I had that talk with my publisher around the start of Lent 2015. As I sat in the Ash Wednesday service near the school kids, fidgeting in their dress uniforms, the thought came to me: Write as little as possible.
I decided to take the season to think about, imagine, and sit with the idea of writing about my mom and her cancer as a way to frame and tie together a spirited defense of poetry. When an idea or a memory came to me, I wrote it out. Then I’d close my notebook and move on.
Along the way I began making lists. One was of all the poems I’d gotten permissions for, and I starred my favorites. Then I made a list of all the poems about my mom and starred the ones people liked. I looked at both lists for a while. Did any of those poems go together? Were there any common themes? (That’s when I discovered the yellow connection.)
I started thinking about the word “joy,” since it was supposed to be the theme of the book. What joys lurked in these memories of my mom? Could I organize each chapter around a specific joy? And what did joy have to do with a book that was shaping up to be about cancer, poetry, and death?
While I was rewriting, I dedicated a sheet of notebook paper to each chapter. Each sheet started with the title, and each title is a quote from one of the poems in that chapter, then a colon, then a summary of that chapter’s theme. Next I wrote the word “joy” with whatever sentence in that chapter featured the word. (I literally put “joy” into the search field to check.) Then I wrote the word “cancer,” followed by whatever cancer or Mom stuff was in there. Then halfway down the page I wrote the word “poetry” and listed the poems I wanted to feature in that particular chapter, both mine and those of others. On the back of each piece of paper I wrote a list of what’s in the chapter. For chapter 1, one of those items on the list says “Frederick, ” reminding me the mouse belongs there, with something before him and something else after. I wrote everything in pencil. The chapter numbers were erased multiple times as I rearranged the pages by hand.
Why did I do it that way? It made sense to me.
During that time I only read two books, and I did that on purpose. I wanted to focus on writing that accomplished what I aspired to. One was L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water. I’d already read it, but this time I read it for structure, taking notes on how it worked. I got the idea for how to title my chapters by noticing how she titled hers. If you’ve only read this book once, please read it again. It’s quite brilliant.
The other book was Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, which is part grief memoir of losing her dad, part analysis of author T.H. White’s life and work, and part how to train a goshawk. It’s three seemingly disconnected strands that she weaves into a braid. In my book, I was using two — Mom and poetry. That’s only a twist.
When Easter came, I started to rewrite. The task of gathering all my notes — spread across journals, on my computer, and on random scraps of paper — took a couple of days and made a mess on my picnic table that serves as a desk. I gathered everything into a yellow Manila folder, since I’d decided yellow was going to be A Thing.
I approached the writing differently this time. I wrote with pauses. Each time I sat down, I worked for 1 hour and 5 minutes. When my dinger went off, if I had time and inclination to write more, I would. The most I ever wrote at one stretch was 3 hours, 15 minutes. If I needed to get on with the magazine or editing or life, I did. Usually I worked on the book early in the day, but not always. I followed this routine six days a week, except for Saturdays, which I took off.
The white space in between writing allowed time for my brain to play, to make connections, or simply to rest. I once read a quote that jazz is all about the pauses. Maybe writing is too.
I gave myself a deadline to finish the rewrite — Ascension Day. I chose the day for the obvious reason that my document would ascend as I uploaded it into cyberspace, to my publisher’s preferred platform. Also because it was a week before my daughter would come home from school, and I wanted a few days to pause greatly before summer’s busyness started.
But before I ascended my manuscript, I needed to talk to my dad.