June 13, 2022 § 26 Comments
By Cathy Shields
Forty years ago, while taking a college course in children’s literature, I set out to write a children’s book. But my career as an elementary school teacher interfered, and my publishing dreams evaporated. When I became a mother of a child with a disability, the next twenty years blurred the boundaries between order and chaos.
By the time I took another creative writing class, my children were teenagers, and I was in my late forties. The teacher wielded his pen like a sword, a grizzled old guy who yelled at students when they couldn’t explain where to place a comma in a sentence. Still, he walked around the room cajoling us with, ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about my chaotic life. The idea for my book jelled with a theme which revolved around raising a child with disabilities.
I joined writing groups to help develop my skills; I learned about first, second, and third persons; first, second and third drafts, how to identify weak verbs, how to self-edit, how to revise, and the differences between passive and active voice. Fast forward another two years. I attended my first writing conference, ready to query my manuscript. I met an editor who taught the craft of memoir. After I described my book, she told me the next step should be a developmental edit.
I did not yet understand what an editor could do and, unwilling to make the financial commitment, I relied on my writing groups and scores of beta readers for feedback on whether my book was ready before I began researching agents. Responses bounced between form rejections and silence. After fifty queries, I got one request for a full manuscript and within two weeks, a rejection.
Would I ever get my book published? I thought my story about how I faced an internal struggle to accept my child with intellectual disabilities, had universal interest. The theme: learning acceptance. I had fought my child’s diagnoses until I gradually came to the realization that my daughter did not need to change, I did. Perhaps I had revised the story so many times that I had become shortsighted. Maybe it was time to find an editor.
The one I found appreciated the story I was trying to tell, and with her help, I revised and sent out a new round of queries. A well-known press showed interest; I had a request for the full manuscript. I am still astounded that I emailed them to get more insight into the rejection.
Too much reporting about doctors and specialists.
I sought out a new editor. This time I asked writer friends for recommendations. The person I chose, Monica, taught creative writing at a university and had published a memoir about a difficult subject, the imminent death of her baby. Although her editing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get my book published, I believed her insight could add a new perspective to the narrative arc of my story.
Two weeks later, I received the revised manuscript. The sculpting almost made me cry. The opening scene disappeared; the one everyone told me had to remain for my hook, the one where the doctor labels my child profoundly retarded.
In her editorial notes, she wrote: Don’t give the whole story away in the first chapter.
She moved scenes and pointed out where I needed to build scenes or add dialogue, but she hadn’t twisted my voice into her own words. What she had done was fiddle with structure. That’s when I finally understood the power of a good editor. Monica was the surgeon, I, the intern. She taught me what to cut away to repair and restructure.
I sent out the newly edited version in my next batch of queries, surprised when I received multiple requests for the full-length manuscript. None of this would have happened without my writing community, the previous editors, my beta readers, and the editor with eagle eyes. Last week, I signed a contract to have my memoir, The Shape of Normal, published with Vine Leaves Press. The book will be out in the fall of 2023.
Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir THE SHAPE OF NORMAL A Mother’s Journey from Disbelief to Acceptance, (Vine Leaves Press 2023), Catherine explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her stories have appeared in Mother Magazine, 50 Give or Take, Kaleidoscope, Uncomfortable Revolution, Write City, and Manifest-Station, and her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. She resides in Miami, Florida with her husband who she’s been married to forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. She blogs at www.cathyshieldswriter.com or you can follow her on Instagram @cathyshieldswriter.
Memoir of My Marriage: Finding the One [Version, Revision, Iteration, Incarnation] that Finally Worked
May 11, 2022 § 15 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
Six years ago, when I was confidently writing my first memoir, I broadcasted to the whole world, blogging about what I should—and shouldn’t—tell my teens about my cross-cultural, inter-denominational marriage, how I filled in memory gaps with old letters to my mother and friends, and why my manuscript eventually hit a wall.
Really, though, I started writing this story long before that. For my first workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts two years earlier, I shared “Root and Reach,” my essay contrasting my ungrounding moves with grounding yoga poses. The feedback: write a book. Each move should be its own chapter, and each chapter needed more scenes. Overwhelmed, I put it away.
After reading my essay about running for shelter during an Israeli military operation in 2014 and during the First Gulf War 23 years prior, my mentor suggested I write about my marriage, about love and compromise. By graduation a year later, I’d written 65,000 words. The facts were straight, my emotional truth was clear, but something bothered me. The writing was flat, uninteresting; the story overwritten.
Time passed. A writer-friend in northern California and I offered each other feedback on our manuscripts. She, like one of my VCFA mentors, suggested I ask a different question, write more my journey, less my marriage.
That same week, I read the British magazine Mslexia’s call for submissions:
J is for… a piece of creative non-fiction, up to 300 words.
A word jumped at me: jury. I opened my manuscript and found the sad day when my spouse and I sat in our White Plains, New York sunroom, deliberating about his need to return to Israel, where we met and married 20 years earlier, and my desire to stay stateside. I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled until my long, dull chapter reached 294 words and sang. Every month, I answered their calls for K (for Kasher), L (for Lire), M (for Mess), slowly working my way through the alphabet.
That spring, I took a flash workshop with Kathy Fish, responding feverishly to her prompts, each capped at 500/300/250 words. The result: the fewer my words, the clearer the writing. The group feedback: write a memoir-in-flash about my Israeli life.
On fire, I reframed my question, focusing on my search for my authentic self since landing in Israel in 2011, writing short vignettes of varying lengths, each under 1,000 words.
Then, last year, a reader-friend in southern California, encouraged me to consider putting together a chapbook. Did I have anything I’d already written centered on a certain theme?
I opened my first memoir. Zoomed in on the beginning, the middle, and the end: when my husband and I met in Israel in our early twenties, when we raised young children in America in our thirties and early forties, when we returned to Israel at almost fifty. Again, I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled, aiming for short and concise. I searched for prose chapbooks, entered it in competitions, and received a slew of rejections. Six months later and still submitting, I stumbled upon an open call for experimental prose. Clueless and curious, I opened my vignette called Zigzag and spread the text across the page to reflect the title. In Pro-Con, I formed two columns and used the + and – to show my list. On and on I went to follow one mentor’s sage advice and play on the page. The result: an experimental memoir-in-shorts (which I call memoir-ella), complete at not quite 10,000 words.
In early November, my manuscript was one of four finalists and received encouraging feedback from the editor. It didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Later that month, I submitted it to Vine Leaves Press, a traditional publisher that prints vignette collections. A few months later, I awakened to an email with subject line: OFFER OF PUBLICATION and a two-page, in-depth letter of evaluation, highlighting everything that works and why. My heart bounced—with relief, with gratitude, with awe. For the learning curve, the process, the persistence.
One night, between REM and some other disturbing midlife sleep state, I realized that I have two memoirs: this shorter, playful part I about my marriage and a longer one, also in vignettes, about me part II. My greatest hope is that it doesn’t take me another decade and five more iterations to find a special press that says yes.
Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat–practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003–with her legs up her living room wall. Her experimental memoir-in-shorts, Places We Left Behind, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.