Sunday, November 7, 2010

Writing a Memoir and Learning from Eat Pray Love

For the first time in my life, after seeing a movie, I’m actually reading the book, which is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love.  My wife, who was in Hong Kong, asked me if I wanted anything.  Initially I replied, “I’m fine,” but the next day I thought of the book and asked her to pick up a copy at the airport, so she brought it home yesterday. 

Now I’m a third the way through it, having completed the part on Italy.  I wasn’t planning on reading the book right away since I was already in the middle of book that I began to read while in the middle of another book, and didn’t want to put that aside for this third book.  I prefer to work my way through one book to the end before starting another, which is how I managed to complete 150 books in the last three years.  If I start abandoning books for other books like I used to do, I hardly finished anything.  But Eat Pray Love will be an exception, since it’s for work.     

Eat, Pray, Love     I got this book because I was in the midst of another first, a memoir about the year following my divorce (beginning the very day the divorce was made official).  Although it was the worst year of my life, a roller-coaster of emotions that I barely survived, literally, it was also a year of triumph, on many fronts.  An amazing year, actually; worthy, of say, a book.  It’s been over a decade now, though I’m still working in my mind how this all came about, how it all could have gone horribly wrong (it nearly train wrecked my life in several different areas), and how I some how got through it all in one piece, culminating with an end-of-the-year-victory that surprised everyone, especially my lawyer, who flatly told me, “That’s impossible.”

By writing about it, I wanted to bury a few ghosts, and I also thought this story would benefit others, too, so long that I reigned in the bitterness over the mean petty stuff that people inflict one another after they are legally divorced, and keep it all in perspective, this bigger picture of survival that I have in mind.  Rereading my detailed journal, full of quotes, too (I was happy to see), brought plenty of surprises, things I had totally forgotten, like, in the midst of all this court drama, I not only fell in love (which truly saved my life) but was also in Anna and the King.    

Since most of that year cut to the core and brought back a slew of bad memories, I admit that writing this has been a challenge, so I wanted to see how Elizabeth Gilbert dealt with the ugliness of her own divorce, on paper.  I also wanted to see how she framed the book, structured it, and the little things like, what tense did she write it in (pleasantly surprised that she wrote it in present tense), and was it strictly a chronological narrative, and if so, how did she handle the days/dates – or where they even important?  

For her they weren’t, but for my story they are since it involves two court cases—a court case within a court case that overwhelmed the original case because the potential fallout affected my very freedom in Malaysia.  The nearer I got to those impending dates, and an even bigger one later, the more things started to heat up.  So much stuff was happening, enough stuff to wreck anyone’s year, but for me, that was only one week, and the following week would get a whole lot worse—and this would go on, it seemed, week after week, plus all the other stuff that happened in my life.

Since a strict time line seemed necessary for most of that year, I was finding it tedious by around page 30 because of these days and dates:  “On Tuesday, 21 January... then on Thursday...and on the Saturday, 26 January,” so I was wondering, should I just do this in a diary form and put the dates on the top, and then focus only on the days that were relevant.  This could work, but I didn’t want to go that route if I could avoid it.

I had other issues to resolve, too, and I thought reading Eat Pray Love, since it was so famously successful, could point me in the right direction, if not for this book, then another memoir that I was keen on writing about, a journey I took 25 years ago en route to Malaysia, whereby I backpacked on my own for six months to places like Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Pakistan, only to end up with dysentery in Nepal.

Both of these books have been on my mind for years, and I decided I needed to write both books for myself and for my children (what, you spent three days on a felucca on the Nile, and stayed in a cave in Petra?), yet also make the story universal for others, too. 

I figured if you’re going to write a good memoir you better read some good memoirs to see how others have done it, to give yourself some options.  Since the movie resonated with me on so many different levels, I thought, I needed get the book, read it, learn from it, and get back to writing my own books that I hope will be equally as successful as Eat Pray Love.  Naturally all writers want, as Gilbert referred to it while speaking at TED, that “freakish success".   Bring it on!

Then, after quickly deducing who Richard from Texas is, and verifying that fact on Google, I was both startled and delighted to read that he ended up on Oprah twice and was even writing a memoir, but then on 8 March 2010, he suddenly died in his sleep, at age 62.  A little of me died, too.  It will sadden me knowing that fact when I read the next section of the book on India.  Yet it will also remind me, that hey, you don’t have all the time in the world to write your memoirs (and your other books), so if you’re going to do it, buckle down and just do it, and get on with your life!             
                                                  -Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer 


***Here the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.

4 comments:

Lydia Teh said...

Robert, I cannot stand E.P.L. Couldn't get through the first few chapters - EG is so whiny, oh her problems are so colossal! My son calls her narcissistic. I hope you steer clear of that whine in your book.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Lydia, thanks for the warning. I viewed the opening chapters as back-story, what's been going on in her life that led to the decision to take a year off from life to pursue three separate goals, mostly out of desperation.

Financially, she lost everything in her divorce. Her ex, who never seemed to have a stable job, was even going after her book royalties and a percentage of any future movie deals! Then once the divorce was all over, she got a book advance, enough to support her for a year...Prior to this she wrote a ss collection, a novel, a non-fiction book.

See the movie, then you might view the book in a whole new light. She struck a chord with a lot of people, me included, now half way through the book. Yes, whiny about her failed relationships (but who isn't!), but shedding a lot of light on life itself. She writes well, and her metaphors are pitch-perfect. And she's funny...she's also not afraid to laugh at herself. She puts herself out there in ways that only a few authors can by being brutally honest and exposing her own weaknesses. Richard from Texas really nails her in India...

The Phoenix Foundation said...

ExPat!!!
For almost 12 years beginning 1998, my life was one roller coaster too!
But through out it all, my anger,bitterness,hatred,blame whilst it emerged ever so often, kept being submerged because everytime some calamity took place, almost immediately some thing else will happen like majic and lessen the pain!
Having been involved in Literature,Music, Theatre & The Courts, I have stepped aside from the main stream of activity and have been writing, but in the form of "stories & annecdotes{will send you some for your comments!!!!}
Just remember this, Robert,the Universe has brought you here from another culture another civilization. BUT is this really so?
Were we not part of an ancient civilization,scattered around the globe?
Have you not been drawn back to this side for a more universal reason - to assist us in evolving yourselves - hence your teaching,writing in Sarawak?
Teaching & Writing are the passing on of knowledge, from within!
So be yourself - there is so much within you that you can see - so tell us, share with us - and let your works speak for itself!
Godspeed.
Jeya

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Jeya, thanks. Sometimes to move forward you have to take a step or two back, do a little soul searching, before you can take than next big leap. I agree about the dramas and the magic. Too often that magic is overlooked because of the dramas.

Rereading my journals from that one year I was surprised to find a lot of magic taking a place around me. At the time, everything else seemed to overwhelm it, but it must have made an impression because I managed to capture it in my writing, a pleasant surprise, too, unexpected. But it was that very magic that got me through the worst of it.

This is what I would like to capture in this book, that if you just focus on the good stuff you'll get through all the other stuff; there is a solution to it all, that light at the end of the dark tunnel. Too many people see only the darkness behind them, and not knowing how to overcome it, and seeing no end in sight, end up taking their life. I wrestled with that, too.