“The Possibility of Everything” Memoirist Hope Edelman Writes About What NOT To Publish in Her Guest Blog and Writing Prompt for Women’s Memoirs

by Kendra Bonnett on September 8, 2009

Writing Prompt LogoPost #11 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

We’re pleased to introduce you to Hope Edelman. While her book, The Possibility of Everything, is her first book-length memoir, Hope is a well-traveled and oft-published writer. She’s written four other books, and her articles and essays appear in The Hope EdelmanNew York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and The Iowa Review, to name-drop a few.

Hope’s contribution to our Women’s Memoirs should prove both interesting reading and a useful lesson to writers, regardless the genre. Here’s her memoir writing secret: Don’t include the kitchen sink. Well those aren’t her words, but the message is the same. Learn to be selective in your detail so that your omissions actually enhance your writing. We’ll talk more about this during the Friday interview.

As many of you know by now, this guest blog is our way of introducing you to a memoirist and her work. It’s also the first phase of a four-part process that will include an interview with the author, which you’re invited to listen to live, a posting of that interview and, finally, a review of the book.

Read Hope’s guest blog below. Then take some time to write a Comment. Actually, write a question for Hope because this is your opportunity to interview her. Matilda and I will ask the question in your behalf when we interview her on September 11th (details below).

At our request, Hope has included a writing prompt. This one will help you tame any tendency you have toward inclusiveness. She shares her Post-It technique for tossing the unnecessary out of your own “kitchen sink.” We recommend you try her method, and leave a Comment telling us how it worked for you. Finally, please join us for the interview with Hope on September 11th. You can read more about Hope’s most recent memoir, The Possibility of Everything, here.

Date/Time: Friday, September 11, 2009/2 p.m. EDT (11 a.m. Pacific)
Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)

The Scenes Between the Lines

Guest Blog by Hope Edelman

We’re often told when portions of a memoir are embellished or made up, but we rarely hear about which parts an author chooses to omit. Writing a memoir is a highly selective process: an author is constantly weighing which scenes to include and which ones to leave out.
Writing my most recent book, The Possibility of Everything, gave me a crash course in this kind of selectivity. The book is the story of bringing my three-year-old daughter to Mayan healers in Central America to get rid of her aggressive imaginary friend, and how my marriage was saved and my world view was changed in the process. The action takes place over a four-month period in 2000, with most of it unfolding during six days in Guatemala and Belize.  You might think that such a short time frame would narrow the material down to an easily manageable amount, but it turns out that four months offer more memorable moments than one might expect. There were doctors’ appointments that went well and magazine assignments that didn’t, irreverent dinner parties in Los Angeles and business meetings in New York, an outdoor wedding in Camarillo in September and countless unexpected dramas in the class I taught that fall. There was an urgent mammogram in October, and a Native American healer a few weeks later who had me lie down on her living room floor while she beat a drum around my head. In November, there was a tumultuous and upsetting presidential election, followed by a Supreme Court ruling in December that nobody I knew seemed able to understand or adequately explain.

A heck of a lot happens to a person in four months. But how much of it belongs in a book?

If I’d included every colorful or influential moment of those four months in my manuscript, I would have wound up with a 3,500-page tome that no one in his right mind would have wanted to read, and no editor in her right mind would ever have consented to buy. Instead, I had to choose a series of judiciously handpicked, meticulously plotted scenes that stuck close to the main storyline without going off on unnecessary digressions. When I was writing Chapter Two, I remembered how beautiful the wedding in Camarillo had been, how I danced on an outdoor stone patio for hours in a stunning ankle-length black dress I found on the 70-percent-off rack just the day before at Macy’s. My daughter wore a white dress with a pink sash. She was a flower girl because the bride was her very first babysitter, who was marrying their Gymboree teacher. The couple liked to say my daughter brought them together although when the babysitter and I had taken her to the first class together the teacher had thought we were a two-mommy family. Only later did he discover that Megan was single, available, and also eyeing him.

Interesting details, maybe, but what did they have to do with my story?

Well, nothing. So I didn’t put them in the book.

But this is the stuff of life! you might say. God is in the details! I don’t necessarily disagree. In real life I’m a queen of digression, far more interested in exploring the antique stores along the blue roads than in taking the highways. But as a writer, I have to constantly fight my impulse to detour into lengthy flashbacks or asides. To stay focused on my main storyline, I stick a square Post-It note in the upper right corner of my computer screen every time I start a new essay or book. I write a sentence on it that says something like, “This is a book about how taking your daughter to indigenous healers in Belize changed your view of the world” or “This is an essay about how your high-school boyfriend helped you cope with your mother’s cancer diagnosis.” Then I refer to it frequently as I write to keep myself on track. It’s a simplistic solution, but you’d be surprised by how well it works.

With this book, it meant that some of the most dramatic moments I experienced that autumn never made it into print. For example:  I was teaching a year-long master’s class in nonfiction that semester, filled with brilliant and demanding students. Every Wednesday night I spent three hours discussing their work while trying to tiptoe through the minefield of clashing personalities. The experience stretched me to my limits as a teacher and taught me truckloads about handling conflict in a classroom. But not a single teaching scene appears in the book. The hours I spent in the classroom, memorable as they were, didn’t add anything to the story of my daughter’s imaginary friend or to my character development as a mother or spiritual seeker. If you read the book, you might think I barely had a teaching career that semester at all.

Thanks to my Post-It addiction, by the time I finished the fourth draft of this new book, I had 335 pages that moved sequentially and logically from the appearance of my daughter’s imaginary friend in September through his unexpected departure in December. They also traced my evolution from a skeptical, cynical intellectual New Yorker to someone willing to open herself to the possibility of unseen forces at play.

The scenes included in the book appear in the same order that they happened in real life, although they leapfrog over chunks of time. Some readers may be tempted to think that’s because nothing important happened between the scenes, at least nothing worth mentioning. But those of us who write memoir know differently. We know that most of a writer’s life takes place there, in the mundane moments between the paragraphs, and that all of it matters. All of it. It’s just impossible to fit it all in.

WRITING PROMPT

This structural exercise is designed to help you exercise your own powers of selection. First choose a week—or even a single day—when something important happened to you. It doesn’t have to be a big, dramatic turning point; some of the most influential moments in a life are nuanced and subtle. Try to choose an event that has some back story attached to it, and ideally some kind of lesson or moment of truth that grew out of it. Then:

  1. Make yourself one of those little Post-Its mentioned above. Start with the sentence, “This is a story about ______________________” and fill in the blank.
  2. On a separate sheet of paper, make a list of everything that happened to you that week, or that day. You can be as detailed and meticulous as you want. If you’d like to start with “Got out of bed Monday morning. Brushed my teeth. Thought about Jeffrey. Went to feed the cat. Realized I forgot to buy cans of cat food again,” go ahead.
  3. Now take each moment on your list and write a paragraph about it. Try to remember exactly what you were doing, what you were thinking, and who else was involved in the scene.
  4. Compare each paragraph to the sentence on your Post-It. Every time a paragraph feels related to the story you’ve set out to tell, put a circle around it. Every time a paragraph seems irrelevant or tangential to your intended story, even if it’s a scene that you’re eager to write, cross it out.
  5. When you get to the bottom of the list, add up all the circled items. Those are the starter scenes for your first draft.
  6. Remember to keep an open mind, and save your original list. Some of the items you crossed off initially may wind up revealing their relevance later. That’s the beauty of revision: You never know what’s going to float to the surface in subsequent drafts.

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September 8, 2009 at

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan Rosenfeld September 8, 2009 at

Fabulous prompt. I swear I’ve never heard this before and oh how I need it. Focus, people, focus! Though now I want you to write the book that includes all the details you left out… :)

Hope: I reviewed your book for Publisher’s Weekly, by the way. I loved it!

(Ms) Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Jamie Goodsmith September 8, 2009 at

Hi Hope: I’ve read that many memoir writers create a draft that doesn’t really have a first chapter. It is only in the writing process that what needs to be said first becomes evident. I’d like to know about your process for writing your memoir and when in the process you wrote your first chapter.

If I can ask two questions, then I’d like to add that it would be helpful for me to know how the writing process was different for this memoir versus the other books you have written.

Thanks. I’ll be listening on Friday.

Connie McClaine September 8, 2009 at

I am struggling to write my memoir. Sometimes I doubt the importance or value of my story. I wonder if you would share why you decided to write a memoir. You are a well published author and I am sure that you have a long list of topics you want to write about. Why the memoir and why now? I’m hoping your words will give me some insight and perspective on writing my own story.
Thanks. I can’t be on the call, but I’ll listen to the audio on Monday.

Laurie Lynn Lindemeier September 8, 2009 at

This excercise will help me greatly. My chosen topic deals with the year 1972. I have the diary from that year with an entry for “every” day. I was ten.
Dealing with too much material has always stopped me in the past. Feel like I’m standing at the bottom of a mountain thinking about how to climb to the top. This gives me a path to start to follow. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless!

Joannah Merriman September 8, 2009 at

Hi, Hope: I was a student in your Creative Creative Non-Fiction course in Iowa, July 2008, with Po-Li, Anita, Jaton, and the others. You gave us such great ways of stretching our memoir structure, and we wrote from prescription directions, Wikipedia, and other wildly imaginative formats. How do I balance those “snapshot” parts of the story with some foundation for the memoir?

Can you speak to how we decide whether we do a straight narrative or a series of “clips” for the telling of our stories? On the day of your interview, I’ll be settling into Lake Como with a small group of women who want to write and relax in Italy for a couple of weeks, but I’ll try your writing prompt on this trip and see what kernels show themselves. And I’ll listen when I return, if that’s possible.

Thank you.

Joannah Merriman

Hope Edelman September 9, 2009 at

Interesting point, Jamie. Now that I think about it, my first draft of this book began with what’s now Chapter Five. I was just muddling around with the story at that point. Then a novelist in my writing group suggested that I pull a scene out of Chapter Six It was a brilliant idea, and once I had that structure in place it was much easier to conceive the book as a whole.

Hope Edelman September 9, 2009 at

1972 was an excellent year. I’d have enormous fun, I think, following my own writing prompt by focusing on a single year from childhood. In 1972 I was in the second and third grades and had a wicked crush on Gary Wissner. Nixon was president, right? Three of my grandparents were still alive. I could go on and on!!

Sarah J. September 9, 2009 at

Hope, I’m looking forward to getting your memoir. Here’s my question: You are a skilled journalist and creative non-fiction writer. You also teach writing. All of these experiences reflect on your ability to write your memoir.

What advice do you have for a person who is well educated but who is not a professional writer. I’m just beginning to write my memoir. How do I get started? What pitfalls do I look out for?

Hope Edelman September 9, 2009 at

Sarah,
The best way I can think of to get started is to start small, maybe with an essay or short memoir. Bite of a piece instead of trying to bake the whole cake from the start, and expand from there. I’ll definitely talk more about this on Friday–it’s an excellent discussion topic.

Bobbie Mason September 10, 2009 at

Hope: Thanks for the writing prompt. I read through it and it made a lot of sense. However, I’m not sure I know how to use your suggestion with all the vignettes I’ve already written. I have way (way) too much material for a memoir. I have more than 900 single-spaced pages.

I was thinking I might just make it three memoirs. You know. Stop it at a certain place and continue the story in the next book. But I guess that is the chicken way out. It seems that everything that has happened to me has made me the woman I am today. How do I decide what is important?

Maybe I am starting with the wrong sentence on my post-it — This is a story about how I came to be the woman I was meant to be.

Your thoughts and suggestions would be most welcome.

-Bobbie
PS Sorry for such a long question. You can tell that I am definitely a verbose person.

Suzie H. September 10, 2009 at

Hi Hope,

I’ve been writing for years, mostly for my own pleasure, but I’ve gotten more serious of late. In fact, I’ve been taking some classes. I’ve heard my teacher talk about creative nonfiction. I have to confess that I’m still trying to figure out how to write this way. But now I read Joannah’s comment about Creative, Creative Nonfiction.

I’m curious, first, about the distinction, and second if you might explain the creative nonfiction in practical terms. Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading your book and to listening to you being interviewed.

S.H.

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