On Writing

I thought I could write. Because I sit here and write posts that go wherever I want them to and I’ve space around them when I do it. I can’t write when I can’t breathe and I can’t breathe when there are these vicious, nagging, condescending voices in my head. As I’ve been writing the blog, I’ve kept them at bay. But I think they were just waiting.

I decided to take a local class in memoir writing. The teacher, L, came highly recommended. And so it got me started – not only the writing, but organizing notes and figuring out the order of the chapters, thinking about what this memoir is about. It is not about Philip’s death, though certainly that’s what drives it. It’s my story, it’s about me going through this rather than around it. And I have much to discover about all of it.

Here is what I’ve learned, and not from class. Writing is intensely personal. It takes a long time. If I write with the sole aim of being published my work will not ripen. I will be writing under stress. I will have the potential publisher’s voice in my head as he laughs at me, “You? Published? Ha ha ha ha. Next.”

The writing is the discovering. It’s the work. And writing a memoir is not writing a blog. There is much more to think about. Like scenes need to be set, I have to consider if each sentence is supporting what I’m trying to say, and I have to have some kind of order. This is challenging. I’m telling Philip’s story and my story and they have to flow into each other.

What I find comfort in is that this is not a race. This is unearthing. For instance, I started to write something about my mother at the wake, and I got so sick with rage and need that I had to stop. I couldn’t write the scene any more. I don’t know how to write the scene. But how much sense does that make? Writing reflects life. My feelings for my mother are twisted and are no where near the peace I need to take a step back as I write. So I turned to a different section and worked there. I’ll get back to my mother when I’m ready.

I know that this book is going to turn into what it’s going to turn into. And I will be surprised.

As for the writing class – it has helped, but it’s also thrown me. It’s a workshop. We read and we critique each other’s work. We can bring up to five pages. We can bring no pages. It’s up to us.

Me, I can’t imagine not reading aloud. I learned that I have little patience for workshops. With two or three people, maybe. Then you can slow it down and concentrate. We have as much as seven people reading and it’s just too much for me. I can’t listen to so many different writers – by the fourth one I’m losing concentration.

But the worst of it is that it’s become a drama, and much as I see it, I can’t help it. L has become my mother, sneering at me because nothing I do is good enough. (No, L. doesn’t sneer. Nor does she discourage. Really.) It’s a drama because I’ve taken a situation and written my story over it. And even though I see this, it’s affecting my writing. It’s a big deal for me to read in front of a group like that. I want to be good, I want to impress, I’m afraid I suck. That I’m boring. Right there that’s going to throw my writing off. As far as the memoir, the timing is off. If I’d started this class with a chunk of the memoir in progress, then it would have been a matter of bringing in what I’ve already written and discussing it. I haven’t written much of it – so I go home and want to write five pages and get it right and that is not writing, it is performing.

What I need is a class on craft. Not where I’m bringing my memoir in every week, but where I’m learning about structure and pacing and organization, things that confuse me and that I don’t, on my own, see when it’s not working.

Ever since this class, I sit at my computer in the grip of anxiety and I can barely write. I’m trying to describe a scene, describe a person, put in sounds and smells and give them what they I think they want to hear and I’m paralyzed. I can’t write like that. What I do – when I’m not pressuring myself because I’m in a class – is just write what I want to write and add what needs to be added after. But now I’m taking what L says in class and looking at all my sentences and not knowing how to make them better, how to be what she wants them to be.

It’s drama. And it’s all in my head.

There are things in class that have been pointed out to me that are really helpful. But in my crazy brain, I think that if I was a good writer I would not have made those mistakes and since I made those mistakes I am therefore not a good writer. It’s perfectly logical.

I’m not sure whose memoir I’m writing any more. Is it mine, or is it the one I think they want to hear?

I am nowhere near ready to workshop my work. I need to sit and write and keep it close. I need to figure out what works for me. Like no more writing on the couch. I have a writing desk. I am serious about this? I will sit at my desk and work. It feels good, because it feels like I’m taking myself seriously.

Part of the problem of the class is that it gets me thinking about the big picture – i.e., getting it to a publisher – when all I want to think about is the scene I’m writing. It’s one scene at a time and I want to spend hours – days – at these scenes. I need to – Philip has died and I am still and always will be working through this. That’s what the importance of the memoir is. I might not be able to write five pages in a week. And as I said, I don’t have to, but I will like a failure if I don’t. Five pages is a lot of pages to get right because it takes me a long time to get it right. And Philip is in every part of it, whether I say his name or not.

Right now, I’m writing about his childhood. I have some of his pictures around me, from when he was a baby through 18. I went on Google maps and pulled up the house we used to live in. I am immersed in the past and it’s starting to shake me. I think what helps is that I go to work and it’s been busy and funny. So much laughing there – so I’ve no time think about anything. Then I go home and turn on my computer and there it is. I’m not complaining. I chose to write this, that means I experience it. But I’m so very sad – he was here, wasn’t he? I have the pictures to prove it. It’s just seeing that childish innocence, then seeing him in a coffin…how do I find the words for that? By sitting and taking the time to write it. However long it takes.

© 2016 Denise Smyth


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rebecca B
    Mar 17, 2016 @ 22:42:22

    Hi Denise! I think you are a fantastic writer. Keep going! Miss you, and enjoy your posts.


  2. Lucia Maya
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 01:10:17

    Dear Denise,
    you are an excellent writer. I can say that as a lifelong reader, I know the difference between good and bad. When you write from that inspired place, that connected, sacred place, that intimate, vulnerable place, it is wonderful. The few times you’ve written what has felt like an effort, like you’re trying to fit into someone else’s idea of writing, it doesn’t ring as true for me.

    Your writing moves me, it inspires me. I sometimes envy you and the ease and frequency with which you write, and the way you can bring together the personal and the deeper meaning. I hope someday I will feel inspired to write the story of Elizabeth and me, and I have to trust the timing, as I have no energy to do it yet.

    sending much love to you and Philip,


    • Denise
      Mar 18, 2016 @ 09:16:39

      Thank you, Lucia. If I’ve moved you, I’ve hit the mark. I’m just having such a hard time lately and it’s exactly because of what I said – I’m writing to this class, I’m writing what it’s been suggested I write, and my sentences feel like lead: I did this, I did that, I did this again, blah blah blah. I truly don’t know how to liven them up. Which pretty much means I’ve lost some connection, like I’m pulling sentences from the air instead of having them emerge from within.

      I know what you mean about energy. It’s been a long time that I’ve wanted to start this memoir, then all of a sudden it was time. You’ll know, and believe me, I am so looking forward to it. xoxoxo


  3. kmlagatree
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 06:10:02

    You have named and described something here that every writer can relate to. I am privileged to have a front row seat in your process. xo


  4. Denise
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 09:16:59

    And I love that you’re there, and that you get it.


  5. Karen
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 09:28:57

    Denise, I don’t know if there are words for THAT unless you’ve experienced it first hand… like we have. I love your writing. And YES, our boys were here!! We have the love, joy, and sorrow in our hearts to prove it.


    • Denise
      Mar 18, 2016 @ 11:59:06

      All this writing about him has me missing him more. I’m just so sad. Thank you for caring and for reading, and God I am sorry you know exactly what I’m talking about…


  6. Karen
    Mar 18, 2016 @ 23:35:46

    I do care and I can’t believe we have to live like this….a life sentence! Somehow though, I just know something will hit you at some point, and those words you are looking for will flow right into your thoughts and heart so innocently without any struggle at all. And you will know….


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