Memoir Writing Reflections #5: Marinating Time is Over

After I finished the first round of drafting, I made the deliberate choice to not do revisions on my memoir manuscript since mid-January. Aside from reading the chapters for the reading event in March and organizing sample chapters for funding applications, I haven’t seen all of the other ones.

I don’t know why I chose a food-related analogy, but I thought letting the documents “marinate” for a few months is a good idea. My mentor author agreed. It seems like many other writers have done the same.

In those months I read two memoirs that have drastically different formats, which is equal parts refreshing and confusing. I suppose there is no truly one-size-fits-all approach.

I did my best to ensure my creative mind is not stagnant. I continue to write for the Alberta Filipino Journal, and some of my recent assignments were actually more challenging as they are more like articles or event summaries. Now that the weather is nicer I’ve also done some artwork again. And I try to write for this blog once a month. Heck, I even made a couple of submissions for a literary magazine. I got rejections both times.

Since I like scheduling and organizing, I’ve blocked a few hours on Sundays to start doing this again and actually booked it in my calendar like an event or appointment. I hope that the time I allocated is well-paced enough for the next two months, until I hear back from the different arts foundations where I submitted funding applications. I’m so very much looking forward to those. I’m excited to have professional editors look at the manuscript so they can chip away at all the awkward and ineffective bits and forge the final piece.

I organized my folders somehow like a factory production, where I have different containers (digital folders) to store various versions until it reaches the final version.

A computer screen showing several folders for a draft book. Each folder is for a different version of the draft.

What happened over the first four Sundays the self-revision time is scheduled in my calendar? I ignored them.

For the first two times, I don’t have any good excuse other than procrastination. Given I volunteer a lot in the city and I’m getting a lot of social media inspiration to deep clean my house, I have lots of alternative activities to do instead of reading through my files.

The third Sunday I have an actual legitimate excuse. My grandmother died and I had to focus on making sure I can communicate with everyone in the Philippines given that their time zone is 14 hours ahead. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings I’m still trying to unpack. On top of that, this particular grandmother, my mother’s mother, is an integral part of my childhood years covered in the memoir.

Now it’s the fourth Sunday of my so-called new Sunday routine to self-revise. I have so many volunteer tasks that I’m falling behind and I’m likely going to prioritize that.

In terms of the actual content I will likely not change anything since it is from the perspective of my childhood self. But my present-day self though, I’m just getting hit with more realizations and recently discovered family history that puts people’s behaviors into context. More nuance, less answers.

I even have other stories I wanted to incorporate somehow. Thankfully through the resources and advice I received I know I have a lot of options. I can write a whole chapter focusing on a experience. But it can also be as powerful as a paragraph, a sentence, or a phrase. It can be outlined as a story as it unfolds and experienced in real time, as an internal monologue, or a recent fleeting memory that can still be from the perspective of the child. This particular story I believe is very important and would enrich the reader’s experience of witnessing this orphaned girl trying to navigate a new reality.

This week I also submitted my report to the arts foundation that gave me the money, the grant, late last year. I’m supposed to report and show how I achieved my goals that I set out in that particular funding application. That was easy for me since the proof is very clear.

Now that grandma is buried and it’s my birthday month I really have to push forward with the self-revisions. That is, if my own existential crisis or health issues don’t get in the way.

Memoir Writing Reflections #4: Beta Reading is Remarkable

Giselle in her home office sitting by her computer desk.

By: Giselle General

“Writing is a solitary activity, and it is so important to build your community.”

I understand that this is a reason why there are many activities, events and gatherings of various forms that are organized to give artists and writers a chance to get together. From workshops that help people learn specific skills, networking, showcasing one’s work, or even a working-buddy setup to prevent procrastination, there’s immense value in having a living, breathing, human being beside you.

The tricky part is that I personally need to limit my in-person community activities for two reasons. The first reason is I’m an introvert so these activities are meaningful but draining at the same time. The second reason is I am still more COVID-cautious compared to the average person. I had it once and would do everything I can to not get it again or spread it to someone else. Sadly, in most gatherings, hardly anyone wears masks anymore.

To mitigate these risks but also widen my writing community, I did a simple Facebook group search for writers and memoirists and joined three of them. Not too many though, so my feed won’t get dominated by posts from these groups. A lot of the time, I see people asking for advice on a wide range of topics: from grammar, editing, publishing, finding motivation, and many others. Reading these posts were so helpful. Also, I know that by commenting to give advice, or event choosing an emoji to express congratulations on someone’s success, that I’m contributing positively in a small way.

Several posts came to my attention about people asking for a beta reader, whether on how to get one, or asking people to be one.

In simple terms, a beta reader is someone who reads an unpublished work as a test. The writer, or someone else who is organizing the process, will give copies of the manuscript and ask broad questions about the beta reader’s experience reading. I wasn’t asked to analyze the chapters, check for grammar or tone or anything like that. If I boil down the questions I got after reading the book it comes down to “do I like reading it?”

Back in January, I saw a post from a writer asking for volunteer beta readers for their memoir. I just finished the entire first draft of my own manuscript and I decided to leave it alone for a few months. With the extra time I have, I agreed to be a beta reader for a person I’ve never met from the US. We messaged each other a bit on Facebook messenger, exchanged emails and that’s where it began.

I received the first third of the manuscript. I decided to make the experience as close to reading a book as possible. While I decided not to print, I changed the preview mode on Microsoft Word so it looks like a two-paged book or an e-book. I went through the chapters and answered her questions.

Since the questions are focused on impressions and enjoyment, I tried to find a balance between keeping my answers simple and giving some details on what I find vague or confusing that can impact a reader’s experience.

I offered to also be a beta reader for the rest of her manuscript when it is ready. She was happy to have someone who is from a different demographic from her (a younger adult woman from a different country).

Two months after, I got two files, the second and last third of her manuscript. She sent the same questions to gauge my impressions on the content as a reader. For some of the questions I had the same answer; for others, I provided more information and said that my answers from reading the first section apply.

I really enjoyed the experience. It’s an opportunity to see another person’s work in progress and their style in narrating a deeply personal part of their lives. I admire her for making the request on that writer’s group, as I imagine it can be daunting to show something vulnerable and not yet a fully published written work.

Will I do it again? Yes, absolutely! Even if it is a new way of procrastinating, it’s still a more productive way than most.

Memoir Writing Reflections #3: A Mic and A Stage

By:Giselle General

The largest, most intimidating, and important activity of the six-month mentorship is showcasing a sample of the work produced during that time. Since I had a very specific goal, a first draft of the manuscript for the memoir, showing a sample of this is not going to be a problem.

Speaking in front of a crowd is also not an issue for me. I had my elementary school teachers in Philex Mines, Philippines, to thank for that. Also, since 2017, I have spoken in front of crowds about vulnerable aspects of my life because of all the opportunities during the Canada 150 celebrations. 

In February, I was frantically getting organized for a potential new job which started after Family Day long weekend. At that point, I felt that I finished the last wholesale revision of all the 48 book chapters. I was also preoccupied with another important task that I didn’t envision as a part of my writing journey – funding applications. Sure, I did it in September but I was a bit more relaxed and wasn’t taking it too seriously. But after I actually got funding and I realized the implications of having money to help with artistic projects, I took it a bit more seriously. Doing three comprehensive funding applications asking for a larger sum of money and offering a detailed budget was more administratively taxing than I realized. And another person had an artistic idea and wanted to apply together. So, there are a lot of numbers, deadlines, and persuasive language telling strangers why they should give money for our project. Clicking the Submit button and getting the automated notification that the application was submitted gave me a huge sigh of relief.

In mid-February, I had my final one-on-one meeting with my mentor author. A few weeks before, she shortlisted three chapters that she edited for me to read in front of an audience. I timed all of them and was so happy to find one chapter that fits exactly within the six-minute limit. She gave additional tips that I didn’t even consider, such as taking a couple of seconds to self-promote afterward, and giving an introduction with enough context since I am not reading Chapter 1. 

During the week before the event, I actually spent more time thinking of a meaningful way to show my gratitude to Wendy for all the help and mentorship she did over the past six months. I’m a terrible shopper and even a worse gift-giver since I tend to be anti-consumerist and simple. Then the perfect idea came. Since there is a nearby Filipino convenience store, I thought it would be great for her to experience my story in a deeper way. I purchased several products that I used to sell in the store that I managed as a child, placed them in a paper gift bag, and wrote a note. 

When I arrived, it was one of those instances where I was happy to be wrong. I thought that it would be a quiet, intimate setting with just us mentors and mentees, a dozen people around a slightly larger table sharing our literary work. Turns out, it’s a whole performance, with a mic in front of a stage and a dozen rows of chairs. My quick mental math estimated about 80 people. There were writers and artists I’ve seen in the past who attended. When I told this, my husband had the same assumption and was impressed that my fellow mentees managed to present a piece of our writing in front of a larger crowd. On top of that, it is a very distinguished crowd too, people of the actual literary and artistic community in Edmonton. It’s not just a random group of people from the general public. They have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artist and writer experience. 

For the lineup of mentees, I was first, where I shared a chapter close to the end, right before I immigrated to Canada. People smiled, giggled, and shared a collective “oh!” and “aw” after I read some of the lines in the chapter. I felt they understood the rollercoaster of emotions that my younger self experienced in the stories and internal thoughts in the chapter. After my piece, I talked about the Edmonton Arts Council and the feature they did about my work, where I heavily mentioned the Horizon Writers Circle program.

Then my fellow mentees read their pieces. Essays, poems, prose, and story chapters that captivated and entertained the audience. After the formal event program concluded, so many people in the audience took the time to speak to us individually and congratulate us for being part of the program and for the work we have shared. The conversations went on for so long, the appetizers ran out by the time I finished chatting with people. 

As a treat, I went to a nearby sushi restaurant and indulged. Being alone at a restaurant table was also the perfect way to wind down after being in such a cozy and crowded room – classic introvert of me. 

It’s remarkable, partially unbelievable, that the six months flew by just like that. At this point, I need to wait patiently to get the funding application results so I can hire professional editors to polish the manuscript. I’m also purposefully not looking at any of the files. I figured that letting it sit for at least three months will give me a fresh perspective when I start my self-revisions again. 

For now, learning a completely different kind of writing is at the forefront. Political news release writing and speechwriting will give me new skills that I think will help me improve my skill set moving forward. 

Memoir Writing Reflections #2: A Thousand Words A Day

Word counts and number of pages heavily influence my approach in writing. From Grade 4 onwards, in multiple classes from Language (English) class and Filipino class, we were required to fill pages upon pages of lined paper with paragraphs on certain topics. Some of them were comically dull, such as “what I did last summer” since for me, 70% of the time I was watching the store. I can cover that in just one paragraph. Since these essay worksheets have a defined number of pages and we students have learned that being suspiciously short lowers your grade, we learned to stretch and beat around the bush. Adding flowery words, extra couple of sentences, and extending simple statements with independent and dependent clauses are skills I’ve mastered well.

The page limit means just that – that there will be a point when I won’t be able to write any further. In my earlier years before I had access to a computer on a regular basis, this can be an agonizing experience. When I feel that I’m gaining momentum with the middle paragraphs of backstory and supporting points and then all of a sudden, I have less than half a page left, needing to hastily switch and make a concluding paragraph. It feels like walking into a hallway and getting smacked in the face with a glass door. It’s painfully abrupt. So, I’ve learned to “budget” the paper space ahead of time. As a university student here in Canada over a decade ago, I’m immensely grateful for Google Docs and Microsoft Word for this very reason. If I went overboard, I could trim the excess before submitting the final version.

For this memoir project, dealing with word counts and spitting out words is a whole new challenge. These days I rarely have limits on how long my write-ups should be, unless I have to submit them externally. As a volunteer columnist for the Alberta Filipino Journal for the past six years my word limit is simple, 650 – 700 words. Pretty easy to follow. When I wrote the historical essays for Edmonton Heritage Council’s historical initiative called Edmonton City As Museum Project, they had a maximum word limit, but writers get paid by the word. I tried my best to ensure I don’t unnecessarily inflate the piece while giving myself the flexibility to expand if needed. In both articles I had about 50 – 100 words left. With the CBC articles, where is also a word limit but the payment is a flat rate. It helped the editor with expanding a little bit more because they want to keep a well-written statement. Only the second piece went over the 600 word count.

Now that I had 40+ chapters to write about. I did some research on the average word count of a chapter for full-length books such as novels. I agonized on how many words I need to pump out in a day. With personal blogs such as the ones over here, there were many moments when I finished a post in a single sitting – usually about 1000 words. For some time, I wondered whether that’s a fluke or normal. This process of writing a lot – a whole lot more than usual – is an experiment on how many sentences I can spit out that are somehow coherent.

One of my husband’s creative people is J. Michael Straczynski, a filmaker who released their memoir/how-to book, Becoming Superman. What a remarkable and heartbreaking story of hardship in his younger years! It was also amazing to see how his artistic career blossomed. His is the first book where I read practical tips on advancing one’s journey as a writer. “Writer all the crap out and write all the time, and make sure that you submit before the deadline, because it’s amazing how many assholes don’t” is the essence of his friendly and utilitarian advice. I like it. It resonated with me and boosted my confidence. I’ve always completed my written work on time, sometimes early, so that the editor can have the time and breathing room to look it over before getting bombarded by everyone else’s on-time or almost late submissions.

This time around, I am the rule-maker. And the rules, the constraints, are actually helpful in getting focused. So with each chapter I gave myself a semi-flexible limit: minimum 1000 words that clearly narrate at least three scenes, threads of thought, ideally both. This resulted into chapters that are between two to five pages. When I see a chapter going beyond that, I find a natural spot to split the narrative, which prevented me from feeling guilty that one area looked too long. Instead, by giving myself permission to split the chapters, I managed to add a couple more paragraphs to help make that mini story feel complete.

My author mentor lent me a stack of books to help me learn various techniques about writing. She enthusiastically said over and over that numerous principles used in writing fiction are just as useful in writing creative nonfiction. This was especially useful and motivational for me since I am narrating a story – the story of my childhood as my younger self experienced it. One of the books is On Writing, by novelist Stephen King. Similar to Becoming Superman, it’s a memoir/how-to combination which I liked. Him sharing his schedule with numbers is the most striking piece of advice for me. He said he would write a thousand words a day in the morning, stay consistent, and complete a first draft of a novel in three months as a result. Well, guess who completed a memoir draft in three months – this lady! I was overjoyed when I read this. Will my works be as brilliant as his, who knows? It also didn’t matter too much – he had a lot of freedom and flexibility since he wrote fiction. I know I shouldn’t trap myself into stringent formulas, but a roadmap helps prevent the feeling of spiraling out of control. I also don’t write a thousand words every single day. But if a thousand words in 50 days in under three months is a workable formula for me, I’ll take it!

Memoir Writing Reflections #1: The Brain is a Marvel

by: Giselle General

This year, on top of everything else my husband and I drastically changed, I added one more to the list. I finally started working of my first memoir, my first full-length written work. The initial plan was to publish something right around my 30th birthday last year. That got derailed by two major things: COVID and running for public office during a pandemic.

This is to account my initial reflections on this journey and observing my mind, both how it works when it comes to motivation and getting organized, and from a mental health standpoint as far as memories and triggers.

I had to check my email history and digital calendar to confirm the timeline. When you don’t have a full time job, the pace of time feels so strangely elastic and oddly compact, depending on the time of day. In early September, I took a chance and applied for the Horizon’s Writing Circle, a writer mentorship program. I recall being so nervous outlining my bio as an artist, feeling like a fraud. I suppose I had a few essays and got paid for it. I’ve been blogging for a decade and been an ethnic paper columnist for five years. But will it be enough to deserve undivided attention from someone who actually published multiple books?

I applied for the program in early September and in early October I got the confirmation that I got in the program. How exciting! I arranged a meeting with the author mentor in mid-October. Just like the other mentorship programs I participated in, I had a very clear goal in mind and I needed their advice to make it successful. When I outlined my goal, the summary of the memoir and the tangible deliverable, my mentor was excited. But it didn’t hit home for me until I hear her utter the words “Yes, I’m very positive that by the end of our mentorship period, you will have a first manuscript.” That felt so real, so tangible. It’s remarkable.

This is a precious time and opportunity, I have to everything I can to make the most of it.

This sparked a flurry of motivation in my mind and my heart. I made an outline of all the different chapters and themes of my life using blank MS Word documents. In a few minutes I had 40 blank chapters. Whenever inspiration strikes as the cliche goes, I would open a file and either type the entire story right there, or write short phrases of the smaller stories to write about. As of right now, I’ve been doing this for just two months, and I’m halfway through, over 20 chapters that looked decent enough to be scrutinized. Done is better than perfect, I tell myself over and over. It frankly didn’t feel like much, but when I say to people out loud, their reactions remind me that 20 chapters in less than 60 days is noteworthy.

Some days when I write, my brain somehow forgets to tell my body to breathe. After the keyboard clatters for a few minutes as I tell a heartbreaking experience, I’d suddenly gasp for air. Only then do I clearly look at the words on the screen, and tears would roll down my face. I thought that being triggered would be more melodramatic and fiery than this. I guess I was wrong.

In early December I had a dream that I wasn’t happy about. In my dream, somehow my father became alive in my current life as an adult for just one day. I was frantically giving him a tour around my home and around Edmonton, filling him in on what he missed for the past 23 years. The day doesn’t end, I don’t know what rudely woke me up into reality. I laid in bed, my eyes angrily boring holes in the ceiling as the tears silently fell. I know that this is from my consciously digging up memories and putting them on paper, or in this case, the computer screen.

Damn it, brain! Why do you have to do this to me? This wore me out mentally more than the other times I got emotional while writing. I spent the next week not writing anything new, just updating the grammar of the earlier chapters I wrote.

While dedicating time and energy to write, I had to juggle other priorities as well. There’s truth to the saying looking for a job is a full-time job. Taking the time to diligently search for opportunities that fit my experience level and salary range and writing a thoughtful application, that takes effort and a mental toll. I try to switch it up during weekdays, a few hours on job searching, an hour or two on writing, then some time for chores and volunteering.

This is how I remind myself that being unemployed doesn’t mean I’m useless. That I’m still improving my skills, using the ones I have, and making a positive impact around me in different ways. Sometimes it looks like the homecooked meal I made and a clean kitchen sink. It can look like being present at a board meeting and being efficient in all the items we discussed. It can look like a piece of artwork I finished for the home and two memoir chapters done in a single day.

Activities not related to writing or career help me stay grounded and balanced. My husband actively finds video games that a very beginner-level person like me can handle, and he is very kind and diligent when we do levels together where he had to do about 70% of the work. It’s pretty sweet of him. Whenever he plays video games that he streams to his audience online, I hear him talk about me and share fun updates about ‘the wife’. I sometimes chime in on conversations and his audience seem to enjoy it. Our group of friends have organized a weekly movie night, just like what they did regularly a decade ago. My friend asked for my help with pet-sitting and it’s quite fun being a dog and cat auntie. It’s actually nice having a cat on your lap being cozy while reading one of the books my mentor author lent me about writing techniques.

My suicidal ideation has never left my mind, but I am able to keep it at bay for the most part. It’s not by feeling more optimistic about the world – there’s too much obvious evidence that people and systems are harmful and selfish and problematic. It’s by keeping a little bit of hope that what I do matters to a small extent and it affects people positively, whether it’s just myself, my immediate love ones, or those who gets affected by any of my community service work. And that’s enough for now.