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?

Finding “My People”

Do you feel like you’ve found “your people?” Once in graduate school, one of my professors took offense to some writer who had bashed Christians, saying, “Hey, those are my people!”

I heard her use this phrase almost two years ago and didn’t think much of it then (Christians gets bashed all the time in graduate school), but it came back to me this past Sunday as I sat in a circle with five other women, all writers, all of whom were sharing fragments of their memoir with the group.

This was my first time meeting with this particular writers’ group—or any writers’ group, for that matter—but soon it became clear to me that the group was about much more than just moving our careers forward. It was about sharing stories we’d been bottling for years, it was about giving one another permission to be real, and it was about being validated for said scary task.

During those two hours, I listened to one woman’s struggle to make sense of the sexual abuse in her family; another’s decision to move forward with her education after years of being squelched by a verbally abusive parent; still another’s first attempt at writing the “good memories” for a wounded daughter; and another’s chronicle of life after leaving her third husband. The piece I brought that day was the (rough) first scene of my memoir: the day I emerged from the mental hospital, numb to joy, resigned to life, yet stripped of all expectation and desire.

Some of the feedback I got: “I can feel your numbness.” “The stripping of humanity that comes from staying in a place like this is clear.” “Your point about emotional pain and invisibility hits home.” “I can identify.”

I liked the last comment best, because it came from every single woman at the table. As, one by one, the women admitted that they, too, had found themselves at this place in life before (either literally or figuratively), I felt a sense of relief washing over me. Although I’d known these women less than two hours, it was a relief that they already knew more about me than so many of my acquaintances. That day I also gained strength to continue with what is sometimes an emotionally difficult project, and validation that my project actually matters. Best of all, by the end of the session, I felt I could finally say, “I’ve found my people.”

Of course, like my graduate professor, I could certainly say the same of my church family. I could also truthfully say it of my family family. But somehow, connecting with people because of shared religious convictions or shared bloodlines isn’t the same as connecting to people emotionally. Because rather than falling by default into a category, this type of writing, and this type of realness, is a choice we make—even a dream we share.

Why did I ever wait to join a writers’ group?