I sat across the table from my editor at Panera in Barracks Road Shopping Center. We’d met for lunch and to debrief her review of my faith memoir. I came prepared with points for discussion about the twelve of forty chapters she’d noted, those not fully connected to the narrative arc.
She opened our discussion by congratulating me on my progress. Almost ready for first-round beta readers, she said. Then she issued a caution.
“Be careful not to talk too negatively about yourself—it dismisses the reader’s feelings, too. Look back from where you are now to provide context. You want vulnerability, not judgment.”
I nodded. Hope is a major challenge for memoir writers, I said, and gave an example.
In Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance, Dorothy Rice decides to let her glorious, long black hair go grey. Going “natural” becomes part of a one-year project to examine her real self now that her last child has left for college. Why not improve her marriage, lose weight, and write a memoir, too?
She writes about her abusive past, her unsatisfying relationship with her husband, her addiction to sugar and obsession with body image. A great deal of the book’s real estate is taken up by the author’s self-loathing.
Let’s be clear. Dorothy Rice is gorgeous—check out the headshot on her website—and much loved. But she’s not convinced that anyone could accept her the way she is. She sets weight-loss goals and, after dramatic losses and gains, ends where she started. Nothing changes except her hair color. She completes a manuscript in which she learns what she already knows. She is loved, and she’s relentlessly herself.
“The book was drafted in 2017 and published in 2019,” I said to my editor. “I think the author might have benefited from more time and distance from her negative feelings. As a reader, I became discouraged and almost gave up on the book, which is rare for me because I like to finish what I start.”
My editor nodded and smiled. We are both finishers and people of faith and thus know how easy it is to see the sliver in someone’s eye rather than the log in our own. So, we dug in.
“What work is chapter four doing,” she asked, “and how does it tie to the journey of self-discovery? How does this section in chapter eleven fit the narrative? Give space for reapportioning these early chapters, cutting them up and maybe placing them differently. Components in a few of the later chapters I flagged are too episodic and need to be stitched together with a little more connective tissue.”
I scribbled notes for the revision I’ll tackle after the holiday.
Driving home after our meeting, I had a thought about the subtitle to Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance. Is self-acceptance possible without outside help? Without faith and community, aren’t we relentlessly ourselves, wanting love but drawing away and ending up where we started, struggling with hope?
More logs in my eye to ponder during this second week of Advent—and in the new year.
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