I’ve been trying to read more classic literature. Currently I’m about four chapters shy of finishing Jane Eyre. Last summer I read East of Eden, which is a remarkable volume that touches on original sin. I’ve been wanting to purchase the TV miniseries on DVD from Amazon.com, as it stars Jane Seymour in the unlikely role of Cathy Ames, San Francisco brothel madam in the first part of the 20th century. Also, the movie with James Dean, his last before his untimely death, only covers a small portion of Steinbeck’s novel.
What I set down about him will be the result of memory plus what I know to be true plus conjecture built on the combination. Who knows whether I will be correct? (Steinbeck)
I don’t remember who the narrator is writing about in the above quote, but I took particular note of it as I had just finished the first complete draft of my book, a memoir about an 18-month stretch of time right about the end of high school. What I wrote in my memoir could easily be summed up in the Steinbeck quote. In writing it, my memory proved strikingly faithful, but even then, it is my memory. I consulted several people in researching, but most of the research was conducted in the searching of my own heart and mind.
So, after a six-month or so break from the book, I decided to see if it was publishable. The idea all along has been to share my story so that it can encourage others who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (so to speak) to find comfort in God’s abiding presence. I ran my manuscript by a trusted friend, who is the only person to read it in its entirety (save my mother), and I sort of hoped he’d tell me — when I asked him to — that it’s not worth the trouble of trying to get it published. “Please tell me it’s a pile of *$#@ so I can chuck it and be done with it,” I pleaded. He said, “Sorry, you’ll need to get to work.”
More work than I realized. I knew there would be edits but nothing like what I have ahead of me. See, I sent an email to a writing service for authors asking about their submissions, whether I should submit mine as non-fiction or fiction, as they didn’t have a category for only memoirs. The reply was that technically a memoir is non-fiction and a memoir cannot contain any fictional or semi-fictional elements. Well, the trouble is, I decided about two years ago to reformat my original manuscript, which had been entirely narrative, to read more like a novel. I wanted scenes with dialogue and descriptive setting. I felt the story was lacking movement, not to mention it was entirely too brief.
Therefore, I set to work and recreated scenes in the best manner my memory could. I recalled settings and described them well (I think). Characters in the story were given personality and voice. Some dialogue I remembered verbatim, but most of it I wrote in the way conversations normally ran their course with them. The primary plot points were preserved, since the story, as another friend of mine who is familiar with it described, is in itself compelling. No characters were invented or in any way altered. (I haven’t even changed their names yet in my manuscript.) I felt the story was true enough, but that doesn’t jive when you’re submitting a book as non-fiction. (Nonetheless, celebrities pass along a lot of fiction in their memoirs!)
Well, I consulted the friend again and he agreed that, yes, I should rework the book and submit it as fiction. I realized I could do more to develop the main characters, including myself (the narrator), as before in writing it as a memoir I felt I didn’t want to come across as too self-absorbed. We don’t like that in non-fiction, but it’s quite common in novels. In truth, I was 18 years old and incredibly self-absorbed!
I’ve begun the task of rewriting with fiction in mind, which isn’t entirely arduous. Four chapters in and I haven’t run across huge swathes that need to be rewritten. Pieces here and there, really. Also, I’ve realized that the story needs more humor, something I feel moderately capable of. As a memoir, given the nature of what was taking place (ah! what a tease!), it needed to be more serious. As a novel, humor can render it more entertaining.
I’m not sure when I’ll have it done. (I thought I had it complete last summer!) We’re house hunting and will have a move, and we have a lot of things going on. So, maybe next winter??
But how about a sneak preview? Below is the prologue of Send in the Clowns (my working title) and a snippet from chapter 3.
The choppy, repetitive strain of “Master of the House” still drumming in everyone’s ears, I take my seat back at the table and wipe my forehead with a red, cloth napkin. It’s warm in the bistro but far warmer outside. She sets down her goblet amid the others half full and chooses a bit of gruyere. Leaning in to me far too close for my comfort, she discreetly asks, “How’s he doing?” before sampling the cheese.
“Well, he has good days and bad,” I say. “Today is a good day. He would hate to miss this. It’s what keeps him going.”
She nods in agreement then continues, a throaty contralto, the wine tempering her British accent, “You’re a good friend. I’m glad he has you. We all are.”
Then she takes my hand in hers and pats it the way a grandmother might. Though she is old enough to be my grandmother, she isn’t. Grandma is from the hills of Arkansas and always cooks with bacon grease. This aging restaurateur, entirely exotic to me, guards her recipes nearly as rigorously as she obscures her past.
“I do what I can,” I tell her, “which doesn’t seem like much most of the time. But I can’t imagine going through something like this alone.”
“Not everyone could do what you’re doing. Most young people, self-absorbed as they are, would simply leave him for dead.” She has no idea how many times I’ve thought of doing precisely what she is describing—or why. “Young man, you’re older than your years.”
She is right. I do feel older. Old enough to buy a pack of Marlboros, a lottery scratcher, or a Play Boy, though not old enough to drink the Beaujolais from the glass she picks up again. Nonetheless, I don’t care for reds, which is why I am drinking White Zinfandel.
FROM CHAPTER 3 (a good summary of the first part of the book)
As he sings the tag, I realize my friendship with D___ is becoming like that, something worth treasuring, something worth holding onto. Yet he is dying. Not even nine months ago had I broken up with J___, the girl who consumed much of high school for me, a breakup that should have occurred long before it did. We dated nearly two years, and though I don’t know how I summoned the fortitude to end the relationship, I’m glad I did. If we’d hadn’t broken up—and if we hadn’t needed just the one for it to stick—I might never have met K___. Nor met her parents. Nor played at the Shilo Inn that night in December when I met D___. Sure, K___ is the object of my unrequited love, as in “Not a Day Goes By,” but D___ is a friend who will need someone to see him through.
Perhaps it is time to grow up, to become less self-absorbed, to take notice of those around me. I have much to learn from D___, for as familiar as the Italian he loves singing is to him, D___ also knows the language of love and friendship. Being his piano player is easy. Becoming a friend will prove, I imagine, more challenging, yet more rewarding, even if I lose him in the end. He is teaching me how to be both a musician and a friend.
There you go … you’ll have to wait awhile for the next draft.