Last week, I finished the first draft of Bless the Birds, my new memoir. Mind you, the story isn’t anywhere near finished. At 135,000 words and 478 pages (Times 12 point type, double-spaced), this draft is way too long.
So before sending it off to the agent I’ve been working with, I figured I’d better take the first whack at tightening up the story.
I finished the draft on Wednesday. Thursday, Fourth of July, I spent time at a Cabe family gathering in celebration of my brother-in-law’s birthday. Friday morning, I picked up page one and started revising.
Maybe that seems compulsive, but I want to work with this story while it’s still fresh and immediate, perhaps even a bit raw.
For me and I think most writers-from-life, whether writers of memoir or fiction, writing well means reliving the parts of my life I’m writing from. That’s intense and not comfortable; of course, discomfort is often what’s needed for honest and compelling writing.
I start by reading primary sources: my journals, other daily notes including garden journals and health notes, and correspondence, whether snail or email.
I also look at photographs, which jog my memory to produce the details that make a story come alive. (That’s a trick I learned from Lisa Dale Norton’s book Shimmering Images, A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir.)
For this particular memoir, a story in two voices, I also read primary sources that gave clues to the other voice, that of my late love, sculptor and economist Richard Cabe.
What I could find of his personal writing fills a banker’s box, a miscellaneous collection of the chest-pocket notebooks he used for his sporadic journaling, plus other snippets of his intellectual and creative life, sketches of sculptures and structures, measurements and equations, tools he was designing, and details of shape and form. He was a saver of pressed plants, rocks, and cards people wrote him.
There are the daily logs of the medications he took during his brain cancer treatment (on 3X5 cards, to fit in the pocket of his button-down shirts), notes on gallery shows, and quotes written in his fine hand on the back of receipts.
I skim those sources before writing, dipping more deeply here and there, flagging sections with colored post-its that are particularly interesting and/or relevant. Then I delve into the specific period I’m writing about and immerse myself. I read until I have all the information I can hold, then write, read some more and then write some more….
Bless the Birds focuses on our journey between the morning when Richard saw birds by the score, and the morning two years and 89 days later when he died of brain cancer. Like any memoir, it loops about in places, going decades back in time, or sideways or forward, all in the service of illuminating the characters and the story.
And like any memoir, it’s not a recounting of every fact. It’s a portrait of a time, a chronicle of a journey that involves characters who grow and are changed by what happens to them (whether they like it or not).
Last night, as I was contemplating the huge project of trimming this much-too-long manuscript, my friend Steve Trimble, photographer, author, and teacher of writing, stopped by on his travels.
Over drinks as the Arkansas River murmured night-songs nearby, Steve asked,
What have you learned from writing this memoir that you didn’t know before?
My brain went blank. I fumbled.
Tonight, as crickets chirp and the heat of a summer day ebbs, I can answer:
I learned anew that love–love of another, love of living, love of the community of life and nature itself–is what makes life worth living. Right up through the end.
Love is what carried Richard and I through that terrible and beautiful journey with his brain cancer, and love is what buoyed him as he underwent the wrenching metamorphosis from the man we knew to whatever is next in the arc of life.
I’ve said before that love is perhaps our species’ greatest gift. It’s certainly one the world needs more of.
Here I go, writing another love story. One which I hope will spread its light through this battered but gloriously alive world.