Trains take me back to grade school, evoking the fondest of memories, like this one.
My friend Wayne and I paused in our play in the woods during summer vacation. We waited for the dusty, black engine to emerge from the heat haze around the feed mill on the edge of our village. The slight curve of the train’s coal cars behind it cut a path beyond the trees. We sprinted to get a closer look and then stopped in our tracks, observing the slow, rhythmic bursts of the steam engine pulling toward us from the east. To us, the Pennsylvania Railroad train was more than a space on the Monopoly board.
Other snapshots of train travel spring from my memory, all seeming in the present tense:
- My Aunt Ruthie Longenecker takes my sisters and me to Philadelphia, my first recollection of a train trip. I feel the rocking motion of the Pennsylvania Railroad train car we occupy, the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails, and the prize of the big city zoo at the end of the trip: lions and tigers and elephants, oh my!
- When I pick plump, red raspberries with Grandma Longenecker, I hear the train’s clatter-clack over segments of track speeding from Lancaster to Harrisburg. With our round aluminum kettles laden with berries and handles that cut into the palms of our hands, we stand just 50 yards from the track, gazing in awe and feeling the vibration of the passing train through our shoes.
- I travel with Aunt Ruthie to Temple University, taking the train from Lancaster to Philadelphia. We feel the rocking rhythm of the train when it slows and stops as the conductor calls out “Coatesville, Downingtown, Paoli” before we reach our destination at the 30th street station in Philly.
The train trip from Lancaster to Philadelphia was not an express train. It made 5-6 stops on the 80-mile route from the countryside of Pennsylvania to the big city. By fits and starts, we made the journey in time for our 9:00 a.m. classes at Temple University. Same on the return trip. Slowing down and starting up again got us to and from our destination. All in good time.
It strikes me that writing novels, memoirs or other non-fiction is much like train travel. Lots of pausing, stopping, but sometimes even joyfully going full throttle through the countryside. The most important part of the plan: Staying on track. Here’s how I followed my unique route, writing my memoir, Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl:
Memoir Lesson 1 Be prepared to spend at least a year to complete your memoir. Mine took five. Simply put: It takes as long as it takes. Writing is certainly rewarding, but learning a new skill (as I did) can be hard. I had done plenty of writing as an academic, but switching to a new genre like memoir required a totally different skillset. I took two family history writing classes to prepare. You? Start somewhere. Doodle or write poetry. Write prose in a journal. Begin a blog.
Memoir Lesson 2 A memoir is a slice of your life, not a biography. Ask yourself some serious questions: What part of your life will you depict–-scenes from your childhood, a traumatic experience, a thrilling adventure like sailing around the world? Can you sketch out this “slice of life” in a series of memorable moments? Write an outline? Scribble random thoughts on colored sticky notes? Draw turning points on a timeline?
Memoir Lesson 3 What is your theme? If it’s success after a failed first marriage, that controlling idea will be the filter through which you tell your story. Flashbacks can add dimension to writing, but only if these stories connect to your theme. I enjoy cooking, but I don’t open up the spice cabinet or pull down everything from my dry ingredients’ shelves and dump them into the bowl. I have to be selective. Just so, you can’t tell every story that happened in your life. Select scenes to fit your theme.
Memoir Lesson 4 Memoir writing, like fiction, requires a series of steps. Here are a few: writing multiple drafts, revising, revising (Did I say revising?), and deciding whether you want to pursue traditional publishing or independent publishing. If you self-publish, as I did, I had to find beta readers for early drafts (often author friends with whom I reciprocated the favor), searched for a developmental editor or two, copyeditor and proofreader. A helpful tip: I looked on the acknowledgements page of authors whose books I admired and found one wonderful editor there.
Memoir Lesson 5 Super important: Read what you’ve written aloud occasionally. Your ear is better than your eye at detecting garbled language, especially with multiple edits.
Train trips engage the senses. Invite your readers to be your seat mate on the ride. Help them escape into your world. Slow down the narrative as you let them see the view from the window. Help them feel the rocking motion as the train speeds along. Let them hear the sound of wheels on the rails. Listen to strangers carry on conversations around you: Making unobtrusive notes may help you write realistic dialogue later on.
Memoir Lesson 6 Plan for publication. I began blogging six years before my book hit the shelves. It’s never too early to establish yourself as a writer. From the beginning, my blog posts appeared on Facebook and Twitter. Instagram has been also a great place to share fun stuff. Personal relationships too are very important and so rewarding. I found rekindled friendships and connections to author friends invaluable as I organized my book launch and marketing.
Memoir Lesson 7 Take breaks. The train to Philadelphia made frequent tops. At some of the stops, I got up from my seat, went to the restroom, or walked up and down the aisle. Sometimes en route, I stopped reading my textbook and just gazed out of the train window. I enjoy reading, so sometimes my break was reading an entertaining book. Like the cadence of clack-clack on train tracks, the rhythm of someone else’s words refreshed my mind.
And finally, “Celebrate!” Be sure to party along the way, not just when you hold that newly minted book in your hands, but other times too: Finishing your first draft, receiving a compliment from an early reader, picking a title, approving your cover design. Enjoy the entire ride!
This post first appeared on Happiness Between Tales by DA-AL.
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As promised, here is the answer key to Carolyn’s quiz appearing in last week’s post:
1d 2a 3e 4c 5b
Any memories of train travel in your past? Prospects in your future?
As a writer or reader, what other metaphors for the writing process come to mind?