Finish Work: The Twenty-Year Memoir
October 12, 2016 § 32 Comments
By Marc Nieson
Growing up, I delivered newspapers after school. Every day, for some ten years. And forty years later, I can still remember the front stoops and names of many of those customers. Some nights I’ll even dream about that paper route.
One spring afternoon, though, stands out above all the rest. I was biking down Jeanette Drive with my usual back rack piled high with Newsday when I came upon a man repairing a customer’s front brick steps. Unable to reach the mailbox, I set the paper down before the garage door, then paused to watch him work—his flicked troweling of cement, his gentle tamping of the bricks, his repositioning of string line . . . the thickness of his wrists, the worn knee pads wrapped round his dungarees. He worked with such precision and control, such utter grace. Not an ounce of fat on any of his movements. I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing, and how to do it. Maybe even the why.
I stood there for a good half hour, just watching him work. And I remember thinking if I could ever do something that well, anything really, I’d be a happy person.
This month, I’m publishing my memoir. Or, finally publishing, I should say, since it’s been twenty years in the making. Why so long, you ask? Questions of perfectionism, procrastination? Sure, in part. Admittedly I’m a writer who works and builds things slowly, who lives slowly. In great part, that’s what Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape concerns—a classic coming of age tale about young love and enduring landscapes, about life lessons that came slow-learned and hard-earned. A trail many memoirs traverse. Then again, some of us move slower than others. “Stumbling toward hindsight,” I call it in the book.
Still, 20 years?! How could that be? How does one sustain it?
I could try to claim extenuating circumstances. Other projects that took priority, like earning a wage, raising a child. But all writers contend with such conflicting responsibilities, if we’re lucky. After all, it’s what you build daily in life that truly matters. And, admittedly, I did not toil away at this manuscript day-in day-out for twenty solid years. There were many days when anything seemed easier than the heavy lifting, the utter tedium of showing up at the desk to write again. Many years when anything seemed preferable to facing the material of my life. Many drafts wherein I couldn’t even write the full name of a key character—using an initial was all I could muster.
Still, I stumbled on. Six years into the project I felt it was finished. Next followed the dance of hubris—my partnering with a NYC agent, the flood of publisher submissions, the trickle of rejection letters that were all kind and complimentary, but my memoir (set primarily on a remote Iowa hillside) was too quiet and removed for a wider readership. For a few months I believed that. Why should anyone care about my little schoolhouse story, my belly button lint? Deep inside, however, I knew the issue wasn’t the remoteness of the book’s location, but of its rendering. For a memoir, it wasn’t as forthcoming and vulnerable as it needed to be. It wasn’t done yet. Wasn’t plumb, or true.
And so I set aside the manuscript on a high shelf. For a good decade the box gathered dust. From time to time I’d scribble something on scraps of paper and slip them between its cardboard flaps. Meanwhile, I wrote other tales. Fictions, filmscripts, postcards. I got married and became a parent. I pushed strollers and park swings. Stacked Legos on the floor, words across a page.
And then a funny thing happened. Time moved on. Somehow I was older. Sometimes, all that’s needed is the practice of years. Time, not only for a writer, but for a person to grow into one’s words. To open a box.
The last drafts of Schoolhouse came in their due time. It’s still a quiet book, built brick by brick, I guess. Like Goethe once wrote, “Do not hurry; do not rest.” In retrospect, I suspect the book got done as quickly as it could. I’m fairly pleased with its level of craft, but more so with the solidness of its intents. I feel the story now offers a reader what I’d always hoped it could. Plus, I’m happy it’s found a home with a quiet independent Iowa press, located just down the road from where the schoolhouse once stood. If I could, I’d deliver one to each of your doorsteps.
I have no doubts that bricklayer doesn’t remember me, or that stairway he built on Jeanette Drive. It was just one of many he completed. In the end, it’s the work that matters, not the project. Each row of bricks or sentences, carefully placed. A structure to make true.
Writing, too, is a little like a stairway. Always another plateau to climb. Writing, an ongoing apprenticeship. We scribblers and stumblers, journeymen. And that’s OK. There’s always more work to be done.
Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. His memoir, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape is just released from Ice Cube Press. He’s won a Raymond Carver Short Story Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, and been noted in Best American Essays. He teaches at Chatham University, edits fiction for The Fourth River, and is at work on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.
nice work first again to comment wow
thanks kindly, aaron. glad you enjoyed.
“But all writers contend with such conflicting responsibilities, if we’re lucky.” Thank you for that reminder.
jan, you’re most welcome. The brick wall’s something to lean against too, isn’t it?
Hi, Marc. It was so great to read your essay here today, it somewhat matches my experience writing a memoir. Though I’m not to the point of having it published, I’m finally nearing the finish line in terms of having a complete, edited manuscript. I’ve often been down on myself because it’s taken me so long, but on the other hand, you’ve expressed well here what the process can sometimes be like. I do think memoirs are especially challenging and many just have to grow and come to fruition in their own time. Your memoir sounds wonderful, and I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for writing this essay, I think it will speak to many a memoir writer.
re. come to fruition — thanks ever so much, Valorie. For me, time came to fruition, too. The culture having moved on into cell phones and infinite accessibilty — such that my having isolated myself out at the schoolhouse now seemed interestingly a-topical. and perhaps had something to say to a wider public . . . wishing you satifaction with your own memoir project. in ink and arms, marc
A beautifully articulated account of a soul’s journey through memoir.
thanks, Barbie. hope you can say the same about the overall book. looking forward to sharing that, too.
The brick layer, that string. Oh, Marc, thank you. Imam going to sit both of you right here next to me as I write.
thanks yourself. glad to pass something forward . . . happy words.
I was just counting the years and asking for guidance re: my memoir-in-progress that won’t die. Eleven years and counting. But with each revisit, there is magic. I hate this. I love this. Thank you.
magic indeed. all good wishes, jodi. thank YOU.
My memoir may be published in February. I’m 83 and tell myself I should have published it 20 years ago, but I didn’t begin to solve the mystery of my origins until I was 70. Reaching understanding and compassion for my family took years along with the writing. It has been worth it.
thanks, paula. anything good takes time, huh . . .
Paragraph 7: “complimentary” — not “complementary.”
N.B.: punctilious editors are crucial to the successful publication of a work (in addition to spell-check).
Thanks for catching that! Fixing now 🙂
good eye. many thanks!
“In the end, it’s the work that matters, not the project.” Beautifully stated. I look forward to reading your memoir.
many thanks, dana. do hope the book equally sates . . . in ink and arms, marc
Thank you, I look forward to reading your memoir.
am honored to share it with you. all best,
I remember thinking about writing a book years ago…but I hadn’t lived enough. Thanks or your post.
all in due time. many thanks.
Wonderful reflective memoir piece.
thank YOU, nancy. here’s to reflecting!
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Beautifully written. Inspiring. Thank you.
thanks, rita. an honor to share . . .
I too hope to one day publish, for myself and children. It is a slow, scary process for me but it will make it that much more rewarding, hopefully! My father was as precise and skilled as your bricklayer. Some people just make things look so easy and fluent.
you’ll get there. slow and steady, acknowledging and facing the scary aspects. yes, that is part of the process, and reward. here’s to fluency!!!