And So It Begins
June 15, 2015
At the end of last month, I started writing a book about my sister. I’d written about her before in an article called “My Sister’s Suicide” many years ago. And I’d mentioned her in several of the books I’ve written. But if you’d told me that I’d be writing a book about her, I never would have believed it.
I’d spent a long time researching a specific period in D. H. Lawrence’s life, and I thought I’d write a book about his last years. I admired how he continued to work despite being so very debilitated from his chronic tuberculosis. And how he found a way to publish “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” privately because he knew it would be censored and banned.
Still, a few days before I decided to begin writing that project, a friend suggested that I look at Terry Tempest Williams’s “When Women Were Birds,” and I did. We were having an ongoing conversation about women’s journals, and she told me that Williams was bequeathed her mother’s journals–her mother’s duty as a Mormon woman was to keep a journal–but that when Williams found the journals, she discovered that they all were blank. Journal after journal with nothing written on their pages. And Williams’s project became unlocking the meaning of these blank pages which meant, of course, writing about her mother’s life.
Williams includes several blank pages in her book. And it was the sight of those blank pages that somehow propelled me to begin writing about my sister. I began to hear sentences about her in my head. And they wouldn’t stop and I had no choice but to begin writing them down.
This had never happened to me before. Oh, yes, I’ve heard sentences in my head, written them down, and they’ve taken me to surprising places in my work. But I’d never before intended to write one book but began writing another, very different book. And this taught me something about the creative process that was valuable to learn. I’d felt uneasy about the Lawrence project but, quite frankly, plodded on, reading the number of letters I’d assigned to myself each day. I was thrilled at the idea of this project, but apparently my writerly self wasn’t. And so I was left with the choice of abandoning a project (perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever) I’d spent a long time preparing for. Or taking a great leap into the unknown, for when I began writing what I’m calling “the sister book” I had absolutely no idea that I would be doing it, or what it would be like, or, really, anything.
But this experience has taught me that you don’t need much to begin. And that once you begin, once you follow your writer’s heart, the work will sometimes unfold before you in surprising ways.
I’d worked for ten years on the memoir about my father. Everything about that book was hard. The research was hard–reading about World War II, reconstructing my father’s life, remembering the difficult times when he came back from the war. And, so far–but I don’t know if it will continue–everything about writing this book has been easier. So there’s no way of predicting, book to book, what the writing process will be like.
I established a few guidelines for writing this book that are serving me well. I decided I didn’t want to “worry” this book; I didn’t want to write a score of drafts on one moment, as I did in writing the father book; I wanted to seize an idea, a scene, a memory, and write what I could about it in an hour. I wanted to put it down and return to it for revision a few times. And I wanted that to be that. I knew from reading Terry Tempest Williams’s memoir that I wanted the form of my book to be something like the form of hers: a series of short, linked essays that worked by juxtaposition. I decided that, each day, I’d begin writing from a sentence that just came to me. And day by day, that’s what I’ve done. I sometimes awaken with that sentence in the middle of the night. Sometimes it makes its appearance as I make my way to my desk. Who knows whether I’ll continue to work this way. But it feels right for now.
Williams describes the ingenious way she happened upon to organize the chapters of her book, and I’ve tucked it away for the future. She wrote down the subjects she’d written about: Great Salt Lake, Bear River Bird Refuge, Flood, Division of Wildlife Resources on one side of a sheet of paper, and Mother, Family, Cancer, Mormon Church on the other side. She couldn’t figure out, at first, how these subjects were linked, and then she realized they were linked by her presence as a narrator. She took the manuscript and sorted into piles–all the chapters that dealt with her mother were in one pile; all those dealing with the bird refuge were in another, and so forth.
And then she took the pile of chapters that had to do with her mother to a copy shop, and she had them printed on bright turquoise paper. When she returned home, she “reshuffled the manuscript, putting the pages back in order.” When there was too much turquoise, she realized there was too much about her mother in one place. When there was too much white, she realized there was too much about the birds and wildlife. “My task,” she wrote, “was to create a light blue manuscript that gracefully wove two parallel stories into one coherent book.”
I thought that was an ingenious idea. And it’s a technique I’ll recommend to my students; it’s one I’ll use myself: xeroxing parts of a book dealing with one subject in a bright color, and then reassembling the manuscript to “see” where that subject is dealt with.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. For now, I’m just beginning. And that’s a wonderful place to be in the writing process.