So I’d been working on this book, a memoir of my fifteen years as a carpenter, for a long, long time – twenty-five years to be exact – and finally it was finished. I sent it off to the publisher, who liked it, and who passed it on to an editor, who also liked it, and who worked with me on a substantive edit, to polish and cut. So far, so good. Then it sat for a while with a copy editor and proofer, and that’s when I panicked.
I mean terrified. I’d always thought writing memoir would be a snap. You write what happened, you check with your journals if you have any doubts about timing or need a little more detail, then you write it down. What could be easier?
It turns out that everything I’ve ever written – eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and biography – has been easier than this. It turns out that to write an honest memoir (key word, “honest”) takes more gut-wrenching, heart-searching and even trips to the counsellor, than any poem or book of poems or biography ever did. Besides, everyone knows that poems are fictional and biography is someone else’s life. None of it is “you.”
But memoir is all yours. It’s also all the key people you ever knew and loved (and didn’t). Suddenly I felt like I’d smeared my life all over the page (quite a few pages, actually) and laid them out on a glaringly bare screen for everyone to judge. Suddenly all the things I wasn’t proud of, all the mistakes, were blatant. And what would those people say when they saw themselves on the page with me, so unexpected? I’d changed a few names, I’d sent out excerpts to ask others if they wanted their real name or a pseudonym, and had been deeply relieved that not a single person wanted any changes except for one or two corrections of fact. I even consulted a lawyer friend, just in case. All fine, he reassured me. Still…. It’s the bareness that’s hard. I phoned other memoir writers. Yes, yes, they knew the feeling. One wise friend said to me, “Send this book out, like all the others, with love and trust.” So that’s what I’m hanging on to. Love and trust – in my readers, and in the hard work I did to make this book as honest, as true, as I possibly could.
I’d thought courage for a writer was in the living, and then in the writing. Now I find that the need for courage doesn’t stop. And the places we need it, keep surprising me.
(Note: Journeywoman will be published by Caitlin Press this fall.)