Shaping Your Journey


scan0002_2A reader recently asked whether the process of writing Sailing Down the Moonbeam had a role in “shaping” my understanding of a journey that took me from one career to another via three years on a small sailboat.  My first response was “not really,” but within moments, I knew the answer was “yes.”

It related to our sojourn in Panama.  When I first outlined the story, I viewed Panama, along with a host of lovely island stops across the Pacific Ocean, as places where we’d had interesting adventures, but not experiences that specifically contributed to the life lesson—learning to love living out of control—that inspired Moonbeam.

I couldn’t omit Panama entirely, if only because we spent seven months there. But I anticipated half a dozen pages, focused on the challenges of getting through the Canal. 

In fact, Panama takes up 41 of the final 209 pages. It was only as I started writing that I understood the role that Panama had played in my journey:

**       It was in Panama that I first understood how much of “me” had disappeared over fifteen years of marriage.  

As many women do, I had allowed my husband–an extrovert—to make so many decisions about ordinary everyday activities.  Not surprisingly, I’d almost lost sight of my own ability to organize life and make friends without his help. 

But much of our early time in Panama revolved around his surgeries (first a hernia, then a melanoma).  I had no choice but to take the initiative. In Panama, I not only re-discovered who I had once been, but also who I could become.

**      It was in Panama that I first began to think about the benefits of “stepping outside your comfort zone.”

Through an incredible bit of serendipity, my husband and I both got part-time jobs that utilized our professional skills. As a result, we transitioned from travelers to residents and had to adapt to a way of life that challenged many of cultural mores and norms we’d taken for granted for four decades. It was often humbling to realize that “my way” isn’t always the best way.

Writing Moonbeam did not change my “memory” of Panama, but it certainly shaped my understanding of the experience, much like journaling can provide a new perspective on a familiar situation.  It helped me to understand that Panama set the stage. Without Panama, I doubt I would have been receptive to the lesson that was reinforced each day as we crossed the Pacific Ocean—that a living a life that was out-of-control might be a very good thing indeed.

How has writing shaped your memory?



  1. Mary, I am fascinated by your keen insights that seem to keep evolving from both your sailing adventure and your memoir writing journey. You show how writing our stories is a dynamic, unfolding process that may be dependent upon our readiness and willingness to take on the lessons. What treasures you have found not only for yourself but also for your readers. Thank you for sharing!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathy .. you do have a lovely way with words. I hope you realize that the “question” I was responding to today came from the comments on my blog on your website. You have created a space where people feel so comfortable posing the more challenging questions. Kudos!

  2. Mary, your ability to analyze your past experiences as you learn from them and as they enhance your later writing is very helpful to me as a reader of your blog. As you know, I have a written record in that I recorded my observations, thoughts and reflections since I wrote nightly entries in diaries. I did this from when I was 11 in 1954 through age 22 in 1965. I love the ease with which the Internet has allowed us as writers to learn from each other and “keep in touch” as we said before the age of The Internet. We can do it within moments, whereas in the olden days of going to a writers’ workshop we knew we may not know “what became of” those other writers whose journeys we admired.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Barbara … thanks for those kind words … I am at heart analytical, and it is so often a challenge for me to convert the “ideas” into a lesson or an experience that might resonate with other people. I’ve had a lot of help and inspiration along the way. And yes, the internet makes it more available more quickly, with more feedback. For which I am grateful.

  3. At first I thought maybe the question should be phrased the other way, “How have your memories influenced your writing?” Writing, especially parts of my memoir, have caused me to think about and remember some painful experiences from childhood but thankfully I now have perspective and the reasoning skills of an adult. I’m able to give myself permission feel hurt, angry, even indignant, without staying in a victim role or villi mixing the adults that weren’t there for me as a child, the way a child needs and deserves. Writing about painful memories can be a double edged sword so I make sure I have plenty of band aids each time I start, lol.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Suzanne … I’ve tried to answer your instinctive question so many times and from so many different perspectives. What is memory .. how reliable is it? What intrigued me about this was starting from the other end … you accept the memories and the emotions as you remember them, but you begin to see the events and the people from a very different point of view … not how you reacted that day, but how — years later– those events pushed you in a different direction. I can’t wait to see the rest of your story!

  4. Marlena Baraf says

    Mary, ha, just saw your post about living in Panama 7 months (I think you may have told me this via twitter.). Panama is my land of birth and the setting of my forthcoming story, “Mami.” So now I have to read Sailing Down the Moonbeam!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marlena .. I’m sure you will recognize much of what’s in those 41 pages. We lived in the marina next to the Pedro Miguel lock, and some of my fondest memories are picking orchids for the dinner table as I walked through the jungle from the bus stop I used to get to work in Panama City. Apart from Colon, I loved everything I learned about Panama. Are you living there now? And let me know when your novel comes out.