Friday, July 19, 2019

When Your Book Wants to Be Something More: The Persistence Required as Your Book Reveals Its Real Story

One of my long-time students, Linda Zlotnick, recently published her memoir, Star Sisters. The core story is about the death of her twin sister from ovarian cancer.  It was a many year journey to allow herself to process the loss on the page, then begin to watch the memoir take on other topics, unexpected ones.

Linda is persistent, and I admire that about her, because it took persistence to "blow apart" her manuscript each time she ran into a block.  She is a professional astrologer but for many iterations, that wasn't a strong thread in the story, even though she'd used astrology to understand her sister's untimely death.  "Three times, just as I thought I was getting close to having a finished book, I would get an insight or new understanding that would make me have to almost start over," Linda told me.  Several of these breakthroughs came during the week on Madeline Island, at my writing intensive, and another at the winter retreat in Tucson.  

Linda had started out writing the book in 2008.  "Even though I was partnered and raising children, my sister's death left me adrift," she said.  "I hoped that putting words on paper, having the structure of a class with assignments, would help me come to terms with something completely unexpected: not only was my sister dead, but the "strong" twin died first, and with her my other half, my longest friend and deepest intimate connection was gone."  She began writing about the five months between diagnosis and death, chronicling every doctor's appointment, chemo treatment, hope and relapse.  "It was cathartic," Linda said, "and at that time I thought it would be a medical memoir about how medicine had disappointed myself and my family."

But the book wanted to be something more.  She began to take more writing classes, joined a writing group, and in her professional life, started working with what she calls "death charts."  "I started a personal study of my twin's death chart," she told me,  "a horoscope cast for the moment of death rather than birth.  As a life-long astrologer I knew the stars could help me understand a larger cosmic perspective.  And it did." 

Death charts became the entrance to the real story of Linda's memoir--the exploration of her unusual knowingness and how it intersected with her twin's death.  By winter of 2019, the book went out to seven beta readers who brought back probing questions.  "They forced me to see gaps not only in the story, but in my telling of the story," Linda said.  And that's when the book began to really reveal itself.  "There were parts of my past I wanted to hide, and the book demanded the truth from me."  

Fortunately, Linda was up to the challenge of such a demand for truth laid bare on the page, and her memoir, Star Sisters, is now out in the world.  

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