What Are You Writing?

A friend, a former student from my college teaching days, has been revisiting her goal of writing her memoir and she’s been sending me pieces of it.

I have loved her story, and her writing, from the time I first met her, and I love it still. But when she said she was back at work on the memoir — despite working more than full-time in a stressful, human-services job, despite all the usual drama with marriage and barely grown-up children — I expected to see the same old pieces, pulled up from the archives, re-read and maybe fluffed up a little, like pillows on a guest bed. I didn’t expect that I was inviting a deluge of new and (sometimes) shockingly revealing chapters in her life story.

She always prefaces the pieces with “editing welcome,” or “you know I’m crap at punctuation.” But my feeling right now is that the sentences, the commas, her chronic it’s / its confusion (!) do not matter at all. DO. NOT. MATTER. What matters is that she stays open to the flood of these memories, experiences, and insights into her own life. What matters is that she keeps writing them down. If, by being willing to read them, I can encourage that flood, then I’m happy to. I’m privileged to be her witness.

Meanwhile, I’m working on the last act of my mystery novel (it is — gasp — actually drafted now, actually typed up, and not just a rough outline) and I am trying to imagine sharing it with my beta readers.

It feels as though I have to be hugely brave to do this. It makes me quake. I go back over the sentences and try to make them better. I add commas and take commas out.

I hesitate. I fret. I get all tied-up in knots.

How is it that my friend can send her memoir pieces to me with such trust that I will handle them gently, that I won’t judge them, that I’ll point out what I love about them and ask for more?

Which is exactly what my beta readers have done, by the way. So where does this fear come from? What is it that makes me start questioning every little thing (should the protagonist’s dog not be an English bulldog but some other breed? what if I took her daughter out of the story completely? am I getting away with all the backstory? is there going to be a romantic element, or do I let that go? sure, it’s okay, but what else could happen??????)

Hmm. The truth is that if I hadn’t given the first 2/3 of this story to my readers, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have drafted the last third. I was bogged down. I was doubting whether anyone would ever read it, or why they would, and I was feeling kind of like there was no point to finishing it. Having readers was what made me plow through. I’ve had the final chapters drafted for a few days now. I’ve reread and marked them up and typed in the new changes, and I think — for now — I’ve taken them as far as I can.

And I know this from my other projects and from working with scads of students over the past 30 years:

It’s never perfect.

It’s never perfect, just as we’re never perfect, but it will get better. That’s all part of the writing process.  Once you’ve drafted it, you’ll be able to revise it. You will make it better.

And if having a reader helps with the process, then it isn’t too early to share it. If it helps with the process, it helps with the process.

This morning, I’m channeling my memoir-writing friend. I’m printing out my pages (again) and I’m picturing smiling hugely and saying thank you and handing them over.

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