I met a new writer this evening. He’s working on a memoir, and just to pique your interest, he was famous from the ’70’s on. When the memoir comes out I’ll tell you his name but for now you’ll have to forgive me for honoring his privacy. Besides, this isn’t about dropping names. It is, of course, about the story.
He’s almost done with the first draft, handwritten in tiny words across several notebooks. Recently a relative told him, ‘you should put more family in there’. And you can guess what happened. He rewrote the first chapter and added to it and everything ground to a halt. Which is when his wife asked me to come talk to him. I told her I’m no expert, but she’s pretty hard to say no to. He didn’t know that she had talked to me about the problem. He only knew another writer was going to visit.
This afternoon I climbed steps to their A-frame in the woods, composing all the things I’d say. You writers will recognize these clichés. Don’t accept criticisms until the first draft is done and edited by you. Write what you want, what resonates with you; don’t write for an audience. And so on. When I sat with him, this brave man pulled out the revised first chapter and started reading to me. And all the things I planned on saying faded.
When he was done I told him that I could pick out his revisions and pointed to one particular passage about a brother. And then I told him why that passage stood out so starkly. The previous vignettes started with a humorous story that captured you and had you smiling, until they very seamlessly segued into things like an essay on Vietnam and war in general, on how that war impacted him, his way of looking at life, and the things he did and came to do. I went from laughing to getting teary. In those pieces, he pulled up his emotions, placed them in front of the reader, and made the reader feel them.
The added insert was a simple, ‘he said this, he did that’ type of family story. He was telling, not sharing.
To prove my point, I told him that I bet that insert was a lot easier to write than the rest. He agreed, surprised. I said that was because there was no emotion, no connection, no soul. We talked about how you can’t get a reader to drop tears on the page if there are no tears in the words.
We also talked about how, when someone says ‘you should do this’, what you really need to do is run the other way. I used to work with a therapist who would say, ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda; the paving stones to hell’.
So I didn’t give him all the writing advice I’d planned on, but when I left, we’d decided that for the way he writes, from now on, anytime this memoir is coming easy, with no effort, then that’s a flag for him to go back and see if he’s there in the words.
I’m no expert but I feel pretty good today. My friends have supported and helped me with writing and it was wonderful to pass a little of that on.
And I can’t wait for the book to come out.