Revise Your Memoir: From First to Final Draft (Part 1)

Some readers may or may not know that one of the ways I support myself is by offering mentoring and critique services to students across the United States. Typically, these are adults who have taken a class from me somewhere along the way (Interlochen, Fishtrap, 49 Alaska Writing Center) and decided to stick with it. Like most people I know, a little deadline and coaching goes a long way toward motivating these folks to continue writing, eventually bringing their manuscripts or life stories to completion.
Currently, I’m working with 12 students of all backgrounds, ages, and genders. There’s a full-time professor, there’s a former apple orchard owner, an acupuncturist, a mother, an Iraq war veteran, a motorcycle enthusiast, and a geologist, to name just a few of the many professions these students have had over the courses of their lives. They might come from different backgrounds with different stories to tell, but what they all have in common is the desire to make their stories more than just “good enough.” Sure, some of them want to be published on a large scale. But the good majority of them just want to write their stories and write them well, happy to share them with family, friends, and perhaps the occasional magazine. I admire these students so much for their monthly dedication to the work–they send up to 20 pages every month and some tack on reading assignments from me as well! It makes me especially happy that they believe in the power of a well-told story enough to apply effort again and again. I also cherish the trust they give me, sharing their first, best, worst, and last drafts through thick and thin.
Idella Allen, daughter of Whistlin’ Joe
This week–and I’ve never done this before–I’d like to feature the work of Idella Allen. Idella blogs at Oma with a View and lives in what I commonly refer to as “the most beautiful place on Earth” (also known as Wallowa County, Oregon). We’ve been working together since the fall of 2010 and she is nearing the completion of her memoir. This week, I received her “final draft” of an essay she submitted a while back titled “Whistlin’ Joe,” a tribute to her father. By way of instruction and demonstration, I’ll reprint an excerpt from her first draft today and from her final draft on Thursday. My analysis follows each excerpt and my hope is, by the end of the week, readers will not only delight in Idella’s writing but also see the many ways that a single line of memoir can blossom into a full scene of delightful, meaningful memories that anyone can enjoy. Here goes:
Whistlin’ Joe (first draft)
by Idella Allen, excerpted with permission
My father, Elmer Isaac Ashton was born in Woodruff, Utah on May
14,1907 to George and Idella (Eastman) Ashton. He was the fifth child in a family of seven, four girls and three boys. In his lifetime he was a sheepherder, cowboy, coal miner, farmer, and logger. More importantly, he was a husband, father, grandfather and a friend to all. 
He was a happy little boy and learned to whistle at a young age. His two uncles, Rawl and Marsh Eastman, nicknamed him “Whistlin’ Joe.” His name became Joe Ashton and he signed Elmer only on legal documents. Rawl and Marsh looked out for him and were more father figures, as his own father was sometimes mean to him. He spoke highly of his mother and was devastated by her death when he was twelve. She had been injured in a buggy accident and spent the last few years of her life in a wheelchair. Even when in the wheelchair, she continued her job clerking at a small grocery store. Daddy told the story of how she could add up the bill in her head, faster than an adding machine, seldom making a mistake. 
At the age of ten Daddy took a summer job, herding sheep to help support the family. He talked little about his childhood but I can imagine him trying to be brave, when inside he was a scared little boy. Terrified at night with only a dog for company, he lay in the bunk, listening to the howl of coyotes and prayed that all the sheep in his care, would still be alive come the next morning. 
He always had fresh lamb meat at the sheep camp and prepared his own meals, usually a lamb stew or lamb fried, along with potatoes, gravy and biscuits. He not only learned how to care for animals and brave the world alone he also learned the rudiments of cooking. When I was fourteen he patiently taught me how to make gravy. After he had fried the lamb chops he carefully poured out some of the grease, scraped the browned bits off the bottom and edges of the fry pan.  Then he had me sprinkle flour into the grease with one hand, while stirring continually with the other. When the flour and grease started to thicken we added milk and kept stirring, adding more milk until soon we had a fry pan full of delicious milk gravy to cover biscuits, baking in the oven. A few years later as a new bride I didn’t know much about cooking, but I could make milk gravy. 
Daddy’s schooling ended when he graduated from eighth grade…
Ok. Now that’s not bad writing. It really isn’t. We know from the title and the opening paragraph that this chapter is likely going to cover her father’s life from birth to death, highlighting what the author/daughter can remember and what was passed down to her. We also know her father was “of a certain time and place,” if you will, having grown up working to contribute to his family from a young age at a time when children did their part. Idella even hints at an imagined scene in there, one of the great permissions of memoir, when she says that “he lay in his bunk, listening to the howl of coyotes.” Already, we get the sense that Whistlin’ Joe didn’t have much by way of personal possessions, but he had a lot of determination, personality, and love. That feeling is just an echo–a suggestions, really–but it’s there in the opening page and that’s a good thing.
That said, the writing doesn’t fully open up. The moment of connection between the father and the daughter in the kitchen is summarized and there aren’t very many sensory details. The mention of the sheep camp, which seems like a hugely rich opportunity for character-building details and descriptions of the natural world, is rushed through. And we can’t really see or hear this man that Idella, the author and daughter, cares so much about. Add to this the fact that the paragraphs don’t all have a feeling of intentional shaping or completeness. The suggestion of a new memory or scene drops into the middle of a paragraph, which is ok sometimes, but doesn’t help the reader over the course of the long haul in terms of guidance, pacing, and shape. Keep all of this up for 13 pages, which the first draft did, and most readers are going to bug out no matter how much they love Idella! (She’s heard all this from me before, no worries.)
So how does a writer open up scene, and which scenes need to be opened? How long should they go on? What about using the past tense or a reflective, retrospective tone–would that add another layer? Maybe there are more details that can bring Whistlin’ Joe to life early on, so readers feel they know him well enough to care. There’s that echo again–this hint that our main guy is loving and determined. But we can’t see that and verify it ourselves. We’re not totally convinced. How can Idella reveal more? Stay tuned for Thursday, and her final draft…
If you’re curious, I do have room in my schedule for 1 or 2 more students. Email me or reach out on Facebook for more details. For an immersive experience, I’ll be teaching Memoir Writing at Interlochen College of Creative Arts this August for one week, a brief Memoir Workshop at Carolina Mountains Literary Festival this September 5th, and a 10-week Memoir Course through Great Smokies Writing Program for their Fall 2014 course offerings. I’ll also be teaching Flash Fiction in a Flash this March in Anchorage for 49 Alaska Writing Center. Use the links to find out more!

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