Writing a book is not like writing a weekly essay for a blog. This essay has a firm deadline. A book does not, or usually does not.
I’ve written two textbooks, one of which has had two new editions. The second book is due for updating.
But writing a textbook is nothing like writing a memoir. In some respects, a textbook is a data dump. A memoir is an act of exploration, of peeling back the layers. I wrote both textbooks in less than a year. Both went through revisions and editing. But the memoir is a different beast entirely.
And as I sat at the keyboard to write this essay, it occurred to me that I have learned a thing or two about brief writing from the writing and re-writing of my memoir. You may be surprised. Maybe not.
I am on the fifth, and I believe final, draft of the memoir. I started writing it in February 2018. I submitted the first draft to a developmental editor in late summer 2019. My editor has published two award-winning and acclaimed novels and a memoir, and works with writers like me to prepare a manuscript for publication. Or as I like to say, she has turned my tossed salad of a narrative into a soufflé, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor.
Writing a memoir is my side gig. Writing a brief is what many of you do for a living. Writing a memoir is a literary endeavor. Writing a brief is a commercial exercise. The two are worlds apart, except where they are not. Having experienced both projects, let me share with you where the two worlds overlap.
While no one gets, much less wants, five years to write a creative brief, what I’ve learned in the last five years of writing and re-writing and re-re-writing my memoir is that I needed five years to realize how much of my story to leave out. To dump. To put aside because it was not relevant. Because it did not address the, dare I say it, objective of my story.
I never wrote a creative brief for my memoir, but I could have. A brief is a useful document for lots of activities outside of advertising. It’s possible we stole the idea from the legal world, whose professionals write legal briefs every day for the same reason we write advertising creative briefs: to summarize arguments on behalf of our clients.
In the back and forth between me and my editor, over the four years of working with her, my story found its footing. I was certain I knew my “theme” and was equally convinced I knew the best “structure” to present that story on the day I started. My editor thought otherwise and pushed back. She gave me the tough love I hired her for, even when I didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
And like a sculptor who stands in front of a slab of marble and visualizes the sculpture within it, I chipped away everyday to find the essence of my narrative. Slowly, over time, the thread of the story emerged and all the unnecessary elements revealed themselves. I had to do the cutting myself, of course, but time was the element I needed to see what was superfluous and what mattered.
Time is the memoirist’s best friend. Time gives me perspective. Time softens harsh memories and focuses diffuse emotions. W.H. Auden said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” In memoir, I am often writing about feelings I am uncertain about, recall only vaguely, wish I could forget.
Brief writers have no such luxuries. Time is often their enemy. That’s too bad, because there is no substitute for the nurturing and leavening effects of time on one’s thinking.
I leave you with the timely advice usually attributed to Mark Twain, but in fact was said by Blaise Pascal: “I have been obliged to make the present (letter) too long, for the very reason that I had not the time to make it shorter.”
Memorists bask in it. Brief writers covet it. Use your time wisely.