or her into the sights, sounds, and smells of Nova Scotia, the setting of Shipping News. I could smell the low tide stench of rotting fish and feel the fear of icy water the way her protagonist did.

But my research in parts of the United States where I was somewhat at home did not result is the blood and bone knowledge that comes from living in a place. I was not prepared to spend the time it takes to know a place the way Proulx does before writing her novels. My main character, a fictionalized version of myself remained stiff and distant in her false ambiance. My story had to take place in the Pacific Northwest.

Why not take the protagonist out of academia? Let the setting arise from a different segment from my past. I researched the historical past of Seattle’s lesser know neighborhoods and created an authentic world for my characters. But my own fictionalized voice remained hollow and unconvincing. In the end, I have gone back to memoir. Some of us need to mine the inner struggles of identity and the quest for an authentic life through memoir.

The story of my current work answers the question I get so often, ‘how did you meet your husband?’

“He was my high school history teacher.”

“Wasn’t that against the law? Did you date? How could that happen?”

What happened in a small town high school in 1954 when a twenty-three-year-old Rhodes Scholar showed up as the substitute history teacher? My (Betsy Johnson’s) senior year in Muskogee, Oklahoma’s Central High suddenly became interesting and a potentially dull future turned bright with possibilities. My father, an influential physician, lionized the young man. Other teachers and my classmates threw us together. But in my private war to prove my father wrong about me (I was no whore!), I must navigate the budding romance with an eye to the future. I must prove my father wrong about me.

Stay tuned for out-takes that do not advance the narrative and reflections about the structure of memoir. I look forward to sharing my thoughts about memoir with you and hope you will engage with me on the topic. For me, writing is a dialogue and I welcome your side of the discussion.


Published by Betsy Bell

Betsy Bell, born before WWII in New York City, spent her formative years in the Jim Crow town of Muskogee, Oklahoma. As a Girl Scout, she began her social justice activism working with a bi-racial team to integrate public schools after the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating the end of school segregation. After completing her BA and MA at Bryn Mawr College, she began an academic career in Lawrence, Kansas where her husband taught. In Lawrence, she advocated for reproductive rights with Planned Parenthood. She lives in Seattle where she has held several career positions. Twice widowed, Betsy has published two short memoirs and several poems. For the past fourteen years, Betsy has worked with the Seattle area faith communities toward economic justice through the Jubilee USA Network. Betsy believes in the power of ordinary citizens to create a positive, inclusive and just society.

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