Saturday, June 19, 2010

As The Memoir Turns

On February 1, 2009, I completed my second dissertation, a 240 page memoir. I graduated in May 2009 with a PhD. I thought the book was pretty good. I was happy with it anyway.

I sat on it for a year, tweaking commas and line lengths. A waste of time. In March of 2010 I sent query letters to agents and a few editors. The editors gave me form rejections, and half of the 25 agents or so asked to see more. A few asked to see the whole book, maybe 5. One talked to me on the phone and pointed me where I really believe I needed to go but was just obstinate, or too stupid, to do so.

The last month I've confronted my academic upbringing and said no, no more. All throughout grad school I avoided literary theory and high-horse-ivory-tower-soap-box preaching. But this month I noticed it was all over in my book, a manuscript that tries to hybridize landscape theory and philosophy with narrative and lyric memoir. And then some cultural history. And some poetry. I was showing my work too much and thumping my chest in the process. Bad writer.

If you're still reading, here's the issue--I was doing what I tell my students not to do--compartmentalize research and memoir. What was I thinking? No wonder the book never flowed well, never really upped the ante with metaphor, really hybridized.

So I've been integrating the researchy sections with the memoiry sections, splitting up long academicy essays while making them readable and digestable, i.e. cutting like mad. And you know what happened? I got excited again. Really excited. What had been a book of metaphor became one of rich metaphor. What became a book of distilled story lines became a double or triple helix of deeper story.

And most importantly spreading out the research, the essay essay stuff, has helped open a new avenue or dimension in the final movement of the book--the book goes a bit further now. So, any students past or future stumbling their way here, as I told you, as I must continually rediscover for myself, research opens up new avenues of exploration and narrative while making the form of creative nonfiction do more metaphorical work. Not a bad thing. Still, my book is what the business calls "quiet," but it's what I call elegantly understated, and, well, literary. No sensationalism, just honest to god struggling and reflection--I'd like to think it reads how we feel, not how we feel while watching a tightly choreographed two hour movie.

Why didn't I see this earlier? Because the first book is always the hardest? Does it get easier? If my years of poetry writing tell me, yes and no. Your instincts get sharper from editing practice so you trust youself more, but the editing is still rightfully hard.

I've gone on, but I wanted to document this process in some way on my hybrid blog. Victory is mine. For a moment.


Unknown said...


Glad you are having a moment of victory. Writing and garden making and all the arts have much in common: the editing, revamping, reevaluating. It is very exciting when you get renewed energy after a setback.

I always appreciate your writing and thoughtfulness. Keep documenting the process!

Kyna said...

Having to cut down a writing labour of love is always difficult. When you write something like that, it's like your baby. Having to edit your baby is almost like mutilation. It's hard to accept that it needs to be done. I'm glad you could get past stubbornness and come out with a better product :)

And excitement is key. If you're not excited about your art, why do it? :)

James Golden said...

Loved reading that scene with your mother on the nonfiction part of your blog. Hope you're getting there.

Em said...

It sounds like you have learned and grown a lot through the writing process. It is heartening and motivating to read about. From a nerd's perspective, it's also really exciting to read the language you use to describe how you changed your writing. Good job!

Town Mouse said...

Well, I'm just a humble technical writer, though I have several thousand pages published by now. And I agree, that sweet moment when you see how the material needs to be structure, when you wake up at night ready to redo everything, is incomparable. And in my experience, after that, it's still a slot, but the result really is much better than the laborious, far too long, tedious original.

Have fun!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Michael--I'm a firm beleiver that all the arts are different sides to the same, not coin (not enough sides, so cube? Like all religions seem very similar....
Kyna--I'm ruthless when I edit, a real a-hole, slash slash with no feeling. It's a skill that has taken a long time to embrace.
James--It's amazing, scenes used to be my weakest aspect, now I enjoy them--more for what I can leave out in ineractions that what fiction writers tend to jam in.
Emily--Nerds are welcome here. Nerds end up doing something with their lives, even if they get ketchup packets smashed in their highschool textbooks.
TM--Structure is key, without it you can't even begin to cut. I can't imagine doing technical writing.

Lynne said...

Benjamin - an interesting read today. Somehow I feel that it is connected to the recent pictures of your back garden (great garden!). Wondering if you (the writer-you) has grown and changed as much as your garden?

Pam said...

This post made me smile. I always tell my students that writing, any kind of writing, is hard - and that the end product is almost always the result of hard work. However they never really believe me, until they see me going through the process myself - and I still remember the last time a student looked over my shoulder, and saw a document on my computer riddled with track changes...and they asked 'is that my manuscript?' and when I said 'no, it is mine' - well, the look on their face is priceless. Congrats on the renewed enthusiasm for your work - that's a nice feeling I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

I check in on your blog occasionally (the new layout surprised me but I'm glad to see you expanding). I believe I mentioned before that I've passed entries along to writer friends because of the beauty. I draw and sculpt, and have sometimes realized that a whole 3 foot piece existed solely due to one square inch. Unfortunately, that usually requires the inch be saved and the rest torn away. I'm sure as you cull the writing gets brighter. I'll be watching for the book - naomi