Sunday, May 29, 2011

Second Draft

I’ve finally finished the second draft of the book I’ve been writing. I’m looking at it sitting prettily on my desk right now, all spiral-bound and thick, at over 300 pages. The title shines through the clear plastic cover at me. No Secrets, No Lies: A Memoir.

As far as I’m concerned, Draft 2 is it. Done, finito. No interest in Draft 3, unless some publisher begs me. I should be so lucky

Here’s why: I’ve spent five years at it. I’ve rewritten each page, probably each word of the book ad nauseum.  I took an entire year going from Draft 1 to Draft 2 to restructure the memoir, and have had two editors who worked with me along the way. Enough.

It’s hard to imagine what could take so much time, I know. I wonder myself.

What was I doing all those hundreds and hundreds of hours crafting this damn thing? I’m not really sure. It’s not like it’s the first thing I’ve ever written. How could it possibly be so hard once I decided to do it? I can only say this. It was.

It sounds simple, I know. All you have to do is figure out what it is you want to say and get cracking.

But that’s where I ran into trouble. What was it I really wanted to say? I thought I knew when I started, but it wasn’t long before I ran into trouble.

At first, I thought I was writing a book about raising our son who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD, formerly FAS, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). Indeed, this could fill up a whole book, and many books about raising special needs children have been written. 

In Canada, a recent award-winning book by journalist Ian Brown, called Boy in the Moon, has won and earned, enormous praise for its thoughtfulness, insight and brilliant readability.

The first draft of my memoir was very much a book about my son Michael. Its title was Man Plans, God Laughs, from a Yiddish saying, referring to the curveballs life throws us. Like everyone else who has children, we hoped and expect they would be born healthy, and life thereafter would follow a certain script, with only minor deviations.

Well, for our family, it was indeed a case of  Man Plans, God Laugh. Our adopted-at-birth son was diagnosed at age six with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His brain was irreversibly damaged by the alcohol his birthmother drank when pregnant with him.

The prognosis we received wasn’t good. According to the literature of the time, Michael’s future would be bleak. Chances were good he would drop out of school, be unemployed, live on welfare or even the streets, and possibly, be in and out of jail by the time he was twenty.

Without a doubt, there was no shortage of good material to use for the book. But I wasn’t that far along into it when I realized I had a problem. Was the book about me, or was it bout Michael. If the latter, what was I really going to say? I had no desire or qualifications to write a self-help manual, so that was out. Nor did I want my whole book to be occupied by our struggles with Michael.

Too much of my life was already devoted to him. Now my book? Michael of course, would have to be a central theme in any memoir I wrote because he is, indeed, a central theme in my life. But I had other things I wanted to talk about besides ‘life can be a bitch.’

So I was back to asking the questions again. What is it I actually want to say?

This is not easy to answer if you’re writing a memoir. No matter how well it’s written, a  memoir’s gonna be about Me, Me, and Me.  It’s a little embarrassing. So you better have something good to say or you’re just going to be one more narcissist flooding the bookshelves.

As I’ve said, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed when someone asks what my book’s about.

“Well, it’s a memoir,” I say, feeling the need to explain. It  implies that my life is so damn interesting, ‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about me.’

The truth is, you have to actually believe that, to some degree. Part of you has to believe ‘I really do have something to say of interest to the rest of the world.’ 

On the other hand, in my case, as is probably the case for most memoir writers, I’m plagued by insecurities. 

A dose of humility is always good, but if a memoir writer has too much, it’s probably best to ditch the memoir and write about Lancaster Bombers or rare Slipper Orchids, instead. You gotta believe in yourself.

So I carried on. During the past year, I rewrote the book, developing a theme that ran through the first draft, but was not well-developed.

This is the theme of the present draft, the one I’m planning to send off to agents, hoping one signs me up, then tries to find a publisher.
This will give you some idea of ‘what I have to say.’ 

My grandmother died before I was born. Or that’s what I was told until I answered the family phone when I was ten and learned otherwise. A dark family secret was unleashed.  Begging to know more about my maternal grandmother, my questions were met with silence. It is then I made the promise of a ten-year-old: No Secrets, No Lies.

As I grew older and had a family of my own, I realized all families have secrets, whether inconsequential or life-altering.  I’m forced to ask questions of myself that we all have to consider. Who is it we’re really trying to protect when we hide the truth, and when, if ever, is the cost too high. While answering these questions, I discover why people, including myself, hide painful truths from the people we love.

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