Paring Story into Memoir….

Last spring, I finished the initial draft of Bless the Birds, the memoir I’ve been working on about Richard’s and my journey with his brain cancer. A journey I hope will show us all how to live with love even in–especially in–the most difficult times.

Playing around--a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smartphone) after Richard's fourth brain surgery....

Playing around–a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smart phone) after Richard’s fourth brain surgery.

The point of memoir is not just to write our own lives. (Not that there’s anything wrong with telling our life-stories for ourselves and family and friends–in fact, that can be a wonderful gift.)

But if we’re going to call the writing memoir, we’ve got to work to find the universal in our particulars, to tell our story in a way that compels readers to see their own lives in new light. Memoir is the meaning we draw from our lives, the essential “truth” that offers some wisdom about life in general.

When I finished that first draft, it tallied 142,000 words and 420+ pages. It needed some work. Not just because it was almost twice as long as the lower end of the range of most memoirs (75,000 to 90,000 words).

Because when I read the draft over, it was too much like a report (this happened, after which this happened, and then this…). What I wanted was a narrative, where the tension of the events and the characters’ actions carry the story like a swelling wave.

Richard at Lucia Lodge on California's Big Sur Coast.

Richard at Lucia Lodge on California’s Big Sur Coast.

I had written our life-story, but it wasn’t memoir yet. It was buried in detail, and the tone was too… detached. Not engaged and immediate.

The truth is, I was too comfortable with the story. It had grown too familiar, too practiced. So I set the manuscript aside.

In July, I picked it up, saved the original file as a new version and began reading aloud from the beginning.

I needed to be in the story, under its skin, immersed. Not outside, looking at it from a distance. I needed to speak it.

My aim was to pare out anything that while it might be well-written, wasn’t essential to advancing the narrative and defining characters.

How can we tell what is essential from what is not? There’s no rule or formula; every writer and piece of writing are different.

What works for me is to listen, and hone my sense of what moves the story forward and what doesn’t, what contributes to my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

Still holding hands near the end....

Still holding hands near the end….

I read aloud and listen for scenes and actions that illuminate, like a flash lightning in the night.

By the end of that read-through, I had a much better understanding of what mattered. And the manuscript was 102,000 words, a little over 400 pages.

Good, but not quite there yet.

So I started reading out loud from the beginning again. This time I lived the story. I was not comfortable. Most days I felt exposed, vulnerable and bruised.

I finished the day after Christmas, the manuscript a relatively svelte 93,000 words and 372 pages.

I could have quit there, but something–perhaps intuition, perhaps obsessiveness–nagged me into just one more read.

"Stop looking so serious, Sus! It's a selfie, not art."

“Stop looking so serious, Sus! It’s a selfie, not art.”

Molly came to visit for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, so I put the manuscript aside and simply enjoyed hanging out with her.

On New Year’s Day, I opened the file for one last read-through. I finished yesterday afternoon, having worked straight through the previous weekend.

This edit was even more intense. It felt, I told a friend, “like my skin was being peeled off with a dull knife.”

Not pleasant. But the results were worth it. The story emerged taut and muscly, honest and surprisingly beautiful.

The word count as of yesterday: 91,481, and 360 pages.

The first line is dialog, a question. The last is a declarative statement, one word long. In between, a memoir unfurls.

Tomorrow, I’ll send Bless the Birds to the agent I’ve been talking with. Wish it–and me–good luck!

We’re ready.

37 thoughts on “Paring Story into Memoir….

  1. of course i wish you (both) the very best. last year, for two weeks, i would see you, maybe midday, maybe later, after you wrestled with words…emerge from the battered cocoon of writing everyday, alive, vibrant, even when you were exhausted. i am so glad for you!

  2. Susan – thank you for this post! The higher, more intense the emotion – the harder it is to lay out on a page in such a way that the emotional universality of the piece isn’t mired in fact…. How I struggle with that issue. This post could be expanded into a workshop. Hint, hint.

    • Karen, One of many reasons I read my work aloud (numerous times) as I’m editing is that somehow hearing the words allows me to both experience the emotion and evaluate the progress of the story logically. It’s as if making the work audible allows both sides of my brain to participate in the editing. It’s never easy, but if I’m focused on reading aloud and listening well, it works. It’s also so intense that I can only do it for about four hours a day, and then I have to take a break! Thanks for the workshop idea–I’ll think on it. :)

  3. Congratulations, Susan! I think you had to start where you did, then let the feelings that were buried in the words emerge, slowly. Otherwise, it would have been too painful. I’m glad you finally got to that point, because it will be a much better book for it, AND touch so many other people. Good luck with the agent; I have no doubt that this book will be published.

    • Bobbi, Thank you for your confidence in my work! I think you’re right about letting the feelings emerge gradually, and I also think that detached reporting is my default style of writing: I’m a scientist first, and I was born to a family of reserved northern European culture. So it takes me a while to “hear” what I’m feeling. But I do eventually….

    • Susan G-T, Thank you. It has been grueling, but necessary. I’m sure you know how it is when you have a piece of art you MUST finish–not necessarily for a deadline, but simply because it has you by the throat. That’s how this memoir has been. Now to settle in and wait a few weeks for word….

  4. Susan, I know how hard this is, but you’ve described the essential work of writing a memoir. We have to know the whole story (all the gritty little details) before we can begin to peel it down to its bones and reassemble it as compelling narrative. Hoping that the agent sees its potential!

    • Susan A, It’s all those “gritty little” details that are so hard to sort through. But as you say, they’re necessary, because without them the story doesn’t have enough, well, flesh to work with. (I’m continuing that body metaphor!) I hope I’ve made it compelling enough that she simply can’t put it down. I’m glad I’m busy so I won’t just be fidgeting for the next few weeks while I wait!

  5. Good luck, Susan.(But, t don’t really think you will need luck.)

    I have been writing about my husband’s near death experience for the last few weeks and putting it on my blog daily. Sharing my story with others is helping me heal from the trauma of two long months in the hospital with him.

    Here is my blog address if you care to check it out…. ;) http://www.rojdnan.com/2013/12/30/re-creation-begins-ambulance

    I’ve written fifteen small chapters so far. I am letting my heart lead as I write. The memories are still very fresh, so it’s a good time to write about them. And, my heart needs to release them so I can move on with out new life now.

    I’m glad you’ve written this memoir. I know it is beautiful.

    Love,
    Kenna

    • Kenna, I am glad that you are able to write about the terrifying journey to the hospital, and through the awful month in ICU with your husband’s agony, both physical and mental. I know that writing your way through those months will help you heal. Trauma stays with us until we can let it go, and letting go is like healing. It doesn’t happen on a smooth line or ascending plane–it’s bumpy, as the nurses told you. This is one important part of that bumpy process for you. Congratulations on working at this stage of letting the trauma go. And many blessings to you both as you continue to heal and learn how to use this renewed life together.

  6. Susan, it’s high time I wrote you a note! Gosh, I think I’ve had some kind of artist block as of late. I sit at my keyboard but can’t seem to get going on anything. I do a lot of thinking and feeling at least. You are one person that surely has been in my thoughts. Your posts are uplifting because even in the darkest times you find a way to count your blessings. I find myself going back to read them again. I truly hope all goes smooth with your agent for starters… Bless the Birds is a wonderful title. You have been working so hard to bring it to this point. Wishing you good luck and a speedy reply. Perhaps she will just take a sneak peak and keep going. ;) Can’t wait to see and hold your memoir for real. You have my blessings.

    • Robin, I would say you’re in a composting phase, accumulating life experiences for later use. It’s not a bad place to be, and when you have something to say, you’ll feel the urge and your hands will know whether to work with words or stone or some other medium…. Thanks for thinking of me, and for the wishes for good luck and a speedy reply. I don’t mind if the reply takes a while, I just hope it’s a good one! Blessings to you as well.

  7. You are ready, indeed. And I’m not surprised that the story “emerged taut and muscly, honest and surprisingly beautiful.” Not surprised at all. Still, a lot of work to get there. Well done.

  8. Surely I’ll be repeating myself, but the “selfie” of you and Richard is my favorest picture of you two. So much is framed between-the-lines in it.

    I’ve never written memoir, or at least nothing memoirish of any substantial length, but the process of paring it down seem quite akin to repeatedly slowly tearing away a scab and mucking around in the re-opened (again) wound. (And regarding the paring down to essentials, even if the “unessential” is well-written and -crafted… Oy vey, talk about “killing your darlings”!) And do so with any written work can be both draining and relieving. Surely ’tis moreso with something personal as memoir.

    May Bless the Birds find a good home, where it may, itself, be a tsunami of blessings.

    • Eduardo, That river essay printed in High Country News was pretty darned memoir-ish, and remember how long that took you, through I-don’t-know-how-many-agonizing-versions to get to the excellent final one? So you do know the process, or at least you’ve had a taste…. As for our selfie (from before selfie was even a word!), I’m fond of it too. We were being silly and sweet at a time when we really needed that kind of thing. Too bad the light’s so yellow though. I don’t actually Photoshop anything I shoot, but if I were going to, this one would be tempting!

    • Susan, Yes, River Home is memoir-ish. But as I said, and you also conceded, 600ish words is a tad different from 142 thousand, subsequently pared down to 91 thousand and change.

      As for the selfie: I see so much beyond and other than the yellow. And I think there’s a metaphor there re: editing. We’re often so very close to the subject, we see the nicks and dings larger than life, whereas others see such much good vibrant stuff that surrounds whatever flaws might be found. Ergo, we’re tempted to edit until the piece is “perfect” but with the realness edited away. In a similar vein, we refer to moles as beauty marks, and wrinkles as character lines. You know the drill: Perfect can’t be “too perfect.”

      • Eduardo, Perfect certainly can be too perfect, and you’re quite right that we don’t want to edit out the character that makes something real, whether it’s in images or words or what. Still, I happen to think that particular proto-selfie would be sweeter if the color weren’t off. But it is what it is…. :)

  9. Susan, I believe I heard your sigh of relief all the way up here in northern MI as you clicked “SEND”. I am so looking forward to reading “Bless the Birds”. Congratulations :D

  10. Many congratulations on reaching this stage. I know what it’s like, and you have not only produced the book but given a heartful description of the process you went through to “birth” it. Lovely to see the photos of you and Richard–and thank you for the one of you with Molly. There’s so much *there,* too, and that’s the touch that grounds this blog post in the NOW. Something you understand better than 99.999% of humanity how to do.

    And people think writing is easy. Hunh.

    By the way, I’m glad that the first image has what I think of as a golden (rather than yellow) cast to it. It is warm, warm, warm, from the inside of both of you radiating to the pixels of the photo. It is meant to be as it is: glowing.

    • Thanks, Deb. I think that being grounded in the now is necessary to truly live. Otherwise, we let the moments that constitute our lives pass by without notice. And what are we left with? Life is in the living, not in the accumulation of things or money or power.

      I’ve always been darkly amused that so many people who don’t write thing that writing is easy. As the sportswriter in the 50s whose name I have forgotten said about writing a column every day (I’m paraphrasing here), You just sit down at the typewriter and open up a vein. Yup. It’s that easy.

      I like the way you redefined the yellow cast to that proto-selfie image. I’ll go with warm and golden, glowing–thank you!

  11. Dear lovely Susan…I am a friend and colleague of Deb Robson, and have occasionally read your blog posts. This one is particularly beautiful. It spirals down to become “taut and muscly, honest and surprisingly beautiful,” and is thus a bit of a fractal of the manuscript that you are sending out. Thank you for having the wherewithal to go deeper and deeper, to trust lightning strikes, and to know that this is where the universal gold lies. I await your book.

    • Hello, Cat, Thank you for popping in and for your insightful comment. I wouldn’t have thought of this post being a fractal of sorts of the memoir manuscript, but that’s certainly appropriate. I hope that the memoir itself is a fractal of my life, and perhaps even of larger big “L” life in general. That’s what I aim for in my writing, though I hadn’t thought of it in just that way until reading your comment. As for the eventually book, I await to it too, believe me! And I wish the process weren’t quite so long, because I am not so good at all this waiting…. :) Blessings.

    • I read Susan’s posts and noticed your name. One of my wife’s nephews is named Cat. I’d never seen that used as a given name. Is Cat your given name, or a nickname?

  12. Beautifully said, Susan. This should be in a manual on memoir writing. So may people have great stories but are not willing to go through the painful process of paring down to bare and universal truths. Fantastic! Can’t wait to read the book. Keep us posted. k

    • Kim, Thanks for that lovely compliment! If Pen-L ever wants to publish a manual on memoir writing, let’s talk…. I expect to hear from my agent by mid-February. If she thinks it’s ready to send out, then we’ll start that long process. I’ll definitely send up flares as I know anything. In the meantime, enjoy the Ozarks!

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