Half the Whole of It

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I posted a new food debacle on my other site, icantbelieveididthis, in which I confessed to the latest kitchen horror involving meatloaf. Maybe the suspense was too much about how I salvaged this hot mess:

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Or, perhaps, the blizzard conditions outside kept people inside bored crazy and reduced to scrolling through the internet for anything at all amusing. Whatever, I received a ton more likes from this than most of the Scraps postings concerning all my hand-wringing over writing and the story I’m working on now. Not only is the subject matter on I Can’t Believe This  different but the voice and style is, as well. If I’m honest with myself, these are factors in why my food writing found an audience while my straight writing remains obscure.

What can I say…both writings and blogs are equal halves of the whole of me. Every time I face the blank screen/page it’s like putting me in a paper bag, shaking me up, and be surprised at what tumbles out.

Moral of this story: Lighten up. Enjoy everything I do. Find humor after a day of slogging in the trenches. Not everything I write has to be serious.

Roadrunner Vs Wile E. Coyote

Roadrunner and Coyote help

The last Clare story, posted four months ago, landed me at a crossroad. Some things weren’t working, starting with maintaining the point of view of two teenage girls living now. The unnamed narrator was beginning to feel limiting and a little hokey. Most of all, because it’s based on a true story, whenever I tried to fictionalize things, I stuttered to come up with a better alternative than what really happened.

Should I stick with the original conception: YA fiction told in the present with all the details about the girls following current trends? Or settle for past tense and take the story to when the friends would be 28, the age when, in truth, the world changed for the characters in real life.

I really longed to write fiction. I wanted to stretch into a form I haven’t tried in years and the story lent itself to YA–a popular genera that maybe meant it would sell. I’d already done non-fiction and a full memoir and I honestly did not want to drag up heartbreaking details and incidents about myself and the Clare character.

I struggled back and forth this way for a couple of angst-filled weeks. I outlined, jotted notes, drove and walked around to think, and stared at the blank page on the computer screen. Fiction vs. memoir, or Wile E. Coyote vs Roadrunner. Wile was crashing again.

Finally I called in professional help, Maya Rock who, after working at a literary agency and writing a terrific YA novel herself, founded an editorial service. She agreed to take a look and I sent Clare off to her. A month later I received 11 single-spaced pages containing detailed notes, starting with an overview, then diving into each story. Interestingly enough, she judged the weakest story to be “Faith” as well as parts of “Moms at Rest.” “Faith” is entirely fiction; “Moms” is about 65% fiction. What worked in the other stories centered on a believable realism, an intimate voice, adult observations and descriptions, and a more comfortable point of view reflecting backward. Forget YA, Maya said because the last story, when the girls are 19, demanded follow-ups that would age them out. Finally, Maya mulled over whether I should go for fiction or make it a memoir.

“I’m leaning toward memoir,” Maya said.

Writers use their own and everyone else’s lives as bases for fiction all the time. Maya’s opinion underscored that these writers obviously possess a talent I don’t have, if only because I found it hard to come up with realistic alternatives to real events. When I did, the stories collapsed. Worse, I admitted the fictionalized Clare didn’t half compare to the real Clare, starting with failing to convey the complexity of her personality and its effect on everyone around her, most especially, and lingering still, me.

A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about the girl who is Clare, and that I don’t feel guilty and lost because of what happened between us. The idea I had when I sat down to write the initial story was to use her ghost. But in subsequent stories, she insisted on being brought back to life. I fought it but, once more I followed her the way I always did when we were 16. And in the next stories I found the heart of what I wanted to explore–the true nature of friendship between two teenage girls–a time when you don’t know who you are but begin to make the choices that will inform your life. Our friendship was feverish, fervent and in some way savage. We couldn’t imagine anyone knowing or caring about us as much as we did each other. Clare and I stayed together until we couldn’t anymore and when our paths strayed apart something in us broke and, as is the nature of girlfriends, never quite mended. Then it became too late.

Maya and I exchanged a handful of emails in which she patiently talked me through things until I confessed: Clare is a memoir.

Where does that lead me now? Pretty much looking a lot like this:

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I’ve begun to go back over the stories and replace fiction with truth. I have journals, letters, photographs, and pieces of Clare’s art to draw from. I have friends to check with, maybe her sister if I can find her and she’s willing to talk to me. I have enough drugs stockpiled to unearth the necessary feelings and events that haunt me and bring them back up again.

No longer at a crossroads, Clare takes my hand and pulls me into remembering when she and I lived for each other. We decided our fates long ago and a memoir won’t change that. But it’s real and maybe that brings peace.

P.S.: The first story I turn into memory is The Fashion of the Day. It is now Barefoot Girls. I left Fashion up in case anyone is interested in comparing them and telling me which one you think is better.

Writing 101: Can a Memoir Be About a Liar?

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One of the most pointed comments I ever received from an editor upon reading “The Invention of Marriage” is that it would be hard for readers to believe me if right off the bat it is revealed what a liar I’ve been.  I mean a big time whopper teller for much of my life with nearly everyone around me. I got away with so many lies that they became truths for me, my own actual facts about who I was. It was an addictive rush  to get people to believe me which, in turns, is the why my life became so tenuous and eventually led to a daunting crisis. It took me a long time to realize the damage my lies caused me and how they had warped almost every relationship I have ever had, most especially with my husband.  My marriage is the memoir’s scaffolding upon which I display what I have to lose if  I ultimately do not come to understand how bad the situation I created was.  It is the most basic tenets of storytelling–revealing what is at stake for the protagonist and how high the stakes are for her survival. The revealing has to come to some kind of resolution–not necessarily all tied up neatly but absolutely clear in its impact.  Why did I lie? How much chaos did it create? Will I loose the closest person to me? How will I begin to resolve even overcome this dilemma? This is my memoir.

I tell my students all the time that the power of memoir is in making a truth about life comprehensible. To accomplish this the reader has to trust  that you’re not manufacturing events, cutting corners, blowing what happened out of proportion.  The reader has to bond with you so your experiences becomes their own. The reader requires you to reveal enough of yourself to make them understand something about themselves.

Given this, I have to have a lot of faith that my reader will trust “Invention” enough to stay with me to its ultimate resolution.  That’s the risk for me–my reader’s belief of what I tell them about the cost I paid and what it took for me to find who I really am.  Forget the fact that family and friends will be horrified, may never forgive me for all those years of falseness. They either will or they won’t and I’ll have to come to terms with what I have done. But my reader has to care about me enough to look past my transgressions and keep her faith in me. This is why I confess to  the first lie I told my husband in the beginning section of “Invention” I posted a couple of weeks ago.  I want my reader to know  that I won’t cover up my faults, or make myself more likable in my deceptions, nor shy away from bloody repercussions.  I felt it was imperative I  stated up front what was the first lie I told my husband because I  want them to know I am telling the truth.

This second “Invention” section starts showing what a  fault line lying is already creating between me and the man I am falling in love with.

Fact or fiction: you have to believe me that this is a fair subject to explore in a memoir.

Check #2 out at:

http://www.patwillard.com/the_invention_of_marriage_105143.htm

Writing 101: Staying true to your inspiration and vision

hedgehog-1The writer as a scared hedgehog

Teachers present themselves as authorities, master survivors of everything a student will encounter along their way to becoming just like their teacher. For awhile, I felt that way–authoritative and steadfast with a handful of good books at my back. When I stood before my first class, I was finishing a memoir that I thought was all about my long marriage to a patient man who always seemed more constant that me. The subject was intriguing and the writing fine enough that agent and editors cheered it on. I felt confident I could give my students everything they needed to survive.

Five years and a lot of bruising later, I stood in front of what would be my last class feeling pretty much like a fraud. The marriage memoir was in tatters. I had put it aside to travel and write another book, and by the time I returned to the story, I was mid-way in recovering from a drowning depression and ensuing break down.  Clarity was in short supply and I began to rely on others for the kind of directions that are almost always wrong:  I listened too intently to everyone who read the book and offered advice on what they considered would make it better, i.e. more sell-able to the public. Each subsequent draft moved further from my original vision and intent. The writing itself lost its funny frothiness  and took on a muddled stridency. Every time I read one of my students’ stories, I realized it was better than anything I had accomplished at my desk that day. I recognized how little I could claim before them. The fact that I got through to the end of the semester with them believing I had imparted anything worthwhile is a testament to being a skillful liar. I said goodbye to them, hugged the ones that wanted hugs, then collapsed at the empty table with my face in my hands and cried a bucket of shame. Then I went home and completed another awful draft.

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The writer as a discombobulated hedgehog

That was two years ago. I tried to think up other stories to write. I sent my agent a slew of ideas for follow-up books that she gently told me would never work out and which I never had enough interest in to prove her wrong. Great silence ensued during which anytime some well-meaning relative or friend asked me what I was working on I fest up and said I was working on nothing, an alarming confession they eventually realized they didn’t want to hear.

It could have all ended there. Out of long habit I still went to my desk every morning. I’d turned on the computer, dawdle over some research and typed a few pages until completing the customary hours  and then I went off to waste time with things I once never had time for, like gardening and painting my house and seeing friends and feeling empty and useless. As it turned out, my body didn’t like this much, especially my brain which should have shriveled with neglect but instead insisted on raking over the memoir. I’m convinced that big heart attack of a few postings back was my body’s way of shaking me. Nothing like mortality to get you going again, plus a long recuperation that gave me time to read and get annoyed at how what was once a little treasure had imploded. What the hell, what else was I doing? I uncovered the memoir’s first draft under the twenty pounds of  barnacles attached to it. I found its true path again, which turns out is not marriage but the redemption of love, a common enough theme but one of our most powerful, especially in the midst of every day cares.

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The write as a hopeful hedgehog

A step back is a step forward. I started teaching again, which is why I thought about writing this as a lesson in stubborn belief.  It no longer matters to me that the patient agent or any editor at a nice publishing house will read me ever again. I just want this out in the world and hopefully do all the things good writing is supposed to do: entertain and enlighten and entertain again. This link will send you to the opening chapter.  I figure every month I’ll put up another chapter and hope you keep coming back to read more.

http://members.authorsguild.net/patwillard/the_invention_of_marriage_105143.htm

About the hedgehog: Is there not a more perfect creature–small, given to curling in upon herself, needing coaxing and confidence to come out and be herself again–to represent a screwy creative life?

Thank you Sara for your inspiration and talent!