While I draft memoir chapters about growing up Mennonite, I am also writing to you, the friends of this blog, and to others on my facebook page and twitter feed. Is it worth it to spend my time this way? Sometimes I wonder.
A few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend of this blog, Loretta, to describe how I try to balance two very different kinds of writing. I’m working on chapter nine of my Mennonite memoir (recalling a childhood without television, the storytelling revolution of the 1950’s) while also being active as a blogger, and user of Facebook and Twitter, the current storytelling media.
I was initially encouraged to blog as a way to build a “platform.” I despise that word. But I love the idea of a community of writers and readers. I want my story to resemble ubuntu, helping others to become better selves as I seek to do the same. Ideally, the work done to build relationships online also helps to focus on long-form memoir writing.
It takes discipline and deadlines to maintain momentum toward the goal of completing the draft of the memoir.And that kind of contemplative writing must have first priority.
That’s why I decided to put a ticker on the home page of my blog. It sends a shiver through me to see the numbers go from where it was when I started the new website, 300 days, to where it is now: 209 days. It also, connects all of my writing to my mission in life: “to prepare for the hour of my death. One good day at a time. And to help others do the same.”
The ticker asks me not only am I on track with my schedule, but have each one of those 90 days, now gone forever, been good days?
And what is a good day when it comes to writing, anyway? Well, let me try to describe my ideal day.
1. Start with a good night’s sleep.
2. Greet the new day at sunrise. Enjoy breakfast and conversation with Stuart,who leaves at 8 to care for Owen.
3. Alone in the apartment, begin with spiritual reading (right now, I am reading through the book of Proverbs and use two daybooks — one of Thomas Merton’s journals and one of Mark Nepo’s writings).
4. Meditation. I use an iPhone app that gives me nature sounds, monastery, and ambient music choices and has a timer. I set it for 20 minutes.
5. Get to draft writing as soon as possible after meditation, calling up the pools of memory from out of the silence. On a good day, I can write 1,000 words. I leave holes in the writing when I don’t remember a name, a year, a color, etc., make notes to call relatives, look up info in certain books, check in with former colleagues, etc. Writing a memoir, I find, requires multiple perspectives to jog your own memory. I have spent hours combing through old photos and documents gleaned from my mother’s basement and will spend a whole week in August doing more of the same. Actual writing is often secondary to all these other memory joggers. I look forward to the next phase of revision, hoping I can focus more on language and structure and less on recall.
6. Sometime between noon and 1 p.m., I leave the computer and walk to Owen’s house, have lunch with him and Stuart, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing, strolling, and feeding Owen. While he naps, usually for no more than an hour and possibly as little as 30 minutes, I can catch up on facebook, twitter, and think about the two blogs I am writing; this one and granny nanny diaries. I like to have a new blog post in mind when I finish my current one. I find that when the idea for the post has cooked on the back burner, it flows more easily when it is time to hit “publish.” I like to post this one on Mondays, send out Magical Memoir Moments to subscribers on Tuesdays, and post to granny nanny diaries on Fridays.
7. After dinner, I have another 3-4 hours for whatever seems most pressing. If I am getting close to my memoir draft deadline and need to work on that, I do so. If I have time to play with social media, I do that. Over time I have increased my focus to being writing and memoir related across all social media platforms. Sometimes we go to the theater or meet friends in town.
8. A good day always includes exercise, hugs, and conversations. These occur throughout the day, while taking care of Owen and sometimes with Stuart. We enjoy walking the Brooklyn Promenade at sunset and at night and have done that often at the end of a good day. The last three words before sleep: “I love you.”
Another friend, Jim, asked me at the Mennonite/s Writing Conference if it isn’t a distraction to be engaged with an audience via social media at the same time I am doing “real” writing? How do I avoid writing only what others want to hear rather than what is in my own heart and mind? It’s a great question. All I can say is that I trust my knowledge of my own heart, and I know that my perspective is limited. As others share their stories, either here or on my facebook page, new facets of my own story emerge.
In the “good old days,” goes one myth, writers wrote poems, short stories, novels, or (to a lesser extent) memoirs. They worked as solitaries. In ateliers, like visual artists. They shunned the rest of the world as they wrote. If their work was brilliant, it found an equally brilliant editor and prescient publisher, and they moved from being writers to being authors. Only a few were called to this monastic life, and fewer yet were published. Some who were never knew fame. Their brilliance was only discovered after their deaths.
I’m not that kind of writer. I’m glad I’m living in the age of memoir — a world where everyone has a story, and many people are sharing their thoughts, insights, and cute little cat videos in French with each other. If I sit and watch cat videos all day, it’s not a good day.
But my memoir has benefited often with a small but very vocal group of people who are rooting for me and want to help me cross the finish line of publishing.
Here’s a story about just one of the many benefits of being on social media while writing memoir.
I call it the extended mind. I first saw it when my facebook friend, award-winning novelist and former writing coach, Bonnie Jo Campbell, asked her friends questions about her current work.
As I was writing about wearing a prayer covering (such as my mother is wearing in this picture), I felt limited. So, last week, I asked mine this question and got these answers:
“Soup strainer,” “crash helmet, “doily.” What else have they been called?
A longer dialogue followed the snippet above, and it has enlarged my thinking. I would not have recalled the sobriquet “sin sifter,” for example, if I had sat alone in my atelier for five hours. But on facebook, within 15 minutes, a former student living in Minneapolis could trigger a rush of feelings and new memories. And the number of people from all parts of the country who commented told me that this particular vein of memory was worth mining.
As the Story Corps booth sign (above) says, “tell your story pass it on.” Notice that they dispense with punctuation in this sign. I choose to think that’s because the act of telling the story and the act of passing it on are inextricably linked. Do you agree? Obviously, I have painted the positive picture here (“Rosy Cheeks” will always do this). I could talk about the other side of the dilemma also. What do YOU want to talk about?