A memoirist always runs the risk of offending the living when capturing them in prose. But he also runs the risk of offending them by omission.
In Part One of this series I discussed how I have reduced my manuscript of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road over the course of the last year, in anticipation of its fall publication, from 384 pages to 264. I also discussed how difficult it was to let go of some of that material. Well, much of the difficulty comes from finding myself deleting some of the stories of the amazing artists featured in the book.
Committed tells the story of a 2010 cross-country U.S. road trip in which I interviewed more than forty artists about creativity and living an art-committed life. When I started writing the book shortly after completing the trip, I envisioned it as a journalistic craft book on the creative process. Over the years the book has morphed into a true memoir, with me revealing how the artists changed my life, but also what dark moments in my past and present positioned me for change.
Readers of drafts universally told me this made for a more powerful story. But every sentence I dedicate to my story has meant I end up removing a sentence of an artist’s story. Initial drafts featured full encounters with each of those forty-some artists, often taking up as many asfifteen pages; I made good use of the hundreds of hours of video as well as photographs and my audio diary. As the memoir narrative arose, however–the protagonist’s character arc from “failed artist” to “creative”–what I presented of the artists needed to advance the narrative. Any writer of fiction will understand this process.
I also learned through workshop critiques that I needed to provide some variety in terms of the amount of time we spent with each artist, so the book didn’t seem predictably formulaic: Patrick enters town, Patrick interviews artist, Patrick leaves town. So where do we stand now? Some artists now have about eight or so manuscript pages; others have three or four; and a few are mentioned after-the-fact (not actually “seen” at all).
These artists aren’t just interview subjects to me. They are catalysts in a major life change. My original intent with the book was to honor them, and that intent remains, even as the story became more about the narrator. But I wished for many of these artists to receive more time in the spotlight. But I have to respect the reader’s needs.
So I push forward. I’ll be turning in my revised manuscript to the publisher in about two weeks. They may call for even more cuts. And I’ll struggle some more.
Let me end by noting one other thing that is keeping me up nights: The first sentence of this blog post. I am so concerned about writing about the living that I wrote my MFA critical thesis on the subject. I learned you must be fair but also honest about anyone you write about, and shine the brightest light on yourself. And I have done that in Committed to the best of my ability. But it’s safe to say that not everyone portrayed in the book will be happy with what I’ve written. I also know it isn’t my job as a writer to make my readers like me.
My chronicle of this struggle, namely the “truthiness” with which we perceive reality, went viral after WordPress featured it on its Freshly Pressed page. So perhaps there is a Part Three to this series that needs to be written, how even knowing what I am doing what I am supposed to do isn’t assaging my guilt. Have you struggled with portraying someone you know through your art, whether it be in a memoir or essay, a fictionalized version, or some other artistic expression?
ONE THING OF NOTE: I have launched a Traveling the Artist’s Road newsletter that I promise will be infrequent enough to not choke your inbox. It will, however, offer short bits of information on creativity and writing, as well as updates on the road to publication of Committed. I invite you to sign up!