Whose Life Am I’m Writing About?

November 8, 2011 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized)

I had a strange experience the other day. I found myself taking notes on my own life.

I’m trying to write a book-length memoir version of this blog. Chronic Town, the book, will be the story of how an overachieving, globe-trotting thirty-something woman’s whole life got turns upside down (and inside out) by becoming a mother and chronically ill at the same time. In the process of losing everything familiar about her life, she comes to truly love her life for the first time.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

I thought it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to write the book. After all, I wrote a reference book a few years ago. And I’ve been writing about the intersection of motherhood and chronic illness for five years on this blog. How hard could cranking out another book be?

Very, it turns out. It seems to be that there’s a big difference between writing about Internet resources for social studies students and crafting your own (sometimes painful) life stories into a compelling book. Just because I find my life’s events rather interesting doesn’t mean everyone else will. Then there’s the issue of finding the right narrative structure. I can’t just regurgitate everything that has happened to me between 2004 and now. A good memoir, like a good novel, has to have a beginning, middle, and end. Things need to happen. The main character (me) is supposed to grow and change. There needs to be a point to it all.

Given all this, I decided I should outline the “plot” of my book. I’ve tried winging it without an outline—sitting at my computer and letting the structure of the piece come to me as I write. Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well. I ended up writing a hundred pages of “background.” I was exhausted, but I hadn’t even gotten up to the becoming-chronically-ill part of the story. At least I don’t need to make up events like fiction writers do. I’m not that imaginative. My challenge is to determine what events go into my book and how to write about them.

I was excited to start my outline. I bought index cards and a new pen. I cleared three hours to plot out my book. I cleaned off my desk so I’d have room to shuffle my cards. I made myself a cup of tea. I got up to go to the bathroom. I got myself a glass of water. My tea needed more milk. I was about ready to duct tape myself to the chair. “What is wrong with you?” I asked myself in a not-very-nice tone. “I can’t remember what’s happened in the last seven years,” my inner story-teller squeaked back. “I mean, I know that I nearly got mis-diagnosed with lymphoma when Andrew was three months old. Then I had surgery to biopsy my lungs. I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. The disease moved to my heart, liver, bones, and brain. Andrew got older. I felt crappy. I started getting tough drugs like chemo to treat the illness. Andrew got even older. I felt even crappier. I got depressed. I gained 100 pounds. Then I started getting Rituxan. Now I feel a little better and Andrew is seven. Where’s the freaking story in that?”

Where indeed? Good writing requires details—not extraneous, over-descriptive details (because, really, who wants to know that much about the texture of chemo puke?) but concrete scenes upon which a story is built. My life—the raw material of my memoir—doesn’t lack for book-quality events. All of us in Chronic Town are perched (literally) between life and death. It would make good reading. I am not suffering a shortage of drama. However, living such a “dramatic” life makes it hard to keep track of the nitty-gritty details. Or, maybe, I’m just a lazy note-taker. I didn’t record what surgery I had on what date. When the doctor told me I could drop dead at any moment, I tried very hard not to remember the scene-specific details. There is an inherent tension between surviving in Chronic Town and writing about Chronic Town.

After puttering around with the outline for an hour, I remembered my blog. Maybe by reading my old entries, I could re-connect with the specific details I needed for my book. I started at the very beginning. I liked what I read. But some of it was like paging through someone else’s life. I was surprised at everything that had happened to me. I had pneumonia in 2006? Really? Apparently I’ve wiped from my memory the five weeks I spent in bed with that. (Or maybe they just bled into all those other weeks – but the purpose here is not to start my very own pity party.) So I started to take notes. Here are some of my index card entries:

• October, 2006. Liver problems started. Doctors screening me for Hepatitis C.
• October, 2006. Broke foot on long hike. Stress fractures more likely with long-term prednisone use.
• October, 2006. 2¾ year old Andrew was pretending to pick up prescriptions for me in his toy taxi.

To all of these, and to many more of the events I perused on my blog’s 2006 archives, I thought, “Really?” I nearly thought, “This poor woman. Look at everything she’s had to go through.” Nearly. (See–no pity party.)

I decided I was experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s, had a drinking problem I didn’t know about, or else my life was just too damn eventful. I’m guessing it’s the latter, but maybe I’ll discover the Alzheimer’s or the alcoholism when I make my way through the blog’s 2007 archives tomorrow. As it is, I’ve got a stack of cards relating to the somewhat-awful or heart-rending events I wrote about in 2006.

I found it all a little weird—this taking of notes on my own life, this evaluation of what calamity is book-worthy and goes in the narrative scrap bin, this excavation of my existence for memoir material. And it finally hit me that writing this book means setting aside what my life experiences meant to me and instead looking at them through the lens of how others will react to them. This isn’t bad. It’s just another framework.

I’m glad I wrote all those blog entries. I don’t think I could tackle this book project without them. Thanks to you long-time readers for coming along on this journey with me. And for those of you who are new to my blog, I encourage you to take a stroll through my archives. There’s a lot there. You can even take notes.


  1. Elena Aitken said,

    I for one, cannot wait for your book.
    I don’t really have a lot of experience with memoir, BUT…if you think of it like a fiction project with ‘inciting incident’, turning point 1, etc, etc…maybe that would help?
    Just a thought, take it for what you will..
    But like I said…can’t wait to read it. I have a very strong suspicion that whatever you figure out will be amazing. 🙂

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Elena,
      I really appreciate your kind words.

      Yes! Fiction rules definitely apply to memoir, or so I learned at SiWC. I’m a little daunted because I’ve always avoided learning fiction writing because I found fiction so, well, daunting. But there’s no time like now to learn, right? I loved Susan Juby’s memoir workshop at the conference because she explained to break things down into scenes and make sure that every scene has movement and change. I know this is so basic. But it was a total revelation to me. I’ve been an essayist (and before that a journalist and a reference and academic writer), so this whole movement thing is new. And, lo and behold, it’s pretty darn fun too!

      Is there a book about this basic structure you’ve mentioned that you would recommend?

      Thanks again Elena,

  2. Marianne said,

    This is why I like Scriviner. I’m not writing my book in order and I can move it around later in the program. You can write incidents or events as you remember them and then figure out how to order them later or keep them in a different file altogether.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Marianne,

      That is good to know. I definitely like the thought of having more flexibility in writing things out of order. I hate the tyranny of linearity that my mind imposes. If my software could help me rebel against it, that would be awesome. And it does really seem easy to use.

      Here’s to just the right amount of disorder!

  3. Evelynn Starr said,

    I too am struggling with structure right now. I have decided that for every day of Nano, I will write a scene of something that has to do with my memoir, and then deal with structure and order and relevance later. Make sense?

    So far it’s a bunch of blather. But I’m sure there are bits of it that will be useful later.

  4. Rebecca Stanfel said,

    Yes, that makes a lot of sense, Evelynn. Just write the scene and worry about where it goes later. I am going to try this myself. I think it will help me not get bogged down between scenes (the vestiges of academic writing, this unnecessary obsession with transitions). A scene a day? Sounds much more do-able than “write a whole freaking memoir as fast as you can”)

    Thanks for the suggestion.

    Wishing you smooth writing and many tidbits to find later,

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