Ten Years Later
December 18, 2014
So yesterday I delivered the manuscript of “Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War” to the press that will be publishing it in Autumn 2015. And it’s ten years after I began that book. Ten long years. And I want to offer some observations about the writing process that I learned while finally finishing that book, a book that I put down many times and thought I’d abandon many times.
When I began writing my book “On Moving,” for a reason I didn’t then understand, I kept veering away from the subject I was supposed to be writing about–my and writers’ experiences of moving–to write in great depth about the first move I made as a child, from an apartment on Fourteenth Street in Hoboken to one on Adams Street in Hoboken occasioned, I suspected, because my mother was attacked by a group of carousing men in uniform in that first apartment. I wrote and rewrote the scene of us moving until it grew and grew and began to dominate that book. In fact, as I wrote “On Moving,” I also felt compelled to write about my father’s return from World War II to the Adams Street apartment, and his wartime service, and how everything was different when he came home. I would have to say that these subjects compelled me to write about them so that one version of “On Moving” that I wrote contained far too much information about those incidents and my family and not enough about what I was supposed to be writing: a book about my own moves, about moving in general, and a great deal about the moves of famous writers.
As I veered off the subject again and again, I knew I shouldn’t have. But my parents’ narrative captivated me. I knew I wasn’t writing the book I was “supposed” to be writing. So at a certain point, when I really “saw” this, I stopped, and handed the manuscript over to someone I trust implicitly, and she said, “You have two books here”–a book about moving and a book about your parents’ lives during and after World War II. And she wrote notes in the margin suggesting which material went where.
What I learned in the process is that we sometimes–especially those of us who write memoir–try to pack way too much into one essay, one chapter, one book. Not that I shouldn’t have tangled myself up in this way–I do respect my process–but I could have saved myself a great deal of time had I owned my gut feeling that the moving book was getting way out of control. What I could have done early on, but didn’t, was to keep reminding myself of the task at hand while I allowed myself to also write about my parents’ lives when I felt the urge to do so, but in another document. That is to say I knew that the design I’d decided upon–using my parents’ moves to illustrate the general theme of moving–wasn’t the book I’d committed to writing (I had a contract; I’d written a proposal).
Another lesson I learned is that once we realize that a design isn’t working, it’s best to tackle the challenge sooner rather than later. I kept trying to force the cumbersome design I’d decided upon to work, even though I knew it wasn’t the book I’d contracted to write. I suspect I lost a year doing so. I can tell you now that when I dread showing up at the desk, I’ll pay attention to that feeling because although writing is hard, it shouldn’t be onerous as it was during that time period.
When I finally “owned” that I had to strip most of the father/mother/World War II material out from the moving material, the revision of the moving book went smoothly.
And then there was the challenge of what to do with the other material.
And here, I veered down the wrong path for a few years because I didn’t listen to my gut instinct to write the book I myself wanted to write and instead listened to someone who told me what she thought a more salable book would be like. Another valuable and hard-earned lesson: write what compels you however you choose and worry about the marketplace later.
So there it sits on a shelf in my closet, a version of the book that simply isn’t my book; it’s a completely inauthentic version of the book I finally, and with great effort, wrote.
Once I realized that the book I’d written didn’t work, I knew I was in for a long haul turning it into the book that I wanted to write, the one that I’d wanted to write from the first. Cancer intervened; this blog came into my life (a place where I could rediscover my writing voice); the writing of another book intervened (“The Art of Slow Writing”.
And here’s another lesson. For too long I kept trying to force the old text into a new version. It just didn’t work. What I didn’t realize for some time is that I had to begin again. I had to figure the whole book out and even though I had hundreds of pages of a wrong version, I couldn’t just revise them to use them in the new version.
At this point a friend of mine suggested that I read Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” about writing a successful screenplay. I read the book. I outlined the book. I learned how to adapt Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” from a 110 page screenplay to a 300 plus page memoir. I started thinking about an opening image; a scene where the theme of the work would be states; the set-up; the catalyst; the debate; the movement into the second major portion of the work; the secondary story; a part Snyder calls “fun and games”; the midpoint; “the bad guys close in”; a portion when all seems lost; the “dark night of the soul”; a movement into the third part of the work; the finale; the final image.
I outlined all the material I’d written. Then I started thinking about where the book would begin (“opening image”); where it would end (“final image”); and the midpoint. I wrote at these scenes over and over until I got them working in the new voice of the book to my satisfaction. (Today I found thirty drafts of the opening eight pages of the book; and twenty-five drafts of the finale.) I kept refining the one-sentence statement Snyder suggests we write about what the book was about to make sure I was on track.
Then I filled in the blanks of the narrative according to Snyder’s formula with reworked scenes from the old version and with new scenes.
But still the book wasn’t finished. Near the end of the process, I realized that I wasn’t in the book enough. I wanted this book to be about my father telling me about his early life, his time in the service before WWII and during WWII, his return home, and the effect of his military life upon our family. This was the hardest part to write, the effect of his military service on us. It took until very near the end of the process for me to write a section called “Rage,” the first time I’ve ever written graphically about my father’s violence.
The hardest section to write was the one describing the day my father left for war. I avoided that through the years. And avoided that. I’d keep a sheet with “Father Leaves for War, To Come” at that point in the narrative for years. Finally, I decided to write about how I’d avoided writing that scene as a way of getting into writing that scene and decided to keep it in the narrative. This was very near the end.
And so I learned that there are scenes that are hard to pen. Emotionally, I reverted to that little girl who didn’t want her father to leave so that I couldn’t write that scene. When I realized that, I decided to push ahead to see what happened. For years I didn’t realize why I couldn’t write that scene.
And the final realization that allowed the book to get done was that no matter how difficult my father was, I missed him. And in a sense, writing about him “resurrected” him for me. Writing about his death would mean that I would have to bury him, that I would have to let him go. And in one sense, it’s why I’d clung to writing this book for so very long. I decided to write just those sentiments into the book which made my completing the book possible.
Finishing a book provides so many complex emotional and technical challenges. I am now happy I didn’t give up on that book. And solving the technical challenges taught me much I wouldn’t have learned if I’d abandoned it. I also know that if I’d abandoned that book it would have gnawed at me. I knew that for me to move on to the next phase of my writing life (I want to write something fun next) I had to finish that book or, emotionally, I would still be mired in it.
Now I’m organizing my study. Taking some time for R and R. But I have a shelf of books ready for my next project.