Where Do I Begin?

Kristy's Kinderkarten

 

a colleague’s question

“I wondered,” suggested a writing colleague, who read my memoir manuscript for the first time, “whether you should have started with the moment of crisis? You know when you heard the scream from Kristy’s bedroom?”

Her question resonated for me as I read a recent post by memoirist and memoir-writing mentor Marion Roach Smith, “How to Write a Difficult Family Story.” Roach Smith encourages writers to begin with a line that reader will “fall into.” Called “the hook,” by writers, this is a device that catches the reader’s interest so powerfully with the first few sentences they feel compelled to keep reading.

where does the hook belong?

Often the hook places the protagonist in a terrible situation, sometimes even at the point when they have run out of resources. The intention: make the reader immediately say, “How are they ever going to deal with that diagnosis?” or “Can they escape those people?” If the writer can entice the reader into asking such a question, then maybe they’ll keep reading because they need to know how the protagonist overcomes the “invincible foe.” This is an important factor to keep in mind. Victory may come as a change in perspective, attitude, or emotions, but there is almost always an assumption of victory-of some kind. Or the reader will feel cheated.

another way

There is, however, another way to use “the hook.” It’s trickier to make work, but it’s the one I used for the portion of my memoir this colleague had read. That device begins with the best of it, showing the high point in the protagonist’s life. Then the story plummets into struggle, often into a situation much worse than the main characters could have imagined. This isn’t what the reader expected to happen to these people. Yet, the question remains the same, “How are they going to handle this?”

A risk & a reward

There is both a risk and a reward with this second approach. The writer risks boring the reader with what seems a mundane narrative at the beginning-ordinary people leading ordinary lives, no drama. His, her, their job becomes rendering these characters engrossing and charming enough that the reader waits to see what’s coming. Then comes the reward. When the disaster occurs, the reader is fully engaged with the main characters. They know them and can feel with them. Thes reader cannot bear to be left behind. In their hearts, they hold these people and have a stake in what happens. Of course, they’ll stay until the end.

The second approach is the road less traveled, but it‘s the one I’ve chosen. When the memoir comes out, I hope you’ll walk along with me.

Daddy's Birthday

Crafting Relatability

Johnny's First Communion with Grandpa and Grandma
make it relatable

As I’m sure you all know by now, if I am attempting to find a press for my memoir. I dream of sending you a copy and begging you to urge your friends to buy one of their own.

Right now, as I sat at my desk and forge yet another query letter, my attempt feels more like “wish” than an effort. I’m following the rules, jumping the hoops, but as yet I haven’t been able to grab the “prize.” But authors Jane Friedman and Deborah Williams have recently published posts that encourage me to keep going.

what is relatability?

A good memoir, they claim, must have the same elemental attribute that an excellent novel possesses. It has to be relatable. That might seem like a nebulous, hard-to-define quality. Writing is as much craft as art. There are concrete tools that writers can employ to engage the reader. Used wisely, they make a reader exclaim, “I really get this!” When readers sync with a writer this way, they literally immerse themselves in your story.

you are not alone

Someone reads a book and a gut feeling tells them, “I get this,” or “I can totally relate to this.” That doesn’t mean their life experiences mirror those of the author. Rather, the language dives deep inside and touches them, their sensibilities. They feel both known and not alone. The author’s background and situation need not mirror ours for this to happen. Our worlds can seem to belong to alternative universes. Yet, we understand their language; we sense their anger, despair, joy, satisfaction.

I’ve never lived in the desert or been a successful career woman. Yet when in The Glass Castle, Jeannet Walls spots her mother rummaging in a dumpster, it spurs up unsettling emotions. that resembled my own complicated relationship with my mother. Her moment raised for me issues I had, like Walls, buried and tried to forget.

Half of a Yellow Sun depicts Biafra’s passionate struggle for freedom. It’s an important and heartbreaking moment in history. The reader, however, is bound to the page, not by the grand sweep of political turmoil, but by the evocative way in which the author invites us into the lives of unforgettable individuals.

Readers may weep for these characters. At the same moment, they feel less alone in their own uphill battles.

I bring relatability to my memoir by incorporating my senses to recount my family’s fight against a hidden foe. I “zoom in” to watch my granddaughter sewing a rage doll for her dying aunt. I bend down with the priest, who tries to explain death to a six-year old.  Can reader put themselves in a corner of the room as we experience each setback? Do they want to beg the doctors for better answers? Do they wish they could offer some solace when my child dies? Then, I have achieved my goal.

Provide Visual Cues

Life itself is always in motion-whether this is inner turmoil, outside chaos or daily routines. Even in the quietest moments, there are subtle movements that convey the mood. For my memoir, doctors’ offices and hospital rooms set the stage for many strategic moments in our narrative. Kristy and Johnny’s reactions and responses add a unique pace to the memoir, even in formal settings. Throughout the memoir, I strive to make their shining stars sparkle even in times of utter darkness.

Vulnerability, the Powerful Tipping Point

As authors, we have to ask ourselves how much of the “Narrative I” are we willing to reveal. But if we are holding back, we lose our readers. I learned to find the level of disclosure that felt comfortable -and push it back to the “edge of what seems possible,” and go for it. That tipping point is where we find the connections that make writing its most powerful. That’s what I’ve done. At least, more than I thought I could at the beginning. I’ve been as honest as possible about the moments that overwhelmed me and despair raged with hope. Making myself vulnerable, open to critique and judgement reveals my humanity, makes me one of you. That’s relatability.

I truly believe I’ve written a relatable memoir. I hope you can read it.

Krsity on the way to school with Martha

Like, But Different From

writers are like, but different from actors

Writers are like, but different from, actors. Just like actors, writers can suffer stage fright. Actors rehearse their parts to perfection. They don carefully chosen costumes and make-up. Yet, at when they are about to step onto the set, that seemingly authentic rendering of reality, it all swims away from them. They can neither move nor speak. Writers freeze in front of our computers at the moment when we need to hit send and speed a query letter to an agent or publisher.

my memoir-like, but different from other memoirs

Is this book ready for a professional review? It doesn’t matter that we spent hours, days, weeks, months crafting this piece. Gone is the reassurance of writing workshop colleagues. In vain do we remind ourselves how many times we’ve edited and reedited the work. May it could be better. Or worse, was it ever any good at all? We might think our work is ready, but we worry if our query letter is persuasive.. Have we piqued an acquisition editor’s interest? Did we pick up on the right cues from what the publisher says they are looking for?

what publishers want

And what is it publishers are looking for, anyway? It’s like, but different from what they say in submission forms. Here’s what they say they are seeking. They hope their books will capture the imagination and share arresting elements on lived experience. They aim to print books that are both engaging and consequential of the highest literary merit and relevance. These books must be enlightening and inspirational. The key to all these elements, editors agree, is quality, the individual author’s ability to tell a good story.

Publishers seek books that are creative, engaging, well-written, relevant, enlightening, inspiring, and commercially viable. How does an author convince the acquisitions editor of this potential? Look for the answer in the phrase on submission forms: “Include additional information like the target audience or comparable books.”

like a best seller, but different

That brings us to the rather cryptic title of this Blog Post, “Like, But Different From.” What the publisher wants to know is what book or books like yours have sold well? Why would it be likely to draw the same audience? At the same time, they expect you to show that your book is also different from these other narratives in important ways. You need to argue that you bring something new to the argument or add to the ongoing story-not simply repeat what has already been said.

This principal is like one taught by Marian Roach Smith in her Memoir Project. My memoir’s theme must be a universal, one that resonates with many other people. My personal story is one example of that universal. When I took Marian’s class, she helped me see the theme of my memoir in this way:

What did I endure (suffer) so that I could endure (triumph)?

ying/yang of endure

I worked tirelessly to find solutions for Kristin and Johnny’s physical and mental disorders in both the health and education sectors.. I suffered because it never seemed to bring any change and things just kept getting worse.

I succeeded by being strong and achieving goals as a parent and more, thanks to my ability to give Johnny and Kristy the best chance at a good life.

an example of the universal

Like other mothers’ memoirs, my book explores the experience of raising children with disabilities and the self-discovery that comes with it.

It differs from many other narratives in that there is no eventual triumph over disability and disease. The triumph is not so much in the actual win, but in finding a community that takes care of Johnny and Kristy with us.. The book also tells a bit, but not enough, of the untold story of Misericordia, a place where angels truly live on earth.

 

Rainbow over Misericordia

 

You Need a Cosmic Graph

view of countryside under evening purple sky
An Author’s Idea of Hell

No one publishes the first draft of any piece of writing. At least, they shouldn’t. Not if the writer wants to be read.

Rewriting makes their work better. Important truths get honed. Images brighten and sharpen. Your ideas begin to POP off the page. Rewriting is also the author’s hell!

if only this was it!

That first draft – the vomit draft – it just spills out. Sure, it’s challenging work sitting down at the computer day after day, mining your memory and your research for the information you need. Then constructing those thoughts and facts into a literate narrative. But it’s honest work – like solving math problems. Simple. You put in the effort. You spend the time. You get results. But for the solution of the problem to mean anything, people need to be able to use the answer to solve concrete problems, not just abstract mathematical ones.

there’s a problem?

Even before we come to the solution, in fact, we need to identify the problem. That’s where a memoir must begin, and it is most likely not where the vomit draft begins. As an example, my draft begins with s school director calling Jay and me home from a Florida vacation to manage a family emergency. Nowhere in that first chapter do I identify the seriousness of the challenges facing our family. Nor do I let the reader know what a rare thing it was that we were on a vacation on our own. I simply started with an interesting scene (at least to me), but I don’t really name the problem. I don’t identify what is at stake.

In the final stages of editing my memoir, I need to become relentless. That will require four to five rewrites. Each time the argument will be stronger and the universal appeal more engrossing. By the end, useless adjectives and adverbs, overly long sentences, and awkward phrasing should be gone.

razzle-dazzle

Those are, however, the last parts of this memoir-writing journey. Long before I arrive at that point, I must reconstruct the overall project, break down the “vomit draft,” mine it for its best parts, lay them out like a deck of cards, choose the best, and rearrange them for the best impact. One card must be a dazzling opening scene that leads immediately to the next one, but also ultimately to the final scene of the book.

a cosmic graft

Close on the heels of this opener needs to come, what Marian Roach Smith calls my “Cosmic Graph.” This is the moment where I, as a writer, pan back from the moment like a camera pulling off into the sky. This must show up by the fourth paragraph of the first chapter. It contains four elements: what the memoir is about, what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, and what values I need to learn or acquire.

I try and try to do this, but conciseness eludes. Wordiness dogs me. But without a Cosmic Graph, I cannot chart my way through the morass of material I have accumulated. Still, my star vision blurs.

adjusting the telescope

Help, however, is on the horizon. I signed up for and took Roach-Smith’s “Constructing Your Memoir” class. What I learned there helped blow away the clouds that obscured my vision. It turned out I had used the wrong lens. My focus was out of kilter, but I didn’t yet know how to use the telescope. The class gave me more of the skills I needed. A new beginning and a new ending for my story emerged. I began to lay the cards out in patterns that worked together.

it’s only just begun

Piles of cards remain in the unshuffled deck, but increasingly of them are making their way either to the recycle bin or their deserved place in the structure of the memoir. The next blog post should be able to let you know if I’ve discovered my Cosmic Graph. But I’m paying attention to Roach-Smith’s warning that I may have to rewrite the introduction over and over as the ending unfolds itself. In the words of my dear friends the VanderVoorts, “We’ll know more later.”

himalayan salt lamp near laptop on wooden table
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