These first few weeks of the year are a time when everyone gets down to goal-setting. Being a long way from perfection, my list of New Year Resolutions is usually lengthy, and I always set myself up for failure. So, this year I’m keeping it simple when it comes to creative resolutions, and between January and June, my creative goals are simply twofold:
Any additional creative output will be a bonus. Come June, I’ll set more goals for the second half of the year.
If you are reading this as a writer, I expect you’ve completed a similar goal-setting exercise. But do you have any resolutions that will help you become better at self-editing? If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few practical resolutions you could adopt.
1. Keep on writing. Never review anything you’ve written until you have finished an entire first draft, be it a short story or a novel/memoir. Do not succumb to the temptation to redraft anything before you’ve arrived at what you believe to be the end point. Draft one is for your eyes only, so never be embarrassed about what you’ve written. It’ll be rough ‘n unready, but it will be complete. You cannot begin to sculpt your masterpiece until all the clay is on the wheel.
2. Practise abstinence. Put your first draft away for a minimum of ONE MONTH and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, try focusing your creative energy on something else (start writing another story, learn the ukulele, paint by numbers) until it’s time to review the project again. Without some distance from the work, self-editing will be severely hampered.
3. Think big. Don’t sweat the small stuff as you work on improving your first draft. It’s not worth tinkering with the finer points of punctuation/grammar and word choice if you need to rewrite or reorganise an entire chunk of your story. Focus instead on the big picture of narrative structure, character arc, theme, tone, setting and so on. Only when you’ve got to your final draft can the finessing begin.
While you’re practising resolutions 1 to 3, you could also expand your editing knowledge and skills by:
4. Reading Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. The book not only covers grammatical ground rules, it will also help you (among many other things) to:
5. Listening to The Editing Podcast, from fiction editor/proofreader Louise Harnby and nonfiction editor Denise Crowle. Though aimed primarily at editors, writers stand to gain key insights into how the editing process works and how writers can avoid certain editorial pitfalls. Well worth a listen. Find the podcast at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.
Good luck, writer! You got this.
Recently, I invited some new writers to submit 2000 words of their writing for a sample copy edit so that they could see what’s involved.
For each piece, I focused on the 5 C’s of Copyediting, but I also offered some general feedback on the opening of the writers’ stories, as I would for any sample. In return, I asked them to tell me how they found the experience.
(For info: While some editors request an excerpt from the middle of the manuscript, I prefer the opening 2000 words because it reveals a lot about a writer’s skills and the project. A weak opening will strongly imply that more self-editing is needed before the manuscript is ready for a copy edit.)
"Lorna gave me a huge amount to think about. Over the years I’ve asked various writer friends to critique the book and they’ve all provided me with excellent feedback. However, Lorna gave me a completely new insight into the work and what I need to do to strengthen it. One of the most surprising and useful observations she made was that my protagonist comes across as the most ordinary character in the excerpt. This was difficult feedback to hear but Lorna was absolutely right, and I’m hugely grateful to her for highlighting it.
Lorna’s attention to detail was impressive. She gave my writing some very tough love and now I have my work cut out, tightening my dialogue, strengthening my opening chapters, giving my protagonist greater heft and generally tinkering with the tone of the book. I’m very glad to have had her help, she gave me what my friends probably never dared: a truly detailed, honest appraisal."
"Your edit made a huge improvement to a text I thought I’d polished. All your suggestions were kindly and thoughtfully made. After going through your changes, the sentences sparkled. But most important of all, you opened my eyes to a problem with my main character.
I'd been feeling that something in the manuscript wasn’t working for a long time. Re-drafting it felt like a chore. And the more changes I made, the less I felt happy with it. I’d put it to one side when your offer to copy edit came through, so I jumped at the chance. I thought you'd be looking more at sentence structure than wider problems, but you pointed out that my main character didn't jump off the page. And although I'd worked and worked on her, your comments made me have a complete re-think, but I've regained the love I had for the story and can't wait to start revising."
"I can definitely say that it was helpful for me, very helpful indeed. It was the first time getting professional editor feedback (the experiences I had made before with a semi-professional looking at a text of mine were not the best). Your feedback helped me to trust an editor with my texts and trusting that the feedback will be helpful and in honour of what I want to write. Also, you stating that I write well is something I take as a great compliment, as you would have seen lots of texts and stories.
One point you noted is that I am jumping POVs. In general, I admit that I had some issues with the POV, and I am constantly working on focusing on only one character when writing a scene. Hence, this is still an ongoing learning process, where I oftentimes think, Yes, now I got it right, only to later see that there still is some visible or subtle mixture of POVs. The three points in your comments were helpful for me as I started to put more focus on exactly those questions.
Your feedback was mostly helpful for me. For most of your comments, you wrote why you made that comment, and where that wasn't explicitly included, I could find good reasons on my own. For some suggestions you made, I did not find the reason, but I took them as what you said them to be: suggestions. For me, your feedback was a kind and detailed one at the same time, especially with your final comment underneath my text."
There are many ways to find a copy editor, such as online searching, professional associations, recommendations from other writers, and crowd-sourcing websites. But how do you know if a particular editor is going to be a worthy recipient of your editing budget?
I recommend that writers find two or three potential editors and carry out a three-stage vetting process for each:
1. Online Research
If you’ve found an editor online, or someone has recommended one, the editor’s website is the first port of call. (I think it’s a bad sign if the editor does not have an online shopfront.) The website should tell you if the editor has experience/interest in your kind of writing and appears to have the kind of personality you might gel with.
Don’t just look at the editor’s testimonials, though, which are obviously going to be glowing. Rather, assess for yourself how well the site is presented and how clearly the content is written. A single typo, however, is no reason to blacklist them, because even the most professional publications are rarely error-free!
2. Initial Consultation
Once you’ve decided an editor looks promising, arrange a phone or video call. On this first call, you’re simply sharing information and giving the editor a chance to ask pertinent questions about the project and the kind of editing you need. If they show little curiosity or interest in your project, they're unlikely to be a good fit.
Go into the consultation with a list of questions of your own to find out (at minimum) about the editor’s availability, what their process is, what they charge/how they’re paid … and if they’re willing to do a sample edit (see next step).
3. Editing Sample
I believe the best way for a writer to evaluate an editor is via an editing sample. Some editors will do this for free. If the editor is a highly sought-after professional, they may charge a fee for an amount that is later subtracted from the overall cost of the edit if you decide to hire them. In addition to seeing how many errors they spot, you’re looking for how astute and tactful their queries are, and how well their editing respects your material and authorial voice. Essentially, you’re assessing whether the editing enhances your writing.
However, this sample assessment is not a one-way street. The principle reason I provide free samples is that doing so is as much for my benefit as the writers’. In providing a sample edit, I’m asking the following questions:
When you have samples from two or three potential editors (samples of the same excerpt!) to compare, you might find that the editor whom you favoured after steps one and two did not hit all the right notes in the sample stage. In this case, you can either talk to them about how they can adjust their approach, or you can go with the editor who did the best sample, but may not have had the best website or the best phone manner. Or, of course, you can continue your search!
Once you’re satisfied with the editor, you can move ahead with project. In a future post, I’ll outline how a writer and editor can proceed professionally and productively through the project so that it goes without a glitch. And in the next post, I’ll share what three writers said about being on the receiving end of a professional edit for the first time.
Whether you self-publish or are fortunate to get a traditional publishing deal, the chances are you will have to do a lot of your own book promo. This can be highly time-consuming and frustrating ... especially if you go at it half cocked, so to speak. But where do you begin?
I asked marketing/PR expert (and agented writer) Anna Caig for a few choice words of advice for promoting your book based on her experience as a trainer/coach of writers who want to build their brand and reach more readers. (To find out more, or to work with Anna Caig, go to https://www.annacaigcomms.co.uk). Here is what she shared.
1. Be clear on your author brand
Does thinking of yourself as a brand have you cringing or running for the hills? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But this is about pinning down what makes you stand out, and it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of the work I do with authors. Looking at where the inspiration and motivation behind your writing comes from is a good place to start thinking about how to differentiate yourself from all the other authors out there.
2. Use your storytelling skills in your marketing
It’s amazing how many awesome storytellers revert to flat, linear descriptions when they’re talking about themselves and their work in bios, on their website, or anywhere they’ve got limited space to tell potential readers what they’re all about. But by using the same skills you use in your writing to describe your books and yourself as an author, you’ll be off to a flying start.
3. Also think about what you *don’t* want to share
Your author brand is a version of you that you’re comfortable sharing with the public … it is not all of you, warts and all. For example, many people get inspiration for their writing from painful personal events. Sometimes you’ll be happy to talk about these explicitly, but sometimes you won’t, and that’s fine. It is important to establish this ahead of embarking on marketing a book.
4. Before any marketing activity, set yourself some objectives
Is it all about sales? Do you want to build your mailing list? Are you setting up a community of readers in a Facebook group? Spending a little time thinking about what exactly you want to achieve with your marketing activity is an important first step in putting together a strategy and will ensure everything you do contributes to a specific outcome.
5. Write a strategy
Snore, right? A strategy’s a dry old document that sits on a shelf and never gets used? Well, nope. A marketing strategy means you know what you want to achieve, who exactly you’re targeting and how you’re going to reach them, and what you’re going to say. Not only does spending a little time on a strategy save *a lot* of time in the long run, it also ensures your marketing is coherent.
6. Be creative when it comes to reaching potential readers
Most spaces, digital or in-person, dedicated to book promotion are crowded and competitive. I always encourage writers to think outside the box when it comes to reaching readers. Put in the simplest terms, if you’ve written a book about trains, don’t just target people who love books, target people who love trains. Think about where you can find this audience and use the channels that will reach them there.
7. Digital and social media are just channels
I hear a lot of ‘you should be doing x, y or z’ when it comes to book promotion, and never more so than with digital and social media. But the truth is, these are just channels to reach audiences. There’s no should about it, unless they will help you talk to people who are likely to love your books. And you’re much better off using two or three channels well than spreading yourself thinly across loads because you think you should be there.
8. The rule of thirds
No more than a third of the content you share with your audiences should be explicitly promoting and selling your books. Another third is all about engaging content which doesn’t overtly sell: this is where you can give audiences a glimpse behind the curtain, share interesting information relating to your research, writing process, or just elements of your life that form part of, or complement, your author brand. The final third is where you respond to others, have conversations and comment on what other people are doing, building your relationships and communities.
9. Give video a chance
There’s no point forcing yourself to create content you really don’t enjoy, but I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve worked with who are reluctant to give video a go and then end up loving it. There is a lot of evidence that video is more effective than text or images in engaging audiences, and there are many different ways to try it, from a more polished, edited video to a quick Facebook or Instagram live. Try some different things out and try not to worry about ‘getting it wrong’ (whatever that means!) You don’t need to be too polished or perfect. The most engaging content often includes flaws, or even mistakes. It can be scary to put yourself ‘out there’ and be vulnerable, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how your audience responds to content which contains faults. Look at the engagement on a serious Facebook post, versus the outtakes and bloopers post from ‘behind the scenes’ (from those who are brave enough to share these) and the latter will almost invariably reach more people and elicit a more positive response.
10. Have fun
Yes, book promotion is a serious business that will find readers for your work and persuade them to part with their hard-earned cash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. It’s important to bear in mind that content you enjoy creating is likely to be more effective because the energy and enthusiasm will come across to your audience. So, enjoy yourself!
Soon after I returned to Sheffield after a 20-year absence, I was lucky to meet Beverley Ward. Beverley is at the very heart of the city's writing community and has supported its growth for about as long as I was away! Not only is she a great resource for other writers developing their craft, she is also an enormously talented writer of prose and poetry, and in a future blog post, I will be featuring her very own Book with Spine, Dear Blacksmith, a beautiful and powerful memoir about confronting grief under extraordinary circumstances.
In this post, Beverley shares her top ten habits for becoming a writer or improving your productivity.
For more of Beverley's tips and advice, request a copy of her Free E-Book here.
Beverley Ward is a writer, facilitator and coach, with twenty years experience of supporting fellow writers on their journeys to becoming the writers that they want to be. She offers a range of writing workshops and one-to-one coaching/mentoring and owns The Writers Workshop in Sheffield. You can find out more about Beverley at www.beverleywrites.com. Or email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the toughest challenges in my line of work is turning down projects. Mostly, I decline only the manuscripts I don’t have time for or that don’t pay well enough. But there have been several occasions when I’ve had to turn down a project because, quite frankly, I don’t want any hand in birthing that particular book.
If that sounds judgemental to you, well, it is! I make no apology for being a woman of principle and exercising professional judgement when considering what projects to accept—after all, I’m a human being, not a robot! Don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m all for freedom of speech and the author’s right to write; all I am saying is, “Leave me out of it!” So, if a manuscript comes along that spreads nastiness in the world—such as racism, misogyny, gay hate, and religious intolerance—I simply tell the client, "I can't take the project because I would not bring the necessary objectivity to the editing task."
Given my personal opinions on ethical writing, I was therefore pleased to stumble upon the Ethical Author Campaign from UK-based ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors). It’s a writers' code of conduct comprising a list of ethical practices united by one guiding principle: “When I market my books, I put my readers first.” For this initiative, I applaud ALLi wholeheartedly because I have also written code of conduct to share with all my book coaching clients. Of course, they are not obliged to adopt the principles, but I feel it’s my duty to at least give them the option of doing the honorable thing.
Lorna's Five Commandments of Nonfiction Writing
An important rule of writing is “Honor Thy Reader.” If readers feel disrespected, at best they’ll close your book; at worst, they'll trash both you and your book online.
During the outlining process, you should have identified your target reader, their fears/anxieties, and their hopes/desires. Always keep these target readers and their needs in mind when you are creating your content: those readers are the foundation of your book, and they are counting on you to give them the information they need. But other than placing your readers’ needs at the heart of your book, how else can you honor them?
1. Thou shalt not patronize. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right way to communicate a complex idea clearly. However, be careful to avoid dumbing down your material to the point of condescension or coming off as superior.
2. Thou shalt not baffle. As experts in your field, be aware of the language you’re using to communicate, especially jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. If you cannot write without these terms, include a glossary in your book to ensure you’re being understood. Also, try not to assume knowledge. Ask yourself before you begin writing what things your reader will already know and what they need to know, and write according to their level of knowledge (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).
3. Thou shalt not bore. You know readers are interested in your subject because they’ve picked up your book, but just because they’re keen, don’t treat them mean! Don’t be long-winded, don’t repeat yourself, don’t go off on tangents, don’t be too abstract, and don’t use bland language.
4. Thou shalt not exclude. Beware of language bias (unconscious sexism, racism, etc.) and ensure your language is respectful and inclusive. If you are someone who prides yourself on being politically incorrect, so be it, but be prepared for a backlash from readers/reviewers. However, using strong language can be fine, if it’s appropriate to the audience, but you should establish this use of vocabulary in your introduction so that there are no surprises if you drop the occasional “shit” … so to speak!
5. Thou shalt not deceive. This is not suggesting you would do this deliberately, but sometimes we can mislead without intending to. Your readers trust you, so make doubly sure that you never pass off someone else’s ideas (or writing) as your own; never misrepresent the facts to illustrate a point; never overstate your skills, experience, or influence; never make a statement of fact without backing it up with evidence.
In our current social and political climate, in which civility and respect seem to have gone the way of the rotary telephone and the horse-drawn buggy, it’s more important than ever to act with integrity. Therefore, I encourage any book-with-spine authors among you to adopt ALLi’s advice, or mine, or devise your own code so that you can be open with your potential readers … and sleep well at night.
Most memoirs explore the impact of major life experiences on the author and his/her reaction to them. However, confessional memoir is a form of the genre in which authors admit to bringing about the events that have shaped, and perhaps even destroyed, their lives. Arguably, then, it is a literary form that takes a different level of courage to write.
Getting Off is a confessional memoir by Erica Garza about her 20-year journey through sex and porn addiction: how it began, how it worsened over time, and eventually how she found a way out. What makes this a great "book with spine" is that it tackles a taboo subject fearlessly and honestly, which will give other sufferers the confidence to speak more openly about and deal with their addiction.
Books with Spine: Why was it important to you to tell this very personal story? What were your aims?
Erica Garza: I've always turned to writing for comfort and clarity, so choosing to write on this topic was my way of trying to figure out how and why I'd gotten to this place in my life. Beyond that, I hoped this book might help others who were facing similar struggles. The first piece I ever wrote on this subject was an essay for Salon.com, and the response was overwhelming. So many people reached out to me (men and women, young and old) and they couldn't believe that someone else was articulating their own private struggle the way I had. They truly thought they were the only ones going through this. That's when I knew I had to keep writing. I had to speak up for those who were too ashamed to tell their own stories.
BwS: You're known as an essayist, so why choose to write a book?
EG: Memoir felt like the most straightforward approach to cover the whole story of my addiction from beginning to end. I really just put the story down the way I remembered it and the narrative arc came naturally.
BwS: What personal and/or creative difficulties did you encounter during the writing of the book?
EG: I had some trouble deciding how to end the book. I wrote it when I was still in the early stages of my recovery, and I wasn't sure if my story measured up to what I saw in other addiction memoirs; I didn't have a neat and tidy resolution at the end. My book ends with a threesome in Thailand, not "Then I went to a 12-step meeting or found God and lived happily ever after." But I wanted to be honest and to be honest is to be imperfect. I'm much happier living in the gray area anyway.
BwS: You have an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia. In what ways did that help (or hinder) the writing of the book?
EG: Getting an MFA from Columbia was expensive, and while there were many days before I got published that I resented having to pay my giant loan payments, I'm now grateful for my experience. The MFA program taught me how to trust my voice as a writer, how to be disciplined and devoted to my craft, how to be a better reader, and it showed me that it was possible to be published. When I was younger, I'd always wanted to be a writer, but it felt like some faraway dream or something that happened to other people, kind of like winning the lottery. If I was lucky it would happen. Columbia taught me that it wasn't about luck. It was about doing the work.
BwS: Were you apprehensive about the reaction to the book? How do you handle reviews and readers' feedback?
EG: At the beginning, I feared that people I knew would pity me or shame me, or that my parents would feel embarrassed. But the response has been mostly positive. I mean, I have no idea what anyone says behind my back, but they're certainly nice to my face! In any case, in the process I realized that nobody will ever be able to shame me the way I've shamed myself in my past. I've grown out of the exhausting charade of trying to be something I'm not. It's so much easier and enjoyable to just say, "This is who I am. Take it or leave it." Surprisingly, what I've found is that when I allow myself to be open and vulnerable, other people feel inspired to do the same. I love having that kind of raw, genuine connection with other people.
BwS: How did you find the publishing process? Was anything about it particularly surprising/frustrating/pleasing?
EG: I was fortunate to have a wonderful team of people at both ICM and Simon & Schuster helping to bring my book to life. The most frustrating aspect has been trying to continue promoting myself and the book after my publisher and agent have had to move to other clients and shift focus away from my book, which happened maybe three months post-publication. I didn't realize how much media attention I was getting from their hard work and how clueless I was about promotion until it was all up to me.
BwS: What advice do you have for people who want to write a revealing memoir?
EG: Try not to think about what other people will think while you're writing. It will only keep you from doing the work. I like what Joyce Maynard said: "Write as if you were an orphan."
BwS: Do you plan to write another book? If so, what can you tell us about it?
EG: I'm working on a collection of essays. I'm still writing about shame, but not so much in how it relates to my sexuality, but to my culture.
BwS: What is your favorite "book with spine"?
EG: No book means as much to me as Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. I've read it many times and always with new eyes. That book made me want to be a writer. It taught me to pay attention to what people around me said and how they presented themselves, how a story can be found in the most ordinary places and conversations. It was the reason I made traveling such a priority in my twenties and early thirties, and most importantly, it taught me to pay attention to my desire, to let it guide me to a better understanding of myself.
Click here to buy Erica's book, Getting Off.
It's been a while since I last posted, and I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. The reason for the radio silence was, of course, life. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that everyday stuff has an irritating habit of derailing our momentum and diverting us from our goals. But there's no point in kicking ourselves. The best thing we can do when we realize our mistake is to figure out how it happened so that we can avoid falling into the same trap next time.
So, I'm going to leap right in with the "secret" as promised in the title. The simple secret is ... IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. I had temporarily forgotten this, which is why there were no blog posts in June.
MISSION-DRIVEN, NOT EGO-DRIVEN
This blog is not about me, and any book that you write should not be about you: it's about your mission, remember? It's about the passion, message, and ideas you have to bring about meaningful change. But your mission is nothing without people who support it, and those people, of course, are your potential readers. So think of the reader, whoever he or she may be, as someone who is waiting for YOUR book (blog post or article), whether they know it or not. They need you to step up, and your mission needs them to read your work and take action.
Writing a mission-driven book inevitably involves self-sacrifice. It involves sitting down to write when you'd rather be binge-watching your favorite Netflix series; it might also mean not spending as much time with a loved one as you would like. But these sacrifices should be worth making for a few months if you believe enough in your mission. If you cannot motivate yourself to get it done, well, perhaps you don't care about your mission as much as you thought you did.
TICK, TOCK ...
Time and tide wait for no man, so if you don't write that book now, will you miss the boat? This is another aspect to the secret: it's not about you; it's about timing. If your mission is a hot topic, you'll want to get your book out as soon as possible so that you can capitalize on the general public awareness and PR opportunities.
But even if your topic isn't especially zeitgeisty, the publishing industry is pumping out books at a rate of knots, meaning that another (more motivated) author may steal your thunder. By telling yourself that at any given moment there are at least 100 other people writing a book on your topic, you'll light a fire under yourself that will help you get your book done ASAP.
IT IS ALL ABOUT YOU
Wait ... what? Didn't I say it wasn't about you? Well, yes, but there is one important way that your book is all about you, and that's with regard to accountability. When you're struggling to meet your writing targets and there is nobody breathing down your neck, it's easy to put the book project aside and watch all seven seasons of Game of Thrones. You can find someone to fulfill that monitoring role (a colleague or spouse, perhaps), but ultimately, only YOU can get it done.
Hopefully, the tips above will motivate you to keep writing and hold yourself accountable ... they have certainly reminded me to keep blogging.
Tamim Ansary is the author of a novel, history books, a number of children's books, and two memoirs. Also, as an editor and teacher, Tamim dedicates much of his time to helping others tell their true-life stories. In this interview, Tamim shares his thoughts on the creative process of writing nonfiction (and fiction).
Find out more about his books at http://mirtamimansary.com/books/ and his writing workshops at https://memoirpool.com/workshops/
What is memoir to you? And how does writing fiction and nonfiction differ in your experience?
All writing, for me at least, is a struggle to transform the formless mush of the world into something clear and visible. Memoir is about mulching experience into meaning. History is about finding a shape in the tumult of public events. In my experience, no writing project goes through an orderly set of stages: it never begins with an intention to write X, and then to writing Chapter One, and then to Chapter Two, and then on and on to “The End.” It’s all chaos at first, but gradually some sort of order emerges, and if I’m lucky, what emerges is a book. Or an essay. Or maybe an email. Or at least a haiku.
For me, fiction and nonfiction both start with a vague intuition of something that doesn’t exist as words. Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes more like the feeling one has waking up from a powerful dream one can’t quite remember. The question always is how to bring this shy animal into the light where it can be seen. For me, the only way forward is to keep my attention fixed on the “something,” and while I’m looking at it, generate a story without paying attention to the words—letting those stream out as they will. Afterwards, I can look at the words and begin to articulate the “something.”
My novel, The Widow’s Husband, began with a dreamlike image of a strange old man wandering over a hill to live on the slope above a small Afghan village a couple of hundred years ago. That’s all I had at first. Who was this guy? What was going on down in the village? What did they think about this old man? What was happening in the larger world around the village? The image generated questions and the questions generated the novel.
My memoir, Road Trips, began with the intuition that “every journey is an odyssey.” However, the book I’m working on now began with the phrase “ripple effect.” I was reading certain books about world history, and I kept stumbling across interconnections among different cultures, and that phrase popped into my head. Five years later, I have 450 pages drafted, and I’m still unpacking the implications of that phrase: ripple effects.
What led you to writing your memoirs, West of Kabul, East of New York and Road Trips: Becoming an American in the Vapor Trail of the Sixties?
I was drawn to writing memoir about 25 years ago when I started working on a novel based on my experiences as a bicultural person. At some point, I realized that the stories I was telling were much more vivid and “story-like” when I cast aside the fictionalizing and just recounted what really happened. I think “story” is an essential current running through real life. Fiction moves us because it stirs feelings we’ve actually had. Great fiction distills themes out of experience, but memoir can do that too. It’s all a matter of leaving out what’s trivial and dialing up what’s profound.
The two memoirs I wrote started out as one book. I was going to call it Road Trips. It started one night when I told a friend about a time I tried to drive across the continent with no money in my pocket and ran into a blizzard in Nebraska. I thought I was going to share an anecdote, but for some reason, I started the story much earlier, two years earlier, in fact. Apparently, something in me knew the story wasn’t the blizzard per se, nor even the drive across the continent. The story included what led to taking that journey and what came of having taken it. It took me an hour to tell the tale, and I told it from start to finish in one sitting. I’d never done that before. My friend was kind enough to listen with interest and without interruption (except for an occasional, “Aha!” or “I see.”). Once I was done, I saw that the story of my journey had a narrative arc to it. I hadn’t realized it at the time, because you never see the story while it’s happening, you’re too busy dealing with the crocodiles of the present moment. It struck me that every journey to someplace far away and difficult to reach has the character of an odyssey if considered as a single whole, but it’s only in retrospect that you can see the whole. So, I thought I could pick three journeys I’ve been on, three that felt important to me, and write each from start to finish in a single sitting, and that way, in just three nights of work, I’ll have me a little book. As it turned out, writing is different from talking to a friend; I spent years on the project, but the original impulse continued to inform the work throughout.
As I was noodling away at the story of three iconic journeys, it struck me that all three of the journeys I had picked took place after I came to the United States. I had grown up in Afghanistan, I came to the United States when I was 16, and that was a pretty traumatic transition, and I wondered why I had not thought to include the journey from Afghanistan to America as one of my stories. But when I tried to write that one, I discovered that I had no specific memories of that actual journey: not the airport in Kabul, not my arrival in Chicago, not anything that happened during my first three or four months in America. How curious! It got me wondering what, if anything, I did remember about my 16 years in Afghanistan. At that point my writing project changed from recounting journeys to scuba diving for memories. Every day around 4 p.m., I’d sit down and type anything I could remember about Afghanistan, in no particular order. In that way I generated about a thousand pages—pages that no one had read, not even me, because one of my rules for myself was “Don’t edit, just write” (I’ve found that the moment I start reading anything I’ve written I get drawn into editing). So, I wrote those thousand pages without reading a single one of them.
Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly Afghans and Americans were shouting at each other, and each side had no idea what the other was saying. I was sitting on the wall between them, able to see both sides, hear both languages. My agent urged me to write a nonfiction book about Afghanistan, and I saw her point. I looked through my thousand pages and found West of Kabul, East of New York in there. So the book I wrote at that point didn’t turn out to be about journeys or odysseys. The social context dictated that it be about Before and After—about living a life with one foot in Afghanistan and one foot in America. Technically, it was a memoir, but it wasn’t as much about me as it was about that fault-line in the world between East and West, as seen through bicultural eyes.
In West of Kabul, however, I included one of the three iconic journeys I was going to use in Road Trips: traveling across the Islamic world in 1980 and then coming home to marry my wife Debby. I still wanted to write Road Trips, but it felt like I had crippled the book by using up one of the journeys. Now I had only two iconic journeys to recount and for some unknown reason, the book wanted to be three journeys. I couldn’t figure out what the third journey was, how the book would be one single whole, so I put it away for the time being. Years later, I realized what the third journey should be, and with that I saw what Road Trips was: a story set in the late sixties and early seventies when I lived in Portland, when the counterculture was my world, when Portland was the place I kept leaving and coming back to, a story that ended when I left Portland for good. When I came to Portland I was an Afghan kid, when I left Portland, I was an America fellow. Therefore, Road Trips was about turning into an American guy. But my personal transformation occurred against the backdrop of America going through an epic transformation of its own, from the radical sixties to the Reagan era. My story and the story of the culture were intertwined, and that’s the story I ended up telling in Road Trips.
What led you into teaching memoir? And what are the joys of teaching memoir craft?
After twenty-two years running the San Francisco Writers Workshop, I wanted a deeper engagement with memoir, more continuity, more focus. So I started some small workshops that focus only on writing real-life stories. I limit each workshop to five members (plus me), and right now we meet six times over the course of twelve weeks. Each session is devoted to pretty intense discussion of each person’s submission for that week, and over the course of time I have been able to play some part in the emergence of a number of whole books.
What’s really stunning and great is the variety and intensity of human experience. It seems like everyone who comes to my workshops has an astounding tale to tell. Maybe there’s some self-selection there; people who have taken it into their heads to write a memoir are more likely to have a dramatic story than the average person. With these workshops, there’s no small-talk—the conversation immediately goes right to the stuff that matters.
On your website, you say to memoirists: "Your job is not to create the story but to discover it, because in nonfiction 'story' is not something you impose upon the facts; it’s something you reveal through the facts." Can you explain this further?
I’m saying the story is already there, the way gold is already there in certain places although hard to see because it’s mixed with sand and covered with dirt. If you set out to write a memoir, you’re already claiming you have a story to tell, and you should have faith in that claim. Certain things happened and they felt like a story to you and there’s a reason for that. The question is, why did they feel like a story? What makes those events a story? It’s because they have resonance for some mysterious reason; they have meaning, they have impact. And if you clear away the dross of everyday life until you find that meaning and communicate that impact, and if you create something that another person can experience—feel what you felt, saw what you saw—you’ve done something pretty great. When events feel like a story, it’s worth telling because there’s no other story quite like it. If, as you’re writing, you decide that you can improve your story by altering or adding to it, chances are you’re bringing in elements from other stories you have heard or seen, and your story may end up more sensational but less moving.
As an editor of memoir, what are you looking for in the manuscript and how do you help the author raise the quality of their writing?
Editing begins with structure. You help the writer look at the whole draft and ask what the story is really about. Where does it start? Where does it get to? What’s the turning point? Is there content missing? Where does it end? Most important of all—does something change, is something revealed? Is there content that maybe reads really well but doesn’t contribute to the arc of the story and should therefore come out?
The second stage of editing is largely about details. Most drafts suffer from being too general, too expository. I try to push writers to remember what exactly happened in terms of physical and sensory details: sights, sounds, textures, tastes, odors, etc.
And the final stage is language, and what I largely do as an editor—of my own work and of other people’s—is fix sentences. So much depends on the music of syntax. So much depends on using the exact word instead of the good-enough word.
What mistakes do you see most often in memoir manuscripts?
Writers know a lot about themselves, and they reflexively assume their readers know them and share their assumptions. They don’t appreciate that, on page one, they are strangers to their readers; they are nobody. If I’m told my brother just broke his leg, I feel the ouch. If I’m told that someone broke his or her leg, somewhere in the world, theoretically I’m sorry to hear it, but I’m not really that sorry. Memoirists can’t just tell their readers what happened, they have to let readers know who this is happening to, and that requires writers to see themselves as others might see them. Often that means they have to develop a sense of irony that permits them to realize they weren’t always the good guys. And that can be uncomfortable, but rewarding, because that’s the other challenge in writing a memory: everyone has an official story of themselves they’re carrying around in their head. As a writer, you only start getting into the good stuff when you break through your own official narrative and start discovering the story-of-yourself you never knew.
What should someone do before they sit down to write the first draft of a memoir?
I don’t think there is a before. Like Yoda, I say there is only "do.” The first step is to sit down and start typing (or scribbling, for those few who still work with pen and paper). At first, you’re not writing the memoir, you’re writing about the memoir, you’re telling a theoretical close friend (a.k.a. yourself) what you’re going to say when you start writing your memoir, a theoretical friend who is endlessly interested and patient, so you can ramble at will and express yourself clumsily and beat around the bush as long as it takes to get to the point.
Are you planning to write another memoir? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I haven’t given any thought to a new memoir project, because I’m neck-deep in writing a difficult book right now—I say “neck-deep” but that’s on good days; on bad days, I feel like I’m in way in over my head. To the extent that I have any next project in view, it won’t be a memoir, but it might be a nonfiction book about how to write a memoir, the working title of which will be: How to Write a Memoir—Or Anything, Really.
And finally, what is your favorite “book with spine”?
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan comes to mind. It masquerades as a children’s story but it’s actually a profoundly unsettling rumination on time and loss and life and change and death. But somehow, right along with all that, it’s also a biting satire of Victorian social roles and, by implication, social roles in Western civilization as a whole. Quite a lot for one slender book to accomplish!
Last year, I had the honor of copyediting and proofreading David’s powerful memoir, and I eagerly await its imminent publication (Mascot Books). To whet your appetite, too, I asked David to share his experience of writing his book, and this post is the first of a two-parter. The second part will be published when the book is available.
About the Book
After hitting his head during a kung fu play-fight and suffering a grand mal seizure, David discovered he had an inoperable brain tumor and was told he had 5 to 7 years left to live. That was 9 years ago.
Having defied the survival odds, David has written a memoir, Thank You Kung Fu—an unwaveringly honest, moving, and oftentimes funny account of his search for the meaning of life and the answer to why he had cancer. This quest ended David’s first marriage, but it also opened unexpected pathways that ultimately led to the discovery of inner peace and new purpose.
First, by way of an additional introduction, can you tell us your favorite “book with spine"?
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. That might seem like a strange answer, but to me, he represents the creativity I see as such an important aspect of my life. If I were in a spot where I was not able to create, my body would start to immediately deteriorate. Just ask my wife!
I actually met Pressfield for breakfast one morning and was enamored with every move he made (such as ordering his meal with no salt, then burying his meal with salt when it arrived). He is an enigma with in-depth knowledge of writing on serious and lengthy topics like the history of war tactics, murder mysteries, or inspiring creativity while not giving a shit about what people think. He has become an authority (not an expert—a distinction I talk about in my own book) on sharing inspiring stories with anyone who chooses to read any of his work. And because of who he is, what he represents, and how much he has affected me, I gladly picked up our breakfast tab.
Many of the stories you tell in Thank You Kung Fu are harrowing to read, and they must have been harrowing to write. How did you deal with reopening old wounds? Do you have any advice for others who want to write about difficult life experiences?
It took me quite a while to trust that the only thing that moves any audience is vulnerability. I know I have written things in this book that will mocked by counselors, doctors, pastors, naturopaths, family members, and so on … and it was really hard to type out those stories. You can ask my wife (my second wife, who’ll you’ll meet if you read the book) about the times I would come home covered in tears over what I remembered or recorded that day. Telling your story is tough, but honestly, it’s worth it.
For future writers, I would say to begin with writing EVERYTHING. Your shaky tears and your shocking fears will blow you away, but THOSE writings are the true source of great stories. And when you come back to it a day or two later, your gut will tell you which parts are and aren’t needed. I imagine you will also have stories you don’t want to tell (I had many). But because of the power of expressing vulnerability, you have to tell them.
The feeling of releasing those stories to the public is scary as shit. In fact, it actually helped me that I have cancer and thinking, These words might be some of the last words I write, so I made sure they were accurate and true.
One of the biggest challenges for any storyteller is not what story to tell but how to tell it. How did the structure of your story come about? Were there some episodes in your experience you decided to omit, and why?
To my benefit, the structure of my story was pretty simple because I had three massive events happen in a row: cancer, divorce, and random pregnancy. And three’s a solid number, so I figured I should get this book printed before the fourth event shows up (actually it’s already happening with my new nonprofit for encouraging cancer survivors through my new nonprofit, Bent Not Broken: bentnotbroken.org).
I had multiple issues with length. Originally, my book was more than 125,000 words long, and I loved every single one of those words, so it was extremely difficult to cut them out of the manuscript. So, yeah, there were stories I hated to leave out. I left out the crazy moments from shooting the movie Election [in which David had a speaking role], like when I took Reese Witherspoon on a “date” and we slow danced at a bar after filming was done. And I skipped the story about attending a random concert in a janky restaurant with one of my favorite musicians of all time, Alfie Jurvanen (of Bahamas). At that time he had recently won the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award, and his agent suggested playing a show on his way back to Canada. Considering it was a late booking with zero promotion, nobody was at the show. I asked him out for a drink and, strangely enough, he was the first person I explained my divorce situation to in the back of a gritty bar.
There was another life-changing moment I had to omit, which was when I shared a dinner with my film team in Uganda. We met up with another organization who had just come across a scared young boy who had to piggy-back his dead younger brother across the extremely dangerous Congolese border. After dinner, when everyone was leaving, I called out his name and ran towards him. I couldn’t help but squeeze him so tight in the middle of a busy road. When I was packing up my things to go home, I couldn’t stand the fact that I had all of these “expensive and fancy” clothes, so I put them all in a big plastic bag and dropped them off where he was staying. I traveled home with an empty bag but with a heart full of love for him. So many of these unpublished stories have so much heartache, pain, fear, and love. But they also have too many words, so I had to leave them out.
Why did you want to write a book to convey your life story, rather than, say, a documentary film?
Interesting question. To be honest, a documentary seemed somewhat lifeless when telling my extremely emotional story. Ideally, I wanted people to be able to “press pause” with the book and think about these moments or concepts for themselves. I needed (for myself!) to provide intense explanations for the things I was feeling and felt I couldn’t do that through a film. By writing this book head on, I felt I could challenge and face those fears that have pursued me. Essentially, I wanted (as horrible as it sounds) to relive those years and work my way through the pain it brought, so that’s why I felt a memoir would work better for me. Also, I have been approached by numerous people who say they want to direct the movie for this book, and I am positive they are much better at doing that than I am.
What do you hope the book will achieve for you and do for the reader?
As far as what the book will achieve for me, and I hate to say this, but I have no hopes. I placed my best efforts into writing this book and I am now placing it in God’s hands. I’ll let him figure out what He wants to do with it; whether that leaves me with a New York Times Bestseller or a book that nine people read.
I see this strange balance similar to what I wrote in chapter three of the book, “Fuck Experts,” where I first learned the differences between experts and authorities. Experts want to attract everyone to their schtick, to their “bestseller,” and make as much money as possible. But an authority’s true motives are to complete projects for themselves and whoever else is interested. And history continues to show that by creating with true intent to reveal the honest truth, as authorities do, people are naturally drawn towards the work that is being done. For example, which interaction would you prefer? A person who signs your copy of his best selling book regarding global poverty? Or sitting down and sipping tea with Mother Teresa while listening to her personal stories?
I don’t want to be a best seller; I just want to share my story with you.
Part two of this interview will focus on the challenges of publishing a book with spine. In the meantime, find out more about David, his book, and his life's work at:
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith