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by Shawna Ervin
A year ago I began a memoir. I knew what I wanted to say. I plotted and planned and came up with clever titles for chapters. Despite not understanding arc, I had an agenda. It was going to be my story, my chance to speak and tell the world everything I wanted it to know about adoption and foster care. I knew exactly where the story was going.
Or so I thought.
I wrote the first draft. I was in charge. I was fierce about meeting deadlines and approached writing like I approached training when I was a competitive figure skater. I showed up, wrote the words, kept charts to track my progress, showed up again and again until I typed the last word.
I got the story down; I had a complete manuscript.
But there were no medals for a finished manuscript, no photos on top of a podium for completing pages. I sensed something was off in my book. But I’d worked so hard!
As I started to revise, I found I was writing the same exact draft again. I altered a few words or sentences here and there, but it wasn’t changing the way I knew it needed to. I wasn’t listening. The problem was, I had been in a monologue with myself. Rather than inviting a dialogue I had shut down all communication in a race to an imagined finish line.
So, I did what anyone who had studied interpersonal communication and taken hours of adoption classes and should have been a good listener might do. I ignored the book. I tried even harder to force it into what I wanted. When that didn’t work, I abandoned it and went to coffee with friends, played at the park with my kids, read books I knew wouldn’t want to know my book, volunteered, taught, went on long walks.
Finally, I stopped.
I re-read the manuscript, made some notes, and read it again. Then, I put it away and pulled up a blank page. I wrote until I couldn’t write anymore, as if I was explaining the story to a stranger, as if I hadn’t lived it. I closed that document.
Each day for months I began anew on another blank page. I did freewrites on themes and characters, on what I hoped a reader might learn. Each time I began, I heard more of what the story needed to be. I heard what the larger story needed to say. I allowed the story to have a voice and to direct me. On a series of blank pages I left my design for the book behind and found a freedom as my fingers found the various layers of truth I needed to craft into a story that might allow a reader to hear her story more clearly too.
And, finally, after months of freewrites, I was ready to begin again. On yet another blank page I began my memoir again, this time using what was the end as the beginning, changing who had something to say and who needed to hear them out, and letting the story take us where we both needed to go.
We had to go home.
Shawna Ervin is the mom of two kids who challenge her, give her joy, provide writing material, and leave crumbs so she can always find them. Her childhood dream was to be a trapeze artist in the circus, but due to a fear of heights she opted to become a writer instead. She is a member of the Lighthouse Book Project.