It’s spring and almost everyone in my life has gotten at least one vaccination shot and dare I say I have hope again? I drove to Mississippi yesterday and saw some art at a small museum I had never visited before, and one of the installations was so lovely I felt a release in my body as I entered the room.
“Antigenic Rift,” Randy Polumbo
There were some cushions on the ground so my companion and I stretched out on our backs and stared up at the dazzling lights of it. A peaceful but weird soundtrack played on a loop. I imagined what my life would be like if I lived in the room for one month. I decided the music would get to me. I pictured myself disassembling the sound system so it could be just me and the lights. I drove one hour and twenty minutes (not including a stop at the gas station for some mints) to project myself into a different world for a few minutes and it was worth it. I love the kind of art that gives you a reprieve from your existence, even if it is temporary.
A reprieve. A break from the self. I let it go so I could put myself back together. I’ve been thinking about this idea, about the release and the reconfiguration.
Whenever you sell a book to a publisher, there is this thing called the Author Questionnaire, which I had to fill out this week. It’s sort of an annoying task. Your publisher wants to know who you are and who you know and what your connections are in the world, your education, if you’ve written for any publications, won any awards, if you know anyone who can help you and your book. The questionnaire is surely to benefit the author but of course in your most fragile moments it makes you feel more like a commodity than anything else. Somehow everything becomes about business at once.
But one of the questions I like on it has to do with telling the story of the writing of the book. So much goes into every book, and mine was no exception. All the places I traveled. All the revelations I had. The ups and downs of my existence. But all I could think about was how I developed the book. How many times I broke it and put it back together. How I thought it was going to be one thing when I started and then it turned into something else. How I thought I was one kind of person but, by the end, it turned out I was someone else.
“Enate,” Luzene Hill
When I started developing my memoir, I had a specific sense of the time I wanted to cover, the journey I had taken in my life, and also a place I wanted the book to land, a scene at the end I was writing toward, where I walk out of a dark place and into the fresh air. I had a general idea of what I wanted the book to be in the middle – I had nearly twenty years of essays I could sift through and use. I would just cherry pick the best of them and create a narrative around them, filling in the blanks where necessary. I put together a tight outline, and I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do. I’m all set, I thought. Oh, I loved that fucking outline. The book starts here and ends there. I had a confidence about my past writing and the stories I had told. Surely that would be enough to make a book.
I was wrong, of course. Once I started really reading what I had written in the past, that voice seemed foreign to me. There was another voice to be uncovered. Obviously I was the character, it could only be about me, even in the moments of the book where I am just observing other people, it had to be about my voice and gaze. But I had to figure out the most precise version of that character, and which parts of my life I wanted to share. And it turned out it was not the person who appeared in those twenty years of essays in magazines and newspapers. To my great surprise, I had to collapse it and start all over again.
I thought it was one thing and then it was another. A collection of previously published works with a few new chapters versus seventy thousand new words about my life. The story of who I was at the time versus the understanding of who I was in retrospect and all the wisdom I have acquired about my life along the way. A collection of essays organized by year in a linear path versus a rigorously structured time-shifting story of my life.
The outline had changed.
To recognize I needed to do all this was terrifying. I had to let go what I believed was the truth about my life in order to embrace something more honest and hopefully useful. It was scary to think I had to write all new material, but also there was a particular fear in realizing what I had written before wasn’t simply good enough.
I had to face that what I had written in the past, while not a lie, was only part of the truth, and was ultimately not a big enough story to support an entire book. It would have been a waste of everyone’s time to collect these flimsy ideas and offer them up. It would have been a failure of a book. I had to look at my past work with a newly critical eye. Do you think it was fun to realize that? That practically everything I had done up until that moment would either need to be trashed or reconstructed. But it was crucial. The only thing I knew was that I had to write to the end point. That North Star could stay.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is the talented and wise author of two short story collections, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and Almost Famous Women. Her next book, How Strange a Season, is forthcoming with Scribner, and she is also the Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. I asked her to tell me more about her six-year development process.
“I sold my novel just after my first collection came out. A lot of things happened to me in those years that followed, but two fundamental things were true:
1. I didn't yet know what raw ingredients I would most need to sustain a novel I wanted to stand behind, so I had to learn by trying and failing. I didn't want to write an adequate book; I wanted to write a good book. My first versions felt adequate, not outstanding.
2. I had roughly three crises in between selling my book and publishing an entirely different one. I believe in the power of the personal crisis - but they also remake you as a person. Your sensibilities and humanity might change. Mine did. A different person has to write a different book - so draft upon draft happened. And was trashed. And restarted. I read more. I suffered more. The world changed rapidly. My children aged. I grew. As I re-versioned as a human, so did my work. Sometimes this meant the project I started was no longer the project I wanted to finish.
I knew the early drafts weren't right when I didn't want to press them into people's hands. I feel proud of the last version - it feels textured and cohesive, provocative. For me, when I imagined sharing earlier versions with people I respected, I got a knot in my stomach. I did get frustrated with how long it was taking me to get the book right - I had to recommit to creativity and art, and detach myself from commercial outcomes. When I did that, I was able to realize that the book wasn't going to be conventional, and that suddenly became okay, and then more than okay - it felt exciting. That's when I knew.
It took me several full drafts and re-starts to finally make a book that felt the way I wanted this book to feel, which is, weirdly now - a short novel and a handful of short stories. And somehow it is more right than anything I began with.”
Even after I wrote all the new material for the book, there are other ways I had to break my book and rebuild it. I had to throw away storylines from my life that didn’t work. I had to create internal tensions and structures to the book, so that the book would move and fly and be readable. Throw it away, start over. I had four different titles, four different themes of the book. Each time, each edit, with a different title, the book was different.
And in the middle of all this, there was a pandemic. The power of a personal crisis, indeed. Can we all take a step back and look at what we wrote this year and recognize that we were attending to a personal crisis the entire time? Does your book feel differently now because you are different?
In the end, even my North Star changed. I had to add one more paragraph at the end of the book. I fought it for so long, having to make that particular change. I had dreamed of what the last line would be. But the book needed to end on a different note. I had written my way to a different place. A brilliant friend of mine read the manuscript and made a suggestion of where it should end. How she saw me, how she always saw me in her head. And so I changed it. We can’t always rebuild ourselves all on our own. Sometimes we need the help of others.
What scares you about letting go of the old version? What good do you think will come if you try a new version? What opportunities does it create?
Comments are open today.
Be good to each other.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support Casa Ruby.