I’m trying to write a book.

I thought, hey, I write all kinds of stuff, blog posts, reports, essays -- I love writing, so why not?  I have more time than I’ve ever had in my whole life.  If not now, when, as they say.  

So I’m writing a memoir.  I’m self-conscious saying that out loud.  People tend to confuse memoir with autobiography.  Autobiography is for Patty Hearst and Hilary Clinton, people who’ve had amazing, accomplished, interesting lives, and everyone wants to know the details.  I’m not Patty Hearst.

Memoir is a little nugget, a piece of your story that might be interesting not because of your accomplishments or adventures, but rather, because it contains universal elements, which is code for love and loss, the only story. It documents our human condition, it makes us closer to one another.  I read a good memoir and think, “I know!  Me too!”  And in that instant, the world gets smaller, richer, easier to bear.  But still, I feel self-conscious saying, “Yeah, I’m writing a book about, uh, yeah, about me.”

It turns out that writing a book is hard.  I’m like the person who made a box in a woodworking class, and the box turned out okay, so I decided I was ready to build a house.  

Books are long, and they have to join together into an actual story with a beginning, middle, and an end, a story that could hold a reader’s attention for more than 5 minutes.  I think I’m better at the five minutes part, which I could go into a long and sorry sidebar about, but I’ll spare us.  

So far, it’s not a real book. I’ve stacked a bunch of little boxes on top of each other, and it wasn’t quite like a house, so I drilled holes in the boxes and lashed them together and tried to add windows and staircases, but in the process, it’s possible that I broke the boxes.  

I have no idea how to build a house, but I’m pretty sure you don’t start with windows and stairs.  

I want feedback, but it’s complicated.  I ask my writing teacher, and every time I send her something, she says, “this is great, but can you go deeper?” So I get out the scalpel and poke around, scraping the inner walls of my heart for scraps to add. I try to remember how it felt when a certain thing happened, and feel that thing again, and stare at the computer and wonder why I’m doing this when I could just collect stamps or create bonsai trees out of tiny hemlock seedlings. 

I stop writing and walk in the rain to one of my spots to look for mushrooms or fish or peace, but eventually return to poke another vein, bleed it onto the page, and send it back to my teacher. “Much better!” she responds, “but can you go a little deeper?” 

I know she won’t be satisfied until my heart is a glob of dissected matter on the paper, oozy and warm and sticky.  I’m turning into that heroin addict who can’t find a good vein anymore, but I keep poking around. 

Having a collection of pages that I’ve written is like having a baby.  But at least a baby has it’s own heart and lungs.  This is sort of a weird, cojoined infant that shares organs with me.  Or maybe it’s a zombie baby that wants to eat my heart.  The more I write about it, the creepier it sounds.

But it’s hard for me to write without feedback, and it’s awkward to have my friends read stuff, because for one, they already know my story.  They automatically fill in the gaps, like those tests on the Internet where there’s an assemblage of letters, and even though the vowels are missing, after a second, you can read it fluently.  And it puts them in a weird spot too. “Um, yeah, about your book, Betsy. Um, yup, reading it.  Lemme get back to you on that.”  And I'm not sure exactly what that means, but what I imagine is, “Sheesh.  Why are you doing this?  Have you considered just trying to stop the bleeding?  Would it really be so terrible to get a cat and join a bowling league?  There’s no shame in that, honey.”

So I decided I needed a random but kind reader, which isn't easy.  Think about it -- if you need someone random, how would you know they’re kind?  And if you already know they’re kind, how can that be random?

I made a Venn diagram showing the intersection of those sets, and discovered there actually are a few people colonizing that space.  One person faithfully reads my blog, and sometimes comments.  I don’t know who she is or how she found the blog, but she’s always encouraging and thoughtful.  Most blog commenters are bloggers themselves, and it’s easy to learn about them.  But she doesn’t have a blog. I know nothing about her.

Yesterday, I wrote to her to thank her for her nice comments, and ask if she could read the first 50 pages. I know, that can go weird in so many ways. Like for starters, I’m that person now. 

Once, I told a waitress at a restaurant that I frequented, “Oh, yay! We get you, you’re my favorite.” And she turned beet red and left, sending the cook over to finish the transaction.  She couldn’t even carry our food to the table.  Really?  If you don’t like complements, you really shouldn’t work in the food service industry.  You should probably review building permits for wetland and stream impacts.  Anyway, knowing full well that this could go down in some weird and unpredictable way, I sent a note to her.

Because I think she’d get it, that it is just a baby, and the baby might cry and act weird, and be inconsolable and wet her pants and spit up, but she would know that where there’s a baby, there’s hope, and she’ll be gentle and forgiving and demanding all at once, because she won’t settle for letting the baby grow up to be weird and horrible.

Anyway, she wrote back and told me she’d be delighted to read it, and that, unlike me, she does have cats, and the name she uses when commenting isn’t her real one because she lives in a small town far away from here where the trees are small and the attitudes are provincial, and she’s private and doesn’t want people to see her tracks on the internet.  She told me her real first name, but let’s just call her Anonymous.

I’m private too, Anonymous, except for the part where I’m about to take off my clothes and stand naked and bleeding in your living room.

Thank you, dear readers, for everything.


  1. Betsy,

    Wow. You are brave for going down this path. Everyone has a story to tell but not all of us are story tellers. You are.

    If you knew how many books I have read or have queued up to read about writing your story, writing in general and memoir in specific, you might laugh. I never got past the voice in my head telling me I couldn't do it to actually start, beyond a few disjointed short stories, or windows, if you will.

    fyi, I read books in exchange for reviews, and I've tended to gravitate toward memoir. If you need another pair of eyes, I'd be honored.

    And the next time your teacher asks you for more, ask her for more. Detailed feedback is essential.

    Also, I would love to meet Anonymous. She sounds lovely.

    Best of luck. Let me know when it's time to pre-order.

    1. Oh, Mel, you don't know how close I was to sending that to you! A bullet dodged! :-) But truly, there will undoubtedly be a point coming up when I want another reader, and you're on my list. So thank you.
      Do you have any books to recommend about memoir? (Or any good memoirs?) And, actually, my teacher is pretty specific, and she's extremely helpful. I'm just not always up for it.

    2. Anne Lamott Bird by Bird, Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (“I do not so much as write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”) Ray Bradbury Zen and the Art of Writing, and Charles Baxter's The Business of Memory, you can read an excerpt here, or google him for the first chapter of his contribution to the book.
      Charles says "What you remember is the key to who you are" and I believe that to be true. I also believe that what you try to forget or ignore says a lot too.

      Memoirs I have loved include anything by Haven Kimmel, Augusten Burroughs, J. Martaan Troost. Some memoirs I've reviewed for LibraryThing that I enjoyed were Things The Grandchildren Should Know (profoundly sad) A Final Arc of Sky, Invisible Sisters, Breaking Night, Love in Condition Yellow. I wouldn't recommend reading all these as much as I might recommend reading Amazon or LT reviews to see what resonates with people and what they wanted more of.

      Best of luck, and I'd gladly take that bullet.

    3. Thanks Mel! I've read some of that but not all, so I'll hunt some of those books down. :-)

  2. And that, my dear, is why I'm a reader and you're a writer. You've got guts. I'm going to go out and join a bowling team and buy a cat.

    1. Let me know how the bowling goes. I may join you there. Cool shoes!

  3. I love your way with words. Keep on stacking the boxes, baby.

  4. I'm in, if you need another person.

  5. And even if it is a stack of wobbly boxes joined with bungee cords, it'll still be pretty good, I'm thinking.

  6. Very exciting and what a good blog-commenter to agree to read! As someone who has a hard time re-reading her OWN stuff for proofing and flow (see: Marianne's history of laziness), I am always amazed by the goodness of others. Hats off.

    1. Yes, the goodness of Anonymous is incredible. I am so grateful!

  7. Let me know if you need a transfusion. Type A+.

    1. Oh, good to know! I got an A+ in blood type too!

  8. If I was that waitress, I'd be deliriously happy at your comment. Things like that make my heart feel like it will burst. Just sayin'.

    1. Jenny O, you should totally be in the food service industry! :-)

  9. Someone else mentioned Bird By Bird, in which Anne Lamott gave the following excellent advice: to avoid libel, if you're going to describe a dreadful character based on someone who actually exists, be sure to give him a tiny penis.

    1. That is hilarious. I will definitely keep that in mind.


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