[SWP: Behind the Book] Criticism and Perseverance

I was excited as I drove to visit Ellie, a member of my writer’s group, who had offered to read the first draft of my memoir. On the phone, she’d said she was enjoying it, so I was ready for a big ego boost, like that scene in the film Sophie’s Choice when Nathan is so impressed with the first draft of Stingo’s novel that he pulls out a bottle of Champaign and declares him a literary genius. That is not what happened at Ellie’s. 

A writing teacher and author of her own memoir, Eleanor Stanford said I had too many themes and not enough detail. Also, I was a little preachy. She liked the chapters set in Africa, where I had been in the Peace Corps, but I needed more scenes, more dialogue. As she spoke, I jotted down a few notes. Then came the real punch in the gut. Among the many story lines was my growing concern about climate change, especially how it was hurting the African country where I had lived in my twenties.

“Cut that out,” said Ellie. “Climate change shouldn’t even be in this book.”

I was blinking back tears by the time I reached my car. What does she know? I thought to myself. This is my book. I can write about whatever I want. I couldn’t cut climate change, I realized at that moment. It was the thing that had changed my life. 

I’d given the draft to two other friends to read at the same time. They agreed that there were too many themes, but disagreed about what should stay and what should go. Was it really a story about money and values? Or was it about my midlife spiritual crisis? “Of course you can’t cut climate change,” said one when I told her Ellie’s feedback.

Hearing three perspectives made this much clear: my readers could show me that I wasn’t yet telling my story well, but only I could decide what that story would be. 

I’d had a similar struggle in the early stages of my previous book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference. It was about the balance between acceptance and action described in the Serenity Prayer, but when I showed the first thirty pages to a friend who is a New York Times bestseller, she said the idea was too heady. “Just write about serenity,” she said. “That’s what people really want.”

I felt devastated and for about twenty minutes considered abandoning the concept, but the next day, I went back to work, clearer about what I wanted to say and the kind of stories I’d need to make the ideas accessible. (The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama, won two awards, and earned out its advance from Tarcher/Penguin.)

For a writer, the Serenity Prayer is actually a pretty good guide to feedback. We need serenity to accept that we won't please everyone while having the courage to do a complete overhaul when the critics are right. The trick, of course, is the wisdom to know the difference. With my memoir, I decided to pay special attention to anything said by more than one of my three critics. Since they all felt the writing came alive when I joined the Peace Corps, I made that the first chapter, condensing my family history and moving it further back in the story.

I knew I wasn’t the same kind of writer as Ellie and shouldn’t pretend to be. She’s a poet, whose nonfiction has been described as “shimmering” and “graceful.” I’m more of an idea gal, whose work has been called “wise” and “inspiring.” I was interested in reflection more than description, though that didn’t mean that I couldn’t learn something from a poet. I went through the whole manuscript, cutting the preachy parts and adding details and dialogue, as Ellie suggested—then cutting large chunks of it all in the third draft as I gradually got clearer about the central themes.

By then, an editor I knew was interested in having his small press publish it, but I felt in my gut that the book could still be better and that it could appeal to a wider audience if I got the tone and story arc right. Having done as much as I could on my own, I hired She Writes Press co-founder Brooke Warner to be my coach after listening to one of her webinars on memoir. I asked her to help me figure out where to begin and end the story and to make sure the tone wasn’t still preachy.

Between our four sessions, I discarded the whiny preface about my unhappiness at age forty-nine and replaced it with the story of my first act of civil disobedience at age fifty. Chapter One still went back in time to the Peace Corps, but now I carried the narrative through my midlife crisis and my return to southern Africa for my fiftieth birthday, ending with the civil disobedience that began the book (where I photo-bombed actress Darryl Hannah, if you want a teaser). Brooke affirmed that this structure made the story more “satisfying” for the reader and tied together the themes of political and personal empowerment.

In the end, the memoir turned out to be the story of a woman who, at midlife, realized that she was not living in sync with her youthful values and set about to reclaim them. I’m not sure Ellie will recognize Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope (pub date March 3), but I’m convinced it’s a better book because of her feedback and the struggle to find my own voice that it provoked.

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Comment by Catherine Marshall-Smith on September 21, 2014 at 9:19am
And yet Nina Gaby, I have watched other emerging writers react with defensive hostility to well intended criticism. In doing this, they cut themselves off from an opportunity to improve. I don't want to be that perdon either. I think the answer is to assess the credibilty of the critic, and then step away and gain some objectivity as Eileen Flanagan did in her blog. Sway with the breeze but don't let the gale uproot you. Thank you for your thoughtful response Nina.
Comment by Nina Gaby on September 21, 2014 at 3:39am

Catherine- In an unrelated event moments before I read your comment, I was reading the reviews for a CD I was considering from Amazon- the new Counting Crows Album. The reviews were comparing this album to the band's really early, raw, stream of consciousness work, early Dylan and Springsteen were mentioned, and it brought me to the question of editing that you are asking here. My heart still skips a beat when I listen to those early words and riffs and feel bored at the recent and overly edited music that those artists are turning out now. When I was a clay artist, the freshness of the material was important- we didn't overly edit the work for the fear the freshness would be gone. When the freshness was gone for me I changed careers. It is very different for writers. There may be some poets that can get away with minimal editing, probably not. The challenge is to polish and polish and still fool ourselves that it is spontaneous. And still our story. As I have been editing other's work for my anthology, I am astounded at how difficult a task this is. I believe we can identify the important theme and maintain fidelity with that and be ok. And being edited, arguing about a simple phrase here and there, I decide often to just let it go. Bringing me back to my initial question, does the work just become tired and not even mine. But as you said, that is why we hire an editor. 

Comment by Catherine Marshall-Smith on September 20, 2014 at 4:56pm

We live in a delicate balance between being open and accepting of criticism and allowing our stories to become hijacked by the perspectives of others. I'm stymied right now after having gotten my work back from my editor.  I can implement her changes. That's why I hired an editor. But will the novel still be my story?

Comment by Brooke Warner on September 17, 2014 at 10:54am

Thanks for sharing your story, Eileen. It gave me chills to read the opening of this. So often people are told by others to cut what most matters to them and it's so sad—and you end up compromising your book. Well done. We're so proud to be publishing your work!

Comment by Betsy Teutsch on September 16, 2014 at 12:27pm

good grief, so glad you didn't cut climate change out! interesting parallel - mid-life crisis and eco-crisis. See you in NYC on Sunday at the interfaith climate march, perhaps?!

Comment by Nina Gaby on September 16, 2014 at 2:34am

I forget to invoke the serenity prayer for myself (I use it with my patients) so I appreciate its application here. And the cover is to die for. Thanks!

Comment by Kelley Clink on September 15, 2014 at 8:24am

Fantastic! Can't wait to read it!

Comment by Loraine Van Tuyl on September 14, 2014 at 12:01pm

Thank you, Eileen, for bravely and humorously spilling your guts and writing process - especially when it comes to constructive criticism. My memoir has gone through similar incarnations and revisions and I totally agree that the final decisions come down to self-awareness of who you are and your message, and not about the expertise of the critic - which is totally right for them or a writer like them. So encouraging!

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