Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. —Buddhist saying
#amwriting (Take Seven or is it Eight?): I’m back to work revising Bless the Birds. Again. And I have no one to blame but me.
When I emailed my agent last Monday to hear her take on my brand-new mission/vision statement, and to find out whether she would lose patience with me if I made one more pass through the manuscript with that new understanding of why I write in mind, she responded immediately,
“This is exactly the right approach… Take the time to expand the vision and the appeal [of the memoir].”
“I don’t think I’m talking about a huge revision,” I replied. “I should have it back to you in a couple of weeks.”
As I wrote those words, I had a funny feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t be so sure. Still, I could already “hear” some of the changes I needed to make, so I plunged back into revising.
Monday I worked through Chapters One and Two, and that felt good.
Sitting on the couch that night, I began to score one of the handful of memoirs I’m reading as part of judging for a national memoir award. I thought the book was really well-written and insightful but…
It took me while to articulate what didn’t feel right. The author had a real gift for language, the characters were vivid and realistic, and the story itself was compelling, except… there were sections I found myself skimming because they contained detail that didn’t interest me.
It seemed to me that those sections didn’t illuminate the story, or move it forward; the details got in its way. They overwhelmed the reflections that make memoir more than just the story of the author’s life.
That’s when I had my Aha! moment about Bless the Birds.
The story isn’t just about Richard’s and my journey with his brain cancer; it’s about our relationship, the choices that we made through the decades that formed us into people who could live that journey with love, even when—no, especially when we knew he would die.
Those choices and that story of growing a relationship that could thrive through the most terrible and beautiful journey we humans take—accompanying a loved one to their death—are the universal theme in this memoir, the visionary part.
What’s limiting Bless the Birds, making it likely to be pigeonholed as “just” a medical/health memoir isn’t the writing, it’s my concept of what the story is about. I need to write out of the box I wrote the story into.
Which means cutting some of the medical/health journey, the detail that could overwhelm the reflection that is the true heart of the story. And adding history that explains how Richard and I came to be who we are and to live the way we did.
So now I’m back to sculpting narrative, to the everyday work of chopping wood and hauling water.
I’m listening to my memories, looking at photos and reading journals to find moments from our nearly 29 years together that illustrate how we nurtured our initial love-at-first-sight into a relationship that allowed us to live as well as humanly possible through Richard’s journey with brain cancer. And to part with love.
It’s hard work, but It feels right. It will take longer than I confidently predicted and that’s okay. The story is growing stronger and deeper, reaching toward universal.
As the late Bill Kloefkorn, State Poet of Nebraska said about poetry, memoir is “words on a page, nibbling at something vast.”
In this new revision of Bless the Birds, I’m aiming for more than a nibble.