The book with spine I'm plugging this month is Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.
Sometimes, a book with spine reveals something new to you, but sometimes it validates something important in your life. For me, this book is of the latter variety. As a writer myself, I picked up the book of essays by writers because I was curious about how other writers came to the same decision as I did about parenthood (the decision being to remain childfree by choice, which is an important distinction from people who want kids but can't have them).
As you would expect from writers, the essays are well constructed and well argued. From a craft point of view, you get a great masterclass in how to write great personal essays. Of course, the content resonated with me, although the males' point of view, not so much. I just think that for people born women, the concept of choosing to be childfree is an issue on a far grander scale than for men. Sorry, dudes. If you are a female-identifying writer who is on the fence about having kids, this book could be incredibly powerful. It's rammed full of sound rationale for fully embracing the creative life, which may offer some readers real comfort.
However, the one thing that struck me about writers writing about this topic is how inadequate words are, and none of the essayists really tackled the lack of appropriate language for childfree-by-choice cis women, like me. So, in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I'm offering you my opinion!
Words Fail Me: Communicating My Choice
The English language was once the stooge of the British Empire, busy appropriating words from other cultures for its greedy master. Nowadays, English has atoned for its imperial past by becoming the most hospitable language on Earth. It no longer goes abroad to steal; rather, it welcomes thousands of foreign/alien words with open arms and makes them feel right at home, no questions asked.
I love English’s speedy adaptability. Even as I write, the new term “social distancing” is being entered into the OED. Though there is always controversy around certain language developments (lately in the sphere of gender identity, where vocab moves at breakneck speed), it’s critical that people take control of the language that refers to them. And it’s their inalienable right to choose their words carefully.
You might have noticed I steer clear of the word “childless”, which to me suggests something is missing, and for women who want children but are without them, this word feels especially unkind. I’m not especially keen to refer to myself as “childfree” either, reminiscent as it is of the prolific food-related intolerances of our age, as if the mere whiff of a fertilized egg in my uterus might trigger anaphylaxis.
So, if not “childfree” or “childless”, what? I would prefer to describe my persona as a “woman without children” (people-first language) and refer to my counterparts “women with children”, but I know that most of them would rather be called “mothers” because it’s a label that carries a great deal of weight in society. Even bad mothers get more respect than non-mothers, on the whole!
Sadly, women without children have no equivalent of the word “mother” that might respect their particular reproductive decision. “Non-mother” is another one of those oppositional words, like “childless”, so that won’t do. Old English would have labeled younger women without children “maidens”, which has a certain charm, but older women were called “crones”… not so nice.
We have hardly any deities from which to draw our alternative moniker, given that the ancient pantheons and most religions are simply potty about fertility. “Libertas”, the goddess of freedom, was about the closest I could get, but I do not want to be confused with libertarians, so that’s a no-go.
I guess the best we can do is 'nullipara', which is the medical term for a woman who has not given birth and encompasses those who are not fertile (too young, too elderly, and the infertile) and those who have chosen to defy their fertility. It will take some explaining, but we've seen lately how quickly new terms are adopted. So, I say it's worth a go: let's change it from an adjective to a noun, and maybe even a verb ... 'to nullipara: to choose or to embrace a childfree life'.
Nulliparas of the world, unite!
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 email@example.com.
One of my professional aims is to enable writers to become better self-editors so that the manuscripts they present for copyediting are as good as they can possibly be. Part of this mission involves demystifying the professional editing process, so here is the skinny on what a professional copy editor does to take a manuscript from so-so to SO GOOD!
The 5 C's of Copyediting
My last post was October 2018. What explains the gap? Personal stuff, of course! Around that time, I was newly divorced and still pretty heartbroken, and trying to figure out what was next for me. In June 2019, I shipped all my stuff across the Atlantic and boarded a plane, sad so say farewell to California but excited to return to my native England to stitch the torn fabric of my life back together.
So, here we are, two years on, in October 2020 (nearly), and I'm finally coming up for air ... although, I'm now breathing mostly through a face covering. So, look out for more regular posts on all matters editorial and, specifically, books with spine -- books seeking to make this very messed up world a better place.
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.
We know that writers threaten the social order because censorship is as old as the printing press. Every culture has a problem with censorship, even in the West where democracy has supposedly given citizens the inalienable right to free speech. But although people can write what they like (providing that privacy and libel laws aren’t broken), are they as free to read what they like?
According to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), there are plenty of people who wish to curtail our freedom to read by attempting to ban materials from public, school, and university libraries. During Banned Books Week (launched 1982) each September, the OIF releases a list of the books/materials that were the most “challenged” in the previous year to raise awareness of what is bothering people and why, and highlight the importance of free and open access to information.
In 2018, the theme of Banned Books Week (www.bannedbooksweek.org) was “Banning Books Silence Stories,” and the aim was to remind everyone that they need to speak out against the growing problem of censorship: our very way of life depends on it. According to the ALA, calls for books to be banned came from many quarters, including teachers, religious and special interest groups, and even librarians themselves!
So, what was on the ALA OIF’s list for 2017? In total, there were 416 books that were challenged or banned last year, but here’s the run down of the top 10, complete with the reasons why the books were so frequently challenged.
Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017
1. Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. New York Times-bestselling YA fiction. Published in 2007, but recently serialized by Netflix, hence its appearance at number one in this list. Challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it addresses the issue of suicide.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie. YA nonfiction. National Book Award winner. Challenged constantly since its publication in 2007 because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
3. Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Graphic novel from an acclaimed cartoonist. Stonewall Honor Award winner. Published in 2012. Challenged and banned in school libraries for featuring LGBT characters and for being “confusing.”
4. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. Challenged and banned for featuring sexual violence. Complainants also claimed it “lead to terrorism” and “promotes Islam.”
5. George, Alex Gino. A book written for elementary school kids. Challenged and banned for featuring a transgender child.
6. Sex is a Funny Word, Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Written by a certified sex educator, this children’s book, published in 2015, was challenged for “encouraging” children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Incredibly, this widely acknowledged American classic was challenged and banned for depicting violence and using the N-word.
8. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas. “Pervasively vulgar” and featuring drug use and offensive language, this enormously popular YA novel (now a film) was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums.
9. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole. Another children’s book! This 2005 title returned to the Top Ten Most Challenged list after a short absence to be, once again, challenged for featuring a same-sex relationship.
10. I Am Jazz, Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. An autobiographical picture book, co-written by the 13-year-old protagonist, was challenged for addressing gender identity.
What’s clear from this list is that plenty of people think that children and young people are at special risk. Too many people, it seems want to restrict children’s democratic right to read under the pretence of “protecting” them from . . . what? Moral "corruption" mostly. But as we all know, society’s definition of what is morally wrong is ever-changing. Only 100 years ago, it was considered entirely unacceptable for women to vote. Therefore, I hope that in significantly fewer than 100 more years, everyone will wonder why the hell, in 2018, everyone was so bothered about people’s sexual preference or gender identity.
Thankfully, the ongoing ethically bankrupt crusade by an anti-democratic minority does not appear to have dampened authors’ desire to address the important emotional, sexual, and social issues of our time by writing books with spine. And seeing the 2017 list makes me proud that literature continues to lead the way for social progress. So, tyrants and bigots be afraid: the pen is—and forever will be—mightier than the sword!
(And in the spirit of this post, any comments you make below will not require my approval before publishing!)
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.
Not content with being all over the big screen, little screen, or music scene, a lot of celebrities publish books. Many of them are writing the books, but a growing number are now publishing other writers' works. According to an excellent article in the Guardian Online, some high-profile celebrities include Sarah Jessica Parker, Lena Dunham, and Stormzy.
Of course, this trend is a boon to the big publishers because many of the celeb publishing companies are imprints of the big players, such as Penguin Random House. But how much those celebs are actually involved, and how knowledgeable they are about publishing, is unknown. So what kind of books are they publishing? You might expect celebrities to go for popular fiction, but it seems that some of them are going for books with spine.
Here is some info about two notable examples:
LENNY is Lena Dunham's imprint at Random House and was reputedly inspired by her weekly feminist e-newsletter. It has published three female-centric titles so far:
goop press is Gwyneth Paltrow's publishing company that operates in partnership with Grand Central Life & Style and Hachette Books. It clearly began as a vanity press, putting out cookbooks created by Paltrow, but in 2018, the output is being diversified. Recent titles include
This celebrity trend is one I can get behind. Is it just a way for celebrities to raise their income and cachet? Of course. But the benefit to writers is potentially huge, too. If you're discovered by a celebrity who endorses your work and puts his or her name somewhere on the cover of your book, your work will almost certainly make waves. My only hope is that, in future, some of these imprints will come out of smaller, indie publishers so that this trend is not giving the big guns an even greater advantage.
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!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith