Yesterday I sent my memoir off to my agent and there are some things that surprised me along the way.
1. I am surprised at what I did not put in, and what I kept out.
I have been compiling stories for my memoir for all of my life and have been writing them down in some form of another. When I began my draft three years ago I first did a crappy first draft of the stories and memories I was going to include. When I actually began writing I was surprised by how many of the stories I was sure would be in there, did not make the cut. As I was writing I realised what the main storyline was—what I thought of as the spine of the book—and wrote around this and so it was easy to see how to flesh it out.
2. I am surprised at the structure that developed for the narrative.
Usually with a novel I develop a narrative arc and write to it, but a memoir is a very different beast to write. The memoir developed an organic structure. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, a piece here, a piece there, and somehow it all come together as a final picture. While I am not sure whether the final compilation of the structure works (I have three possibilities for how to structure it) the storyline is there and the puzzle pieces might move, but the picture will remain the same.
3. I am surprised to realise that a book really is never finished, instead it is abandoned.
I felt like I was attempting to complete the book for at least six months. Each chapter was going to be the last, and yet there was always something more to write. When I did finally write the last chapter, then it felt like there was always something to revise, to smooth over, to improve, to explain. I realised that I would never feel like this book was finished, instead I have to accept that it is a reflection on a certain part of my life, as told by the person I am today. Each day that passes changes me, changes my worldview, and therefore impacts on how I want the story told. In order to send it to my agent I just had to decide on a day and hit the send button, and I’ll have to keep making that decision over and over as I (hopefully) progress through the publication process.
4. I am surprised that writing is a vocation that must be practiced regardless of the hurdles of life.
It took me three years to complete my book and two of those I was working full time as a secondary school teacher. I was very nervous about being able to maintain my writing life while also maintaining my teaching life, and while it was a challenge to effectively work seven days a week (teaching on weekdays and writing on weekends) it all came together. I realised that the most I could hope to do during the term was to scratch away at the memoir and the big chunks of writing had to be managed during school holidays. Having the deadline of school holidays meant that there was no procrastination, if I had a minute to write while darling child was occupied with her games or television, I took it. I also didn’t measure my successes by word count, but by how much time I wrote. Sometimes I spent three hours and only had a few thousand words to show for it, but they were marvelous words. Sometimes I spent the same amount of time on some terrible words, but there was always the opportunity to work on another section and come back later to revise and improve.
5. I am surprised that regardless of where this book ends up, I am a success.
Usually we as writers measure our success by publication: if it is published then of course it has merit, and if it is not our piece of writing almost feels tarnished, we can never quite capture that sparkle that we felt before the rejection, but I will not feel this about my memoir. I am proud that I wrote this book. I am proud that I worked my guts out to finish it even though there were times when I was wretched, spent, and over it. I am proud that I opened my veins and bled on the page, and that I honoured my mother and the women in my family who came before her. I am proud that even though I am a teacher, a mother, a wife, I still managed to keep writer as my primary identity. I am proud that this story that has haunted me for so many years and that I have attempted to write so many times is finally a living entity. Most of all I am proud that when my mother read my memoir she told me that she realised two very important things: "You really do love me," and "You know me the best." Yes Mum, I do. I really do.
Come what may, I am a success and I will not let anyone and anything take this feeling away from me.
Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher who draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write own voices stories for young people, who like her, are searching to mediate their identity and take pride in their diverse culture. She writes memoir, young adult and romance under the pen name Mae Archer.
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