Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Growth, Stubbornness, and Working On a Memoir for (something like) Ten Years

Me, shortly after I arrived in China and Tibet in 1999, at Namtso Lake in Tibet.

Sometimes I feel ashamed when people ask if I’m still working on the same book. Yes, for almost a decade now I’ve been working on a memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, with some periods away from it in between. Most of the chapters originated during my time in grad school from 2004-2006, although many of the seeds of those pieces had already been planted during the years I lived and wrote in China from 1999-2002. And in some respects, you might say I’ve been working on this book since the day I was born.

This book has taught me a ton—about the process of writing and about myself. I have grown so much as a writer over these years that I have felt compelled to go back and rewrite most of the pieces, again and again and again. And because it’s a book about discovering myself during my twenties—and I started writing it while still in my twenties—it’s also a book whose deeper meaning has been elusive and unfolding as I’ve grown as a person.

If I could do it all over again, I’m not sure what, if anything, I would do differently. Initially, I wrote almost every chapter as a piece that could stand alone. They came out that way, and this also made it easier to submit stuff to writing group critiques or literary magazines. Eventually though, and perhaps even from the beginning, I knew I was writing a book. I then spent many years stringing the pieces together, agonizing about whether to call it a “collection of essays” or a “memoir”, submitting it to agents and later small presses, getting sick of it, putting it down for months or years at a time, losing faith in it, and then finally dusting it off, sitting down and becoming obsessed with it all over again.

It’s been a labor of love. Of dogged stubbornness. Of moments filled with doubt (this writing is crappy and self-absorbed), and moments filled with pride (this is a great book that will speak to many!). Yet finally, what’s pushed me on is simply the knowledge that, no matter how many people the book ultimately reaches, I must get it out there, share it, find closure, move on.

In retrospect, it would have been a whole lot easier to have conceived of it as a whole memoir from the get-go, and mapped it out as such, not having to later convert all the original stand-alone pieces. But, that’s not the way my process went. I needed the writing practice, and I needed to let it unfold organically, to just let it become what it would become. I never imagined that it would take me almost ten years to finally get to the point where I feel like the book is cohesive and whole, and where I’ve finally accessed the necessary perspective that I needed in order to infuse the book with a more seasoned perspective.

I never was good at having an elevator speech, and maybe this should have been my clue that I still hadn’t honed what it was about, at core. “My book is about my travels between China and America in my twenties,” I’d say (but it’s not a travel book). “My book is about growing up half-Chinese, and searching for my cultural and spiritual identity,” (true, but kind of vague). “My book is about my longing for language, love, and belonging” (closer, but more vague). Fine, then, my book is about me, I’d say, only sort of kidding. It was all of the above. And then some. Which was it? Was it trying to be too many things? Did I need to lose the threads about Buddhism and Tibet, and focus more on the cultural identity theme, about growing up bilingual, then living in China and entering a relationship with a Chinese man?

Now, anyone who’s taken a course in memoir can tell you that memoir is not autobiography. Memoir is not the entire story of your life; memoir is a story from your life. So pick one theme, one particular thread, and tell that story well. Leave out lots of other important stories and details if they don’t serve the one story at hand. Trust that there will be other books in you; that you can tell the other stories elsewhere. Find your focus.

For a while, I feared I was not heeding this basic advice. I feared I was holding on too tightly to wanting to tell ALL of my story--  my coming of age, self-discovery, spiritual-heart-opening, obsession with language and China, longing for intimacy, and searching for home story. But when I tried to cut out the pieces about my obsession with Tibet and my initial spiritual awakening, it still wasn’t working. Now there were gaps in chronology I was trying to disguise, and, moreover, there were gaps in adequately expressing what was really going on inside of me, on the most intimate level.

My readers/editors wanted it to be a cohesive, linear whole, not a collection of linked pieces, because the blueprint of my story was already there. What was missing was a deeper, seasoned thread of reflection to stitch it all together. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of “telling” in the manuscript, maybe too much. But this reflection still belonged to each piece alone and didn’t yet do much in the way of making the pieces speak to each other as a whole. And ironically, the book itself is about wanting to feel whole.

Finally, about a year ago (after taking an awesome workshop with Lydia Yuknavitch on finding your core metaphors), I was inspired to break out the dusty manuscript again (after a mostly motherhood-driven, three-year hiatus), and write a new piece/introduction called “Mirror Face.” In this piece, I went back to one of my original metaphors, first unearthed in a piece I wrote in 1997 for my first college creative writing class. It was a piece about vision, mirrors, reflections, identity and self-consciousness. It’s central metaphor began with me, as a child, looking in a mirror and hating the way my two eyes did not match—the way one of my eyes was creaseless, like a Chinese eye, and the other eye had a fold, like a Westerner’s. It was a piece about how I saw and judged myself, and in turn feared others saw and judged me.

There it was. A new beginning to my book. A new beginning that had existed all along, but that for some reason I’d failed to see belonged. And from this new (old) beginning, I suddenly saw the entire book framed anew. It wasn’t that the theme of cultural identity wasn’t already prominent in almost every chapter, but it had never been introduced in quite the same way. Something about sharing my childhood vulnerability and speaking directly to my desire to overcome my early seeds of self-consciousness, was crucial in informing the linear story at  hand about living in China, and my longing to find a spiritual path and to become fluent in Chinese as an adult. Something about that one central metaphor helped me to tie it all together better, and see and love the book anew. And with a new beginning, I was better able to determine which pieces needed to stay or go, and to write a new ending that helped the book come full circle.

So here I am. Still editing the epilogue and waiting to get feedback from my copyeditor/friend, before we start the process of designing, creating and self-publishing the book. Sometimes I still get hit with pangs of, maybe I should try one last time to get a publisher, after all, the book’s a new and improved animal now, but something about time and motherhood has infused my life with a more urgent perspective. I am ready to get this book out in the world NOW. I do not want to wait again for months to hear back from agents, and even if I got one quickly this time, it could take years more for the agent to place the book, if they even could. And then, after that, another couple years before it would come out. That could be another five years of my life! No, thank you. I have other projects on the backburner, including another book I've already started and received funding to work on, and projects that (I hope) will not take me as long to complete as this one.

But you never know. Maybe I am just one of those slow writers who writes long books and takes a long time to understand what she is truly writing. It doesn’t matter. I trust now that these things just have to take their course. You can be as disciplined about your writing and self-imposed deadlines as you want, but you can’t force the process, the timing, or the way in which your book’s core insights choose to be revealed.

Who knows, maybe I had to become a mother first, to shift my life so radically that I could finally see my whole younger searching period with new insight. Maybe it has nothing to do with any given age (e.g. the fact that I’ve been writing about my twenties and now I’m in my late thirties), but more to do with specific changes that happen in a person’s life that suddenly catapult our perspective into a whole new realm.

In any case, I now plan to self-publish. I will proudly join the ranks of the DIY culture, and do everything I can to create a beautiful, professional product and get it into the hands of as many people as I can. Because this book is important to me. And because I believe it is good. And while sometimes the best advice may very well be to let go of something and move on, there are other times when you can’t bear to do this, and you just have to keep trusting that there is more at stake here, something that you need to see all the way through.

Me, before leaving China in 2002, looking out over the monk's quarters at Labarang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu Province.


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