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.
The 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.
Last 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.
I 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 memoir 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.
I found the lead to this story buried in the last paragraph. But reading through Allison Williams’ thought process to get her to that point was a shared experience by most writers.
“Ready to submit” rarely means “doesn’t need any more revisions.” Thankfully, most literary journal editors are able to help refine accepted work until a piece is the best it can be. I’ve gone back and forth for word choices, tonal missteps, and fact-checking/legal ass-covering. Sometimes a magazine accepts a piece with tremendous potential they think is worthy of a deeper edit to become publishable.
It’s often a pleasure to dive back into a “finished” piece with the help of fresh eyes, and fix tiny moments–or even giant structural issues–holding the essay back. It’s also natural to feel defensive, even hurt, when receiving edits. Natural enough that when I send an editorial letter to an author, I always include,
Remember, you don’t have to agree with my diagnosis of a particular problem, but it’s worth examining the section to see if…
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A guest post from Mike Minchin:
Let me tell you what hard work is: bending over in a field of low-bush, wild blueberries, your back arced so you can slide a forty-tooth rake like fingers under the bushes and pull back, settling the berries and tiny green leaves into the rake, then dumping them into a five-gallon bucket at your side, only to lug the bucket three hundred yards to the sorting machine where you lift it onto a wooden trailer and the man stamps a star-shaped hole in the card you keep in your back pocket, the card already soaked through with sweat and eight more hours to go, the sun like hot coals on the back of your neck, your shirt already tossed on the ground beside the gallon of water you froze the night before, the only thing that will keep you going through…
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