Writing Hard Stories

What's_Your_Story_Image

 

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

Advertisements

National Novel Writing Month–Yay or Nay?

Image

When I became a mother, I couldn’t wait for all the things I would teach my kids.

I wanted to introduce them to music, dance, and art. I wanted them to have happy associations with Jewish observance. I wanted to inspire them to be lifelong learners and book lovers.

What I didn’t expect was how much my kids would teach and inspire me. My oldest daughter encouraged me to write a children’s novel which resulted in an award-winning book.

My son continues to inspire me to not “sweat the small stuff” and to stay positive.

My youngest daughter taught me to trust that she is learning, even though she is not in a traditional school.  Lately, she has been a beacon of light as I crawl through the tunnel of discouragement regarding my second novel  attempt. She understands my battle with perfectionism and, fortunately, does not seem to suffer from that condition.

“You need to try NaNoWriMo” she told me.

She was referring to National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of aspiring writers sign on to the project website. Their goal: write a quick first draft of a novel–in a month. That’s 50,000 words in 30 days!  Of course, not everyone succeeds, but the process itself is valuable–so they say.

“It’s all about silencing your inner critic. At least for a month,” Audrey tells me, fully aware of my nemesis.

Audrey has participated in the Youth Division for the past few years. She enjoyed the pep talks, the writing forums, and the rush of seeing her word count rise.

While I enthusiastically supported her participation, NaNoWriMo sounded like torture to me. I had several reasons for not signing on.

l.  I’ve already written a novel.

2. I’m not a fast writer.

3. I hate writing a big long mess.

4. November is a very busy month.

5. I have other writing contests to work on.

6.  I could never win.

7.  Did I mention that I could never write 50,000 words in a month?

You get the idea.

Of course, Audrey has a counter argument for each of my arguments.  “What have you go to lose?” she finally huffed, after I stubbornly clung to my excuses.

I was reminded of my father. Growing up, I suffered from a lot of worry.  Whether is was speaking in front of the class or trying something new, my anxiety would get in the way.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my father would ask.

Which, today, inspired me to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen by committing myself to NaNoWriMo? 

Answer: 1.  I write a bunch of garbage.  2. I don’t reach the goal.

Hmm. Not the end of the world by any means.

Then I suddenly thought of another question.  What’s the best thing that might happen? 

Answer. 1. I get back on track with the story I want to write. Even better: 2. I get in the flow and churn out a rough draft that gives me something to work on.

I hesitated to the last minute. I thought about being a role model for my writing workshop students (whom I encouraged to enter the Young Writers NaNoWriMo).

So I took the plunge and registered. This is my public announcement.

“Oy, “I’ll never write 50,000 words,” I said to Audrey immediately afterward.

“Mom!”

“Okay. I take it back.”

Image

The next day I got the first NaNoWriMo pep talk in my inbox. It was from award-winning YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

Wow, she was describing my every thought regarding National Novel Writing Month. Here’s an excerpt from her most excellent post.

Dear Writer,

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing     their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words. But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words… 

And guess what? Ms. Rowell’s NaNoWriMo first draft ended up becoming her recently published novel, Fangirl.

Her words hit my motivation button. Time to get writing.  Fast!

How do your children inspire you? Are you a NaNoWriMo participant?

Writing From A Place of Honesty

Image   I love reading memoirs. I am fascinated by how a writer structures the chaos and complexities of a life into a narrative.  I also wonder how you get over the fear of exposure, of being judged, of hurting friends and family? As Anne Lamont says, “We write to expose the unexposed.”   How many writers out there still fear exposure, though, when we live in an age of overexposure?

I am a private person and have become more so as I’ve gotten older.  In this cyber age of platform building and social networking, no writer is an island.  Nor can she afford to be.  I may have the life material to craft a compelling memoir, but I am not ready to run naked through the streets. And I may never be. For now, I prefer to select excerpts from my life. Exploring ideas, insights, and truths in this way allows me to both shape and contain the experience and still keep some curtains closed.

This June, I opened a curtain when my essay, “Letting Go” was published in Tablet Magazine.  The personal essay expressed my mixed feelings about my 20-year-old daughter’s engagement and marriage. I hoped my experience would help other parents of kids who take-off early.  Tackling this particular topic was a big leap in terms of my comfort level. The published piece is much different than the one I had originally submitted.  The editor, Wayne Hoffman, pushed me to dig deeper–to write from a place of truth and honesty–from the heart. I almost didn’t make the requested revisions, but once I worked through the fear of vulnerability, I found my real voice. The result was very satisfying.  An added bonus was when the Tablet editor called to say how much he loved my revised essay.

Readers responded to this honesty. The online comments and email feedback, mostly positive, provided me an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).

Evelyn

I’m sitting at my desk at work wiping tears from my cheeks. Your article is so beautiful and right on target. It resonates so deeply- you captured the emotions and dialogue perfectly.  

“Letting Go” was picked up by the New York Times Motherlode blog the same day it appeared in the Tablet. Instantly, my audience (and exposure) widened. Blogger KJ Dell’Antonia invited readers to share thoughts on the topic of marrying at a very young age.  I was surprised by how many NYT commenters seemed not to have read my entire essay, yet still had a strong opinion about it.  Writing openly about your life opens you up to the critics, of course. No dodging that bullet. The diverse reactions on Motherlode reminded me how we each project our life view into what we read and that being “open-minded” is easier said than done.

So, my advice to other private-by-nature people who want to write about very personal experiences in today’s online world? Grow a thick skin; you won’t die of exposure.

And what about you? Do you find it hard to draw the curtains when you write about your life?  How do you decide what is okay to reveal about family members, especially your children?  Or are you happy to run naked through the streets?

How many books will you write this year?

Sunday afternoons I usually devote to writing projects.  This Mother’s Day, after a little prompting from my family, I took the entire day off.  And I enjoyed myself!  That is, until later that evening when a NY Times headline caught my eye: Writer’s Cramp: In-E-Reader Era, a Book a Year is Slacking.

Oh, my.

Those commercial fiction writers who previously managed to put out a book a year are now “pulling the literary equivalent of a double shift.”  These writers, whom we love and hate, are churning out extras–short stories, novellas, e-books– to satisfy their impatient readers whose attention spans have shortened, thanks to our revved up world.

Thriller writer Lisa Scottoline has revved up her daily quota to 2000 words.  That translates into a 12/7 workweek.  Best-selling literary novelists are, so far, off the hook. (Go ahead, take your ten years. We still love you!)  Since I don’t belong to either camp (not yet), I’m wondering what to make of this madness.  Between book marketing, building my platform, speaking engagements, circulating short stories, writing query letters, entering competitions, raising my kids, and the Other job, my next novel is still in note form.  Maybe I could offer this for 99 cents while my fans await the real thing.

Let’s suppose that you could (or do) write full-time?  How many books could you (would you) write in one year?