From Memories to Manuscript
In some ways, I wish I had documented this process publicly at the same time as I was actually going through it rather than after the fact, but considering that I’m still at the beginning of the post-production period, I figure now’s as good a time as any to write about what I’ve done so far.
I officially began the Memoir Project on June 20, 2014. I titled a Word document “Memoir Notes” and just started freewriting–er, freetyping about my reasons for wanting to write a memoir in the first place. Then I just started writing down memories–everything I remembered from birth through age 18. The good stuff, the bad stuff, the nothing stuff–just everything. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and the parts I didn’t remember clearly were accompanied by notes and thoughts. Finally, that following spring, I opened up a new file called “Memoir”: my first attempt at actually writing it instead of writing about it. Usually I kept both files open at once. When I was thinking-writing, I used the Notes file. When I was Writing-writing, I used the Memoir one. I told myself in the Notes file that I didn’t have to beat myself up about trying to make it perfect, but I also acknowledged how messy it all still seemed. How I didn’t have a distinct voice or direction… but still I kept pedaling forward.
In early September, a friend of mine named Shayne and I decided to get together for a meeting of the minds, of sorts. We were both eager to get on with our respective arts and both of us needed a good kick in the butt. We set the date for September 20.
On September 19, I re-read the 40 pages I’d written in the “Memoir” file and decided they were way too formal-sounding, much too adult-point-of-viewish and not the tone I’d intended to have. I trashed the whole thing and started over from scratch with a new file titled “Memoir 2”. I wrote ten pages and printed them off. The very next day, I met with Shayne at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants (this mom-and-pop joint called Leonardo’s in Seagoville–you should try it if you ever have a chance) and handed them over. She read my words over coffee, chips, and really good salsa. When she finished, the first thing she said was, “Wow. I love your imagery!” She went on to tell me that after reading those pages and talking with me about the direction of the memoir, the image she had was of an hourglass. She explained how, before we moved to Austin, I had all these different facets of my life, like particles of sand, but then one by one–and actually pretty suddenly–they all dropped off, leaving just this little tunnel within which only a very few grains of sand remained, which made my focus on them that much more intense. And then, after going through the tunnel, those last grains of sand joined all the others. I’m not doing justice to what she said or how she said it, but it was something to that effect, and it made perfect sense. Her homework assignment for me had two parts: one was to change the name of my “Drafts, Pieces, and Other Crap” file to something more positive; the second was to write a minimum of three pages per day until our next meeting.
That very same evening I went home and changed the name of my “drafts” file to “Tasty Leftovers.” A month later, I met with Shayne again. This time I emailed her a whopping forty pages–not quite three per day, but close enough. She emailed me back to tell me they were “completely and utterly memorizing,” but I’m pretty sure she meant “mesmerizing.” :o) Also, during October, I decided to organize all of my memories by writing each one on a separate index card. I wrote one phrase to identify the memory, added my approximate age or grade, the location of the event, and either a blue plus sign or a red minus sign at the bottom, depending on the kind of emotion it triggered. I also outlined in red marker the cards that were really negative and in blue the ones that were really positive (about 15 of each).
Until then, my organizational method looked like this:
On October 29, we had that goal-setting meeting at work, which I wrote about here. When I got home that day, all giddy and abuzz with a renewed sense of energy, I completed the 50th page of my memoir and also had an incredible breakthrough regarding the recurring theme of guardian angels–there was our first dog, named Guardián, our nightly prayer to the Guardian Angel, and the white stone angel my father and I used to drive by each morning on our way to school. I got goosebumps when I made these connections. It felt big.
On November 2, I completed Part 1. 62 pages and 21,000 words. At this point, my goal was to write a total of 60,000 words and the plan was to write three parts, so I was right on track. I began Part 2 knowing that its content would be much more difficult to write than Part 1.
On November 29, I wrote an incredible 11,000 words. That’s the most I have ever written in one day and I was super impressed with myself!! Best of all, I completed Part 2. I should mention here that all of this crazy writing was done by waking up every morning and writing from about 5:30 to 7:00 AM and then sitting my butt back down every evening after work and writing like a maniac from about 9:00 to 11:00 PM or later. And even when I wasn’t writing, I was constantly thinking about it, dreaming about it, breathing it, rethinking it, reworking it. I was in the zone, man. I was on fire, haha.
In December, the fire burned out. I took some time off from work, which should have helped me be even more productive, but instead I ended up taking a break from writing, too. I created a website for my henna art, which took me an entire week from start to finish, and then I just couldn’t get myself going again.
Late at night on January 2, I received some devastating news that put a halt to my writing, my work, and pretty much my entire life. During the weeks that followed, my mind was in no state to think about the memoir at all, and I was doing good just to get out of bed and function. After about a month, though, as things slowly began to piece themselves back together, I tried to pick up my writing again. I was not very successful. Part 3 was painful, man. I found myself getting really upset when I wrote, which I didn’t like. Sometimes I’d become so immersed in what I was writing that it felt as if my fingers were typing on their own and I was back in the places I was writing about, feeling the things I was describing. Physically, I mean. Sometimes I felt the things physically. Sometimes I cried. I didn’t want to be in that state around my kids or at work, so I stopped writing in the morning and only wrote late at night. But I wasn’t feverish about it like I’d been before. I needed another jump start.
During spring break, my trusty Shayne came to the rescue once again. She and I booked an airbnb right here in town and spent two full days together writing. I wrote about 5,000 words during our retreat, which was enough to get me over the hump.
On Monday, April 4, out of the blue, I decided to apply for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. The application process (polishing those writing samples and composing an impeccable Statement of Purpose) ate up much of those next two weeks, but once I was through, it was back to focusing on the memoir.
By May 7, I had written over 75,000 words. My new goal was to finish the first draft by June 1 so that I could spend the next two months revising and still meet my solid gold goal of August 1. Unfortunately, I became completely SWAMPED with freelancing jobs during the entire month of May. Photography, teacher training modules, Spanish poetry writing for student assessment preparation materials… not to mention my full time job. Oh my goodness, May was a complete and non-stop whirlwind. I barely slept at all, I barely ate, I barely even saw my kids! But I did manage, somehow, to squeeze in time for writing, and on the evening of May 31 I went out in the rain to print my 144,000 words. Draft One.
Incidentally, my Memoir Notes file (which I still write in, for revision purposes), currently takes up 98 single-spaced pages. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t document the process as it was happening after all.