a developmental journey

I doubted the day would come. I had been working on my memoir for over 10 years, admittedly at a more stop than go pace, chronicling the timeline of my youth, coming of age to adult years. I had recorded memories, nestled them in my mind as if contributing to my DNA, creating a map to become the person I was destined to be. I thought my memories and sensory connections that reminded me of my encounters with people and places, to a birch tree and to home were enough to guide my memoir in establishing an innate connection I would have with my reader. I thought I had what it took not only to call what I was writing, a story, but also a memoir. But my writing fell short of what made a story and a memoir.

writingThe day did arrive when all of it came together. However, I do not take sole responsibility for mastering my arrival. Professional intervention and a rediscover of a time when I was learning more of myself and the places where it happened worked together to overcome the hurdle of development, pulling story and memoir in tandem.

My first engagement with a developmental editor was as I expected. She questioned me in the right places, prompted me for more when needed, and called out my many contradictions. I accepted that I was on a long road to my new developmental rewriting journey. I called on my stamina and dug my heels in deep, to acknowledge difficult work ahead to uncover deeper issues and expose their meanings. It wasn’t until pensive work, detailed analysis of what was behind each scene, its placement, the paragraph and the chapter, answering my own question of why I chose to write about it in the first place, when I had landed on the other side. When this journey had ended, I had lifted from the ground and stood on the other side of the barrier. Developmental edit complete.

I likened this journey to growing up as a little girl in my house on Carlisle where spaces had become a Petri dish for my development. I would often sit on the yellow and white shag carpet in my walk-in closet and engage my mind, filling silence the closet walls enveloped with talk in my creative thoughts. I surveyed the perimeter of the closet floor, spying an Etch-A-Sketch, Light Bright and a plastic briefcase containing art supplies. A large shoebox filled with crayons, a Singer Genie sewing machine with a macramé box slid underneath, knitting and crochet needles sticking out of an old canvas bag lined the opposite floor. My cave-like surroundings gave me security and inner contentment as the closet walls loomed tall and wide yet my small being sat small and narrow in the middle on the floor. My view was not limited to this space. I would turn my head to the outside, to my bedroom where a small glass ball vase with a hole threaded by a thin plastic rope hung over the lock of my double hung window caught my eye. The brazen sun enveloped the ball and took hold of the roots as they struggled to expand in their water-filled round bottom. The light filtered and refracted upon the globe into tiny rainbows. I smiled from seeing rainbows on my window. I was confident and in control of these spaces where I wasn’t alone—I had all that was me huddled around me, reassuring me of who I was.

When I confronted my developmental-lacking manuscript, I needed to tap into all I could that would guide me through newly written pages. I recalled my comfortable familiar as I once did in my bedroom closet and bedroom, evoking emotion of pleasure and happiness, of all that was me. The confidence and security felt while settled in my spaces reemerged in the drafting of new, enriched pages. My memories boasted large to get me through developing my story and calling it a memoir.

Recalling a comfortable familiar time and holding hands with the sensory emotions and feelings reassured me that my memoir would be developed in the best way I understood. I was sure to reach the finish line after mastering the hurdle of developmental editing. That day had indeed arrived.

riding the wave of a writing contest submission

letterwavedetailLast fall I won a writing contest for The Magic of Memoir edited by Linda Joy Myer and Brooke Warner of She Writes Press. This was a first time I entered a writing contest and a
first win for anything that had to do with my writing. A win at anything says it all, a handshake in welcome, validation that you’re writing well, and self-confidence to keep going and tackle another contest perhaps. I decided to ride a wave of a newly diagnosed writing karma and consider submitting to another writing contest.

Starting to write an essay from a blank page, no, really solid, bright white, is paralyzing. What’s more daunting is the word “contest.” It’s like you know you’ve got a test coming up and you better start cramming now so you’ve got plenty of time for your best answers to shine at the time of the test – the submission.

I’ve never been one to enter writing contests just because of the competition. I know the level of my writing, what I’m capable of producing and I admit it’s probably not competitive enough with the writings and writers who have been the contest submission route many times and have published. It’s taken me 15 years and unmeasurable hours of practice to now consider I’m ready to submit another time.

My main consideration to submit is the topic or theme. The writing contest I am considering asks writers to write about any aspect of the writing life. I like the topic; I have a few ideas. But when contest guidelines require an essay about a topic I have neither interest nor knowledge, even the best research I could do would still not yield an effective essay. My lack of contest submission track record could be explained, for example, in a guideline suggesting my interpretation of a given word, such as “adaptation,” as I recently saw in one magazine’s contest announcement or a niche theme such as the supernatural. My lack of connection to my topic or word would be evident in poor writing.

I can write a more effective essay when I have an immediate reaction about a topic or word that catches my eye. I know it happens when, upon the first few seconds I read the contest guidelines, a thousand bolts of ideas strike my mind. I know I’m on to something when I need to scramble to type the ideas on that big white space before they dissipate from my head.

My writing life is the memoir. I can draw from my memoir writing experiences – rewrites, development, editing, self-discovery, connecting – and write that which I know. Writing from the heart, from personal space and from a core knowledge developed from my writing experience is all I need to craft an essay.

Memoir writing gives me the opportunity to tap into the unexplored and find meaning of what is discovered. It also presents a universality when reading a paragraph, a sentence or just one word results in an, “ah, yes!” in birth of a connection from writer to reader.

Perhaps writing about the supernatural or your interpretation of a given word strikes you with the right chords to compose a winning essay. I’m sticking with that which I know and have learned over the years of practice – the writing life – to submit my chances for another win in a writing contest.

part II, the problem with memoirs

c254934dc3ea1a37d1452b6c9f1b336dI can understand Genzlinger’s irritability with the memoir genre becoming over-inflated. Memoirs seem to be riding the wave of too much sharing and providing an over-supply of personal information. In Part I from a previous post, I shared Genzlinger’s guidelines to would-be memoirists from his essay, “The Problem with Memoirs,” published in The New York Times. He felt that three out of the four memoirs he had read did not need to be written. Over the years of tilling the soil of my memoir, winning a writing contest for Magic of Memoir, studying its contents and its authors, I have a deeper understanding of why memoir. I believe memoirists are people of conviction; they believe their stories must be told. Perhaps Genzlinger doesn’t see that point.

My memoir has been in progress for over 15 years and I attribute a lack of direction, substance, reflection, even a weak theme to my stop and go’s in writing. Even though I have a tidy supply of vignettes illustrating overcoming adversity, coming of age, resilience perhaps, I continue to strengthen my overall theme, my thoughts, and lessons learned to the point of paralysis.

I wrote of a birch tree growing in my front yard when I was a little girl. I believed in my tree as a metaphor for home but didn’t know how to develop the very through-thread and sew it through the story. I looked for direction through professionals who would tell me what my memoir was about as maybe a test to see if I was writing effectively enough that I was understood. I was, albeit rather weakly. I had confirmation, perhaps validation that I was on to something. Maybe this was my permission to keep going at it. “But you can never know if you understand your story until you try to tell it . . . A story lives in its particular, the individuality of person, place and time,” writes Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd in Good Prose. I persisted in telling a story, one that was sure to have particulars of me, the places I had been and the time I had lived. The more I continued telling and writing, the more what I had to say was flushed out.

But something was holding me back, keeping me from believing in me and what I wanted to communicate. I continued to be intimidated by published memoirs illustrating tragedy, humanness of being and redemption of body and spirit written with strong words and message. Pain appeared to be a common theme. I became more despondent realizing my memoir was not like the other published memoirs. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I make no references to pain, per se. Could my memoir even be called one if it was thematically so different from the others? Could there even be a reason to write a memoir?

I reasoned comparing my memoir to others’ was futile; there was no comparison. In Magic of Memoir (MoM), 38 contributors narrated their memoir writing inspiration. Their essays reinforced my “no comparison” stance because the essays and references to their memoir as soul-baring and raw as their emotions allowed on the page were just as remarkable as the person who authored them, professionals with a spectrum of vocations and higher education degrees. Intimidating. Once again, strong themes about their memoirs spoke clear in the subject of their essays. I yearned for stronger clarity, reflection and takeaways in my memoir where my reader and I could connect.

My mommemememoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because of this, I began to see the very difference work for me, not against me. I believed I could still connect with my reader.

A birch tree, in simple image I wrote about, was the very inspiration I needed to connect with others, to show life in the moments, to reveal a very essence of a shared humanness, our abilities and capabilities, to express the heard cries of joy and sorrow, to see the light of day and how the darkness of night can light up, to taste the bitter winds of misfortune or the sweetness of youth and innocence. The simplicity in my uplifting words and positive images revealed connections in infinite ways and possibilities in finding home, back to my birch tree buddy, the first connection and the beginning of my story.

I would not have been exposed to the professional level of writers and learned from them and their writing if it wasn’t for MoM that gave me a deeper understanding of memoir because of the very professional work created with heart and soul by dedicated writers. I would not have learned from this experience if I wasn’t also a contributor, giving me an impetus to read the others’ works, comparing me to them, my memoir writing journey to theirs. Having a clearer understanding of my story and how I made sense of the significance of those specific memories I hold today enabled me to understand the journey, the self-discovery, the sharing of discovered meaning, of what is memoir. I no longer fight with my memoir to be like most because it isn’t. And the fact that it’s unlike the others has enabled me to see its theme in clearer understanding.

I would hope that Ginzlinger would read my memoir when it is published one day and declare it one of those that should be written. I take wise words from Plato, via Krishan Bedi’s essay in MofM, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Bedi sums it up well, “It’s a way for ordinary people to discover and share the extraordinary in their lives.”

Ordinary people like me share the uplifting, inspirational, human extraordinary in my life when my memoir, Under the Birch is published one day.

a problem with memoirs

Recently during a Google search, “The Problem with Memoirs” popped up. Neil Genzliner wrote it for The New York Times. As a memoir writer, I never considered memoirs having a problem, but apparently Genzliner did. “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up,” he said. This writer was successful in delivering his goal; he got my attention. I wondered why he was so miffed. He explains as he continues declaring our current age of oversharing (his observation in 2011) when his Amazon search produced about “40,000 hits, or 60,000 or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.”  Today, my Amazon search for “memoirs” netted 415,000 hits. He claims the genre has become bloated, “disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight,” to name a few qualifiers. I can’t argue with him there as I’ll add that biographies or autobiographies appear to have joined the popularity as de rigueur of nonfiction writing – the memoir.

I became concerned about the inner workings of my own memoir after I considered his claims. No, my memoir is not part of his umbrella engorgement he claims about the genre. I do not write of any physical or mental affliction had by me or a loved one. Yet I question if my memoir even has a place in the group precisely because it’s lack of membership in his observed qualifying tribe. Would it even be a memoir if it is other than what he claims characteristic of the genre?

memoirGenzlinger comes to a conclusion after deciding that 3 of the 4 new memoirs he read did not need to be written and as a result, he proposes a few guidelines for would-be memoirists: 1) that you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir,  2) that no one wants to relive your misery where the sole purpose of the author is to generate sympathy,  3) that imitation runs rampant; “there can’t be just one book by a bulimic . . .” and 4) make yourself the least important character. “That’s what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, but a shared discovery . . . if you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” Aha. There it is number 4. Memoirs are not about your story. They are about what you did with your story, the discoveries that made your story what it is. My memoir is not about where I grew up, my parent’s divorce, or that I had lived in many houses, the autobiographical. It’s how my experiences growing up shaped me, the impact of my parent’s divorce, and the meaning of the connections I made to home despite living in many houses in different places – and all my discoveries because of these.

I reread Magic of Memoir, (MoM) not only the essays in search of inspiration for my memoir writing, but also to learn more about the anthology’s contributors. I found them to be from mid-age to 84 with some who are retired. Many are multi-published writers and authors of poetry, creative writing, and anthologies to match their prolific backgrounds. Some are educators. There is even a former pastor and a couple of psychotherapists, a screenwriter, a few life coaches and public speakers. Many have advanced degrees. The level of talent and professionalism matches their accomplishments. Also a contributor, I felt I had not a thing in common with what I considered an intimidating lot. But after matching their biographies with their essays, I realized I had more in common with them than first considered. It’s about me not having advanced degrees, prolific writing talent or accomplishments to match, but everything to do with the memoir itself.

Part II of “The Problem with Memoirs” will continue in a follow-up post where I will share what I learned about being a MoM contributor, my fellow contributors and studying Magic of Memoir contributing to my deeper understanding of the genre.

let it go

I wrote a memoir – 10 years ago – and then I rewrote it and then rewrote again, yet another rewrite and then wrote more. I acted on 5 professional critiques over those years as impetus for my rewrites. And I use the term “rewrite” loosely. I could easily make these changes – deleting information that has no reason to be there, broken chronology, contradictions, too many adjectives and adverbs – because I understood what they were. I transferred my handwritten corrections to the screen and printed out a new 77,000 word run on 220 pages. And then I asked, “Now what?”

I admitted there were more directives on the pages of the critiques than the small picture stuff I had addressed. Theme, reflection, through threads, and lack-there-of, carried more words and explanation in weight. Secretly, I knew there was more to “rewriting” this manuscript. I was avoiding addressing the big picture comments. I understood them intellectually, but what I didn’t understand was HOW to apply it to my memoir. At this point, I understood 2 things: one, my memoir was far from being in any acceptable condition for publication and, two; I think I had already overused my allotment for critiques.

After a year and writing short essays developed from the legs of my memoir pages, I revisited my critiques. I studied their comments, asking why I’m telling the story I’m telling and why I’m including the scenes I’m including. I still couldn’t grasp it. Back to “what’s your story about.”

There’s nothing like getting stuck when answering this basic memoir question. I wasn’t just stuck; I had declared stopped – cold turkey. I plopped the work in a cardboard box and slid the tomb on the top shelf of the printer cabinet, not necessarily out of sight, but enough to push the pressure of making it work out of mind. I prayed for divine interception, for direction, for answer to “what next” and to show me the way. I became panicked and fearful that I really didn’t understand my work, my story, my most intimate reveals and maybe they were just words, a chronology of autobiography, and worse, that this was not really memoir.

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I tried to model my memoir, even after studying their structure, after “Eat Pray Love” and “Wild”. But I knew better. I needed to stop trying to write like other memoirists. I needed to let go of my inner conflict with trying to make my memoir something that it was never going to be. I needed to let go of my inner conflict with trying to model my work after other successful memoirs because I have my own unique theme and reflections.

Mary Karr, writer of The Art of Memoir, reveals, “. . . I honestly don’t know if a shift in mind predated the voice or vice versa. But suddenly I felt the wagon I’d been pulling like a trudging ox was a vehicle with an engine, moving down the road. Pages started piling up. And two and a half years later I had a full draft of what went into print – so close they set type by it.” Well, I’m no Mary Karr, but I felt what resulted in her shift. I had renewed insight into how I needed to rewrite. Suggestions by successful writers such as plotting scenes on a line, analyzing each chapter to see how I changed from the start to the end, burst with “aha.”

And on to another rewrite. But this time, I actually am rewriting, including details of my inner dialogue, weaving threads, rewriting scenes as support to my theme. I do it because I can finally answer the question, “What’s it about.” I do it because I finally get it.

It took time. I couldn’t rush this memoir development because it wasn’t ready. I stalled and declared, “But I don’t know HOW to weave threads” because I wasn’t ready to sew. And when my inner dialogue let go of what I had been subconsciously wrestling with, my authentic story began to form.

This rewrite is no easy task but it is coming together. I give myself permission to delete and move entire scenes, and splash the page with reflective thoughts from my adult self. Oh, and those short essays I developed during my manuscript rewriting hiatus? I used parts from each essay and wove them back into my memoir as development of my theme.

There’s something about trees. My discovery started at 15 when I wrote a poem and I realized I had a place in this world. Trees became a metaphor for living, a guiding symbol and the beginning for my story.

My birch and I seemed to shadow one another. Tree sightings spurred memories of home when I would find myself with unfamiliar, telling me I was in the right place because that’s where we met, where we came from.

My tree had a purpose back then. Both followed me through my story.

Personal answers to a universal writing question

“Why do we write memoir?” This question is posed on many writing blogs, writer websites and to writing discussion groups. I am curious to know my fellow writers’ (of personal stories) responses. I read on. They write “. . . . to wring every possible lesson  . . . to learn about my own past . . . I wrote my memoir for perspective.” I continue and realize I haven’t read two same answers.

I read with great interest a post by Maria Popova on www.brainpickings.com, to learn the reasons from a few celebrated writers on the art of telling personal stories. One possible explanation is that we are drawn to memoir maybe because it has something to do with our longing. Joan Didion explains, “for keeping on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Delving deeper, there has to be something that drives memoirists to open up to strangers, urging them to take heed to their exposure that reveals the good and the bad, the joys and sufferings. Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro says, “It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons.” She explains that writing memoir implants your story deep inside you. “It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.”

Consider the power behind these words, “Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memoir.” For me, this statement could not be more truthful. I admit my memoir writing journey, one that has continued for over ten years with stops, starts and forks in the road, has been affected by its own lengthy gestation. My reflective self in my 40’s ten years ago is very different from my reflections of today. When I started writing my memoir, I didn’t know why a birch tree, thriving and filled with shoots of branches and leaves, was integral to my sense of home. My story started when I was seven or eight with a simple reference to trees. I didn’t know why I had a thing for trees, just that there was something about them. Then the reference turned to a focus on one particular tree, a birch, in my front yard, nestled in a corner where it was usually included in family photographs. Over time, my now reflective self understands what my relationship was with my birch tree, home and self. A universal theme has changed, evolved and continues to do so. Shapiro adds, “One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so that they make more sense . . . It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it.”

I identified with Anne Lamott, author of best seller Bird by Bird who writes about spirit, generosity, grief, just to name a few of her topics, when she said, “I write memoir because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help.” Another memoir author, Meghan Daum reiterates a similar idea, “To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.”

Over my memoir writing years, I struggled with why I was writing my book. I had scanned popular, best-selling memoirs and found most discussed common themes – trauma, crisis, pain, recovery. Though my story has notes of overcoming adversity, it’s central them is far removed from loss, suffering, addiction, self-help. I discovered I was writing pages of optimism, of the glass is half full, not empty, about trust and faith so that you, the reader, can see it too in your life. I identified with the answer to why I write as a way to learn about my past, for my perspective.

In all my reads along the way of answers to a universal question posed to personal story writers, I have discovered that responses are varied and wide-ranging and that there is no right or common answer. Each writer has his or her own reasons as to why they write. No matter what your reasons are for why you write personal stories, I’ve realized they are indeed, personal.