You’re a writer; you know the feeling. Your palms are sweaty and you’re tapping a pencil on your desk. You’ve got an article due or an assignment for creative writing class, and your mind is a big black hole. That was me five years ago, just days before my writers group was to meet, and my muse must have been napping or getting her nails done. I flipped through my favorite writing books looking for a prompt to get me started. I was ready to give up until I saw two little words, “If only…”
The scene almost wrote itself. The summery day of my wedding in 1970, my “gown” with gaucho pants, Jack’s and my family in the living room below as I prepared my descent from my bedroom, but then, a stumble on the stairs, my broken heel, and my flight back up to the bedroom. Would my life have turned out differently, I mused, if only someone—my mother, my sister—had come upstairs to check on me. Would tears have started to flow? Would I have told them how shaky I felt? Would I have confessed my husband-to-be had punched me just two days before?
“More,” my group demanded as they read my piece. “Keep going with it. You’re on to something.” THAT? I thought, they want me to write more about THAT? “Long forgotten,” I told them. “Years of therapy.” “Second husband for thirty years.”
Yet, the door had opened a crack and now the memories started flowing. When I sat at my desk, I easily wrote about how it all got started: me, a single teacher on Long Island in the late ‘60s, rooming with my best friend, and looking for Mr. Right in the bars of Manhattan. Into my school comes a cute new science teacher, a hippie just back from Woodstock. We coupled up at TGIF get-together, and I decided my ship had come in.
More memories from the next six years came to me, in no particular order, but all with plenty of drama. A Primal Scream therapy marathon; a call to the police; a trip to the Emergency Room. It was becoming simply a collection with no shape, certainly not the kind of memoir I’d like to read. Would this be a book called “The Only Things I Remember from My Abusive Marriage”?
I had to remind myself that a book about my marriage needs to be a story about me. Who I was then, what I thought I wanted, what I really wanted, and how I got there. Luckily I knew where to turn for help. I dug into my resources from screenwriting classes and workshops and reviewed the concepts they drive home. Using their advice, the process of shaping my story became clearer.
Make your Scenes do the heavy lifting. If we want our work to mean something to people, screenwriters tell us, we have to use our scenes to make the emotional connection. For me, that meant enriching the scenes I’d written with some reflection. I thought more deeply why certain smaller moments and images stayed with me from those years but seemed too insignificant to write about. As an example, I kept thinking about a moment one night, as I stood looking out a window. With time to let that marinate, I gradually understood that it was a turning point in my story, and that scene, only one page long, has become my favorite scene.
Find your plot. Screenwriters obviously need to create a plot, but memoirists? Yes, they would say. Just a series of scenes won't have a lasting impact on your audience (or readers). To bring richness to your story, you need a plot, that is, the journey that your lead character is on. A major breakthrough for me was seeing my work as a coming-of-age story. There was a path I thought I should be following but also a path, unclear to me at the beginning, that eventually brought me deeper happiness.
Show your Outer Journey clearly in the beginning. Some screenwriters refer to the two paths as the outer and the inner journey. Looking at my story more deeply, my outer journey, the path I thought I should be on in my early twenties was Marriage (with a capital M)—the whole package of husband, home, and children. All my friends were there. Why wasn’t I? For readers to see my growth, I had to show that clearly as my story opens so it will contrast sharply to where I end up.
Look for signs of your Inner Journey. The concept of having a deeper need to find myself helped me form the spine of my story. It directed me to look deeper to find how I grew during those years from a programmed girl of the 1950s and ‘60s to a self-actualized, strong woman, who was creating her own life. Changing my work, taking art classes, and creating a room of my own in our little house turned out to be significant actions to show.
The Story needs times of rest and reflection. The parts of the story that came more slowly, more deliberately, were the in-between times, the introspective times, and the everyday interactions that were the glue that kept me there or the poison that made me want to flee. It was a long road, fitting all the pieces together in Not Exactly Love, but I have to thank the screenwriters whenever I read a review saying, “I couldn’t put this book down!”
Betty Hafner lives outside Washington, DC and has written a popular monthly book column for fourteen years in The Town Courier newspapers in Montgomery County, MD. With a M. S. in counseling she was a teacher and counselor in high schools and colleges for twenty-five years. She continues to lead workshops, give talks and facilitate groups. She wrote two practical career-change books that stemmed from her workshops―Where Do I Go From Here? (Lippincott) and The Nurse’s Guide to Starting a Small Business (Pilot Books). Always ready to converse, she also loves telling stories through her drawings, photographs, and writing.
"Prose that vividly and courageously articulates a cautionary tale of abuse...." —Kirkus Reviews