From blank page to completed manuscript is not a straight line.
On May 26, 2021, I wrote “The End” on a manuscript that I started on October 31, 2018. The work is by no means over. It has merely entered a new stage. The butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis, but the wings are still wet and folded and are not ready to fly just yet. Soon a thing of beauty will emerge.
First some basic facts. Thus far, the manuscript is 568 pages, 168414 words. In addition, I have 100 pages of notes and drafts that I wrote on my phone and transferred to an MS Word file, reminders of ideas not to be forgotten. Half of the manuscript is revised and edited already. The other half was hurried so as not to lose momentum.
Here are the habits and techniques that helped me see this project through from blank page to completed manuscript.
Read what you are trying to write
If you want to write a novel, read novels. If you want to write a detective story, read detective stories. For me, over the past three years, I have read a dozens of books about writing in general and writing memoir in particular as well as many memoirs. Each genre of literature has its own conventions. You can learn many of those conventions explicitly, but you will more likely gain them subconsciously by reading literature in your chosen genre.
You will write a bad first draft
You first draft will be lacking. It may lack material. It likely will lack coherence. It most certainly will lack style. But it will contain the seeds within that will germinate and grow into a much fuller and better second draft.
In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott includes a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.”¹ Every first draft sucks. Along the way to this finished manuscript, I wrote one section many times: as a first-person chronological remembered narrative, an epic iambic pentameter poem, and a play in the style of Tennessee Williams. These were attempts to find the right form, the right clothes for the material. Most of the time, I wrote the story straight as I remembered it, naked and raw — this happened and then this happened and then this happened. No metaphors or similes, no figures of speech at all. I wrote many lists too, all of the events that must be included in a section, and sure enough, bird by bird, I wrote down what happened and ticked off the list.
When I re-read my manuscript, what is on paper does not match the ideas that I have in my head. But I had to write it down one way in order to see it another. I lost a lot of time, however, in rewriting whole sections before finishing the entire draft.
Writing is discovery. You figure out what you are trying to say, and the way you are trying to say it, along the way. Keep moving forward with your draft and resist the urge to revise as you go.
Tell your truth
Your truth is the most valuable asset you have as a writer. Put five people together in a room during a party, and then ask them each the next morning what happened at that party, and they will tell you five different stories. Each of their perspectives will be unique and will matter.
In writing my memoir, I butted heads with my sister over what to write or whether what I have written is accurate. She does not think I should disclose some skeletons in our family closet, while I think letting potential readers see those skeletons is helpful.
It is important to try to tell the facts as best as you can, but memory is a slippery eel. Your memory is not constant and you will misremember things. Don’t get hung upon the details. Either you will find corroborating evidence for your facts in journals or old emails or personal letters, or you won’t. Just because you remembered it that way doesn’t make it true. But it also does not make it not true. Be as true to your story as you can.
To name or not to name
We have all heard the saying about “changing the names to protect the innocent.” Deciding to use real names or pseudonyms is the work of revising, not drafting.
In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, Sue William Silverman says that most memoir writers “feel some ambiguity and confusion about the entire process: I must write this; I’m scared to write this; I should get my family’s permission to write this; I won’t tell anyone I’m writing this; what happens after I write this; am I a bad person because I wrote this, because I upset my mother?”²
As you are writing your draft, use real names. It will make it easier. Later in the process you can decide whether you need to change names. If you seek traditional publication, you may be directed to change names by a publisher’s legal department. Let the lawyers be lawyers. Your job is to focus on the writing.
Write through your emotions
For many writers, writing is therapeutic. It helps us make connections between ideas that we didn’t see before, much like talk therapy can guide patients to uncover hidden motivations and suppressed feelings. But writing can be triggering too, especially when dealing with difficult life events.
In writing my memoir, I spent a year seeing a therapist to try to navigate the turbulent waters of my life in order to create art. My therapy was cancelled by a job loss and loss of health insurance and a move across the country during the pandemic. So when faced with writing about the losses and betrayals in my life from a decade ago, sometimes it felt like I was buried in quicksand, sinking down into the abyss of my old life.
Writing was the very act that allowed me to escape that quicksand. I cut the work into bite-sized chunks, got it down on paper, and moved on to the next bite. I didn’t legislate old sleights and injuries. I didn’t wallow in despair at my misfortune. Writing helped create a psychic distance between myself and that remembered event. Writing served as the therapy I needed when my actual therapy stopped.
Your writing intentions may change
I set out to write a tribute to my brother. My completed draft is a memoir of my own life. At first I thought this would be a six months writing project. At the eighth month, I discovered an important connection that widened the initial scope considerably.
The impetus to write is only the first impulse. Intention varies as your sight and perspective become more clear. Writing can help clarify your intentions as you write.
Take a mental break from your writing
I wish I could say that I worked every morning on my writing, sat down, put my butt in the chair, and wrote. But that’s simply not true. There were times I had other obligations. There were mornings that I felt stuck and stared at news on my phone until it was time to go to my paying job. There were weeks I was moving across the country during the pandemic, twice.
I took two lengthy breaks, each several months. They started as vacations and grew as I mulled over how to shape difficult material. Two things inspired me to get back to my writing: watching inspiring movies/art (I’m looking at you, Hamilton) and reading memoirs or books about writing memoirs. Taking a mental break can lead you to make connections and dredge up ideas from your memory.
Develop a habit of taking notes, which will help you make connections as you write. Those connections will come at the worst times: in dreams as you are sleeping, at work, when driving, at times when taking notes is almost impossible. Recite the ideas in your head until you can write them down, or risk losing them.
Finish what you started
You will reach a certain point in your writing when you see the entire scope of your work. Once you have the end in sight, sprint.
I did not know the end of my work until eight months in. I spent many months revising and reworking material, trying to tame that first draft. I was trying to draft and revise at the same time. But that’s like climbing a sandy slope, two steps up and a long slide back down.
Leave the revising until after your draft is done. Once I could fit the list of remaining scenes on one piece of paper, then I knew I was close to finishing. I wrote every chance I could get without revising and pushed forward until I could write “The End.” Even so, I know my ending will change slightly. But I reached a natural stopping point and can begin revising in earnest now.
¹ Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Doubleday, 1994. p. 21.
² Silverman, Sue William. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2009. p. 122.