The Fear of Publishing a Memoir-Novel
Written by
She Writes
May 2018
Written by
She Writes
May 2018

This is a guest post from Wanda Maureen Miller. Like her main character, Grace Marie, Wanda grew up on an Arkansas farm, read and wrote for escape, got an education, and moved to California. She taught college English and published four other books. She is retired now and lives in Manhattan Beach, CA, with a retired doctor. She has a daughter and granddaughter living in North Carolina and still owns the farm she grew up on. Her book, Last Trip Home, is out May 15. 

As an author getting closer than not to 80 years old, I often find myself writing about loss and slippage. My Significant Other of 25 years, Ken, will be 78 this year; so some of our loss is obviously due to our age and is experienced by most of our elderly friends. But he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which his father had; and I have an “inconclusive” diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, which my mother had.

When we repeatedly forget the words for “hearing aids” (mine) and call them “earphones,” we can’t laugh it off and attribute the mistake to just age. Of course we both suffer from the old age cliché, forgetting names, even familiar ones we have heard over and over on the news.

I like to think some of my slippage is due to stress about my upcoming book’s publication. I didn’t know whether to call it an autobiographical novel or a memoir. I’ve dubbed it a mem-novel (memoir-novel). Even though I fictionalized parts of it and changed names, it’s still uncomfortably personal. I am worried about the people I know reading it. Now that my life’s experiences are written down, they won’t be forgotten. And everyone will know everything. I feel as if I’m walking naked down a busy street with all my wrinkles and sags showing.

The Agony of Not Finishing

During the writing process, the constant tension and anxiety and depression over not finishing—or re-re-refinishing my Arkansas alleged mem-novel was with me every day and night.

After my vow 3 years ago to finish my mem-novel—whatever that meant—final polish and acceptance—get it off my desk if I have to burn it--I worked on it a little every day, a little more each day, from one chapter last Thursday to three chapters yesterday. I cut back on tennis to three times a week, gave up movies, and most television shows so I that I had a chunk of time every day to work on the manuscript—tidying, I called it. For the first time in my life, I was not reading an ongoing novel for escape. Instead, I was writing one.

My only distractions were watching my daily soap opera, Days of Our Lives, before I tidied pages and reruns of the old second season of Veronica Mars after I tidied. It’s almost like having sex—as near as I can remember--to relax and be carried away by these familiar characters with a stimulating little shock of surprise here and there—to hear a witty line I have forgotten or didn’t hear the first or second or third time I watched Veronica Mars.

The only way I could complete this overwhelming task of tidying was to begin with a no- brainer—to delete one space between every sentence. Modern savvy writers and editors said that publishers want single, not double, spaces between sentences. Then I saw weaknesses, not just typos and punctuation errors but repetition and rhythm problems. Was it from slippage? Was I forgetting?

The continuity of looking at the chapters every day almost compensated for losing a little of my mind every day. The regular tidying kept me from getting sucked into the stories of my regular pre-menstrual fantasy of killing Daddy in his stained jockey shorts or his shooting my brother’s dog for sucking eggs.

Going with My Gut

One huge simplification I made that helped me face the pages was to ignore everybody else’s advice that didn’t agree with my gut—even advice I’ve paid a ton of money for.

I’ve ignored my first editor’s advice to “scenify” more and scrapped her version with a third person narrator. I ignored the second editor’s advice to start in 1940s Arkansas and use strict chronological order. Instead, I kept the 1995 California framework in which my character, Grace Marie, gets the call that Daddy is dead. I rejected an old graduate school friend’s advice to cut the Prologue, but I did shorten it.

I did take a philosophical friend’s advice, even though it is a cliché that annoys me, to publish it as it is because it is what it is. So what if it’s a hybrid. My joke about it being a memoir-novel was prophetic. I’m hoping it will have value as a cobbled together mixture of truth and fiction—memoiry narrative and scattered scenes.

Not one prone to positive thinking, I believed that I would have enough mind left to solve those problems as I deleted double spaces every day and changed “mild” to “milk.” During my tidying phase, I kept telling myself, “As long as I finish it this year—no more than one more year.”

That last sentence makes for a neat conclusion, but it’s fake bravado and bullshit. The truth is I was afraid this book would never get published. I am equally afraid of what will happen after it’s published. I am afraid nobody will want to read it. I am afraid people I know will read it and see the ignorant redneck girl behind the carefully constructed mask that slips a little every day.  

Now that the book is about to be published, the stress is still there. But at least all those damn double spaces between sentences are fixed.

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