Memoir: Voice and Intensity and Love

Monday, May 16th, 2016

I thought I was done with Bless the Birds. Ready to send it out in the world to find an eager publisher. (The photo above is the guy who the story is about, happily striding through the forest between brain surgeries two and three. Loving his moments.)

Until the thoughtful and complimentary rejection letters from editors who clearly gave manuscript a careful read and loved the writing ("beautifully written"), the story ("the love between the two main characters made me gasp"), and the musing ("deeply reflective"). All of which sound great, but... 

But... A thoughtful "but," mind you, but still a rejection. 

I began to see hints of a pattern. A few weeks ago, when I was in Santa Fe, my agent read me the latest rejection. Which as usual began with compliments:

This is a lovely project. The writing is beautiful, the story well told, and I found myself liking Susan very much. ...There is a lot to like here—the haiku, the connection to nature and art; no matter what direction Susan takes the manuscript it is a wonderful project.

And then came the "but":

...I found there to be too much about the specifics of Susan’s story in this manuscript... Because she goes into such detail about her life, there is little room for the reader to see themselves in the story. The pinnacle moments would need to be distilled further so the emotional resonance was given more room to reverberate with the reader. 

Her words made sense in a way other's hadn't, and I saw what I needed to do: strengthen the objective voice to dial back the emotional intensity of the story.

Bless the Birds is about Richard's brain cancer, and how we lived with that terrible disease as well as we could, right up to the end of his life. It's inherently intense. I can't change that, but what I can do is change the way I tell the story: make it more objective and less breath-takingly immediate.

I started revising that very day, skimming the manuscript and "listening" for that objective voice. Wherever I felt a sort of gap, a place that voice was missing or hadn't quite finished speaking, I stopped and listened within for what came to me. And then I wrote. And revised. 

Here's an example of that new voice. The first paragraph is from the previous version of the memoir, at a point where Richard, post-brain-surgery and taking medications that affect his ability be aware of anger, threatens me physically without knowing what he's done. The second paragraph is the new objective voice, giving context to our story:

I stalked into my office. I sat at my computer but couldn’t write. I was still angry, but not, I realized, at Richard—I was furious and frightened by the sudden shift in our lives. Before brain surgery, our paths were intertwined but independent. And now? Now, he needed me in ways neither of us had foreseen. And his surgery-altered brain couldn’t recognize the changes.

Health crises can alter patients in ways they cannot see; their self-image is almost always slow to adjust to the new reality. One of the ironies of caregiving is that we who give the care, whether paid professionals or unpaid family or friends, face the delicate and difficult task of tending to someone who is no longer who they think they are. Because caregivers are in the most intimate contact with those whom we care for, we end up feeling the brunt of those changes. Another irony is the origin of the word care itself: it comes from a German root related to 'grief' or 'lament,' and a Norse word meaning 'sickbed.' We who care tend the sickbed. And grieve the inevitable losses. 

Can you hear the difference? That objective voice backs us out of the intensity of the story, giving us breathing room to think about what it means. What it all means is the essential "why" question of memoir, as in "why should I care about your experience?" Without that, memoir is just another exercise in personal storytelling.

As I have worked my way through the manuscript, I've also realized that in choosing to tell much of the story as dialogue, I've also increased the intensity. Dialogue (whether internal or external) makes a story go faster. Which can be good. It can also be claustrophobic, too much inside the charater's heads. 

So I'm evaluating the dialogue. I'm retaining sections that reveal important things about the characters or the story, and switching the rest to narration. Which gives a little more distance on the story, lowering the intensity and opening space for readers to pause and reflect. 

Why bother revising? I'm putting more work into Bless the Birds because the story matters to me. Because I want to give it whatever it needs to find a wide audience.

Richard and me with one of his functional sculptures, a ton-sized granite boulder carved into a firepit. 

It matters because Bless the Birds is a love story, not just about the love between a man and a woman and a daughter; it's about loving life itself, all the way through. It's about death as part of how we live, a passage we can approach with care and grace. And love.

It's a story we need because we're all going to die, and doing it well makes a difference to our passage and those who we leave behind. And because love is something we cannot have too much of.