I’m going to shoot straight with you and tell you something I suspect a lot of authors are afraid to admit: every single book has its own unique set of limitations. There’s no such thing as the One Great American Novel (or memoir). The reality is as authors we make thousands of choices, and sometimes those choices create give-and-take sacrifices. It turns out a single book can’t be everything.**
When I started writing, it seemed like 90,000 words may as well have been a million. Surely in that much text, I had the opportunity to say a thousand things a hundred ways. For starters, I wanted Caged Eyes to be an emotive telling of my story. I also wanted it to be an indictment of rape culture. I believe I’ve achieve both of those goals, but it’s also true I have had to face the reality of what this memoir can’t be, the reality that as an author, every time I make a choice, the book is further boxed in to one particular thing.
I’ll say it: in some ways, I’m disappointed in my memoir. Eeks! That’s tough to admit. But this isn’t an indication of regret, nor is it a symptom of being overly critical. I wouldn’t edit any one of those 90,000 words today even if I could. (Well, maybe just a few…)
Let me explain by enumerating a few of my choices:
I decided early on that this book would be memoir, written stylistically like a novel, rather than straight narrative nonfiction. I hope Caged Eyes as a memoir gives the reader a full immersion into my story. But the risk of memoir is that sometimes it is difficult to then show the reader how one specific story relates to the wider world without straying from the first-person point of view. I’ve tried to go about that task in sneaky ways, but the truth is for a reader to fully understand the issue of sexual assault or military culture, it would be best if they also read narrative nonfiction texts like Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier or Raymond Douglas’s On Being Raped (or so many others).
I made another choice that this memoir would focus primarily on the years I spent as an Air Force Academy cadet. At one point I considered telling the story in a structure similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, where my journey through the wilderness in the later years would be the spine, and the narrative arc would include far more of my emotional and physical recovery. Instead, I honed in on the original story itself – not how I became fully well. In some ways, that makes me a bit sad for this book. I want to grab a reader on the last page and shout, “There’s more! Let me tell you.” But in contrast, because I narrowed the scope I had an opportunity to delve more fully into the material that is now Caged Eyes.
I could have chosen to publish Caged Eyes at another point in my life. If I had published earlier, perhaps the writing would have a rawer, edgier feel. On the other hand, if I had waited another decade, there’s a chance I could add insight that I haven’t yet gained. Or maybe this timing is the best compromise.
Those are just three examples of choices which simultaneously strengthened and limited Caged Eyes.
Authors rarely admit disappointment, and yet I suspect so many of us feel that way, at least a little. That’s why you might hear an author talking about how hard it is to take a peek at their work in the few months before publication when they can no longer tweak. Or why you might notice authors scribbling edits in their printed books last minute before they give readings.
If an author decided to rewrite a novel at a different point in their life, they might create an entirely different work. They might make grand, sweeping changes to aspects like structure or point of view. Or the differences might be subtler, in stylistic elements like sentence structure and word choices. Each path creates a product with unique attributes.
I suppose I’ve come to think of books as if they are boyfriends. Some are particularly beautiful, some hilarious, some intellectual…but no one is the full package. You might date one person with whom you have the most insightful philosophical chats. Another date might take you rock climbing and bungee jumping. One partner might make you look at the world a certain way, and then the next turns that perspective on its head. Neither is wrong, just different. No partner – or book – can be anyone’s everything. That’s why many of us try to keep a clan of friends and a fully stocked bookshelf.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that I don’t know many authors who have *only* written one book, and I would surmise this is the reason. We finish one and love these babies, beauty and warts and all, and then we strive to create another, to capture something we weren’t able to in the first.
At least that’s the reason for me. My second memoir won’t be everything either, but I’ll love it all the same.
*The cat featured above has absolutely zero relevance to this post; I just think he (she?) rocks.
**Disagree? Comment below and let’s debate!
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