It takes a village …
… and not just to raise a child.
It takes a village to write a memoir, too.
This post is about the villagers in my village, the people I’ve turned to, looked to, and learned from as I’ve plowed away at making At Home On the Kazakh Steppe the best memoir it can be.
You might think, indeed many have written, that writing is a solitary task. Mostly, it is.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t needed a village.
First, I had to learn how to write a memoir.
I thought, when I began this project back in January of 2007, that all I had to do was put my memories down, in chronological order, using good grammar and punctuation. I thought agents and publishing houses would be pleased.
After all, I calculated, I’d written a column for both my high school and my college newspapers. And been an editor at both as well. I’d co-authored an award-winning textbook just ten years before. I obviously knew how to write. What else could I need?
I’d kept copies of all my email correspondence from the two years we were in Peace Corps, and I still had the seventeen “e-mail updates” I’d composed and sent to the 108 folks who’d at some point said, “Yes; send them to me too.” How hard could it be?
I had my Strunk and White at hand; I’d even read it once upon a time. What more could I need?
To my early villagers — those neighbors, friends, and members of my local writers’ groups, first in Virginia (under the watchful eye of novelist Lenore Hart) and then in Vermont (in the warm, gentle embrace of author and essayist Reeve Lindbergh) who never once said, “Better keep your day job,” or words to that effect — who read or listened to my early drafts, and who made generally positive comments…
To them I say, “I’m so sorry.”
I had no idea an early draft could be so BORING. I hadn’t yet learned about pace, or voice, or narrative tension.
I hadn’t yet read that one should NEVER show a first draft to anyone. It’s just cruel.
So, I’ll also say to them, “thank you for continuing to have anything to do with me.”
In my defense, I can only say, “I didn’t know any better.” I’m grateful for every one of you.
You live on in my Acknowledgments.
While I also noticed they never said, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever read,” the real gift they gave me was to encourage me to keep on keeping on. In the early years, that’s all it took.
My village encompasses the now-defunct website, www.peacecorpswriters.org through whom I met Alison Stewart and Bonne Lee Black, RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) whose fine editing skills helped me reduce my too-big tome from 450 pages to 340 and again from 380 to 310, respectively.
That they did this separately, and about five years apart, speaks to the fact that writer’s block has never been one of my challenges.
It was during one of the many writing workshops I took through a Writer’s Digest online workshop that I first heard the term “narrative arc” applied to memoir.
Who knew a memoir needed a beginning, middle, and an end? Not me; at least not then.
Through Writers’ Digest, I found another two editors in Kelly Boyer Sagert and Ginger Moran, both of whom helped me find my narrative arc.
It was also during one of these workshops that the idea of social media began to take hold.
I’d had an email address since before some of my villagers were born, and a Facebook account since February 2009. I knew my way around the Internet.
But then I learned that any future publisher or agent wasn’t going to be interested only in good writing; they’d want to see that I had a “following,” that I’d established a “platform.” To do that I needed to know my “brand.”
I could only say, “Huh?”
Just about then, a new villager happened along: Kristen Lamb and her “Blogging for Brand” workshop.
Kristen runs the website WANATribe.com whose WANA (We Are Not Alone) tribe members constantly remind me that as I negotiate this strange new world of social media, there are other folks doing the same thing and we’re all cheering each other as we go.
My village was starting to grow.
Kristen insisted we all join Twitter where I now have found 216 people who want to be my
closest friends followers and 445 people I’m running after following. I’ve learned that’s a good ratio, although it should be ten times that many, minimum.
I learned I should be TWEETING three times a day. Now, I could schedule these TWEETS ahead of time, spend an hour or so once a week and get them all done. This is doable; I know. But, alas, this is also still on my To Do list.
In addition to my fellow tribe members,through WANA, I met Lisa Hall-Wilson and learned that Facebook could be more than a collection of photos and breezy chats with old high school buds. In fact, if I wanted to eventually SELL my book, Lisa taught, my Facebook presence had to expand.
I could take my existing Profile page and expand it to include public postings, or I could add an Author Page, and use that to help build an audience of people interested in a book about Kazakhstan, or cultural differences, or a middle-aged grandmother who made a major change in direction at 55. Those weren’t necessarily the same folks who had become my Friends on Facebook. (Although they could be).
After explaining the WHY, Lisa walked me through the HOW. And, since Facebook changes its HOW quite often, Lisa continues to answer HOW by hosting a closed Facebook group for anyone who’s ever taken one of her workshops.
Thank you, Lisa.
Through Kristen, I also met Marcy Kennedy who brought me face-to-face with Google+ and helped me maneuver my way around Twitter with slightly less angst than I’d had before.
Both Lisa’s and Marcy’s courses, btw, cost less than $50.
Somewhere in there, I discovered Goodreads, Flickr, and Pinterest. I’m sure that was Kristen’s doing too. Fortunately, she made it clear we should choose our battles. I didn’t have to conquer all the social media that was out there. Not, at least, all at once.
That was good. My head was spinning. One step at a time, I kept reminding myself.
I saw social media as a strange new world, a foreign soil with its own language, culture, norms, and people. Still, I was an RPCV, I’d remind myself. This wasn’t the first time I’d been on a foreign soil surrounded by an unknown language, strange culture, different norms, and new people.
Bring it on!
Through Twitter, I met Kathy Pooler and her blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey.
Here’s when my Village began to bloom. (Is that a good metaphor? Not sure; I’ll ask my buds.)
When I first met Kathy, she had been writing her memoir for fewer years than I. But she was years ahead of me in social media.
And she generously offered me her hand.
She asked me to guest blog on her website, which I did in May, which introduced me to other memoir writers, who followed me on Twitter, befriended me on Facebook, and liked my Facebook Author Page.
As a result, I’ve met countless numbers of memoir writers who share their struggles, their successes, and their process on their own respective blogs, their Tweets, and their Facebook Pages.
Here are two:
Was mine a travel memoir, a quest memoir, or a survival memoir? There were elements of all three (at the time) in mine.
These past few years have been ones with a steep learning curve. Fortunately, my village is large enough now to provide support, guidance, and fun (not to be forgotten) just when I need it most.
My village keeps growing.
This year I’ve been the grateful recipient of help, support, feedback, or friendship from no less than all the above PLUS
- the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) and Linda Joy Meyers,
- Dan Blank’s WeGrowMedia.com, through whom I have a whole other family, and
- Ant Press, Victoria Twead and all the fun folks Vicky has brought together at the Facebook Group, We Love Memoirs.
With apologies to the American poet Walt Whitman, I say,
My village is large. It contains multitudes.
And, I trust it will continue to grow as At Home On the Kazakh Steppe sees the light of day.
How about you? Who’s in your village?