Eat your meals standing up. Don’t sneak onto Mt. Kilimanjaro.
So, you want to write a memoir? I’ve just done it. It took me nearly five years to write my memoir, Love, Africa. And my wife nearly divorced me about ten times. During the heavy-lifting months, when I was staring at a blank screen, trying to create, I became a recluse. I lost weight. I was extremely irritable. Anti-social is an understatement. I couldn’t stand crowds, hated parties and found myself constantly scribbling things down, wherever I went, any time of day, especially at night, when I should have been resting up for the next big writing day. For months, I slept horribly.
It was a good thing that the New York Times had given me a sabbatical from my day job—traveling around Africa, interviewing everyone from pirates to rebel fighters, and writing news stories from three hundred to three thousand words. If you insist on doing this, and will feel like a coward forever after if you don’t, here are a few things I wish I had known when I started:
1. Conceptualize. I bashed out my first draft in about five months, and that draft was pure kaka. I had felt compelled to prove to myself I could write 100,000 words, and it was scattered, themeless, episodic and boring. So I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to think thematically and conceptually before writing down a single word.
I had written about all the major events in my recent life but I hadn’t thought through what actually connected them. One major theme was my struggles to balance the different loves of my life, my love for East Africa and my love for a woman I met at an early age. I was constantly torn between the two, and after a lot of thinking I realized: Wait! That’s my theme!
My advice: Take some long walks and think about what you’re trying to say. What means the most to you? What do you want people to feel at the end of your book?
I worked through a lot of difficult passages in my head while running several miles a day through farmland on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, where I live. As I ran, I would number the thoughts in my head. So let’s say, while running, I thought: Okay, I want to rewrite the part where I meet the rebel commander named Peacock and then I want to fix the part where I cross the border into Congo and I need to change a few words about the physical description of the jungle, I’d say to myself there are three things I need to remember. Then I would come back, stand over my desk dripping with sweat and scribble down notes on a legal pad before I forgot.
2. Focus on scenes. It’s very difficult to nail the structure. I spent months creating, editing and polishing chapters that we ended up cutting. For example, I had a long chapter about feeling lost and depressed while in graduate school at Oxford. I felt like an imposter there, the stupidest, least-focused student on that 700-year-old campus. But the book read much better if I jumped over that period and condensed those lost Oxford days to a couple paragraphs.
But there were certain scenes in the book that I always knew I wanted to share. Now I know, books live and die off their scenes. One of the most fun scenes for me to write was from when I was about twenty years old, and a buddy and I sneakily attempted to climb Africa’s highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was a total disaster. Imagine us clinging to a sheet of ice nineteen thousand feet above sea level, with white athletic socks on our hands (we had no gloves) and dried puke on my face. I nearly died up there. Many people die on Kili every year. I was damn lucky not to be one.
I took my time with that section, to convey all the drama, fear and ridiculousness of what we did. My advice: Think of the best scenes you can tell, and even if the structure remains elusive, concentrate on really animating those scenes. And don’t sneak onto Mt. Kilimanjaro.
3. Work backwards. This was probably the hardest lesson I learned. I’m a newspaper writer. I’ve been trained to stack all the good stuff—the news—at the top of a story. So suspense is not my strong suit. The way in which I eventually improved at creating suspense and developing plot was to think about the whole process backwards.
I once read that John Irving always wrote his last line first. That has clearly worked for him. Know where you want to go and work backwards from there. Do this for the larger story, Irving-style, but also for each chapter and each scene. Plant little time bombs along the way, set to go off later. I did this with the sad story of my friend Benny, a goofy, joyful soul, who died early in my life and left a huge hole in my heart. I write about Benny from the beginning, when he and I used to “throw paint’’ as we called it (painting houses in the Chicago suburbs). I dropped hints of what was going to happen to him. When it unfortunately did, the reader had a deeper sense of my loss.
4. Get offline. Stay on Microsoft Word all day. As much as your job or other circumstances allow, resist checking your email or the news. When I was tired at night, and couldn’t create any more, I would do research. I would go through old newspaper stories, gleaning details. The next morning, when I was reasonably fresh, I’d start using those details and facts to draw more scenes. Save the day’s most productive hours for creating.
5. Eat your meals standing up. I would start writing around 8 a.m.; work for an hour; have a quick breakfast of Grape-Nuts on my feet; work some more until about noon; go for a run or a walk; then have lunch of a sandwich (standing up) and then sit down again for three or four more hours until it was dusk and time to go home and play with my kids.
If you’re working eight hours a day at your desk, take your meals standing up. Stretch a little between breaks. Going for a run in the middle of the day or getting some exercise can help clear your mind.
6. Feedback. Make your own board of directors. Find ten to twenty people whose judgment you trust and turn to them for feedback. I turned to several dozen people who read different versions of the manuscript. Some pointed out that a few of my early chapters were too slow; others spotted clumsy language that I then excised. Make sure to stagger the sharing of drafts so that you reserve fresh advisers for later stages of your work.
And most important!
7. Stay in that chair. A novelist friend once told me: “It’s not about talent, divine inspiration, intelligence or even luck. It’s all about how long you can sit in that chair.” There’s no substitute for perseverance. You need to stay in that chair and keep revising and rewriting. Many times, I got frustrated. Some days I went backward.
But I’m used to working hard on news stories in my day job. Almost always, time solves everything. So when I felt stuck, I returned to the beginning of the problematic section and tried different sentences or scenes until I felt I was close. Then I’d move on and come back to that same part later and polish some more. That’s the only way the book will ever be anything you’re proud of.
Jeffrey Gettleman won a Pulitzer Prize for his journalism in Africa. He is the East Africa bureau chief of the New York Times and author of the new memoir, Love, Africa.
For more information, check out jeffreygettleman.com