On writing

18 04 2011

I took off three months from work to get cracking on a memoir. That was my declared goal. Before it started, I created an excel-spreadsheet timetable, like in school, with slots for everything from breakfast to yoga to food shopping to skating to flying and, of course, to writing. According to my timetable, I was due to write for something like 7-10 hours every day.

Unfortunately in my immense wisdom and unbridled ambition, I forgot to schedule slots for basic things like showering, phoning with my husband, reading, vacuuming, paying bills and paying attention to the world around me. There was no time to “veg”. And I discovered (and perfected) the fine art of getting in my own way.

Though I have been a writer of sorts for more than 20 years (journalism counts, doesn’t it?), I’m finding that the act of writing, the physical undertaking, is much more difficult and excruciating than I expected. Or maybe I have just forgotten how to do it. Wit, truth and insight are buried deep. Wherever they are lurking, they seem to like it there.

Lots of words on a page. Easy, huh? (Not really.)

In the past few years, I feel like creativity has bled out of me, replaced by ordinariness and tedium. Like my craft has abandoned me. I can’t put a finger on the time or the place – it was a process… it happened much like a stealth bomber approaches a target, creeping in under radar, with folks on the ground not noticing it’s there till it’s too late.

But perhaps I was never the fountain of ideas and the visionary of originality that I thought I was in the first place. Still, the (perceived) end likely came after I traded in my journalism combat boots for corporate 6-inch heels. Press releases, communications strategies and report launch plans do not inspire me. At least not in the industry in which I am currently caged.

This afternoon’s visit to the local bookstore was a sobering experience. Hundreds of biographies and memoirs, most of which are probably exquisitely written, lined the shelves, each story more compelling in its shock and tragedy than the next. And I only skimmed the back covers of maybe 30 of them.

I once read somewhere that a good story is one where the protagonist changes somehow. That through some event or encounter she matures, grows and becomes a different person. It’s this transformation, this emotional evolution that forms the core of a good story. And in many books I saw today, this transformation happens through one or more of the following: death, disease, drunkenness, denial and destruction.

So that’s another thing I’m wondering as I wade into this ocean of words. Must one have hit rock bottom in some way in order to write a convincing and gripping memoir? Must the road of personal growth always be paved with catastrophic and wretched experiences? Doesn’t that get old after a while? Is this the only formula that works? Or that publishers publish?

There are thousands of websites that offer tips and advice to hopeful writers, and the glut of information makes your head spin. If you read enough of them, you will find absolute contradictory information. One “expert” advises one thing on her blog, and the next advises the opposite on his. This wealth of data leaves the nascent yet increasingly insecure creative non-fiction writer to pick and choose to the best of her knowledge and belief. She’s left guessing what’s important and what’s not. This seems like no way to be successful.

Some famous writer in ages past once said something like: writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. If I was inspired, I would go on google right now to find out who it was. But I’m not. I’m already sweating and overwhelmed by the information I already posess. And with every passing day my discouragement grows. Do I just not have what it takes? What does it take? And why does every writer go through these toxic fits of paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation? And who wants to read about my lousy, insignificant life, anyway?

My writer friends tell me this is all quite normal. But honestly, it is truly crushing. And I’m not sure anymore that I am cut out for the job.

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10 responses

19 04 2011
Ironic Mom

I too have been to the self doubt fountain. I make frequent trips back. I tend to moan to my writing friends on Twitter who usually pull me out before I wade in and drain. (Warning: analogy fail).

I don’t think memoirs have to be about rock bottom. I think the journey to survive/thrive in life is always story: maybe verbal, maybe written, but one worth hearing in any case.

19 04 2011
Evelynn Starr

Blub blub blub….

19 04 2011
Christine @ Coffees & Commutes

What a timely post to read as I embark on my own memoir writing experience. I’ve read enough of them to know that they can come from the most minor origins and develop into the most evocative narratives. If you believe you have something to say, then you do. Good luck!! The process is the most enjoyable part.

19 04 2011
Evelynn Starr

Thanks Christine, for your kind words and for reading my post! So far it has been one of the most trying parts. The research is going really well, I’m just having a lot of trouble transferring what is in my brain to my computer. Good luck yourself!

19 04 2011
JenLuit

I think about this stuff allllll the time. Same thing, various sorts of writer over the last 20 years, along with mama and other stuff. Why bother when all the good stuff’s been written? Well, because your story is worth telling. My story’s worth telling. My story’s being published in September and I struggle through all of this stuff on a daily basis. What if it sucks? What if no one reads it? Why do I think it needs to be told? Why on earth is putting words down so freaking hard? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. Just wanted you to know you’re not alone.

19 04 2011
Evelynn Starr

Thank you Jennifer. It does help to know that there are others out there. But we all kind of struggle alone, don’t we? Good luck with your own story… the fact alone that it will be published is proof enough that your story definitely does NOT suck.

19 04 2011
karmavore

Personally, I do NOT think a person has to hit rock bottom (look at that schlimazel: A Million Little Pieces – what a load of crap). A good memoir needs contain some good stories. And a good story can be anything that rings true, has beauty OR pain, or wisdom or simply tomfoolery.

Keep on keepin on!

Or take a break and chillax for a bit 🙂

19 04 2011
Evelynn Starr

Karmavore – Thanks. However, I find that lately I might be chillaxing a bit too much to be productive. But I do know that the wheels are turning in my head all the time. So no matter where I am or what I am doing, something is going on up there, that will lead to something productive.

19 04 2011
David

Like most writers, I’ve struggled with all these questions, too. Most of the problems seem to have to do with the duality of writing something you feel is good and worthwhile as opposed to what is marketable. Some of us are lucky and there’s little difference between what they want to write and what people want to read. But that’s not so for most of us, I think. So we have to take a choice, or try to strike a balance.

As for what people want to read: most people want to escape their daily lives, and use literature to get away. Not everyone, of course, but most. And they get off on conflict and drama, like watching sports or reality TV. That’s why all those memoirs look the way they do. Nobody wants to hear about everyday life.

Funny, isn’t it? Everyone seems to want to get their lives in order, have some stability and peace…but if someone actually achieves that, people find them boring and don’t want to hear about it.

How we write isn’t so different from how we address the rest of our lives. Just write the best you can and burn yourself up entirely in the process. If it sells, then it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and you’re no less of a person because of it. But the worst would be if you held back and never wrote it and never offered it to the world, for fear of failure. What good would that be?

Well, that’s my two cents, Ev, which isn’t worth a whole lot in New York. But remember what Hemingway advised: Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. Then just take it from there.

19 04 2011
Evelynn Starr

Thank you, D., for your wise words, and for being a true friend.

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