What the Hell is This Story About?

The other day, I was going through some old files, and I came across a document dated December 2017, seven years after I began working on The Burning Light of Two Stars, three years before I completed the final draft. It’s entitled “Possible Directions.” It shocked me when I read it. Seven years into writing this book, I still didn’t know what it was about.

Here’s what the document said:

“I’m noticing that I don’t know what this story is about. Is it about my trajectory from empty to whole? Is it about the trajectory of my mother and me? About the process of discovery that happened after her death? Or is it some amalgamation of all of them?

“Susan Brown says the memoir is about my courage…the courage to publish The Courage to Heal and stand up to my family and the aftermath of that. What is the aftermath of that kind of courage? What price did I pay? How did I get from there to taking care of my mother at the end of her life?

“Is my book about the trajectory of me from disconnected and alone to finally connected?

“Is it about the trajectory of my relationship with my mother?

“Is the frame my grieving process? Is it tracking everything that came up in the year after her death?

“Is the frame for this story the boxes I pulled out from under the eaves and all the mother-daughter correspondence I discovered in those boxes? Could each letter be a trigger or the start of a new exploration/chapter?

“Or is this story the story of my own failing memory interwoven with my mother’s mental decline?”

Now here’s the thing. I remember considering each of these possibilities. They were all elements in my story. One day I leaned in one direction; on another day, I leaned in another. Mostly, it all felt like a muddy, overwhelming mess. Like quicksand. Like I was drowning in a sea of words.

Looking back now, I realize the book could have been shaped around any of these threads. I could have made any one of them the dominant theme, but I couldn’t make all of them dominant. And at this point, seven years into working on the book, I still hadn’t identified which framework to commit to. No wonder I was having such a hard time finishing the book! It was still just a collection of scenes, some of them powerful and beautifully rendered, but they hadn’t yet been amalgamated into a cohesive whole with a clear, major through line.

The question I had to wrestle with was, “What’s in the background and what’s in the foreground?” And this wasn’t just a question for the book as a whole; it was a question I had to answer in each scene. What was I going to highlight and give more space to on the page? What was I going to minimize or cut entirely?

I found it very challenging to answer this question. It’s one of the hardest things about writing memoir. Everything you’re writing about is true. It’s all happened. But you can’t include it all. You only include the bits that tell the story you’re choosing to tell. But just exactly what is that story? I knew my story was about me and my mother, that it was a memoir about a relationship, but it could have been told in so many different ways. How was I going to tell it? That was the challenge of year seven and eight.


The Burning Light of Two Stars is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold. There are links here to buy signed copies, bulk copies, and to support independent bookstores with your purchase. You can also read the first five chapters for free.

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