The Slow Telling of a Story 4: Rewriting a Life

So, a long, long time ago, back in the era we call B.C. (“before Coronavirus”), I was telling you a story. It was the story of the publication of my book, Darkwater. The story of how a manuscript becomes a real boy. I called this series of posts “The Slow Telling of a Story” because I was surprised at how long the process of publishing takes. I took the opportunity to tell you about how I was feeling throughout various stages of the project.

Part One was about the manuscript’s submission to various publishers, enduring multiple rejections, and finally finding a home at Boyle & Dalton.

Part Two was about my initial contacts at Boyle & Dalton, and how I felt like I was always waiting, and especially about waiting for the results of the developmental edit, through which an experienced editor would give me feedback on how to make the work better, and more marketable.

Part Three was my feelings when I received the developmental edit, feelings that were all over the map, from fear of how much work I needed to do, to despair at how bad some parts of the manuscript were, to hope and motivation that I can do this. I posted Part Three on March 22, 2020, full of beans and moxie, ready to get to work, fix my story, post more about it here, and just write and write and write. I even ended that post with this sentence: “And I’ll tell you how that rewriting is going in the next blog post, hopefully later this week.”

Later this week. That was March. This is August. When I titled this series of posts “The Long Telling of a Story,” I didn’t think the title would apply to the posts themselves. But then again, perhaps you can understand what happened when I say again, “That was March.” March 2020, the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. I’m a parish pastor, and I haven’t led “normal” worship since March 7. My kids haven’t stepped foot in a school since March 13. I didn’t fill the gas tank in my car for three months. You know. You were there too.

This pandemic has been a trauma in slow motion. We’ve all struggled in so many ways. Writing was incredibly difficult for me. At least blogging was. I haven’t really blogged at all.

But I somehow found the energy to work on the second draft of Darkwater, and I have to say that it’s far better than it was before. My developmental editor, Brad, knows his stuff. While it was hard to take at first, his criticism and suggestions enabled me to find a narrative voice I didn’t even know I had. Too many of the chapters were just me talking about myself, not actually doing anything. That had to change, because it just wasn’t interesting enough. So I invented two characters, Amanda and Ryan, two friends who were based on many different people I’ve known over the years. I reworked the bits about my thoughts and feelings into narratives, many of them involving Amanda and Ryan. The great thing about it was that I wasn’t lying. All of the things that I included truly happened to me, at least mostly. But I allowed myself to do something I hadn’t allowed before: I embellished. I added background. I added dialogue that might or might not have happened quite like that. I took conversations and mixed them together, putting words in other people’s mouths.

I hadn’t allowed myself to do that before because I thought that in a memoir like this, every single word had to be historically true. I thought that was the point. But then I noticed that the chapters that Brad liked best were the ones that had a dreamlike quality, the ones that I’d done something creative with, and overlaid something interesting on top of the history as I remembered it. So I decided that there must be something to that, and I thought about the way I understand the “historical accuracy” of the Bible.

I view the Bible as a collection of writings that is true, but not necessarily historically accurate. It’s because the Bible is a story, and a story is not always written to convey information, but truth. One word for this is myth, not in the sense of something that’s untrue, but of something that may or may not be historically true, and that doesn’t matter, because its truth is poetic, noetic, and subtle. The truth comes through the story. I don’t care whether or not God created the world in six days or not. I don’t care whether Abraham and Isaac and Jacob really existed or not. I don’t care if Jesus really raised Lazarus from the dead or not. At least, I don’t care if those things historically happened. It doesn’t matter, because the stories are true with or without that history. The authors of scripture were inspired by God to share the things of God with us, not give us play-by-play reporting.

So, I thought, maybe I can be inspired to share not the play-by-play reporting of my life, but rather the truth of my life, the things of me. That became my new m.o. as I revised. Make sure that each chapter told a story that was true to my experience, and also did so in the most compelling way I could muster. None of it is outright fabrication. But some of it didn’t happen quite the way I tell it. For a lot of it, I just plain don’t remember the details of conversations, so I invented them. And now I think that’s okay. It all could have happened the way I tell it. And in a way, it might as well have happened the way I tell it. But could a friend of mine from decades ago call me up after reading the book and say, “Hold on, that’s not quite right”? Absolutely. And I would tell them, “It’s okay. It absolutely is right in a poetic sense, in a narrative sense, in the things of me sense. It’s who I am. It’s how I got here, or at least one possible path that could lead me here. And I’m okay with it now. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s a much better read than before. (That’s not boasting. I’m not saying it’s good, just that it’s better than the first draft I wrote.)

The rewriting took me about a month, I guess. But that didn’t mean things were moving faster — by then we were all realizing that this coronavirus lockdown was not going to be a hiccup of a few weeks. We were in it for the long haul, with no clue how long the haul would be. And that wasn’t easy on any of us. The “slow telling of a story” continued.

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