In sharing my work for critique with other writers, I am learning that the process of writing memoir can be hard for writers of other genres to understand. I find I often get the same feedback over and over, and it’s not always possible to incorporate all useful feedback right away. For a while, I was being told to add more dialogue and write out scenes with full description (i.e. show rather than tell), and that has been easy to do. I can often catch this tendency in my writing now, and add sufficient dialogue and description before sharing my work with others.
Other feedback, however, isn’t possible to incorporate just yet, even if I wanted to. The idea to re-structure my entire manuscript to weave present-day scenes and thoughts while flashing back to earlier scenes is a good one. I very well might try that to see how it works, when I am ready. However, my first goal is to finish a full draft. As it stands, while I’m about 3/4 finished with the story as I originally outlined it, I’m only about 1/3 through my new outline (since the decision to make it a “healing memoir” lengthens the amount of time I need to cover). So, I have a LOT left to write, and I’m not ready to start playing around with the structure just yet.
I’m also familiar with the feedback to add more fiction techniques to my non-fiction memoir writing, such as artistic flourishes describing the beauty of trees or the singing of birds, as a way to evoke the kind of atmosphere that I want. While those particular examples are not my writing style nor a style I enjoy reading, I do recognize at some point I will have to do another revision to add more depth and description. I often think of the metaphor of carving a statue out of rock. The first ‘draft’ will look almost nothing like the final form; with each pass of the hammer and the chisel, the piece gets more, more and more defined. To suggest skipping straight to the finishing details isn’t possible; you have to uncover the shape, piece by piece. Memoir writing is often a process of cutting away memories in order to focus on the story you want to tell. I am merely on the first or perhaps second draft, and nowhere near the end. Those flourishes will come, should I chose to employ them. But I am not there yet.
It’s not that I’m not listening to and considering this feedback. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I just have a process, and those details come at a later point in mine.
This is also how memory works. I may write a bare-bones scene from the best of my memory, and then I might read old emails and journals that help me to flesh the scene out more. Then, as I’m reading a seemingly unrelated news story, a new detail or piece of dialogue might come back to me, and I have to revise the scene again. Actually, today I read a news story that reminded me of a HUGE detail that I will have to incorporate into a number of chapters. Writing and re-writing is natural when the story itself surfaces in fragmented pieces. Your job as a writer of memoir is to weave these together into a coherent and meaningful story.
As Sven Birkets says in The Art of Time in Memoir,
[T]rauma-based accounts are often private salvage operations. Rather than assuming continuity, they must, at the deepest level, reflect and somehow compensate for its destruction. For a trauma is a rupture, a break … whether brought on by a single experience or, more commonly, the infliction of a repeated injury that cannot be integrated; the normal continuum of growth is violated. The impulse for expression is different at the very core. (p. 145)
The clean, straight narrative arc that a reader might see in my finished story never existed in my own mind. As I salvage my disrupted memories and attempt to assemble them into some kind of continuity, I have to do so piece by piece, draft by draft. I will add layers and nuances as they reveal themselves and become clear.
What is your writing process for book-length manuscripts, and what genre do you write? Do you write a fairly solid draft all at once, or do you re-write several times, adding new layers, information, and details each time? My style is definitely the latter.
Originally published on WordPress on June 9, 2015