Around the same time I experienced computer problems, Microsoft in its great wisdom notified my husband he was due to receive an update. This is routine for Microsoft, but not for a user who is a designer using computer-aided drafting software. The problem? The drafting software and Microsoft aren’t compatible.
The moment the update is completed something goes wrong with the drafting software. This sets fear in the heart of people like Bob. A few days passed by, and for some unknown reason his problem cured itself.
Fearing that turning off his computer would leave the door open to Microsoft, he opted to leave the computer on. All goes well for a few days and nights.
Then one morning Bob enters his office to a mystery. During the night, someone had obviously been at his computer. There were hints in the form of typed words consisting of jumbled letters. Screens popped up that were unusual. And more, I’m told. The big question was who or what had been at the keyboard.
The only other souls in our home at night are Iggy and Maggie, our cats. Now, I know Maggie loves a keyboard. She prances across mine often enough. Occasionally, she sends me into darkness. I’ve never had the pleasure or joy of Iggy joining me at the computer. He’s more of a guy cat. I understand he has been up and around Bob’s computer checking out various cubbyholes and shelves.
We’ve decided one or the other of the cats or perhaps a feline spirit danced across Bob’s keyboard that night. Often, we wonder what Iggy and Maggie get up to while we’re sleeping, and they’re off wandering around the house. Animal cams are under consideration.
Image disclaimer: The cats sitting on the window sill are not Iggy and Maggie. They are not inclined to get too close to each other. In fact, it would be impossible for us to capture an image of the two of them this close. However, the posture of the cats above is almost identical to ours.
As I think about picking up my memoir manuscript and consider what next steps await me, I find myself reflecting over the words of other writers on the subject of writing memoir. The post you are about to read was initially posted on March 13, 2014. Yet, the comments made by Justice Sotomayor during her talk continue to strike me as the foundation we must keep in mind as we write our stories.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to the live event (total of 2,776 tickets), but thanks to Literary Arts and the Portland Art Museum the simulcast was arranged to accommodate an overflow of 1,000 attendees.
Justice Sotomayor’s talk on Tuesday was the culminating event of this year’s Everybody Reads project. Although the thrust of the project is to “[c]elebrate the power of books in creating a stronger community,” Justice Sotomayor’s topic was not announced.
Imagine my thrill when she began with a discussion of the power of words. Her words still resonate in my ears: “Words have power to paint pictures.”
She then went on to share why she wrote her memoir. I want to share those reasons with you here, although they may sound somewhat familiar to you:
To not forget self. Justice Sotomayor shared that she never wants to forget her own experiences growing up in the most negative of environments, the self she was at that time or in that place. Nor does she want to lose the ability to picture the place and circumstances where she came from. Her goal in writing My Beloved World was to write a narrative preserving her family’s story as well as her own experiences.
To document the community. In her community in the Bronx, Justice Sotomayor explains that living in that most negative of environments, first and foremost there were people with aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes. People with simple values and yet these aspirations, desires, dreams, and hopes like everyone else.
To value the aging. Justice Sotomayor confesses she became afraid to wait too long to write her story of her family and herself. “I was afraid I would not have them around to help recap my family history.” She interviewed family members and in so doing learned from an uncle of the romantic relationship her mother and father shared and how her father had loved her mother. As a child, Justice Sotomayor did not think they were a happy couple; there was so much arguing and fighting. A few days later her uncle died. Her advice? Encourage family members to share stories with you every opportunity you have.
To have the chance to tell my story candidly and honestly. According to Justice Sotomayor, and I think we all realize this if we’re writing memoir, readers cannot be fooled. She drove home that telling your own story is far better than having someone else tell it. But above all, in telling your story she urges honesty and genuineness. Be who you are and have been.
As I said, most of these comments we have all heard before. However, to hear them from someone who has lived through a poverty-stricken childhood, struggled to receive the education needed to become who she wanted to be, fought stereotypes and sexism, and now sits on the highest court in our land was inspiring and motivating.
I enjoyed the Q&A, especially because some of the questions came from among many high school students in attendance. One of them asked the Justice for an explanation of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Roughly quoting from my shorthand notes, Justice Sotomayor explained that “a memoir is a description, with emotions, cataloging your life from within, not without,” and “an autobiography is told based on fact cataloging your life from without.”
At the end of a long day speaking to high school assemblies and various civic groups, Justice Sotomayor presented her talk with ease and without notes—you felt you were chatting with a friend. She possesses a contagious and spontaneous wit. Her command of the language is awe-inspiring. Justice Sotomayor exhibits a generosity with people that is humbling. Over 100 students wrote her letters before she left Washington and she told them last evening each of them will receive a personal reply.
I came away feeling I had sat at the feet of a woman who has great things yet to do, and she will without fail.
* * *
One last quote from the Justice:
Until we have equality in education, we cannot have equality in society.
It is 1965, the era of love, light and revolution. While the romantic narrator imagines a bucolic future in an old country house with children running through the dappled sunlight, her husband plots to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills.
Their fantasies are on a collision course.
The clash of visions turns into an inner war of identities when the author embraces radical feminism; she and her husband are comrades in revolution but combatants in marriage; she is a woman warrior who spends her days sewing long silk dresses reminiscent of a Henry James novel. One half of her isn’t speaking to the other half.
And then, just when it seems that things cannot possibly get more explosive, her wilderness cabin burns down and Pamela finds herself left with only the clothes on her back.
From her vividly evoked existential childhood (“the only way I would know for sure that I existed was if others lots of others acknowledged it”) to writing her first children’s book on a sugar high during a glucose tolerance test, Pamela Jane takes the reader along on a highly entertaining personal, political, and psychological adventure.
Paperback: 246 pages Genre: Memoir Publisher: Open Books Press (February 1, 2016) ISBN-10: 1941799213 ISBN-13: 978-1941799215 Amazon Link
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author via WOW! Women on Writing in exchange for a fair and honest review. Opinions expressed are mine.
Yet, as I went further into Pamela’s story and reminisced about my coming-of-age in the 1960s, I began to see the reason and validity behind the pacing. The writing style is reflective of not only the time period and its unrest but also what it felt like to be living Pamela Jane’s life. Uncertain which way to turn. Invisible, ignored, invalid, unworthy and more. What a life for a young person! It was daunting and anxiety-filled.
Pamela Jane’s writing is honest and filled with the hurts from a family life which included a mentally ill mother and a distant father. She shares freely of her parents’ dysfunctional marriage and its impact on her. Like many of us from similar situations, Pamela loses herself in the world of books and reading.
As she comes into her own, Pamela shares her dreams and hopes as a women coming into her own even though her own life conflicts with these dreams and hopes.
Character and scene descriptions are rich with detail so real it palpates on the page. I could smell the smells, feel emotions, see what Pamela saw. This was a highly engaging story rich in imagery and words. As a child of the 1960s living in my own dysfunctional family, I related to Pamela Jane’s story on several levels.
As readers, we hold in our hands a gem, a well-written and powerful memoir rich in the use of words and detail. I highly recommend it.
MEET PAMELA JANE
Pamela Jane has published over twenty-five children’s books with Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, and Harper. Her books include Noelle of the Nutcracker illustrated by Jan Brett, Little Goblins Ten illustrated by NY Times best-selling illustrator, Jane Manning, and Little Elfie One (Harper 2015). Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic (Skyhorse) was featured in The Wall Street Journal, BBC America, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The Daily Dot, and has just come out in paper. Pamela Jane has published short stories and essays with The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Antigonish Review, Literary Mama. Pamela Jane is a writer and editor for womensmemoirs.com.
As I was working out a topic for this week’s post, I came across this one from May 6, 2014. Reading it, I am reminded that once more my memoir has thrown me a curve ball. I need to sort out what to do with this draft still waiting in the corner.
The two curve balls came from different directions and for different reasons. If you want to know more about the second curve ball, you can read a personal note to my followers and friends who subscribe to my newsletter.
Upon reflection, I believe my May 6, 2014 post may stand me in good stead when the time is right to begin inching my hands toward the binder holding my manuscript. I don’t think I’ll be rewriting so much as restructuring and moving things in my draft around to make my memoir more readable. The wheels are turning and never forgetting this draft, but the pull to go back and revisit this post left me with a need to share it with you once again.
Here’s the original post from May 6, 2014:
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE BOOK YOU’RE WRITING THROWS YOU A CURVE BALL
The drafting of my memoir began in earnest sometime the late spring of 2012. I had jotted down notes and memories plus digging through boxes of my mother’s personal papers for years. Folders filled with potential material for a book cover a work table.
Now, here we are approaching late spring of 2014, two years later. A few weeks ago as I was considering my progress and listening to my husband’s take on what I had written for one particular chapter, I felt like I had been hit by a tidal wave of emotion.
It was as if a tsunami had taken over the life of my memoir, and what came next threw me for a curve.
An epiphany in the form of a major change in direction left me wonder struck. Not so much because it was such a stunning transformation, but because it had stared me in the eye since the year 2000, when the seed germinated into thoughts of a memoir after moving my mother to Oregon from Tennessee.
Now, what am I going to do was the next thought passing not so silently through my mind. It was simple: Regroup, rethink, rewrite–the writer’s three R’s.
When I began writing my story of life with Mama, I sat down and started pounding out words on the computer screen without any thought for an outline or a plan. I knew the story I was writing and thought I needed no organizational scheme to get it done. So far, I believe I have a pretty good draft on that first turn. But this curve ball I’ve been thrown made me stop and take stock of the time I would have saved if I had gotten my writing act together first.
The first thing I decided I needed to do was spell out what I wanted to tell my readers and why. And I did.
I then moved on to think about outlining or story boarding. I vaguely remembered a post of Kathy Pooler’s on Memoir Writer’s Journey where Kathy talked about story boarding. Unable to find it, I emailed Kathy and she sent me the link, which is here.
As I sat and studied Kathy’s storyboard, it occurred to me that my favorite writing software, Scrivener, uses a bulletin board with index cards to act as an option to an outline. I rarely use it, but checked it out and below is an image of my current storyboard or imaged outline in Scrivener:
I think it’s going to work perfectly, and I’ve set about rewriting my first draft.
A good deal of rethinking went into picking up the draft and rewriting it. Was this worth making the book into a better story to share with readers? Would the rewrite get my point across any better? After all, I’d spent a goodly number of hours not only in writing but researching, retrieving and reading.
I decided the answer was a yes. I want to publish not just a good book, but a book people will refer to as a “really good book,” perhaps a “must read,” maybe even a “bestseller.” No matter the nomenclature used to describe it, I want it to be my best work product. So, yes, the extra time is worth the effort.
As I rethought the outline I’d come up with it, I could actually see the story unfolding in a much more cohesive fashion and with greater ease.
Rethinking taught me a great lesson: Rushing in headlong isn’t always the best route to take.
I am actually enjoying this “R” of the three “R’s” because I am sensing a better writing style, a tighter style. I feel the story coming together with less negativity about my mother, seasoned with a dash of her goodness here and there, because there was goodness in her. And at the end of her story and mine, I learn there was good reason for her parenting skills, or lack thereof. I think in the rewrite this will be more easily finessed.
Like schoolchildren sent off to learn their three “R’s”–reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, we writers can also learn from a different set of three “R’s”–regroup, rethink and rewrite.
We’re never too young or too far along in our writing to learn a little something or make a change in the direction we’re headed.