Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

Richard and me--in shadows--at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but... But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn't quite right for them. 

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all. 

Simple, no? 

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive "ears" tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I "heard" them, like a click in my mind that said, "Stop here. This needs work." 

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well. 

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that's 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while. 

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds "season."

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I'd be done with the revision--she's eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read--I said blithely, "I'll have it back to you by July 15th." 

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could "hear" passages that felt like they weren't necessary.

What isn't necessary to a story like this? That's hard to define: it's both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers' engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts. 

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice. 

There's no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what's not working. 

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages. 

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier. 

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread. 

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit "send"--only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. "We expect service to be restored again tomorrow," the chirpy support person said. Great. 

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did. 

That's the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard's birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir. 

So here's to you, my sweetheart--Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I've learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn't let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person. 

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died