The Writing Life: Until All That Remains Is What It Is by William Henderson

Last night I finished what I think will be the last revision of my memoir, Second Person, Possessive. I’ve said this before, many times before, and each time I think I won’t need to return to the book where I’ve spent far too many hours over the last two-and-a-half years or so. And each time I return, something different strikes me as unnecessary or complicated and I start thinking that the entire project is more vanity than anything else. Who cares about the events that led me to coming out as gay to my wife? Who will care is probably more like it.

The editor and publisher of the Australia-based Pure Slush saw something in the book in its early days, and this editor and publisher likely didn’t intend for me to undertake a total overhaul over the last couple of months when he said something about how a few parts seemed overwritten, like I felt the need to hammer home an idea that a reader reading closely would get without the added explanation.

So on Christmas Eve I returned to the world of my book, intending only to read through it again and see if I could find these potentially overwritten parts. And I did, or thought I did, and as I started revising, I realized that I had gotten the beginning all wrong, and changing the beginning meant changing the whole thing, which meant sending a sheepish email to the editor and publisher to explain why I needed a bit more time.

No one told me that I needed to totally revise the book. I revised because it felt like something that needed to be done. I suppose each of the dozen or so revisions since the first draft – all 517 pages of it – felt like a necessary step between living it and putting it into a reader’s hands. I’ve been fortunate in that dozens of journals and magazines have gravitated to the work and published excerpts, including Hippocampus Magazine, which published a now-excised excerpt about an online suicide support group to which I belonged. So along the way I’ve gotten feedback, which has been helpful, but no amount of feedback matters when you’re stuck inside the rabbit hole of a book trying to find your way out.

If I delete this scene, how will this later scene affect a reader? If that goes, then this has to go. How accurate is too accurate? Will changing a typo in a text message I’m reproducing in the book make it any less true? All of these thoughts, and hundreds like them, guiding my computerized scalpel as I, like Michelangelo and his David, carved away everything that the book isn’t. (I’m not comparing my book to David as much as I’m comparing the process of creating.)

A woman who sought me out after reading an excerpt has become an invaluable resource. She’s read the book in all of its iterations, likely more than I have, and can recite the facts about my life as if they are the facts of her life. When things happened and the order things happened and how in one version I came across as sympathetic but in a later version I am less so and shouldn’t I want the reader to sympathize with me.

I’m not sure a reader will sympathize, which returns me to thinking about who will care about someone else’s story when we’re all characters in private stories that unfold every day?

My friend, after she started reading this latest – and hopefully –for-real-this-time final version – texted: I wish you could read it like I do. You’re missing out on the magic of it all.

I suppose I am, because beneath the magic and the underlying rhythm of the sentences are all of the things that aren’t there and all the ways I could have written the book and all of the things I am choosing not to share, all disguised as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The book is slated to come out later this year. Unless I decide to rip into it again. I’m hoping I won’t have to.

William Henderson, Columnist

William Henderson is a contributing writer to Hippocampus Magazine. He has written a memoir, House of Cards, from which 27 excerpts have appeared in literary journals and magazines. He writes a weekly column for Specter Literary Magazine, Dog-eared, and will be included in two forthcoming anthologies: The Other Man and Stripped. He is a full-time writer, takes care of his two children, and is working on a second book.

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