The Hardest Part of Writing a Memoir: The Truth

truthToday I’m posting a guest blog by none other than Scot Bolsinger, to whom I introduced you two posts ago when I committed to writing 1000 words a day for 90 days, an idea he inspired. Since joining his writers group, Scot and I have done a lot of back and forth by email. We share ideas and our philosophies of life, he metaphorically kicks my lazy writer ass, I get to kick his yoga butt, and we talk about surfing and how he needs to do it more and I less to concentrate more on writing. If you’ve checked out his website (if not, what’s stopping you!!), you will have noticed that Scot wears a lot of hats. And as I’ve mentioned before, it is in his role as editor, that he’s been invaluable to my writing process. The memoir I’m working on is challenging. It’s a lot like rolling over and showing my soft underbelly to a sharp-fanged, claw-swinging dragon. I’m scared shitless of what “you out there” might think of the approach I’ve decided to take. Yes, it’s about intimate relationships and yes, there’s a lot of S.E.X involved. While I’m still not ready to share a lot of details (in part because I haven’t even finished the first draft), I’m very interested in talking about the emotions and challenges one faces while writing a book of this nature. First off, I often wonder if I’m not being a total narcissist. But then I decide that the very fact that I worry about it probably means I’m not. And then I get anxious that I’ll be disowned by family and friends. Will they still love me if I hold up all my warts, psychological scabs, and zits to public scrutiny? But I have chosen to write this particular version of “my story” because I know I’m not alone in this world in having made the kinds of mistakes I’ve made and because it’s the most honest, most revealing (dare I say vulnerable?) version I can tell. In a recent email exchange the notion of where I reside along the monogamy – polyamory continuum came up. Yeah, we were actually trying to dissect “Who I am” where relationships are concerned. Heavy stuff. I was so impressed by one of the things Scot wrote, I printed it out and hung it in front of where I sit to write. I then asked him to write a guest blog for this site because of the profundity of what he wrote AND because everything I’ve ever read of his has made me laugh and think. That, my friends, in long because I know not the short, is how the following blog post was born.

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I met a bank robber once. Not the run-up-to-a-teller-and-demand-a-drawer-full-of-money robber, but a stake-the-place-out-and-pull-off-the-mission-impossible-vault-break-in-kind of robber. Dude had brass ones and obvious intellect to boot. For years and years he swore he was innocent of the crime that earned him two decades in prison. We got to know each other because he wanted me to write a book about how he was innocent. We talked at length. I heard all the arguments. It would be a great book, I told him. But I had a condition. “You have to tell the truth,” I said. “I won’t write fiction and pretend it’s real.” He stared at me. “I think the title should be Guilty Enough,” I said, which also told him I didn’t believe he was innocent. He then told the truth, perhaps for the very first time. The reason he held on to his fiction for so long is he knew the government stumbled across him but couldn’t prove it (several other dozen successful robberies, they never got close to catching him). They fabricated the case against them. They played a hunch. The Feds don’t like unsolved bank vault robberies. It threatens our belief in the power of our money. If a random guy can penetrate that and steal our money, he steals our power. We can’t have that. Tremendous pressure to convict grew. Someone. Anyone. My friend was a good bet. Turned out their fabrication worked. He was found guilty. It still pisses him off. His pride as a bank robber was shattered by being caught, because he knew they lucked out. They could have pinned it on anyone. It was wrong, he insisted. I agreed. “Fucked up,” I said. “Really fucked up. But still, I can’t write a book that isn’t the truth.” The so-called moment of truth. The book talk died down. Like oh, so, many potential authors, that face-to-face stare-down with truth caused him to blink first. The idea of the book ended up on the shelf of good intentions instead of a bookstore bookshelf. Many people are told, “You should write a book about your life.” Few do it. Of those who do, many still struggle with the fundamental task of truth. First: writing a memoir requires being honest with yourself. Rigorously honest. If you haven’t tried it, it’s hard to explain how wrenching the process can be. Of all the lies we tell in life, we lie to ourselves the most. We live the script we write for our character rather than live our authentic self. Have you ever read a memoir by a former pro athlete or political figure or most famous people? They read like the characters they portray. They are books about the brand, not the person and they aren’t that great. But the best memoirs, the truly memorable ones compel us by their authenticity. Second: writing a memoir requires us to write that truth in a compelling way. Many of us write about our lives in journals. The emotional depth in a journal can be dramatic. It can be healing. It can powerful. But it isn’t something others would want to read unless you’re historically significant or naturally hilarious. Our journals are only interesting to us. They are not the stuff of a bestseller. So then, this second step is a tough one. We have to take our sordid, confusing, dishonest lives and make them compelling, understandable, readable and honest. We have to turn our lives into a page-turner. An honest page-turner, no less. Writing a memoir is not easy. Those who do it (and finish) are pretty few in my experience. Those who do it well make up a club more exclusive then the Knights of the Templar. I truly enjoy the craft of writing fiction. But I came to a point in my life where I felt compelled to write a memoir. I avoided it for years until the point came where I felt God would not let up until I started. I described it as my Jonah in the Whale moment. I had a choice. Either agree and be vomited Jonah-like onto the beach of my new life or be consumed into whale shit. Tough choice, but I took the vomit and started writing the book I believe God wants me to write. I love writing fiction, but too often I lived fiction. I lived the story I told, not who I really was. I allowed myself to believe the narrative about me rather than be me, for better or worse. I ran from my life right smack into a prison cell. I ended up in rehab in prison. Rehab sucks. Prison sucks even worse. Both at the same time, well, that’s sort of like a Far Side cartoon drawing of hell, only without the laughs. But that is where I rediscovered that we are not what we do. All that stuff is part of becoming. Thank God’s loving Grace that She doesn’t keep score of our behaviors. Some get it easier than others. I get it only through red-faced moments that sear my brain. I’m slow. But in figuring it out, I discovered I am human and I’m a person who is doing my level best in this crazy, stupid, wonderful, spinning existence called My Life. In that dark turn of my life I found it. I became honest. In writing the truth, I discovered the empowerment of a truthful life. Instead of saying “I am fucked up,” I began to admit “I fucked up.” In so doing, I became less so. If we are honest we become our better selves. If we are honest, we find the spiritual stuff that in the end is most real. Whether we write a book about it or not is, in the end, far less important. But for those who feel compelled to like I do, like my writing buddy Dawn does, then be courageous because when you succeed you will offer the world a rare gem.

1000 Words a Day for 90 Days

Challenges

It’s shocking to realize I’ve only posted one full length blog here since the new year. Between committing to working harder in real estate, the work I’ve been doing with the Huichol Indians, and my outstanding ability to fritter away time in the great outdoors surfing, it’s been a busy year for sure, but there’s no excuse for how little writing I’ve accomplished so far this year. Now however, thanks almost exclusively to Andrew Scot Bolsinger, I’m taking steps to change that. All you need to know about Scot is that his website address effinartist.com kicks ass, he kicks ass, and thanks to him, I’m starting to kick some writerly ass. Okay that and that he’s a writer, editor, coach, activist, and felon. Go, read his bio now.

So how did Scot and I meet so that he could kick my writerly ass? We didn’t. At least not face to face. Scot and I both volunteered at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February (as I have every year since 2011), but when our paths crossed he didn’t have a moment to stop and chat because he was volunteering to be the conference organizer’s personal slave, er, I mean, assistant.

I should mention that I almost didn’t go to the conference this year because I didn’t want to have to look the same people in the eye whom I see every year and tell them I still didn’t have my book done, not even a first draft. I was deeply ashamed of my lack of progress and told myself I would not allow myself to feel like that again when SFWC 2016 rolled around. So like every year I attend the conference, I tried once again to hook up with someone (get your mind out of the gutter Mom!) to be accountability partners. I would offer to read their stuff and they’d read mine and we’d agree to keep after one another to produce regularly until we got our first draft done. But the end of the conference came and I still didn’t have my accountability partner. I was frustrated and my butt hurt from the ass-kickings received when I fessed up about my lack of progress to the people who’ve been my cheerleaders all these years.

So the day after the conference, as I took stock of my writing or minimum quantity thereof, I received an email from this mysterious Andrew Scot Bolsinger person, whom I’d never heard of. And low and behold, it was as if the Universe heard my prayers, he up and invited me to join a non-fiction writers group. I was so astounded by this manna from heaven I had to read the email twice. How on Earth did this guy even know who I was? And did he know he was answering my writerly prayers? The email was kind and encouraging and made me feel like I was being asked to join an exclusive and special group of writers organized by an exclusive and special editor, award-winning writer, coach/cheerleader (for now let’s just forget the felony part). And that is precisely what it was. To top it off, not only had Scot pulled together a group of eight motivated writers of varying backgrounds and experience, he also got Michael Larsen, experienced literary agent and founder of the SFWC, to join us and provide feedback. Wow! (The other “wow” is that Skype makes it possible for me to join a group that meets in San Francisco all the way from Baja, Mexico).

But the story doesn’t end there. Not only did my productivity increase as I pulled together material to submit to the group for critique in April, but Scot also offered his assistance as a regular butt kicker, a.k.a accountability partner and cheerleader. Only thing is, he doesn’t need anyone to make him accountable, except maybe where his yoga practice is concerned. But man, do I need someone to kick my ass regularly. And he’s been more than happy to do that. But it was what he did three days ago when I sent him an SOS email telling him my productivity was in the can again that made all the difference in the world. He suggested I just make time to write 1000 words, “today.”

It’s said that Jack London, one of the most prolific writers of all time, wrote 1000 words every day regardless of his location, health, or responsibilities. I’ve always rolled my eyes a little when I hear another writer referencing this fact. But the reality is that between 1900 and 1916 London finished over 50 fiction and non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and numerous articles. Fifty books in sixteen years! And the only reason he stopped was because he died (OMG, do you think writing all those books killed him?!) To someone who’s been struggling for over six years to complete one work of non-fiction writing all those books sounds pretty freaking miraculous.

I’d played with the idea of committing to the 1000 words a day program, but I always came up with excuses why I couldn’t do it. Frankly I was pretty sure I’d fail. I didn’t think I could possibly find time to write that many words every day. A 1000-word blog post can take me the better part of a day to complete, several hours minimum. But at this point Scot wasn’t asking me to do it every day, he just asked me to do it that day. So I agreed. But then he did something really remarkable. He didn’t leave me an out. He told me I had to send him the 1000 words. To which I responded:

oh fuck…you really are going to hold me accountable…

Yup, that’s what accountability partners do.

So I wrote those 1000 words, dammit! And you know what? I wrote them in under an hour because there were waves and I wanted to go surf more of those waves because I’m a wave junkie and a wave junkies can never get enough waves. And even though I vomited those 1000 words onto the page, they weren’t, according to Scot, complete drivel. They were certainly far from being my best work, but they were comprehensible and they got me over the hump on a chapter I’ve been pulling my hair out on for months (um, yeah, that’s ‘cause it’s the chapter where I describe losing my virginity).

Then another miracle occurred. Getting those 1200 odd words down on the page in such short measure inspired me to write again the next day, but this time 3800 words were the result! Yeah, I know, holy chit batman! Almost four Jack-London-writing-days in one sitting. And now here I am on the 900th word of a 1000-word blog that will fulfill the third day in a row of the 1000-Words-a Day Challenge (924, 925, 926…yeah, I could finish this blog post just counting out the numbers, but I don’t want to! I have important stuff to say here man!!). Oh yeah, so Scot also introduced the writers group to the Alcoholics Anonymous idea of “90 in 90.” That is, repeating something 90 days in a row to establish new habits and discipline. He generously offered to be our cheerleader on that as well.

So the bottom line is this – I’m writing this blog post to share with you my pledge to myself. Here it is:

I commit to writing a minimum of 1000 words every day for the next 90 days. I will focus these words on my memoir principally, but allow for a maximum of one blog post per week. I will not allow the lure of good surf, good food, good wine or even good sex with a surfing wine-drinking gourmet chef to dissuade me from writing those words. I state it here for all to see: There is no excuse for not writing those 1000 words because it takes less than an hour to write them. I pledge to write more than 1000 words on the days when I am moved to do so and in order to make up for all the time I’ve lost not writing 1000 words a day until now. And furthermore, I pledge to do my darnedest, write as many words as I need to write to have the first draft of my memoir completed by July 31st, 2015.

That’s write, I mean, right. This is my pledge. [dramatic arm-flourishing bow]

I invite you to drop me an email any old random day to ask me if I’ve met my word commitment yet that day. I also hope that if I don’t meet that commitment to myself, you’ll come a kickin’ with your shit-kicking ass kickers to set me straight. And I hope you’ll celebrate with me, when I report that I have. My success is your success, my failure…well, that’s something I gotta own all on my own.

[Whew! 1487 words!! Jumps up and down arms held high in the air Rocky-Balboa-style]

Alive and Writing

I know that from where you’re sitting it looks like I haven’t been writing, but I have, I tell you, I have! For now, anyway, you’ll have to take my word for it. Okay, I’ll be honest and admit that there’s been a lot of surfing and procrastination. Even some foot dragging and downright reticence. But since I last posted here and promised you a blog about the second half of my trip to California, what seems like such very long time ago, I have accomplished the following as far as writing is concerned:

I’ve dusted off my memoir, given its structure some serious thought, cut the several of the opening chapters (saving them of course in a file that I’ll probably never be able to find if I decide I need to exhume them) and taken another stab at writing parts of it. I’ll tell you in all honesty that reading 50 Shades of Grey inspired me to write some of the juicier bits, particularly one scene that involves a dive instructor.

I’ve written copious emails (one of my weaknesses and a way in which I waste bucket-loads of time, but I am here to contend that some of those emails are written in the manner of letter-writing that existed in the early 20th century, long before email and when consideration was given to the literariness (wow, that’s actually a word!) of personal communications. In the case of famous authors and poets anyway, it’s as though they knew that years later biographers and their readers would be judging their letters alongside their literary works).

I’ve journalized. [Yes, that is the correct verb for writing in a journal and according to my dictionary “journalled” is not a word, but I use it to describe this action all the time. Perhaps my dictionary needs updating?] I’ve done this to deal with the mounting anguish I’ve felt because I haven’t been posting to my blog, I’ve generally been misbehaving and none of it has involved a MAN. I’ve been writing the classic stuff of existential navel-gazing that any writer worth their mettle is practically required to do. And I’ve pined in my journal. I’ve pined for my lover. Any lover.

Most recently, I’ve been working on an essay I was asked to write for an online journal called Anthropologies. It describes, albeit in extreme shorthand, my experience working on community-based conservation when I first moved here to Mexico.

And lists…I’ve been writing lists – grocery lists and lists of all the things I should be doing, including chores, repairs and writing. After I make my lists, I promptly go surfing even though it’s not on the list.

I’ve also been mind writing, but hardly at all, because I’ve noticed mind writing mostly occurs a lot between actual writing sessions. So if I’m not doing one, I don’t do much of the other.

Aside from writing, I’ve begun conducting research related to an article I’m going to write examining a topic related to the history of surfing. I’ve even conducted two interviews related to said article and set about arranging several others. I don’t want to reveal too much just yet (don’t want to get scooped!), but I will tell you that this project has me more excited than I can say and I’m looking forward to the entire process, particularly the interviews, the people I will get to meet as a result and the knowledge, both specific to the article and about surfing in general, that they may impart to me.

I haven’t just been writing either – I’ve been doing one of the most important things a writer must do – I’ve been reading:

  • Deep in the Wave by Bear Woznick which I will review here at some point in the coming weeks;
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, which if you haven’t read and think it is anything like the movie, then I will save you the trouble and tell you it is a stretch to say it is even remotely like the movie. There is not even one mention of her romance with Denys Fitch-Haton (played by the lovely Robert Redford in the movie), which clearly was the raison d’être of the movie.
  • Some of the poems in Handwriting by Michael Ondaatje, always worth the time for their beauty and ability to inspire;
  • Several articles in the current and back issues of The Surfer’s Journal (the bible of surfers everywhere);
  • I’ve been picking up and putting down Man Without A Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster by Markus Wolf, but I finally put it down in order to read:
  • Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.

Millay was an early 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning poet to whom the expression “burning the candle at both ends” is attributed. So far my favorite part of the book (probably because it introduces some much needed levity to what is a depressing story) is when the author describes how Vincent (as she was called) helps her sister Norma, who’s just moved to bohemian Greenwich Village from conservative Camden, Maine, get used to life in the city.

One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a
certain freedom of languarge in the Village that mustn’t shock her…”So
we sat darning socks…and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched.
Needle in, shit. Needle out, piss. Needle in, fuck. Needle out, cunt. Until
we were easy with the words.”

I am a third of the way through the book and so far I find Millay to be an unsympathetic character, selfish and manipulative, particularly where men are concerned. I’ll let you know if my opinion is altered by the time she dies.

There is so much I want to share with you! I do hope you’ll check back here in the coming days or better yet why don’t you subscribe and get my posts delivered direct to your email so it’s super easy for you to get the latest on my adventures over the last five or so odd weeks. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Double pinky finger promise!