Tag Archives: memoir

And Again

starting overThis is almost amusing, writing about the progress of a manuscript while I’m still sorting each step, but I suppose it’s instructive, too. Instructive for me to examine my process and instructive for those who assume, because I’ve been publishing for forty years, I have moved far beyond the two steps forward, one step back jig so many manuscripts seem to require.

Two weeks ago I wrote about starting over on my memoir. I spoke of the letting go I did when I decided to write it in prose instead of verse, and then the second letting go of returning to the verse when I decided that my new prose approach wasn’t the answer either. After the second letting go I settled to the task of getting the verse assembled into a cohesive whole.

But then a writer friend joined me in a short retreat in the beautiful bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. She arrived from Vermont with a novel she has been working on for a long time. I brought the memoir I’ve also been working on for a long time . . . and we both brought questions about our work.

These were my questions: Did it matter that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength? Would it even be possible to bring everything up to the same level? Were the leaps I was taking, the great chunks of my life I was leaving out, a problem? And the scariest question of all, was I using the quick-in, quick-out of verse as a way of avoiding exposing my own vulnerability?

I had chosen to write in verse initially because of a firm rule I have always lived by in my writing life, I don’t write about other people in my life, at least not about those still living and reading. Writing in verse allowed me to skip over anything I didn’t want to talk about … like a 28-year marriage, for instance. But was I using my ability to pick up a topic and put it down again to avoid asking the hard questions about my own life, too? And what possible value can a memoir have if it doesn’t take on hard personal questions?

Here are the answers that came back: The fact that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength was a problem. And I probably wasn’t going to be able to bring it all to the same level. The leaps were a problem, too. And I did seem to be hiding behind the form. My friend suggested, gently but firmly, that I start over again in prose.

She said it all in a context of fierce support for the memoir itself. She told me again and again how much power there is in my life’s story. She reminded me what an accomplished writer I am, what an accomplished prose writer. And she spoke warmly of what I had already achieved in verse.

Interestingly enough, another good writer friend, someone with whom I often trade picture-book manuscripts for vetting, had said some of the same things six months ago. But six months ago I wasn’t ready to hear it. The fact that she had said it, though, helped make it possible for me to hear it now.

And so once more I’m letting go. Truly letting go. When I tried shifting to prose last time, I simply took my verse and elongated the lines. So I wasn’t really changing what I was doing. This time I’m not even going back to look at the verse. I’m just writing the stories I first wrote in verse again … without leaving so much out this time around. The fact that I’ve already written these stories in such a condensed, such an intense form makes the new writing easy. The words tumble out in an eager stream.

Does this mean the months and months I spent trying to make this manuscript work in verse were all a waste? I don’t think so. In the first version I discovered the stories I want to tell. And my plan is to retain some of the verse to introduce each section, so some will survive in its first form. And the refinement of language and thought the verse demanded has honed my story for the telling. So I’m grateful for what I have done … and excited to begin what feels like the definitive draft.

And my friend. Well … I read her novel-in-progress and told her how much I loved her characters, was compelled by her voice, admired her writing. I also told her I thought she hadn’t yet found her through line and that she needed to think about that and start again.

Did we each permit ourselves a sigh? Of course. But once the sighing is done, good work lies ahead.

The Letting Go

Our most creative act can be the letting go.

I’m not talking about giving up, though sometimes giving up may be called for. Looking back over a long career, however, I can see that the times I gave up on a major project were usually a mistake. But right now I’m talking about the moment when I release something I’m working on so that it can come back to me fresh.

Let it goI did that recently with the memoir in verse I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I have lots of material, pages and pages of it, but I’ve been struggling with finding a form for it, a way to weave the moments into a comprehensible whole.

I tried coming up with themes and dumping the verses into different themes, but that left great gaps. I tried arranging them chronologically, but who cares about the chronology of my life? Not enough people to sell a book. I tried weaving the verses together by creating prose introductions and transitions, but the movement in and out of verse felt arbitrary. So I sat looking at what was in front of me, despairing.

And then I allowed myself to say to myself what a friend and enormously helpful critic of my work had said to me a while back, “Maybe this doesn’t need to be in verse!”

A confession here. Even though I’d heard that idea a while back, saying it to myself was more than startling. It was appalling. My entire decision to write the memoir had been based on the selectivity I could find in verse. And the power.

Nonetheless . . . I did what I’m talking about here. I let go. I said, “Okay. Let’s see what happens,” and I began elongating my ragged lines, stretching them into prose. The process required rewriting, of course, though not as much as I’d expected. The way the words had originally arranged themselves on the page altered my style, but it wasn’t a bad alteration. And if everything was in prose I could easily write explanations and transitions.

But then I looked back at the verse and sighed. Deeply. I could see I was losing something important with the change of the look on the page. Too much? I couldn’t tell.

So I turned to a fellow writer, someone who has been tracking this work with me all along. I sent her the opening of the manuscript in this new form. I knew that her familiarity with the material would keep her from being completely objective, but I also knew she would be a lot more objective than I.

Her response? An immediate and emphatic, “No.” She missed the verse. She missed the pieces having titles. She didn’t want to flow from one telling to the next.

If I had been convinced of what I was doing, I would have listened respectfully but kept moving forward in this new form. But the reasons she gave were the same ones that troubled me, so I listened to the echo of my own concerns and abandoned the new approach.

I let go of the creative act of letting go.

Once more I sat with the mishmash of all I’d created in front of me, took a deep breath, and started again.

This wasn’t as much a starting again as I’d experienced recently when I made a decision with my young-adult novel to go from a single perceiving character to three. Then I set aside nearly 200 pages and went back to page 1. This time all I had written remained. But I was letting go of what I had thought with a rush of enthusiasm was the answer to my problem.

And I still didn’t know how to shape the manuscript.

So I returned to the verse I had always been committed to and began, slowly, carefully, to sample different ways of arranging it. And slowly, carefully I began to move forward again.

Problem solved? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s too early to tell.

But I’d been stopped in my tracks before I had the courage to try a totally different form. And that letting go gave me a new perspective about the work in front of me.

At the very least it gave me an energizing jolt.

Sometimes we need simply to hang on, to refuse to give up. Sometimes we need to let go.

And sometimes we need to do both.

A Wonderful Childhood

Sometimes I think that because it is so difficult to reconcile the wonder and horror of childhood, people make a choice to remember only one or the other.

—Richard Hoffman, “Backtalk: Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir”

child cryingMany years ago, I sat with a student discussing her work. I was having a hard time knowing how to help. Her stories weren’t badly written, but they didn’t move me. They didn’t even hold my interest very well. And I wasn’t sure what her next step should be. Finally, reaching for insight, I said, “Tell me about your childhood.”

Instantly, a smile lit up her face, a smile that could only be called beatific. “Oh,” she said, clasping her hands to accompany the smile, “I had the most wonderful childhood.”

“Ah,” I said, “that’s the problem with your writing.”

Because the truth is, no one has a wonderful childhood, not while living it anyway. They may remember childhood as wonderful, but that’s a whole different thing. What wonderful means is that they have simply forgotten the rest.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’ve had the most wonderful adulthood!”? Of course not, because our adult experience lies close at hand. So close that we have little chance to forget … or idealize. Childhood is as mixed a reality as our adult days, of course. How could it be otherwise? And as children we probably lived both the joy and the pain more fully since we were less well defended.

I don’t mean to suggest that to write for young people you have to have had more pain than most. But I do mean to say, and to say emphatically, that if you’re writing for kids you must be able to remember the pain. Because a childhood remembered without pain is merely sentimental, and sentimental is always false. No living child will recognize it. And no story that refuses to acknowledge both “the wonder and horror” can possibly come to life.

There are, I suspect, fewer folks these days who come to writing for young people with such a determinedly rosy-eyed view. If they have experienced contemporary juvenile literature at all—and what are they doing trying to produce it if they haven’t?—then they know it is hardly idyllic. A good thing since the world our children inhabit isn’t idyllic either.

My mother—never a writer except for letters to her family—wrote a memoir when she was elderly. She began this work in response to a memoir-writing class at the senior residence where she lived, and she took great pleasure in recording her past, especially her childhood on a farm in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. I value the record she left, as do my cousins, though it isn’t scintillating reading. Its failure to be scintillating didn’t come from poor writing. My mother’s style was plain but pleasantly readable. Her writing lacked teeth, however, because it remained so determinedly positive.

If anyone growing up in that family ever had a moment of disappointment, of pain, of—God forbid—anger (and I’m sure my mother’s God did forbid anger) it never reached the page. “And a good time was had by all.” That was the way she ended her recital of every luncheon she hosted as a young bride, along with a detailed record of the menu. And that’s the way I think of the whole of the memoir: “A good time was had by all.”

The sweetness, after a time, sets my teeth on edge. I want more. Much more. We all do when we enter the world of story.

It was Flannery O’Connor who said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

But that’s true only if we remember it whole.

The Problem with Memoir

wavesI have mentioned several times in the past months that I am working on a memoir in verse. I’ve even announced a title and then, when I returned to talking about the memoir again, found myself announcing a different one. So I’ll start these musings with an announcement of yet another title: When Even Grief Lives Far Away: a Memoir.

We’ll see whether this one holds.

The problem with writing a memoir is that I have to arrive at some kind of insight, some meaning gleaned from the substance of my life. Without that I have no hook to hang my words on, no door to invite my readers through. And while I hadn’t thought about having to find my life’s meaning as a problem—in fact I hadn’t even thought about having to do that at all when I began this project—the truth is that the search for meaning, trying to find my story’s hook, has turned out to be the hardest part.

My life is interesting to me simply because it’s the only life I’ve ever lived, but that is no reason for it to interest anyone else except, perhaps, my descendants and a few close friends. And even for them, interest is mild at best. In the small world of children’s literature some know my books and thus my name, but few know me. I am not a celebrity; no one is hungry to gobble up the minutia of my life … for which I am grateful beyond any telling of it.

And yet here I am, exploring the most intimate details of my days in writing! What is that about?

My answer is that I come to the memoir out of the same impulse I approach writing fiction, with a fervent desire to make art out of life … out of my life. And making art is making meaning. Always. However, for all my years of meaning-making through art, I stumbled into this project without realizing that’s what it was about.

What I have discovered is that meaning is much easier to make in a created story than in a life. When I devise a fictional story a small problem-filled moment captures my heart and sets me writing. It captures me precisely because that problem, that moment, has meaning for me. So all I have to do is follow the problem I’ve set up until I can play out its meaning. And of course, I am limited as to how much I can tell, so the very process of selection means I choose only those events that will bring us to meaning.

Memoir requires selection, too. Of course. I’m not writing, after all, about my trips to the bathroom. In fact, I’m not writing about great chunks of my life, my twenty-eight-year marriage, for one rather blatant example. I entered this work knowing I would not write in any penetrating way about anyone living who could feel invaded by my words, my once husband, my daughter, a former or current partner. But even after eliminating my bathroom habits or the urge to say intimate things about those who are still living and reading, I found myself with no inner guide, no single meaningful idea to decide which moments to select. Discovering the significance that can turn life into art is, apparently, something that must happen along the way. At least that’s true if I’m not to limit my exploration by imposing an artificial structure in order to calm myself.

Some writers work this same way when they are creating fiction. They start out, they tell me, with no idea where their story is going to go. I’ve never understood how anyone could begin a journey without a destination firmly in mind and have always assumed that the unconscious of such writers must know even if they do not. But I’ve never worked this way myself, so the assumption I’ve made about others is what I have to trust now, that somehow my unconscious knows the point of my existence, the point of this piece I’m writing.

For now I have a frame. The frame is my son, his life, his death. And thus the title. But Peter doesn’t form the substance of the memoir. Inevitably, his life and his death shaped me in profound ways, and in the memoir I will return to him from time to time. Verses specifically about his life and death will form the beginning and the end. It will be only when I come to sort the rest of what I have written, however, that I will know whether the frame I have set can hold it all, whether having arrived at a time “when even grief lives far away,” is, indeed, the point.

Often as I work I find myself longing for the limitation—and the protective scrim—of fiction. A fictional character is so much more transparent to me than I am to myself. Of course. I’ve created that character’s very substance! The life I present in a story is also severely limited, just a few events that point us to the place I want to go. And while the characters I create take the truth of their beings from this person I am, they also have the great virtue when they go out into the world of not being me. So whatever they reveal, they can’t embarrass me!

I hadn’t thought about any of this when I began writing the memoir. The truth is I waded into it with the innocence of a child dabbling at the edge of a great sea. And the deeper I wade, the more I discover … about myself, about this new kind of creation.

But then that is, after all, the point of art, all art, isn’t it? Discovery.

What Do I Mean?

“You should write a memoir.”

Various folks have said that to me over the years, and always I’ve had the same response: “I couldn’t possibly do that. I’ve made it a firm rule of my writing life never to write about people I know, and how could I write a memoir without invading the privacy of those who have shared my life?”

But then one day for reasons that had nothing to do with memoirs, I wrote a verse entitled “Remembering Peter.” It was about my son, his coming into the world and his leaving it, and once I’d gotten past having said some things “aloud” that I hadn’t spoken before, I had a realization. I could write a memoir this way, by dipping into my life then stepping back again, by revealing myself in small glimpses without exposing more than I chose to about anyone else.

And from that moment I began writing a memoir in verse, playing with the material granted me by my own life.

7_22glasscastleWriting my untitled memoir was fun, more writing fun than I’ve had for a long time. And when I shared what I was doing with others, the pieces elicited a strong response. I was off and running!

But about the time I had really settled into the work, I realized I had a problem. I had lots of individual verses, but no overall frame. All was tied together by being part of the substance of my life, but except for the fact that I could sort what I was writing into a vaguely chronological order, the pieces had no relation to one another, no purpose.

What is the point of my life, after all, except that it has happened/is happening? What’s the hook? Why should anyone, beyond the small handful of folks who know me well enough to care about my history, bother to read this odd piece?

7_22mennoniteAsking a question like that is very close to asking What is the meaning of my life? A question that I suddenly find extraordinarily awkward to answer.

Most days I know what I’m doing with my life. I’m loving. I’m learning. I’m keeping up with the day-by-day maintenance required to keep body and home and relationships together. I’m doing the good work that has been given to me, creating meaning out of words, out of story. But none of that justifies a memoir. Well, it may justify writing one, just because the writing serves me, but why should anyone read it?

The question I’m left with is both simple and extraordinarily difficult to answer: What do I mean?

7_22GraceofSilenceSo I’ve been reading memoirs and recalling those I’ve already read. Some like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress take pain and turn it into humor. I admire such ability, but it’s not mine. Some use the substance of their lives to examine a much larger question, like Michele Norris (The Grace of Silence) uses her life—and her father’s—to consider racism. But what would my question be? And then there are memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that manage to combine laughs with deep questions . . .

My reading has brought me no closer to finding the point of translating my own life into words. And maybe, finally, I will have to decide that there is no point. But before I do, I am here asking. Do you have a memoir to recommend, one that you love, one that might inform my vision? After all, writing, all writing, is as much about imitation as it is about innovation.

And I’m wide open.