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

 

What Am I Trying to Ignore?

Stuffed monkey covers eyes
“What am I trying to ignore?”

This is a question that Jane Friedman threw out on her blog, Electronic Speed, two years ago. (jf@janefriedman.com, Sat, Nov. 27, 2021) I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but knew I’d need to confront it before my memoir would ever make it into publication.

being overwhelmed?

Some close friends have read brief parts of the memoir. They sometimes say I I ignore how totally overwhelmed I felt as I coped with the challenges presented by two children with complex disabilities.

I ask, do I leave that reality out of the memoir or did I ignore it at the time? If I had let those challenges overwhelm me, could I have coped? If I couldn’t have coped, what would have happened to my children? Sometimes every parent asks themselves some version of that question.

not talented enough?

A more nagging concern is the fear that I’m ignoring, that I can not really pull off a successful memoir. It’s hard not to suspect my beloved husband, who tells me over and over how beautiful my writing is. After all, he is prejudiced in my favor-unlike the readers in my critique groups who minutely question details such as sentence construction, overuse of adverbs, improper period spacing, etc. But then I tell myself, their job is not to tell me what work is great. It’s letting me know how to improve. That only results from constructive critique.

story is too sad!

There’s the nagging doubt about the deep tragedy of our story. As a friend said, “It’s all so sad. I’m not sure people want to read about that.” She makes a good point, but readers will take on a tough narrative if it’s interestingly written. Nothing is all sweetness and light. Nor is parenting children with challenges all doom and gloom. I include plenty of light moments, like this one:

not always

One of the striking differences, I claim, between Kristy and Johnny is how much she loved to create works of art and how he refused to so much as pick up a crayon. Thus, one Friday afternoon upon entering Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia, I got the surprise of my life. There on the wall next to the TV hung a bright abstract, multi-colored, three-by-three framed painting, signed “John Ward.”

“Johnny couldn’t have painted that,” I challenged his caretaker.

“Oh, but he did.” She said, but giggled as she spoke.

“How did you possibly motivate him to paint anything, let alone such a complex piece?” I asked.

“Well, we wanted to hang a work of art by each guy in the apartment. All the other men were excited to take part, but every time we gave Johnny a paintbrush, he threw it on the ground. Then Sara got her brilliant idea. She spread an enormous piece of paper right where the brushes were landing. She handed him one brush after another, each with a different color. One by one they hit the floor, splashing colors in every direction. You can see the result is lively and almost looks purposeful.”

Staring at my son’s “creation,” I laughed so hard my sides were splitting. That was Johnny. Life was never dull with him around.

The above vignette is just one of the many charming stories the memoir includes. It’s not a simple tragedy, but also a triumph of love and joy over the worst that life can throw at us. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/the-notion-of-fixes-and-cures

no end to questions

But other questions mount up. Is it too long? Are the chapters balanced enough? I’ve revised it nine times. How can that not be enough?

So, what is the awful TRUTH that I’m really trying to ignore?

Friedman writes that what we are trying to ignore is usually a problem that won’t go away until we do something about it.

the truth

For me, it’s acknowledging that I’m finished writing. It’s time to work on moving the manuscript toward publication. Just thinking about the process daunts me. There are many avenues to publication, but despite the many paths, few debut authors actually find their books on the bookstore shelves.

Dwelling on that reality makes me hesitate to try. Why put so much energy into something that is sure to fail? Yet truer yet is that if I never work toward publication, if I ignore even that slim chance, then failure is certain rather than possible.

“Resolving the problems I am most afraid to confront is where progress lies. It’s insanely hard psychologically, but worth it.”

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/Jane+Friedman+What+are+you+ignoring/FMfcgzGllChzgDxQDRVbDSKsVqtbGdNq

Woman and old memoir

Where We Left Our Hearts

vagabond life – sort of

Throughout most of our married life, Jay and I have lived a somewhat vagabond life. Until 2016, when we moved to Portland, Oregon, we always lived either in the city of City of Chicago or within an hour’s drive of the metro area. Within those boundaries, however, we switched abodes frequently. In fact, we have had 16 different residences. If I included all those moves in my memoir, they would run away with the story.

Because my special kids, Kristy and Johnny, are the heart of my memoir, and their sisters, Carrie and Betsy, are its pulse beat, I focused the memoir on them. All those little anecdotes I wrote about our various moves hit the cutting room floor-or, with a few exceptions, showed up in my blog. Today is one of those exceptions.

real home

Chapter Two contains this one-sentence summary. “In the spring of 1975, we moved three blocks west into an enormous Victorian row house that needed tons of remodeling.” What an understatement in every way! We lived in that row house, 832 Belden, longer than anywhere else. Our children “grew up” there. It was home for 27 years, and in our family, we all still think of it as “HOME!”

How we came to live there is a most unusual tale.

finagling a break

In December 1974, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Jay and I planned a trip to New Orleans. I had spent a bohemian summer there during college and yearned to visit my old haunts. Jay, a jazz music buff, had always wanted to visit the clubs on Bourbon Street. We hoped for a second honeymoon experience. Bringing along three little girls didn’t fit the plan. I couldn’t, however, leave Betsy behind because she was still nursing. Could someone stay with Kristy and Carrie for a few days? Easier planned than executed. Neither of our moms was up to the task.

We appealed to Frances Johnson, an older woman who had sometimes stayed with the children while we slipped out for a “date night.” She and the girls were comfortable with each other. And Frances knew exactly what to do if Kristy had a seizure while we were gone. We also arranged asked Evie, the teenager next door, to come in the afternoons to help Frances out. That Evie’s mom, nurse Dee, was less than a minute away in an emergency gave us the final assurance we needed to make the break.

I knew it was a risky decision, but deep inside the core of my being yearned for a chance to step away from the twenty-four/seven vigilance of my everyday life. What I must cope with every single day regularly depleted my emotional strength. To maintain my sanity, I needed to replenish my resources.

second honeymoon

Thus, on Wednesday evening, December 18, 1974, we settled into the Commodore Hotel, a grand, old hotel with a three-story lobby blinking with crystal chandeliers. New Orleans favored us with pleasant weather, a little above average temperature for that time of year. We explored blocks and blocks of the French Quarter and the Garden District on foot. We had a list of galleries to visit and restaurants to try. I also wanted to show Jay the places I hung out in when I spent my nineteenth summer in this fascinating city, my very first solo adventure.

Betsy’s sleep patterns set our mealtimes. An energetic, restless child, she found remaining still and quiet in a restaurant highchair for over ten minutes past her limit. Instead, we fed her little picnics in quiet corners of the city. Then we nestled her in her umbrella stroller and took in the sights until she fell asleep. At that point, we ducked into the nearest restaurant for a quiet, gastric feast. On the evening of our anniversary, we entrusted her to the hotel’s certified childcare worker. Betsy and this competent, kind woman meshed so well together, I wished I could take the caretaker home with us.

unexpected welcome home

Returning to Chicago after midnight on Sunday, we crept silently into the house. We intended to drop everything and slip into bed, but Jay noticed a vast pile of mail on the dining room table. Some unexplainable urge impelled him to check through it. One envelope stopped him. A former law partner had sent a letter from his home address. Curious, Jay ripped it open. The note inside read, “This dropped in our mailbox. We’re happily settled in our place, but thought you might be looking for a bigger house. Best, Jack.”

A flyer slipped out of the envelope. The McCormick Theological Seminary, it announced, was leaving its Lincoln Park campus and moving to a new site on the Southside of the city. The seminary was about to sell the whole campus. This included the administration and classroom buildings, the dormitories, the chapel, and the library. Most significant to us, they were also selling the fifty-two Victorian row houses that surrounded the campus.

Each morning on his way to the Fullerton “L” stop, Jay had often walked past these stately redbrick homes. He had not understood they were owned by an institution, let alone a seminary. Could one become ours? It seemed impossible.

dream the impossible dream

Betsy stirred in my arms. If she woke, it would be hours before I could get her back to sleep. So tiptoeing precariously up the winding staircase, I held my breath and winced when the door to the girls’ room creaked as I shoved it with my shoulder. I stopped. No one woke. I snuggled her next to Carrie in their double bed without bothering about pajamas. Despite the late hour, the flyer Jay had unearthed from the pile of mail had startled me into a fully alert state. Was there a chance that we might purchase one of those elegant row houses? I had to find out.

As much as our snug little house at 515 Belden had worked as a safe cocoon for three years, by 1976 we had outgrown it. We had to move, but prices in Lincoln Park had been rising steadily. We worried we’d have to go back to the suburbs. This could be our chance to stay in the city, to live where we felt most at home. When I got to the bottom step, Jay was rummaging through a small chest in the front hall. “Where’s the checkbook?” he asked.

I could feel my eyes widen into saucers, “You’re not buying a house, site unseen in the middle of the night!”

He laughed, and the freckles danced on his cheeks. “Maybe I would if I could. But no. These houses are going to be sold by lottery. To be part of the lottery, we have to register by noon tomorrow and twenty-five dollars is the registration fee. If we had waited until tomorrow night to open Jack’s letter, we would have missed our chance.”

lucky lottery house

The lottery was the seminary’s plan to keep the houses affordable for families with moderate incomes. The assignment of the houses by the lottery system was complex and took several weeks. When our turn came, we chose 832 Belden without seeing the interior (the renters would not open their home to perspective owners). But we felt certain it was a magnificent house because it was on a corner, which meant it would be brighter inside than many row houses. It was also somewhat wider than the other homes in its row, and jeweled, intricately designed lead-glass windows graced almost every window. We took our chances and never regretted it.

Our first year in the new house was an adventure of discovery- of all that needed to be repaired. Twenty years passed before we finished remodeling the house, but it was one long labor of love. When we finally moved, we did so only because Kristy’s health made it necessary.

832 Belden
Our New Home

Truly, A Heart Full of Mercy

Johnny reads during the speeches.
bright memories

For thirty years, our family shared the care of our two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, with Misericordia Home, a residential and learning center for persons with multiple developmental disabilities. Many treasured memories of our family’s time at Misericordia live in my heart, but the ones I remember best are times when its generosity of spirit lit up like a giant Christmas tree.

a giving heart

In 1985, when we took our son John for his first visit to the school, we shared a dinner with a friendly group of fellows in one of the Village Homes. At the end of dinner, one resident pushed back his chair. “I’d like to stay and have desert with you,” he said, “but it’s my night to volunteer at the homeless shelter.” His words solidified my trust that Johnny would find love and empathy among his new housemates.

heart big enough for the entire world

Some years later, the students at the Learning Center engaged in a geography program which focused deeply on one nation each year. Through their studies, they became aware of hunger in the world. This realization heightened the gratitude they felt for the abundance of care they received at Misericordia and motivated them to help those less favored. With their teachers’ help, they organized an on-campus “Walk for Hunger.” Family and friends pledged funds to support the walk.

please, stay off the grass

Johnny’s dad remembers that bright October day as though it happened last week. The residents, staff, and some parents gathered outside the Learning Center. Sister Rosemary gave a rousing opening talk–and then asked the participants to stay off the grass because landscapers had recently seeded the lawns.

the last shall be first

Johnny’s pace was a slow slouch in the best of times. So, his dad had stationed them at what he believed to be the end of the line. But no, at the end of her speech, Sister pointed out the direction of the walk. It put Jay and Johnny at the front! For a while Johnny set the pace, but then Sister broke ranks and walked on the grass to get around him! Soon, everyone followed suit. By the time father and son arrived back at the school’s gym, the organizers were putting away the refreshments. That didn’t matter, the spirit of joy and generosity of the day still lives in my husband’s stories, which he is willing to share with anyone who will listen.

Neither of us ever tires of telling the world how blessed we are to be a part of the Misericordia family.

 

Johnny has a party in the Mis greenhouse restaurant.
Jay and Johnny in Mis Greenhouse Restaurant.

Life Comes Full Circle

Israeli rooftops

My favorite guest blogger, intrepid world traveler, Nancy Louise, shares a favorite story with us this week.

a half-century ago

Fifty-one years ago my newly minted husband, and I took off on a month long round-the-world honeymoon courtesy of a Trans World Airlines interline rate of $98 each!

I had been working in the airline industry; my husband, Frits, was working for a tour wholesaler designing tours to Europe and the Middle East.

Our third stop on the journey was Israel. I had traveled a bit in Europe… but this was my first time to venture further. I was 24 years old and having grown up in the Bible Belt of the South in the US — I had never even met a Jew — much less a Muslim. Or a Palestinian.

overcoming naivete

My entire “understanding” of Israel was based on Leon Uris novels and gorgeous Paul Newman playing the lead in the movie, “Exodus”.

Frits had a business contact, Emil, in Israel and had written him (yes, an actual letter in the mail!) asking him to make us a hotel reservation. We arrived in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Eve of 1971.

Emil was there at the airport to meet us. He informed us we would not be staying at a hotel. We were going to stay with his family!

Emil lived in Jerusalem near the top of the Mount of Olives (next door to the Papal delegate). We pulled into his yard, which overlooked the Old City just at midnight as the bells of Churches pealed out the New Year. It is a treasured memory.

We stayed five days with Emil and his wife,Um Hani Abu-Dayyaeh. Emil gave us our own private tour guide, driver and car with Palestinian license plates. It was an eye-opening experience. Our guide, Mohammed, was a Palestinian Muslim who knew the Christian sites and their meaning better than most Christians did. With our Palestinian license plates, the Israeli military stopped us every half hour for “security” purposes. Mohammed also had to caution us frequently on taking photos of anything thing or person who could be construed as our “spying” on the Israelis. We were quite oblivious.

Emil and Um Hani also took us to a Palestinian Refugee camp—a sobering sight that I would never forget.

struggle to survive

In the evenings Emil and his wife shared with us their lives and struggles to live in a country that had been Palestine when they were born—- and was now Israel. Emil had sent his two sons to study in the United States to keep them out of the constant conflict between Israel and Palestine. That had been a painful decision, but one he felt necessary for their safety.

The family had lost everything in 1948 and again in the “Six Day War”of 1967. In January of 71 when we visited — Emil was unsure if his once more struggling tour company would survive. He and his wife were Christians—Lutherans — specializing in Christian Pilgrimages. And tourism hugely depends on the stability of the country.

Frits continued to work with Emil for the next two years, but then we moved from Michigan to Chicago, Frits joined KLM Airlines, and we lost contact with Emil.

many returns but no re-encounters

Over the years I have returned to the Holy Land a half dozen times mostly as a Tour Director, which allowed me no private time to hunt up the Abu-Dayyaeh family.

Now retired, I thought I had done my last tour of Israel. I was, however, persuaded in the summer of 2022 to join friends through Loyola University to come back for one last visit—a full-fledged pilgrimage.

Our itinerary was to include a dinner with students from a Palestinian University and a group of Palestinian Lutherans. My thoughts went back to that first trip and Emil and Um Hani. Their first names were the only ones I remembered. I thought, “How big could the Lutheran Palestinian community be in Israel?” I knew Emil had most probably gone “home to God” by now. It had been fifty-one years ago—and Emil had been well into his 50s when I met him. I wondered though if anyone would remember this hard-working, dedicated man and his family. So I texted Frits and asked him for the name of the fledgling company that Emil had started. Frits responded, “Near East Tours”.

an extraordinary coincidence

I was standing beside my tour bus when I got the text. And there in BIG letters on the side of the bus were the letters “NET”. I went up to our driver, Haseem, also wearing a shirt emblazoned with “NET” and asked him if “NET” stood for Near East Tours. He replied. “Yes it does!”
“And was the founder named Emil? ”
Haseem confirmed that Emil’s company was now owned by the two sons. One son, Hani, would be at the dinner that evening.

Hani and I had dinner together at our special gathering that night. I regaled him with my memories of that first Holy Land visit courtesy of his family—and how that eye-opening journey profoundly impacted my life and would lead me to be involved for many years in Interfaith endeavors with a group called “Soul Space,” of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women — with a mission of sharing the commonalities of our faiths through mini-retreats.

Hani informed me that his Mom, Um Hani, was still very much alive. Indeed, she had worked every day in the office until Covid hit! And at 96 she still lived independently in that same house where we had stayed.

full-circle experience

I asked Hani if she was still up to having visitors. I wanted to thank her for that life-changing visit so long ago. He called her there and then… and the next afternoon our driver, Haseem, took me in his own car up for a visit. When Haseem dropped me off, I told him I would probably only be a half hour. After all… she was 96 years old! When he returned… Um Hani had barely gotten started! Haseem joined me — and we sat riveted, listening to the stories of the very long life of this remarkable woman. Near East Tours had not only survived — it had thrived — expanding throughout the Mediterranean — to such places as Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

It has been a “full-circle” life event for me. My first… and what for sure will be my last visit to the Holy Land impacted so much by this wonderful family.

I have long treasured these words from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” That journey was my first proof of Twain’s truth.

Over the years, Nancy’s friends and family have urged her to record her experience as a memoir. She has had so many, she feels she doesn’t know where to start.  I think the theme of “Then and Now” could be a wonderful organizer for her writings. Let us know in the comments if you agree.

Writers Need to Be Heroes

wonder woman illustration
silhouette of mountain under night sky with stars
Photo by McClain Crigger on Pexels.com

An Author’s Dark Night of the Soul

If one imagines a hero’s journey for authors, then your dark night of the soul is probably when no one believes in your work except yourself.

Jane Friedman <jf@janefriedman.com

Coming to the end of a first full edit of the memoir I’ve been writing for two years, I spiraled down into a dark night of despair. Who but me believed in my projected book? Was I my only audience?

In her blog, Electric Speed, Jane notes writers can fall prey to the temptation to internalize the “NO” they receive from editors or publishers. (Jane Friedman, August 5, 2022)

I have found one can also internalize the critiques that one receives from fellow writers, those colleagues you ask to access your work.

a sign from the universe?

If we treat that “NO” like a “sign from the universe” that our work doesn’t make the grade, our life as a writer can end right there. A chance encounter or an unexpected opportunity could reverse your fortune, but that’s not the likely outcome. What we need is the more straightforward solution—turn up the volume of your dedication to your work.

Straight forward, yes. Easy, no.

For that reason, Friedman suggests authors think of this task in terms of a “Hero’s Journey.” What is a “Hero’s Journey?” It’s a literary device that breaks a character’s story arc into discernable steps with a probable outcome. The journey typically has twelve steps in three acts. (Thirteen Step Guide to the Hero’s Journey)

If my writing struggle follows this arc, what would that look like? Here’s how I imagine it.

Act I—The Departure

Step 1The Ordinary World in which the hero is living their everyday life oblivious that they are called to something bigger. For me, I was retired and finally had the time to write I had dreamed about for years. I crafted two novels, several short stories and started a blog.

Step 2–The Call to Adventure: An incident transforms the hero’s life with a sudden jolt. As a member of several writing workshops, I read and edited memoirs for colleagues. The more I worked with these manuscripts, the more I knew I had to put down my other writing. I had to memorialize the lives of my two extraordinary children.

Step 3–The Refusal of the Call is where the hero doubts her abilities to accomplish the task. There seemed to be so many reasons this story couldn’t be told. It covered too many years. It was too complex. The mystery that shrouded it would be difficult to unveil.

Step 4Meeting with the Mentor: There were multiple mentors in my life. Friends and writing colleagues, as well as family members, all urged me to write this book. My Wanderer’s Writing Workshop colleagues promised to read and give advice through every step of the process.

Step 5Crossing the Threshold: Ready to head the call. The hero sets out on the journey.  As best I could recall, I wrote a chronological record of what had transpired during Kristy and Johnny’s lives. Then I constructed an outline on which to base my writing.

Act II – Initiation

Step 6Tests; allies; enemies: This is a long beginning of the adventure when the protagonist finds all their abilities stretched, discovers some new allies, and encounters expected enemies. I started the memoir in many places and gave it different emphases. Nothing seemed to work. New colleagues agreed to read the work. I took two memoir-writing classes, which both taught me techniques and bolstered my confidence. My memory and my self-confidence were constant enemies, begging me to give up this arduous task.

Step 7Approach to the inmost cave: Here, the hero faces the genuine challenge. It’s the call to the ultimate battle. In December, 2021, I finished a complete draft, seventeen chapters! It felt like such an accomplishment. But it was only a “vomit draft,” that is everything I had in me about our story. With the new year, I faced turning those thousands of words into a well-paced, page-turner that someone would want to read.

Step 8The Ordeal: This is the moment of truth where the hero dies, even if metaphorically, and must be reborn. For the last eight months I’ve “killed my darlings” as the jargon goes in the publishing world. With each part of the memoir that I chop from the final draft, a part of me goes with it. My hope is the final product will be a true rebirth.

Step 9The Reward: The hero has achieved a major success. When I finally believe that I have edited my manuscript to where it can be offered for publication, I’ll have reached this step. But I’m not there yet.

Act III –Return

Step 10The Road Back: The Hero returns home with the reward. Once I have what I am convinced is a publishable work, my journey will be to decide whether to self-publish or offer the memoir to a traditional publisher. Either of these will be a long, painstaking trek, but I’ll be buoyed up by having finished the manuscript.

Step 11The Resurrection: The hero faces a major threat, often the threat of death itself. For me, this would be if they published my book, and no one buys it. I know absolutely that getting it out there will not be enough for me. I’ll need the affirmation that someone values it enough to pay for it.

Step 12The return with the Elixir: After this, the hero is no longer the same. The challenge has been successful. Death is beaten. If my narrative fulfills its intent, others will understand what rich and meaningful lives Kristin and Johnny led. The meaning of their lives and mine will endure even when I die.

 

 

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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.”

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The Vomit Draft

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the end is just beginning

Last month, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, I bragged (and there’s no way to put a kinder word there) about having completed a draft of my memoir. I felt darn right proud of that “accomplishment” because I had attempted to complete a memoir four other times and never got to “The End.”

Then I read Marian Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project in which she firmly states, “self-congratulatory is very bad.” She would add that this is especially true than when one is talking about a “vomit draft.”

My husband gagged when I used that term. “That’s a terrible thing to call your demanding work,” he told me. But I really get what Marian is saying when she writes, “It’s called the vomit draft because it will both sink and be pretty much everything you’ve got in you.” (p. 86)

digging deep

Writing a memoir, I’ve discovered is like mining for diamonds. Before any actual mining even takes place, prospectors need to locate the diamond sources first. If I choose to write a memoir, I hope will be worth reading, my first step is exploring my life experience to determine whether there may be sharable value there. Do I have something to offer readers that will enhance their lives?

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Anything and everything are mine to explore. But just as diamond seekers often follow second sources that never lead to “pipes,” or deposits where the diamonds will prove true and profitable, not everything I dig up from my life belongs in a memoir. I need to locate a primary source.

When prospectors are certain they have found diamonds, shanks are inserted into the ground at the ore-bearing “pipes” and vast amounts of soil are extracted. I knew I wanted to write about parenting my children, especially my two children with an extraordinary neurological disorder. That, however, covered forty-five years of my life. As I dug into my memories I retrieved copious numbers of incidents, funny, sad, delightful, challenging, discouraging – piles of memories.

the wheat from the shaft

Diamond miners typically do not examine the raw rock and soil on-site. Instead, conveyor trucks transport the composite to special plants which process the ore and extract the rough diamonds. This is where I stand in the memoir-writing process. My “vomit draft” is the huge pile of rock and soil from which I need to extract the “rough” diamonds. What pieces of the narrative I’ve captured on the page can I dole out in the final story? What have I learned that I can share in a meaningful way? Which of the “rough” diamonds, I sort out of this pile now, will work to build an argument for me, one built upon what I now know about the human condition because I lived this life? Which of these scenes best illustrate what I learned?

shallow focus of letter paper
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In diamond mining, there is no assurance of fortune. Three hundred tons of ore might be sieved just to produce a single carat of gem quality rough diamonds. I may have written 100,000 words. It would be fortunate if a third of them are still standing when I finish my work.

not there yet

Even after extraction, the rough gems are a long way from the jewelry store. In heavily secured facilities, workers sort rough stones into various gem-quality categories and industrial-specific grades. To get from here (staring at my “vomit draft”) to there (the finished manuscript) is mind-boggling arduous work. Each paragraph even of the “rough diamonds” needs to be reevaluated. Is it necessary? Does it help the argument? Did I make the same point elsewhere? Am I falling asleep? If I am, so would my reader would be. Does this sentence help to show that I moved forward? If not, either it shouldn’t be there or it needs to explain the stagnation. Not until I’ve evaluated the “gem-quality” of each scene can I feel free to move toward the next draft.

brightly shining

In the ultimate step of its violent transformation from rough stone to exquisite gem, the roughs are sold, cut, polished, and commercialized. As I work toward a final draft, I’ll be doing four or more cuts. Are my sentences overly long? Break them up. Have I used a phrase where a single apt word would work much better? Did I just skim over that sentence? Get rid of it. To shine as brightly as an engagement diamond, this memoir needs to be perfectly cut and polished. It’s a long and violent transformation process for “gem,” but you wouldn’t give your beloved a diamond straight out of the ground. And I don’t dare offer you my vomit draft.

“Parents would be much better off if, like defense attorneys, we knew the answer to the question before we asked it. Except we never do, which makes a very nice place to write from.” Marian Roach Smith, The Memoir Project. 

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