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.
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.