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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
Images courtesy Kate Walter.