Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dancing with the memoir

I am amazed at the number of memoir writing guides I have purchased, but not yet read. Oh, yes, I have read about 7 of them, and the rest of them (maybe a dozen) rest like postage stamps in my ereader, my ipad, my library. Somehow I suppose I think that by a weird osmosis, they will seep into my thinking unopened, but the real truth on really bad days is that I don't care how those authors "did it". I just want to do it.

I became a first rate tennis player in my town, in my youth, by simply standing behind the fence and behind an ace player, watching how he or she did it. I learned by watching how to power into the ball, to get my racket at least as low as my knee, to connect with the ball,and how to run down every ball shot at me. Boy, was I young. Later, I chose my ball battles, forfeiting balls way out of my comfort range, and that's how I knew quitting time was approaching.

I'm a left-handed player, or was, and most of those types have killer serves. I was no exception. As I watched highy skilled players, I learned to volley and hardly ever enjoyed doubles because that's about team work and sharing. I had far greater goals: playing killer tennis meant that every 20 seconds or so I had a brand new opportunitiy to pound the heck out of whoever was my virtual ball on any given day. I got rid of a lot of fury (something way beyond anger) just playing good tennis.

I learned to ice skate the same way. Watching a pro, learning at a small skating studio, practicing, practicing, watching, watching. I advanced rapidly to jumps and dancing, but dancing involved a partner, so jumps were more appealing. I was smart enough to quit before I injured myself, but also because my hip sockets said, "stop the craziness, woman" and there went both tennis and skating. I went to work instead.

I excelled at both those activities because I watched how better, more skilled athletes "did it". I skated and played tennis in my head, every night before I fell asleep. I was totally enamored with my goals. And so I got good at both of them. It was the same with my memoir. For a year I woke up quite frequently in the wee hours of the morning and pushed a nub of a pencil across a scrap of paper as my brain worked through my fingers and deposited parts of my young life I had forgotten. I did it in half-sleep. Over and over again.

Memoir poured out of me like a fountain, as if a phantom was writing and the real me was just its tool. I rolled out 16 chapters, 377 pages, 119,000 words. Yeesh! The best thing I can say about that is that my editor was exceedingly kind and patient and gentle and dogged, to work her way through it and tell me how repetive I am, how much I overwrite, how tight this work isn't. But she also said there is at least one dynamic story here, that I must remember I am a natural-born writer with something important to tell to an audience needing to hear it.

Now, if I can only get out of my own way, stop trying to work it so hard and just let it be told without working for flare, or great insight, or any of those things the new writer thinks must embellish the already valuable story. To just let the story tell itself. So re-write is the name of the new game.

Boy, do I hate this discipline. I worry that I'm cutting away really good parts and leaving the bland parts. I worry I'll never get it done, because I keep rewriting the same three chapters and can't get to the rest. I'm spinning my wheels and making slow progress but not that I feel content with. I slice out every word that does not contribute to the meaning of the sentence, or that doesn't move the story forward. In some places I'm writing myself out of the story. Now, even I can see that's not a good thing. I've so purged what is possibly extemporaneous material in order to not be tedious and thereby have boiled this down to a report with people in it. Back to thedrawing board.

I need to give myself permission to be colorful and stop worrying so much about is there too much "tell" and not enough "show". To concern myself only with certainty that I have provided enough to keep my reader in the story with me, to slow the pace so the reader can rest, but not too long, to make my characters live and breathe and to get them lost in the cornfield with me, to ride a horse who stands 18 hands high, to feel like they are holding the toddler sister so she doesn't fall off, to fall into the creek and feel the wet  and cold pants of my little brother as if it's their own behinds. To recognize an angry and hostile mother who resents that her children might just attain their dreams where she has not. To hear the strafing of a beach and feel shrapnel rip young male skin, to taste fear that escalates to terror, to need to put the book down and catch their breath. That's a lot of writing amition, but having read my way through two back issues of Crazy Horse Magazine, I see that I can and do make a fair comparison, reading the selections there.

For me, the goal now is to not, not, not torture the sentence, but to tell it straight or slant and write it real,  and let the lyric flow when it will. But to not work at it until I have destroyed it. I know I have not reached too high because how else can I explain the groping and uninformed search for good instructors and immediately found them?

The realization of that much blessing motivates me to polish my treasure and trust that publication will be a strong possibility. Not for money or fame. Those things have eluded me for a lifetime. But for the reading audience who needs to hear that from abandonment and abuse can come triumph and victory, understanding, and perhaps a clear witness that the human spirit can rise above adversity. I know from so much reading, that my story is unique and that events in my life pale before other tragedies I have read. That doesn't make my life less meaningful. It will be a fair offering when it's finally finished, useful in the main, and a good read. Even as a new writer, I have that much confidence and that comes from affirmation.

Okay, back to the grunt work.

No comments:

Post a Comment