|My father in Canterbury, England, May 2002|
Ten years ago, I started writing the story of how I ended up leaving a life and a marriage in Vancouver at the same time my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
That's always how the story started: with my misery and the early hints of Dad's problems while I lived in Vancouver.
But I couldn't sell that story -- not one of the six versions I ended up writing, including one version through a university writing program. In September 2015, a publisher said, "The writing's fine but the story doesn't grab me," and that was the last straw for me. I couldn't go any further with the story. I couldn't do it anymore; the time had come to put that memoir aside, and write something else.
For two days, I cried my heart out every time I walked the dog. I bent over and cried. I let it out because it was so hard to let it go.
Two months later, I signed a contract for Field Notes.
BUT first, I had coffee and cake with one of my writing mentors, the one who has been part of my writing life in Nova Scotia most consistently: Harry Thurston. I told him about the collection of essays on submission with Nimbus but he didn't want to talk about that; he wanted to talk about the memoir. He had some suggestions and I wrote them down on a napkin. Despite those suggestions -- or really, instructions -- from a cherished mentor, my brain couldn't wrap itself around them, couldn't find the way out of my original thinking about the story and into a new one.
Start with arriving in Pugwash, Harry told me. But I couldn't let go of believing the story started in Vancouver.
This is why some books take decades to get published: Because there's a kind of writer's block that keeps a writer from seeing her project in a new way, especially when she sees a particular pattern unfolding in a particular way. But since Dad's birthday in early March, knowing the tenth anniversary of his death was approaching, I've been thinking about him, about taking care of him, and about how I learned so much about him after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and then after he died.
And sometime in the middle of April, it hit me: the story starts in Pugwash. The story starts with my arrival at that old house on the hill that I'd never been inside, and the story isn't about me and my failed marriage; it's about my father. It's about his life and his living and his dying. And it's about the man I barely knew but came to know through the memories of other people.
I'm a better writer now and I know how to weave in the back story, those little sentences that link Vancouver with Pugwash so that it enhances the story rather than distracts from it.
You see, even though I stop thinking about the memoir, I didn't stop thinking about what Harry advised. I didn't stop turning it over in my brain - start in Pugwash, start in Pugwash - until I finally dug up what was buried underneath my failed marriage story.
I emailed Harry earlier this week to tell him that he was right, and that I would tell the story as it starts in Nova Scotia. I told him that not only have I found the overall point of the narrative, but I found the story that starts the book and that I can write my way towards in the book (the second instruction he gave me that I wrote on the napkin).
He responded most kindly: "Each story requires its own method of telling. There is a keystone which, once found and dropped in, seems to hold the structure together-- first, however, one must find it. I'm so pleased to hear that you have done so. I think the book about your father and the father/daughter relationship will be wonderful in the end. You are a wonderful writer and this is a story worth telling."
So on this, the final day of May, I am looking forward to this project for the month of June.
Sometimes, you have to give up in order to not give up. Or, as early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust once said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes."