On writing a memoir: Serendipity Road

I started writing a memoir a couple of years ago. It didn’t start out as a memoir. It was going to be about my Cambodian wife’s life. Sopheak has lived a most extraordinary life. The original title was “Inside Tree” because that’s how she described her life when she left her family and wandered into the jungle with a phnong (literally “savage,” but refers to any group that lives in the jungle) family when she was a girl. She left the phnong family and survived on her own for one or two years.

I couldn’t find enough to write a full length book about Sopheak and discovered I had to write about myself in order to fill in the story. That was about two years ago. At about that time, a friend wanted to start a writing group. I was happy to join the group. It helped motivate me to write and the feedback I’ve received has been invaluable.

Stream of Consciousness

I don’t have much time to write, so when I wrote my first draft, I just sat down and wrote whatever came into my head, often in longhand while sitting at a cafe sipping a cappuccino or two. Yes, I know stream of consciousness writing is a no-no, but I didn’t care. It’s fun to write that way and it’s even more fun to read what pops out when you’re not thinking about what you’re writing. Even I was surprised by what came out. In one chapter, I found myself writing about the year I dropped out of college. I was afraid I’d get drafted, but my counselor and favorite professor, Norman O. Brown, told me I wouldn’t get drafted.

“Why?” I asked.

“I read your diary,” he replied, referring to the diaries we were supposed to keep as we read the books he assigned us. Norman O. Brown wrote Love’s Body, a “meditation on the condition of humanity and its long fall from the grace of a natural, instinctual innocence.” Our class, Myth and History, was about how myths and history intertwine and our only assignment was to keep a diary.

“I read your diary. Getting drafted isn’t part of your myth.”

He was right. I wasn’t drafted and didn’t do anything to avoid getting drafted except refuse to give blood the first time I was called up for a physical.

Then I found myself writing about a beautiful tarot card reader who gave me a reading in Bali. I was a tarot skeptic, but she was so beautiful, I decided to ask her for a reading. Besides, I was all out of ideas and needed some guidance. Logic hadn’t helped me, so what was there to loose? She laid out a spread that went in two directions. I could take the safe path, go back to Australia and work until I reached retirement age or I could take the Fool’s path and take a leap of faith. The leap of faith had a much happier ending and sounded more appealing to both of us, so that was the path I decided to take. As soon as I did so, serendipity seemed to smile on me and push me in directions I’d never dreamed of taking.

goddesses

By the time I stepped off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City, serendipity had become a full blown goddess to me. In a temple in Cambodia, I saw her for the first time. She was a beautiful goddess sitting on a cloud raining flowers down on her followers. I have no idea who the goddess really was, but she became Serendipity to me. The same year I dropped out of college, I took a course about the Transcendental poets. William Blake was one of the poets we read. He wrote, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason or compare: my business is to create.” Those words rang true to me and stuck, so I didn’t have a problem with creating my very own goddess.

As work on my memoir progressed, it continued to surprise me. Serendipitous occurrences seemed to define my life from the time I took my first leap of faith and dropped out of college and even before, but I didn’t recognize them as such until I took that terrifying first step, when I took my professor at his word. Some might call them synchronicities, but Jung’s “synchronicity” theory seemed too mechanical for my taste. Others might call it karma, but karma as understood in the West leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Thanks to our Christian heritage, it implies judgement. It has nothing to do with judgement or a stern God passing judgement and everything to do with cause and effect. I preferred my goddess, Serendipity. At any rate, nothing but serendipity explains how my life has worked out. In India, she literally saved my life one time and it was she who led me to Neem Karoli Baba. Nothing but Serendipity explains how I moved to San Francisco and then Australia. Nothing but Serendipity explains how I ended up in Sihanoukville, especially since it wasn’t on my travel itinerary when I landed in Ho Chi Minh City. I may have never come here had a cyclone not changed my itinerary.

I’ve been tempted to downplay Serendipity, but that’s fear talking to me. I don’t think many readers will relate to a made up goddess, but that’s okay. I want to write what comes from an imaginative place, less encumbered by the stifling boundaries of reason. The longer I live, the more I realize that reason is a mere tool. Imagination and inspiration can give us wings.

Writing a Memoir: Editing the Manuscript

Editing is another matter. It’s not nearly as fun as writing spontaneously, but it’s absolutely necessary. My original manuscript was largely grammatically correct and spelling and grammar mistakes are fairly easy to spot, so that wasn’t the problem. First I had to radically rearrange the chapters because many of them were out of context with the preceding chapters. Then there are the many things I didn’t notice at all. My little writing group has helped me immensely with those. Some passages weren’t detailed enough because my imagination filled in the picture. They pointed those passages out to me and they were right. Without the details, no one would understand what I was writing about. They also pointed out passages and even whole chapters that would be of no interest to anyone who didn’t know me and others that sounded too judgmental or self-deprecating. To my surprise, they liked my serendipity “angle.” It wasn’t an “angle” to me, but I was relieved that they could relate to it, especially since one of our group members is a very practical, down to earth person. I was sure she wouldn’t like my memoir, but she does and she’s not one to hold back criticism.

serendipity road book cover copyMy writing group has also helped me get out of habits I’ve acquired since I started freelance writing to make money. My paragraphs were often too short for a book and I had an annoying habit of summing up in the final paragraph — a habit that stems from writing “calls to action” in the final paragraphs of the thousands of articles I’ve written for various clients. Removing those paragraphs improved the flow of the book immensely.

Editing is an intellectual process and not too exciting, but I want the book to read well, so it’s a necessary part of the process. I can’t afford to hire a professional editor and besides, I plan on giving the book away, so don’t want to waste money. I know it sounds crazy to give something away for free that has taken so much effort to write, but it’s not the kind of book publishers are going to want and I know ebooks don’t sell well. I want to give it away first and then I’ll put a price tag on it. Some say that’s the best way to sell books, but I’m not holding my breath. Like my life, I’ll leave it in Serendipity’s hands. She comes through in unexpected ways. She usually turns up when I’m at a crossroad and gives me a nudge in the right direction, as she did in a dream when I got to the last chapter of my book. The dream was the perfect ending and since it was a dream, it was perfect for a memoir that reads like a work of magic realism but isn’t a novel.