Thursday, November 6, 2014

From Memoir to Musical: 5 tips from Jonathan Lethem and Alison Bechdel

Last week, I went to NYC's Public Theatre to see novelist Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude) and memoirist/graphic novelist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) discuss the experience of having their books turned into musicals.

I was excited to attend because my friend, the extraordinarily talented composer Peter Michael von der Nahmer, recently asked me to write a chapter of my memoir, Sally's Circle, as a play scene—and then he will write music for it. How amazing is that?

Of course, the only challenge is, um, WRITING A PLAY. Translating the actual dialogue was easy enough, but what about the internal dialogue? Without that, how do you get across the most intimate thoughts of a character? I attended the event in hopes to find out.

After two gorgeous performances of songs from Fun Home (the funny and poignant "I'm Changing My Major to Joan") and The Fortress of Solitude (the passionate "Painting"), Lethem and Bechdel launched into a casual, off-the-cuff, riveting conversation. No moderator necessary, so it felt more like eavesdropping on them in a coffee shop.

Here's what the pros had to say:

1. A body on stage is different than a character on the page.

This was especially true for Lethem, who was surprised to find that even his story's most hated bully is redeemed in the musical adaptation of The Fortress of Solitude.

But, watching the play for the first time last week (it's currently running at the Public), he understood. The person up there on stage is a human. And just that simple fact makes him demand our empathy.

He noted that this was even more apparent during a song. "When a character opens his mouth to sing, you're connecting to their insides."

So, if any family/friends/ex-boyfriends are offended by my memoir, maybe they'll be pleased with the musical version :)

2. A play is an economic choice: all you have are words + music. 

Poking fun at his length novel, Lethem remarked on the musical writer's dilemma of translating a 700-page novel into a 2-hour play. "There are no 7-hour plays," he joked.

But he and Bechdel were equally impressed by how much mileage you get out of a song.

"A song comments on the action or spins out from something in the scene," Lethem said. "It's a metaphor breaking through the skin of the story."

When working on my play scene, I found that writing a song (yes, I wrote the lyrics and even came up with a melody!) was the only way to convey my character's innermost feelings. I was thankful for the reassurance that I am on the right track.

3. Unlike movies, bad musicals evaporate.

You'd think having a movie based on your book would be the ultimate sign that you'd made it. (Hello, Wild.)

But Bechdel made a wise point (and let me note that just about every point she made was wise, eloquent, and bashful—a combo that left me in pure adoration). She said that rather than film, she preferred a musical, noting that "the bad ones would evaporate."

Their worst fear was an awful movie that could be watched on Netflix for eternity.

So maybe I take back my wish to see my life as a movie, as I noted after watching Boyhood. I always had trouble picking a curly-haired celebrity to play me anyway. Broadway, here we come!  

4. A musical succeeds or fails within its own terms beyond the book.

Especially for audience members who haven't even read the book, the play is all they have.

This sounds terrifying, but it also opens a world of freedom. If evil characters can find redemption, some characters can be cut altogether, and entire passages can be stripped out, as Lethem noted of The Fortress of Solitude, anything is possible.

This struck me because when writing my own play scene, I kept feeling that I could fall back on the book. But in truth, you can't. Whatever you strike from the book vanishes. Poof. The material left must stand on its own.

5. To share or not to share with family? Maybe not.

"I wish my mom could have seen it," Bechdel said of the musical adaptation of Fun Home, "and I'm relieved that she couldn't."

Sadly, her mother passed away only a few months before the show premiered at the Public last fall.

I could relate, as I often question whether my mom would be happy with the final manuscript, particularly since she is my co-author. It is hard not to have her say. And yet I must trust that she has guided me to where I am.

Bechdel shared her mom's frequent and skeptical comment about the play: "Well, it'll be interesting to see the reviews."

It's one of those lines that's now seen as naive, given that the play garnered such rave reviews that it will move to Broadway in April 2015. I can't wait to see it.

Any advice on turning books into movies or plays or musicals? Please fill this novice in!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dad and I did the pancreatic cancer walk!


Bright and early Sunday morning, my dad and I did the Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk -- our first time walking it together!

Dad did the walk in 2001, but under very different circumstances. It was the inaugural year of the walk, and he was alongside my mom, Sally, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before. Sadly, it was their first and last walk. After battling the disease for two-and-a-half years, she passed away the following year.

Nearly a decade later, I finally got up the courage to do the walk. It was 2011, the year leading up to my wedding, and the walk was a way to honor my mom and grieve her absence leading up to my big day. My groom Mark and maid-of-honor Laura walked alongside me, readying me to walk down the aisle. It was a moving and memorable day.


So when Dad asked if I wanted to walk it together this year, I was eager to do it again. Even though the loss of my mom was so devastating, she has smiled upon us over the past few years. My dad is happily remarried to my wonderful stepmom, Susan. Mark and I just celebrated our two-year anniversary. And to top it off, this year I finally completed the memoir that Mom and I started writing together when she was sick. I knew Dad and I were in a good place to experience the event together. 

The morning started with Erasure. On the drive to Jones Beach, Dad blasted our favorite hits ("A Little Respect," "Blue Savannah"), the same way he used to when picking me up from playdates. We sang along, remembering all the lyrics, and I felt just like a kid again. 


Our singing only stopped once we pulled into our parking spot and realized that the car in front of us had a Connecticut license plate -- Sally's home state. We had just been relaying recent dreams we had of Sally (Dad's the night before, mine a couple weeks ago), and this felt like yet another welcome visit from her.

Arriving at the event, we checked in, donned our t-shirts, and filled out our bibs that we were walking in honor of Sally. At Dad's nudging, we even made a team poster and took a team photo for Sally's Circle -- despite only being a small team of two!
Photo courtesy of Ben Asen

As the race kicked off at 9:30am, Dad and I held hands as we crossed the start line, and didn't let go for several minutes. We were moved and thinking of Sally, and yet cheerful. For this I give credit to the wonderful event organizers. Despite there being so few pancreatic cancer survivors (most patients pass away within months), the Lustgarten Foundation strives and succeeds at throwing an upbeat and positive event that brims with hope -- hope for the surviving family members, hope for scientific advances like screenings, and most of all hope for a cure. 

Sunshine beaming down on us, a cloudless blue sky ahead of us, and the ocean only a glimpse away, Dad and I walked on, pausing to take a photo and visit with our photographer friend Ben Asen, who has been shooting the event for twelve years in honor of his father who passed of pancreatic cancer. It made the event even more special to see a smiling, familiar face. And, of course, he and Dad traded stories of their favorite and most famous rock concert experiences (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Who). 
Photo courtesy of Ben Asen

Soon it became like any other walk Dad and I have taken--and many were taken along the beach after Mom died. We chatted about everything and nothing: checking in on all the family members, pointing out repairs done since Hurricane Sandy, commenting on the gorgeous weather after yesterday's rain. We paused midway to enjoy the beach view before completing the three-mile trek.


Making our way back, we again held hands as we crossed the finish line, and hugged once we actually crossed. We learned that 8,000 people had walked with us and more than $1 million had been raised ($1,500 of which was donated by our amazing family and friends!). We felt so honored to be part of this wonderful event.

"I can see why people do this once and then continue to come every year," Dad said. I agreed.

So although it took us twelve years after Mom's death to do the walk together, we now plan to make it an annual thing--with guests! My stepmom Susan and my brother Jordan have already volunteered, and I bet we can recruit Mark and Laura. Who else is in? Team Sally's Circle 2015!


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's been 12 years, but can I return my library book?

Last month, on the twelfth anniversary of my mom's death, I finally got up the nerve to return a library book. One problem: It was twelve years overdue. Fortunately, a nice woman at the Hospice of Central New York in Liverpool, NY was happy to take it back. Here is the letter I sent, which explains all...


August 19, 2014 

Dear Michelle,

About a decade ago, as a student at Syracuse University, I came to your facility, which was then called The Center for Living with Loss, to see a pastor who was a counselor there. My mother had recently died from cancer, and I was seeking support for my grief.

The pastor and I spoke for a while, and before I left, he led me to the library and asked if I'd like to borrow a book. I noticed one right away: Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. I flipped through the pages and was shocked to find snippets of loss from young women just like me. I checked it out... and never brought it back. 

Since then, the pages have been read and reread, dog-eared and tear-soaked, and loved beyond belief. I am so grateful to Lisa McChesney, who donated the book, and to your facility for lending me such a wonderful and helpful resource. 

Now, after a dozen years, I'd like to return my book. Enclosed is the recently-published third edition of the book, signed by Hope Edelman herself, who I was fortunate enough to meet in May at the Motherless Daughters Conference in Los Angeles. I hope this book is helpful to someone else, as it was to me.

I hope you won't mind that I am keeping the version I originally borrowed. It is too sentimental for me to part with. It also reminds me how far I've come. The book mostly stays on the shelf these days, atop a bookcase in the charming and sun-filled Brooklyn apartment I share with my husband. We are happy newlyweds, about to celebrate our second anniversary.  

My deepest gratitude to you, your staff, and your community. 


Marisa Bardach Ramel 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

12 years later: Boyhood and Sally


I recently went to the movies with my childhood friend Joanne to see Boyhood. Filmed over 12 years, director Richard Linklater caught on film the magic and misery of growing up. 

We meet the main character, Mason, as a six-year-old boy lying on the grass, staring up into the blue sky. And we watch as he morphs into a shaggy-haired 10-year-old on a dirt bike, a troubled 13-year-old hating his alcoholic stepfather, and later a thoughtful, if not a bit pompous, 18-year-old going off to college.

Played by the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, covering 12 years of his well, boyhood, this feat in modern filmmaking leaves us inexplicably attached to him. Not much happens in the movie, but we root for him. We want him to figure himself out. We want him to have a good life.  

Today, as I honor the 12-year anniversary of my mother's death, part of me wishes I could watch a film of my life over the past dozen years. Sounds narcissistic, I know. But I think it would help me realize how much I've grown. 

Sometimes it's hard to remember that. Like on Sunday night, when the anticipation of the anniversary coming and the pain of missing my mom squeezed my heart so tight I couldn't sleep. On that night I felt like a little girl—the 17-year-old who found out her mom had cancer, the 20-year-old whose mom died. 

But a part of me fought it. You're 32, I thought, you're too fucking old for this.

I'm tired of it hurting. 

I'm tired of it continuing to hurt. 

This year carries a particular weight. Although it feels amazing to have finished writing the memoir my mom and I began co-writing when she was sick, I feel heartsick for not being able to share it with her. I find myself telling her over and over again, while pedaling on the elliptical, while walking in the sunshine down the street, before I go to sleep at night: I finished it, Mom. I finished our book. I fucking finished it. (She didn't really mind cursing.) 

Friends, and friends' moms, and my mother-in-law, and my very sweet readers have been telling me that I should continue blogging. That people will find comfort in seeing how far I've come and that things get better. But on nights when I feel my heart pinch with pain, I doubt myself. What do I have to offer? How much has really changed?

After a fitful sleep on Sunday night, I woke up on Monday morning and headed to the gym. I pedaled as fast as I could on the elliptical and thought about my mom. I thought about how I want things to be different. That I want to be more accepting of her death. I know that is the final piece that is missing. 

Walking home from the gym, a Muse song I loved in college blasting on my headphones, I spotted a guy I knew from college who had recently moved to my neighborhood. He was even wearing a backpack. It was as if I was transported back to the Syracuse University quad. 

And yet. So much has changed. I live in Brooklyn. I'm a working writer. I'm married, about to celebrate my two-year anniversary. I have more gray hair than black. A few days earlier I'd spent the day at the beach with my college roommate—and her two-year-old daughter.

I feel 32. But in a good way. 

I am no longer that grieving girl, even if she rears her ugly head every once in a while. She will always be a part of me, the same way my mom will always be a part of me. We can't let go of who we are. But we can hold on with all our might to who we've become and the happiness we've found. And that's what I intend to do. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Holding my memoir for the first time


My really nice friends have been saying really nice things like, "Wow, I can't believe you finished writing the book!" and "What an accomplishment!" and "That must feel so good."

But there's something about a Word doc in your Google Drive that doesn't give you that warm and fuzzy feeling.

So today I put that PDF on a jump drive and beelined over to Kinkos (or I guess what is now officially FedEx Office Print & Ship Center--ugh, what a mouthful). I'd been putting off the task for months, intimidated by the finality of it, and I expected to hand over the file and pick it up after work.

So I was stunned to learn that I could print it myself, and that it'd be ready immediately. 276 pages. 13 cents a page. 5 minutes, if that. What was so hard to write was so easy to print. Something about it all made me want to cry. 

I watched, bewildered, as the photocopy machine purged my pages. It felt like witnessing the delivery of a child. Blinking back tears, I berated myself: Marisa, do not cry at Kinkos. Instead, I gazed up at the enormous vent, which snaked from the machine to the ceiling and looked like an oversized Slinky. 


Composing myself, I brought all 276 pages to the front desk and braced myself as I watched the young salesman punch holes in my pages and thread a wire binding through it. I critiqued his every move as if he were performing surgery. I wondered if he was looking at the title--"Sally's Circle"--or glimpsing a word here or there--"cancer," "two months to live"--and wondering what in the world this little girl was doing writing about such heavy things.

But nothing was heavier than walking out of the store, holding the enormity of what my mom and I had built over the last fourteen years. 

I took a walk to clear my head and stumbled upon, of all things, Marshall's--one of my mom's favorite stores where we'd always shop together. (I never even knew there was one on the Upper West Side.) I was debating going in when suddenly the sale sign outside began to move towards me. Seriously. Granted, it was on wheels, and it was a bit windy--but still. It was sort of eery, in a "Is that you, Sally?" kind of way. So I went in and flipped through dresses and pajamas and handbags. Nothing caught my eye, but the familiar ritual was soothing.

The truth is, I don't know what Mom would think of our book. She started it, but I finished it. How I wish it could have been a collaborative process the whole way through--and maybe it was, just in a metaphysical way. I do know that when I saw that book printed, a firm voice inside me said: Sally's name is on that page, and that's important. What you're holding matters. It matters. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

4 questions about my memoir—answered!


My good friend Sara Lieberman (that's us above), who blogs about her travel adventures over at News Girl About Towns, was kind enough to recently tag me in a Blog Hop

What's a Blog Hop? Great question. (I had no clue either.) 

Basically, I answer a few questions about my writing, and then let you hop over to a few of *my* favorite bloggers. The hope is that they'll answer these questions, too, and we can all gain some insights into this crazy thing we love/hate to do called writing.

(Get ready, by the way. The bloggers I'm linking to are out of this world.)

OK... here goes!

What am I working on / writing?

I just finished writing a mother-daughter memoir, Sally's Circle, which traces how my relationship with my mom, Sally, fell apart and came back together in the wake of her cancer diagnosis when I was 17 years old. Alternating chapters to each share our side of the story—whether dealing with chemo, shopping for the perfect prom dress, or comforting me through first loves and break-ups—we wrote the book together until she passed away when I was 20. Our hope was to write a relatable, meaningful, and honest story that could help other mothers and daughters.

(To get a feel for the book, you can read my recent essay, "How Do You Find a Wedding Dress Without Your Mom?")

Now that the manuscript is ready, I'm working on a book proposal to send to literary agents. Please cross your fingers for Sally and me!

How does my work/writing differ from other works of its genre?

Co-written mother-daughter memoirs are rare and special. (So far I've only read a handful). In our book, readers get to see everything—my mom's diagnosis, the worst fight we ever had, saying goodbye when I left for college—from both of our perspectives. 

When my mom and I shared chapters with each other years ago, we were fascinated to witness what the other went through. Sometimes our reactions to events were so similar. Other times, they were wildly different. 

We always envisioned Sally's Circle as a pass-along book that mothers can read and give to their daughters, and vice versa. I hope it can help them see the world through each other's eyes and bring them closer. 

Why do I write what I do?

I blame my mom—and I mean that in the best way. Sally always encouraged me to follow my passion of becoming a writer. In fact, it was while I was getting my journalism degree at Syracuse University that she called me at midnight and said excitedly, "Missy—I have an idea. Let's write a book."

Writing gave us a way to understand what the other person was going through. When she was diagnosed, I ran in the opposite direction, and for a while it seemed like we'd never regain our closeness. Writing the book brought us back together. 

After my mom died, it was hard to continue writing the book without her. But whenever I sit down to work on it, even now writing this blog post, I feel Sally's presence with me. After fourteen years of working on the book, on and off, I finally finished writing it this year. I know Sally helped me to complete it. 

How does my writing process work?

I love setting aside anywhere from one to five hours on a weekend afternoon to write. Our sunny Brooklyn apartment has a small office with an antique "lady desk" my husband and I bought on our honeymoon in Maine two years ago. You'll often find me sitting at the desk, blasting my favorite music from college on Spotify (mostly Jimmy Eat World's "Clarity" album), and enjoying the alone time to think and write. When I'm on deadline, I often stay up 'til 2am or write on my iPhone during my hour-long subway commute. The delirium and the tiny device make me less self-critical, and free me to write from the heart. 

Now... allow me to introduce you to a few of my favorite bloggers:


Rebecca Elkin-Young is a NYC-based Licensed Creative Arts therapist and writer who started The Ever Forward Blog in response the miscarriage of her first pregnancy. She scoured the internet for the supportive voice of a real-talking, dark-humored, insightful girlfriend who could guide her through this experience ...and then decided to be that voice. The blog became about more than miscarriage. It speaks to coping with any loss or transition and the ways we pick up the pieces and find creative ways to put them together. Becca is in the process of expanding her blog into a hybrid memoir/survival guide. Stay connected via and @theeverforward on Twitter! 


Meredith McBride Kipp is the self-titled 'hunter & gatherer of style & flavor.' Between the interior design magazine that she is the Creative Director at (New York SPACES and previously Elle Decor) and her plethora of projects she works on for her design blog ( and 200-year-old farmhouse, Meredith is always looking for inspiration in beautiful places or capturing & creating aesthetically luring content. She has designed beach towels for One Kings Lane, glamorous DIY projects for Apartment Therapy and she makes really intoxicating English Toffee. She's a laid-back & modern-day Martha Stewart. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter and subscribe to her blog.


Dara Pettinelli is the digital senior manager of editorial at Conde Nast Traveler. She has written for The Huffington Post, ABCNews.comBabble, and More magazine, among others. Once every three or so months, she posts groundbreaking thoughts on her blog Solitary Confinement. She believes that reality television is real, candy is a food group and that writing is fun.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Do You Find a Wedding Dress Without Your Mom?

There's something I didn't mention in my last post, about why I haven't written much on Sally's Circle in the past few years. 

The truth is, wedding planning without my mom was really hard. So hard that I couldn't even come here and tell it to you. An open wound I couldn't yet put words to. 

Only later, after the wedding, when I could just experience the pure joy of finding a partner with whom to traverse this crazy, beautiful, sometimes painful life, did I begin to process the feelings of grief and loss that I carried between my engagement and wedding day. 

So I wrote about it, through the lens of the crux of my misery: finding a wedding dress. And the amazing editors at said they'd publish it. And then their incredible community of women wrapped me in their arms with their 96+ comments. (I'm still trying to reply to each one, but in a thoughtful way, so please be patient.)

So here she is, in all her glory, my essay:

My Mom Died 10 Years Ago, But How Am I Supposed to Choose a Wedding Dress Without Her?
By Marisa Bardach Ramel
Totally overwhelmed: How do I do this without my mom?

A hipster salesgirl in Warby Parker glasses and red lipstick unzipped me out of the millionth wedding gown I’d tried on that weekend. Emerging from the dressing room in my jeans and flip-flops, I scrutinized my curly up-do in the faraway mirror -- the one meant for teary-eyed brides squealing that they’ve found The Dress.

Instead, I saw a scared little girl -- forever that 20-year-old who lost her mom -- masquerading as some sophisticated, almost-30 bride-to-be. Yeah, right. I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all Laura, my maid-of-honor and best friend since 13, who studied my face expectantly. She liked so many dresses -- how could I feel so meh about them all?

The store’s door closed behind us with an annoyingly cheerful jingle. Outside in the summer sun, I inhaled New York City’s Sunday brunch scent of smoky bacon and exhaled out the entire experience. I was free -- for a moment.