A Writing Residency & A New Outlook

I have never been one for January 1st resolutions beyond a vague “do better, do more.”  This is probably due to being critical of myself nearly every day of the year. Why would I need to formalize that and attach expectations to it?? I’d rather avoid the whole exercise!

But that way of thinking is wrapped up in negativity — that what I’m doing is inadequate or that it is not valuable in and of itself.  Spending 4 weeks at Vermont Studio Center between Thanksgiving and Christmas not only gave me a chance to work on my memoir, but to see how other writers and visual artists approach their work. And what I saw were many hearts, hands, and minds pursuing their work with joy. What I felt was permission being granted for me to do the same. Experimentation and process mattered. The end product would be what it was, what it wanted to be.

For the past year, I had been focused on writing a book proposal, which meant hammering out an outline and chapter summaries, and making a case for who would buy this book. I had conversations with several agents this past fall, and was thrilled by their interest in my story. But it became clear that the entire thread of the story was not yet clear. This was, of course, personally frustrating because I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I want to get to the next step already, want to get this out into the world.

This process of pitching to agents came at the end of 9 months of major health issues for my parents and the death of my father, and I was avoiding my grief as I threw myself into it. But when it became apparent that the proposal–and really my thinking about the story–was not ready for prime time, and that I didn’t know exactly how I would be working on the book during the upcoming residency, I felt panic coming on. That’s when my sister Daria said, “Sue, Dad died just two months ago.”

That woke me up.

During the early part of the residency, I did a lot of crying and new writing, addressing certain pieces directly to my dad — things that had been left unsaid by me, some of them intentionally, because they would have been too painful to say out loud when he was alive.

Then, in the midst of this, those conversations with other writers and visual artists gave me permission to try out a new/old way of telling the story–a hybrid form–what I’m calling a scrapbook. A couple years ago I had been hot on the idea of a scrapbook, in which I could more naturally include some of the articles, photos, litigation, and memorabilia I uncovered as I discovered this story over the course of the past decade. I started and stopped this approach, though, because I still didn’t really know how to unfold the story; it wasn’t unfolding purposefully. That clarity came, though, after a short, but impactful conference with Sue Halpern, in which she re-awakened my fiction writer’s mind, the mind that carefully considers how to dole out information, build suspense, reveal, complicate, and then resolve things. I spent the last week of the residency organizing and outlining with note cards on the conference table in Mason Library, and I now have an outline with a clear through-line. (Thank you, Sue Halpern & Vermont Studio Center!)

So, here’s to 2020 and working through the packets of note cards that hold this book. It’s well underway. 🙂