Katie Heaney’s Memoir and My (Still Unfinished) Memoir

Katie Heaney wrote and published a memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, before she turned thirty. Some people find that tedious, but I found it inspiring. See, Katie’s story is interesting because she has been single for her entire life. Yet she is heterosexual, and for most of her twenty-five years “there has been at least one boy [she] was thinking about and hoping to date, in the abstract….[and] there has been a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind more often than there hasn’t been.”

I wish someone my age had written this kind of memoir when I was in college, and that I had found it then.  I have twenty years on Katie, but I get her completely.  The writing that I’ve been doing is similar in scope and theme to her memoir.  She wrote about every crush from grade school forward, describing her experiences with boys and lack thereof.  I’m writing about every relationship, however ill-advised or doomed, to try to figure out why I’ve felt the need to do what Katie has done–have a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind most of the time–or go even further– have an actual boyfriend or husband a good portion of the time.

It’s funny how the image we have of ourselves when we are teenagers never seems to go away completely, or is really hard to change.  I was the boy-crazy one, the fat girl who was always chasing someone but never catching anyone.  Like Katie, I didn’t date anyone in high school, but in my case, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.  Many things came together so that it never happened for me.  And when it did happen, I wasn’t very picky about who was interested, how I really felt about him, and how he treated me.  That came much later.

Katie got to an “end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with” and ended up writing the book as a twenty-five year old who hasn’t had sex.  She refers to Tina Fey saying that she was twenty-four when she had sex for the first time because she “couldn’t give it away.”  I may not have had the exact same experiences, but I know the feelings.

Why am I writing and thinking about this now, more than twenty years later?  I’ve been deliberately single for more than three years.  This is the longest period of time since college that I haven’t been in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship.  I still think about men often, both specific men I might like to date and in general when I see them out and about.  But at the same time, being with someone after three years of not being with anyone makes it all seem theoretical, like it happened in another life to another person.  And I have a hard time imagining how a man would fit into my life with everything I have going on such as work, raising my daughter, my family and friends, and the things I want to do, like reading and writing.

But I’ve also realized that I’m writing about my sordid past relationships because I’m trying to change the story I tell myself about myself.  I’m not that fat girl who couldn’t get a date any more.  I have dated and married and divorced and broken up and been broken up with.  I’ve got almost two hundred pages with all of the gory details.  Katie’s memoir spoke to me because she has realized a lot of the same things I’m trying to, without the twenty-five-year detour.  That’s why I wish her book had been available to me when I was in college.

The status of a relationship, whether I am in one or not, or dating or not, does not define me.  Katie writes, about dating: “Why would I want to go out to dinner and a movie with someone I’m not completely crazy about when I already know how much I like eating dinner and watching a movie by myself?”  When a friend finally recovers from a bad breakup, she does so partly by realizing that “she could do whatever she wanted, work wherever she wanted, and live wherever she wanted…she didn’t have to think about anyone else’s goals or desires and then try to make them work with her own…It’s not that she wouldn’t do those things.  It’s just that she didn’t HAVE to. She could live for herself and herself alone.”  Katie realizes that her friend never felt this freedom before, but that it was “the same freedom I’ve always had, for my whole entire life.”

Last night, Friday night, there were two other possible things I could have done instead of what I did.  A female friend had an extra ticket to a gala that would have been so much fun, to get dressed up and go downtown to a fancy ballroom and people-watch.  And an online friend was in town with her husband and wanted to try to meet for dinner.  Either would have been enjoyable.  But my daughter isn’t old enough to stay home in the evening by herself, babysitting is expensive, and I am using a lot of my childcare “credits” with friends right now because of a two-week fall break.  So I didn’t do either thing.  Instead, after work, I changed into my sweatpants, made pizza from scratch, and then my daughter and I watched The Voice episodes we had DVR’d from the week, while I knitted a scarf I owe for a charity auction.  Then she went to bed and I read for a blissful hour of peace and quiet.  I don’t know how dating would fit into all this, and that’s all right.  Like Katie, I am “sure of who I am and what I want (and don’t want) in other people.”  I can take wisdom from anywhere, even from a tall, awkward girl twenty years younger than me.  Thanks, Katie.

 

Writing Project 2014 Update

It’s September, and I’ve completely blown the plan to have a draft of what I’m calling my “relationship memoir” done by June 1. But I haven’t given up on the goal of getting a draft done by the end of 2014.  

At first, at the beginning of the year, I separated what is written into twelve chapters and made a schedule.  The schedule went out the window after doing three chapters.  Chapter 4 required a lot more writing to fill in the gaps.  Even though I started it in February, I didn’t finish it until August 10th. (No excuses, but my day job got exponentially busier, leaving a lot less room “in my head” for writing.  My kid also transitioned to middle school, and I’ve had difficulty resisting the siren song of my phone and social media, which require little brain power or effort beyond a swipe of my finger.)

So I re-worked the schedule, and added two chapters, making a total of fourteen.  In August, I had four chapters done and ten chapters left to do, and my goal with the new schedule is to be done by November 30, 2014.  I met my first deadline for the next-in-line chapter on August 24th.  Five of fourteen done!  My second deadline is tomorrow, September 7.  I have four big scene/topics to write, and I’ve started on the editing, so I still have a lot to do.

I still like the general process: Edit the pages I already have; list additional scenes; write additional scenes; type in edits.  I tend to get bogged down in the writing additional scenes. So many things come up when I’m looking at what I’ve already written.  It really is true that the first draft is just the scaffold that a writer uses to build the book, and as you go on, revising and writing, you are making a stronger and stronger structure.  

Enough here!  I could be writing those scenes I’m avoiding!

 

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Finally, “After”

It’s May! We are now firmly into spring, after a very long winter. Part of what made it so long was that I didn’t make very much time to do the three things that keep me grounded–reading, writing, and walking–so I was somewhat off. Between work, family, and church commitments, the time I took for self-care had gone by the wayside. But, the year-long church commitment is now over, with a successful result.  I’ve been back to the gym in the past month on the treadmill and at the weight machines, and I’ve found 30 minutes to get outside and walk during the work day about half the time. I am reading at least four books simultaneously right now, including an audiobook in the car, and I’ve been journaling daily for a while. I’m on my way back.

In my journal, which I do first thing after I wake up, I find myself writing a quick recount of the past day and giving myself a pep talk about what I need to get done that day. Lately, journaling hadn’t brought me amazing new insights and seemed kind of ho-hum. I’d start writing, but then stare off into space and stop. The siren song of my phone and social media has been hard to resist.

I found at The Gift of Writing the idea of listing several writing prompts at the front of your journal, so that when you come to a point that you’re not sure what to write, you just flip to the inside cover and pick a prompt.  I did that with the journal I started in November, with fair results.  The prompts were things like “What does your heart say?” and “What can you do in the next couple of days to get you closer to where you want to be?”

I started a new notebook recently, and thought I’d go one step further.  If you’re looking for writing prompts, go no further than The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.  He has collected over 800 of them there, ranging from introspective to prompts designed to help you work with a piece of fiction or nonfiction you’ve already started.  As if having the book right next to me while I journaled wasn’t good enough, I went through and picked out the prompts that seemed appealing and listed them in the front of my new notebook.

The other day I decided on this prompt: “What is your five-year plan?  What would you like your life to be like in five years?”  If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I have to have a plan.

For a very long time I had the habit of daydreaming about my life “after” something–long ago it was “after I lose weight” or “after I’m done with school” and then it was “after I meet someone” or “after I have a baby” then everything would be perfect and my life would be wonderful.   Of course, that’s no way to live because life is never the way you expect it would be after.  After can’t meet those high expectations.

When I did the five-year plan prompt, I realized that in five years, I don’t want my life to be any different than it is right now.  I want to live in the same house, have the same job, the same friends, and go to the same church.  I want the peonies I rescued from across the street a few weeks ago to be getting ready to bloom, and my daisies to be getting ready to turn a good portion of my lawn into a cutting garden.  I want to take my daughter to school down the street, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, lift weights and feel strong a couple of times a week, and turn my face to the spring sun as I walk off the long winter.  I want to continue to cook on the weekends so that I don’t have to during the week, and I want to keep talking to and spending time with my beloved sisters and friends.

Oh, sure, I’d love it if the clutter fairy came to my house to put everything away and work against the forces of chaos and dirty dishes.   But I don’t see that happening as long as I make reading, writing, and walking a priority after taking care of my daughter and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat.  And it would be nice if the powers that be determined that public service jobs deserved pay that was more on-par with those in the private sector.  And there is still great injustice and suffering in the world that requires a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people.  And there’s no guarantee things won’t change because of factors beyond my control.

But, all in all, I realized that I’ve got everything I need right here, right now.  There is no “after.”  This is it, and it’s pretty damn good.

Writing Project 2014 Update

I’ve already blown the schedule I made for revising the memoir I’m working on. I’ve just finished edits to Chapter 3 today (a snow day), which I wanted to get done by January 19. I should already be done with edits to Chapter 4 by now.

But that’s OK. I’m still plugging along. I’m actually really happy with the process I’m using and the progress I’m making. I started with 13 pages, and I’ve revised it into 32 pages. I’ve added a lot of scenes and gone way back into my memories, finding insights along the way. I know that there is still a lot to do, but I can’t edit a blank page. Without reaching deep and bringing up what I remember, I wouldn’t get anywhere.

So I will keep going, without judgment. I actually took the laptop to my daughter’s basketball practice and edited while she played! No desktop or anything, just my lap and the bleachers. If that doesn’t show dedication to my writing, I’m not sure what does!

The new goal is to get back on schedule by February 23, when I’m supposed to have both Chapters 4 and 5 done.  They are currently 20 pages, which may morph into 40.

So on this snow day, I will do phases A and B for Chapter 4–which involve editing on paper and listing additional scenes.  I tend to get hung up on writing additional scenes, but I can’t even start writing them if I don’t know what they are supposed to be.  And then I have 2 1/2 weeks to do the rest.

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January Reading

I decided that I liked my year-end reading posts so much that I would try to do them at the end of every month, so I could write more deeply about some of the books that I loved.

Here’s the January list:

Cherry by Mary Karr
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich

I had to balance the three serious memoirs with some very light fiction. It seems like I didn’t read much this month, but I have several other books in-progress that should be finished within the next week.  I’m also terribly addicted to Facebook on my phone during times I would otherwise be reading, such as right before bed.  I can see right now that if I want to keep up last year’s reading pace, I’ll need to stop that.

Cherry is the sequel, of sorts, to Karr’s The Liar’s Club.  It’s very different–for most of it, she uses the second-person “you” perspective, which I never quite got used to.  I think it can be effective in small doses, but I didn’t really like it when it comprised most of the book.  Despite the issues I had with the book, there were some great lines:

“The more real the threat of her absence became, the more I felt all the bolts and lug nuts of who I was loosen.” (about her mother’s inconsistent presence during that time in her life)

“I instinctively knew the rules laid down for girls’ comportment, but I wasn’t yet resigned to them, for to place my head into that yoke was to part with too much freedom.”

” . . . he provides escort, his gaze on you certifying your romantic and sexual worth (the only value girls seem to have in that time and place.” (about her first boyfriend)

Despite the great lines, between the second-person perspective and the drugs, it wasn’t my favorite book.  I often have a problem with drug scenes in movies and books, and Carr did a lot of drugs during the time she describes in this memoir.

The second and third memoirs I read this month, Autobiography of a Face and Truth and Beauty, are related, although I wasn’t aware of the existence of Truth and Beauty when I started Autobiography, which has been sitting on my to-read stack for probably a year.  It’s a classic memoir, on many reading lists, published in 1994.  Lucy Grealy had bone cancer in her jaw when she was nine years old, which caused her to have to have several years of chemotherapy and radiation, and left her with part of her jaw missing before she started junior high school.

It is a beautiful memoir.  I could so identify with the way she wrote about not fitting in, about the teasing, about the longing for a relationship.  “If only I could get someone to have sex with me, it would mean that I was attractive, that someone could love me. . . .The longing for someone and the fear that there would never be anyone intermingled to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference.”  I don’t feel that way now, but she described perfectly the way I felt in high school and college.

The end of the memoir is hopeful.  She wrote: “There I was with my short skirts and sharp mind and list of lovers, trying so hard to convince myself that maybe all I really needed to do was learn how to treat myself better. I was on the verge of learning this, yet I was still so suspicious, so certain that only another’s love could prove my worth absolutely.”

Unfortunately, when I looked to see what Lucy Grealy was doing now, hoping that she had found love, or at least peace about not having it, I found that she died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2002.  And then I found out that her friend, the writer Ann Patchett, had written a memoir about their friendship, which was Truth and Beauty.  So I immediately reserved the book at my library and picked it up the next day.  Lucy was such a compelling person, and Ann had chronicled their friendship so well that I gulped it down.

Ann Patchett thought that Lucy never got over her need, her obsession to be in a relationship.  One of Lucy’s favorite questions, one friends and I have also asked, was “Will I ever have sex again?”  Patchett has been criticized for her frank portrayal of how some women talk about sex–but I applaud her.  I think she got it just right.  Several years ago, the Red Ravine blog posted an in-depth discussion of the two books, so I won’t repeat it here, but I will quote that blog author when she wrote that “I came to the conclusion that writing memoir is the most courageous and risky kind of writing one can undertake.”  I’m so glad that both authors had the courage to write these memoirs.

Finally, if you’ve never read Carl Hiassen and need a good laugh, try him!  He is gifted in creating outlandish characters and then setting a scheme in motion that will have them all in the same place at the same time, interacting as only they can.  I suppose he and Janet Evanovich have that in common, although Evanovich’s characters reappear from book to book, and Hiassen’s usually don’t.  Takedown Twenty is one of the better of the higher-numbered Stephanie Plum novels.  I think they were great in the beginning, but have been formulaic recently.  This one was a day’s read for me, and worth it if you are a fan.

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Writing Project 2014

I’m snow and cold-bound, so have way more time than usual.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like.

I have struggled with the form I want my writing to take. At one point, I was researching a novel. Then I thought a family history memoir was what I wanted to do. I wrote every day, about 5000 words a week, and ended up with pieces of a novel (maybe 100 pages) and of a memoir (about 200 pages).

A lot of the memoir had to do with my breast cancer experience, but I really don’t want to publish that.  I don’t think it would be very marketable, because it seems like everyone and her sister has published something about going through breast cancer. Surgery, chemo, radiation. Blah, blah, blah. It sucks. What can I say about that that is different?

I ran out of steam in the 5000 words a week in the summer of 2012 and never really got back into it. What I did do was start handwriting in a spiral notebook, as Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones. Just writing practice. With no goals. I have been able to keep that practice up, not every day, but most days. I have five notebooks of gobbledygook now–the random stuff that goes through my head when I wake up in the morning, when I have to wait for my daughter at some activity, or when I’m struggling to get focused on something–anything! I find that getting the crap out of my head onto the page somehow helps.

So I’ve been struggling with form. I have all of this raw material, that is written but disorganized rambling.  When I looked at it, though, I realized that I have about 90-100 pages of my relationship history. In all its gory details. Letting my ex-husband move in the day after I met him.  Meeting a guy while driving on the highway, while I was pregnant as a single mom by choice. Internet dating off and on for nearly 10 years. Meeting someone between chemo and radiation, while bald and boobless, and breaking up while on a cruise to celebrate the end of treatment. Giving away my cat and dog because a boyfriend was allergic to them, only for him to fail to understand how having had cancer affected my parenting. Meeting someone wonderful, knowing my patterns, thinking I wasn’t following them, but realizing later that I hadn’t come as far as I’d thought.

Seeing that I’m currently single, without plans to change that status, it seems like shaping my past relationships and what I’ve learned from them into a memoir would be helpful to see where I’ve gone wrong, and so that I don’t make the same mistakes should I ever decide to try it again.

In the fall of 2013, I wrote in my journal that my goal was to have a final draft done by the end of 2014. I started working with what I have, and hit a wall. I started editing, then did nothing for weeks, or even more than a month. But I did come up with a process.

For each chapter, I will:

A- Edit on paper.

B-Make a list of additional scenes I need. I tend to write much more easily in essay form than in novel form, with scenes, so that is what I need to add.

C- Write the additional scenes, in a notebook or using Write or Die.

D- Type in the edits.

So after the new year, I made up a schedule. I’ve listed the 12 chapters I have, which vary in length from 2 or 3 pages to 19 pages. I’ve given myself goal finish dates for each chapter, generally depending on how long each one is. As I get each stage done–A,B, C, or D, I list it next to the chapter with a checkmark.

My goal is to be done with this draft by June 1, 2014. I’ll rest for a couple of weeks, and then re-evaluate. I think the next step will be to work with the plot and narrative form, because I tend to work more in summary or essay. Essay is fine, but it is not a memoir.

And by telling the blogosphere my plans, I have accountability.  I just finished edits to Chapter 2.  The goal to finish Chapter 3 is January 19, 2014.  Feel free to ask how I’m doing!