It is 17 days since I presented my portfolio of about 30,000 words to the class. It’s the first time my memoir and its intended structure has come under anything like public gaze. The IIML’s particular student-led peer review is very effective. Fellow students’ observations were all useful, in a way that lets you, the writer, still claim your own space – as long as you trust your filter. Which I do. The feedback was tremendously positive about the actual writing. However, I was not prepared for the aftermath of this process. Assembling 30,000 words and also giving indications to the reader about complete structure – I can see that the book will probably be about 80,000 when it is complete – was absolutely all-consuming and overwhelming, I am now left with a huge feeling of anti-climax. It is as if getting the book ‘out’ there, even as a work-in-progress, was the end-point and not part of a continuum.
I’m dying, now. I have no firepower, no energy, left, to pick up the writing and create afresh. Yet there are chapters pressing urgently to be written. I feel emotionally exhausted, too wrung out to rustle up anything for them. The need to write these chapters endlessly circles around in my head, especially at night when I am half asleep. The circuits looping around in there assume their own imagery. They are hungry sharks, comprising shadows that deceive with the easy rhythm of dorsal sway, even as my heart beats quickly in fear. The right writing is easy but now I am afraid. Having got so far, can I still write with the urgency and intensity of the first 25 chapters? These shark shadows search for the flashes of light that are my neurological pathways creating memoir in my subconscious. The pathways occasionally light up with new thoughts, they gleam like krill suddenly illuminated on the crest of a wave by the moon. The sharks dart in, I let them gorge. Nothing remains by daybreak.
I try. Mid-morning finds me sitting at the computer. All I need do is tap into my memoir, whose first draft is already completely written, I suspect, deep inside me, and let it flow through my hands onto the screen. But when I sit there, fingers poised, I am beached. The tide has gone out. Sand is in my mouth. The sun burns away thought.
I read an essay by the late William Zinsser, How to Write the Memoir, which appeared in The American Scholar. Zinsser advises the writer to think small, write in chunks, keep this up for a couple of months, and then one day spread all your entries on the floor. See what patterns emerge; ‘they will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about’.
I realise that I have lost my way, in my effort and in my subsequent weariness.
I go to the IIML centre at the university, to print out the 25 chapters of my memoir thus far written, and to go back to my room and spread them on the floor as Zinsser suggests. (Sort of like making meaning from selecting tarot cards from a pack). The visit to IIML is a serendipitous decision. Just coming out the front door as I go in is my supervisor, Chris Price. She asks how the book is going and I tell her I have reached an impasse. She asks gentle but laser-focused questions that give me an idea about how to develop the Christchurch earthquake/house building aspect in a more lyrical way. I am immensely buoyed by this encounter. Then, in the Bill Manhire house itself, in the kitchen I have a chat with one of the fiction writers, Clare Moleta. As she scrapes coffee grounds into the designated bin, her words are incredibly helpful. The helpfulness stems from the fact that my class mostly comprises poets, who do not have to wrangle tens of thousands of words of a narrative. While they bring their own important insights to my growth as a writer, the poets are unencumbered by the sheer physical and emotional weight of a tome. Clare tells me – as literary types go in and out with cups of tea and coffee, or clutching biscuits; the need for sustenance – that some fiction writers in her group also felt a sense of anti-climax after presenting their lengthy portfolios. One or two were finding it difficult to continue with writing. It turns out that it is perfectly normal to feel this, she adds, pouring herself a drink in a mug. And that the best thing to do is not to beat yourself up over not leaping back into the fray. Ignore that internal voice screaming, ‘you gotta have the 80,000 words done by November, so that’s at least 1,000 words a week that must be done, my god – get back to that keyboard!!!!’ Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break. I feel so relieved. And hungry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Collins is emerging screaming from the white heat of the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. She’s clutching a memoir about the death by suicide of her teenage daughter, Victoria McLeod, while about her flutter pages of red-marked lines of poetry.