can a memoir be written too soon?

cloud2I recently attended my first author event. Though my participation was part of due diligence toward planning my future author events, this one posed more questions than answers. But in the end, I shared this writer’s intent.

I am preparing to publish my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, in June 2018 with She Writes Press. Attending book signings, readings and author events are just a few of my to-do’s as they are examples to help with planning my own events. My self-imposed course of study is to observe, ask questions and learn as much as I can and I did that night, sitting as an audience member to see Joyce Maynard and hear her read from her new memoir The Best of Us.

Perhaps it was a serendipitous moment a week before the author event when I thumbed through the September/October issue of Poets and Writer’s magazine to see an article written by Maynard, “Patience and Memoir.”  I read this article not only because I was attending her reading but also because of the subtitle, “The Time It Takes to Tell Your Story.”

Maynard wrote a memoir in 1998, At Home in the World, which recounted her time in 1972-73 with J.D. Salinger. Her self-admittance that it took her twenty-five years to write her first memoir was because she needed to understand what had happened, the effects on her life and “the long road traveled to make sense of my experiences . . .” I understood her summation as it took me over ten years to write my memoir not because I wasn’t disciplined enough to finish it but because I needed the time to make sense of my experiences. I didn’t realize this until I had completed a developmental edit and had pulled the reflections and takeaways necessary to make it memoir from autobiography. I had wrestled for years with trying to turn it around by studying the writings of great memoirists such as Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed, Dani Shapiro and viewing instructional videos about writing life story. My intellectual understanding brimmed with knowledge but for years making memoir from my autobiography had eluded me.

My serendipitous moment with Maynard’s article answered my question of why it took so long for me to complete my memoir. I had to read through opening paragraphs that offered history of her writing resume, that she began to write a book the night her husband died, his cancer battle, and their married life, before getting to the buried lead a few paragraphs later. She wrote, “With the stories that unfold in my own life, however, it’s important to arrive at some kind of landing place before the act of writing can get underway. Tackle a memoir too soon and you may miss what it’s really about.” (Note aha! moment here.) I repeated this line making it my new mantra, replacing my old, worn chant of what’s this (my) story about.

While listening to her at the event, I noted contradiction between the importance of a “landing place” and tackling a memoir immediately after a tragic event. At her author talk, I sensed that she did not fully grasp the meaning of her husband’s death. I found contradictory the fact she started to write a book so soon, too soon, and her declaration it takes time to tell your story as referenced in her article. At best, recording the details and experiences of her husband, her life with him and together, does not a memoir make. Time and patience should have served her well to understand the takeaways and life lessons.

Maynard’s approach to her author event, informal, unscripted, and engaging, mirrored her nature. Her last reading of the evening narrated a time when her then very sick husband wished to take her to a Bob Dylan concert. Though the description of that evening and their shared time together was honest and heart-filled, I gained no further insight into that experience. I didn’t see what the experience was really about maybe because she simply didn’t tell me. I needed to know her thoughts about the experience, not just the experience itself.

Maynard disclosed that in the book she needed to include separate narration about each of their lives in order to place their meeting, relationship and subsequent marriage in context. Included in this narration, she tells us of a time she adopted two sisters from Ethiopia only later to relinquish them to another couple because, “I could not give them what they needed.” As she touches on this particular story, I can’t help but to note how The Best of Me has many legs, story lines that have been pulled into many lanes of traffic with much effort required traveling in the same direction. Unnecessary digressions perhaps suggested oversharing.

In a recent The Atlantic article, “The Queen of Oversharing” by Caitlin Flanagan says of Maynard, “Her subject is herself, and although she has but one life to live, she is never short of material, because she reads and rereads her own story according to market demands.” I interpreted this comment as long on autobiography, short on memoir. I gathered this from her book reading.

She self-characterizes her book as about marriage and an examination of love and what love is. She said she learned to slow down and how to be still, hard lessons learned as she described herself as constantly on the go, in many directions moving quickly. She also offered suggestions for what the book is about while touching on what she learned as if it might have just occurred to her that moment. What is about the nature of love and marriage was she trying to say? I didn’t get a sense the answers were communicated in the 448 pages of her book.

I didn’t diminish Maynard’s belief that there is a story here, the journey with her dying husband, but as a memoirist, I wanted to know more beyond narrating their life separately and then together. I wanted to know what the story is really about. But according to Maynard, tackling it too soon, you may miss that theme. She wrote, “And unlike that earlier memoir of mine–the one that took twenty-five years to put down on paper–this new one demanded to be written while everything that happened was still raw. I needed no distance to tell what was . . . what it meant to be married, to have a true partner, and to be one as well.” What makes this meaning special to her readers as well? What can they learn? I didn’t get her thoughts on what it meant to be married, to have a true partner.

Maynard’s P&Ws article was well understood, however, after listening to her read excerpts from her book and talk about it further, I wondered if she ignored her own lesson learned–to write a memoir too soon, you may not understand its meaning–when she sat down to write this book so soon after her husband died. And because of this, I couldn’t say for sure that a strong narrative arc was delivered. The distance required and resting time needed for the perspective, meaning and takeaways are essential to story and to good memoir.

I don’t regret attending Maynard’s event. As I look to planning my author events, I learned how important it is to communicate my book’s theme, the meanings and explicit takeaways delivered through my memoir’s pages. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have the years working for me to elicit the narrative arc and resulting meanings.

Though I didn’t connect to her book, I connected to her as a memoirist with her ending words, “You are a writer to present human moments.” The humanness of what memoirists write about brings us together–the universality of human story.

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