How to execute the perfect rewrite. Ah, I love this topic. Oh wait: Did you think you were going to get it right the first time? Oh dear. Let me break this to you as gently as I know how: You’re not. Writing is all about rewriting, and the key to rewriting is…well, let’s allow this week’s guest post writer, Elin Stebbins Waldal, tell you. Author of the award-winning memoir, Tornado Warning, A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on a Woman’s Life, she is the best person for this job. Read on. I think you’ll agree.
by Elin Stebbins Waldal
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Bleeding about sums it up, although in my case, it was at a computer where I bled-out my first draft. Galvanized by my desire to add a real story to the well of fictional stories that existed, I set my sight backward, although it takes courage to retrace the path of memory; it takes something altogether different to get at the essence of what has been learned—unadulterated resolve.
Anxious, is the best way to describe how I felt after attaching and sending my first draft via email to Terry Spohn, the then newly hired editor; having never written a book before, let alone a memoir, the abyss of the Internet was almost too much to bear. Other writers had related writing a book to the birthing of a child and I had rolled my eyes. The cursor on my screen blinked; no, not birthing, this was more akin to putting my first born on a plane unaccompanied when he was eight, only at least then I could stand at the gate and watch as the airplane pulled out of sight. The cursor continued to blink, this was my first step, in what would be many, in letting go.
The wait was awful, if not interminable. And then it was over. There in my in-box was Terry’s response, with the subject heading: Notes on Reading Tornado Warning-1
Here is a slice from his notes:
The voice in the diary is very immediate, the language visceral, the scenes dramatic and compelling. The voice in the discursive passages is detached, the language vague and elevated and self-conscious.
The discursive passages should reflect upon and inform the experiences in the diary, and, since this is a memoir, this informing should be as complete and honest as possible, with no one’s feelings spared. As it is, the language and tone of the present discursive segments seem to be protecting something or someone, not least of which may be the author. In order to be seen, the author of a memoir commits to unblinking honesty.
I wanted to throw up, cry, stomp my feet, fire him, fire myself, have a different life. Wasn’t this my story? My eyes alighted on, then re-read, the following:
The language of these passages should be immediate, not lofty, narrated in scenes rather than recounted in summary. The memoirist has a duty to avoid making the reader feel not as smart as the author.
In my mind’s eye I could picture myself armed with my Merriam Webster, Flip Dictionary and Thesaurus; all veritable fixes for the word-addicted junkie in me. Although embarrassing to admit, I remembered having felt somewhat clever, if not, smart. Gross.
If there is ever a lesson to be learned about writing a memoir it is this: It doesn’t matter how many pages you type, there is never room for the author to be smug.
The stone of truth was wedged in my gut. I knew Terry was right. I also knew of those I was protecting.
All along unblinking honesty had been strapped like a pack to my back, Terry’s words made clear that it was time to rip it off, unpack the contents and own the personal risks of revealing the unvarnished events of my life. In my draft I had veiled the truth of my experience in honed metaphor. I was so busy being a “writer” that I had abandoned my chief reason for sharing—to help.
And so, the re-writing process began. It was excruciating, yet in the long run the shedding of superfluous information that did not move my story forward was in fact liberating and made the story stronger.
So, your first draft has been, for lack of a better word, thrown-up. At that point the story ceases to be about you, the author, and in that moment of arrest, becomes about the reader.
The importance of the editor is immeasurable. Terry was at an entirely different altitude than I. His clarity of vision helped me move beyond therapeutic writing. If my story was to see the light of day, it demanded that I get clear on what I had learned. The experiences of my past had shaped me, yet not defined me. I owed it to the reader to get to the heart of it—to own all of it in a way that would inform, help and prevent.
Entire sections of text, text I had labored over, words I had mined from my well of resources, metaphors that I had hid behind, all were cut.
Terry’s future emails implored me to search my soul, write, search some more, write and write and then write some more. I had to let go, strip. Protection, it turned out, was a form of dishonesty. My imperfections, juxtaposed to my insight, are what makes me utterly human—it was there, at the core of my being—that I found my voice.
Tornado Warning, an excerpt
I arrive at the beach for my run still feeling guilty about leaving Chinook at home. The weight of her perceived sorrow is one step behind me; she is a dog so she will get over it. In fact she may be happily sleeping this very moment.
If only forgetting was that easy. New questions skip through my bloodstream like a pebble on still water. Do we really “get over” wrongs that have been done to us? How do we know that we are “healed”? The diameter of the rings created by the stone grows wider in my blood lake. I can almost see the ripple appear beneath my skin. Maybe “healed” isn’t the objective. What if it is “healing”—as in ongoing, like the ocean in a constant ebb and flow? The rolling of the waves begins to settle over me, giving way to a more lucid view of the past that has shaped me. It is as if introspection serves as a ceremonial ablution and through that ritual the chokehold of shame is rinsed clean and makes room for me to see that I am not a victim. I am a survivor, but there’s more. I need to thrive, share, prevent. I can no longer stay quiet in this world, I have a voice and I feel it reverberate off my internal walls, making its slow climb upward until its melody can be heard all around.
The water is so clear today. The scattered surfers are protected in their full-length wet suits. I so admire the surfers out there in the frigid waters bobbing up and down void of fear. I can swim in my mind backstroke to a time where each of my children played on this beach, their fortitude and very being providing me with inspiration. I am suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. It is a privilege to be a parent, having a hand in the miracle of bearing and raising children.
Yet this miracle also brings responsibility. As parents what can we do to prepare our children from the cruelty that exists? We zip our children into a proverbial full-body wet suit lined with life’s eruditions, a neoprene triple layer fabric of wisdom to ward off hypothermia, scrapes and snares. We smear UV70 sunblock across their faces, hands, and feet as if our mere touch and each application will prevent the ruthless incursion of any future cancer.
I can no more imagine one of my children experiencing violence than I can orbit the moon. I hear myself thinking things such as, “Over my dead body,” or “I’d kill the person who lays a finger on any one of them.” But all that bravado gives way to an utterance, a borderline beseeching that re-states how I can handle it: Send the tough stuff to me…please keep them safe…let them be strong from all that they do, not what they endure.
Protect, safeguard, shelter, save, harbor—yet in the long run protection is not enough. We can’t just keep our children in a bubble. We need to build their strengths, sharpen their tools, let them own their triumphs as well as their mistakes. We need to help them understand the gravity of their words and actions before they hurt another person. We need to raise them to be good people, strong people, contributing people, and all that potential is predicated upon their own self-confidence. For in due course, we must open our hands in a wave, catch our breath as these independent creatures slip into the world’s water. We find ourselves praying silently that this child of ours has what it takes to navigate safely.
The fog that was previously south has lifted without my noticing and now I can see clear to Mexico. I turn and gaze north. If I were a bird I could fly the coastline all the way to Santa Barbara where Max lives, or east to where Kodiak and Chandler are each in their respective schools. I turn to leave the shore with the word “confidence” dissolving on my tongue as if it were a candy lifesaver.
Reprinted with permission from Sound Beach Publishing
Copyright © Elin Stebbins Waldal
Elin Stebbins Waldal is an author and an inspirational speaker, her first book, Tornado Warning, A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on A Woman’s Life, earned the 2012 About.com Readers’ Choice Award for Best Parenting Teens Book, received a 2011 Mom’s Choice Awards® Gold Medal in the Adult Book Category, was recognized as a 2012 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist, and won the Eric Hoffer, da Vinci Eye Award for best cover art. She was recognized in 2011 as the Champion of Hope, recognition given to an individual who inspires, Hope, Healing, Opportunities, Prevention and Education in San Diego. Elin lives with her family in Southern California and may be found online at; Elin Stebbins Waldal. She occasionally Tweets @ElinWaldal and may also be found darting on and off Facebook and Instagram.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Lois Alter Mark. Congratulations, Lois! I’ll be in touch to send your book.