Having written nothing but fiction for many years, I find myself in the odd position of wiring an entire book about myself. One of the reasons I assumed memoirs and creative non-fiction weren’t for me was because I didn’t think I was doing much that people would want to read about.
Two years ago, as some of you may know, I set out on a rather unusual adventure. Five months travelling the globe with your partner is something many of my friends have either done or dreamed about, but I’m fairly certain their imaginings didn’t include a tiny baby. For us, we decided that the combination of my maternity leave and my partner’s redundancy meant we could take that trip we’d always wanted to, only with our three-month-old daughter along for the ride. Finally, I thought, I’m doing something people might want to read about.
The first stop on our trip was Tokyo. It was crazy, overwhelming and very, very tiring.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how different it is to write about yourself. When writing fiction, the work starts with the characters and the story. I know what I want to happen (not that it always turns out that way) and I spend a lot of time writing musings on who my characters are, what makes them tick, what happened to them in their past and generally trying to pin down what makes them so interesting.
For non-fiction, I’m finding the opposite. The details of the events and the people are already there. It already happened. There’s no need to invent anything. What’s missing is the story. Even in the most interesting of lives, we don’t follow a narrative pattern. Stuff just happens. We lurch about from one decision to the next, only able to look back and see the shape of our history once we’ve already experienced it.
So how do I do that when I’m still living through the experience of my life? No, I’m not travelling anymore, but I’m still very much figuring out how to be a mum, so I’m not sure that there can be much of a resolution at the end. What can I say? Oh, and when we got back I knew exactly what I was doing with this tiny human and have been an amazing mum ever since. Think that might enter into the arena of fiction.
Eating breakfast with kangaroos is not something I expected to do with my four-month-old baby.
At the moment, I’m organising it around themes and ideas. In Japan, there’s a general sense of disorientation that goes with not only the place itself but the general sleep-deprived chaos that is the first few months of motherhood. Singapore is where I reflect on my role in the life of the other children in my family (as an aunty) and Australia is, thanks to the near-constant rain we experienced, all about things not meeting up to expectations.
The problem is, I can’t see the shape of it yet. Recently I’ve returned to drafting and find myself in the joyous position of being almost home (literarily speaking). With almost 70,000 words under my belt, it certainly has the length of a full book. Perhaps because I’m too close to it, I’m finding it very hard to step away from it and put it into some sort of coherent narrative. While the idea of our experience is exciting to most people we tell, simply reporting what we did isn’t exactly going to make for interesting reading.
It’s fair to say that I got used to breastfeeding in strange places.
I recently read this fascinating post about how to structure non-fiction by Jane Friedman. That, rather than approach it as a ‘true story,’ it should have the same kind of ebb and flow, climax and resolution, that you’d expect in a novel. I’m worried I’m going to inflate a small event out of all proportion in order to create a sense of narrative tension, or miss out half of the trip because it doesn’t fit with the intended narrative arc.
Whatever happens, I always have to remember that the first draft is a place of trials, tests and failures. That I can put it quietly to bed for a month or two before I re-read it. At which point, I hope, the wider shape of it will become clear and I will be able to pick up the threads of the story and lead my reader on a path through our exciting adventure. I certainly hope so.
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