One of the perks of signing on to help present a panel at a writing conference is that, even before the conference happens, you sometimes make internet friends with other writers who know your fellow panelists and/or who are also on the schedule with their own panel. That explains how Kate Walter and I crossed paths: we have mutual friends, and upcoming panels at ASJA.
Kate is the author of Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing, due from Heliotrope Books in June. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and the New York Daily News, and she teaches writing at City University of New York and New York University.
Please welcome Kate Walter.
I knew something was off with the structure of the first finished draft of my memoir manuscript when an agent said my writing was strong but, "The reader knows how this will end before the narrator does.”
Ouch! That comment sent me back to the memoir drawing board. I had to rethink my book.
Since a memoir is not autobiography, you must find the right framework for your
story. A memoir needs an arc, a trajectory, a focus. The narrator must start some place and end up some place else. Not necessarily a physical place but an emotional place. There has to be a struggle (conflict) and wisdom gained. You are not just telling your story but reflecting upon what happened and how these events affected you and changed your life in some way.
It took me three drafts to figure out the container for my debut memoir, Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. In the first draft I was just writing out my story and creating major scenes but it lacked a narrative thread.
My second draft had more structure but it ended with me getting my heart broken when my 26 year lesbian relationship ended. When I shopped around this version, the feedback from agents made me realize that structure was not working either. So the rejection was actually helpful.
The third draft, (which I sold), instead began with the break up and showed how I healed my life. I had found a universal theme. The reader is rooting for the narrator to get her life back together and laughing along with her as she tries internet dating at age 60.
For me, I had to write all three drafts over 10 years until I figured out the narrative arc. Meanwhile, I was also writing and publishing personal essays. Two local papers were regularly using my work, which gave me steady emotional support, and was a boost, reminding me of the value of the material.
Writing essays, which can be woven into your memoir manuscript, and writing shorter pieces, can help you find the larger focus or container for your long memoir project. I recently reread an essay I wrote five years ago for NY Press. Looking back, I can see how the first 50 pages of my book are an expansion of this tight
Beside a little income, and the professional support of those newspaper editors, I got emotional support and feedback from my weekly writers group in Greenwich Village, run by the author Susan Shapiro. I could not have completed this memoir without the ongoing critiques from my trusted colleagues, who pulled no punches. I workshopped every chapter and then rewrote each one.
When I finished my third draft (about 225 pages), I hired an experienced book doctor to read the entire manuscript (cost $2,000); then I rewrote some more. After my book saw the doctor, a chapter originally in the back of my book landed up closer to the beginning in the final draft.
The weekly group did more than critique my pages; they believed in my project and
helped sustain my morale when I kept getting rejections from agents, which was frustrating because by then, I knew I had finally nailed the structure and had a powerful book.
That’s when a member of my group (Royal Young) hyped my book to his publisher
(Naomi Rosenblatt, at Heliotrope Books). I met her at his book party and she encouraged me to send her my manuscript. The rest, as they say, is history.
I owe a lot to my workshop members, and I’m grateful Naomi realized the potential of my story about break up and renewal. It’s been a pleasure to work with a small independent press and have hands on involvement as my manuscript became a book. I even took the cover photo.
From inception to publication was a long journey of 10 years, but it has been
very rewarding, and for me, cathartic. Writing my memoir was literally part of my
healing process. And as a teacher of creative nonfiction, this book will open up new
doors for me.
I’m glad I never gave up. Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn. If you
believe in your story and your voice, keep going, keep writing.
Note from Lisa: Kate would like to give one reader a complimentary signed copy of her book when it's released in June. To enter, leave a comment here by midnight on
Tuesday, May 12. (Must have a US postal address.)
You can connect with Kate at her website, and on Twitter, and read an interview with her at WestBeth.
Images courtesy Kate Walter.