Too Close for Comfort

Yes, I’m still plugging along at the memoir. It’s taken forever to get through the second draft, something I was sure would be faster than the first. Unfortunately it took me two months and four workshops to get Chapter One to a place I could call good enough.

Who knew it could be so hard to be truly honest in your writing? Anyone who’s published (or even written good) memoir knows that it’s all about being honest about your shortcomings, your emotional responses, your actions. And that’s hella hard.

The first draft I took readers through a leisurely stroll in Hanoi, around Hoan Kiem Lake, to a local grocery and through a classroom visit at an English school. Not once did I stop and tell (or show!) how overwhelmed I was in this huge metropolis, alone with two kids and a handful of borrowed money. Instead, I gave readers a travelogue, appropriate for their first trip to Vietnam’s capitol. But I am not trying to write a travel guide, I’m writing a family travel memoir. It’s just taking me a while to get it right.

As I struggled through the re-writes and edits of Chapter One and the bi-weekly therapy sessions that our writers’ group was turning into, I was forced to deal with my own actions (and more so my inaction). It was painful and ugly. The fact that this was only the first chapter has made me want to seek a new way to do it. Perhaps one that is a bit less of a time-suck.

Then a few days ago, I stumbled onto Salon’s Guide to Writing Memoir and Darin Strauss (author, Half a Life) gave some brilliant advice:

“[S]ince the details will be so persepective-wreckingly close, work hard to increase that distance. Here’s ho. Change your narrator from “i” to “she” (or “he”). Write the whole thing in that third-person voice, and then — after typing your final period — do a word-replace to get yourself back in there. You’ll be amazed at how freeing that is.”

I think I’m going to give it a try; I find myself bogged down by my own embarrassment at being me. Maybe this will give me an out, a way to talk about how it was that I could be so in love with someone I’d move 7000 miles even though I knew it was unrequited, a way to talk about it without being humiliated in the midst of writing.



Does the editing ever end?

I am fairly certain that the answer is no.


It’s amazing how many times I have revised sections of the book. Now, in anticipation of having a professional editor read it, I am petrified that I am doing it all wrong.

The real struggle is keeping the voice, my voice consistent. I fall back into business writing sometimes–cold, but detailed. I can write scenes just fine (even Cheryl Strayed told me that when she read an excerpt) but getting the emotions in there is a different story.

That’s the thing about memoir; it’s all about admitting your weaknesses, your pain, your failings. Without them, it isn’t nearly as enjoyable to read. But putting them in is a constant struggle for me.

Rest assured, dear reader, you’ll know more about me and the things I have done, both right and wrong, by the end. You can thank the myriad writers and friends who have made me promise to edit and add and re-word until the pain shows through. I thank them profusely.

Getting the book covered

The kids and I spent Monday afternoon trying to take care of all the necessary parts of photographing the cover for Phở for Three. I’ve had various ideas floating around for a while, all revolving around eating phở at the open market in Thanh Hoa. It was just across the street from Hong Duc University where I was teaching and we spent a lot of time there, eating both the noodle soup and another favorite: bùn chả. In the evenings, we’d head across the busy street and enjoy ice cream–our pale faces always the center of attention.

It was the memory of that market, along with the one in Tam Ky, that I wanted to honor with the cover photo.

We got the soup, its necessary accoutrements, along with Viet coffee and pineapple, then spent 20 minutes arranging and re-arranging the dishes until it suited me enough to start taking pics. Of course, last night I spent my insomniac hours wondering about every.last.detail.20120807-113508.jpg

But it’s done for now—just need some editing (by a skilled friend) to add in a few other elements and put the title on there. I’m afraid how long it’s going to take me decide on a font, though. Any ideas?

Through the kindness of others, it happened. Special thanks to Susan Beal, for letting us take over her backyard for an hour; to Prado, who let us borrow his camera; to Stuart, my photographer son who shot the photos; to Audrey, my fan-wielding daughter who shooed flies from the feast we’d set; and to both Phở Oregon and Fubonn for providing such authentically Vietnamese foods.


Thanks so much, everyone, for your support, your shares, your encouragement, and your belief in my little dream.


You never really get over it

I’ve been working diligently on the second draft of the memoir project for months now, finally getting a grip on what I want it to do, how I want my story to come across. It’s an awful lot of work, let me tell you.

This revamp of Chapter One has taken me weeks. I re-wrote it entirely, then again, thanks to the feedback from my writers’ critique group, the Zeitgeist Writers’ League.

They wanted me to explore how I got to the point of being a single mom traveling with kids. Where’s the divorce? the desperation?I’d hidden it and even as I edit this version, I still finding myself hiding behind the details unwilling to admit just how hurt I was.

Maybe it’s how hurt I still am. Writing about finding the photograph of my husband with his teenage girlfriend is gut-wrenching, and I don’t mean that nonchalantly. My stomach feels like its been turned into a Celtic knot as I struggle to put into words the feeling of that afternoon when I had the first inkling that the marriage I’d thought was just suffering through normal lack of intimacy, was actually falling apart. I find myself nauseated and I have to stop writing and thinking. I stop to get a hug from the GuyFriend or go spend a few moments basking in the glory that is my now-teen daughter.

The everyday pain of having the family I’d planned dissolve like that is long gone, but there’s a part of me that still feels the stinging slice of dishonesty, abandonment and loneliness.

Telling the Story


Three years since starting my memoir about our adventures in Vietnam, it’s time to get serious about finishing this enormous project. Today I pulled out the myriad versions of chapter after chapter, hoping to bring some order to it all. Seeing it all lying there made me realize just how much writing I have done and think slightly less about the amount of work left to do. Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming idea, compiling all of this, baring my soul in the process. But really, how can I quit after all of this?