Why I “Took Out” My Ex-Boyfriends

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Photo Credit: “Cutting” by Lusi

This title’s a little misleading. I’m not talking about violence here, or the raging emotions of a woman scorned; rather, I mean making cuts to my memoir. You see, last week I inadvertently axed my ex-boyfriends from my manuscript when I deleted a chapter by mistake. Oops. While I was initially ticked, turns out this was one of the best things that could’ve happened.

You see, I was falling into that writer’s trap of wanting to put every “interesting” detail about my life into my story—but not every “interesting” detail belongs there.

At first it’s a hard reality to swallow. You’ve heard that analogy that likens cutting one’s writing to severing a limb. It’s true. But I’ve got good news: the more time and distance you put between yourself and your writing, the easier it gets. After awhile it becomes easier to see what really stinks and what doesn’t, or what actually fits and what are merely rabbit trails.

Accidentally cutting out my boyfriends, whom I’d slapped into a “junk” chapter that wasn’t quite fitting anywhere, freed me up to clarify the real players in my story: that’d be myself (obviously), my hubby, my family, and my immediate in-laws (I’m not sure they know this yet!). The story I’m telling is far advanced beyond the twenty-year-old version I imagined, when I was still hurting from love gone wrong with those unsuspecting exes. It picks up with my wedding day and the violent emotions that ceremony stirred up, and follows me through my twenties to unravel just what was so traumatizing about entering marriage.

The story’s not about my past dating failures; it’s about finding peace within myself, with, God, and with family. The only relevance the exes have to this story is that they became unfortunate pitfalls on my way to searching for the right kind of love, which I eventually found in my hubby, then in God, and finally, with other loved ones around me. Now I realize, thankfully, that a couple paragraphs is more than sufficient to treat those unfortunate detours in this journey.

However, that doesn’t mean I’m not saving those memories for a future story, or maybe even a piece of fiction! As I explained these manuscript developments to my hubby last night, along with how a memoirist sometimes must rearrange or compress events for narrative efficacy, we had fun laughing over what a composite of my past lovers would look like. Ready for this? I think I can protect identities here by squeezing them all into one. Macho, yet effeminate, hunter under house arrest for drug possession and Dad of three who likes to collage…who ultimately turns out to be gay. See? Interesting. But way too distracting for the story I’m trying to tell!

If you’re working on your memoirs, remember: focus, focus, focus! Keep the main story the main story, and don’t let yourself get distracted by every “interesting” detail. And now I’m back to work, excited to see what today’s writing session reveals!

 

 

How to Make Your Dream a Reality

Rule number 1: You have to DO something.

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Photo credit: felipedan

It sounds really obvious, but so is most of the advice in any self-help book you can read. I complained for a lot of years that my dream of publishing a book was not coming true, but, um, it was no wonder. For a lot of years, I wasn’t doing anything about it. So then, one day, I sat down and started to write. And promptly ran into a problem.

 

Rule number 2: Push through roadblocks, however slowly

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Photo credit: Jazza

It could be a lack of time, a mental block, or a naysayer. For me, my roadblock was not the oft-cited “writer’s block”; rather, every time I tried to sit down and write that book I had in my head, I’d be reduced to tears for the memories the work brought. And then there was the naysayer. Someone told me my book idea wasn’t respectful of my family…and I should reconsider what publishing it would do to them.

No matter which roadblocks you’re facing, there is always a way to keep going. For aspiring writers (or aspiring whatevers) with little time, the best advice I know of is to set a realistic goal for yourself, whether a daily or weekly goal, and stick to it. Maybe you’ve only got fifteen minutes a day. Maybe you’ve only got one hour a week. Whatever you have, build that time into your schedule, and then guard it with your dream.

When I started having those toxic emotional reactions to my work, which literally could incapacitate me from living the rest of my life, well, I shut down for awhile. But in hindsight, I realize that I eventually found other ways to keep moving in the direction of my dream. I came at it from another angle. Although I wasn’t yet ready to write that book in my head, I started reading up on the publishing industry, and I started reading about honing my craft. As I did this, I put the naysayer out of mind, and hoped for a better day to write and publish my book. And this leads to rule number 3.

 

Rule number 3: Learn from the masters

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Photo credit: krayker

So, how did you first develop that precious little dream of yours? I’d just bet it was from watching someone else who was doing that very thing, and saying to yourself, “I want to do that someday, too!”

So here’s the deal: the same place you go for inspiration—be it a bookshelf, a rodeo, or a runway—is the same place you should go to apprentice for your craft. Once I identified memoir as my medium, I became a student of the genre. Not only did I read books about how to write memoir, but I read memoirs. These days I have become a sponge for these things, keeping them by my nightstand, on the coffee table, and in my CD player in the car (audio books). Where I once read only for entertainment, now I read for craft and technique, story development and organization. I read with a critical eye, judging a book’s execution and effectiveness, asking myself, is this a technique I could use? Is it one I’d want to use? Whether a memoir is well done or not, I learn from it.

 

Rule number 4: Work through personal problems to clear room for your dreams

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Photo credit: brainloc

Okay, this is probably the hardest rule to follow, and I can’t tell you how to do it; I can only point you to a blog post describing what worked for me. But if you do have some kind of mental or emotional block impeding your work, there must be something you’ll eventually have to deal with before getting on with your dream. If you have to “take time off” from your project to get your life or emotions in order, by all means, do it! This is not wasted time, because when you come back to your project free from the impediment, you will find that you have a vigor for your dream that you never had before.

 

Rule number 5: Set a deadline with measurable goals

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Photo credit: mimwickett

This rule will vary from person to person, and obviously your timelines and deadlines can change. But the thing here is to write down steps, measurable goals, that will move you closer to your dream, bit by bit. If you can give yourself a deadline and stick to it, you will be much helped, as most people operate best with a deadline.

For myself, after I started doing something and I learned how to keep plugging away at it in some form, even when it was hard; after I had started bathing my mind in masterful examples, and after I had worked through my poisonous personal problems…I came up with a schedule for completing my dream that I’m hoping will carry me through to completion. For now, I am trying every day to “move in the direction of my dreams,” even if it means only fifteen minutes of work. I hope you will do the same, and good luck!

Writing the Hard Stuff

If you’re currently writing your memoir, maybe you’re having some of the same issues I am, so let’s commiserate for a moment on two key ones.

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Writing the Hard Stuff (Content)

It’s inevitable. If you’re writing a memoir that’s remotely honest, you have to touch some stuff that’s quite icky. One tip I have for dealing with this ickiness is to first decide whether the icky topic is a main idea, or a supporting one. Right now, for instance, I’m trying to figure out how to deal with past boyfriends I’m not proud of—and in the least self- and sin-glorifying ways. Since my story is about recovery and rebirth, I’ve decided these guys are not THE story–but supporting actors who can help create backstory and a setup for the main show. For other memoirists who draw out the ickiness in excruciatingly gory detail (almost as if the authors enjoy remembering their lives in darkness), the descent into hell IS the story. Fair enough, except this doesn’t much help those of us going for a more uplifting effect.

Writing Scene Versus Exposition (Form)

Once we’ve decided what and how much of the gory past to include, we memoirists must also decide how to tell the various parts of our stories. Does that ex-boyfriend get a well-developed scene, complete with sensory details and lots of feeling, or should he get a passing glance, a quick summary, only enough to  get us from point A to B?

In many memoirs I’ve read, authors choose to dwell on their descent into depression, addiction, and despair for most of their memoir…and only at the end do we get a glimpse—a chapter or two and/or an afterword at most, and that usually of drab summary—of the upswing.

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So far, my strategy as a Christian/motivational writer is shaping up somewhat differently: I am leaning away from dwelling too, too much on the icky; and trying to trade chapters and chapters of the macabre for a couple well-placed, representative scenes. As Bill Roorbach says in his excellent book Writing Life Stories, “A good scene replaces pages and pages of explaining, of expositional excess, of telling. Instead of a passage about your family’s socioeconomic status, you show your dad pulling up in the brown Ford wagon, muffler dragging. Or does he pull up in a shiny Mercedes? Or does he walk up the hill with his jacket over his shoulder, car traded for shares in a new invention?” (pp. 35-36).

One caveat for me: I’m finding that there are certain parts of my past that I’m just so disgusted by, I cannot bring myself to honor them with fully-fledged scenes. For these moments, I think some succinct summary is sufficient. In contrast with other, better developed scenes, these sparse selections can make their own statement to the reader: This is a part of my past you have to know about, but I’m not proud of it. At least, that’s the message I’m hoping to send.

A Strategy for Separating Scenes—Writing the Hard Stuff

Not that I’m an expert by any stretch, but here is a suggestion that might be helpful—one that I am testing this very week.

If you kept a journal for those years you are currently memoir-izing, sit down in a good chair, at a sturdy table, and reread those journals, along with any pertinent letters or other artifacts, with a notepad handy. As you read, take notes on what’s there, so you can begin to separate out what is important from what’s not—as well as get an idea of the “arc of your story.”

For my own memoir, I’ve divided the ten years I’m writing about into seven sections—three of those focused mostly on the grime of the past, and four dedicated to climbing out.

I decided that each section needs to have an “arc of story”; and therefore, I need to get reacquainted with the key trajectory, and key moments, for each section. My memory is quite bad, so my journals are helping immensely here.

Yesterday, I sat down and reread the journals that would fall into my first section. I did not try to write any new scenes or develop any exposition during this time; I only took notes on each journal entry—a brief line or two to characterize what was going on in each. I highlighted the entries that seemed particularly important—either as potential scenes, or as “scenes” in and of themselves.

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Note that I already have many pages of writing completed for all sections of my book—perhaps I even have most of the pertinent facts—but now I am going back to try to fill in any gaps I’ve left, and develop that which still needs developing.

Today, I’m going to look over the notes I took yesterday and answer some key questions:

  • Where do I want this section of my memoir to start? On what scene, or using bit of exposition?
  • Where do I want it to end? On what scene, or what bit of exposition?
  • What key questions do I need to answer in this section? Or, what facts does my reader need during this section of the book?
  • How will I do that? Or, which questions and facts should be answered with scene, and which should be answered by exposition?
  • How will I order these scenes and snippets of exposition?

Once I have answered these questions, I can assign myself a list of scenes I still need to write up, and the sections of exposition that I’ve not yet covered. If I get stuck, because section one is turning out to be the grimiest, ickiest section of them all, I may hop over to section two for awhile, but now that I have a plan, I feel confident that I can do this…no matter how dirty the job.

Meanwhile, my writer friends, I’m curious to know: What’s tripping you up in your memoir? And what solutions are you finding?

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?

 

What Would Jesus Write? On Writing the Truth with Compassion

 

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Speaking of entanglements, when writing memoir, there’s always that issue of how to talk about your parents. Your ex-boyfriends. Your husband. Or your in-laws. Now your words don’t just affect you and your impersonal readers: family and friends could be hurt or offended. And so, what is a writer, especially a Christian writer, to do?

Two Views on Writing about Real People

When it comes to writing about real people, immediately two options spring to mind.

First, my beloved Professor L used to like quoting an eighteenth-century writer (and I can’t remember whom) as saying something like: People better not tick off writers because they never know what he or she might write later. In other words, writers can and should write whatever they want about whomever they want.

While somewhat humorous to me, this view also seems selfish and inhumane, not to mention utterly unchristian. Even though I may have joked about wielding ammunition in my pen, seriously, this troubles me. “Revenge is mine [not Lindsey’s], says the Lord.” Needless to say, I don’t find much help here.

The second option comes from writer and teacher Peter Brickleback and, although not perfect, seems much more humane. In a nutshell, P.B. says that certain truths and experiences belong to us as writers, and so we should write about them. Those people we’re writing about? They “can write their own” version of the story.

I know this sounds somewhat callous, and even smacks of the other writer I paraphrased. However, here are some caveats P.B. tacks on that begin to win me over (see The Portable MFA, pp. 128-30). In writing “happily” about your “unhappy family [or whoever],” P.B. says the following:

  1. “Do not write as if you are Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.” He’s saying be honest about your flaws, too; don’t write as if you are the only victim in the world (your “oppressor” might be a victim, too).
  2. “Strive for compassion and empathy” in order to “[treat] the subject fairly.”
  3. Writing about difficult, universal experiences “contributes to our mutual benefit, to a wider social, human good.”
  4. Avoiding certain characters or topics can leave a “black hole of an absence” in the story, resulting in a “warped” version. In other words, sometimes we need to address these hard subjects to complete our stories.
  5. Writing using pain and anger as fuel helps us face pain more honestly.
  6. Writing in spite of pain can result in healing for both writer and writee—as in the case of a daughter who wrote a less-than-flattering memoir about her mother. In the end, P.B. reports, the mother and daughter came to have more understanding and compassion for each other: “[T]hey’ve straightened out some things that have gotten twisted through being buried. Also, being part of an attempt to put words to things, they’ve come to appreciate a lot more about the past and each other.”

Now, P.B.’s comments could easily be refuted, especially by Christians who are striving to “do unto others as you’d have them do to you.” Still, I’ve decided that Christians need to be open-minded to consider underlying assumptions and motives behind what might seem to be questionable opinions. In this case, P.B.’s very humane assumption is that writing should not (entirely) be selfish; rather, it should ultimately function for the greater good.

For Christians I think this means writing should, first and foremost, give glory to God—which is to say it must benefit others. But I am also coming to understand that that does not preclude writing about fallen humanity, including ours or others’. What is the Bible but the story of fallen humanity, anyway? That said, a Christian who is going to write on said topic might consider a few more caveats.

Some Christian Caveats for Writing about Other People and/or Pain

[Note: this section is really for me—but you can look, too!]

If I am a born-again Christian writing about a painful past that involves other people, I must be especially careful in how I shape the story. Does it end in redemption? Is there resolution available for all at the cross (even though some may not choose to accept it)? Because if I believe the Bible (and I do), Christ is the solution for all problems: by His stripes, we are healed (see Isaiah 53).

And so, after the happy (or at least hopeful) conclusion is settled, the remaining question for Christian writers might still be how to treat the bad roots, especially as they relate to or involve others. For myself, I’ve decided I want to include only the parts of their stories absolutely necessary to the telling of mine, but I also want to include enough so as to avoid leaving a “gaping hole.” Meanwhile, what I include should never needlessly hurt others.

While it may take awhile to figure out all of the above, I’m heartened by the same advice I’ve both given and gotten in English classrooms: Sometimes you have to write the body and conclusion before you figure out the beginning. Such is my story right now; but one day I’m confident I’ll get down to those roots I’m searching for.

You can view the photo from this post here.