Tiger sleeps in a cat cave on the couch
Now that I have your attention with that cutie-face, I want to pick your brain.
I’ve got a problem I haven’t yet figured out. What keeps me from finishing my memoir is that the arc of my story takes place over too long a period of time. It’s about my relationship with my father, and that is a lifetime relationship, of course, because it continues even after his death a year and a half ago. But even if I put a cap on it with his death, it still covers a lot of ground.
The other day I read Sherrey Meyer’s post Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have and realized that I should write a post about my problem–just in case anybody has any advice. So advise away.
I know that there is great benefit in finding a defining year or particular experience because the more discrete the chunk of real life a memoir needs to cover the easier it is to write. Excusez-moi if this sounds insulting to writers with a project that fits that description, but those are the stories that perhaps beg to be written. My story doesn’t beg; it mocks me.
But how to find a discrete story where the protagonist takes decades to learn something? Or some things?
My son used to have a picture book called Leo the Late Bloomer, and although my son was meant to relate to it, in truth I related to it. I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways.
In the case of my memoir story, an additional reason it took me so long was that there was certain key information that I didn’t learn until 2008. More new information continued to come to me through 2015.
Checking out my half shelf of writing technique books, I soon discovered that most of the books don’t deal with this problem. But then I noticed a book I have mostly ignored (because I didn’t read it for class): Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer. (Who wouldn’t like that bit about “& Selling” added to the title?!) A chapter called “Setting Your Parameters” caught my eye. Yes, that is exactly what I need to do. Figure out HOW to set my parameters.
Balzer argues that the place to begin the memoir is at the moment of discovery. I like the way my book opens with an incident that sets up the initial mystery in my life. It’s a somewhat shocking event, at least to the mind of an 11-year-old. And it created the mindset by which I lived in ignorance for many many years. Is it a moment of discovery? For me, it felt that way. It was the discovery that a big secret existed in my family–and that the secret carried great emotional power for my father.
My full first draft has now been read by four people. Three of them were a group package, so to speak, so I lump them together because they could have influenced each other. I will call them group B. The other reader was my Stanford mentor/tutor. I will call her group A. Both groups are memoir “experts” who teach and write memoir. The advice of group A and group B completely contradicted each other. I mean completely. They want me to revise the book in opposite directions. Actually, I did revise to somewhat follow the advice of Group A before sending the manuscript to Group B. And everything I did for Group A, Group B didn’t like. They argued for the way I had originally been planning my story before I even started the program at Stanford.
Neither group addressed the problem with the big humongous fruit tree of life I’ve had to pick from for the book.
So I’m reeling from the contradictory advice, but that is all just spinning on the surface because the underlying problem is how to handle the parameter setting.
Or is it? I’m getting confused. Maybe I’m imagining the parameter setting as a problem since neither group even mentioned the problem. Maybe the real problem is one I can’t identify–a problem that caused two completely different readings. Maybe my tale just sucks.
The way I ended up shaping the story (taking into account a lot of advice haha) to send to Group B was to feature that moment of discovery scene as a prologue and then jump forward 40 years and begin the story itself in present day, using a back and forth movement between present and past by chunks of chapters (a few chapters in present, a few in past, like that). Maybe I should start with that moment of discovery and proceed in chronological order and tell the story in a more classic storytelling structure.
Whatcha think, peeps? More
Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) to my Jewish readers! A good week to everyone.