I have listened to a lot of writing advice in my life. The advice always emphasizes the importance of actually writing–not just thinking about it, not reading about it, not getting everything just right at your desk before starting. Usually it’s more urgent, like, “Sit down every day at the same time and write without stopping for 20 minutes.” Or “Write a thousand words a day and develop the habit.” Or “the book won’t write itself.” Or “Get the seat in the chair, don’t get up, and just do it.” And not in a week or so. Definitely not when life might slow down. Most often the advice says, “Now.”
So you can imagine my surprise when I asked for writing advice and that’s not what I heard. In May of 2012, Barry Lopez was the keynote speaker at the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference. I remember how delighted this author and naturalist was to watch the many sea otters floating around the tip of Homer Spit, just a few feet from the conference site.
During one of the breaks of the conference, I approached him with a 40,000 word manuscript and a need for direction. He asked me three questions.
“What genre is this?” he said.
“A memoir of walking the Camino,” I said.
“When did you do it?” he asked.
“Five years ago,” I replied.
“Have you written down all the details and dates and names as close as you can?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Then came the advice.
“Good,” he said. “Now put it in a drawer and let it be. You don’t know what it is yet.”
I walked away, a little stunned. I thought I was ready to tell the story. Yet this author I admired had said in essence, wait.
I took that manuscript out of the drawer in October 2020, just a few months before Barry Lopez died in December of that year. As I re-read those old pages, I silently thanked the man for his wisdom. He was right. I didn’t know what it was until 8 years later. It would take another year and a half of re-crafting that manuscript to tell the story of what it had been—the part that I hadn’t known those many years earlier. Only the passage of time could deepen my understanding of that experience. For instance, I didn’t realize what looking into the eyes of a Muslim beggar woman would mean to me fifteen years later when I rewrote the manuscript. I didn’t fully see the arc of my story from the pilgrimage where I myself felt homeless to beginning a nonprofit that served the homeless. The book was published in May 2022, a full ten years after Barry stopped amid a busy conference to ask me three questions and give me one sentence of advice.
I don’t think there is any rule that prescribes when a memoir becomes ripened enough to be written. Joan Didion began writing her noted memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, just a year after the sudden death of her husband, and it was published the year after that. Yet most books of this genre require some time to pass, some reflection to occur, some steeping of life experience before putting it to paper. There is a need to wait. It is not the right time yet.
This realization led me to get curious about all my writing; what else was sleeping in the forgotten files on my computer that I had started and then deserted? Had enough timed passed that I understood them now in a way I could not have years earlier?
As I began searching, some of it felt like an excavation of graves. There were essays, a few pieces of poetry, and a novel start that could not be resurrected. I gave them a final blessing for having been good practice and let them go.
There were also pieces I was sure that someone else in my writers’ group had written and were just on my computer to critique for them. But the story was mine, not theirs. And I was a little embarrassed to realize I liked some of it very much. Why had I judged it so harshly years before? There was a good opening paragraph in one; brilliant metaphors in another. A compelling story line in one I had forgotten. By waiting and giving them time, I recognized new life in the writing.
I’m starting a file for those pieces and for any piece of writing that stutters and stops. I’ll give them another chance and a little more time. I think I’ll name the file “Barry Said Wait.”
A writer of multiple genres, a listener in wide places, and a walker of many inclines, Marcia Wakeland has written through various life roles as physical therapist, pastor, spiritual director, mother, and founder/director of a nonprofit. She lives in Eagle River Valley with her husband and family. She most recently published The Long Walk Home: Confessions on the Camino by Ember Press.