The Art of Endlessly Revising a Memoir

Image: aerial view of two hairpin turns in a road through the forest.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Today’s post is by writer, editor and teacher Anne Liu Kellor (@anneliukellor), author of the new memoir Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging.

Writing a memoir is a process of deciding what should go in and what you must leave out. You cannot possibly include everything. Instead you must focus on one period in your life, or one theme or thread, or sometimes several, woven together.

The problem is, even when limiting the scope, not all memoirs easily lend themselves to a typical narrative arc: problem —> quest to solve the problem —> emerging wiser or healed. In fact, the longer one lives, the more one realizes how what may feel like resolution at one point will later reveal itself as only a resting place, a temporary completion of one cycle—before the same questions and themes arise. Or, in my case, by the time your memoir finally comes out, the man you ended up with at the end of the book you’ve now divorced, fifteen years later.

Let me be clear: my story, at heart, was not about wanting to win a prize of happily ever after. Instead, it was about multiple layers of searching: searching for my once-abandoned mother tongue of Chinese; searching for my connection to Buddhism and Tibet and China; searching for my own sense of purpose and voice. Although the white-dominant publishing industry might not deem it “universal,” it is a classic coming-of-age memoir—for, aren’t all of us, in our twenties, seeking to understand what we are meant to do with our lives or where we belong? My story had multiple layers, multiple resolutions, and meeting my future husband was only one of them.

But here’s the thing: if I started writing that memoir today, focused on that same period, it would be a very different book. Motherhood, therapy, divorce, the pandemic: all of these things have changed the way I would tell my story. Therapy especially helped me to question and reframe how much of my early spiritual searching—my desire to find my Path, to humble myself, dissolve my ego, and to serve the world with my life—was in fact tied to ego and the sense that if I didn’t do something big and “worthy” with my life, I myself was not worthy; my own life, my own intimate stories and questions, those by themselves were not enough.

If I were to write my memoir today, I might reflect more clearly from the onset about how beneath all of my grander spiritual questions at the time, I was, at heart, simply trying to find my voice—as so many of us are. Yet because I was quiet, shy, and lonely, I gravitated instead towards spirituality—a different kind of intimacy, that didn’t yet necessitate that I speak to others.

If I were to write my memoir today, instead of ending with the man I met, I would end with how I gradually stepped into my vocation as a writing teacher and learned to create community for others—a less dramatic ending, but a more deeply redemptive one. For despite considering other potential redemptive “endings” along the way (marriage, motherhood, etc.), I have never felt my life come as full circle as it has now, as a teacher, and as a woman who is finally launching her book. So, in a meta sense, the deeper story that I am now embracing is the one that involves me putting my book out in the world after twenty years of writing, editing, submitting, and waiting.

But, on a practical craft level, what do you do if you find your voice, your writing chops, or your perspective on your story keeps changing? It’s relatively easy to keep editing on a line level and tightening your prose, etc. But what about the problem of where in time your voice is writing from, and where in time your memoir ends?

In my case, I decided to end the book’s narrative well before motherhood—so, over eleven years ago. I also locked the memoir’s voice and perspective in the past by changing it to present tense. Present tense memoirs can be challenging because there is less room to reflect from an older, wiser place, and as such you must rely heavily on scene and transformation that happens in the moment. However, I was able to weave in some backstory chapters with a more reflective voice, as well as some more lyrical chapters that deepen the resonance of the book beyond what my present tense voice of my twenties could access or say. But overall, I stayed true to writing from the crafted perspective of who I was then, not now.

Sometimes I think I could write a wiser book if I were to start it today from the vantage point of a woman in her forties versus in her early thirties. But what I’ve also realized is that whatever layers I wasn’t able to express or get to in this book, I will carry forward into my next. In fact, I do also have a newer unpublished collection of essays written, much of which revisits the same themes from my memoir through a wiser, more lyrical place. A place that already understands more about myself and my core weaknesses, gifts, and wounds. And this will always be the case: we will always be revisiting the same core themes in our work. We will always be deepening, or widening, our perspective.

So while some may advise to not write about stuff that is too fresh and instead wait until you have years of hindsight—if you are someone who must write now, and trusts that you will always be writing, your story may well need to live in the world through the lens of multiple perspectives: the one that is living it now, and the one that will look back in another five, ten, or twenty years.

Here’s the thing: we are never truly “done” with making meaning from our stories. There is never one “perfect” version. Instead, we must keep rewriting them over and over, and in turn, they will keep rewriting us.

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