I first started writing my recently completed memoir, Things Nobody Knows But Me, when I was doing my Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. I titled it then Sins of the Mother. I was 20-years-old and even though I had officially transitioned out of my teens, I was still stuck in the midst of adolescent angst; I had judged my mother’s parenting ability and found her wanting.
The memoir was in four parts telling the stories of the women in my family, starting from my childhood experiences of being parented by a single mother who suffered from bipolar disorder and finishing with my great-grandmother who was orphaned and married at 13 years of age. I wrote the 10,000 words required for the assessment, received a C for my efforts and promptly stopped writing. I would like to think I had realised my judgmental take wasn’t the way to go, but I think the grade had more to do with it.
Writing about my childhood had opened the floodgates to my memories but I had learnt my lesson. I wasn’t a memoirist, I was a novelist. So I took the bones of my experiences and fictionalised them, writing a young adult novel, The Good Daughter. When my aunt read it, she said ’Sabiha is a little like you, but she is different.’ I had successfully weaved fact and fiction protecting myself from exposure.
I thought I had exorcised my need to write autobiographically, but after the birth of my daughter 10 years ago the urge awoke again. Now that I was a mother myself I felt more compassion toward my own mum. I had every advantage possible—I was 31-years-old, my baby was from a much wanted and planned pregnancy, and I had an incredibly supportive husband—and yet I flailed. When my baby was 10-months-old I was felled by post-natal depression.
My mother, on the other hand, had every disadvantage possible. When she was 15-years-old, my mother found herself in an arranged marriage. At 16, she was a migrant, a mother and a mental patient. Her life was extraordinary because of her ability to survive all the upheavals that she faced. I found myself compelled to tell her story.
Soon after I resumed writing the memoir, I attended a workshop by Cate Kennedy where she discussed the need for memoir to conform to a literary narrative structure. A memoir, just like a novel, needed a clear thematic focus, a sense of tension and conflict, and some kind of resolution. This was a revelation—while I knew that fiction needed a narrative arc, I hadn’t realised that the same applied to memoir, probably because I’d committed the cardinal sin of not reading widely in the genre I was attempting to write (I was mostly a reader of fiction).
Cate was the one who helped me find a theme by gifting me with a new title, Things Nobody Knows But Me. My memoir was now not about judging, but about being the confidante to the lonely women in my life, especially my mother and grandmother, who told me their life stories.
I decided that the narrative structure would follow my childhood, a time punctuated by my mother’s regular hospitalisations, and I would end the memoir when I was 17 years of age, and finally learnt the medical term for her malady, manic depression as it was then called.
I originally envisioned the memoir to be told only from my point of view, but during the writing process I needed to see things through my mother’s eyes too, because I wanted to be able to present her perspective on events, and so I started weaving into my stories also her point of view, in third person.
Finally, in 2016, I completed my first draft and with relief sent it to my agent. When she replied, she had questions. Was the book about me? Or was it about my mother? Was it about mental health and the role it plays in shaping us? Was it about being a migrant in Australia? I thought it was obvious. It was all of those things. But it seemed that my book had an identity crisis.
Then I realised that in writing from my mother’s point of view I had lost that confessional voice I initially began with. I revised the draft—this time telling my mother’s story through my point of view as an adult looking back. In this new shape, off the book went into the world—on submission with five publishers. While there was some positive feedback, and my memoir came close to finding a home, it became clear it still suffered from identity crisis and publishers were reluctant to take this on.
Now I had a decision to make: would I keep going, or walk away from this book? I had to keep going. So I found a memoir writing competition Finch Memoir Prize. To submit I had to write a one page synopsis.
I’d never excelled at these things, I don’t think many writers do. I sought help on the internet and found this resource by Susan Donnard. As I used the template to develop my synopsis, I realised that while my memoir had a structure, there was also a lot of unnecessary waffle—all these chapters about things that happened to me, and that I thought were incredibly interesting, but really had no place in the book. For example, the chapter about growing up on my grandparents’ farm in Bosnia and about the animals there which I loved. Or the chapter about the ghost in my parents’ house. I realised that the most important question I needed to ask myself repeatedly was what was the focus on my book, and then ensure that I didn’t include anything else that created white noise and interrupted the narrative flow. With every story I had, I reconsidered its function in the larger story, and if there wasn’t any, then it needed to go.
As I killed my darlings, culling 20,000 words, I realised that all those chapters could still have a life. They were viable stories that I could, and in some instances already have, re-craft into stand-alone works.
By distilling the essence of my book into a one-page synopsis, I also realised that the prologue I had written about being the child confidante was unnecessary; it did not serve the main story. Instead, I needed to tip the book on its head and begin with what I thought was my end—the moment when I found out about my mother’s condition—and then go back to the first time when I realised my mother was different to all the other mothers.
I now had a sleek 70,000 word manuscript.
While I didn’t place in Finch Memoir Prize, I took that version of my manuscript and submitted again, this time using my shiny new synopsis to craft my pitch, to five publishers. I received three requests for the full manuscript, and one publication offer by Transit Lounge. My book had finally resolved its identity crisis.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough to write a memoir again, but if I do I’m hoping I would be able to apply the lessons I learnt to find my focus early, and keep to it.
Amra Pajalic is an award winning author, editor and teacher. Her memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me will be published by Transit Lounge in early 2019. Memoir extracts have been published in Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press) and Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press) anthologies. She was funded by Creative Victoria to be mentored by Alice Pung in the development of her memoir. Her debut novel The Good Daughter (Text) won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Civic Choice Award and she is co-editor of the anthology Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia (Allen and Unwin). www.amrapajalic.com