Author and Guest Blogger Jessica Bram Makes Editing About More than Grammar

by Kendra Bonnett on June 16, 2009

Post #5 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

It’s Writing Prompt Tuesday again here at Women’s Memoirs, and we’ve arranged a special treat for you. Jessica Bram, author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey, shares her two-part process for first getting at the heart of one’s story and then going back and cleaning it up. If you’ve ever worried that in writing your story you might tell too much or embarrass a friend or family member, Jessica provides the perfect antidote.

Once she explains the process, she gives us a useful Writing Prompt that will help us practice capturing all of our personal story, then going back and measuring our every word. You’ll come away more comfortable writing with emotion and honesty, knowing you can ratchet back as needed during the editing process. Thank you, Jessica.

All this is in preparation for our next Women’s Memoirs Author Conversation. Matilda Butler and I will interview Jessica Bram on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 5 p.m Eastern Daylight Time (2 p.m. Pacific). We’ll be asking Jessica your questions so please add your questions about writing and her new memoir Happily Ever After Divorce to the COMMENT section at the end of this post. Then join us for the live call with Jessica:
Date/Time: June 25, 2009/5 p.m. EDT (2 p.m. Pacific)
Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)
Now here’s Jessica Bram’s Guest Blog:

I was interviewed not long ago by a reporter about my recently released collection of memoir-based essays Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey. “Gee,” she said, “you shared so many personal details in your book. Didn’t you mind being so … revealing?” From time to time during the interview she kept coming back to this point, as though it was something very unsettling. “How did you find the courage to expose so many private details about yourself?”

Courage? No, not really. It was something else.

What were those terribly revelatory, potentially embarrassing details she was referring to? Let’s see. In “Losing It” I wrote about the time my young sons could hear me sobbing through the closed door one night and timidly knocked, pleading for an explanation. I revealed in “Eating and Drinking” that my habit of comforting myself as I went through my divorce with cookies and Ben & Jerry’s Super Fudge Chunk developed into a full-blown eating disorder. In one of the more humorous chapters called “My Lost,” I confessed to letting my imagination get a little too carried away during an online dating correspondence, with both disastrous and comical results.

In the memoir and personal-essay workshops that I lead in my studio in Westport, Connecticut, this issue of how much one needs to reveal about oneself is a familiar one, and it troubles many first-time memoir writers. “There’s a lot I want to write … but what if my [fill in the blank: husband/mother/children] ever read it?” they ask. There is actual fear in their eyes.

My response to that is to describe what I call “The 2-Part Development Process” of writing the memoir. This process is also what On Writing author Stephen King calls “writing with the door shut, and writing with the door open.”

During Part One, writing with the door shut, you are writing your story while banishing from your mind the idea that anyone in the entire world will ever read it. It’s the time to let go of inhibition, restraint, even good grammar rules. It’s when you have to let go of the idea it has to be good writing. Forget about finding exactly the right word or the perfect way to express something. Your story just has to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—even if that includes some very personal and embarrassing details. Part One is all about letting yourself go. Opening up each moment to reveal everything there is to discover. Bringing in thoughts, feelings, reflection. There is no editing or judging in this stage.

Sometimes my students worry about writing about other people in their memoirs, especially parents or other people who are close to them, who might be terribly hurt should they ever see the work in print. I reassure my students that there will be plenty of time later to protect other people from exposure with tactful editing. Don’t worry, I tell them; no one is going to snatch your memoir away from you and publish it before you are ready. In Part One you must write only with honesty and passion, and without inhibition. Don’t even think about showing your work-in-progress to a spouse or significant other. That will be the kiss of death to your work, in this tender early stage.

Then only later comes Part Two, or what Stephen King calls “writing with the door open.” It is when you open the door to let the critic in, and when you put to work not so much inspiration, as craft.

Part Two, the revision stage, is when you begin to shape your work for a reader. Often this comes after you have received feedback for an early draft from a trusted reader or critique group. This is when you clarify, reorganize, tighten language, ferret out ambiguity or redundancy. You eliminate tangents that are not important to this particular story—not to delete them, but set them aside for use in another piece. You revise and revise until you are sick to death of your own voice and your own story, and the process can seem endless. And yet, I find Part Two an exciting part of memoir writing, because it is when I find myself using every bit of my critical mind, and my writing craft, to elevate the quality of the work.

Then, finally, and only at the end of this vital Part Two, do you finally consider the sensibilities of others. Sometimes you might seek out an independent review of your work for this purpose. I had my sister read my manuscript of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey to make sure there would be nothing hurtful to my mother or brothers, whom I include in many reflections about my past experience as the child of a badly handled divorce. Surprisingly, most of the things I worried about revealing turned out not to be problems at all, while she pointed out a few items I hadn’t considered.

The important point is this: The more confidence that there will be ample time and opportunity to do all that revising in Part Two, the less inhibited you will be, and the better the material, in Part One. Having faith that there will be a Part Two is what allows you to write your heart and soul out in Part One. Because it’s that truth and soul-wrenching honesty that makes a memoir worth reading.

Ernest Hemingway, who admits to revising the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times, put it this way: “When you first start to work you get all the kick and the reader gets none … but after you learn to work—when you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work…It’s the hardest work there is.”

I bring this up to get back to that initial question of whether it was courage or something else that allowed me to share such personal information about my life after divorce. Hemingway’s quote highlights that all-important participant in the memoir writing process: the reader. Because even if we are writing the most intimate memoir, we as writers are not there to tell our story for our own satisfaction, but to serve a reader.

It was because I suspected that I was not the only person in the world who had ever sobbed and eaten and fantasized through a divorce, that I was able to share such personal experiences. I regarded sharing my story not so much as an act of courage, as an act of generosity. I believed that somewhere would be a reader who might identify with, and find comfort from reading a story like her own. Most of all, I wanted to give that reader hope that since my life had turned out to be joyful even after all the hard and miserable times, that indeed hers would too.

Memoir writing, I tell my students—sharing one’s own personal stories in a way that might enable readers to identify and understand their own lives better—is one of the most giving acts that a person can ever perform. Somehow, from this knowledge comes unlimited courage.

“With the door closed,” write about an experience of shame. Have you ever known it? What was the situation that triggered the feeling of shame? How did it feel, and how did the experience change you?

Banish from your mind any thought of anyone who might ever read this. You are just there to tell the story. Let the writing be either bad or cliché-ridden or unclear—it doesn’t matter. (“The first draft of anything is shit,” according to Hemingway.) What’s important is that you write truth.
Then put it aside—somewhere safe and private where it will not be accidentally discovered. And then later—only if you choose—begin Part Two. [See guest blog above for more information on Part Two.]

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