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On Writing a Memoir
Although I have never kept a journal or written a novel, crafting a memoir is a little bit of both. A diary is an unstructured story of one’s life, the committing to print daily ordinary and extraordinary events with equal measure, the recording of which is a self-gratifying experience. The viewpoint of the central character – the diarist – is all that matters. There is no outside reader in mind. There is no one the writer aims to please other than him/herself. A journal is a form of masturbation.
By contrast, a novel is a highly structured story, which demands multiple viewpoints of the central character in order to bring him/ her to life. In addition to the central character’s perception of the world in which he/she lives, the novel’s supporting characters are the ones who provide alternative viewpoints of the central character, revealing how he/she is perceived by others and thus, establishing a three-dimensional picture of that person. The events in the story must be carefully chosen and crafted in order to reveal key aspects of the central character’s identity and personal motivations, as well as to establish a sense of drama and momentum so that the reader gets caught up and wants to move forward in the narrative. The point of it is to capture the reader’s attention. To entertain. To please. A novel is form of seduction intended to win the heart of the reader.
A memoir demands as much honesty and historical accuracy as a journal but the events must be selected, condensed, and re-chronicled to achieve the same drama as a novel. In writing my memoir, I was anticipating the presence of a reader. I wrote to gratify someone other than myself. Why a memoir? I had a good story to tell. I did not conceive of my book as an exercise in self-expression. I neither hoped nor did I achieve any emotional catharsis through the examination of my own life. My motivations were practical. I was at a point in my career as a freelance journalist when I needed to write something more enduring than monthly and weekly articles. I felt I’d taken my work as far as I could go. Writing a book was the next logical step.
A memoir was not how my book started out. Back in 2000, I began to write short stories about my crazy dating experiences as a single woman in my mid-to-late thirties. I did it in order to make myself laugh. The guys, the sex and the rejections were pretty depressing so I turned them into comedies and circulated them among my girlfriends who loved them and wanted more. Once I had several of these stories completed, I attempted to string them together to construct a novel that pretty much mirrored my life. Because I was writing a work of fiction, I did not feel compelled to dig deeply into myself to spill my guts all over the page. I edited out parts of my life that were too difficult, awful or unclear to explore. I had this idea that I could write a breezy tale with a little bit of bite. But I had zero knowledge of how to create a “narrative arc,” as they say in literary parlance. I didn’t understand that one of the ways a reader comes to root for the main character -- in this case, me -- is by virtue of her growth, ability to rise above her circumstances and evolve as a human being. I didn’t know that the main character has to be continually challenged. The bar for her to prove her worthiness for the reader’s attention has to keep getting higher and higher. Her mettle must always be tested, ultimately forcing her character to change. By the end of the story, she must be different than who started out to be. She should have a better understanding of herself and learn more than a few lessons from her journey. My novel had none of these merits. The pitch was flat, the story line predictable and my main character highly unsympathetic.
Since my attempt at a novel was really just my way of fudging a memoir, my literary agent pushed me to write the real thing. It took two years of full-time writing beginning. I didn’t wait for a “moment of inspiration.” I looked upon writing as a book as a job. There was nothing romantic about it. That was something I learned from reading, Stephen King’s “On Writing.”
Beginning in April 2003, I wrote every single day, a minimum of four hours a day. Even if I was blocked, I forced myself to write lengthy, entertaining emails to friends instead. I was always afraid that if I took time off from writing, I would lose my momentum and fail to complete my book. Since I didn’t have to work a day job, I was able to write during vampire hours: from about nine p.m. to three a.m. – give or take a few. That was when my house was quietest and I had no distractions. Writing throughout the night, I had no sense of time passing. It was as if I were in a trance. For as long as I can remember, I have been an insomniac so I was accustomed to sleep deprivation. In fact, my deprivation allowed me to be highly productive. Sometimes the sun was already rising by the time I went to bed. My son was old enough to get himself off to school. I awoke around noon and interacted with the world by making phone calls or going shopping. After dinner with my son, I returned to my computer. On the weekends, when he was at his father’s apartment and I was by myself, I wrote continuously, or cried when I couldn’t, when the words wouldn’t come to me. I lost a lot of time to rewriting the same sentence over and over, varying the structure in as many ways as possible until I finally figured out that the scene I was creating wasn’t working and I should just delete it and begin again from a whole new direction. During those two years of working on my book, I was too anxious about not making progress to allow myself to socialize with my friends. I attempted to have romantic relationships but each of the three men with whom I became involved broke up with me because I was so stressed, miserable, angry, frustrated and unavailable.
On December 7, 2005, the day I handed in my manuscript to my publisher, my personal life was in shambles and I was exhausted. I did not feel relieved. Writing my book had taken a huge toll – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Because many parts of my book were draining and painful to write, I was left feeling severely depressed and also completely lost. Suddenly, after two years of such intense focus, I had nothing to do. I sensed I was a different person but I wasn’t sure why. It took about a month before I regained my footing and then I began to realize how I’d changed. For the first time in my life, I felt deeply powerful. I had made and upheld a commitment to write a book. It was a selfish, tedious, and solitary task. Those around me – my son, especially – suffered for it. But I never ever gave serious thought to quitting (though I made idle threats to get my agent’s and editor’s attention) or apologized to anyone. Once I succeeded in doing the thing that daunted me most -- the thing that no one demanded I do, the thing that could only be done because I wanted to do it -- I realized the only limits I had were those that I set for myself. Now, I’d now like to believe that I have fewer limits because I know what I’m capable of.
And there is one more thing I never anticipated: how women would react to my book. I sensed it had page-turning potential because of all the sex but I worried that my experiences as a wife, mother, and neurotic, single woman in Manhattan were unique to me. Surprisingly, married women with children have told me that they find my book an affirmation of their ambivalent feelings towards a lifestyle that they have chosen, or believed would be fulfilling. They feel less alienated, guilty and ashamed because I, however unintentional, managed to articulate silent yet collective, female misgivings about marriage, motherhood and love. As for unmarried women’s reactions to my book, a friend of mine who is in her late thirties and has not yet gotten married or had children told me that my story gave her a window into a world that she longs to join but is now less idealistic about. To me, that’s a good thing. Lowering your expectations means they’re probably more in tune with reality. You’re more inclined to enjoy life as it is rather than be disappointed because it didn’t turn out the way you thought it would or should be. In a nutshell, that’s what I figured out in writing my book.