First Things First in Writing

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Photo Credit: “Notepad” by Crisderaud

“Pause for a minute…that word order is confusing. Instead of ‘my spiritual life post thirteen,’ how about ‘my post-thirteen spiritual life’?”

I was reading chapter 2 of my memoir to my writers’ group, which, this week, was only one other person. She was stopping me every couple of paragraphs to suggest a syntax change or a modifier deletion.

“The action ‘I put my head in my hands’ makes pretty clear that you dreaded what was coming next. I know you’ve heard it before, but this is a case where you show and tell. You don’t need the telling.”

Putting It into Practice

Two days later as I sit at my keyboard trying to jump back into my memoir, I’m glad for the prose tightening advice. It will be really helpful later…but it’s not what I need right now. Since adding more than ten new chapters, I’m just trying to figure out if the scenes I’ve extracted from my reluctant psyche even belong in my book.

Show, Don’t Tell

“And tell us what you were wearing. I can’t see you as an eleven-year-old. Show the makeup or lack thereof. How did you know it was snowing outside? Show us how you are seeing this. Are you looking out a picture window?”

This writer, an excellent writer, by the way, is a visual person. Her prose overflows with color, texture, and shape. She lent me a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by another fellow Minnesotan (my critique-er and I are both Minnesota girls who ended up in Texas), and I wonder if she modeled her writing on Nicole Lea Helget’s style. Helget writes with beautiful imagery that places readers right in the scene.

For example, here’s an excerpt where she’s describing watching/hearing her father “pitchfork” a cow:

A sound snapped the thick air.summer of ordinary ways

Like eggs dropped on the wooden floor of the chicken coop. Or metal bats whacking leather-covered baseballs. There was something of a wooden ruler slapping naughty palms. Something of thunder breaking against the sky. Only more primal, more rooted. I recognized it immediately… It was the sound of girls splitting wish-bones, of Mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary… It was the sound of field stones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box….It was bone.

I don’t write like this. At least, I don’t write like this about my early years. These years feel like a cold case. I can’t remember. Or is it that I don’t want to?

The first draft of the memoir I sent off for editing begins with me at age twenty—and I believe that draft was more descriptive than the chapters my writing group has seen in the last month. I can deal with those more recent scenes.

The early scenes? I’ve been writing them, but they kind of suck right now. I feel something about my early life is important, but I’m not sure if I’m capturing it.

Another Book?

I always had the idea I’d save my early life for another book. It deserves a whole book, and, in fact, was going to be my first book. I prepared the manuscript as a series of journal entries, and to this day, the scenes are preserved in my memory as the journal entries. I fear I’ve forgotten the actual scenes—I just remember the journal entries. The scenes I’ve written for draft 2 of my memoir feel fabricated—or at least really detached from my feelings and memories.

Moving Forward, Nonetheless

This week I’m going to send off my new part 1 to Trish. Because I’ve had more time to talk to Trish, and because she’s seen the rest of the manuscript (or where I am going with it all), she will understand that, more than prose tightening, I need help deciding what to include about my early years. Maybe I even need help unlocking memory.

I doubt memory will come back in full color like it seems to for Helget and my fellow Minnesotan, and maybe that’s okay. In my daily life, I don’t often notice what’s around me (I know, I know—as a writer, I should work on this). I don’t think I’m going for a full-color memoir, though. I’m not sure. This is a style question I can work out later. But first things first: figuring out content, order of events, and narrative thread.

Wait a Minute…

Right before I hit “post,” a thought occurs: is writing in “full color” a way to actually unlock memory? What do you think, readers? Have I got the process wrong?

Writing Towards Honesty

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At first I thought I was writing a book about recovery from depression, the love story that brought my husband and me together, and finding a relationship with the Lord. Now that I am revising for my book consultant, Christian memoirist Trish Ryan, I feel the topics expanding. She wanted me to set a greater context for why I ever got to the point of suicide and bulimia and all the other struggles I write about in the first place. She wanted to know more about my faith in God as a child and my family. In short, she asked me to venture into places I realized I didn’t want to go (which is why I originally did not go there).

Now that I’ve been trying to write scenes from childhood for the last several weeks (and they are coming out messy and muddled and badly), I’m finding that my story might be bigger than I thought, and it all has to do with being honest about how the church has failed me.

The more I write, the greater anger I uncover at a church culture that would not let me speak up and share what kind of help I needed. This theme also shows up when it comes to my relationships with friends and relatives—people you’d think it should be okay to share with! The revisions I am working on now are slowly bringing me to new conclusions about why I became suicidal in the first place. Maybe I will never totally understand why or how it happened, and maybe it’s not a problem that is specific to me or my family or my church. But through the messy, ugly, painful writing coming out in the last few weeks, I know it has something to do with speaking up, and the fact that I felt I couldn’t for so many years.

Sometimes it’s discouraging to think that after a year of working on this memoir, I’m only just keying in to the real point of it all—and maybe I’ll decide next month that I need to backtrack yet again. But maybe it all goes back to this blog and why I started writing it: I needed to share with people.

I’m working on a series of blog posts about my ugly, messy rebirth experience, and these posts, more than anything I’ve yet written on Writing to my Roots, have given me pause: Do I want to publish them? Do I want to share how I feel my church failed me, how it failed my parents, and how that resulted in a family’s demise and a girl’s death wish?

I feel a need for Christians to be honest about their struggles; it’s just hard to be one of the leaders in this “genre” of witnessing. I told Trish I felt like there were very few memoirs on the market like the one I’m trying write: that is, Christians seem to write really simplified accounts of how they found Christ (and what a difference he made to the before and after of their lives), which leave me hungry for the real details. Show me a life story I can relate to! Conversely, the writers who are willing to divulge the messy details of their lives are, for the most part, those who haven’t really emerged from the mess—so the story is real and raw and often literarily well executed, but not uplifting. I want my story to be all of the above.

Trish agreed with my assessment of the market, saying that when we writers undertake a project like she’s done and like I’m trying to do, we put ourselves out there as screwed up Christians, saying, “Okay, I’ll go first.” Not easy, but necessary if we hope to change the climate of things.

So if I publish some things that put my church or my religion in a bad light, it’s not that I’m denouncing my faith. It’s that I want us to take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, so we can fix it! Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free, and I just want to help the church see how we can help fulfill his mission. Sometimes, that means being brutally honest with where we’ve failed.

If you feel the same way, please pray for this writing project as it moves forward—that it would tell a story the world (and maybe just the Christian world) needs to hear, and that God would give me the wisdom and discernment to tell it.

 

Writing for an Audience

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Photo Credit: Auditorium by Ayla87

I started blogging because I needed an audience. After journaling for no one but myself for fourteen years, I needed to start thinking about writing for others, especially since I wanted to write and publish my memoir. I realized I had been self-centered, or writer-based, all those years. What’s more, I realized my previous education (even though I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English), had not helped me with the transition to writing for meaningful audiences. But now that I was serious about publishing a book, I had to become more reader-based.

If you’ve done any research on the publishing market, you know that being reader-based is essential to (traditional) publishing. If you’ve done that same research and you had an English education like mine, you might have concluded that many English teachers must not be writers—in the sense of trying to publish their writing.

Most of my English teachers gave me dead assignments, or what my thesis advisor called “orphaned texts” to write: papers that were not meant to go anywhere beyond their desk. My advisor also termed these assignments “autonomous texts”—texts that had no communicative element, no audience, and no purpose. This was in opposition to a superior type of writing situation: the rhetorical situation.

Last week I introduced my composition students to the rhetorical triangle—a way of thinking about writing that places a text in context of a specific speaker, audience, and topic. The major lesson is that if any element of the triangle changes, the text must also change.

Learning to think of writing this way—as a communicative act—has been changing my own writing dramatically. And it has tested me. First, on this blog, I have been forced to confront the self-pitying nature of so much of my past writing—and with that, the uselessness and counter-productivity of said writing. Considering my writing through the lens of a prospective audience has forced me to look in a mirror, as it were, and has helped me clear away the dross of my thoughts for current and future projects. The benefits of blogging have included even more healing for myself while looking in that “mirror,” and a push toward meeting my real goal of book publication.

Incidentally, I’ve just received my editor comments back on my memoir manuscript, which are further propelling me to write for an audience. I’m glad I had the training of eight months of blogging to prepare me to think about meeting the needs of book readers.

Trish Ryan’s assessment was great, pushing me to make some difficult changes I sensed I might need to make, but that I wasn’t emotionally ready to make earlier. I hope I am ready now. Time will tell as I enter the revision stage. Providentially, Trish told me I sent her the manuscript at just the right time to get feedback and intervention. I was glad to read that. I knew I wasn’t done with this project at first draft’s end, but I was at a point where I needed an experienced reader and writer to coach me to stretch limits for my intended audience.

Some of her best advice relating to audience was to lay out my story chronologically. Touché, as I had tried to bury or bypass some hard emotional scenes. I needed her to tell me that the audience needs more facts of my background to understand all the feelings I divulge throughout. She also urged me to err on the side of action versus reflection to keep things moving for readers. She said setting up a more complete background to my story in the beginning would help diminish the need for so much reflection later—readers would better understand my actions with the appropriate lead-up.

With her feedback, I am better equipped to revise my book for my audience, which will mean cutting out some material that was personally revelatory but not globally relevant. Though this may be hard, having  had an audience of one see and validate those parts of my story has heartened me to the task of cutting them from the final draft. (The tougher job now will be revisiting and writing those difficult parts of my past that need to be in the book).

So the final takeaway for this post? We writers, if we want to be published, and even if we just need to heal, need various audiences to push us to self-reflect on what we’re really accomplishing with our writing—and push us to take sometimes difficult steps. In the end, I believe writing for an audience is making me both a better person and a better writer, and it can do the same for you.