Lessons from writing about dreams, loss, fatherhood & farming.
On a fall day four years ago I sat down to write about my family’s experiences in Appalachian Ohio, where we lived and worked and were part-time farmers for thirteen years. It took me a year and a half to produce a manuscript of 500 pages. It took me another year and a half to cut 200 pages. And I’ve spent the last year restructuring (again).
During this process I’ve learned a lot about writing. When I began, I was a guy who’d made his living for thirty years with words, as a journalist, book publisher, and teacher. That guy didn’t know what he didn’t know. He never dreamed how much he’d learn by writing a book; he planned to sit down and just do it, take a year to write and maybe another to polish. He wasn’t arrogant or egotistical in this plan—he was ignorant.
As writers say, the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write a book. All the writing, all the reading you do in the process, all the joy and the suffering accrue. As Annie Dillard put it, all the “richness of the years” goes into a book. Her rule of thumb is that it takes two to ten years for most people—non-geniuses—to write a publishable book. Two years is short for most mortals, though, so let’s do the math: using her figures, that’s an average of six years to write and publish a book.
Writers can get tired and discouraged, but thankfully they also can get addicted to the process. Because it’s all process, which is to say it’s about seeking and learning. A goodly number of friends, family, and writer friends read my stuff and helped. Recently a reader put his finger on my manuscript’s chief flaw in a way that I could understand, or was at last able to hear.
“Your book is driven by a narrative,” he said, “but you abandon it at will and become topical in places, like you’re writing an essay. That confuses the reader and kills momentum and suspense. Honor your narrative. And tighten the time frame—open with buying the farm and end with selling it after your accident. If you do this, you’ll have learned how to structure a book.”
I sulked, then tried to apply my hero’s insight—which led to a cascade of cuts and additions as I saw what truly fit the narrative to which I’d hitched my tale. Over the years others had protested excessive technical farming content, or said the book was too slow to start, or complained that the timeline confused them. I’d responded as best I could, but didn’t grasp what they were really saying. Finally I saw.
Armed with this perception, and working six days a week for the last three months, I’m almost there. I was ready, and the teacher I needed appeared. But as they say in Appalachia, “It weren’t easy.” For the first time, I had to lash myself to go to the keyboard because I was afraid and confused—afraid I couldn’t do it and confused by how to do it. And yet every day’s suffering yielded good progress and, sometimes, amazing results.
Among other things, I blasted apart some chapters and killed a chapter I’d slaved over for years, one I’d cut from seventy pages, completed in a volcanic eleven-hour session at the keyboard one Saturday, and slowly whittled to twentysomething pages. And I restored a chapter that I’d dropped a couple years ago. While working on that new-old chapter, “What Freckles Taught Me,” about the mysterious mothering ability of a dumpy little ewe, I dipped into Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire because I wanted to see how he presented so much information, about humans’ coevolution with four plant species, and yet kept things flowing and human. (It’s a brilliant book, though my favorite of his very popular books is his first, Second Nature, about the garden as a middle ground, between wilderness and city, an emblem of our rightful place in the natural world.)
Pollan has said that journalists alienate readers by coming across as Mr. or Ms. Expert, instead of as mere inquiring mortals. Pollan counters this pitfall by pausing now and then to make fun of himself. He shows himself freaking out while being naughty and growing a couple marijuana plants, or depicts his (very smart) head somewhat up his own butt. That is, he shows himself being human, our stand in. His research and insights that comprise his writing are so good he must do this—showing himself being brilliant too would render his persona insufferable.
No danger in my case on either score. But I saw there’s a fundamental difference in our books, between my messy memoir and his refined intellectual literary journalism. Pollan can present more stuff for pure brainy interest, but in my book pretty much all such material must be connected to me, to my history and emotions and to my ongoing story. A memoir is primarily about individual experience, of course, rather than about information or ideas.
So I can’t say in my chapter, “Mothering ability is the sin qua non of pastoral farming.” Or I can, but I’d better also show it: “When I came upon the scene, Freckles was bedded down with her fresh lambs but Fancy was unconcernedly grazing beside her newborn triplets—one of which was dead. And she hadn’t bothered to lick clean the other two, which sprawled in the wet grass, still sodden and dressed in a slimy yellow film of placental tissue.”
The abstract concept “maternal ability” that fascinates me must be grounded in my experience and emotions for readers. As noted, Pollan draws on the human connection when he presents his own interests and experiences as much as possible while unspooling his leafy topics. But in a memoir the personal is constantly vital so that the reader doesn’t think Why is he telling me this? Too much information! Readers must first buy into the character(s) in memoir, and then may accept a certain amount of learning about their world and their passions. It’s a fine line to walk in a memoir set in a complex or technical environment. What is it necessary for readers to understand in order to understand the character (not so much his environment separate from him)?
Rereading The Botany of Desire while rewriting this “Freckles” chapter clarified my struggle, even if it didn’t make it easier. The other thing I saw, which surprised me, was how often Pollan uses space breaks, even when he’s got a perfectly good transition and doesn’t strictly need a white space. He’s giving readers a breather (his writing is smooth, but his ideas are still weighty). I went to “Freckles” and hit the return key after one passage. Now that was easy. And felt righteous.