Today I’m going to talk about craft or writing as a metaphor for a life well-lived. Which seems odd coming from me because mine is a story of anguish. However difficult the climb, there are always lessons in the journey. Being recalcitrant and thick, I don’t often see those lessons until someone else points them out. It’s why I’m in therapy.
I wrote the first iteration of my memoir in about six months and then sent it to an editor. These were nimble, bold bright days. What I did not know then but found out now is there are many kinds of editors who do many different things, as there are many kinds of therapists who do many different things. A good editor is not unlike a good therapist.
I talk a lot about therapy. One thing I say over and over is finding a decent therapist is like finding a decent girlfriend. You have to meet people, find out what you want and discover what you’re needing within the relationship. You must express goals and assess compatibility. That’s how building any strong, personal relationship works. And these enduring relationships are the cornerstones of a life well-lived.
I’d taken a class from my first editor, J.S. Breukelaar before I’d even started writing the memoir in earnest. I knew she was dark and weird in the best ways possible and so I was sure we were compatible. Working with her was great because she knew what I needed without me having to articulate it. Most editors will not be able to anticipate your needs so it’s good to have an existing relationship or a personal referral from someone who does have that relationship. Frankly, I couldn’t articulate what I needed if I tried. What my manuscript required was a developmental edit.
She pointed out the strengths and even more of my mighty failures and suggested where I should expand and gave guidance about scene and structure. I got pages of annotations and helpful critique and used them to expand my original manuscript. She told me to dig deeper, do more research, enhance the narrative voice. She told me I was great and the work was fantastic. Like the eager student in the front row, I did everything she said then asked her to read it again. But she was busy because she’d just published her own latest book. She referred me to someone else she admired, someone with a similar backstory to my own.
He read my manuscript and gently said, this sucks. Tighten up the language, add more conflict, get rid of the fluff. You’re not getting away with shit. He was like the bad cop to her good cop. It was a crushing blow, as honest comments often are.
The nuts and bolts of an edit are why we seek editors. But the best editors (like the best therapists and the best girlfriends) are people we can still learn from even when they’re not in the room. Now, when I write I ask two things:
1> What do I want to say and how shall I express that?
2> What would the bad cop say about it? Is the wording concise? Does it create conflict?
My editors like it when I write social critique and so I just added another chapter into the introductory part of the book. I use an emotional logic to drive the story although many people write event based memoirs the build from A to B to C. A memoir is not a novel so the story arc rules don’t necessarily apply. But it is literature and so the devices a fiction writers uses are just as handy. Some writers use such a poetic style I want to cry because the language is so beautiful and their talent is so superior to mine that I want to bang my head against a wall. Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water comes to mind. Then I make myself feel better because I recall I've also read New York bigshots with horrendous and uninspired memoirs. They bank on a name and list of credentials but the works feature very few elements of craft and I go back to feeling superior again. Such is the writer’s life.
I've learned that even a story as turbulent and shocking as mine is nothing without a constant eye on craft. In my new chapter I use juxtaposition, repetition, metaphorical language, imagery and allusion. Here it is. (See if you can spot the reference to a 60s protest song by Buffalo Springfield.)
The Final Frontier
In between my first Thanksgiving and Christmas of ’72, NASA sent up the very last rocket to the moon, Apollo 17. No one cared. The Apollo missions were passé. Perhaps the only ones to tune in were the engineering geeks on student deferment from the draft. But people remember the disasters. They’ll tune into the failures in progress: a white Ford Bronco, a school shooting, an armed standoff. An exploding oxygen tank blew Apollo 13 to smithereens, leaving three men dangling in space. Houston, we have a problem here. That was April of 1970 and the world was watching. Two and a half years later the public seemed about as interested in NASA’s final moon mission as season one reruns of the Brady Bunch.
The country’s interest had shifted to Nixon and Vietnam. That December the president authorized the largest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, a ten day assault that dropped 20,000 tons of explosives on the north. The 1972 Christmas bombing was supposed to win the war and bring North Vietnam to its knees. Secretary Kissinger even said so. “The communists are on their knees,” he said. A month later the US declared victory and began pulling out of Vietnam. But the lies were exposed when we saw straggling Americans scrambling toward the spinning blades of the last Marine helicopter lifting off from Saigon.
And that’s the 1970s for you, smiley faces and Richard Nixon. Macramé and DDT. Moon landings and Christmas bombing.
Old men say to me we could’ve won that war. They say no one cared about Apollo 17 because those missions weren’t new anymore. What the old men forget (or maybe never knew) is that Apollo 17 was NASA’s most successful moon mission. Astronauts gathered the largest volume of moon rock, logged the most amount of hours on the surface and since December of ‘72 no human has ever been back.
The space program represents a bygone era, a time when scientists in skinny ties engineered solutions by working within strictly-defined parameters. They gathered data and calculated answers with objectivity and reason. Their slow, archeological dig for information and objective understanding represented the mindset of the Freudian 50s. By the 1970s the very premise of objectivity and reasoning was uprooted by a new psychology, a humanist movement emphasizing subjectivity and the immediacy of breakthroughs. For what it’s worth, people rejected the reasoning of the status quo in favor of the authentic, individual experience. There was no public anymore. We were each individuals in pursuit of a true, liberated self.
It was called the Age of Aquarius. Astrology was resurgent and mood rings were a must. We saw the rise of encounter groups and Gestalt. We saw protesters screaming for change. The afflicted stood in the open shouting down a bigoted society and a corrupted, unresponsive government. For every reaction there is an opposite reaction. Conservatives had their strong feelings, too, and were far better at branding them. They framed knee-jerk reactions to change as “patriotism” and “traditional American values.” Political strategists came up with a host of dog whistle phrases to signal to an angry, reactionary base that candidates were just as resistant to the obvious shift. Welfare state and forced bussing. States rights and tax cuts. Conservatives rejected societal changes but fully embraced the psychology of the day. The Age of Aquarius marks the point in our history when analytics and discourse were eclipsed by reactions and feelings. And feelings are never wrong. Facts and reason went into retrograde. We’ve never looked back.
If I look at my own history like jumbled contents in an open box, those cardboard walls containing my past are made of the 1970s. Pet rocks and the Southern Strategy. Shag carpet and leaded gas. Intel and Aqua Net. I’m forever sifting through the things in that box. I’m a worrier and a puzzler, a compulsive rehearser of moments ago. Hypotheticals plague me. What if my jumbled past was placed in another box? Would I have fared better? Am stronger for it?