A few months ago I sat and drank tea with a friend. We meet to talk poetry and life every month or so, whenever time allows. I told her about the two white dogs we might adopt. Her reply put me face to face with my memoir writer’s block.
“Maybe that’s how your book will end, with the two white dogs.”
I had been struggling all fall to figure out if the time frame in my manuscript was long enough. Was the 18 months of the beginning of Annie’s learning disability journey the right arc for the story, or did I need to move the story close to the present day, ending with my own epiphanies about mothering and life? Ugh. I didn’t want to have to write more copy on top of the 15 or so chapters I had already written.
“Oy,” I said to her. “I’d been wondering if I need to bring my book up to date, into where I’m at in my life now.”
“You do know you have to get excited about the memoir again, don’t you?” my poet friend said to me.
Her gentle statement was and is a fact. About a week ago, I finished remapping my book as it’s written now, figuring out arcs for each chapter and an arc for the entire story so that it spans 18 months. But to tell you the truth, I haven’t really started rewriting this draft. Instead, I’ve been tossing the ball to one of the white dogs while I dangle a stuffed animal in front of the other white dog. We did adopt the two white dogs, and they are a constant pleasant reminder that there is more to life than this memoir that I have been talking about for four or so years now.
For so long, I have wanted to make something beautiful and lasting out of a really difficult time in my life. And I have. I have a manuscript in its fourth draft, and it’s lovely even though it’s not ready to be published. I have written about learning disabilities for ParentMap, both in article form and in a blog that touches deeply on my own story. It’s copy that should go into the book, if I do indeed finish it.
But in a different way, my own child made beauty out of heartache herself. After years of tutoring and homework and hard work, she’s a reader. And she’s a reader who likes reading. Of course, she has a math disability now, too, diagnosed as her reading issues lessened. But she likes math. It’s not the same hard struggle. Sure, it’s a struggle, but I’ve changed and she has changed too. She persisted to become a reader and she will never loose the fruits of that struggle. They inform her math struggle. And me, I’m not longer completely overwhelmed, crying in my car, unable to see that my girl would become a reader someday, that she would know the joy of putting syllables together until you find the compelling story unfolding before your very eyes.
So, dear reader, what do I do with this writer’s block? I dunno. I ponder paying an editor friend to read it now, or slogging through another draft and sending it her way then. I ponder starting over completely, throwing out so many words in favor of a new version that I haven’t imaged yet. But mostly I think it’s OK to pet my dogs and to find sustenance in some of my other projects. I am writing poetry so fast and finally sending it out in the world. I’m putting together a poetry manuscript in my head. In a week or so, a poem of mine is being published on a website called No Makeup Required.
I continue to write articles for work, and I so enjoy my interviews and piecing the stories together after all of my research is done. And I’m teaching zine writing to emerging readers and writers, too. This job literally feeds me. And I can see the arc between the diagnosis of my own child with learning disabilities to my teaching kids (some of them who also struggle like my girl) the art of creative writing. Ah, this makes me want to sigh with happiness. And the dogs we were lucky enough to adopt? Well, being with Julio and Indu really puts love foremost in my mind. I want to be in the room with love, actively participating, and Julio and Indu for sure help me be in the room with love.
I do know that I have been inspired by so many memoirs lately. These books make me want to finish my book. Every time I am in the middle of reading a great memoir I think, “I can do this. I will do this. I’ll finish the book.”
So there’s that. I just may finish the book. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, check out the latest memoirs to rock my world. My three favorites during these last few months are these:
My Accidental Jihad, by Krista Bremer
I heard Krista speak in Seattle last week. She read aloud parts of two chapters, and she hooked me in with her gorgeous turns of phrase and how deeply she lets the reader into her conflicted mind. I went home and started the book, relishing it for days. I finished reading while on vacation in Port Townsend, and immediately went back to the beginning to start the book again. I want to see how she wrote it and underline my favorite sentences.
Mother, Daughter, Me by Katie Hafner
My friend Nikki told me about this book. I resisted reading it because who wants to read about the mother daughter relationship? Um, reader, you do. This book was so well crafted and had deep insight into difficult but completely worthy relationships. You will be glad this author did the hard work of arriving at understanding her relationship with her mother.
A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman, by Rosemary Mahoney
I have had the good fortune of talking with Rosemary. She is lovely, and I can’t begin to tell you how inspirational her writing life is to me. And then she sent me her own memoir about her summer working for a writer she had previously adored from a distance, Lillian Hellman. Boy, was that a hard summer. Within this frame, she writes of her own mother, and the love with which she explores this relationship is admirable.
Lastly, my friend Christina Wilsdon asked me to write about my writing process for a blog tour. I wasn’t able to get any other bloggers to keep the blog tour going, but here are my answers. Check out Christina’s answers from last week here.
1) What am I working on? I already covered this.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? Um, well, my memoir is definitely the poetic variety, but it’s action-packed like many other memoir books, and many memoirs are action-packed and poetic. So I wouldn’t say it is different, but it belongs in the literary-style memoir section. I have a million favorites in this cannon, and I can only hope mine touches their coattails.
3) Why do I write what I do? It’s the same old story: I’m not content if I’m not writing. I literally write poetry to get myself out of my morning funk most days. And I wrote my memoir drafts to make sense of a really hard time. I yearn to make beauty out of difficulty. And I don’t mean the difficult is beautiful, merely that I love words and I have to place the hard stuff into scenes on the page. I write my articles for ParentMap and other clients because I really love learning and interviewing people is a real thrill for me. Getting to talk to people about their passions is a real pleasure and gift.
4) How does my writing process work? I procrastinate, a lot. I read a ton. Maybe this is part of the process, as it’s the best way to be inspired. And when I need to write and I’m stuck, I write a poem. To get started writing a poem, I read poems online at Poetry Daily and The Poetry Foundation. And/or I read the prompt from The Daily Poet. And/or I grab a poetry book from my shelf and start reading. Often I borrow a phrase I love in the poem or use the first line (sometimes revised, sometimes not) to get me started writing. As soon as I have written a poem, my brain is awake enough with words to get to the writing I need to do. For articles, I gather too much info mostly from interviews (and some from articles and books). And then I let it all simmer in my mind for a few days. Then I write.
6 thoughts on “How will the book end?”
Lovely, thoughtful writing about writing, Nancy. I can really identify with the struggle of the dead-end book draft. I say pet the dogs. And if the book needs to be written, you’ll figure that out while playing fetch. My limited experience has been that insight never comes when I want it to. But waiting awhile (with a canine distraction) seems to work quite well.
Thanks Mandy! Mulling over the idea of “needs to be written” now. I so needed to write all those drafts. It’s the next step I’m not sure of. I am sure glad I have 2 dogs to play with now though!
I can totally relate! Memoir is so hard. I know what you are doing and think you are on the right track. This is the hardest part – sticking with the process and slogging through the revisions. Discipline can be your friend. Rewriting can be your frenemy.
That said — taking a break from it can be very helpful too. I was really inspired by Wendy Staley Colbert last week at class. She basically said that she wasn’t yet ready to tackle a full-length memoir, so she’s focusing on getting essays published instead. What struck me is how much good material she’s uncovering (and building her platform) while she’s doing that.
I keep thinking about what you told me Wendy said too. I’m pondering pulling out part of the book and creating an essay, and have ideas of where to send it. But then I always wonder if I need to expand the scope of my story, since everything I wrote for ParentMap comes after, and has the clarity I need for the book. All this pondering. But getting back both to fixing chapter 1 and to thinking about an essay culled from the book. Action items, yes?
Nancy, I feel HONORED to have ferried with you and the girls and to have eaten and drunk with all of you and your husband, my cousin, and I want to BE SURE you let me know when I can read about your experiences with dyslexia—none of which you mentioned in my short week visiting you guys…..one of my students this year has :the most profound case of dyslexia” our school diagnostician “has ever encountered,” so I appreciate all thoughts. You also might have figured out that I’m not the biggest techno-adept around (it was your spouse who taught me how to use a mouse, and NOW I can use a mousePAD, sort of), so I hope I can access your materials somewhat along old-school lines, even if that means buying your books! Let me know…
Hi Annette! So nice to see your comment here and know you are reading my blog! I’ll email you regarding dyslexia. I find it remarkable that I didn’t mention it, but also good. After 5 years in, it’s nice to know I’m not focused all the time on this learning issue.