Writing a memoir?

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Like many people I had carried the idea of writing a book with me for numerous years. It had started as an ode to my deceased brother. I had kept his precious diaries with me for years always holding some vague undefined hope that I would one day do ‘something’ with them. Then one night during a particularly difficult time in my life the book unfolded in my head, the shape of it, the form, the title. And I scribbled away like a woman possessed.

 I had never written before. Indeed I have to admit that I didn’t even read books. I had a science background and the last experience I had of literature was sitting for my English O level some twenty odd years before. I contemplated doing a writing course, but an author friend of mine advised me that you either write because you are a ‘writer’ (which I clearly wasn’t) or you write because you have a story to tell.

 I should write my story, and write it as if no-one was ever going to read it. So I did just that. I wrote in my own unique voice, not a sculptured honed version of it. It felt that the emotion within the words was real and transmitted I hoped, more genuinely to the reader. That in turn allowed me to maintain my authenticity.  It did mean however, that the writing often wasn’t grammatically correct (indeed I later found out that even the title I had chosen was grammatically incorrect). With retrospect a few basic tips would have been handy.

 I naively allowed myself one year to write my book and finally took the frightening yet liberating step of quitting my two days a week at a physiotherapy practice in order to do just that. Packed lunches and eating at home became the norm.

 I felt an organic need to write, and the vomit of words from within began. The regular expulsions came at random in opportune times, most often via pen to paper. The words that came were rarely written intentionally for my book. They weren’t thought or filtered, rather borne merely of an inherent necessity to purge myself.

 Almost imperceptibly as I wrote the words evolved into what I can only reluctantly describe as a “memoir”. I say reluctantly because it seemed somewhat egotistical to be writing a memoir at the tender age of 37. Besides in my eyes it was simply me telling my brother’s story, giving him the voice he never had. Only as I started writing did my brother’s story morph into my own, until it almost accidentally became an avenue for me to have a voice. That was the thing, as I wrote things unfolded before my eyes and what started out as a tribute to my brother somehow became my own life story, my memoir.

 So it came that my first draft was a simple vomit of words onto a page. There was no shape, or form as such just a vague chronological flow through the defining events in my life. As I wrote some seemingly insignificant episodes appeared almost unconsciously in the pages before me. I was regularly surprised by the things that came through my pen.

 Memories that I never thought of came back to me as I wrote until I saw my life come together before me like a jigsaw. There was something about writing that made me view my life very differently. It gave me empathy and compassion firstly for myself and then for others in my life for whom I had carried resentment. It occurred to me that we never see our lives in their entirety, for we only have random intermittent thoughts. It was only when I wrote and saw my life staring back at me in black and white from the pages that I had written that I found a new understanding of myself.

 The first draft took me about a year. After that, I swallowed my fear and took it to a psychologist whom I knew and trusted and had written her own autobiography. She gave me invaluable feedback. I had no dialogue. I needed to adopt the mantra ‘show, don’t tell’. It was repetitious. I had over used metaphors. What was my main message?

 She gave me a lot of basic but essential guidelines that as a non-writer I had no idea about. Just as importantly she highlighted the bits she loved, the bits that worked. Without exception they were the parts I had written directly from my heart for myself. Whilst she acknowledged that I had a lot of work ahead of me (thankfully I didn’t realize just how much) she also convinced me that I should keep going, that despite what I thought, I could write.

 It was only when I started writing the second draft that the true work began. Naively I thought it would be a quick process, just a jostling of words. A couple of months I told myself. In the end the second draft took me longer to complete than the first draft, about 15 months. It saw the haphazard vomit of words change dramatically into something that actually resembled a book. Unfortunately it was also even longer than the first draft, 85,000 words to be precise and far too long for a book of its type.

 What to keep and what to chuck?  I was good at the keeping, just not so good at the ‘chucking’. I had many themes running through my book. Deciphering what the main message was, was harder than I had thought but integral to my ability to decide what to get rid of. I found it almost painful to cut parts that I was proud of yet when I really looked at it were irrelevant to my message. Just because they were important to me it didn’t mean they had to be in the book. A few more months ticked by and I’d cut it to 75,000 words. I started to hate it. I gave myself a six week hiatus.

 It is only with hindsight that I realize that whilst the numerous drafts were part of the process of writing and editing, they also unconsciously allowed me to achieve the three different objectives I had in my mind for writing the book.

 The first draft was certainly for me, a necessary yet painful catharsis. The second and third drafts were for my friends and family, to give them some peace and understanding. The final draft was written with the hope it could help others. One version could never have achieved all three.

 I regularly felt lost as if I was blindly scribbling, heading in some unknown direction. There were many times when I wandered what on earth I was doing, yet there was something innate that kept me going.

 I knew I needed some outside input, but didn’t know from whom to get it. I couldn’t give it to a professional yet. I thought they would laugh. I didn’t want to give it to a friend because they were too close, but I didn’t want to give it to a stranger either. Eventually I settled on a friend of my family who was an avid reader and had a degree in English literature. I received a beautiful account from her of what she had felt whilst reading the book and I knew I had transmitted the emotion in it. She also gave me grammatical tips. Most importantly she gave me confidence although I still questioned whether she was just being ‘kind’.

 I wrote a third draft and finally felt able to give it to a member of my family to read. Gripped by uncertainty and self doubt I gave it to another psychologist because I wanted to know if it had the capacity to help others. A close friend read the fourth draft. With each person that read it, I gained just a little bit more confidence and validation.

 Eventually I began to believe that I had somehow managed to convey my story in a way that genuinely touched other people. I knew at some point I had to give it to a professional. Again, the question came, to whom? I knew it needed editing and that I didn’t have the skill or objectivity to do that myself. I toyed with the idea of self publishing and paying an editor as part of the process. The cost prohibited that. I played with the idea of sending it to agents or publishers directly but had no idea of how to put a proposal together.

 I settled on a manuscript appraisal but had difficulty finding someone that dealt with memoirs. Then my sister directed me to Wanda Whitely’s website. I sent her an email and from her response knew instinctively that she was the right person. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I finally pressed ‘send’ and off went my life into cyber space for an ‘appraisal’. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. I felt exposed and vulnerable. Wanda was the first professional and independent person to read it. Her response came with the perfect balance of empathy, constructive criticism and professionalism. I had found my editor.

 My 75,000 words came back me as 45,000 and I felt violated. Another hiatus followed until eventually I felt able to look once more at my manuscript. It wasn’t as bad as I first thought. I began to sift through the bits that I could let go of and the bits that I couldn’t. I battled with myself. We negotiated.

 When I got the final version back I no longer felt repulsed. In fact I even quite liked it. There were parts though I still felt I had written better. There was something wrong but I didn’t know what. I sat down and tried to rewrite, invariably coming full circle back to the way Wanda had edited it. I came to realize she’d done an amazing job. My attempted re-working was simply a process I had to go through in order for me to be ‘ready’ to put the final full stop in.

 I had always said that I’d know when it was time to let it go and I did. Four years from when I first tentatively set pen to paper and three years from when I really sat down to write it was finally finished, or so I thought. Wanda out of the goodness of her heart started sending it out to publishers. I got great feedback, but no one took it on, until a small independent publisher in Scotland wrote me a long appraisal and asked that I re-work my manuscript in light of their suggestions before re-submitting it. My initial reaction was ‘I can’t do this’. In my head I was done. I’d finished. I sat on it until eventually I looked at the appraisal and realized that everything the publisher had written about my book, I totally agreed with. Then I knew I had to give it one more go, if only so I could be happy with it. So, here I am in the midst of the re-write roller coaster with no certainty ahead, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 Now that everything that was inside is out. I’m complete. Whether it is published or not, no longer matters. I took myself around the journey of my life and I came back to where I am with a fuller deeper understanding of life and myself, the reasons why I am the way I am that I could not have had had I not taken the time to write. It has without doubt been the most rewarding, cathartic and enriching experience of my life. If you can’t afford therapy, or you want to get the most out of it, try writing your life story… I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you learn along the way…