by Jerry Waxler
This is the fifth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one
When I decided to write my memoir, I entered a new chapter of my life. The beginning was easy. I just needed to gather the information and search for anecdotes and timelines. However, from the very beginning, I knew it would be my responsibility to create the illusion that readers were actually participating in the events. To meet that responsibility, I needed to learn many new language arts, such as scene building, sensory description, dialog, and story structure. As I learned, I continued to polish my manuscript, organize it, and incorporate feedback from critiques and edits.
Occasionally I think I’m getting close and I send it out to an editor for feedback. It always comes back with suggestions and concerns. After one recent submission, my editor told me about a weakness in my craft. She said my manuscript would be greatly improved if I developed my dialog with what she calls “beats.” Instead of just “he said,” then “she said,” I need to allow readers to see the characters. It would look something like this.
“blah blah blah,” he said, as he reached for a glass of water.
“blah blah, blah” she said, signaling to the waiter to bring the check.
Her instruction provided a wonderful teaching moment and another important step toward stylistic excellence. I could see what she meant. In the fiction I enjoy reading, the author interweaves all sorts of action into the mix. I now needed to follow her suggestion, and review my manuscript in an attempt to create more compelling scenes.
This project of turning life into a story has given me some of the most creative years of my lifetime. I love pushing my skill to higher levels, forcing me to learn how to create the same effects that I have been enjoying as a reader for years. But I also have mixed feelings about this new round of improvements. The techniques of scene-building require that I remember ever-increasing details from decades earlier. Would the value of my story really be that much greater if I remember the glint of light through a window, or the sound of water dripping from the sink, or a foot tapping nervously?
And another question arises. I have to decide if I really want to spend more months or even years increasing my ability to put talking characters into a room so readers can see the background. I want to present my case to a higher authority. “Isn’t it sufficient just to repeat the conversation?” But I know the higher authority is the reader, and if I can create a story worth reading, I will have succeeded.
Someday, my memoir will be ready and I hope when I finally do publish it, it will offer readers as interesting a journey as possible. Exactly, when I will cross that chasm from a private life to a public one will rely on a complex interplay of esthetic judgment and courage. Until that moment, readers and I will remain on opposite sides of the chasm. At some point, I will have to take the leap.
As the memoir wave continues to grow into a tsunami, and increasing numbers of people are feeling the desire to share their stories, each writer will face this decision. And when I read self-published or small-published memoirs, I am on the receiving end of their sense of timing. Should they have waited longer? Wasn’t it wonderful and sufficient that they had come this far and given me a story about the years of their lives?
For example, when I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe” by Dawn Novotny, I attempted to learn all sorts of lessons from her life story. And I also attempted to learn from her decision to publish. As a story reader, I notice gaps in language and storytelling skills, issues that would not have survived the editing process of a traditional publisher. As a result, many episodes violate the storyteller’s mandate to “show don’t tell” and would have received all sorts of skill-building suggestions from my editor. If Novotny had waited until she had reached a higher bar, she would not have had the satisfaction of sharing her story, and I would not have had the satisfaction of reading it.
I’m glad she chose to publish it, because her memoir puts things in perspective, and helps me remember the power of the memoir revolution. Everyone now has the option of taking this fascinating journey of writing a memoir, and then actually moving it from the privacy of a manuscript to the public sharing of a book. Novotny has taken the plunge, and realized one of the great benefits of modern times. We are allowing ourselves the freedom to get to know each other, our mistakes, our pain, and our wisdom. When we pass each other on the street, our stories are invisible. In the age of the memoir, we discover that we all are living our stories.
After every memoir workshop I’ve taught, students say, “People are so interesting,” or “I didn’t realize people had such extraordinary experiences.” Dawn Novotny’s memoir shares yet another one of those remarkable stories. It happens to touch on the lives of some of the people we know as household names, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe Dimaggio. But even those famous characters spill over into real life, with its complexity, dreams, faults, and emotional challenges.
The fact that it is not perfect story crafting is only one aspect of the book. It is in fact, a passionate, interesting, and engaging journey through a person’s life. Every memoir teaches me lessons, first about the variety of human experience, and second, about the craft of transforming life into story. Now in the age of self- and small-publishing, I also learn about the courage to step out from the shields of privacy and share our lives with readers.
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.