As you may know, Writing to my Roots is chronicling the writing and publication of my first memoir—or the progress toward my lifelong goal. In other words, I’m writing about writing, both about how it’s going as a writer, and also about what’s happening in the writing—what roots I’m uncovering. In other words, where is the writing taking my story, book-wise, and me, person-wise?
Trying to untangle all of the above is not an easy task. And tangled is the right word. I feel so tangled up right now with conflicting tasks in storytelling. I’m telling you a story about a story I’m telling—and I find myself worrying about telling both stories right.
Something tells me I’m going about this all wrong. At least the blog. A book should be carefully organized, but a blog is a place to be more free, right? We’ll go with that for today, so I can get on with writing about writing.
Book Progress and Problems Since October, 2012
For starters, I have penned (literally, written with a pen) around 350 pages of my book. This morning I think I may have even written the last scene and decided on my title. So the writing is going well. Indeed, I feel like I have all the component parts of my book recorded in some form or fashion. I’ve got most of the big themes and thoughts I want to include collected into those once-empty notebooks I told you about last week.
But now comes the hard part. Revising and organizing. Shaping this amorphous blob of memories and musings into something pretty. The other night my dad asked me how many chapters I had written, and I had to just shake my head and say, “Dad, it doesn’t work like that.” (He’s a radio-advertising salesman who occasionally writes copy for commercials. How could he understand the complexities of drafting, revising, and organizing a book-length manuscript?)
I told my dad that my first draft was just emerging through the recording of scenes and ideas as they came to me. I’ve just been trying to get it all out of me, and then worry about organizing it. But that’s not so easy to do these days. The organizing, I mean.
Some Concerns Faced by “Real” Writers (especially Memoirists)
If you read contemporary memoir, you know that stories don’t always unfold chronologically. “Real” writers (and I think I have a little pride about being one, even though I probably shouldn’t, being that I have not yet published a book) make difficult literary maneuvers such as
- flash forward
- make use of extended metaphors and symbols, sometimes all throughout the book
- pay attention to pacing and placement of scenes
- carefully select and balance important versus unimportant detail.*
(see chapter two of The Portable MFA in Creative Writing for more)
*For memoirists, specifically, this selection and balance of detail is particularly hard, because all the details are personal. Which ones do you share, and which ones do you shelve? Here, we have tangled up literary concerns with personal, and sometimes moral, ones. There is so much to think about!
These are just a few of the challenges I’m encountering as I progress through the writing of my book. And I’m nowhere near close to figuring them all out. But yesterday I did find hope for making sense of my thoughts—and bringing order to my writing…through reading the memoir Riding the Bus with my Sister by Rachel Simon.
Riding the Bus with my Sister: Inspiration for the Aspiring Memoirist
In a nutshell, Simon tells the story of what she learned through one year of riding city buses with her mentally handicapped sister, Beth. At the beginning of the book, I expected the story to revolve around this year of bus-riding—I thought that was the core story. But the further I got into the book, I realized that, with carefully chosen, carefully placed flashbacks, Simon was telling the story of her family’s breakup, and her broken heart. Ultimately, it was through riding the buses with Beth, by slowing down to enjoy life again, and by remembering her roots, that Simon found a great deal of healing by book’s end (there’s more to it, of course, but I’m compressing).
Wow, I thought, teary-eyed by the closing scenes. That was a job well done. Not only was her literary execution great, but her story was worth telling. And she didn’t go overboard with her tale of woe. Indeed, I was shocked halfway through to read of the horrific things that happened in her teenage years—so that was why she has all these problems in her adult life…not getting close to people, overworking, lacking hobbies. Suddenly the journey described in the book became much deeper than just a year of bus-riding with her sister. It was a journey of healing for herself.
In both Simon’s writing and her story, I see visions of myself. The personal story is similar to mine, although without the handicapped sister; and the sum total of her book’s organization leaves the effect I want my own book to have. What a great story—and what a great way to tell it, I want my readers to think of my book (just like I thought of Simon’s).
So, for today, I will disentangle myself just a bit with this: at least if my blog is not pretty, I want my book to be. For today, I’m feeling grateful to Rachel Simon for her story—and hoping you’ll ride with me as I untangle the telling of my own.