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.