I have been tagged by Claire Musters to write about my work in progress, and my writing process.
What I am working on
I work on my blog, Dreaming Beneath the Spires, on the principle of the Minimum Effective Dose. What is alive grows, so I post just enough to keep my blog growing, month on month. About 2-3 posts a week.
I am wrapping up a memoir—Mind has Mountains which I have worked on sporadically since 1991, but abandoned for months, and sometimes years at a time!!
However, I have a first draft of the entire thing with several chapters published, anthologized even, winning several prizes (including a $20,000 NEA!)
I have had leading editors and agents interested on both sides of the Atlantic, but things fell apart at the stage of the proposal. They did not feel the ones I wrote were saleable.
A savvy New York agent showed a savvy New York editor the book, and they commented, “It’s as if Anita is at odds with the material. She is fighting the story.” Interestingly, though both were secular, they felt I was fighting the spiritual memoir that my life and spirit were demanding I write so as to write the literary memoir I wanted to write!
I wanted to write a memoir of an Indian Catholic childhood, ending at 18, a memoir inspired by Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood and Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education. It had three sections—
I My life as a Catholic child in the Zorashtrian company town of Jamshedpur up to the age of 9 when I was expelled from the local school because of my mischievousness.
(And holidays with grandparents in Catholic enclaves of Bombay and Mangalore).
The Chapel at St. Mary’s Convent, Nainital
III Working with Mother Teresa for two years, after an abrupt religious conversion at 17.
I wanted to write a series of essays on passions and experiences and people, like Vladimir Nabokov’s great memoir Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited but the world has changed, and speeded up. People want story, not literary essays. (Not that I greatly care about literary fashions. I truly believe that self-publishing, in the first instance, is an option for sui generis books, provided one can do some marketing—which perhaps I can with God’s help.)
But I think God loves story–and created us to love good stories. The whole Bible tells a shapely story, of our simultaneous craving for God and desire to do our own thing, and how we needed a Saviour to change our hearts from within, and bear the horrid consequences of the crack in our natures.
The editors and agents who have looked at it had a point. I was stopping the story mid-story.
I talked a bit about my book to editor Amy Boucher Pye last week, and we thought about what the story of my life really was.
I suddenly realized that for me to write a solely literary memoir like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, ending at age 18 would be at odds with my story. It would leave out the two most important directional decisions of my life–deciding my life’s path would be that of a writer (aged 21) and a decision (aged 27) that I was going to align my life with Christ.
Most days I do live in Jesus, am hidden in Jesus. The story of my life is a spiritual one.
So I need another three chapters: being an undergraduate at Oxford when my faith wobbled to extinction. Doing an MFA in the US when I tried to do life without God, making a religion of poetry (and achievement), a la James Joyce. Recommitting my life to Jesus, aged 27, when I realized that I realized that I really, really hadn’t made much of my life in the last six years without Jesus.
So the memoir would have more mess, more complication, but also more truth.
While talking to Amy, I came up with a new working strapline: A rebellious girl finds peace in Christ. Ah-ha!
And I thought of another model, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life which takes Lewis up to age 32, when he became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” (but what creativity and joy his conversion opened up for him!).
So I found a meta-narrative for my story. A full circle narrative: a thoroughly rebellious Catholic believer ends as thoroughly “mere Christian,” at peace–a narrative winding through the Zoroashtrian town of Jamshedpur, boarding school in Nainital; Mother Teresa in Calcutta; Oxford, England; Columbus, Ohio…
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Well, I am a restless writer and everything I have published is in a different genre.
Wandering Between Two Worlds: Essays on Faith and Art traces my life and the evolution of my faith and struggles in the form of essays. It deals with dichotomies—East and West, Writing and Prayer, Domesticities and Art, Roots and Wings.
Francesco, Artist of Florence: The Man Who Gave Too Much, which has sold the best of all my books, is a children’s book, dealing with art, Florence, The Renaissance, beauty, good-heartedness, weakness, and the importance of forgiving oneself.
The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth is a reflection on that Beatitude, theological writing for everywoman.
The Church That Had Too Much is an odd book, the record of a dream , and I found myself writing it in the shape and rhythms of poetry.
And Mind has Mountains, of course, will be a memoir!
Why do I write what I do?
I write on whatever grabs my interest, and my writing is a way to work out my ideas or share whatever fascinates me.
How does my writing process work?
My writing process with a blog: dictate it to my iPhone when I get the idea. Think out my post. Write it pretty close to its final form. Revise it a couple of times on screen. Print it out. Re-arrange and cut paragraphs. Try to cut at least 10% of the words. Do five iterations from first draft to final draft. Hit publish.
For the memoir, I have been writing thoughts and memories as they surface in thematically organized chapters. I choose the chapter I am longing to write, and then write up episodes in the order of desire to tell about them. I revise each chapter eight times, taking less and less time at each iteration, tightening it each time, cutting a minimum of 10 %, and entire paragraphs which are of interest to me, but perhaps not to you.
I post chapters on my blog as they are done.
When I finish the entire book, I suspect I will revise it another 5-8 times at least until I have shaken off every word I can, until the prose feels as inevitable and flawless as poetry, or least is as good as I can make it.