It’s coming up on eight years since I started writing the memoir that’s been occupying most of my writing attention for the past three months. What started in the summer of 2008 as a book I decided I was only going to write on islands, and only in a journal covered with crinkled brown paper that David had bought for me in London, is finally revealing its structure, which has nothing to do with islands or writing in one particular journal.
But that conceit — writing my “Island Journal” as I called it — is what got me started and the most important lesson I’ve learned over these past eight years as I’ve been trying to master the craft of creative nonfiction is that where you start is very likely not where you end up.
Last summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts writing conference both Andre Dubus III and Joan Wickersham talked about years of failed attempts to write a story from their lives as a novel. Years and years of writing that didn’t work. Both of them finally got their stories right as a memoir — Townie for Dubus and The Suicide Index for Wickersham. Both are terrific (read them if you haven’t).
I went to the VCFA conference to workshop the novel I wrote last winter, which was a much needed break from the intensity of my work the previous spring on the memoir. I did learn a lot about writing a novel and sustaining a story across many many many more words than I’m used to managing in poems. But mostly I learned to let go, as Dubus and Wickersham had. I understood that I needed to go home and stop trying to wedge that original island journal into the memoir I was trying to write about the years when I lost Eric, lost my best friend, lost track of myself, lost faith in my parenting, found David and then lost him as his family navigated its own terrible loss, lost myself again and then found myself again, not surprisingly right where I’d been all along.
Now I’m back to revising the memoir. I don’t even know what number draft to call this, because its form has changed so radically. Given what else was going on in my life and my family last summer and fall I didn’t have a chance to use what I’d learned at VCFA to start revising the memoir until January and I started by taking it apart. I’ve been struggling with how to put it back together — deleting island journal passages, writing a new thread of story to weave in, getting rid of scenes that don’t move the narrative forward, rearranging. How could I carry the story across the arc it deserves?
And now I know. I don’t remember exactly when or how, but sometime in the last few weeks the story began to unfold in a structure that so far continues to make sense as I move through each section. It’s exciting and energizing and makes me want to be at my desk more than anywhere else.
David and I were both getting ready to go out one day last week and I told him I planned to go right back to work on the memoir when I got home in the afternoon. “Of course,” he said. “You’re in a blessed place.”
Yes, it’s a blessing to be in a creative flow that’s smooth and open, without the nagging voice that asks why are you doing this, does it matter, is this any good? I’m listening to the book right now and liking what it says.