A student asked me recently, “How long did it take you to write your memoir?”
How long? That’s a hard question to answer, for it’s hard to say when exactly I started working on it (and it’s even a bit of a stretch to now say I am done). A few of the newest pieces still need some revision, and I’m still not convinced that I’ve found the right piece or note to end on, but all in all, it’s more done than it ever has been, with no obvious gaps of stories that still need to be written, and with a nice query letter and book proposal to go along, ready to send to agents. So for the sake of feeling good and moving on, I’m calling it done.
But how long has it taken me? A few chapters have their inceptions in writing I first did ten years ago, and the themes of the book—cultural identity, bilingualism, spirituality, backpacking, China, America, Buddhism, Tibet, compassion, family, relationships, love and more—well I’ve been writing about those for even longer. While I lived in China from 1999-2002, I wrote almost every day—both in my journal and crafting pieces--, and when I returned to live in the States, I kept writing, joined writing groups, took classes and polished pieces for submission. Then from 2004-2006, I started my low-residency MFA program through Antioch in L.A., and had the privilege of more or less becoming a full-time writer. I house sat for friends, sometimes for months at a time—the most idyllic stint being the few months I spent out in Dungeness, Washington, writing from a room that looked out upon wetlands and out further to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Dungeness Spit. Every day I wrote for hours, kept company by Gracie the old Airedale, and Bonnie the obsessive-compulsive licking cat. By late afternoon, I’d go for a two-hour walk by the river with Gracie or else hop on my bike and ride along country roads and out to Dungeness State Park. At night, I’d pick tomatoes and basil from my friend’s garden, make a nice dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and look over the work I did during the day, editing here and there, before retiring to books in bed. It was blissful—I saw no one besides an occasional nod to the neighbors, I was in between relationships so had few phone calls or distractions, and I didn’t even feel lonely. Communicating online about writing and books with my grad school companions and sending a packet of my work to my mentor each month was enough social interaction for me. I was as productive as I’ve ever been, working on new pieces at the same time that I edited the old.
For several years, I house sat like this, lived frugally, and polished and wrote what would become my final manuscript—and the core of my book-to-be. In between idyllic housesitting gigs, I lived in my parents’ basement in Seattle (not a highlight in my thirty-some-year-old life) but a way to keep writing nevertheless. Eventually I learned to call what I was working on my “book,” which somewhere along the way even picked up a title: Searching for the Heart Radical: A Journey Between East and West. By now, I’d had enough feedback from writers I respected to know that my dream of publishing was not delusional, and I’d put enough time and faith into this whole writing venture that there was no way I could turn away-- or feel qualified to do much of anything else.
That brings us to the last few years, the last few years in which I seem to have been repeating the mantra: “I’m almost done, almost done, almost done with my book…” only to see another year go by with progress made, yes, and yet still without a sense of completion. There were always still pieces to be written, or some of the oldest pieces (remember those that had their inception ten years ago?) now needed to be completely rewritten. These stories were important to the manuscript, the stories needed to stay, and yet my writing and voice had grown so much over the years, and sometimes you simply can’t breathe new life into old words, you just need to start over (if you can manage to let go of those old versions that are now imprinted in your head); you need to find a new beginning or angle of entrance, try and articulate new meaning out of the same sets of experiences, frame a part of your life through a new lens. Not the easiest thing to do.
And then there was the question of structure, the order in which to place the pieces, and the question of what to call it—a collection of essays, a memoir, a collection of linked stories? I’d heard that “essays don’t sell”, so I figured I’d better call it a memoir. Except the problem was, I initially wrote most of the pieces to stand alone so some were in present tense, some in past; some chronicled a day in the life, others looked back over a period of years; some were told in a straight-forward narrating voice, others were more lyrical. There was a more-or-less chronological order that I could put them in, but there were all kinds of gaps or overlaps in time, there were pieces that stuck out oddly in tone, and some that still felt amateurish.
For months (years?) I meditated on the question of whether I could indeed call this into a memoir. I drew inspiration from writers like Abigail Thomas or Nick Flynn who had fashioned interesting non-linear memoirs told through multiple points of views (e.g., 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person; or some chapters that read more like prose poems). I started editing out redundancies (for example, I’d had to establish the fact that I was a half-Chinese/half-Caucasian American woman living in China for practically every stand-alone piece, and now these repetitions had to go), and I started filling in blanks (i.e. writing “bridge pieces” that would explain why in one piece I’m here, and in the next piece I’m suddenly somewhere else, or seeing a different guy). Or something like that.
Finally, about a year and a half ago, I sent out query letters and book proposals (with sample chapters) to a few agents and one in particular took interest, asking me to send her everything I had. Yet in the end, although she felt the writing was good, she just couldn’t see it—it lacked a narrative arc and/or a singular idea, it still read too much like a series of stand-alone pieces. I was bummed, yet not completely disheartened. What she said made sense, and yet, there were so many pieces that I had not sent her at the time because they were not yet completed. So I decided that I needed to just finish the damn thing before I sent it out again; that way if it was rejected again (which surely it would be-- on the way to that eventual yes), I would know that it was rejected on the basis of the whole, as opposed to on the strength of the book proposal and about half of the total chapters.
So over the last year or more, I’ve worked on writing those bridge pieces, as well as agonizing through the pieces that have been most difficult for me to write-- important pieces that have admittedly been revised to death (and that in ordinary circumstances I would let go of because I’d learned what I needed to learn from that piece and because not all pieces need to see completion much less publication), but in this case pieces that I simply could not let go of because they were so central to my book. I suppose if I’d just given up on the whole ‘memoir’ thing and decided to call it a collection of essays, these pieces wouldn’t matter so much because you, the reader, would have never know what I was leaving out. But the way it is fashioned now, surely you would wonder what the hell happened in Tibet or why I quit my job in Chengdu, stories that I would have to have gone out of my way to not mention or to disguise their presence, which forced me to ask myself, again and again—what is up with these trouble stories? Can I do without them? And if not, am I willing to do the work to get to the heart of them, in a new fresh way?
Now, I’ve finally gotten the manuscript to a place where it feels whole. Now I just need to keep on at it, query more agents, thicken my skin, get prepared for the inevitable rejections, and that one, important yes. At the same time, I need to keep writing new stuff. As someone who values follow-through and needs to have a sense of completion, I’ve been so focused on this book that I’ve put so much other new writing on hold. Now, I need to consciously cajole myself into experimenting with new subject matters, genres, and forms. Hence, this blog. And hence the new book (which feels presumptuous, yet deliciously intuitive to even call a book) which will focus on my inheritance from Frank and Els, sifting through their writing and things, ingesting their lives and stories, and meditating on home, death, impermanence, what we value in life and what we pass on. (See my last post and future posts for more on this.)
So all of this brings me back to the question: how long have you been working on your memoir? Maybe I’ve been working on it my whole life, and maybe it’s only been the last few years that the actual ‘memoir’ has emerged. All I know is, for now I am calling it “done,” and moving on to the next phase of my writing life, whatever this may bring. I will always be Searching for the Heart Radical, I know that much is true. But I’ve also entered a mellower phase, a settling phase, a phase centered around the idea of being in one place and putting down roots, as opposed to the solitary wandering, heart aching, intense spiritual questioning that I lived through in my twenties.
I joke—and hope, seriously now-- that the next book will not take me ten years to write. That maybe I’ll be able to finish it in two. And I certainly do not want to suggest that others need to take as long as I did to write their first memoir. Maybe I am just one of those SLOW writers, and maybe that’s okay. All I know is, you never know what you will be given from the universe to write about-- as a gift, or an urge, or a compulsion—but when you do sense you have something to explore through words, that you have a story to tell, to uncover, and to understand more deeply through the telling, you need to trust in this gift, and you need to follow it.
You can’t know from the onset how long it will take you to get a story right, and whether or not this ‘rightness’ will then mirror the tastes of the publishing world. But if you are willing to ride that exhilarating, yet difficult edge between writing just for the sake of writing, writing for the process and for what you will undoubtedly learn from it—and writing for a greater audience, writing to craft beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts that other people can read and gain insight from-- if you can ride this edge, and hold onto your essential love for writing no matter what praise or silence comes of it, then you have what it takes to be a writer.