Gaps, Gifts and the Grind: Reflections on the Writing Process
Last year I wrote a memoir, and this year I finished it off – well nearly. I’m having a little gap from working on it at the moment. And having a ‘little’ gap, I’ve discovered, is part of my writing process.
Looking back, I should have known that already. I wrote the first draft of the memoir in 1997 (as a student on the creative writing programme) and didn’t get back to it till last year, when I became a student on the programme again.
When I returned I knew I had a big editing job on my hands – shaping the narrative so it told a clear story, rather than ‘everything I can remember about way back then’. I also wanted to add essays and an illustrative strand.
It was the illustrative element that first grabbed me when our tutor, Mandy Hager, began talking about structure – something I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to. The first diagram she drew on the board was the classic steep-hill structure, where the protagonist is challenged in ever increasing doses and it looks like they’ll never make it to the summit. Then she moved on to spirals, and close-ups and double-backs – all fascinating representations of the interplay between what a writer says and how they say it.
In The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing Hazel Smith mentions a poet, who at age thirty-seven wrote a memoir which had thirty-seven sections and thirty-seven lines in each one of those sections; the content of the memoir pressing up against the form the writer had chosen. Smith says, ‘structure is about smaller elements in relationship to each other,’ and also talks about combining several structures at once.
But did any of that connect with my manuscript? I began to scribble questions and doodles in my workbook …
No. That wouldn’t work. I wanted the chronological story to be the driver in my manuscript – coming out from the centre seemed to be the opposite of that – it seemed to be about starting with the essays, the thematic writing.
During my long gap years, away from the swamp of my own manuscript, I read Rachel Manija Brown’s All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An Indian Ashram Childhood. She integrated a strong storyline and adult reflection pieces through carefully placed ‘interlude’ chapters. How would that work with my essays and illustrative chapters?
In class we were often asked: What is your book about? Just as my manuscript assessors in 1997 had pointed out, it reminded me I needed a clearer idea of the story I was telling. I set aside the rewriting and began some interrogating:
What is my book about? It’s about the story of growing up with arthritis.
Yes, but what’s it really about? It’s about change. It’s about a change out of season – as in developing an old body at a young age – and all that comes from that.
Seasons – four seasons – autumn, winter, spring, summer. Maybe I can split the book into four sections. But where will I put the essays, and the illustrations, and what about a title?
Seasons. Nature. Must be a title in there. The Ribbonwood Tree? Too obscure – relevant only to me. Ribbonwood and the Walking Stick? Odd. The Walking Stick Tree? Tighter, got potential.
More doodling, more thinking, more nano breaks … Then a new shape. Four petals, one centre. The petals moving in and out of the centre.
Time spent on the structure was invaluable. Not just because of the result (which may change once a publisher is involved) but because of the thinking I did along the way. When it came together, it felt as easy as that, but of course it was influenced by many things, some of which I’m aware of!
While the structure gave me the plan, I still needed to do the writing. I like the way Emma Brockes, author of She Left Me the Gun, talks about writing memoir:‘… Good memoir writing must negotiate the line between under and over sharing and understand the aesthetic impact of each. … These are all bog standard writing problems, but in the context of a memoir they are particularly tricky because of course you are the character in question, and you need simultaneously to be third party to yourself …’
At times I needed to change gears, gird myself for a difficult topic. The writing course, and my writing group, helped, yet of course I had to find own way too. I discovered:
- If I was writing something particularly tricky, relaxing music in the background stopped my head and feelings going in a direction I didn’t want them to go.
- Changing writing location helped too – even within the same room.
And while writing is usually a solitary practice, this year I’ve been lucky enough to have the gift of writing with a friend. She has her project, I have mine. We share writing space at my place three days a week – with a break for lunch. ‘But don’t you just end up talking?’ people ask. And yes there is more talking than if I was here by myself, but there’s also more energy, and less drain. And most importantly, we’re both making progress with our plans. In fact, after this little break, I think I’ll be ready to get back to mine just about now.
Brockes, E. (13 August, 2013). ‘What to leave in – and take out.’ Retrieved from http://marionroach.com/2013/08/writing-lessons-how-much-to-share-when-writing-memoir-with-emma-brockes/
Brown, R. M. (2006). All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An Indian Ashram Childhood.
London, England: Sceptre.
Smith, H. (2005). The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing. Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Smith, M. R. (2011). The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.