By the summer of 2016, I’d learned a lot about writing in general. Once I’d accepted that I needed to learn craft — that it wasn’t enough to write “naturally” — my writing style began to improve. I drafted several more (still bad) novels, multiple short stories, and essays. I took classes at NILA, Hamline University, Hugo House, and online. I made many, many writing friends. I published a handful of short stories in magazines and learned enough about writing to realize how much I didn’t know.
I finally understood what my friend must’ve felt when she read my novel back in 2014. I’d made ALL the novice-writer errors then — I just couldn’t see them.
But now, I knew better. Well, at least my characters no longer sighed or “turned and looked” at each other every second line.
The Craft of Memoir Writing
Memoir, though, is a different type of narrative from fiction. It requires some completely different insights as well as skills.
Also, I think the underlying reason I couldn’t write the memoir before 2016 was that I didn’t know what it was about. I was writing about events that occurred between 1985 and 1990, an intense and transformative period in my life.
As is often the case with periods of great transformation, they’re hard to make sense of until long afterwards.
And writing memoir, like any other long-form narrative, is a craft that needs to be learned. Probably some people can learn the techniques on their own. But for me, the most fun and effective way to learn has always been from teachers who can distill and curate the information I need to know, and who can guide me through exercises that improve my skills. (Ahem, full disclosure: I make my living from teaching.)
So the inciting incident for the story of producing my memoir occurred the day in August 2016 I decided to apply for Theo Nestor’s year-long memoir writing class at the University of Washington.
I’d heard good things about the program, and hoped it might be the real impetus to turning the corner on my memoir writing.
For the first few months I attended Theo’s classes diligently and did all the homework. I completed every class exercise and even wrote extra scenes. I read all the assigned books and many more that weren’t assigned. (Yes, I was one of those annoying students.)
I produced a lot of words describing my miserable childhood. Flunking out of nursery school. Being put in the slow reading group by my teachers year after year, and not being allowed to go to the bathroom in second grade. Getting assaulted by a group of boys who called me racial epithets.
It was cathartic but not very pleasant.
At this rate, it was going to take me a very long time to get to 1985 when my flying story really began. So, I started jumping ahead in time and sneaking in scenes from my flying life.
For the first time, I found myself eager to sit down and write.
Finding My Story Arc
In March 2017, we read the memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed in class. Wow. I loved it. And it hit me that flying across the entire US in a single-seat, single-engine airplane with no instruments was a lot like walking the Pacific Crest Trail with an unbearably heavy backpack. The journey seems impossibly long and insurmountable when viewed on that first day.
Plus, what I’d done had a recognizable story arc. I’d started my journey as a fearful child afraid of heights and ladders, whose palms sweated before shaking hands with a stranger. I’d started as a Latina daughter of immigrants who’d been told to “go home to Mexico” by my classmates in Indiana.
I’d finished as an aerobatic champion, as the first Latina to win a spot on the United States Aerobatic Team, as a representative of my country who brought home a medal for the US in world competition.
Just like in Wild, I’d journeyed across the earth, following an external storyline paralleled by inner growth.
How to Write a Book in 3 Months
I sat down one day that March and wrote an outline of the forty aviation scenes from my journey that were most vivid in my memory, stringing them on a thread of time like pearls, just as we learned in Theo’s class.
Then I set up a schedule to write. I had a demanding full-time job and a family, so the only time I could write was very early in the morning, before anyone else was awake.
To hold myself accountable, I asked another good friend if I could send her my drafts. I promised to send them every few days, and she agreed to give me unconditional support for each piece. Thank you so much, Toni.
I got up at 5 AM every day, and the words poured out of me. The good part about having an outline was I didn’t need to worry about what to write.
To fill in the details and get the dates correct, I went back to my old flying logbooks, to articles written about me, to photo albums. I gathered all those images and emotions and strung them on my strand of pearls. I looked forward to writing each morning, and I wrote steadily for at least two hours every day.
By June 4, 2017, using this process, I’d produced 130,000 words of rough draft.
“Pretty Good for a First Draft”
I’ve had authors tell me their rough draft is about 90% close to their final draft (*cough* Nina LaCour *cough*). For me it’s not that way. My draft contained a lot of rough prose, repetition, and just plain bad writing that I needed to cut.
After I’d polished the draft and rewritten it about ten times, I sent it to a critic.
She said, “This is pretty good for a first draft.”
Still, feedback is always a gift. The comments from my friends and beta readers, from my classmates in Theo’s class, and from Theo herself, were all incredibly useful. I tightened and improved the memoir yet again. After more revising, I ended up with a draft of 99,000 words I was fairly happy with.
Notice that? I got it under the magic number of 100,000 words. Memoirs above that length seem to make most agents and editors wince.