Paradigm Shifts: The “Turn” in Understanding Our Work

November 11, 2010

Last night, in my memoir class, we talked about what we’ve learned about our works-in-progress that we haven’t known before.  The writers I’m working with are now in the “deepening” stage of the work.  They’ve worked through the “beginning” stage, the “working” stage.  Now they’re digging down into their works’ meaning, learning even more about what they’re writing about as they revise their work for perhaps the fifth or sixth time.

Many writers only let themselves go through the “working” stage.  They get the story of their lives down; they get a good-enough draft and leave it at that.  They’ve written about what’s happened.  But they haven’t yet probed the significance of what they’ve written.  They haven’t gotten at the story behind the story – the pattern behind events, the deeper meaning of their lives.

Pushing our work past the boundary of what we know into the territory of what we don’t know we know is hard emotional work.  No wonder many writers write a good-enough memoir piece and leave it at that.  Pushing into the unknown, admitting that we don’t really understand the narrative under our pen takes a great deal of courage.  It’s hard work; it doesn’t come easily.  In doing this work we encounter resistance to our story’s deeper meaning.  We want to know what underlies appearances.  But we don’t, also.  Shifting the meaning of our lives is unsettling.  It requires that we mourn the narrative we lose in order to substitute a new, more fully realized, more mature grasp of events.

Last night, we talked about what we’d each learned about our work just recently.  I talked about how there’s a real misconception about how to write memoir – that you “know” what your life is about, and that you write what you know.  The writers I work with know this isn’t the case.  They know, as I do, that you only learn what your life is about as you write about it.  And it’s hard.  You have to “hang out” with being confused for a real long time.  You have to push past the resistance to a shift in your narrative and in how you view your life.

In fact, often, just before a tremendous shift in the work, many writers – I’m one of them – get irritable, annoyed, anxious, even weepy.  The work doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.  As much as we thought we knew about what to write, in the writing, we’ve gotten muddled about the heart and soul of the story.  What was clear is now confusing.  What we thought we knew, we know we don’t quite understand.

And then, bang, an insight, just like that.  Well, not really, just like that.  It comes after having worked a long time.  It comes after working hard.  It comes on the fifth, sixth, seventh draft.  And not before.  Which is why many writers never get to this thrilling, though unsettling moment.  After this moment, we, as writers, change.  Our narratives change.  You can almost see it – in fact you can see it – in the way a writer holds her body, in the timbre of her voice, in the way he walks.

I’ve been writing a scene about how my father came home from the war.  He came with two gifts for me – the silk from a parachute (all parachutes during WWII were made of silk – imagine!), and a shell bracelet.  When my father gives me the silk from the parachute, my mother turns away, and says, “Oh, Lou.”  I can’t understand why she’s turning away.  The man’s just come home after more than two years.  I’ve written this chunk, and rewritten it, and only now understand why she turned away.  The only way he could have gotten that silk was from the parachute of a man whose parachute hadn’t opened.  He was bringing the war home; he was bringing death into our home.  No wonder my mother turned away.  Of course I didn’t know this as a child, didn’t know it in the writing of it through a bunch of drafts, only learned it recently.

This is thrilling, when the meaning of the work turns, when there’s a paradigm shift in how you see your work.  But it’s hard too.  For what I now have to do is integrate this new insight into the work.  How do I let the reader know what I now know but didn’t know then, what I didn’t know for a long time?  And how do I integrate into my sense of my father a man who – consciously or unconsciously – brought death home with him?  That takes as much emotional work, as integrating this detail into my narrative takes in terms of craft.

There’s no way to get at these important, even seismic shifts, but to keep at the work, to keep at it and at it until its meaning begins to reveal itself.

Among the kinds of shifts the writers working with me described are the ones I outline below.  Stick with the work long enough, and these are the kinds of shifts you can count on.

You’ve been writing at what you think are two separate “stories.”  You keep at it, but you don’t know why.  Suddenly, you realize the two stories are related, are, in fact, one story.

You’ve been writing at an event.  Suddenly you realize why what happened happened.  You didn’t have a clue before this.  You understand the “backstory” that made this “front story” happen.  You now understand the cause and effect in your narrative.  You know you have to write the “backstory.”

You’ve been writing at a “character” in your narrative.  A mother, say.  You’ve written at her character again and again.  Suddenly you understand that you’ve been idealizing her or demonizing her.  Suddenly you understand there was more to her character than you’ve written so far.

You’ve been writing about yourself, about your father.  Suddenly you see that there’s a pattern in your behavior that’s equivalent to that of your father’s, that there’s an unspoken set of rules in the way your family behaves that you’ve never understood before.

These are some, not all, of the significant shifts that we talked about last night.  The writers I work with have earned the deepening of their narratives.  But we talked, too, about the kind of pain that can come with insight.  It isn’t that we don’t want to know what we learn as we work.  But we have to make space in the process of doing the work to integrate what we learn into the meaning of our life’s story.  Many of the writers I write with do this in their process journals.  It’s in the journal that they puzzle out the impact of these shifts in meaning.

It’s important work, the deepening of our insights into our lives.  Thrilling, both for the story on the page, and for our sense of what our life’s story means.

 

 

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5 Responses to “Paradigm Shifts: The “Turn” in Understanding Our Work”


  1. Yes, I have long felt the process of writing, of discovery is one of death and rebirth, just as other processes of growth, of deepening. The beauty of it is that one does not become more vulnerable – though in the moment that is how it feels – but stronger. Thank you for writing so eloquently about this.

  2. ajuele Says:

    I recently came upon my own paradigm shift in my work and felt compelled to respond. I was precisely at that point in my writing, where it felt as if it wasn’t going anywhere. I had edited the piece about five or six times, changing paragraphs or altering word usage here and there, but I couldn’t help feeling as if the original point of the piece was no longer clear. I was getting aggravated, thinking I was repeating the same thing but not actually saying what I intended to say. I had gotten lost. Then in the middle of a journal entry, I went off on a tangent about a main character in my narrative and went with it. I wrote and wrote, one thought branching out to another, mixed in with my frustration at getting nowhere on the piece. Six pages later, I hit upon a point that until then was buried in all that I had written previously. I actually wrote “EUREKA!” after I wrote the sentence. It was as if a light bulb turned on in my brain. Suddenly, I was ready to tackle the piece from a different, albeit uncomfortable, perspective. I knew it would be difficult work to integrate the new insights into the piece, but I was excited about it again. It has been difficult work, too, grappling with the change in how I view that person, who is still a part of my life. But it’s amazing, because if it weren’t for the work I was doing, that “eureka” moment when I found that missing piece would have never come to me. That’s the part of your post that I remembered, and made me come back to respond to. That it’s worth all the work knowing that I earned that deepening, both in my narrative and in my life.

  3. ashley Leavitt Says:

    As a writer, new to the particular challenges of writing memoir, I find the deepening stage of writing to be one of the most personally challenging stages, and perhaps one of the most rewarding –individually and in relationship to improving the quality of the content of my prose. Its seems that the revelation of the “conversation behind the conversation,” as I like to call it, of the emotional, psychological, and social mechanics that drive my behavior and interactions with others dually transforms the focus of my narrative as well as my life’s vantage point from which my writing comes. In other words, the more I invest in the deepening stage of my writing, the better fit I become to represent the people and events of my life in a more mature, balance and fully integrated narrative i.e. real, emotive.

    I also find the deepening stage, or process rather, necessitates that, to a certain degree, I revise the stages that precede it: preparing, planning, and germinating. In one such instance, the insights I gained through the deepening of a particular piece of writing were so startling that I had to scrap all the material I had to that point and begin new. Although seemingly overwhelming, the resulting material was so much richer and fulfilling to write than had I opted to “go with the flow” and not “surrender” the old tired perspective from which I had constructed my first fledgling outline.

    It is almost as if framing one’s memories in a way that is meaningful to the present also requires that a fragment of that memory be released in order for its meaning to find its place in the now. Eliciting memories for the purpose of making sense of them in memoir is an act of non-remembrance whereby the memory itself becomes organically creative rather than inert.


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