Tools to edit a memoir is a great topic, and before we delve into it, I’d like to introduce Christine Gordon Manley. Christine is enrolled in the 2021 Summer Fictionary Certified StoryCoach program. Although she is an experienced editor, she wants to use leading edge technology to enable her to deliver better editing work to her clients. You’ll see by her blog, Christine cares about writers.
I love this post from Christine because one of the most important things we teach an editor is that they must motivate a writer. They must let them know what they do well. Only then can they grow and be open to the suggestions an editor is making.
So over to Christine..
Tools to Edit a Memoir – You’ll be surprised
Why the best tools for memoir editing are compassion and empathy
You’re the product of all your experiences.
This is a common expression—one you’ve likely heard before—but have you ever paused to consider its meaning? I mean really stop and think about its relevance to your own life?
When I was a child, I was often told that I was “too sensitive.” I was “too sensitive” when I wasn’t invited to gatherings or if a friend didn’t show the level of enthusiasm I was expecting over an idea or gift. I was “too sensitive” when I was hurt by comments other people made, whether about me or those I love. I was “too sensitive” when I’d invest time in asking someone how they were, but didn’t receive the same level of inquiry.
Friends and family relayed this message to me in well-meaning ways—they likely were trying to help me “toughen up” so that this world of ours didn’t eat me and my soft heart—but I never really understood why it was a problem that certain things upset me.
Spoiler alert: I never really toughened up. I’m still told, at age 42, that I’m “too sensitive.” I’m “too sensitive” when I get upset by a social injustice. I’m “too sensitive” when I rage at people being mistreated or abused, and I’m “too sensitive” when I refuse to laugh at a harmful joke.
Being “too sensitive” is who I am. A part of me. One I wasn’t able to change. Now, many moons later, I also believe it’s what makes me a good editor.
The Creation of a Good Editor
I work with a lot of memoir writers, many of whom come to me with their most personal stories, asking me to make them better. That takes incredible vulnerability. I’ve worked on memoirs detailing sexual abuse, family secrets, childhood trauma, and experiences the author has deemed to be “personal failures.”
Most of my clients don’t know me before I start working with them, yet they hand over a huge part of their heart—of themselves—to me…and then they wait, while I read about their highs, their lows, the most vulnerable parts of themselves. And when I return their story to them? They prepare themselves to read critiques of what is, essentially, part of their lives…their sense of being. Themselves.
That. Is. Nerve. Wracking.
True story: I once worked with an author for two years, only communicating via email. That author lived in the same general area I do, but he preferred to work with me virtually. Once the project was complete, we agreed to meet in person. Within the first ten minutes of so of our face-to-face, I noticed that this person seemed quite uncomfortable, so I asked him if he was okay. This happened quite a long time ago, so I’m going to paraphrase his words here, but it was something along these lines:
“Christine, I’ve spent the past two years sharing my most intimate family secrets with you, and here you are, sitting across from me, knowing all about me.”
He didn’t have to continue. I got it. I replied, “And, yet, you know nothing about me.”
Because the situation allowed it, I came up with a suggestion to put him at ease a bit more: I told him that for the next twenty minutes or so, he could ask me anything he wanted (within reason of being a decent human, of course), and I would answer honestly. Switch the focus a bit to level out the playing field. It worked, and he soon relaxed (another true story: We became friends and remain in touch to this day).
Tools to Edit a Memoir – Making the Client Comfortable
I was able to place my client at ease in this way because the project was over and we were transitioning into a different relationship. When I work with an author—where the focus has to be on them and not me—I have to come up with different ways of making my clients feel safe, sharing their lives with me.
When I take on a memoir, I am highly aware of how nerve-wracking an experience it is to just hand over a personal story to a stranger. A stranger who they believe, thanks to a pervading misconception about what editors do, will “rip their story apart.” That takes bravery, my friends.
So, while I’m reviewing a client’s story (and, for the record, I never “rip” anything apart, but that’s a blog post for another day), I rely on my internal tools of empathy and compassion just as much as I rely on my dictionary, thesaurus, and genre convections. Every comment I make—every suggestion I give for improvement—comes from a place of heart.
I put myself in my client’s place and remind myself constantly how they will feel—first, taking such a huge step in sharing their story, and, second, having to read critiques on said story which, because it is memoir, is their actual lived experience.
Just think about how weird it would be if a friend was telling you about something that they went through and you started critiquing it. The experience happened—what does critiquing that fact alter?
When an author opens themselves up and puts their story down on paper with the intent on sharing it with others, it is my job (the listener) to ensure that what they are meaning to say is heard and understood by others. That the message is clear. That the story is presented in the best possible way.
It isn’t my job to question anyone’s lived experience.
It is my job to help someone share that lived experience in a way that it resonates with others.
And in doing so, I draw on my own levels of empathy and compassion. Every comment and suggestion I present are done so through that lens. Even if I recommend removing aspects of the story, I do so with full-on heart-coloured glasses.
Now, I’m not saying I’m all rainbows and sunshine. I don’t praise where praise isn’t warranted. But I never demand or scold. I ask a lot of questions. I encourage alternative considerations. I challenge my writers to ponder.
Because if a writer feels that their story is harshly judged, there’s a good chance that they’ll stop writing it. They’ll retreat, decide that their story isn’t worth sharing, and quit.
I never want to make anyone feel their story is not worth sharing (Exception: unless your story is one that’ll cause serious harm to others in sharing it. I won’t take on a memoir of an abuser or racist, for example.). No, I want the opposite: I want to help a writer feel that what they have to say matters. That their story matters. That their experience matters.
So, maybe, just maybe, being “too sensitive” is a good thing after all.
How have your experiences shaped the person you are?
About Christine Gordon Manley
As a freelance editor and owner of Rosemount Writing & Editing Services, Christine draws on empathy and heart to guide writers from start to finish. She has a special talent for guiding memoir authors through the emotional process of sharing their story, and she’s developed a suite of DIY memoir editing courses available online (RosemountEditing.com).
A published author herself, Christine is a member of Editors Canada, Writers Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, The Writers Union Of Canada, Canadian Freelancer Union, and PEI Writers’ Guild (where she currently serves as President on the Board of Directors).
A Fictionary Certified Story Coach helps writers tell better stories and makes a writer’s voice shine! If you’re not ready to become a certified coach but need a tool to help you become an exceptional editor, try Fictionary StoryCoach for editors for free!
Learn more about becoming a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach.
Ready to become a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach? Check out Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Training and become a cutting-edge structural editor for fiction.
If you’d like to take the training, send me (Kristina) an email at [email protected] telling me why you’d like to become a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach, and I’ll give you a discount.
The next program starts on October 1st, 2021, and spaces are limited.