Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.


Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

15 responses to “Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

  1. I am glad you found the process that’s most comfortable for you. I’m a fan of the page-a-day process. In fact, when I was trying to finish, I needed 90 pages, and I told myself that I would finish within 90 days. The rule was this: I had to write a page a day. If I wrote more than a page, I still had to write a page the next day, but if I’d gotten seven done on Monday through Friday, I could take the weekend off.

    This worked great for me because I was able to finish big chunks of material and not become bored with myself. Or jaded.

    Can I sit here all day? Not just thinking and writing. Not just recalling memories and typing them. If I’m researching and working, yes.

    So all those general rules and geniuses and time and process—in the end, it’s just like a diet, a prescription. It has to be the one that works for you, because it likely won’t work for me.

    I agree with your last line. It should all sound like inspiration rather than persistence, and if you can do that for a reader, then your process was a success.

  2. A page a day does seem healthy. It’s interesting to me whether one gauges by time or output. I have done it by time and just noticed what my average good rate seemed to be. The benefit of a page a day as a guide is that you are making steady progress and not counting just sitting there for X amount of time . . .

  3. David

    Over the years, I’ve watched your book get better and sharper and much easier to read. Isn’t it time to start your second book while you’re fixing the first one?

    • Yes, I probably should be working on the next project, and I did start once before, when I thought this book was done. But right now I’m using all the time I have on this rewrite.

  4. I love reading about process and enjoyed yours. I’ve also noticed that three hours of writing gives me a very satisfied feeling, but I can write from sunup to sundown if the opportunity presents itself.

    I don’t have any time or page requirements. I take each day as it comes.

    Five years doesn’t seem all that long to me : )

  5. I love the Anne Dillard quote so much, I may just put it up on my blog, on my bio, right after my confession on how many re-writes I’ve done.

    I finished my book in one year. That was two and a half years ago. And oh, how I struggle with what you’ve said here: “I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay.”

    This is so true that sometimes I’m tempted to just call it my collection of short stories.

  6. How helpful to have this process laid out plainly. I have only a series of stand-alone essays, so your description tells me I have a lot of work ahead! But I find this conversation encouraging nevertheless. I wish you much good rewriting and good fortune with publication.

    • Hi Shirley. Linked essays can certainly work–as in Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, one of my favorite memoirs–but I’d hitched my tale to a narrative of unfolding events that culminated in a crisis. So my essays weren’t linked enough, not for a major through-line narrative.

  7. Daiva Markelis

    Wonderful post! I loved reading this, Richard. I’m going to send my students to this entry. (Many have plans to write a book this semester.)
    I’m a binge writer, but am getting better. Belonging to a writing group helps. We meet every two weeks and when I promise them something, I must comply. I write in the morning when I can for two hours, then get back to the writing before going to bed. I then print up what I’ve written. When I get up I edit and write. It’s taken me ten years to write my memoir, which is coming out in a month. Not because I’m a slow writer, but because life–new job, new husband, death of mother–gets in the way.

  8. A writing group is a great idea, Daiva. I need to get into one, or start one. And you get an A for persistence–ten years is impressive! So I feel such a baby at five . . .

  9. Scribbly Jane

    Love your example of the three-act structure. I’m in the middle of my memoir and you may possibly have saved me months in rewriting.

    I too did the stand-alone essay technique — on purpose before I decided my work should be a memoir. Then I thought, easy, I’ll just weave the essays together. One year later and I’m still at it.

    And reflection, that is the hardest part for me because that requires truthfulness. How much of myself do I want to give?

    Before moving west I was in the Ashawagh Hall writer’s group out in East Hampton, NY. They kicked my butt, shaped my story and encouraged me every step of the way. I miss them dearly.

  10. Jessica Naim

    I am writing my first book- its a Memoir, and I have been writing it for 10 months now. Its almost done, but far from perfect. I feel I lived so much that its almost impossible to fit it all in one book, however not everything that happened in my life is as important to the book as I feel it is to the inner me. So with saying this, I have gone back many times trying to cut out or bring a more significance to a certain period in my life. I often write, and then stop for weeks on end and when I come back I sit for a couple hours, editing and trying to catch that little bit of inspiration that made me start the book in the first place. I think I will try the one page a day and see if that helps.
    I always dreamed of being a writer and it just tookme so long to have a story. At first writing about my own life was so hard until I dropped the pressure. Thinking I don’t need to write to please anyone, I just need to write because I have something I want to share. A lesson about truth that made my life so much easier. Now I put so much time into it as it is and spoke very highly about it to friends and family the pressure is now back on. Sometimes speaking of it is what gave me the push to keep writing. Anyways, now I am gonna stop with stressing and try the one page a day.

    Thank you.


    • Thank you, Jessi. I often sit and edit and reread to get back in the mood–some writers call it “wool gathering,” and it’s tried and true. And I agree that dropping the pressure helps: Annie Dillard said the work ultimately must be about love, not discipline, which is much weaker than love. You have to love the project, and it sounds like you do.