What Happens When a Writer Spends Years Writing One Book?

I found this article while going through some old papers recently. Poets & Writers Magazine commissioned me to write it ten years ago but never ran it. So it’s appearing here for the first time. I hope you enjoy it.

The Patient Novelist

© Michael N. McGregor, 2011

There are dozens of books about it but none reveal how crippling it can be or the worst of its many symptoms, the most secret one: the shame.  Evasion and deflection become part of your personality.  You begin to answer questions with a single syllable or a vacant stare, until the questions stop.

I’m talking, of course, about the itch to write a novel and the sad results of scratching it for those who don’t find early publication: the seemingly stillborn body hidden in a lower drawer.

“I didn’t ever tell anybody about it,” says Selden Edwards, who felt the itch while earning a master’s degree at Stanford; for the next 30 years he stayed in his hotel room whenever his family went to a museum or the beach.  “My children knew I had it but they’d never read it.  My wife is an avid reader and she’d never read it.  Two years ago if I’d invited everyone I ever cared about to a huge party and stood up and mentioned the name Wheeler Burden, nobody in the room would have known what I was talking about.”

Wheeler Burden is the time-traveling, baseball-whizzing, guitar-playing hero of The Little Book, Edwards’ first novel, a project he worked on surreptitiously for most of his adult life, discarding it and picking it up again half a dozen times before Dutton bought it for a high six-figure sum in 2007.

When that happened, “a big hole opened in the heavens,” Edwards says.  “I was going to have a novel published.  It was the dream of a lifetime.”

The dream of a lifetime might seem a bit clichéd but for Edwards it was literally true.  Although he served as a prep school headmaster for 25 years and raised three healthy and successful children, he refers to The Little Book as his life’s work.

“I must admit it didn’t feel like that when I was working on it,” he says.  “It was just this frustrating thing I had.  I didn’t think of it as very meaningful.”

Even so, over the years he put everything he knew or learned into it, adding complications and connections, thickening the characterizations and plot.

“When you work on a story that long,” he says, “you come up with little details and you say, ‘I can work that in,’ or someone tells you a good story and you think, ‘Oooh, I could put that in.’ I could do a footnoted version of my novel that would be four times as long.  Almost every detail comes from some part of my life.”

 

The list of authors who’ve suffered the vicissitudes and felt the significance of prolonged labor on a single novel is longer and more distinguished than you might think: Malcolm Lowry spent a decade writing and revising his most famous work, Under the Volcano; Katherine Anne Porter took two decades to write her single novel, Ship of Fools; Jean Rhys produced parts of her post-colonialist classic, Wide Sargasso Sea, over almost thirty years; and Ralph Ellison struggled so long to write a second novel after the phenomenal success of Invisible Man—forty years!—he never finished it.

Unlike Edwards, these authors all had agents and advocates, readers and reputations.  So why did they work on a single book for so long?  What did they gain by sticking with it rather than moving on?

 

Nothing in our culture encourages anyone to write a novel, let alone work on it for decades.  Talented fiction writers whose first novels don’t sell right away are like those old Olympic hopefuls who had to fend for themselves while their foreign competitors received government support.  More often than not, agents (if you can get one) will send your novel to no more than a handful of publishers before giving up.  If the rejections point to a clearly fixable problem, they might risk a second round; if not, you’re on your own to wonder whether your book is fatally flawed or just not salable in its current condition—whether you should burn it or stick with it, filling it with all you know.

Lowry chose the second course with Under the Volcano, a novel so packed with meanings and allusions some critics have called it unreadable while others have proclaimed it one of the best books of all time.  (In 1998 the Modern Library editorial board put it at #11 on their list of the 20th century’s 100 Best Novels in English.  James Joyce’s 18-year-effort Finnegans Wake was #77 and Ulysses, which took him seven years, was #1.)

Lowery wrote three full drafts between 1936 and December of 1940 when his agent sent his manuscript to four publishers who all rejected it.  Nine more would turn it down in the months ahead.  By then, however, Lowry was already working on a fourth draft in which he revised each of the book’s twelve chapters at least four more times.

“This is not to say that Under the Volcano became longer,” writes Lowry biographer Douglas Day, “it did not.  It became denser, as [Lowry] applied quick, small pieces of information and insight here and there, in masterfully controlled profusion.”

The result?  British publisher Jonathan Cape published the book in 1946 but only after Lowry wrote an impassioned response to a reader’s report that “with surprising consistency…condemned exactly what supporters of Under the Volcano have found great in it.”

Rejection and lack of understanding aren’t the only reasons for an author to spend decades on a single book.  Porter’s delay in finishing her one novel—a wide-ranging yet intimate look at the lives of several dozen people sailing from Mexico to Germany on the eve of Hitler’s rise—had less to do with others’ opinions than with scope.  Porter was already well known as a short story writer; any number of publishers would have been happy to bring out her longer work.  But she was trying, as biographer Joan Givner writes, “to work on a huge panoramic canvas and solve the riddle of what had gone wrong with the whole Western world in the twentieth century.”  Not an easy task for someone used to writing short—or someone working in today’s less-patient publishing environment.

According to another biographer, Darlene Harbour Unrue, Ship of Fools “represents the final stage of Porter’s thematic and stylistic evolution.  On the ship are versions of earlier characters she created or planned to create: in the narrative are scenes that mirror scenes from her other stories, short novels, and essays; themes treated in the shorter work are treated again in the long novel; and the prose medium of the long novel is a combination of stylistic techniques that served her well in the other pieces.”

In other words, the novel Porter labored over for so long became her life’s work.

Like Porter, Jean Rhys had a strong publishing history (four novels, a book of short stories and several autobiographical pieces) when she began working on what eventually became Wide Sargasso Sea (#94 on the Modern Library list) sometime in the late 1930s.  In a fit of anger in the mid-1940s she burned her half-finished manuscript.  She wouldn’t work on it again until 1958 or finish it until 1966 but she never stopped thinking about the Caribbean childhood on which it was based.  Finally, in 1964, after a quarter century of brooding, the book came together when she wrote a poem.

“Even when I knew I had to write the book,” she wrote to her publisher, Francis Wyndham, “still it did not click into place—that is one reason (though only one) why I was so long.  It didn’t click.  It wasn’t there.  However I tried.

“Only when I wrote this poem—then it clicked—and all was there and always had been.”

That clicking never came for Ellison who published two books of essays and miscellaneous works but never completed his long-anticipated second novel.  His literary executor, John. F. Callahan, suggests that the scope of Ellison’s vision—his attempt to write his own ‘life’s work’ (as if Invisible Man, #19 on the Modern Library list, weren’t enough)—may have been the reason.  In his introduction to Juneteenth, the novel he assembled from manuscripts Ellison left behind, Callahan writes: “Sometimes revising, sometimes reconceiving, sometimes writing entirely new passages into an oft-reworked scene, he accumulated some two thousand pages of typescripts and printouts by the time of his death.”

As early as 1968 Ellison’s struggle to write his follow-up novel (he had written 1,000 pages already) was causing him frustration, anxiety and, yes, shame.  “He has become so embarrassed about his inability to finish the book,” wrote critic Richard Kostelanetz, “that he gets visibly upset when acquaintances ask about it.”

(If you’re wondering what Ellison wrote in all those pages Callahan mentions, Modern Library published over a thousand of them under the title Three Days Before the Shooting in 2010.)

 

So what do you do if you’ve written a novel, sent it out and either failed to find an agent or found one who wasn’t able to sell your book?  Most writers move on to other projects.  Some quit writing altogether, either permanently or temporarily, by choice or from necessity.  A very few love their project enough, are confident (or maybe crazy) enough, and have patience and vision enough to start again with the same book, putting more of themselves and their time into it, risking making it their life’s work.

“It’s a manic-depressive practice,” Edwards says, “because when you’re in the heat of revising you start thinking, ‘Oh, boy, this is getting good,’ but then you get those cold hard rejection slips.  I had a paycheck so I wasn’t desperate, but each time I got rejected I felt ready to give up.”

The darkest days came near the end when he’d retired and had the time to do one more complete revision in a relatively short amount of time.  He sent the results to nine agents.  “The unbelievable thing,” he says, “is that it was maybe 80% of what became the final book and every agent rejected it unceremoniously, with just a printed rejection slip.”

Once again, however, Edwards started over, this time hiring a freelance editor who helped fix his ending and several smaller problems.  They worked together for a year.  One week after they stopped, Edwards had an agent.  Two weeks later, he had a contract.  One year after that, he had a bestseller.

“When the agent called, he said, ‘You haven’t given this to anybody else, have you?’” Edwards remembers with a laugh. “‘I have to represent this book!’

“One of the things you try to do as a mature person is not evaluate yourself based on the opinion of others.  You try to have your own integrity.  But when you’re a writer it’s almost impossible to do that.  The key thing in working with the editor was that he said right away, ‘This thing has promise.’  He was the first person to read it from cover to cover.  That was the whole difference.”

Edwards is about to publish his second novel—a book he sold in two days with just a proposal: “They said, ‘Can you do this thing in a year?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can.’”

What advice does he have for others willing to stick with one book over time?

“Number one, don’t give up.  But be realistic about it.  Maybe you’re going to write a lot and it’s never going to be published.  Just because it happened for me doesn’t mean it’s more likely.  The other thing is always finish a draft.  Every draft I wrote was about twice as good as the one before.  I kept finishing and that made a huge difference.”

“You know,” he adds, “I’ve had a lot of good stuff in my life, but I wanted to have a novel from the time I was a young man.  All that’s going on now—having a bestseller and all—it’s like being drafted by the Celtics.  It’s just an unbelievable dream and I live it every day.”

* To learn more about Selden Edwards, including the response to his follow-up novel, The Lost Prince, visit his Wikipedia page.

The Three Bin Approach to Staying Alive as a Writer

One of the biggest obstacles the writers I work with as a writing consultant face is a loss of confidence or spirit when the things they’ve been writing haven’t been published. Although editors have sometimes solicited work from me, I’ve never been a writer who knows where each piece will go when I write it. As a result, I’ve experienced this loss of confidence or spirit myself—many times. And over the years I’ve developed a process for countering it I call The Three Bins.

Here’s how it works:

Most of the writing I fret over is writing I think should be published or might be published rather than writing I know will be published or writing I enjoy working on whether it will be published or not. Sometimes this should/might writing does get published and I feel a surge of energy for writing in general. But other times—let’s be honest: most times—it isn’t accepted anywhere and after a while I lose not only my confidence in it but also my will to do it.

Yet this kind of writing is the writing that makes me a writer in the world. That gives me whatever reputation I have. So when I’m not writing it, I feel stagnant and sometimes depressed. To forestall those feelings, I’ve learned to divide my writing into three types—putting it, metaphorically, into three bins.

The writing in the first bin is writing I love to do and would do even if it was never published anywhere. Let’s call this bin the Joy Bin. The writing in it is the writing that made me want to be a writer in the first place, the writing that sustains my soul as a writer, the writing that gives me the most pleasure. If I didn’t worry about being a writer in any sense other than writing for the joy of it, this is the writing I’d do all the time.

But I do want to be a writer in another sense: I want my writing to go out into the world and be read. I want to be known as a writer, ideally as a writer who writes wise and beautiful things. So I write things that conform in some way to what publications publish, even if those things start out as writing for myself (which most of them do). These writings go into the second bin. Let’s call it the Hope Bin.

Most writers who haven’t published much or anything at all spend most of their time jumping between these two bins. As a result, they often develop a love-hate relationship with writing. There is nothing that brings them more pleasure but also nothing that causes more anxiety or sadness. What these writers need is a third bin, one that will give them some of the exposure they desire so they can continue to write with joy.

Let’s call this third bin the Sure Thing Bin. Into it go all of the writings that will definitely be published. Now I’ve been a writer for a long time and have worked in journalism as well as creative writing. I have hundreds of publications under my belt. So I can develop an idea, pitch it to an editor at a well-targeted publication, and generally come away with a writing assignment. It might not pay much or anything at all, but it will be a guaranteed publication.

But even if you’ve never published anything, you can do something similar. Hundreds of publications are looking for writing to fill out their pages: book reviews, news items, short profiles, even anecdotes. These publications range from newsletters and established websites to literary journals and trade magazines. It’s true, some of them pay little or nothing, but if a lack of publication is standing in the way of getting your writing done, they provide the one thing you need.

The key for most writers—those like me who don’t have inboxes full of invitations from editors to write whatever they want and don’t receive seven-figure advances whenever they’re ready to write a book—is to bounce between the three bins. If I’ve been spending most of my writing time in the Hope Bin, working on essays or stories or even a book I think should or might be published and everything I’ve written is being rejected—so much so that I question my commitment to being a writer—I pull myself out of that bin for a while and spend time in one of the others.

If I’ve lost my joy for writing, I head over to the Joy Bin and work on something I expect to bring nothing but delight. If I feel I’ve disappeared from the writing world because I haven’t published anything lately, I head instead to the Sure Thing Bin and send a query out or offer to review a book or, if nothing else, write a blog entry. Then, when I’ve regained my equilibrium, I return to my work in the Hope Bin.

This three-bin approach has helped me stay alive as a writer for decades—alive as in visible, alive as in hopeful, and alive as in feeling deep in my soul that writing is waht I want to be doing. In the end, that’s the main goal, isn’t it: staying alive as a writer—waking up again and again with the will to write as well as you can for as long as you’re able.

 

Three Thoughts About…Rejection

The reason I and many other older writers and writing teachers advise young would-be writers to do something else unless they feel absolutely driven to be a writer is that being a writer can be extremely hard. It rarely pays enough to live on and there’s no guarantee that, however hard you work, you’ll ever succeed. In fact, given the vagaries of the writing and reading world, the odds are against you.

The hardest part of being a writer, though, at least a career writer, is the emotional side. Every writer has faced rejection of her work, and all but the most commercially successful writers face it again and again, even after they’ve achieved a fair amount of publishing success.

Rejection of any kind is hard on anyone. What makes the rejection a writer (or any artist) experiences even harder is that the work she does, she does alone, usually for hours on end. It is emotionally taxing just to muster the belief in yourself and the work you’re doing to return to the desk day after day, creating something at the outer edges of your abilities without any insurance that anyone else will see its value. But once you’ve finished it—or think you might have finished it—subjecting it to the opinions of often-distracted and almost-always-overworked editors or agents is more taxing still.

So how does a writer navigate rejection and keep writing? Here are three thoughts:

1. Rather than submitting your finished work immediately to magazines or an agent, cultivate a circle of smart writing friends who will give you their honest opinion on it first. If you can, join or form a regular writing critique group. Make sure the group members are dedicated and at a relatively similar place in their writing development.

2. When you finally submit, do so on a tiered basis, sending out to the places you’d most like to be published first, and then, when the inevitable rejections come back, sending to the next tier down and then the next and the next. Every time a rejection comes in, send your piece out to the next place on your list right away so you always have things in circulation, always have a reason to hope.

3. Pay attention to any comments editors might give, since most don’t do more than send a form rejection anymore. Comments mean you’ve caught their attention. But don’t put too much stock in rejection of any kind, with or without comments. The best thing about rejection is it clarifies your intentions, helping you see if you’re writing because you feel a deep need to write or writing only for the supposed reward of seeing what you’ve written in print. Of course every writer wants to see what he has written be published and read, but the most important thing is to write what you have to write rather than trying to write what you think someone will publish.

Welcome rejection. It is a sign that you have taken the risk of sending your work out, giving it a chance to find its place in the world. The more rejections you experience, the less any one will bother you. If you persevere, rejection builds fortitude. And, if nothing else, it means one more person has read your writing. 🙂

Three Thoughts About…Teaching

I have been teaching writing for over 25 years, and during my 17 years in Portland State University’s creative writing program, the students chose me to receive the English department’s John Eliot Allen Outstanding Teacher Award five times–almost every year I was eligible. (You had to sit out two years each time you won it.) I mention this only to suggest I know a little bit about teaching writing. Or maybe just teaching in general.

Whenever I received one of the Allen awards, people would ask me the secret to good teaching. My answer was always that you have to love your students, caring about them as individuals. Beyond that, every teacher has to teach in her own way, according to her own personality and vision. Here are three basic principles that have worked for me:

  1. Challenge students to achieve beyond what they think they’re capable of doing by setting high goals and high standards.
  2. Actively and persistently help each student to achieve those goals and maintain those standards, without relenting.
  3. Work harder than your students work.

And one more thing: Encourage your students in every possible way at every possible moment.

The most consistent thing students have said about my teaching is that I’m tough but fair. If you aren’t tough, you aren’t helping students do anything more than they could do on their own, in which case they don’t need a teacher. If you aren’t fair, they’re going to stop listening to you no matter how right you are about what you’re trying to teach them.

Three Thoughts About…Symbols

1. A symbol is an object or action invested with greater significance than it would have if taken only at face value. Pearls, for example, are simply bits of organic residue left by an oyster. Because we prize them for their beauty and rarity, however, they can become potent symbols in a story. A poor woman’s refusal to sell a string of heirloom pearls inherited from her mother might symbolize: her love for her dead parent, her pride in her family of origin, the feeling of dignity she derives from her ancestry, or her unwillingness to give up hope of a better life. If she becomes so desperate for food or shelter or love she considers selling the pearls, their symbolic value helps us understand just how deep her desperation is.

2. A symbol is often used to: a. highlight an important aspect of a particular character; b. focus the reader’s attention on some particular part of a story; c. point to a greater possible meaning.

3. One of the dangers of symbols is they can become easy shorthand for ideas and especially emotions that should be developed more fully and organically in a story. Sentimentality relies heavily on symbols to create what some call “unearned emotion.” So does melodrama. And politics. Symbols misused in this way include: American flags, babies, suffering animals, and racist caricatures (such as the infamous Willie Horton ad used by the George H. W. Bush presidential campaign).

Since this is the first in my series of entries about different aspects of writing and being a writer, here’s a bonus thought:

Many short stories are built around the central symbol in their titles. Oft-anthologies examples include: William Faulkner’s The Bear, Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible, Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing, John Cheever’s The Swimmer, D. H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

Podcast Interview: Talking about Memoir, Biography and the Craft of Nonfiction

A few weeks ago, I stopped by Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird Studio to talk to her class about memoir, biography and writing in general.  She recorded the session and it’s available free on her website.  Have a listen.

Jennifer is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackbird and three other books.  You’ll find more about her and her books on her Amazon author’s page.

If you live in the Portland area, check out Jennifer’s classes for writers.

An Ethical Starter Kit for Writing About People/Biography — Questions to Ask Yourself Along the Way

When you write about other people, you make ethical decisions from beginning to end.  Here’s a starter kit for making those decisions, in the form of questions to ask at each step along the way:

 

  1. Choosing a subject: Why does this subject appeal to you? Is it someone you can approach fairly and open-mindedly? Do you have a bias already for or against the subject?  If you know the person, are you able to get enough distance from her to go beyond your own preconceived notions of her?  Are you able to be objective even if you find information that counters or even destroys your image of the person?  Are you willing to disclose your bias for or against in some way to your reader?

 

  1. Collecting facts: Do you have access to enough material to feel comfortable creating an image of your subject for an audience? If not, how might you mitigate this problem by the use of other contextual material? Do you have enough time and other resources (money, ability to travel to archives, contacts, etc.) to do a thorough job?  Are you open to whatever material you find?  Are you willing to keep researching, especially interviewing, even when your interest in your subject has flagged?  What are you willing to do to secure potentially important material in the hands of someone skeptical of your project?

 

  1. Interviewing: How will you select those you interview about your subject? How thorough are you willing to be? Will you include people who might have a view of that person different than yours?  What are you willing to do to convince skeptical interviewees to talk to you?  How far are you willing to go with flattery or intimations of friendship?  Can you be honest with interviewees about your views of your subject?  Are you willing to prepare thoroughly for all interviews?  How will you differentiate between interview material that comes from someone you like or agree with vs. someone you don’t like or whose opinion might conflict with yours?

 

  1. Gaps: How will you deal with the inevitable gaps in the story you find? Are you willing to delay moving to publication to try to find more material? Will you disclose them to your reader or try to elide them?  Are you willing to be more provisional in your writing or do you feel the need to write with total conviction?  How comfortable are you with using your imagination to fill some gaps?  How do you decide when you have truly made a good-faith effort to fill gaps?  Are you willing to abandon the project if you encounter too many gaps?

 

  1. Choosing themes: How will you ensure that the themes you choose are truly demonstrable from your subject’s life? If you have a theme in mind when you start, are you flexible enough to let it go or even have it upended? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into your themes or even counters them?  How will you make sure your themes aren’t too restrictive or prescriptive?  How will you determine whether your themes are fair and not the result of trendy ideas or what you think will sell?

 

  1. Creating a narrative: Are you able to establish and sustain a narrative that is capacious enough to encompass all of your research? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into story form or the sequence of stories you want to tell? How can you ensure that the pictures you create on the page comes from facts only and don’t distort the subject’s viewpoint or experience if they come from sources outside his life?  How will you use stories or juicy material that comes from a single source, particularly if that source is questionable?  How will you convey to your reader what sources you’ve used to construct your narrative (in-text clues, endnotes, bibliography, etc.)?

 

  1. Making claims: How can you keep potentially controversial claims from being libelous? Is everything you claim about your subject based on thorough research? How will you decided what to do with material that might seem an invasion of privacy but seems important to the claims you’re making about your subject?  Are you willing to be less-definitive in your claims to indicate to your reader that the claims are provisional or based on thin evidence?  Have you had enough people of different viewpoints read your work to be sure your claims are broadly valid?  Are your claims based on more than a single source?  Are you able to get outside your own social and cultural context and evaluate your claims from a different viewpoint?

 

  1. Fact checking: Have you asked those with knowledge of particular facts to read them in the context of your work? Have you had enough people read your manuscript to catch errors you might have stopped seeing? Have you checked out questionable “facts” with other sources?  Have you been honest in evaluating your sources?   Have you double-checked later versions of your manuscript against original sources?  Have you been thorough in matching what interviewees tell you against all possible written sources (letters, diaries, official documents, published works, etc.)?

 

  1. Revision and editing: Have you made sure you haven’t introduced errors by taking things out or adding things in? In making your writing more concise or trying to fit a word count, have you been careful not to be reductive or create an unintended connection through juxtapositioning? Have you been careful not to introduce gaps that weren’t there before?  Have you absolutely, thoroughly and repeatedly checked and rechecked every name, place and other type of information that identifies any individual?  Have you checked the work of editors and proofreaders yourself?

 

  1. Publication: Have you thought about the effects of publication on your subject and yourself? How will you deal with the inevitable errors others will find in the published work? What responsibility do you have to the work after it’s out in the world?  How will you deal with information that comes to you after the book or article is published?  Will your writing about your subject end with publication or will you continue to write, speak and blog about her?  How will you deal with the inevitable critics of your work—your researching, your interpretations, your claims, your writing or your integrity?

 

Again, this list is meant only to get you thinking about the many ethical decisions you’ll have to make along the way, with the hope that you’ll make them consciously and well.

© Michael N. McGregor 2018

Here’s an Exercise from my Terroir Writing Festival Workshop on Personal Essay and Memoir

The featured image here is of poet Lynn Otto introducing me for my workshop “Getting Down to the Truly Personal in Personal Essay and Memoir” at the 8th annual Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville, Oregon, last Saturday.  McMinnville is at the heart of Oregon’s wine country and home to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, which is where Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose resides now.

The conference had 120 attendees and close to half of them squeezed into the small room where my workshop was held, with some spilling out the door.  The tight quarters made for good energy and the writing was furious during the three exercises I was able to offer in the hour I had.  Judging by the comments afterward, the exercises took people to the deeper places I hoped they’d go, some emerging with tears in their eyes and others saying they found their way with projects that had been stalled.

Below is one of the exercises we did, based on this paragraph from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Blindness”:

“A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end.  This is even stronger in the case of an artist.  Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art.  One must accept it.  For this reason, I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord.  Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”

WRITING: Think of an “instrument” that is an inescapable element of your experience of life—asthma, blindness, migraines, single parent, poverty—something that has marked you in ways that might seem damaging or at least disadvantageous.  Write a long paragraph about it and your connection to it.

 

Memoir Monday #7 — The Dance of Expectations and Fear: Missing the True Story

My thoughts today are less about memoir per se than storytelling in general and what is often called “writer’s block” in particular.  As with my last entry, they come from something John Edgar Wideman wrote in his deeply searching and searing memoir Brothers and Keepers.  Near the book’s end, Wideman talks about showing the first draft of his book to Robby, the imprisoned brother whose story lies at its heart.  Robby tells him that “something crucial” is missing from it.

In seeking the source of the problem, Wideman decides that his expectations and fear kept him from getting down to the true story.  “By the book’s conclusion I wanted a whole, rounded portrait of my brother,” he writes, but “no apotheosis of Robby’s character could occur in the final section because none had transpired in my dealings with my brother.”

In other words, Wideman’s expectations of what the story would be, and his ideas of what a story is, were keeping him from seeing what his brother’s life had to tell him.  “I’d been waiting to record dramatic, external changes in Robby’s circumstances when what I should have been attuned to were the inner changes, his slow, internal adjustment day by day to an unbearable situation.”

Wideman’s use of the word “unbearable” at this point links Robby’s life to that of their mother, who used it to describe daily life as an African American.  “Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne,” Wideman writes about his mother’s understanding of the word, “but what must be endured forever.”  Wideman’s late recognition that the real story is Robby’s “internal adjustment” to “an unbearable situation” allows him to link Robby’s plight to those of his ancestors, including his mother, and of African Americans throughout history.  By listening more carefully and homing in on smaller, more intimate details, he gives his story universality.

But it is what Wideman writes on the following page that speaks more generally to writers, especially those who find themselves scared to write:

“The problem with the first draft was my fear.  I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough.  I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights.  I wanted to clean them up.  Manufacture compelling before-and-after images.  Which meant I made the bad too bad and good too good.  I knew what I wanted; so, for fear I might not get what I needed, I didn’t listen carefully, probe deeply enough.”

The last sentence here is particularly useful.  It is our idea of what we want that gets in the way, that makes us afraid the outcome won’t be good enough.  We’re thinking about the end product when we should be thinking about the process.  “The best is the enemy of the good,” Thomas Merton used to say.  Our desire to be praised for what we produce keeps us from listening carefully to our sources or ourselves, from probing deeply enough to see what is truly there rather than what fits more easily into our preconceived notions.

“Lower your sights,” writing teachers often say to students who face writer’s block.  A better thing to say might be “Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”  Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves.  The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us, trusting that truth, however provisional, will sparkle with a beauty all its own.