This post is the first in a two-part series by Trayle Kulshan. Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website.
Just before their eyes glaze over. That’s the point when someone usually tosses out the well-worn phrase, “Oh, you’ve been to so many interesting places, you should write a book.”
So, I did.
Indeed, like most aid workers I have enjoyed working in “many interesting places”: Guinea, DRC, Kenya, Afghanistan, Egypt. I was a WASH specialist for more than 10 years, during which I met my Syrian husband who introduced me to the Middle East, and—after many exciting exploits together—parenthood. We had a baby and settled in Dubai, where he took a good HQ-type job. So here I was, being a full-time mommy, missing the action-packed field I figured it was time to write the book.
But a funny thing happened… it ended up not really being about aid work adventures at all. It ended up being about me. It ended up being about gaining perspective, and about healing (or not). In the end, I came back to the beginning.
Writing a book is a privilege and, at the same time, a difficult choice. If you are thinking of writing a book, and you’re a little insecure (like me), making choices might drive you nuts. I encourage you to do it anyway.
How we make choices is incredibly personal. Below are several big choices I had to make, and how they came about – namely, whether to publish and distribute my memoir at all, and then, which topics to include. In another post, I’ll share how I used different kinds of feedback to refine those choices—how the writing process worked for me.
The decision of whether to publish a memoir or not was (is) incredibly scary for me. I’ve always written, and I’ve even been published before, but choosing to publish a collection of my own (private) stories as my reality—not fictionalized, with my name on it—was pretty daunting. Who wants to hear my stories? Who am I to have something to say? Who am I to assume anyone would want to read my words the way I have put them together?
My mom responded: “Who are you to assume anyone would NOT want to read your words?” And I thought, damn, in a single phrase she managed to kill my inner critic and my ego. I still have to remind myself of her response often, to calm my doubts. I am sorry to say that for me, this doubt does not go away, but it’s gotten quieter after two years of writing and today I hold in my hands a product that I am proud of, no matter the outcome (but I’d really like to sell a million copies.)
As you will see, deciding to publish the book, to distribute it, to make it a completed story for other people to read made content choices very difficult for me. Writing for ourselves can be powerful and healing, but it’s private, it stays inside. Publishing and inviting an audience can tear us down with self-doubt, wondering what “they” will think of our lives put on a page. Will they judge me? Will they understand my actions? My inactions?
Most importantly for me, publishing also made me focus on the connections and the story arc. It made me focus on the fact that an outsider would read it, therefore it all had to relate together, it had to make sense (by then end), not just end up a pile of words or scenes. I wanted the whole story to become than the sum of the parts. I wanted 1+1=3. I wanted magic.
If you’re writing a memoir to publish about your (humanitarian aid worker) stories, how do you choose which ones to include? You’ll want to focus on what is interesting, exciting, shocking, what moved you… but let’s be honest, there’s too much of that, right? Or, not enough to hang a book on. As I said above, finding a unifying story arc was important—as was the ability to cut out anecdotes and side-storylines that did not contribute or connect to it.
Cutting can be hard. I had a folder called “Not for now” in Scrivener; this meant I didn’t really delete anything, which was more comfortable for me. Perhaps because I had worked so hard on a scene. Or because it meant a lot to me. Because, maybe, I would want to come back to it later. But it still didn’t belong in this book.
Some big content choices were easy to make, but hard to write.
Other choices were harder to make, but easier to write.
My first big content choice was whether or not to include childhood stories. I grew up in an interesting place that related to my travels in the field (no running water, goats, challenging transportation), but that period of my life also included an uncomfortable story of abuse. I had never previously considered sharing this, because I could never fathom telling anyone within my family. Ever. But something happened that made it obvious that this part of my life had to come out of the dark, into the light: it had to go into my memoir, because it was part of the context in which all of my later adventures took place. As I wrote, I found that it had shaped the way I related the world around me; what I cherished (obscure details), and what I didn’t (my body). It was why I saw sexual violence as akin to food or water or death: not as a necessity, but as something universal—something that takes different forms around the world, but something that women have in common.
In the style of my book, here are 99-words about how that choice was made for me:
A girl I’d never met had written him a letter, and she sent it. I wondered how she phrased it. I wondered how long it took her. I wondered how many stamps she’d wasted before she finally left it in the box.
They said she was unstable. They said her freaky therapist filled her fragile head with falseness. They said that she’d mistaken his fatherly affections.
My teeth tightened, tugging at my wooly guts, and my breath imploded. I could not not-corroborate, and so I spoke out “yes.”
And then my mother knew and that was all that mattered.
The second (and hardest) content choice was discussing abortion. I wrestled with it for so long and made so many excuses. Is it relevant? Is it interesting? Most importantly, does it add anything to the story? Yes, yes, and yes, and still I went back and forth.
In the end, my choice to include it was idealistic and based on a conviction: Despite a growing acceptance that abortion is okay for others, it is still taboo to make that choice for ourselves. And if we do, it is still taboo to speak about our own abortions out loud. And it is even more taboo to be grateful for that impossible choice.
So, to break that larger societal taboo, I had to break it for myself. I had to put it in the book.
It was incredibly hard to write—you can read part of that story in Proximity magazine.
THIS is incredibly hard to write.
What will you think about me? What will you say?
* * *
I share these things to be honest about my process when writing my memoir, how I sifted through the various parts of my life—both joyous and difficult—and had to decide, does this go in or does it stay out?
This is not to say that your memoir has to be hard or heavy or uncomfortable (I hope it’s not). Despite the vignettes I’ve shared here, I had a lot of fun writing mine. I hate to be cliché, but… it was empowering.
I became more confident in my own style (more on that next time). Now that I am done, I find myself enjoying pushing through the self-doubt and insecurity that has always been there, that continues to be there.
To promote my memoir, to ask people to read it, I am forced to say it’s good enough. That is incredibly uncomfortable—and also feels pretty nice.