As part of my Memoir March challenge, I posed a two-part question to several memoirist friends. What was the most difficult part of writing your memoir? How did you overcome this difficulty? Here’s the answer posited by the first person to take up the gauntlet, Anna Redsand.
About the Book
From the Amazon description:
Anna Redsand was sixteen when she heard her mother say of two missionary women who’d been discovered to be lovers, “They’re living in sin. They should see a doctor.” She knew in that moment that she would have to leave the security and intimacy of family, church, and home―the only world she had ever known. As that world faded, so too did everything that had been religious or spiritual inside her. The journey was to find what she’d lost―or replace it. Was there a faith community that could accept Anna as a lesbian, a doubter, and someone committed to social justice?
To Drink From the Silver Cup is the story of Anna Redsand’s quest. It took her from a devout missionary life in the Navajo Nation into the shame and exile of being unwanted in the homeland, and then beyond through the uncharted territory of different religious, spiritual, and political directions. Always striving for authenticity, continuing to long for home, forty years after taking leave, Anna embarked on a deliberate experiment to see if return was possible―or whether too much had changed in her and too little in the church.
See her bio at the end.
My Writing Nemesis
Packing for a trip? I have flat zippered bags for different categories of clothing—one with neat rolls of underwear and socks; another for tank tops, also neatly rolled; and a third for tees. Trousers and pullovers are rolled along the sides of the duffel, and each trip has its color coordination for versatility.
My desk? There’s place for everything, and everything in its place. Sure there’s always a pile of papers and folders on one corner, but it’s neatly stacked, and until I get to filing, I know what’s in it. Moreover, I cover my desk with a long blue cloth to protect the contents from the omnipresent high desert dust.
And yet! Organization always poses a conundrum when I begin to write something larger than an essay. Sometimes it even happens with essays. How to order my memoir, To Drink from the Silver Cup, was no exception.
I have known since I was nineteen that I would have to write this book in some form. About fifteen years ago, I penned a 400-plus-page version of it that simply didn’t work. That version combined my extremely conservative religious upbringing with the problems of coming out lesbian with growing up as a white girl in the Navajo Nation. When a very astute reader commented on the manuscript, he said he didn’t think the sexuality and religion combination worked, even though the connection was obvious. Although he was usually spot-on in his assessments, that didn’t ring true for me, but I still couldn’t pinpoint the problem.
Finding a structure
Four years ago, I once again launched into the same project. This time, I took myself on a three-day retreat to a relatively inexpensive hotel suite about eight blocks from my home. Not having the regular responsibilities of home life was more important than being in an exotic location. In that suite, I opened Tristine Rainer’s Your Life As Story. I have read and exercised my way through many books on how to write; Rainer’s book is to me the best there is on prose writing. Hands down. It is instructive rather than prescriptive, and it is a pleasure to read.
As I worked through some of the exercises, I quickly realized that the problem with my previous manuscript was that I had tried to pack two books into one. So the first organizational solution had to do with narrowing my focus, something I’d told writing students time and again. I found it quickly enough: I would keep the spotlight on my spiritual journey. Categorizing the memoir helped to further identify the book’s core.
The next pressing question was where to start, and Tristine did not disappoint. Through an exercise in which I wrote my life as a short fairy tale, I knew that I would start with the inciting incident, which took place when I was sixteen. From there, I would flash back. Then came the organization of the entire book—what Rainer refers to as “how you slice it.” She offers several lovely metaphors, among them the thread on which individual pearls are strung, my eventual choice.
A few readers have expressed mild disappointment that certain aspects of my life weren’t covered in the text, but I knew that maintaining a rigorous focus was of the essence for me. After all, when you reach a certain age, you’ve accumulated many pearls, and I’d learned from experience that the grab-bag approach didn’t work.
About Anna Redsand
Anna Redsand is the author of To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond. Her essays have appeared in several literary journals, and “Naturalization” was a notable in Best American Essays 2014. Her biography Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living won four national and international awards. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Contact at www.annaredsand.com