Today I wonder if my memoir is complete crap and needs to be abandoned. I decide to make a list of the things I want to write about again for this new manuscript, this third round. I make a list, but it isn’t very long. I like the first piece in the book, so I decide to keep it. I find a zillion pages I don’t like anymore. I delete them. I end up removing two thirds of the book. It reminds me of years ago, sitting on the bed at my place on Avenida Ortega when I began culling the original manuscript, making piles of yes, no, maybe. There was almost nothing in the yes pile. This feels the same way. Most of the writing seems dull, boring, lifeless. No one would want to read it. I’m not even interested anymore. How could anyone else be? How could this manuscript have been one of nine finalists for a national book award? Did they receive terrible submissions? Was mine never actually in the running, only chosen as a matter of formality, better than even worse writing? I don’t want to be mean to myself, but I don’t evade the questions. And I don’t know the answers. I wonder if this is natural and right, that after a period of time we become more objective, a sluice to separate the sand and gravel from the gold. I wonder if I am throwing away good work. I wonder if I need to leave this book behind. I know enough to know I am not the first writer to feel this way. I tell myself it is too soon to give up. I point out I have kept more of the manuscript than last time, but this argument is weak. I am only certain I want to keep a handful of the pages I’ve saved. The rest are maybes. I’ve written two new pieces, but they don’t sing. That doesn’t mean the fourth one won’t, I insist, or the seventh. I think again about turning this into a work of fiction. I decide to keep going, to trust myself to know what is true. I recognize fear, a clenching in my belly. But I’m pretty sure there is excitement rolled up in there, too. Maybe when I get inside the writing it will open up. Maybe it will fly. I think about what an odd and funny beast writing is, what quirky creatures writers are. I notice I can breathe again. I send up quick prayers for lift off, for flight.
Oh Riba, how comforting it is to hear these questions coming out of someone elses brain rather than my own. Sometimes our harsh judgments stem from having the material around us for so long. As Aesop wrote in The Fox and the Lion, familiarity breeds contempt… though I prefer Aldous Huxley’s riff on the idea: “familiarity breeds indifference.” But also I think writers are plagued with self-doubt, which gets taken out on our work. Sure, being selective is vital but don’t delete unless you’re certain it’s inferior. I’ve gone back to earlier work and discovered a kernel of something that was helpful. Sometimes the piece needed restructuring, or sometimes I used that bit as a jumping off place to write something completely new.
One of the things I love about contemporary literature is the shrugging off of genre labels and not worrying if a piece is “fiction” or “nonfiction.” Let them intermingle, if that allows you to get to the heart of an idea or concern.
I was reading an interview with Geoff Dyer last night in The Paris Review and it seems apt, so I’m copying in the link: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6282/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-6-geoff-dyer.
Oh, thank you for the link, Bart! I am rushing to be ready for my upcoming trip, but I will bookmark this for later.
I did say I deleted two thirds of the book. (Last time it was more like 7/8ths or even 9/10th of the book! But I also cut up on those “maybes” and used the bits of gems for the new work.) But I did save the existing manuscript in its own document before I started deleting for this third round! I felt ruthless but not insane. Hee hee hee. I will absolutely read those pages again one day, and it is not impossible that there will be kernels there, as you say, or some of them may only need a bit of revising to make it into the final manuscript for this third round.
I adore the contemporary blending of fact and fiction, too! However, I am afraid I am a purist in one sense: I believe we need to be clear about whether a piece is fiction or nonfiction. For example, if you are submitting to a short story contest, you don’t get to submit a short memoir piece. In terms of the fun of it, I am especially drawn to the idea of writing fiction about historical people or about fictional characters! I am certain some of both will be in my own work one of these days when I finish working on my two books. Ha! :)
(I do have a short piece I wrote long ago with Alice B. Toklas as the narrator.)
The hardest part for me is that deeper doubt that maybe I am holding myself back and really DO need to let go of this memoir. But I am going to give this third round my best shot, and if it doesn’t come alive for me, then maybe I will set it aside and move on for now. I have to trust I will know if that is what needs to happen, yes? ;-)
Thank you so much, Bart, for you kind and thoughtful comments—here and always.
well, can relate to all that’s being said here. Except the part about being a writer who actually writes and has a body of work. I dabble lazily, but even that doesn’t protect me from the concerns you both have voiced. I started (weakly) through the link Bart shared and will work my way through — maybe after lunch? : ) Thanks for passing it along.
As more of a psych major than a writer, Riba, I appreciate this process of memoir. There’s something here, in the entire array, all of the versions and revisions and how we cut and paste. I believe our pasts do change, b/c WE change (hopefully!) I’ve been stuck writing mine out for years now. Honed down to 2 pages (hurray!) but then it went up to a 5 page “poem.” Maybe think big, write small? I don’t think this one can be solved, and I like solving.
Have a great upcoming trip. Will watch the blog. : )
Well, you ARE a writer who writes, Laurie! Your two-page (or 5-page) memoir/poem sounds like a fascinating idea and a marvelous honing/whittling away process. I can hardly imagine this!
As far as my book is concerned, I think I will only know in time. If it doesn’t come to life again for me in my next efforts, then I may put it aside. Or maybe it will become a new whole and simply not be a book-length manuscript? It was always short, anyway. Maybe silly of me to keep wondering and wandering through this in my mind, but it does feel helpful on some level (eases my angst to try to turn toward it) and comforting to get to “talk” about it with other writers like this.
(Yes, I mean you, too, Laurie. ;-) I loved your work!)
Thanks very much to you both.
I’m taking this all to heart, Bart and Riba. Hope you will too. : )
Smiling, Laurie. :)
And thank YOU! (As always.)