Why My Memoir Hit a Wall
February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.
Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.
Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.
By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.
After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.
I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?
I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.
Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.
But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.
How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?
And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.
And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.
Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com
If you don’t get a residency, which I’m sure you will, I hope you finish the memoir anyway – I’m sure you will do that too. As for your family, it’s not clear to me why the memoir is different from all the essays you’ve written about them – I suppose the stakes are higher and your children are adults now. I’m wondering it they would care as much as you think they might. You are brave to have written about your children; I would not write about a child’s hoarding. Is how they feel about your past writing about them coloring the present situation with the memoir? Re: your husband if you havent read Love Warrior, that author must have had to make some difficult editorial decisions too. Thank you for sharing these challenging memoir writing considerations.
Your struggle is clear to me. I understand the difference between childhood anecdotes and a memoir that might call everything your family members understand about their lives into question.
My husband is a believer in fate, but I am not. The capacity to make choices, to choose a path is not permission to take that path. Surely we have all seen enough examples of cruelty committed by people who do what they like just because they assume permission is granted by their own power to act.
I believe in making choices. You have hard choices before you, whether or not you receive the residency. I wish you wisdom and luck—what we all need.
You have some sense of the purpose your memoir will serve in the world. Only you can decide if that purpose is honorable and deserving, and only you can decide how much of your loved-ones to put on the page in service of that goal.
My memoir will soon be published—under a pseudonym. The revelations, filled with lies and secrets, will upset some family members. Some of my children say, “leave us out!” Others say, “aren’t we in it?” So everyone is in it, but disguised.
Create characters from the real life family members but give them additional characteristic test are different or a combination of real folks. Publish it and be a millionaire.
I always benefit from reading your words, Jennifer. And two words back: bashert, and then mazel tov!
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