By August 2014 I had worked my way through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians and filled a notebook with my scribbled little stories and essays. With all the magical thinking that a novice author possesses, I purchased a MacBook Air to serve as my digital journal and reserved a hotel room in Nantucket for 18 days. I wrote from 9 a.m. to noon every day and returned home with 28 essays—seven per chapter—totaling about 30,000 words. One small problem: They were almost completely disjointed.
My training was as a journalist—the inverted pyramid, with all the important stuff at the top so that the typesetter could mindlessly cut from the bottom without messing up the story too much. Who, what, when, where, how and sometimes why were all crammed into one sentence/paragraph no more than four typewritten lines long. Not the right style for a book, where you want the reader to keep turning the pages.
Chapter 1 wasn’t bad, but I floundered in Chapter 2, meandering through my memories without context or connections. Thanks to the honest advice of my volunteer reader/editor/critic, I tightened my writing style in Chapter 3 and managed to write a few successful transitional paragraphs. Meanwhile, the manuscript slowly crept up to about 40,000 words.
What was my writing style? Not really memoir, though there is much remembrance in the manuscript. How-to? Not the usual style of second-person, five bulleted steps to grief recovery and joy. I found articles on the “how-to memoir,” but that still wasn’t quite right either. Out of the blue, I remembered the word “vignette.” “Storyacious Practices: On Writing Vignettes” described almost exactly what I was doing.
I found more information at wikihow, “How to Write a Vignette”: The word “vignette” originates from the French word “vigne,” which means “little vine.” A vignette can be a “little vine” of a story, a verbal snapshot. A good vignette is short, to the point, and packed with emotion.
I finally had an image of what my pages should look like. I visualized every little vignette as a leaf on a grapevine. The trunk of the vine stretches from beginning to end and is the spiritual underpinning from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which connects the leaves and holds everything together. I had an even clearer mental picture of a clothesline, with the vignettes pinned to the line like so many sheets and pillowcases. I realized that I did not need to worry as much about bridge paragraphs as I did about keeping the spiritual line taut from beginning to end and pinning every little verbal snapshot to that line. Chapter 4 is ever so much better as a result. Now, I am back at the beginning, strengthening my clothesline. My writing style is finally making sense to me. And I am almost up to 50,000 words.
Photo: sheets drying in the ocean breeze, Nantucket, Massachusetts, August 13, 2013
If you were writing a book for other widows, would you write a second-person, how-to book or a first-person memoir?
Which would you be more inclined to read? Why?
Where would you go to find a book for widows?