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 knowledgable 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!
In Part 1 of this interview, published last month, David addressed issues around writing the book. In Part 2, he gives us some insight into editing and publishing.
However, before I go any further, I'm delighted to announce that the book is now available! You can purchase a copy at the publisher's website now.
How many drafts of the book did you write? What advice do you have for others about rewriting and editing?
I sat on these chapters for years. In fact, I remember writing some early chapters that I went back to read and they were completely ridiculous—I mean, comically bad. I was shocked to know these words came out of me. But for the most part, when I completely focused on the book, it flowed out of me pretty easily because of how long I’d been writing it in my head.
As far as advice for writers goes, Anne Lamott hit the nail on the head when she said your first draft is, without a doubt, complete and utter shit. That’s why she calls it her “Shitty First Draft.” She convinced me to put my story down on paper, then I could lie to myself and call the rest “editing.” And in my opinion, editing (even very heavy editing) is much easier than writing my shitty first draft. But you aren’t big on cuss words, follow the wise advice of Annie Dillard: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”
Describe the publishing journey. What was frustrating, pleasing, surprising, satisfying?
Everyone was yelling at me to write this story, and I had contacts with great writing agents from earlier in my career. But first, I needed the confidence to get through writing my proposal because I was facing the struggle of how hard would be to write this book. After submitting my proposal and two chapters to my agent, Chris Ferebee, he sent it to publishers. I learned from a series of “No, thank yous,” I was writing a “gap” book. Too much honest “God” talk for secular publishers and too much “drunk” talk for Christians publishers. So I had the joy of writing my book the way it actually happened; from speaking in tongues to not speaking at all because I’ve drunkenly passed out. It’s pretty frustrating to learn that publishing companies are focused on making more money, rather than telling great stories. Nevertheless, go capitalism!
For kicks, here are a few responses from publishers:
Ultimately, you raised the money to publish the book via crowdfunding. Any tips for other memoirists on running a successful crowdfunding campaign?
Video. In fact, you need ridiculously amazing video. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the typical person is only swayed by video these days. Words only allow introductions with people, but telling your story in video form creates a vivid way for the public to remember and connect with you. I was lucky enough to work with Gorilla Films (wearegorilla.co) who did a marvelous job at retelling my life through a five-minute film.
HOWEVER, I must say, don’t go search for a great director or a production company. Go get a fantastic scriptwriter first. They carry the capacity to build and create the best script for a video no matter who the director or production company is. If you are having trouble finding a writer, call me!
Tell us about the cover design choices you made.
The actual design choice was simple due to what this image represents in my life, but the final design was a far cry from what I originally wanted. Currently, my book is covered with waves, lapping in and out of a sandy beach. It represents the fact that God always gives and God always takes, just like the eternal consistency of waves. To accept one without the other is absolutely ridiculous. There is no way one can appreciate the fullness of life if we haven’t also experienced the loss and pain of that same life.
My original idea—which wasn’t used—came from the concept I presented in the final chapter of my book. The music Boléro, by Maurice Ravel, was composed during the onset of a sickness in his brain, which later killed him. And years later, a doctor, obsessed with Ravel’s composition, led her to paint the music without knowing she also had the same sickness in her brain. Unfortunately, I have the same illness in the same part of my brain. But I won’t know if I have that disease until it progresses a little more. Nevertheless, Boléro and this painting have such wonderful starting and finishing moments. In fact, I love how it openly allows the listener to challenge whether or not they like the song or the painting. I would much rather be given a choice by the artist, than be told by others that this is “good” art or “bad” art. Is it good? Is it bad? Who knows? It’s truly up to you to decide.
If you had to go through the process again, what might you do differently?
If I were to live through this process again, I wouldn’t change the story at all, knowing full well I am living the best life I ever have. My first answer is to say I would change how I reacted to these events. I have spent far too much of my time being bitter, resentful, unappreciative, and angry. Those are the words that carry much more weight than cancer or divorce or unexpected pregnancies. It’s not about the actual events, but more so how I responded to them.
I could say that if I could changed my responses to these scenarios that I would be a better person, but in actuality, I think it was the actual physical, emotional, and spiritual battles that made my story (my life!) worthwhile. I feel that, despite what is wrong or right, I have learned so much from all of the love, loss of love, pain, glory, arguments, drunken nights, forgiveness, close friends, bruised bodies, sexual encounters, and crying babies, that I would never give them back.
In the end, all I can say is that it all happened in the most perfect way possible. I would change nothing.
Do you have another literary project in the works?
I do enjoy writing, but I enjoy speaking even more. In the speaking world, I want to focus much more on a relevant way to tell this story of disease, heartbreak, and redemption in one hour as opposed to the hours people would spend reading my book all the way through. I feel my message can reach many more people if I can spread this message to churches, universities, and conferences. In fact, if you are looking for a speaker who has experienced both the best and worst in this life, contact me!
However, I’ve also considered the idea of creating a book I would write for the rest of my long/short life. It would be the lessons I’ve learned, the struggles I’ve overcome, and essentially writing it until the moment I die: a complete life story featuring cancer, divorce, and a new family. But past that, I would love to dig further into spirituality, personal motivational habits, and an ongoing dedication to a purposeful life, and continue telling this story all the way to my deathbed. In fact, I already have the URL purchased :-)
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:
We all know the film industry would be nothing without books or short stories to adapt. On occasion, a film will be turned into a book ... though l doubt any of those books will win any Pulitzers. But what of the relationship of books to other forms of media? Lately, I've become interested in a new symbiosis that seems to be emerging between books and podcasts.
In the last few years, podcasting has exploded, leading some to declare the phenomenon "audio's second golden age." According to Forbes magazine, 67 million Americans listen to a podcast each month. Weird in this age of highly visual media, right? But the podcast is now considered THE way to communicate, and everybody who's anybody has one.
The literary world has embraced the podcast to the benefit of readers and writers. And the podcast boom is a boon to the self-publishing gurus out there. Of course, a lot of these podcasters are trying to sell you something, which is why I don't bother with most of them. Rather, I am interested in podcasts that transport me and expand my world view, and so I'm intrigued when a "podcast with spine" becomes a "book with spine."
If in the past, like me, you've been more likely to pick up a book than put in your earbuds, perhaps the following book suggestions might be your entry points into the wonderful world of podcasting.
1. All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown
This book is edited by Catherine Burns with a foreword by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (an odd choice for nonfiction, but a smart choice for appealing to a broader audience). This book came out of the The Moth podcast, which gives everyday people an opportunity to tell a 10-minute true story live on air. A new story is put out every Tuesday. As a podcast, The Moth aims to connect human beings through storytelling (that gets my vote), and they tell you that when you support Moth with a donation, you "create a better world."
2. Adnan's Story: Murder, Justice, and the Case That Captivated a Nation
By Rabia Chaudry. This book followed the enormously popular podcast "Serial" that was produced by This American Life for PBS, and it explores in more detail the story of Adnan Syed, who was accused of and imprisoned for murder. Why is this a podcast/book with spine? Because it's a passion project of Chaudry who is convinced of Syed's innocence and sees his case as part of a bigger struggle for a fairer justice system in the US. A noble cause indeed.
3. Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast
By Marc Maron & Brendan McDonald. Marc Maron is a stand-up comedian, and his podcast is a series of interviews with great people and great artists. But why is this a podcast with spine? Well, this is where my bias comes in. In my not-so-humble opinion, stand-ups are some of our most important social commentators, and their unapologetic evisceration of politicians and other people of power is vital to democracy. This WTF book isn't a work of satire. However, it is described as, "A collection of intimate, hilarious and life-changing conversations," so count me in.
I'm excited about this emerging synergy between the spoken and written word. Podcasting isn't a threat to reading; it's most definitely an opportunity. Through podcasts, listeners are being introduced to new writers and new books, but more interestingly, the podcast can create meaningful literature that has a physical presence in the world that has a longer shelf-life (pun intended) than a digital audio file.
I owe my interest in mission-driven literature to the fact that I spent the first 15 years of my career working for nonprofit organizations in the UK and the US. At 35, I took a career break to return to my first love—literature—and write a novel, but when I had finished it and decided to launch my own writing and editing business, my first thought was, How can I use my skills to help nonprofits? Old habits die hard, for sure. This led to my creating the Embark Editorial Agency, which for two years (until major life stuff took over) helped new copyeditors build their professional experience by doing pro-bono work for nonprofits.
My enduring affinity with the nonprofit sector is why this post is a tip of the hat to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current chief operating officer (although, in light of the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations, perhaps not for much longer ... ) and author of not one but TWO books that spawned nonprofit organizations that further her books' respective missions.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead
Lean In is essentially the story of how Sandberg came to understand workplace gender politics. It is less of a memoir, more of a treatise, and her central thesis is this: The world would be better with more women in power. But women can only attain this power by first changing their attitudes towards themselves. She states: “We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”
This message alone and the justification for it that Sandberg provides would have been sufficient to admit Lean In to the canon of books with spine. But what makes the book even more exceptional is the author’s commitment to her mission post publication.
While many authors might write their book and move on to the next one, Sandberg set up a 501c(3), www.leanin.org, to support a global movement helping women achieve their ambitions. One of the main activities of the nonprofit is to support the 35,000 so-called Lean In Circles that have sprouted up worldwide. These are actual meetings of women, not online communities (ironic for the COO of the biggest social networking site on the planet). Many circles now exist within male-dominated corporations with the aim of enabling more women to be heard and move up the hierarchy. The nonprofit also engages in further research to discover the barriers for women and ways of overcoming them.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Published in 2017, this second book is not about business. Sandberg was compelled to write Option B when her husband died suddenly and she had to deal with her loss while also helping her children through theirs. Sandberg offers her personal insights, while her cowriter on this project, Adam Grant, provides the research about resilience that makes this book more than a memoir of grief.
The success of the Lean In movement has clearly inspired Sandberg to go further. Her second book, Option B, adopts the same nonprofit strategy as the first (www.optionb.org) that offers readers three ways to take what they learned in the book and get involved:
1. Share their story of resilience with others
2. Connect with people who understand
3. Learn how to build resilience
If a reader has been affected by a book, they may wonder what to do next. Obviously, not every author will have Sandberg’s considerable resources and influence to be able to set up a global nonprofit to further the mission of their books and donate all the sales revenue to the mission. Nevertheless, authors of books with spine could—and arguably should—consider how they can enable readers to take meaningful action if they have been inspired or moved by what they’ve read. This can be something simple, such as directing readers to a donation page of a relevant established charity, or creating a social media space where readers can form a community around the issue and develop ways of addressing it in their local area.
I admire Sandberg for the commitment to her missions. She did not treat either book as the ultimate expression of her dedication to the causes she cares about: they were launchpads.
So, if you’re considering writing a mission-driven book, ask yourself whether the book is an end in itself or the means to an end. Does the power of your book lie solely within its pages? Or might there be a way its power can ripple outwards into the real world to create meaningful and lasting change?