Finding Heart Through American Idol
May 3, 2023 § 6 Comments
By Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto
I am watching American Idol intently this season. My heart has been captured by one of the contestants, Iam Tongi, a Hawaiian teenager living in Seattle because his family was “priced out of paradise.” His showstopper rendition of “The Sound of Silence” moved me to tears and silenced the audience.
How does he do it?
“To connect with the audience, sing from the heart,” the American Idol judges offer as advice to contestants.
The first version of my memoir about a ten-day trip to Cuba I took with my Cuban-born mother, read more like a travelogue than a heartfelt coming-of-age mother/daughter story. I captured details of the Cuban flag flying over the land it represented. Of the soldiers standing on the tarmac with semi-automatic rifles. Of what my mother and I said to each other and why our relationship was complicated.
This early draft of my memoir read like I was the Margaret Mead of my life. A scientific observer jotting down the facts of what I saw without emotion but some interpretation.
With two degrees in science, I was taught to avoid humanity in my research findings—with the result that during my first MFA program residency, my instructor told me my work lacked vulnerability. She implored us as memoirists to be vulnerable on the page. I had no idea what she meant. She once asked us to free-write about an experience that made us angry. I listed things that triggered anger. 1. Ignoring me, 2. Cigarette butts on the beach, 3. Anything my mother says… I then wrote what sounded like a scientific analysis of why those things made me angry.
“If you cry while you write, your readers will cry too,” she said.
Maybe that is why I cry when I hear Iam Tongi sing on American Idol. His heart broke when his father died recently, and each time he sings, he is reminded of his loss. His emotions are translated into his singing. He sings with vulnerability.
Meanwhile, feedback on my subsequent chapters during my MFA would say, “How did the daughter feel?” Another would say, “Linger here, build the characters’ relationship.” The best one read, “Description feels removed, impersonal.”
I wasn’t used to sharing my feelings as they were happening. I am more the type that analyzes my feelings first, then shares my findings. In high school, I would sit with my best friend over cappuccinos and we’d discuss our feelings stoically, not through tears. Was my German heritage to blame? Did I inherit my father’s stoicism?
“Write from the heart,” my instructor said.
The summer after my MFA, I participated in a manuscript boot camp. “Your story sounds like you are at the front of a ballroom giving a presentation,” the instructor said. “Write like you are having an intimate conversation with a friend in a dark corner of a café.” My analytical brain struggled to connect with the concept of writing from the heart.
After two more revisions, I pitched my memoir to several agents. When the rejections came in, I thought it was because I hadn’t written with vulnerability. I placed my memoir on the proverbial shelf.
I couldn’t write like Iam Tongi sang.
Now, a year later, after attending the AWP Writing Conference and watching a few American Idol episodes, I am inspired to revisit my manuscript. To get into the mood, I queued up an album of Cuban music. When the piano intro of the title song “Cuba Linda” began to play, I was entranced. The singer, with his raspy voice sang lyrics that yearned for the country he hasn’t seen in a long time. Tears welled in my eyes. I was at a funeral singing, Beautiful Cuba, I will always remember you.
Where did this emotion come from? The singer was singing from his heart to mine. He tapped into a deep part of my psyche—where emotions flow freely, unconstrained by the rules of scientific writing and German stoicism. Where I relive my Cuban family’s loss at being forced to leave their island home. Where I replay the complications of my mother-daughter trip to Cuba.
Emotions I hadn’t translated to the page of my memoir.
That day, I opened up my memoir manuscript for the first time in a year. My new tool in my writing toolbox is to begin revisions by listening to music that opens my heart. I hope future feedback says, “I can really feel your heart on the page.”
Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto is working on a revision of her memoir, Finding the Girl from Guantanamo. She received an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency MFA program of the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe NM. She has a BA in Biology and an MS in Marine Science. She is a November 2019 alum of the Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction writing has been published in Raven Chronicles, Teatime magazine, Scotland magazine and Insider. She resides in Seattle WA with her husband and their cat, Esperanza. Find her at her website.
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Hi Rebecca, I’ve often received similar feedback with the writing in my own memoir, to the point that I got sick of it and said, “Hey – I’m a human being with body, mind, emotions *and* spirit. And I like to write from *all* aspects of myself – including heart AND mind!” But maybe it’s true that people prefer to be emotionally moved when reading memoir, as I have not yet had success in placing mine with a publisher either… that said, I am having a blast playing on Substack and serializing chapters there🥰 Also have you read Katherine May’s books? I’m not alone in loving her writing (her books have hit the NYT best seller lists.) I find her writing to be very engaging, yet not emotional – perhaps appealing more to the mind than the heart, but still a great read and she has both critical and commercial success. Perhaps the most important thing in writing memoir is to be true to oneself.
Also I have to say that I love this: “He tapped into a deep part of my psyche—where emotions flow freely, unconstrained by the rules of scientific writing and German stoicism.” I wonder if it may be interesting to play with a variety of “constraints” to see how that effects your writing.
If you’re interested in swapping chapters for reciprocal Gateless feedback (please read https://brevity.wordpress.com/2022/12/09/on-useful-feedback/) please do let me know – you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck with it all and don’t give up!
Camilla – thank you for your feedback! I have been wondering what I could do with substack – I love it for reading other writers. Thanks for your inspiration!
I have not read any Katherine May’s books – but I have been looking to novels for help with how to write more engagingly (?). Thanks for the suggestion!
I’ll check out the Gateless feedback post and will take you up on swapping chapters!!!
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Check out my newest tool in my writer’s toolbox… finding heart…
This blog post by Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto resonates deeply with me. The author’s reflection on the importance of writing from the heart and embracing vulnerability in storytelling is inspiring. I appreciate her journey of self-discovery as she navigates the balance between her scientific background and the emotional depth required in memoir writing. The realization that tapping into emotions can create a powerful connection with readers is profound. It’s encouraging to see her renewed motivation to revisit her memoir, armed with the tool of music to open her heart while writing. I look forward to reading “Finding the Girl from Guantanamo” and experiencing the heartfelt emotions conveyed on the page. Best wishes on your writing journey, Rebecca!
Thank you, Alan, for your thoughtful comment.