Restructuring a manuscript is torture. But like the delicious pain during a good hour of lifting weights, I love the difficult and time-consuming (but very rewarding) pain of this surgery on my writing.
As I told you last week, the agent (I won’t call her my agent yet, but hope to soon) suggested letting my readers into my process a little bit, and talking now and again about the memoir I’m working on. And to quote John Lithgow, when I went to hear him speak at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures last year, “Writing a memoir is a colossally arrogant thing to do…requires the kind of self-confidence almost indistinguishable from folly.”
So now that we’ve gotten out of the way that I’m fully aware that writing memoir is both difficult and egocentric, I also believe enough in the content and craft of what I’m writing. My goal is to deliver a relatable and empowering piece to women of my demographic (and maybe even a few of you guys out there ).
There are a number of shapes to choose from when structuring any story, whether truth or fiction. The latter, for me, is easier, because in fiction I can create transitions, change characters and events, and pull circumstances from thin air.
It’s difficult to come to terms with revising a memoir to adhere to a specific plot structure, because I know the order in which my life events occurred, and since I’m so close to the material, it’s not always easy to see sections of my life in terms of narrative arc, or that lucrative but distasteful word, “formula.” (Because although applying formula skillfully can be brilliant, a formulaic book can easily be a mundane read.)
But when I attended a memoir workshop at the Southern California Writer’s Conference, in which memoirist Maralys Wills discussed applying the “W” plotline used in novels to memoir, it made sense. She used an example of a memoir about climbing Mount Everest. And while I unfortunately drifted in and out of reverie during the session (because it struck such a chord with me that I went into brainstorming mode of how to apply it to my own work) here is the jist of the “W” plot structure.
After discussing the “W” structure with other writer and editor friends over the weekend, I started to internalize their notion of seeing that “W” as softened—cursive, even—the undulating lines of a rollercoaster: a perfect metaphor for most of our lives. But where the craft really makes you sweat is determining which events in your life were so defining as to be the peaks and which to be the very pit of the valleys. We all have those highs and lows. It’s why we all understand the rollercoaster metaphor. But not every up and down moment in our life defines us, and not every moment is something a reader needs or wants to know. The art, and the craft, is in seeing yourself through those defining highs and lows in a way that has brought you to a different way of understanding, one that you hope your readers discover with you and find their own inspiring truth through reading yours.
So with input from a few beta readers, and with encouragement from the agent who wants to read the full manuscript, I am taking the chapters of my book and rearranging them to meet these waves of tension and relief, but doing so in a way that keeps the same purpose and vision of the book. She wants to read it when I’m done with the full rearrangement, and reminded me to do this slowly, and do it right, because I only have this one shot with her. So when I hand it over, she needs to be so blown away by it that she can’t help but sign me. (Yes, in the possibility that she’s reading this, I’m schmoozing .)
Without giving away too many details, I will tell you that my beta readers, with their ability to look at the manuscript objectively, identified Chapter 3 as the place where my book should begin. Currently chapters one and two are a little more reflective and quiet, and while they have sound writing and flow, don’t create an immediacy and as strong of a connection for the reader as chapter three.
So the manuscript now opens at age sixteen, with the death of my father, and the destructive way I reacted to it (then and for years afterward). The event itself was a “defining moment,” of my life and of my personality. This first change alone is a profoundly different tone to begin the work, and it makes more sense in the context of the overall purpose and understanding of myself at the conclusion.
So that’s the “W” in my Wrollercoaster. If you were writing a book of your life, what do you think of as your defining moment, or moments? How have they shaped or changed you?
P.S. Fitness followers: I hit it HARD today! An hour of weight training with trainer Mike at the Center for Fitness and Health, followed by an hour of elliptical. Yee freaking haw!! What was your workout today?