by Karen Debonis
Last fall, after twenty years of effort, I finished my memoir. In recent years, that manuscript went through two rounds of beta reading, the scrutiny of a paid book editor, and another eleventy-nine revisions.
What began as a story about my young son’s life-or-death struggle with a brain tumor became an examination of how my people-pleasing had kept me from being the fierce mama-bear my son needed. The long road to “The End” of this book has been a battle between ego and humility.
Let me explain.
In the beginning…
Like every author, I wrote the manuscript to the best of my ability, which I thought was pretty darn good. The words “runaway best-seller” may even have skipped around in my head. I moved on to querying without so much as a peek at my manuscript, except to cut and paste pages into emails according to agents’ guidelines. I received a trickle of form-letter rejections and a flood of non-replies.
I still believed my writing was as good as I could make it, but those runaway best-sellerthoughts disappeared. Earlier this year I joined a memoir critique group. I decided not to submit chapters of my manuscript since it was “finished.” Instead, I submitted some creative nonfiction essays that had languished in submissions limbo. The groups’ comments gave me insight into why publication had eluded me. I heard the message loud and clear: My writing just wasn’t that good (my words, not theirs).
In other words, I wasn’t ready yet. I’d queried too soon.
In his book Your First Page: first pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them, Peter Selgin writes: “Telling an author, ‘Check your ego at the door,’ is easy. Doing so— for the author—isn’t.”
Disheartened didn’t begin to describe my feelings. I began to doubt my ability to write at all.If I can’t even produce a decent essay, I thought, how could I possibly have written a decent book? Perhaps essay and book skills are different.
Still, something felt backward. Wasn’t my craft supposed to improve with time and practice?
Note: I had improved. But I couldn’t see it yet.
The Next Phase
My memoir beckoned me, but I resisted, fearful of what I’d find. Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
So I swallowed my ego with a Tums and re-read Chapter One for the first time in months.
The prose was humbling in its mediocrity.
I’m not fishing for compliments or wallowing in self-doubt. I’m stating a fact.
- I relied on telling instead of showing.
- I gave unimportant details, and far too many of them.
- I didn’t vary sentence length and structure.
- It was boring.
My writer’s soul shook with horror that I had sent these pages to agents. I hoped my query letter had been so bad, they hit “Delete” before reading the manuscript. The next day I moped around the house, vowing to drop the project altogether.
The fact that I was no longer satisfied with my previous writing was evidence of growth. Stepping away from a piece for a few days/weeks/months might give you a new perspective when you return, but the odds will increase if you’ve sharpened your skills in the meantime.
I did step away in the middle of my twenty-year memoir journey, worn down by the challenges of parenting a brain-injured child. With no time or energy to write about what I was living through, I stashed my box of memorabilia and the ancient computer holding my files in a corner of the attic. Years later, when my son was grown and recovered enough to be independent, I downloaded my old files and got back to work. Unsurprisingly, my writing had not improved. How could it when I hadn’t written?
My recent experience was completely different. Stepping away, then returning to my manuscript after vigorously practicing my craft gave me the clear perspective and tools to fix it. This time, my previous mistakes jumped out at me. I knew what to fix and how to go about it. The clear path forward energized me to tackle another round of revisions.
The Real Road to Publication.
With a deep breath and three Hail Mary’s, I submitted Chapter One for critique. I harbored fantasies of my critique partners saying, “It was perfect—I have no suggestions!” But humility slapped me back to reality with the groups’ tough and fair comments.
Back to the writing board I went.
(Are you seeing the pattern here?)
Ego feels great for the short term, but it can keep us stuck. Humility hurts, but it often leads to growth.
As writers, we strive to capture an element of the human experience and present a particular perspective on it. Humility is essential for that. Opening ourselves to understanding others’ unique take on the world, accepting that we are less than perfect (i.e., fully human), broadens our ability to convey the true depth of humanity.
Applying my critique group’s feedback with my improved skillset turned Chapter One into something I could be proud of today. If I have to repeat the process in six months, I’ll remind myself again that this process is worth it.
What I’ve Learned
Takeaways from my recent roller-coaster of ego, humility, and self-discovery:
- At any point in time, your writing is as good as you can make it at that time. Be proud that you’ve done your best, but be prepared to view it less favorably in the future, because you will have grown. Let your discovery encourage, not discourage you.
- Times heals no wounds and improves no skills unless you actively work at it. If you take a writing break for more than the length of a vacation, commit to working on other aspects of your profession or hobby: read, study, take classes, sign up for webinars. Further your craft, even if you aren’t creating new manuscripts.
- Even if you believe your earlier writing sucked, study that growth. Ask yourself if it was better than it was the year before. In other words, turn your focus from where you’ve been to celebrate how far you’ve come. Believe that trend will continue.
- Humility is the best teacher. Imperfection leaves room for growth. Embrace them both.
I’m up to Chapter Four with my critique group. The original weighed in at a whopping 8000 words, but by the time I submitted it I’d trimmed it to under 4000. The critiques were fewer this time, the compliments kinder.
I had improved. So far, I’m counting it as a runaway success.
Have you had a similar experience? Do you ever go back to your previous work and celebrate your writing growth? What aspect of your Craft has improved the most? Please share your stories with us down in the comments!
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Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently in submission for publication.
A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.