I sent my memoir out to a writer who I trust completely to tear it apart, and now… it’s back. I just opened the box containing the actual pages and all of its margin comments (the person I sent it to is old school and wanted a physical copy instead of a word document). The pages didn’t tell me anything new that I didn’t get from the notes she (my editor/book coach/friend/mentor – I could call her so many things) sent me before I received the physical manuscript. It took time to digest it all, and now that I have as much as I can, I both feel sick, and free or relieved at the same time.
So, basically I was very successful at what I set out to do. I wanted to create an authentic experience of what it was like for me dying and coming back and then fighting to stick around for a year full of hospitals, drugs, chemo, dialysis, surgeries and all other kinds of things that were necessary to simply exist. Everything was life and death, and I felt absolutely lost. For me, a memoir isn’t about the objective truth, but the writer’s truth. Their experience and their innermost everything… and I did that. The only problem is that my vision in recreating that authentic experience was just too much. The reader feels like every scene, every appointment is equally heavy, equally important, and always a matter of life and death, because this was how I felt. But on the page this means that there is no climax, and the scenes meant to be the most dramatic are just like all of the rest. The reader becomes as lost as I felt, and while that was my intention, it was a misguided one.
I can’t believe my MFA and experience as an editor worked against me. All of those creative writing courses and programs that stressed “Show, Don’t Tell” must have done a number on me, because that is all that I did. I just showed, scene after scene with agonizing detail… but without the exposition or some telling, the reader was often floating aimlessly in the space that was my story. What was worse, without the necessary exposition I was actually missing the heart of the story. As it was, I mostly had an incredibly detailed sequence of events. Well… crap!
So, the advice that is both incredibly upsetting and something else far more positive, is to put down my manuscript and basically start over. Sure I may take several things from my manuscript, leaving them completely intact, but if I keep thinking about my manuscript and trying to “fix it” instead of letting the story and my vision guide me, I am going to create some kind of Frankenstein manuscript, and it won’t be pretty (not to mention a waste of time, and at this point sadistic because I am so GRRR about the manuscript as is).
The idea of starting over is daunting. In fact the first word that comes to mind is FUCK! Two years of my life, countless hours, revisions and the emotional rollercoaster that is memoir writing… it is hard to stomach thinking about. If I focus on starting over with this framework it is depressing, frustrating and makes me seriously question whether I should even start again. But if I don’t focus on this aspect of starting over I feel something else entirely. I feel free, and almost, maybe, relief. I was to the point where I hated my manuscript. The very idea of working on it, looking at it – made me want to do physical violence to it. I was so over it. But I felt this way about my manuscript, not my story.
The writing conference I attended in June/July helped me realize this. For so long I saw my story and my manuscript as one and the same. But when I was at the conference I was doing so much new writing, and it was all revolving around my story. Every exercise came back to that, every scene, every free write… it was like I was creating several offshoots of my book, as mini-essays and monologues. To me this proves that I can’t give this story up. It is deep within me, and even if I tried to let it go, I don’t think it would let me. But just writing my story or about certain things without thinking within the context of “writing a book” was so liberating. I loved every second of it, and then I realized that I still loved my story, it still felt incredibly important, vital even, to tell and share and get out there. My story, not the manuscript I have actually written.
When pressed about what I wanted my book to accomplish, I thought about it, and I mean really thought about it for the first time. It isn’t that I never thought about it before, but I never focused on it, or spent a great deal on it. I have no illusions about becoming rich or famous. Perhaps because the only writers who are wealthy are those in Hollywood, or those who write megahits (J.K. Rowling for example). And as far as being famous, I would much prefer staying in the shadows. But it is still important for me to get this book published. Why? This was my response:
“Whether it is to help someone by showing them my mistakes and what I learned, or letting someone know they’re not alone, or just letting someone see a person who came out of something terrible ten times better for it. I just want it to help someone else, which reading this kind of sounds arrogant I think?”
But it isn’t arrogant, as the person who worked on my manuscript pointed out. It is absolutely right reason to write this book. It is “a deeply empathetic impulse.”
So now I have to reconcile what that means exactly. How do I start over? What do I do differently? What is the best way to tell this story? What do I keep in? What do I leave out? What structure best serves the story? What information does the reader need beforehand to understand certain parts of my story and understand the impact of those events that really were significant? And that is when the panic starts to set in again.
Ever since I died, I have been much more patient, while at the same time feeling an incredible sense of urgency. I know firsthand, time is short and you never know when you might be gone. Every moment is precious and should be appreciated, and made the most of… That is the only clock I hear. But I hear it loud and clear, and it certainly isn’t helping my nerves while I try to figure out exactly how to get this book out there. How to create it into the best and most marketable book it can be without losing sight of why I am writing it, what the story is stripped down to its core, and what really matters in the end.
That’s a pretty tall order!