Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Memoir—And a Personal Challenge

So, I’ve been working on my YA memoir for a little over a month now. It will be coming out from Dutton, though I don’t know when yet (hopefully 2016) and it still doesn’t have a title, so I’m just calling it “The Zine-Style Memoir” or “The Memoir.” It’s a VERY different experience than writing a novel, which doesn’t surprise me, but um, I must confess… I thought it was going to be easier than writing a novel! Why not? I don’t have to come up with a plot or characters, it’s just MY LIFE and I know what happens. But as it turns out it, The Memoir has its own set of challenges. Here’s what I’ve been grappling with so far:

  1. It’s just as emotional, if not more emotional to write. I write intense books. If you’ve read them, you know that. I deal with heavy shit like addiction, abuse, sexual assault, depression, self-injury and I don’t pull any punches. The reason I write so honestly about these things in my fiction is because these are the stories I needed to read as a teenager. And why did I need to read them? Because I was going through all of that shit. And now my job—the one I signed up for in some moment of total insanity (kidding… sort of)—is to rehash all of that very real shit that I went through. Now I’ve been doing this for a while in my essays for Rookie, but now I’m spending all of my writing time doing that, which is not exactly fun. I mean, I knew what I was getting into, and for the most part, I’ve processed all of this stuff in therapy (and through writing fictional versions), so it hasn’t been too detrimental to my emotional well-being—my revisions on BALLADS were actually much worse… at least, so far. BUT when you get up at 5:30 am to write and/or you spend most of your Saturdays writing like I do, it can be… unsettling. I went to a party on Saturday night after writing all day and it took me a couple hours to pull myself out of my own head. And some days I get to work and just feel anxious and tightly wound all day for no reason—except I spent the first hour of my day recounting a horrible fight with my childhood best friend. So yeah, it’s emotional work and I expect that it will get harder.
  2. This is what research looks like:



    Yeah, those are my diaries. Clockwise from the top, they are from grade school (as you may have guessed from the pink kitty), 8th grade, summer before and all of junior year of high school, the two composition books are from my senior semester of high school (I took a journal writing class and I had A LOT to say, so much that when I filled them, I went back to black-and-white cat journal and finished filling it during the rest of what would have been my senior year when I was living on my own in Madison, Wisconsin), and the last journal is from my year at Antioch College and the two years I lived in Madison after dropping out (I was the opposite of productive then). Conspicuously missing are 7th grade (that was a very bad year and I tore my journal—also a Star Trek log book—to pieces, and I think, flushed them down the toilet) and freshman and sophomore year. That was a green spiral bound notebook. My abusive boyfriend demanded to read it in my sophomore year, so I ripped out a bunch of pages and REWROTE THEM. I’d saved the ripped pages and tried to reassemble/rewrite the whole thing on a couple of occasions, but since I never did it all, this led to confusion later about what was real and what wasn’t and eventually I threw the whole thing away. It kind of sucks because my memory is imperfect and these diaries (along with calls to my mom, who usually is my medical resource for my novels) are the easiest way to jog it. Well, easiest in terms of remember what happened when. Re-reading them is actually horrible. Like when this book is done, they might all go in the trash. And no, this isn’t me being critical of my writing skills (those aren’t actually that bad), this is because of my worst discovery about memoir-writing so far, which is…
  3. Writing about yourself sorta makes you hate yourself.  I cringe every time I flip through any of those old diaries (aside from maybe the grade school one—not that I can flip through it because I thought what I’d written was so damning, I tore the pages out and stuffed them in an envelope addressed to my cousin presumably because I trusted her to dispose of them in the unlikely event of my tragic demise). The 8th grade one is pure obsessive love. Yeah, it was my first crush. That’s probably normal to a degree, but holy shit is it embarrassing. I thought I was going to marry this guy and have three babies (the Ouija board told me so). I thought I was gonna die when he asked another girl to the graduation dance. It includes other things I’d rather not recall either like when I got into Pearl Jam just to impress my best friend’s new friend. I hate Pearl Jam, but boy did I convince myself that I loved them, just to fit in… at a time that I swore I was done trying to fit in.

    The obsessions and the hypocrisies are the worst and they continue through all the journals. I’ll blast girl for spreading rumors and “girl hate” while saying the most awful, hateful things about her. And during the fucked-up relationship from my late teens there are actual entries written in my own blood. The worst of the worst though is from the summer between sophomore and junior year right after my abuser and I broke up when I was still in love with him and that period after I realized what he’d done to me, but I still loved him. Of course the anger that followed was not any easier to stomach.

    Basically reading these diaries forces me to revisit the weaknesses that I hated most about myself and also forces me to look at how self-centered and cruel and angry and awful I was at times. I have to recognize that I was not always a good person and I made A LOT of mistakes. Of course this book is about identity and how the many pieces of us come together to form something whole (or mostly whole). I thought I was writing about that in a retrospective way, but I’m realizing now that there is still going to be some self-understanding and self-forgiveness that is going to have to come from the writing process. And while I’m in the thick of it, I’m going to have to remind myself that I’m not that person anymore and I learned from both her good and bad decisions and traits.
  4. Just because my life has an arc or a “plot” doesn’t mean I’m not going to have to make major structural decisions within each essay/chapter and for the book as a whole just like I would for a novel. This has been my biggest writerly problem so far. I sold the book on proposal and I thought I had a solid idea of what it would be—more like a collection of essays than a memoir. But as soon as I started writing in earnest, I realized it wasn’t really working. I can’t just plug this essay fromRookie about my struggle with self-injury in to the place where it seems to fit best chronologically—junior high because that’s when the cutting started—because the essay covers my whole journey, from twelve to twenty-two or twenty-three. Reading that and then reading the next thing about me being fourteen and struggling with self-esteem or something, it’s jarring. It doesn’t flow as a narrative. It makes you feel like fourteen-year-old me should be better off because she was at the end of that last piece (even though she was also in her twenties). My editor noticed this, too, of course, and we talked about it for an hour. I have ideas about how to fix it, but the structure still feels very murky right now. That seems to be happening within each essay/chapter I write too. I start off one way, then change my mind, then end up with alternate versions of each piece. It’s frustrating and I don’t want it to be. I know that if I agonize over structure now, it’s going to really slow me down and it’s all going to change later. So this has led to…

The Plan

I need to create the puzzle pieces. Only then can I dump them out on the table and figure out how they fit (and probably reshape a bunch of them, but that doesn’t go well with my puzzle metaphor). So I want to write really rough versions of the essays/chapters/parts of the story I know I need to tell. I’m doing it linearly right now, but this might be the time to jump around (in a way I haven’t done since I wrote my first novel!) and write in chunks, some of which will probably feel really unpolished and incomplete. The problem is I HATE unpolished and incomplete. I hate rough drafts and it is hell for me to get through them. Speeding through did help me with my last novel, though, and in this case, so I don’t waste a lot of time figuring out a structure that will change once I have all the pieces, I think it’s going to be essential. To make it work, I’ve set up…

The Challenge

I decided pretty much arbitrarily that I would like to write all of the rough pieces by November 1st. This is going to be a pretty enormous challenge because I work full-time, I teach a class once a week, and… I’m going on vacation from October 2-8. So yeah. This might be totally unrealistic. But what the hell. Setting intense deadlines works for me (as long as I don’t get too angry at myself if I can’t make them, which I am promising here, publicly, that I won’t. Hold me to it, please!). Conveniently, the place where I teach, the Hugo House, is running a 30/30 fundraising challenge this month! Basically if you sign up, you commit to writing 30 minutes every day for the first 30 days of October. So I’m doing it. 30 minutes a day. Even on my anniversary trip to Hawaii. (Writing on the beach is great, right?) I am trying to raise some funds for Hugo House, which is an incredible organization for writers, so if you want to cheer me on and donate a few buck to a good cause, I’d love it. Here’s my fundraising page. You can also join the challenge if you are so inclined and I hope you will! In fact, if you are a YA writer (or a friend of mine!) you are welcome to join the team, my I've formed with my YA class (and my friends!)

So, if you don’t hear from me much next month (aside from vacation pics on my instagram and tweets about my writing progress), you’ll know it’s because of my lofty goal. What are your big goals for October?  

3 comments:

Lydia said...

I really can't wait to read this memoir but I hope it gets easier for you to sort through the memories. I think it's great that you're willing to put those things out there, even if it means looking back on things you might want to forget. Hope everything goes well and good luck with your 30-day challenge and have a good vacation! :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you so much, Lydia!!!

Stephanie Faris said...

Congratulations! Yes, writing a memoir would be pretty tough. It's so close to your heart. It's far easier to write about imaginary characters, even if we put our own stories in there somehow. We can hide behind our characters--with a memoir, it's all us!