For the last few days, perhaps even the last few weeks, I’ve been teetering closer than I realized to the brink of despair. Yesterday I sat down, opened my file, and looked at the frayed end of my story, trying to pick up the thread again. After several minutes of feeling lost, I went to bed. This morning the story was the first thing I thought of as I awoke. Suddenly all the doubts that have been building in the dark exploded to life:

  • This isn’t working. It’s like randomly tossing loose jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table.
  • Nobody will bother reading this.
  • I’m boring myself.
  • Why am I wasting my time on this?

You get the idea. I had unwittingly allowed my inner guidance system to switch to the Critic Channel rather than my muse.

I had a full-fledged case of the doubts when less than a month ago I was exulting about the structure I’ve chosen that focuses on place rather than chronology. What knocked me off-path? Whence the doubts? Philosophical discussions! I’ve been listening to a few purists who include chronological order at the top of a checklist of criteria necessary for a manuscript to qualify as a “real” memoir.

I know better than to do that! On the very first day of every class I teach, I issue this passionate rejoinder: Don’t let anyone else tell you how to write. There are skills, there are components that make your writing easier to read and understand, but the way you tell your story is as personal as your fingerprint. Listen to that inner sense we all have of how to tell it. First and foremost, it MUST fit your sense of your life and your Truth.I get pretty worked up about that message.

I had lost sight of that fundamental Truth and as I woke up this morning I was actually considering abandoning the project — or at least scaling it back to a bland, gray chronological documentary.

Feeling the gravel slip from beneath my feet as I stood on the brink of despair, the student was ready. The teacher appeared. For reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with my writing project, I surfed over to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonet’s Women’s Memoirs site. There I found a video post reconnecting me with Natalie Goldberg, one of my key sources of inspiration. In the video Matilda reminds viewers of the preference for reflecting rather than recounting that Natalie expresses in her most recent book, Old Friend from Far Away.

Bingo! That is exactly what I needed to hear. That is where I’ve been heading. Ten years ago I spent days researching the difference between memoir and autobiography. I came to understand then that reflection was the key difference. Memoir reflects, autobiography recounts. Reflection may follow a chronological path, but like memory, it may jump all over time and space. Yes, there are skills. Yes, scene is important. Yes, I do need to add some elements to help readers see the grid. I can do that! But only if I keep writing.

Thank you Natalie for the critical support, and thank you Matilda and Kendra for channeling that wisdom back to me at just the right moment. I am such a strong believer in “messages from the Universe,” and this is a very strong message.

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A story hydrant? Of course you never heard of that. I just made it up. I’ve learned to put a title on posts before I begin writing because e-mail alerts go out instantly when I click “Publish” and a couple of times lately I’ve forgotten the title.

Over the weekend I spent lots of hours clicking away as story flowed forth. My manuscript grew from 11,000 words to 21,000 words — nearly double in size. (I’ve written way more than that since I began this project, but much of it was warm-up that may or may not be used later. I refer here to my current working draft.) So, as I thought of a way to describe this torrent of words that were ready to be written, I thought of the fire hose analogy. It is an apt one, but rather clichéd, and it would take lots more space: A fire hose of words … something like that. As I pondered the matter, Sarabelle whispered in my ear: “Word hydrant . . .  NO! STORY HYDRANT!”

For those who have not met Sarabelle, and that’s likely to be most of you, she is my muse. You can meet her on my Heart and Craft of Life Writing blog. I tell about the day she introduced herself to me here. Other posts featuring her are here. She has been conspicuously absent on this project, so I’m delighted she finally put in an appearance.

The only way I can explain this gush of story is that I’ve been feeling my way along with this place-based structure, and spending gobs of time looking up resource material. Also, writing about the town center seemed a bit daunting. And, I’ve been super busy with other things. On Friday evening as I sat with my laptop, I realized that I saw light at the other end of the tunnel. I could now envision the rest of that chapter. The story hydrant began to gush, so for the rest of the weekend, I set aside all optional activities and wrote. I’m a firm believer in catching story while it’s gushing.

When I got to the high school (new chapter), I’d intended to explore that memory lode, and work my way back through schools. The junior high is quite near the high school, and my grade school is between junior high and our houses. But just as I wrote some dialogue with my husband about stopping to look at the high school, Sarabelle blurted out a direct order: “Save this stop for later. Go home first. Go back to the beginning now. You’ve put that off long enough. Catch schools on the way back out.” I swear I saw sprinkles of little star thingies as she said that. I certainly felt sparks of inspiration. That’s how the story hydrant worked. Suddenly lots of things just fell into place.

Please don’t think I was churning out finished draft. Far from it. Even now I realize that I left out lots of description. For example, I mention my parents and sister a lot, but have never formally introduced or described them. I am working in lots of dialogue — more than I ever expected be able to use. But there are still quite a few places where I stuck with narrative to get the basic story down, saving dialogue for the revision stage. If the dialogue doesn’t come naturally, I’m skipping it for now.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I once again believe I can get this project polished off by the end of the year, as I intended on New Years.