Road to Publication: Killing Your Babies Part Two

A memoirist always runs the risk of offending the living when capturing them in prose. But he also runs the risk of offending them by omission.

In Part One of this series I discussed how I have reduced my manuscript of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road over the course of the last year, in anticipation of its fall publication, from 384 pages to 264. I also discussed how difficult it was to let go of some of that material. Well, much of the difficulty comes from finding myself deleting some of the stories of the amazing artists featured in the book.

Committed tells the story of a 2010 cross-country U.S. road trip in which I interviewed more than forty artists about creativity and living an art-committed life. When I started writing the book shortly after completing the trip, I envisioned it as a journalistic craft book on the creative process. Over the years the book has morphed into a true memoir, with me revealing how the artists changed my life, but also what dark moments in my past and present positioned me for change.

Being a travel memoir, I also make room for some of the sights and sounds of the road, including my visit to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside Birmingham. Trust me, the visit advances the narrative line in multiple ways! (And it was fun.)

Being a travel memoir, I also make room for some of the sights and sounds of the road, including my visit to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside Birmingham. Trust me, the visit advances the narrative line in multiple ways! (And it was fun.)

Readers of drafts universally told me this made for a more powerful story. But every sentence I dedicate to my story has meant I end up removing a sentence of an artist’s story. Initial drafts featured full encounters with each of those forty-some artists, often taking up as many asfifteen pages; I made good use of the hundreds of hours of video as well as photographs and my audio diary. As the memoir narrative arose, however–the protagonist’s character arc from “failed artist” to “creative”–what I presented of the artists needed to advance the narrative. Any writer of fiction will understand this process.

I also learned through workshop critiques that I needed to provide some variety in terms of the amount of time we spent with each artist, so the book didn’t seem predictably formulaic: Patrick enters town, Patrick interviews artist, Patrick leaves town. So where do we stand now? Some artists now have about eight or so manuscript pages; others have three or four; and a few are mentioned after-the-fact (not actually “seen” at all).

Ugh.

These artists aren’t just interview subjects to me. They are catalysts in a major life change. My original intent with the book was to honor them, and that intent remains, even as the story became more about the narrator. But I wished for many of these artists to receive more time in the spotlight. But I have to respect the reader’s needs.

So I push forward. I’ll be turning in my revised manuscript to the publisher in about two weeks. They may call for even more cuts. And I’ll struggle some more.

Let me end by noting one other thing that is keeping me up nights: The first sentence of this blog post. I am so concerned about writing about the living that I wrote my MFA critical thesis on the subject. I learned you must be fair but also honest about anyone you write about, and shine the brightest light on yourself. And I have done that in Committed to the best of my ability. But it’s safe to say that not everyone portrayed in the book will be happy with what I’ve written. I also know it isn’t my job as a writer to make my readers like me.

My chronicle of this struggle, namely the “truthiness” with which we perceive reality, went viral after WordPress featured it on its Freshly Pressed page. So perhaps there is a Part Three to this series that needs to be written, how even knowing what I am doing what I am supposed to do isn’t assaging my guilt. Have you struggled with portraying someone you know through your art, whether it be in a memoir or essay, a fictionalized version, or some other artistic expression?

ONE THING OF NOTE: I have launched a Traveling the Artist’s Road newsletter that I promise will be infrequent enough to not choke your inbox. It will, however, offer short bits of information on creativity and writing, as well as updates on the road to publication of Committed. I invite you to sign up!

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

31 Responses to “Road to Publication: Killing Your Babies Part Two”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to buying a copy of your book for my creative library. I have had a bit of a struggle with my conscience when it comes to writing honestly about some of the people who crossed my path. While they were undoubtably important in my particular narrative, their roles were more negative than positive.

    How do you, personally, treat with representation in memoir–honest versus critical? How might the editing process mute or highlight your particular experience with a person, rather than showing the reader who they are as a whole? Are there particular texts I might find helpful in this craft aspect?

    • Thanks for this comment. In my MFA program I was blessed to work with memoirist Sue William Silverman, who has written books that exposed very unsavory aspects of her family members. She addresses this challenge in her craft book Fearless Confessions. Now I must say that Sue had one advantage with her first memoir; she revealed secrets of her parents, but they had both passed. (That said, it’s not really much help, because a sibling and other family members were furious with her.) I wrote my critical thesis under her guidance, in which I reached the conclusion that while it would be dishonest to write out an indispensable character, I must do it honestly.

      In my book I try to highlight good and not-so-good parts; after all, no person is two-dimensional. And I try to focus on what the actions meant to me, rather than attribute motive to the other person. I also seek to understand and accept the other person’s behavior. I will say that the first draft never has those more “positive” elements. It is through revision that I get there.

      I also omitted a scene with one family member that I don’t think the person would have found offensive, but I decided it didn’t sufficiently advance the narrative and the person in question likely would have preferred not to be included.

      I’m glad you’re looking to buy the book!

  2. Oh wow, yikes – ouch, this is SO MUCH on target with my own interview-based project! Like you, I set out to find the answer to a question and I had a rough structure to the end product. Okay, it’s good to have a goal. But to make it true and real, you have to be willing to listen to what the material is telling you – which you describe clearly in today’s post.

    Like you, early feedback overwhelmingly told me that it needed to be *my* story as the way to bring the reader in. And that made me (finally) realize I wasn’t writing a biography, no matter how much I admired and loved my subjects.

    I have stories on tape that I will never be able to use, and that makes my heart ache. There will be people who are portrayed in less-than-glorious light, but that’s part of the overall story – and the big picture is what I’m after. I hope and trust I’ll be able to show nuances and shadings in those who are presented in a bright light, too, so that no one is ALL good or bad (as it were).

    How to do this – I think – will come back to keeping both through-lines weaving in and out fairly consistently. One can come to the front, be more prominent in a particular section, then step back and let the other be featured for a bit. … this is all theory. We’ll just see, as I end the information-gathering process and start on the sorting and writing.

    Thanks for describing your struggle with editing down these contributors you care about. Perhaps some of their stories that don’t make it into the book could be featured on a website – that’s one of the thoughts I’ve had.
    Cheers,

    • Hi Martha,

      Yes, this isn’t the first time our paths have proven to be similar. I think one thing you know is that in any journalistic work you have lots of excess material; the same is true in biography. (Well, some biographers feel the need to stick everything in the book, and I stop reading those books.) I like the notion of featuring some of that material on a website. As to that, I’m telling myself I can do one-off essays I would seek to have published that focus on particular individuals and what they meant to me. I’ve already had one work published that came from the road trip, “The Truth About Spam”–http://clampmag.net/2012/07/09/the-truth-about-spam-by-patrick-ross/ –but it didn’t focus on any particular interview subject. I’ll confess I’ve done little essay writing in the last two years, however, as I’ve been focused on this book.

  3. Suzanne Robertson Reply June 17, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Patrick, I cannot wait to (buy and) read the book! A memoir I’m working on has, at the suggestion of readers, taken a more introspective turn with more “me” in it. I’m a little uncomfortable with that for your same reasons that it feels like it takes the light off the story itself, in my case a man on death row. But I have come around to see how that’s making it stronger. The story is about my actions and reactions and how that changed things, not just the fact that a man was executed.

    Your story is so interesting and I look forward to seeing how you cast it all.
    I love your blog – the comments of your thoughtful followers are also always helpful!

    Suzanne

    • Suzanne, I love your enthusiasm for the forthcoming book and the blog!🙂

      It sounds like you’re going the right direction with your book, and obviously I understand your challenge, although I can’t imagine the particular emotion regarding your story vs. the man on death row. Wow. But yes, we want to read what it means to the narrator.

  4. I can’t really comment on the “truthiness” issue, since my novel is based only in at the loosest possible way on the framework of some of the events in my grandmother’s life. The characters have morphed completely away from their original inspirations, but that was the original intention, so it hasn’t caused me any angst. That’s fiction for you.

    I would like to chime in with an idea or two about your “babies on life-support” (you haven’t killed them yet!). For someone with a journalistic background such as yours, Patrick, there are two possibilities that leap to mind. The first is to submit some of the material in a number of articles to periodicals targeted to help spread the word about your book. If you polish and repurpose a particular artist’s story for a periodical, perhaps aiming toward periodicals that serve regional interests, a blurb with your name and book title in the article could inspire book sales for readers who want more. The periodical can bill it as “exclusive” material available nowhere else, even in the book! The only drawback is that the timeline may not be favorable, depending upon your publication dates etc.

    Which brings me to the second idea: blog or newsletter articles, or other online publications. Discovering the best venues might take some research, but I bet you already have a pretty good idea of what is available. It seems like you have your hands pretty full with your own current online efforts, so setting something up yourself from scratch may not be an option. Your material sounds like it is tailor made for such venues. So to seriously overextend the metaphor, instead of killing your babies you would be using their stem cells to give them new life! OK, yeah, I know, that was bad…

    • Yes to the periodical angle, particularly local. To be honest with you, I had considered that when first working on the book, and it has slipped out of mind for the large part. And yes to the time crunch; as someone who has worked on monthly magazines, I know from green light to publication can take months. (This book is being published rather quickly, from contract in May to soft launch in October; that process often takes as much as two years, and I think on some level I assumed that would be the case for me.)

      And yes to the online, which is faster. I will admit my hands do feel pretty full (particularly when balancing this with a full-time job) but it’s a way to build interest in the book while also honoring the artists. This is a very helpful comment, Michele.

  5. Hi Patrick;
    Your book is going to be fantastic. I hope you’ll consider making signed copies available for sale to your newsletter subscribers?😉

    I have learned so much from the questions you ask, because like you and Martha, my project is interview based too. But my subjects are houses! No, houses don’t speak, so you can put the phone down. No need to call the little men with white coats! I did get to speak to many of the people who lived in them. How much of their story crosses over with the one I need to tell? What to share and what must remain untold? I, too, came to care about these people and in some cases, their whole family. The families of those that have passed are watching.

    I feel guilty that I can’t tell some of the bits that I know mattered to them. But staying on track for me is a little different because I’m led by the paintings. It is my hope that it will get published and if it does, I’m sure that worry will increase. Will we ever know if we did all of them justice? I doubt it, but I have to believe it’s much better than no one ever seeing them at all.

    • Actually, I read a memoir awhile back about a woman’s struggle with schizophrenia, and it first manifested when she was about 10 or 12 and houses started talking to her on her way home from school. So to her it happened!🙂

      That is a fascinating angle, particularly to me now. I grew up in Arizona, and the homes I lived in were all new. But here in the DC area that is not the case. My first home on Capitol Hill had been built in the 1800s, and I often wondered about who had lived there over the century-plus span of time.

      You are of course a visual artist so I look forward to seeing this project when published, it will truly be unique. (And I use that word as intended, as an absolute, not relative term!) But it sounds like you’re bringing the right sensitivity to the project.

  6. Patrick, I’m really interested in your reflection about this process. I’m in the beginning stages of writing something about my time as an expat in the Middle East. For a while I was considering keeping it as non-fiction, because some of the stories are so hard to believe even though they are true and I wanted people to know. But I’ve begun to realize I could hurt many people by keeping to true story lines. It’s holding me back. It’s made me consider approaching the same stories but as fictional tales based in truth. I wonder what it will be like to edit the content, either way. You are so aware of your wish to honor each artist you interviewed, I’m sure that will be clear in the text, even with all of the edits your book is enduring.🙂 I can’t wait to read it!

    • Carrie, I love your enthusiasm for the book! You’ve been on this ride for some time with me.

      I know a number of people who fictionalize true stories; in fact, I suspect there isn’t a novelist out there who doesn’t draw on life experience even in a dystopian fantasy, particularly when crafting characters. (Like Michele above, who started with a real-life framework and went from there.) One writer friend of mine is writing about trauma in her past with her family, and the only way emotionally she could do so it through fiction. Now it’s worth noting that people who were in your life in the Middle East, whether depicted in the book in some form or not, will recognize the passages drawn from true stories, but that is neither good nor bad, it just is.

      Oh, and thank you for your confidence that I will handle the artist depictions well. I hope you’re right.

  7. Patrick, I think this problem exists not only when writing about living people, but also when writing about people who have passed away. When I am writing up historical research, I am very conscious of the obligation to tell each individual story as truthfully as possible, even while acknowledging that I obviously don’t have the whole story because I was never able to interview them and am relying entirely on secondary sources. I learned this lesson and the importance of this responsibility from a friend who is a historian; I had a conversation with her once about someone she was writing about, and she spoke about this person so passionately, and in the present tense, that I was quite astounded to find out several weeks later that the person had died nearly 80 years ago.

    • That is a very important angle to introduce into the conversation, Fiona. My next project, still largely in the drafting stage, is biographical, both on living and (mostly) dead. I love the anecdote about the biographer and present tense writing; that is fascinating. Some thoughts you’ve triggered:

      1. We do need to write truthfully about everyone in life. But you note how you can’t possibly know the whole story because you’re relying on secondary sources; that is true, but in a memoir when writing about others you are a primary source to the way a scene played out in your memory and mind, but you can’t know their perspective on it. So the full truth is always a bit elusive.
      2. One thing I find fascinating is the relationship a biographer forms with their subject. I’ve read more books in the biography space than any other, and you rarely see a biographer whose tone truly is neutral; they’ve either really fallen for the subject or they started out curious enough to take on the project but then grew tired of the person. As a reader I get a bit tired of the sycophantic nature of the former but bored with the latter. I worked with an author of several biographies while at VCFA and at one point in a trusted moment I confessed I stopped reading one of his biographies because I just grew sick of spending time with the subject. I said this apologetically, but he said he understood because he grew to despise the subject but was under contract to finish the book. He wasn’t at all surprised by my action, because he suspected his own writing, subliminally, was undermining the story because of how he had come to feel about the subject.

  8. Hey, Patrick🙂 I must’ve already signed up for the newsletter since I received one the other day😀

    I have to say I really feel for you with this. Since I only intend to write fiction (barring my blogs), it’s not as critical an issue, yet still is one. I know I will be feeding off many people I know as far as characterization and even using first names (just because I like them, not that they will BE the characters). I’ve considered how to handle this and will really have to examine it once I’m in the thick of things.

    As I was reading, a couple of things crossed my mind. I realize you have a contract for only one book. Is there enough for two? Or can you feature what you’ve deleted in your newsletter so the other artists and stories aren’t “lost,” just “detoured”? I know it’s suggested that it’s good to offer content to whet people’s appetites. Perhaps that’s how you can satisfy the necessity of the tightness and focus of the book yet still feel you’ve put out there what you want and not have anyone—including yourself as an author—feel slighted? It’s tough😦

    OK, I just read through all the comments, and I have to say how interesting it is to hear about what everyone’s working on and their opinions. I saw a couple of others suggesting things similar to what I said, so I’m thinking these are good ways to go with the material you’ve had to cut.

    And I REALLY like that Michelle actually asked something that had crossed my mind—about signed copies😀 Perhaps we can order them directly from you, or even easier for you—through a local indie store you frequent?😀

    • Wow, I had never considered a second book. I’d have to think carefully on that, because one could assume if it didn’t make the cut on this one, it’s not necessarily worthy of a book, but again, a lot of good stuff is out because of the narrative line, not based on quality of story. That said, I’m ready to move on to a different book project!🙂

      Ah, the signed copies! Yes, I need to figure out logistics on that. In mid-September it will be available for pre-order from the publisher, then would be shipped (or able to be ordered) by the publisher mid-October, then available broadly (indie bookstores, online, also ebook) in early November. I’m still trying to figure out how to do autographed copies from me (I do get a discount from the publisher and can resell, but I’m not sure I want to do that) or other things like bookmarks, book stickers, etc. Perhaps that’s an update for the newsletter!

      • First, I’m glad I may have helped open your mind for a possible “second book,” though it would probably have to have a somewhat different approach as far as the narrative. I don’t know! You’re the one who knows what’s in there now. Perhaps you can leave enough UNsaid in the first one in order to do a second should there be a call for it (seeing as your first one will be a HUGE success! :D). I’m hoping you throw the idea out to your publisher before this one goes to print. You just never know!

        On the signing of books: I do know that there are authors who post a link (along with the typical ones like those you mentioned) to the bookstore who will send signed copies should someone want one. Typically it’s one that’s local/favored by the author, of course. Also, just recently an author posted that she will send a personalized, downloadable bookplate I’m guessing in PDF format, so they can print it out on a sticky label or paper or whatever to include with their book. You can check it out here:

        http://www.jennifersattler.com/woo-hoo-free-stuff

        I’m sure ALL this will work out in the end🙂 Through the pressure, keep in mind you’re in that aspired-for, realized place of actually DOING it🙂

        • A ha, a downloadable bookplate. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I have seen authors offer to mail them to readers, but there’s an expense in that. Since she personalizes them it makes it unique, even if the signature is actually off a printer.

          One of the things I love about The Artist’s Road community is the great advice and ideas I get!

          • Yep! That’s the irresistible allure of being in touch online! There’s SO much to know and our meager little “one brain, one body” existence doesn’t allow us to be omniscient and KNOW EVERYTHING! lol

  9. Seems like this is where that compost pile of deleted writing comes into play. After this book is published and you’re ready to move on, you can include the unused stuff about the artists in a different type of writing project if you choose to.

  10. I found your blog only a couple of months ago, so I didn’t know much about your memoir. I’m glad to learn here more about it. The combination of your artist interviews and your own story sounds fascinating.

    Yes, I’ve definitely worried about offending people with my writing. My novel, which was inspired by my late husband’s story about his childhood in China during the Japanese invasion of China, is fictional, but facts from his life crept in. There’s nothing that should offend anyone, but still, I’m worried about the response from my in-laws. People can be very possessive with the facts of their lives and the lives of their family members. To make matters worse, I write in the first-person voice of a Chinese woman, and I realize some people will think I have no right to do so.

    • Your book sounds fascinating as well! Can you post a link to it here for those of us interested in purchasing it if it’s been published?

      I did a lot of research on the topic of writing about others, including attending panel discussions. Some of them talked about fictionalizations. What was consistent, however, was that the authro could never anticipate what would set somebody off. One author wrote about his father and said a lot of things he thought the father would be upset about being published. The one thing the father was ticked about was that the son got wrong the brand of beer the father liked to drink!🙂

      As to the first person voice, one of the artists I interview in the book is a professional storyteller; he goes to schools and libraries and tells stories he repurposes from folk tales and myths. He talked about the ethical challenges of telling stories from other cultures. It can be done, but is delicate, I admit. But ultimately, if a novelist can tell a story from the perspective of a space alien or a person of a different sex, she should be able to tell it from the perspective of someone from a different culture!

    • Hi Carrie, interesting point about some people thinking you have no “right” to write from a POV other than your own culture/gender/whatever… I always think some people are going to be bothered by anything or any way I write, no matter what!

      But if we’ve done our research and write honestly, then why shouldn’t any of us (and *especially* with fiction) be able to (let alone allowed to!) write in any voice? I write non-fiction, but a memorable exercise for a communication class I took a couple years back assigned us to choose a year not in the current decade, one with a historic event in it, and research the ways people received information, connected with each other, participated in culture. Then we had to (got to!) build a fictional character who wrote a letter to someone in his or her life referencing all these things. (Trying to paraphrase 2 pages of syllabus, here!)

      Oh, and the character couldn’t be like us… and if the year was, say, before email existed, then we had to write the letter… and so on. I was an African American veteran from North Carolina who’d settled in Chicago after WW2, writing to his nephew who’d just participated in the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. I did my research, had my notes in front of me, and then I just channeled the character and wrote… it was one of the most satisfying in-the-zone experiences I’ve ever had as a writer, and the result was stunning to me:/ so I resolved to find small ways to incorporate this technique in my non-fiction/quasi-memoir writing.

      All of which is a roundabout way of saying that you can absolutely write in the voice of a Chinese woman. Indeed, examples abound of “outsiders” giving a better view of a culture than those in the middle of it. Robert Frank’s photography series (and book) THE AMERICANS is one… Robert Hughes was an Australian expat whose AMERICAN VISIONS is a definitive work about the art that (North)Americans make and what it says about them… his books are endlessly fascinating to me – he’s one of my writing heroes.

      I’ve wandered off point, as I often do in conversation… I’d just say, Go for it.

      • Martha, I do find it satisfying to write in a voice other than my own. It frees me up. Characters who are just like me soon become boring. Fiction gives both writer and reader the opportunity to understand and identify with all kinds of people.

  11. I don’t envy your task at all, Patrick; it’s one thing to slice through your own babies, but hacking up the babies of others brings its own kind of guilt. (For the love of God, did I actually just write that? Meet Wendy Christopher – writer, mum and – apparently – part-time Freddy Krueger! :0 )

    I’m sure you’ll be able to use the parts you can’t include though – as others have suggested here, maybe in a second book – or even as a series of short stories/articles. There would definitely be an appetite for them, at the very least among your blog followers but just as much commercially I would think.

    I only once had a problem with ‘using’ a real-life character *sort of* in a fiction novel. One of my major characters was very similar to a guy I’d worked for when I was a software technician. In my head he looked very much like him, had very similar mannerisms and sense of humour and even shared his first name. Where he differed wildly was that a) my boss was late thirties and British and my character was mid-twenties and American (not much of a problem as differences go) and b) my boss was a really nice guy and my character was a selfish, lying, cheating scumbag (mmm yeah, leetle bit more problematic!)

    To this day I have no idea why my brain made the associations it did between my genuinely nice-guy boss and my toady little con-artist character, but that’s just how it goes for me when I’m writing any of my fiction; as they unfold on the page, the fog clears and when I see and hear them they just look the way they look and talk the way they talk.

    The problem has solved itself for now, since that particular novel is lying ‘in statis’ while I’m working on my current one instead. But if I decide to revisit it in the future, I’m going to have to – at the very LEAST – change the character’s name. Even though I know it’ll feel wrong wrong wrong somewhere deep in the primitive basal bit of my writer-brain. What can I say? I’ve never claimed to be normal.😉

    Keep the faith, Patrick. I’m still looking forward to October-release-time!

    • Maybe deep down you knew the really nice guy was a selfish, lying, cheating scumbag?🙂 Or you realized in fiction the latter character is far more interesting. Ultimately the freedom of fiction is you can go along whatever path emerges when the fog clears.

      Thanks for your enthusiasm on the book!

  12. Oh wow — you worked with Sue Silverman! So cool. Loved her book.

    I write articles about books and writing, and interview a lot of authors…they give so much time and attention to my interview questions and then, unfortunately, I have to cut some of these interviewees completely out. So I totally understand how you feel.

    Can’t wait to read the book!

    • It’s a tough thing with interviews, isn’t it! Although some times you read an interview where it’s clear they’ve left in the entire conversation and, well, it drags. There’s a lot to be said for editing.

      Thanks for the enthusiasm on the book! Giving it a final read-through this week to make sure my edits didn’t screw anything up and then it’s off to the publisher for their first pass.

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