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.
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.
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.
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.
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!