I read the last word in my memoir manuscript, Hiking Naked, and shut the lid of my laptop. That day, the document was twenty pages shorter than when my publisher offered me a contract—and requested some cuts. I hoped my trimming and editing resulted in a tighter story with stronger verbs and fewer adjectives. More showing, less telling.
A little over a week remained until the deadline for me to send the revision to my editor. I decided I had one more task to do—read all 225 pages out loud. It seemed a daunting undertaking, but the next day, in the quiet of my writing office, my yellow lab/shepherd curled at my feet, I began.
I hadn’t anticipated how many times my reading voice would crack and tears would lodge in my throat, even though I know this story of my family’s two-year sojourn in a remote mountain village so well. The reading aloud revealed not only some overworked words and bits of stilted dialogue, but also the heartache of my struggle for clarity about work, my yearning for control, and the grief of losses that followed me to the Stehekin Valley.
Perhaps some of the tears were for the end of the writing process as well. For twenty years I’d worked to put this story on the page. I had re-read journal pages filled with questions —Am I good enough? Can I accept that I’m not in control? Is it okay to tend to my inner life? Is it possible to experience joy fearlessly? I tapped out words on my keyboard, trying to make sense of how those two years in a different place and a different way of life brought me to the balance and clearness I sought.
My creative writing development showed in the variety of ways I wrote about those questions, doubts, and fears. But as I spoke the text, I realized the questions persist, the doubts still surface, the desire for control and certainty remains. Once I reached the manuscript end, imagining it being out in the world for others to read, a single word hovered at my ear—fraud.
That label weighed on me, prompting me to seek counsel from my husband, a longtime spiritual friend, and a trusted writing friend. It faded for a few days, then resurfaced and lodged in the suitcase I packed to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing last week.
After Tobias Wolff’s opening keynote, “Some Doubts About Certainty,” I made my way to a session led by writer Dani Shapiro. I’d slid Dani’s memoir/writing book, Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, into my backpack in the hope she’d sign it. I settled in to hear her discuss her daily practice of attempting to make art out of a chaotic childhood and a painful early adulthood marked by profound loss.
“When I begin to write, it’s an act of faith,” Dani said as she talked about her three memoirs (a fourth, Hourglass, is due out in spring 2017). “I feel profound uncertainty. I don’t write what I know, I write to discover what I know.”
Evidently the judgment of myself as a fraud had wedged itself into my backpack, too. When it came time for questions, I asked Dani if, when she completes a book, she feels she has the answers. “No,” she replied, “I’m just better able to articulate the questions I started with.”
Dani went on to explain that, before an interview on the “Today Show,” she called a spiritual friend for help to calm her jitters about explaining the uncertainties that compelled her to write her first memoir, Devotion. Her friend suggested, “You’ve written a book about what you know now.” For Dani, implicit in that wisdom was, “You’ll know more, later.”
Until I read that last word in my own memoir manuscript, it seems I’d expected that I had figured it all out, had answered all those questions that sent me to my writing desk. “The book ends, but the journey doesn’t,” Dani said. I’m holding on to those final words.