Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon one can neither resist nor understand. ~ George Orwell
Orwell is right about the struggle, and I am nearing the end of the writing process. Thus, a progress report is in order.
Sometimes I wonder, Should I laugh or cry?
The peaks and valleys of my narrative arc looked a lot like an outline of the Swiss Alps.
Writing as revision
Writing a draft is one thing. Revising is another. Revising one’s manuscript is like pulling oneself up with his/her own bootstraps. Or as Mary Karr puts it: “Writing memoir, if it’s done right, is like knocking yourself out with your own fist.”
Writers tend to get tunnel vision. That’s why they need other readers, beta readers, who scrutinize their manuscripts.
Beta Readers, now numbering in the double digits, have read my drafts with a spyglass. They used microscopes, telescopes, and periscopes. Some even used prisms to enable me to see the draft from many angles.
How Beta Reading works:
I gave early readers GUIDELINES to follow with questions like these: Does the story line make sense? Is the main character believable? Where were you confused? Bored?
Many readers who requested an electronic copy of my draft used TRACK Changes, balloons in the manuscript margin that suggest additions or deletions.
A few wanted a hard copy, which I mailed to them. Suggestions came back with hand-written notes in the margins + other comments, all helpful.
How I treated the comments:
Except for my sister Jean who was very helpful with correct names of churches and people in my past, I chose my beta readers because they are published authors whose opinion I highly respect.
More than two years ago my first reader asked, “What is your story about?” (Not a good sign!)
I sighed because I thought my story theme was obvious. It was to me.
so back to the drawing board I went.
All agreed on One Point:
“Take all this advice with a grain of salt,” each one said. “This is YOUR story!”
What I Changed:
Structure: An example, one of the last chapters now appears earlier in the book.
Order of chapters: I changed chapter sequence to improve flow.
Verb tense, my nemesis: I’ve concluded verb tense consistency is a problem because I’m writing in the present about events happening more than 60 years ago.
Repetition: WHY, oh why would I need to say the same thing twice?
The Story Cure: A Big Help
I have followed advice from The Story Cure by Dinty W. Moore, paraphrased here: Take your readers down an Invisible Magnetic River. Help them forget they are reading a book. Invite them to imagine they are right beside you, inside your story. You can read my review of his book here.
The Title, a sticky point
My working title has been Mennonite in Shiny Red Shoes.
I sat with that for a while. After all, the words resonated with a quote I found last year:
To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give reality to one’s dreams. ~ Roger Vivier
While this title serves as one metaphor in my book and shows my desire for a fancier life, the title is not a Bingo: And while it does fit one major theme of my book, it’s too derivative of other Mennonite memoirs: Mennonite in Little Black Dress / Mennonite in Blue Jeans.
The latest contenders:
Coming of Age Mennonite: A Daughter’s Quest
I Was Mennonite: The Farm Mechanic’s Daughter and a Cultural Imprint
My editor may have other ideas!
Why Writing Memoir is hard on the body and mind:
Writing memoir “is the recreation or reconstruction of past experiences by the synchronous firing of neurons that were involved in the original experience.”
Often at my desk I have been so “into” a scene that when I looked away from the manuscript, I was surprised to find I was at home in my writing studio and not trying on hats in my Grandma Longenecker’s kitchen long ago, a pleasant memory. If the scene was difficult to re-live, I was there too.
Memoir as Legacy, a prime reason for writing
Madeleine L’Engle agrees completely:
If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.
If you can make your ancestors real for yourself, learn their stories and who they were, your life – and death – will take on added meaning. You will see yourself in the Big Picture that includes all human life that has come and gone on the planet. ~ Laurence Overmire, Digging for Ancestral Gold
Hope for Fellow Strugglers
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. ~ E. L. Doctorow
What parts of this post can you relate to?
Your suggestion for my memoir title?