Dear Me, Sincerely You: First Drafts, To-Do Lists & the Forever-Present in Life Writing
August 4, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Dr. Sarah Barnette
Upon commencement of your task to complete the first full draft of your memoir, I write a set of instructions for its completion.
- Your Primary Goal: To complete a Minimum Viable Product of your book in its entirety. It does not have to be perfect. It has to be on the page.
- Reminder: you are writing memoir and therefore must tackle the tension that exists between preserving the nature of memory and providing narrative structure. Mimic the way you remember (always be true to this element of your thinking) but also, be like the hermit crab in need of a foreign creature’s shell. Use your claw—a part of yourself—as a measuring tool and select a structure that holds your memories best, allowing room for development and growth.
- Use Scrivener. You’ve bought it; now use it. And use it well. Mark resources, arrange notes, identify key words, plot character development.
- Meditate upon the concept of parallel lives. This has come up in your writing again and again. It is something every reader can experience as personally relevant. The choices we make delimit our lives. You will never study medicine. You will never wear a white wedding dress. You will never again take communion. But our parallel lives never fully disappear. They find ways to run alongside us, within view, out of reach. Write into this.
- Layer what you knew then, living in St. Andrews from 2010 to 2012, with what you know now. Do not be afraid to conduct research. The geological, the historical, the medical, the religious, the mystical, the superstitious. If you find it interesting, trust that your readers will too; if you find it relevant to telling your story, trust that readers will not be able to imagine your book without it.
- When your mind asks specific questions, see how far you can go in learning the answers but do not—I repeat, do not—think that you must have answers. To paraphrase Hilary Mantel: books are better as questions than as answers. Put another way: your job is not to solve mysteries but to render them accurately.
- Say namaz, the five daily prayers. Listen to recitations of the Quran in early mornings or late evenings. Your rituals—even small ones, like the way you prepare tea from half a sachet of Joshanda—will find ways into your prose. Let them.
- Drink water. Stay hydrated.
- Consider The Prophet (1923) by Khalil Gibran, the first book Hussain lent to you after you became friends in St. Andrews. It startled something awake within you as you read it at your desk in student accommodation, sitting as you did beneath your poster of William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott (1905) with her wild hair and frantic weaving. That copy of Gibran is still with you, now that Hussain’s library of books has joined yours.
- Whenever you come up against an aspect of yourself or your story that you are not prepared to divulge in writing, read this aphorism from The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence by Baltasar Gracián: “In your affairs, create suspense. […] It bespeaks mystery in everything and, with this very secrecy, arouses awe. Even when explaining yourself, you should avoid complete frankness.” You retain the right to keep certain cards to yourself.
- Another version of the above, for moments of vulnerability: there is a firm line between life as it is lived and life as it is rendered on the page. Remember this.
- Monitor your caffeine intake.
- Keep close that manifesto (of a kind) you wrote, about what to do when memory is absent or vague. Honor the gaps. Acknowledge the spaces. Do not pretend they are not there. Breathe into them. See their poetry. Plant Blue Flowers. Like the Blue Flower of Novalis, of German Romanticism. You were studying Romanticism in St. Andrews then. Build the beauty of that coursework into your narrative. Let memory be frail; invite readers to learn alongside you.
- Lists, grids, tables, epistles—these forms organize thoughts, clear a path, deliver purpose. Use them, as I do here, to unlock what is waiting to be released.
- Do not be concerned with who this memoir is for, nor with those who may not be happy that you are writing it. Do not be anxious about your future self’s view of things. Ask yourself, instead, what it is we are doing when we think about our future or past selves. Are we investing or divesting? Are we dedicated or distracted?
- Reflect. We tell stories to make sense of ourselves; we read others’ stories to make sense of ourselves. Do not write for yourself “now,” nor for yourself “then.” Do not write, even, for your future self. Write for the reader, for the present readerly moment. For persons to glimpse past and future pressed into the forever-present.
- When you are ready, print your manuscript. Review it, pen in hand. At the end of every page, make a note of the knowledge a reader has gained and the emotions they are likely to be feeling. Chart this progression. Is it what you want it, or need it, to be?
- The time will come to round it out, to round it off. But, even then, imperfection is allowed, even needed. Think of Ruskin, that imperfection is essential: “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.”
- Make yourself omelets. Add lots of vegetables and cheese. Once in a while, treat yourself to an ice cream and a walk along the coast.
Sarah Barnette is a Guest Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Copenhagen. She has an MLitt in Romantic and Victorian Studies from the University of St. Andrews and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Her work has been published in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, The Publications of the English Goethe Society, The Journal of Victorian Culture Online, Renovatio, OC87, and Behind the Scenes at Nuneaton Museum. She leads experimental writing workshops with Beyond Form Creative Writing and freelances as a writing mentor. Her current project is a hybrid memoir about religious conversion and parallel lives. Find her on Twitter @DrSarahBarnette.