One of the most difficult things in writing memoir is creating yourself as a believable character on the page. I learned this the hard way on a car ride with my old friend and colleague, Susan Brown, who taught creative writing at the university level for more than three decades. Susan and I met as co-teachers at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference and become fast friends. She was funny, she was fun, and we laughed a lot together; she was a brilliant and charismatic teacher.
Early in the writing of The Burning Light of Two Stars, when the memoir didn’t yet have a name and I was still calling it “my mother-daughter book,” I was visiting Susan in Woodstock, New York, and she agreed to read my first few scenes. I had trepidation about showing her my work. I knew that Susan was smart and insightful, but I also knew that she didn’t care about couching her critique in encouragement or kindness just to stroke a writer’s ego—Susan never sugarcoated the truth. I knew she’d tell me what she really thought, and if I wasn’t ready to hear it, I shouldn’t give her my pages.
I gave her my pages. And then I waited. What was she going to say?
Finally, on a long car ride in upstate New York, while I was riding shotgun, Susan shared her analysis of my work. “Laura, I feel like I’m getting a sanitized version of the story. Your mother doesn’t come across as someone with any insight. You don’t show us her vulnerability. You need to give her more emotional depth, more feelings. Show me a mother who’s in pain, not just someone who’s angry and reactive. Was she brave, too? If she was, it’s not there. You’re not showing that to us. What motivated her to want to reconcile with you? You don’t tell the reader. It leaves me thinking she just wanted someone to take care of her in her old age.”
I could feel myself caving in on myself as I listened. Each word like a blow. But I said nothing. I’d asked for this. I kept listening. Susan went on. “It all feels unexamined psychologically. When I read these pages, I think, ‘Laura was so desperate for reconciliation, she caved.’ Where was your mother’s sacrifice? I see you doing all the work. It looks like you took a crumb—that your mother sat on her ass and didn’t do anything.”
I wanted to yell, “But that’s not what happened. That’s not the story at all!” But I didn’t. I went silent. I sat in the passenger seat, staring out the windshield, trying not to cry. I’d asked for this. I wanted—no, I needed to hear it.
“Laura, this book isn’t The Courage to Heal,” she said referring to my first book, a runaway bestseller on healing from sexual abuse. “It’s the courage to reveal.”
“What do you mean?”
“All of your books are serious in tone and your personality never shines through. This book is about you—it’s your memoir. We need your sense of humor and warmth and self-deprecating side. You need to be more human and not just smart on the page. Otherwise, it feels like a self-help book disguised as a memoir. You’re already covered a lot of this ground in your other books. This book has to be different. We have to see you. You need to let your real voice, the complexity of your character shine through. But you don’t let that happen. You present yourself as a completely serious person. You’ll be so much more endearing if you show your vulnerable side. You need to show that you can laugh at yourself. That’s key. We’ll follow anyone anywhere who knows how to laugh at themselves. You need to be able to say, ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’ Because that’s what we’re saying. That’s what your reader is already saying. Otherwise, you come off as too sanctimonious.
“People want you to tell the real story. They want to know about your life. Nothing is more appealing than someone who can reveal themselves and be honest.
“Your ability to be ironic, to see the absurdity of the human condition isn’t showing up yet in this manuscript. Your approach is emotionally compartmentalized. It doesn’t allow for the whole range of feelings that go into this story. What you have here so far is way too guarded. It’s like you’re saying, ‘I’ve just selected what I want you to see to make me look good.’ And it doesn’t make you look good. It makes you look dishonest. It makes you look like you’re hiding something. Like you’re not telling the whole story. That you’re just selecting what you want to say to tell this sentimental story of reconciliation.”
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. That was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. I felt decimated. Devastated. And I was pissed at Susan for a long time. But underneath my bruised ego and hurt—and the sinking realization that I had to start over yet again—I recognized that she was right. And the truth was, I wasn’t starting over. Every time I tore the book apart and wrote a new draft, the previous version provided the mulch necessary to grow the new one. And Susan’s critique, no matter how harsh it felt to me in the moment, no matter how harsh it was, was accurate. It told me exactly what I needed to do emotionally, spiritually, and on the page if I wanted to really get to the bottom of my story—and I did. If I really wanted to create two human, real, compelling characters on the page, I was going to have to find the courage to reveal.
It was some of the best advice I ever got.
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