Why My Memoir Hit a Wall

February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz Lang

Jennifer Lang

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.

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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

Dream Catchers: On Writing the Brief Moment

February 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

April Monroe’s thoughtful reflection on the short essay form and her brief essay The Potato Harvest in Brevity 31:

One of the reasons I have been a longtime reader of Brevity is because size, at least in literary nonfiction, matters to me a great deal. Short-short nonfiction has always been a very natural genre for me both as a reader and a writer. In many ways this quickly leads to vast literary disappointment, as there are very few places to publish or read, and writers of brief nonfiction are rarely found on the best-seller list. But despite the pitfalls, it remains my favorite form. As a reader I find it to be more accessible than poetry, but it still has the arch that I crave in stories and essays. And, more than anything, I believe it is the most honest nonfiction around.

The discussion on what truth is and where creative license becomes deception has been had ad nauseum, and I cannot offer anything new to that dialogue. What I can say is that I believe telling the truth is the obsession, goal, and persistent quandary of all nonfiction writers, and that I found my best answers in short-short essays.

In one of the first writer’s workshops I ever participated in, the ongoing advice for every piece I turned in was to “make it longer.” Of course, most of the young and uncorrupted writers in the circle of desks under the always-throbbing fluorescent lights said it more eloquently: “let it bloom,” or “I feel like this story is trying to be a poem,” and sometimes more straightforwardly: “this is weird,” or “You could never publish this.” As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time figuring out how to elongate essays. Sometimes this was great – necessary, even. But other times, I was left with the feeling that every word I added was a movement away from what I was trying to write in the first place – the truth.

Sometimes the most moving, altering moments of life are in fact only moments. Sometimes they are not destined to be novels, essays, or memoirs. Sometimes, there is no bigger picture. There is only the truth, and all that I know of it barely reaches the two-hundred word mark. My essay “The Potato Harvest,” which appeared in issue 31 of Brevity, is a good example of such a time.

I would rather write about anything, anything at all, than write about my children. The enormity of the undertaking, the likelihood of blundering into cliché, and the added difficulty of writing with absolute honesty when my children are my subject matter scares me. Every word is a mountain. “The Potato Harvest” is, to date, the longest piece I have written about one of my children. It is quite brief, but to me was a large accomplishment in the art of telling the whole truth. The particular poignant morning that inspired the essay was the kind of moment that reaches us at our core, but when it has passed, seeps out of our mind like a complex dream. For me, short-short essays are the dream catcher that those moments get stuck in, and the only way I have found to capture them and put them into writing.

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