Saturday, August 20, 2016

Writing a Complicated Memoir

My memoir is a story of communal living and personal transformation. I joined the commune to live with my best friends, I was a single mom and wanted help to raise my child, and I was very idealistic. We took in the homeless and visited incarcerated adults and juveniles; we lived all over the Southwest and Northwest and in Mexico, Spain and Israel. Over time one person dominated the group with his interpretation of how we should live. The break up was a bitter mix of betrayal and disappointment and grief, but my journey continued to self-awareness, healing and empowerment.

After the group broke up, I dreamed of sorting, packing and running away for years, and sometimes still do. This describes what it has been like to write and edit my memoirs. For the ten years I lived in the commune, I did almost no writing at all, held to a standard of perfection impossible to achieve and a lack of privacy that prevented true self-expression. When I returned to the states, one of the first things I did was to enroll in a continuing ed writing class. Memories poured out of me onto paper, insistent and unstoppable. I wanted to capture everything while it was fresh in my mind. I made phone calls to friends to confirm details, I returned to Mexico and re-visited places I lived, I wrote furiously every chance I could but it still took me years to finish. In the meantime, I had to earn a living and raise my kids. I found true love and lost both the lover and a son to suicide and had to survive yet another painful turn on the wheel of life.

The memoir, started twenty-five years ago, grew into 650 pages. Five years ago I revised it down to 350 pages but it wasn’t until this past year that I was able to work with an editor and revise it to a publishable manuscript.

While writing down everything I could remember, realizations about myself, the person I was at the time, startled me. In high school, I was a rebel hippie; in love I was a free spirit; in heart and soul I was a poet. In the group, under the “guidance” of our leader, I was scolded and my personality flaws raked over the coals. At one point, I defiantly removed myself and my children from the group; longing to belong brought us back. But as I remembered the past, I saw how naïve and inexperienced I was, emotionally high-strung and desperate for approval. In this mirror of myself as a character, I was revealed in a not very flattering light: my introverted yet overly-dramatic personality, my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, my awareness of how attractive I was to the opposite sex, my opinionated ideas and resistance to advice, overlaid with undiagnosed PDST from a previous trauma. These personality traits made me seem out-of-touch, arrogant, vain, insecure, stand-offish, and “too sweet, not enough salt” as I was chided. Seen from this angle, I could understand how someone might be impatient with me and want to toughen me up. I could understand someone wanting to mentor me so I could be of service to others: to become strong, compassionate, visionary. 

I also had to be vigilant about blaming others or dramatizing the role of being the victim. In this way, my skills with writing fiction were helpful. Through the lens of trying to objectively describe interactions between myself and others, I didn’t pity the person I had been. And from there, I couldn’t excuse the way I surrendered my power to another. A lifetime of experiences would eventually teach me how to survive loss and disillusionment and bereavement, how to connect with understanding and openness, and how to be of service with deep empathy. But these were not mine when I first joined the commune and I cringed to see my faults laid bare under the scrutiny of my pen.

After I started the memoir, I shared the beginning chapters with members of a women’s writing class. They were curious and encouraging but when I started to publish poetry, my focus shifted. I might mention that I had written a memoir but I only showed it to a couple of friends. Lately I feel an urgency to get it out to the world. Perhaps it is because a dozen of the former commune members have died and I am painfully aware that time is running out.

I pitched my memoir to a well-established agent at the 2014 writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He scanned a few pages and said he was interested. He advised me to hire a professional editor to go through it before submitting a proposal to him. Filled with new ideas from a workshop on how to write a dynamic first page, I revised the beginning until I ended up strangling myself. Even with the help of an editor, the agent rejected the proposal I sent. When it came back, I realized that I had been trying to fit into someone else’s notion of “a hook” instead of trusting my own voice.  But I persisted in rewriting the introductory pages over and over. And over.

One of the weaknesses of my memoir was that I was more comfortable as a fiction writer. I wrote it like a novel, without reflection from my present, wiser self giving insights on my past self, hoping the reader would connect to me as a character and want to know what happened next. Now I can see that reflecting deeply on the meaning of my experiences was so painful and fraught with emotional landmines that I was unable to tackle it head-on. Writing about those times when I was abused, not only by the leader of our group but others who were still my friends, and those times when I allowed choices to be made for me and my children that were unhealthy or dangerous, brought up unresolved anger and guilt. How hard it was to write from the perspective of hard-earned wisdom and even harder, to justify why I had stayed! I felt, for the first time, ashamed of my endurance, my duplicity, my willingness to go along with the abuse. I felt ashamed that I had been so stupid and naïve. My doubts began to crescendo as my editor asked questions about things that seemed obvious to me. I grappled with explaining the spiritual basis of our lifestyle, founded on interpreting the New Testament literally. I didn’t want to explain every scriptural reference because I thought it would bog down the story. It was a challenge to explain that as remnants of the ’60s with Flower-Power attitudes about parenting and property, we didn’t believe in nuclear families or owning possessions. For example, my editor would always bring up my children: where were they, was I worried about them? She would suggest that I add sentences such as, “As soon as I came home, I went to check on my son,” but that sentiment was simply not true. We raised our children kibbutz-style; I trusted others to take care of my boys and even left them to go across state lines. We were living a new paradigm as brothers and sisters in spirit, sharing everything in common and working for “God not Mammon.” Why didn’t she get that? Her red marks all over the page made me feel discouraged. I had to slow down and explain more than I wanted to explain. I wanted to take the readers on a ride with me, an exhilarating roller coaster of highs when we were doing God’s work and receiving what we needed and lows when we were begging on the streets, highs when we got invited to the inner circle and lows of being chastised, highs of feeding the hungry and lows of living with sexual predators. I had to remember that she was reading as an outsider and as a representative of my possible readership. There were moments when I almost gave up, thinking I could never untangle the complicated mess enough to keep a reader turning the pages. Revising was exhausting but I started to see how the manuscript was taking shape. My story made more sense and had more clarity.

My memoir is a multi-faceted, complicated story. If I think about everyone on that journey with me, there are more than one hundred points of view, not including some who left and never came back. Others had similar but vastly different experiences, including my children. I wondered if I should refer to some of these. As my editor pointed out, episodes piled up one after the other and she thought the reader might get tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The reader wanted the crescendo towards revelation and group break up, followed by my awakening or rebirth, she advised me. But I felt it was important to keep the integrity of the story as it unfolded, the reality that I lived this lifestyle for ten years and that group-think, disempowerment and blind obedience occurred gradually. It was later, after the editing process was finished, that I was able to go back and cut out parts that felt unnecessary or dragged the momentum. (I am glad that I have kept a hard copy of the original manuscript for myself, though.)

Because the leader was alive until recently, I chose to rename everyone, including myself. It wasn’t so much fear of lawsuits as fear of being harassed by him. I imagined him showing up at a public reading or contacting me through social media. Any possibility of attention from him made me anxious. I knew I just couldn’t handle it; rage and resentment surfaced during the writing and editing as well as a more compassionate understanding of my own journey.

I knew that the people I was writing about would be upset. I knew friends would be taken aback by some of my perceptions. I deliberately left out the more scandalous sexual behavior because I didn’t want that to be the flavor of the memoir or the reason people read it. At the same time there is more about my relationship with the leader than people who know me now might be aware of. I have to be willing to be vulnerable and take a risk that they won’t judge me. I wanted to show how miracles were possible when we lived by faith and served the outcasts and the disenfranchised of society, how easy it was. But as I meditated carefully on the past, my perspective shifted.

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in revising my memoir was to keep a consistency of vision and purpose. I wrote my story chronologically as that is how the memories were stored but in revising, I also recognized that my writing skills have improved since I started twenty-five years ago. I originally wanted the story to be told in the innocent young woman’s voice, then have that voice mature over time. My story is about giving up self-volition and reclaiming self-empowerment, naiveté and sagacity, losing a sense of individual identity and re-identifying myself, a transformative healing story. But while trying to summarize it for a proposal, I realized that what my story is really about was never feeling that I was good enough and the ways in which that belief allowed me to be victimized. This belief did not begin when I joined the group. My sense of self-worth had already destabilized during encounters with others who disregarded me or rejected me because I was different. This is something many of us deal with in our contemporary culture, especially women and especially artists. Because I believe in the power of story to teach and to reach out to others, it overrides the fear that others who lived with me might feel discomfort at reading my version of what they also lived through. I changed my name back to my real name in order to connect it to my previous work but kept the pseudonyms I gave everyone else. It provides some disguise for those who don’t want to be associated with this story. I also have my son to consider: he doesn’t want the story of his upbringing to be blatantly in the public eye if at all possible. In my preface I apologized to all that I was limited to the events and experiences of my own life told through the subjective lens of my own interpretation. I wrote that I regret that there isn’t a way to archive our shared experiences.

Now that the manuscript is edited and revised, it is possible to self-publish if I don’t find a home with a publisher, so I foresee it being in print some day. I want the take-away to be the story of survival and healing and being silenced no longer because, after all, that is the reason I felt inspired to share it. I rescued my own voice, both in telling the story and in living my life. I access my inner guidance daily. I claim my authentic way of being in the world and I am still learning how to live up to the person I want to become. I am powerful and I am still evolving.

I wrote the memoir to heal myself. Some of this healing happened naturally as I wrote down my memories and continues as I share this story through open mics or excerpts posted on my fb page. I revised it in order to offer it as a healing story to others, to remind ourselves that we are all more than enough. 

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