|I began my writing career as what a grad-school mentor later called a “3,000-word sprinter.” Working as a freelance writer specializing in magazine features, I often had several projects going at once. The most effective way for me to work was to identify the “getaway quote”—the comment that sums up the story—from my interviews and notes, set that on my computer screen as the conclusion, and write my way there, crossing off important information as I wrote. I knew where my story was headed, and I charged confidently toward my destination. |
When I undertook what became my first book, all 90,000-some words of it, I knew what I wanted it to be (and what my editor hoped to see). But my memoir’s shifts in time and the layered scenes crucial to the story didn’t work with my old reliable plan. Suddenly, I had a long, winding road to run. My plan had been to start the book with my parents’ wedding and end it with my own, sandwiching the story of my sisters’ illnesses and my life as the “well sibling” in between. I even had the getaway quote, this time from my own life. But my editor nonchalantly caused the first detour. She wanted a different, more evocative ending. That meant a deeper, more personal book. My heart sank. I knew she was right, but the prospect of finding a more resonant ending and reshaping the long manuscript threw me off course.
E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For a 3,000-word sprinter like me, no longer being able to see where I was going was a scary way to travel. HOW DOES A sprinter learn to go the distance? I spent hours making false starts, using my delete key more than any other, and feeling like a failure.
One day, in the middle of trying to take my manuscript in a new direction, I stumbled. According to my old road map, I was set to start a new chapter. I knew how the chapter would begin and what the plot points would be. But I was afraid that I couldn’t get my manuscript where it needed to go, because I could no longer see the shape that my book would take. The fundamentals of my story were clear. I knew the characters and their conflicts by heart—after all, this was my memoir. But I didn’t know how to flesh the story out and still keep it vivid.
For a few weeks, I didn’t write. Instead, I read. Because I love essays and the exploration inherent in the form, I concentrated on essay collections new to me and reread favorites. More than ever, I searched for theme. I examined how authors connected shorter pieces to make a revelatory, flowing whole. Then I turned the lens on my work, looking for themes that united my existing chapters. I’d written about houses I’d lived in and about illness and damaged bodies. Home and body were key images in my material. Once I recognized this, I felt liberated. Reading writers I admired filled my tank for that long-distance haul, but more than that, reading work I loved showed me ways to layer my loose, connecting threads.
IT’S TOUGH TO admit, but I was cruel to my book’s first attempts to grow. Unlike a magazine assignment, I had time to cultivate my words and ideas, but my old habit of organizing my story and charging ahead died hard. Woe to any good idea that drifted into my mind if I wasn’t working on the memoir right at that moment. I shooed ideas away and couldn’t coax them back later. Until I allowed myself to slow down and nurture good ideas, I lost a lot of opportunities for insight and story.
An example: One day I saw two little girls chasing birds on the sidewalk. Seeing them reminded me of feeding squirrels in Central Park on a visit to New York with my family when I was small. That reminded me of another trip to Manhattan, one I took when I was a teenager: I saw myself in the lobby of an Upper East Side hospital, where I brought tulips to my youngest sister. Those little girls playing on the sidewalk led me to recognize a crucial premise in my book: how my sisters’ lives were so similar to, and so different from, mine.What I thought would be the end of my memoir was now about three-quarters into the book, and my task was to write my way to a place I hadn’t discovered yet. I jettisoned a habit I’d developed in my magazine writing and began to write out of order. “That part doesn’t come next,” my sprinter-self chastised, as I wrote my way through new scenes. “It will go somewhere,” I told myself, and usually I was right. If an idea rang true to me, but I didn’t yet know where in the book it would fall, I wrote it anyway. Like Doctorow’s headlights, I went farther every day.
So I wrote almost 100 new manuscript pages. My story was richer, and I was proud of this stronger version of my memoir. But I had one last mile to go. Did my narrative within a narrative really work? How about my technique of telling my story from present to past and back again? Sometimes the only way to know where you are is to take the long view, and that’s literally what I did. I laid all the printed chapters end to end along the hallway of my house. And then I walked from Chapter 1 all the way to the last page—reading, making decisions, moving sections, and taping newly connected pieces together.
I had gotten to my new ending by forging a path that was new to me, one with detours, the need for trust in my story, and a little bit of darkness. There was a new ending, too, which I loved; my editor was right. I found my getaway quote hidden in a discarded section of the first chapter, in a paragraph about the passage of time, and how often we don’t know where we will end up.