Writing: Immersed in Revision

Talking about the ecology of “snow forests,” high elevation forests above Taos, New Mexico.

Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession–revising Bless the Birds yet one more time–to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers’ “Writing the New Mexico Landscape” workshop at Oklahoma State University’s Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students–all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature–I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I’m making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I’m awake and I often don’t go back to sleep.

But Friday night–actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn’t ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep.

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that’s another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!)

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the “wood wide web” of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white–we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn’t listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn’t have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don’t think the veterans in my life–Richard and my dad–would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end–of the story and of that chapter of my life–the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward.

That’s what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it’s hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It’s one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It’s a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed.

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I’m not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing…

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom
Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus trigolochidatus) nearby

Renovation: Condo and Memoir

When I bought my snug condo last October, I promised myself I would not get involved in a long renovation project. There was nothing really wrong with the place, except for being a bit stuck in 1984, when the building was built. (The photo above is the dining area as I first saw it.)

Well, nothing wrong except for the 20-year-old carpet. Carpet and my lungs don't get along. And carpet replacement isn't really renovation, or at least not much. It's pretty simple. Carlos Ornelas, the head of maintenance at my condo complex, pulled up the old carpet, and my fabulous Cody contractor, Jeff Durham, drove to Santa Fe to meet me and install plank floors. 

Only there was a rare October blizzard the day Jeff left Wyoming hauling his workshop trailer. By the time he arrived at midnight, he figured he was hauling an extra ton or so of snow and ice. Still, he plunged right into work the next day, and by the time he left at the end of the week, I not only had gorgeous new plank floors and baseboard, I also had a chic ceiling fan-light in the dining area, thanks to my artist friend CC Barton, who had removed it from her house down the hill. 

The dining area with new plank flooring and the new ceiling fan/light (the old one is sitting on the floor–it went to a good home). 

The new floors looked so great that I decided to have Carlos paint a few of the walls something other than white, to add some color. That wasn't really renovation either, just paint. 

The living room, with plank floors and paint–and Arabella, who rode all the way from Wyoming in the back of Red, my truck. 
The living room, before the not-exactly-renovation improvements. 

With new flooring and paint though, the kitchen really looked tired. 

The kitchen before (you can't tell how shabby the cabinets are in this photo, or that the breakfast bar is so tilted you could easily roll marbles–or food–off of it.)

So I decided to have the cabinets refaced and the counters replaced, plus I bought new appliances at a fall sale. None of that was really involved, and it would all be done before I moved anyway, so it wasn't really much renovation.

Right? 

Well… Actually the kitchen didn't get finished until February, because of the usual issues–stuff we didn't expect to have to fix, the holidays, appliances that got delayed, and so on. But it was worth the wait, no doubt about that. 

The dining area and the kitchen after renovation. The breakfast bar is level, the cabinets aren't ugly, and the appliances all work.

After the long kitchen process, ultimately satisfying as it was, I said to myself, okay, No. More. Renovation. 

And I didn't listen. In March, Nick, the manager of our condo association, announced that he had negotiated a bulk buy for good-quality windows and patio doors to replace the 35-year-old not-great-quality originals. He was looking for owners interested in pioneering the replacement project, which the association would manage with a contractor Nick had selected and vetted. So of course I signed up. 

Because… I feel like I've found my forever-home. And because I had saved up money to buy my small van-camper, and when that fell through, I figured I might as well invest in improving my condo.

Also, replacing the old windows in my Cody house with new ones in the same style but more efficient showed me what a huge difference that can make, in comfort and a smaller energy footprint. Since I live and work in my condo and I care about climate change, those matter–along with beauty. 

So this week, my living room, which had been looking pretty settled, went from the photo above to the photo below, as Jose and crew of Twins Construction took out the old sliding glass doors, which leaked so badly it was ridiculous, and put in the beautiful and solid new ones.

Except… the manufacturer sent a door that opens from the right side (from inside) instead of from the left. So this door is tacked into place until the correct one is made and shipped, in about three weeks. 

The rest of the project went more smoothly, if not more quietly. Removing the old doors and windows, and cutting a new door opening from the guest bedroom to the patio where there was just a window before involves pounding the stucco off the walls outside, and pounding the metal drywall corners off of the inside. Which makes for dust, and–did I mention this?–noise. A lot of both.

The new door opening from the guest bedroom to the patio in progress. 

The door in place and trimmed, waiting for touch-up paint. 

But oh! The new windows and doors are solid, beautiful, and well-insulated. My condo is now much quieter than it was before construction, and the temperature stays constant. So its definitely worth the cost and disruption. 

The new window in my bedroom/office. 

After the adventures of the past week, I promised myself that I am NOT doing any more renovation.

At least not until fall, when I think I'll tackle one of the bathrooms, which both have stupidly low counters and tub/shower units showing signs of leprosy…

I am doing some renovation to my memoir-in-progress. I read the first 20 pages of Bless the Birds out loud before submitting them to another publisher. As I read, I "heard" some places that could be improved, so I did a bit of revision. Just as with my condo after Jeff painstakingly laid down the new plank floor, once I made some improvements to those first twenty pages, I could see other parts that needed work too. 

So I'm reading through and renovating the story, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. My aim is to go from darkness to light, grief to laughter, even as the story cycles through Richard's brain cancer and death. I'm highlighting our shared terraphilia–our love for life and for this Earth. It's not easy, but it feels right. 

New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

"Begin as you intend to continue," my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that's the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.) 

It's an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it's easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you'll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year's Eve party last night, I thought, I'll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast. 

Then I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission: 

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet. 

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it. 

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It's also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, "To everyone everywhere." By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life. 

And wouldn't you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don't want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that's difficult.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning. 

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it's a compelling vision that will speak to others. 

The gamble is that you won't necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn't ever cohere and sing. 

That's where I've been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn't know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable. 

These past few weeks, I've been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself. 

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me. 

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole. 

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It's full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life. 

I'm going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I've been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds. 

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year's. May you begin this year as you intend to continue. 

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day. 

Memoir Revision: Starting Over With a New Perspective

Back in March, I started two new projects: my running practice, and a total rewrite of Bless the Birds, the memoir I've been working on sporadically for the last, well, six years. 

The running's going well. I've settled into a routine of running two mornings a week, and I'm up to 3.7 miles now. I'm not fast, but I am running regularly, and that's what counts. 

I love running for the righteous feeling when I've finished. And for the excuse to be outside in sagebrush country, the landscapes of my heart. It's a joy to see the occasional coyote (they are much faster than I am!), listen to sparrows call, watch swallows dip and swoop after insects, and see the sagebrush and bunchgrasses and wildflowers go through the cycle of the seasons. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from my running route last week, with an forest-fire-smoke orange dawn lighting Rattlesnake–on the right–and Spirit–on the left–mountains, and the Shoshone River flowing in its shallow canyon below me.)

In May, that same view was greener and dotted with spring wildflowers.

The memoir work is going well too, if much more slowly than I had hoped. Which isn't surprising, really, since I am starting over from the beginning, writing the story anew from a completely different narrative framework.

The original versions (all eight or so of them!) were much more chronological, and that meant it was too easy for me to get mired in the details of brain cancer and not focus on the point of the story. Which is living the end of your life with love. Heck, living your whole life with love, whatever comes. 

Bless the Birds is about being mindful in choosing how to live. Not just letting life roll you over, no matter how hard things become.

For Richard and me, that meant deliberately choosing to live with love and kindness and compassion and wonder and joy. Even as brain cancer took over our days.

Richard Cabe (1950-2011) on the way home from his monthly check-in with his oncologist; by then, he had survived two brain surgeries and a course of radiation, plus a course of chemo. 

Even as Richard's tumor- and surgery-impaired brain challenged his ability to do the things he had always done so easily. Even when we know he wouldn't survive. Especially then. 

This new version of the story begins with "then," when we knew he was terminal, knew he was headed for hospice care when we got home. It opens with the first night of The Big Trip, our belated honeymoon trip, a 4,000-mile drive to and down the Pacific Coast from Washington to southern California. A trip we took because we wanted to enjoy our time while we could. 

Those three weeks on the road were more of an adventure than we bargained for, and two months from the day we got home, he died. But the trip speaks for the way we lived the journey with his brain cancer: we lived.

Richard savoring a meal at Redfish Restaurant in Port Orford, Oregon. (Thank you Ann Vileisis and Tim Palmer, for the visit and the recommendation to eat at Redfish!)

We didn't waste our time regretting. Or not much time anyway. We did our best to savor as many of the moments as we could. Laughed, loved, fought, ate, drank, celebrated, and grieved. And walked hand-in-hand right up to the day he "woke up dead," as he liked to phrase what he imagined happening. 

This entirely new version of Bless the Birds is a story within a story, framed by the days of that Big Trip, with flashbacks to show who we were and how we got to that journey with Richard's right brain deteriorating to the point that he ws losing his vision and his balance; to the point that his bladder (as he put it) didn't always talk to his brain, and his ability read a map or dial a cellphone was gone. His sense of humor was intact, as was his ability to think and reason. He was as incisive and insightful as ever, even if he had to sleep a lot of the time. 

Writing the story this way reminds me of E.L. Doctorow's quote about writing fiction (from the Paris Review, "Writers at Work: Interviews"):

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

When I have time to work on the story, that's exactly how it feels: like driving at night in the fog. I'm in Chapter 11, not quite halfway through with the first draft of this new version, and I can't see very far ahead, but I trust I can make the whole trip groping along by the light of my intuition's headlights. I trust that the story will work.

It's slow, and it's painful to relive that time, but it feels right. And as with any good writing, I'm learning new things along the way about myself, about Richard, and about our journey together.

Here's how the new story begins:

Day One, Odometer Reading 182 miles:

Richard opened his eyes as I slowed the car for the turn to the gravel ranch road. I rolled down the windows, letting in the rich smell of new-mown hay along with a distinctive, throbbing call: “Khrrr, khrrrr, khrrr!” 

“Sandhill cranes!” A smile creased Richard’s tanned face. He reached for my hand as the cranes called again. “I’m a lucky guy.” 

Except for the terminal brain cancer, I thought. 

I swiped at tears with the hand that should have been holding the steering wheel, and then drove on toward the ranch headquarters, a cluster of white-painted buildings. I parked in our usual spot the shade of the spruce tree by the bunkhouse and turned to Richard. “I’m going to haul our stuff upstairs.” 

“I can help.” He pulled his six-foot length slowly out of the car, and then reached behind the seat for his briefcase. I grabbed our duffel, the box with his medications, my briefcase, and his pillow. We walked across the lawn and into the ranch house. As I turned to go up the stairs to the bedrooms, Richard stopped. “You go first,” he said. Uh oh.

“Richard can manage the stairs, can’t he?” Betsy, the facilities manager at Carpenter Ranch had asked when I called about our stay. I relayed the question.

“Of course.” His voice carried the confidence of 61 years of inhabiting a strong and appealingly male form. The voice of a man who could free-climb a cliff, sculpt a one-ton boulder, or juggle three balls while balancing on one leg. A man who once would have bounded up the narrow flight of steps at the ranch house, carrying our mound of gear because he could. 

This Richard froze at the bottom, his right leg lifted, unable to move upward. I stopped at the top of the stairs, arms loaded, watching with a stomach-churning mix of horror and fascination, compelled to witness the debilitating effects of the brain-tumor I could not stop. Finally, he took the steps slowly, one at a time like an old man, gripping the handrail.

I showed him the bathroom down the hall, and then he stretched out on the bed and fell asleep.

On I go, feeling my way. I guess that's pretty much how we live life. We can't really see ahead (although we think we can). We do our best with what we can discern, and trust that our best will take us to where we need to go, safely and without harm to anyone. And that the trip is worthwhile. 

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

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

Memoir: Voice and Intensity and Love

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.