Motherhood & Words

working, living, and a note about structuring chapters

I thought I should check in about how my writing is going since the serious truncation of my work time.

It’s, um, not going.

I was on page 156 two weeks ago and I’m still on page 156. It’s clear I’m not going to make my December 31st deadline. I go to the coffee shop on the weekends now, and that’s something, but it is much more difficult to get into the rhythm of the narrative with only two days of writing a week.

The flip side—the bright side—is that my mornings are less hectic. I have more time with the girls, and we can run errands and vacuum and play. (More playing and a cleaner house are good things, no?) On the mornings Zoë is in school, Stella and I sometimes go to the coffee shop together. She eats a doughnut and draws pictures with stories, and I can get a little work done. But not memoir work. I cannot immerse myself in a chapter when my dear girl needs me to help spell the words that make up her narrative. So I check e-mail and do class prep and update my website—all things that need to be done—and help my budding writer create fiction. It would be difficult to complain about that.

But I am anxious to get back to the memoir. I met with my writing group—my wonderful, smart writing group—last night and they got me thinking about the structure of my chapters. There is a lot of narrative urgency in my book—it’s inherent in the subject—but I’m at a point where I need to think more closely about the shape of my chapters. The book is chronological, very chronological, and I realize that this could become tiresome, plodding, in the middle of the book. (Which would, in fact, reflect the nature of having your baby in the NICU.) But still, I don’t want the reading to be so plodding that it becomes boring. God, no.

One of my lovely writing group members suggested a more thematic approach, that each chapter in the middle of the book tackle a theme. I was actually moving in that direction in later chapters, but oh, the thought of going back to these “finished” chapters and rearranging—again—and rewriting—more—makes me very tired. I’m getting so very sick of this book.

But I do love to think about structure. It is, perhaps, my favorite craft issue. What structure will best serve the subject, the story? How can structure change the way people absorb the narrative? These questions, and the care with which most nonfiction writers take as they work on the structure of their writing, make it clear—yet again—that memoir is not mere transcription. It is, like fiction, like poetry, crafted.

I can’t do anything about the structure of my chapters today, of course, or even tomorrow. But I’ll think about it—“noodle on it” as one of my wonderful students says. I’ll noodle on it as I cut out Curious George paper dolls with Stella, as I run to Target and the grocery store, as I put Zoë’s clothes back on her for the ninth time (I swear that child wants to run free), as I sauté vegetables, as I cuddle in with D to watch Mad Men (our latest series addiction). And in a few days or even a few weeks, I’ll find the time to make the changes. I will, right?

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. kristenspina on December 8, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    If it's any consolation, I find it very hard to buckle down this time of year. There are so many distractions above and beyond what we already come up against.

    I've learned to be patient. To not be so hard on myself. To enjoy this time of year with my son and my family. But then I don't have a deadline, so of course, it's not the same at all.

    I do think that once the holiday hoopla passes, you'll find your groove again. There's something about winter, settling in, getting back to work. You'll find your way.

  2. Elizabeth on December 8, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    You will.

    I think structure is a beast — and it's a beast that I've been struggling with for years. I'm so sick of my memoir and I haven't looked at it in months. I want someone to magically appear who will take the couple of hundred pages and wrestle it into a book.

  3. BLOOM - Parenting Kids With Disabilities on December 8, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I think that's a central question — chronological vs. theme. I just started reading Mary Karr's Lit — so far it's chronological. I'm trying to think of a memoir that's theme-based, and having a hard time remembering one, though I'm sure there are. But it sounds like you want to combine the two?

    It sounds like you need to let things sit and percolate. Perhaps the way the pieces can fall together will come to you naturally, if you give it some time?

  4. Mummy mania on December 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I fel for you – it is so demoralising to have to go back and rewrite stuff you think you've finished. I'm sort of in the same boat – have done 65,000 words but know that my beginning is wring and i need to rearrange stuff. but, like you, I no longer have any childcare, and suddenly, my writing time is on a par with going to the hairdresser – near on impossible! anyway, we will stick with it!! keep us posted. it keeps me motivated to others are out there struggling like me! and succeeding…

  5. Mummy mania on December 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    apologies for all the spelling mistakes! as usual, trying to do two things at once!

  6. cath c on December 8, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    when you're ready, the changes needed will come. this may be a germinating time. we all need them as writers. i know i seem to need them more than most.

  7. Andria on December 8, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Mad Men! That was our most recent Netflix addiction, too. 🙂

  8. Mary on December 9, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Noodling — I love it! Sounds like exactly the right thing to do while you contemplate this shift.

    We were obsessed with Mad Men until we ran out of episodes. 13 per season is just not enough!

  9. Andrea on December 9, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    I took the "Five a.m." essay from class quite literally and started setting the alarm–for 5 a.m. It usually takes me another 20 minutes to get out of bed, and only gives me about an hour of writing time before chaos sets in, but it is something, and if I have something I want to write urgently, it makes it easier to get up (but I am REALLY tired by about 5 p.m.).

  10. Carrie Pomeroy on December 9, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    My friend Katrina has watched many writers finish books, including herself and her husband, and she says she thinks more books get finished simply because their authors are sick of them than any other motivation!

    And I agree with Elizabeth–you will finish it.

  11. The Blue Suitcase on December 10, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Enjoy the hiatus. Live it up. When you turn back to your chapters, you'll be surprised by insights you can't articulate yet. And then you'll go really, really fast.

  12. Kara on December 10, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    I'm chuckling. But I'm certainly not laughing AT you, I'm very much laughing WITH you. Life feels so disjointed sometimes doesn't it? With 10 minutes here 15 minutes there it truly is a miracle that anything gets accomplished. I continue to take your advice by the way and have discovered some lovely reds… 🙂

  13. Once A Mother on December 20, 2009 at 1:48 am

    i hate those weeks, when the desire to write is there, but i find myself still on the same page. i think your friends advice is great. as painful as it feels to redo some finished chapters, if it brings about more structure to the book, and keeps the interest of the reader, it is necessary.