Editor’s Desk #6

Oglesby Coal Company

How should one deal with gaps in an autobiographical narrative?

Subjects of my narrative lived for years with slight oral, documentary or photographic record. As the author I must deal with the relative void found more frequently than not. What’s missing may be as important to a broader history as what is passed down. There can also be conflict about anything that is said, even about what is known. An autobiography writer has to decide what and how to present these gaps in the narrative. Presenting a broader history is not always the point.

For example, my maternal grandmother was baptized in 1898. The next known date in her life was the birth of her first child in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1920. A couple of stories from her life on the farm survived. We don’t know when she married. Perhaps that date will be discovered. She had her second child in 1923. There are 20 years mostly void of record. There is no reason for an author to fill in the void, although one should acknowledge it.

Things known or passed down should be used as primary source material. That is more important than the missing record because what is known is what we lived with. As an example, we have a confirmation day photograph of one of grandmother’s sisters. That speaks to the way church-related events were special in their lives: a special outfit and a special portrait. Something like that is fair game for inclusion in my narrative even though it may not be specific to Grandmother. It informs cultural life on the farm.

Grandmother left home to work as a housekeeper in the Twin Cities, according to oral tradition. My cousins, the children of Grandmother’s first child, may have oral tradition passed down from their Minnesota origins. I don’t. I’m not sure how important those stories may be to my autobiography as they have not yet been part of my life. If we get together again, I’ll ask my cousins.

Some parts of the historical record exist and could be included. Things like birth, marriage and death dates. They create a time line upon which other things can be hung. Understanding twenty years of time, and identifying what Grandmother did during this period is difficult absent a historical record or oral tradition.

At least one historian studied the community my great, great grandparents helped found beginning in 1883. Things absent from oral tradition are included in those historical narratives: what subsistence farming was like, church life, social life, cooperative ventures, and others. The debate I have with myself is whether or not I would include historical work done by others, even if reasonably accurate, which lies outside oral tradition. It’s a choice which is useful if it explains background, not if it distracts from the primary narrative. I included a long piece on the Polish colony in Minnesota because it informs the life of my grandmother and by extension, mine.

Another example is my maternal grandfather’s work as a coal miner in LaSalle County, Illinois. We know he worked in the Cherry mine, and he worked long enough to contract black lung disease. Mother often told the story of him being a socialist and we didn’t really question it. Nor did we probe for additional details. The stories in a family’s oral tradition are fixed for the most part. I accepted them for what they were and try my best to retell them. Yet grandfather worked in the mine for a considerable amount of time and there are multiple histories of coal mining in Illinois which could possibly expand the narrative. Where I end on this is to tell what has been passed down in oral tradition and leave it there. The regional economic history is too complex to yield much specific to our family. In this case, I found it better to stay focused on my narrative.

Since I’m writing my autobiography, I have a wide range of options. The mistake historians sometimes make is to focus a narrative on what information is available. The autobiography writer lives in a different world with a canon of stories passed down orally. Because there is plenty about my life to tell, I want to keep the background information surrounding my family tree limited to what illuminates my character. I try to be faithful to the truth and to reality.

Some of the gaps will remain because empty space serves a purpose as important to narrative as the main thread. We needn’t fear a vacuum. We can appreciate what it adds to the story.

As of yesterday, there were 117,295 words written this year.


Editor’s Desk #5

12-inches of blog books and a replica of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

When I wrote it was time to get a grip on the narrative of my autobiography in issue #4 I wasn’t kidding. It’s a flipping beast!

Sorry to report I’m nowhere near that goal and the thing keeps growing.

Because I have written so many autobiographical pieces over 50 years, I’m constantly finding new and important work to incorporate. I have to choose to either mine the artifacts or focus solely on writing. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing.

I’m leaning toward mining artifacts until I run the seam.

The writing is the most engaging part of this work so I can’t imagine avoiding it completely. Thing is I need to understand the scope of what is to be included and I’m nowhere near seeing the big picture.

Yesterday I was reading folders of my undergraduate papers. Was I ever an undisciplined student! I marveled at how a teacher would provide a three-page, single spaced, type-written response to one of my papers. I don’t know if they did it every time, or if I was getting special attention. In any case, it was remarkable.

At the same time, my Shakespeare teacher was exceedingly brief. He used a pack of 3 x 5 index cards for his lectures and they were stained with age and the nicotine tar from his constant tobacco smoking. We knew class was finished when he crumbled his cigarette package, after chain-smoking the remaining cigarettes, and threw it in the waste can.

It is remarkable I continued as a writer after the drubbing I received getting my degree in English. Nevertheless, I persisted.

To provide a better working framework for collecting past writing, I designed what I’m calling a book tree. It is a brief outline with the current 37 chapters, or sections where I can park existing writing as I find it. Half of the draft is migrated there. Once I run the seam I can take each chapter and create a better narrative that will build toward a rough draft. It’s going to take me all year to finish, although I knew that at the beginning.

It did help to lay out the 37 chapters. While it may not be the final number, it serves as a meditation guide for contemplating my life. The more I do that, the better will be the narrative. At least that’s what I believe mid-February in the project.


Editor’s Desk #4

Desk Work with ScanCard notebook

I merged two versions of my autobiography this week and that puts the word count over 60,000. I printed the 155 draft pages of the book on Friday and this weekend is time to get a grip on the narrative.

My hope is by reviewing everything page-by-page, I can identify structural deficiencies, make a list of sections that need to be written or improved, and generally grok the person I am and have been. A revision of the outline is in order and I’m getting out my 25-year old ScanCard organizer to keep track of what requires attention. I keep wanting to deny there is a lot of simple editing to do in the form of typos, sentence structure, word choice and the like.

I now have four main tools: 3 x 5 note cards, a draft, an outline, and the ScanCard system to keep track of where I am and what needs doing.

Between this blog, rushes, and additions to the draft book, I produced 106,254 words since Jan. 1. It’s definitely time to get a grip.

Readers may have noticed my posts about 19th Century Minnesota, which were related to that section of the book. To do adequate research took time, more time than expected. I happened on the work of John Radzilowski who studied the exact community where my family settled beginning in 1883. I bought two of his books about Poles in the Midwest. It was a balancing act to stick with my memory of what happened, and oral tradition, yet provide a broader historical context. I’m not done with that section.

What’s best about writing is forgetting about life outside my writing space and immersing myself in whatever topic is the day’s subject. Those hours are among the best. Crossing the 60,000 word count was also good.


Editor’s Desk #3

Work station in Colorado in 2008.

The wind was fierce Tuesday afternoon, blowing down branches in the neighborhood. After the Aug. 10 derecho one would have thought all the weak ones had fallen. Our property survived yesterday’s minor wind storm without damage.

I spend time on process. In reading my journals, I was reminded I always have. Early on it was a response to the quality movement as Iowan W. Edwards Deming practiced it. He was all the rage among manufacturers who spent untold millions of dollars developing ways to “improve quality.” Properly done, quality improvement programs reduced costs and improved gross margins. While on an extended business trip to West Texas, I found an autographed copy of Deming’s main work, Out of the Crisis at a thrift store for a dollar. Deming’s ideas were well disseminated, even reaching the city with the annual rattlesnake roundup. Deming’s quality process applies to writing.

My writing process evolved to the next iteration this week. I liken it to a funnel. The store of memories, artifacts and previous writing go in and slowly drain out in the form of daily thousand words rushes. Rushes are created however they occur. When I’m ready to edit, I print them out triple spaced and edit on the pages.

This week’s development was to use edited rushes to create a draft of the book in a single document n the cloud. I typed the headers of the working outline on the document, and as I write, lay parts of the rushes on the framework, re-write, and edit them again. Experienced writers may find this obvious, but y’all didn’t tell me so I had to figure it out myself. I’m satisfied the process was improved. I back up the book document after each writing session on my desktop and a flash drive.

The main benefit of studying the physical record, writing it into rushes, first edits, then incorporating the writing into the draft book makes me read what has been written multiple times. It becomes a better product. I drop segments, ones I thought were good when writing rushes, in favor of a tighter narrative. I elaborate as needed or make a note to do more research and follow the narrative down the rabbit hole of existence to make it better.

I read a journal from 1996 this week. While I don’t much think about them, the experiences remain in living memory. I tasted wild blackberries we found along the state park trail again. We swam in the lake under a blue moon again. We sat on a picnic bench watching a sailboat regatta breeze by again. The memories are visceral and real. With all the sensory stimulus, the capacity of humans to remember is remarkable.

For the first time this winter, ambient temperature dropped below freezing on Wednesday morning. It’s been a warm winter thus far. As it plays out, I’ll be watching for an opportunity to prune fruit trees. In the meanwhile I’ll be at my writing table coronavirus writing.


Editor’s Desk #2

Flatbread to accompany home made soup.

The weekend is a time for exploring the ice box, freezer and pantry for ingredients to make soup. It’s almost always a hearty, satisfying meal. Last night I made flatbread using a blend of half wheat flour and half rice flour. It was a nice and easy accompaniment that made the meal. I don’t use a recipe because yeast bread making is about the feel of the dough once warm water, yeast, and a pinch of salt and sugar are mixed. The rice flour gave the crumb a different and toothsome texture. During the pandemic we’re cooking at home and trying new things.

My Saturday editing session was mostly about the book’s outline. I decided I needed one. After 12 writing shifts this month, I found the automatic writing method of getting memories down on paper will neither be sustainable nor as productive as needed. My commitment to the project is stronger than ever. What else am I going to do in a pandemic with snow covering the ground? An evolving approach to writing is a positive development.

Much of my writer’s life has been writing an autobiography. It is how I processed the vast input into our lives. Crafting a narrative, by its nature, involves a refraction of life experiences yet I don’t envision myself as a fiction writer. Developing characters and dialogue is not in my wheelhouse. I’d rather select what I observe from memory and intuit from life. My writing is a construct, although closely based in actual experiences.

There are five main tools for writing this book. It goes without saying a desktop computer with word processing software is the primary medium. I’ve been using a computer since the 1980s. The hard drive is backed up continuously to an external drive. I also use a written journal as a way to write about process. The nature of handwriting requires more thought before getting an idea down on paper. When considering process, thinking before writing is a must. The outline resides on the cloud with a downloaded copy of each revision filed on my desktop. I have a stack of three by five index cards with topics or events written on them. They are arranged in chronological order and rubber-banded together by decade. Finally there are the numerous books along with boxes and binders of artifacts. This physical record is more organized than it was a couple of weeks ago yet there is a long way to go toward making it usable.

I feel better about the new outline. The main story is a single narrative beginning with my birthday and continuing to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be a small fraction of the book.

I begin by setting context with three historical pieces about Lincoln County, Minnesota, LaSalle County, Illinois, and Wise County, Virginia, from where my grandparents and parents came. Sections about our family life begin with historical narratives about our residences in Iowa City, Linn County, Iowa, Lake County, Indiana and Big Grove Township in Iowa. Following the narrative of my life, thematic sections about broader experiences in work, sustainable living, politics, writing and education are planned.

This will be my only autobiography so there will be appendices to publish a small selection of photographs and writing that includes poetry, blog posts, opinion pieces, my resumes, newspaper writing, journals and other published writing. Because there are literally thousands of such documents, understanding the scope will be a key research challenge. The benefit of the outline is it provides a structure upon which to hang artifacts as I discover them.

I ordered more apples from the orchard yesterday. In a concession to the pandemic I paid a fee to have them delivered to a cooler set outside the garage door. We had only two left in the ice box. Now that the orchard decided to remain open year-round, I could go on line, pick from a limited selection of remaining fresh fruit, and have them delivered within an hour. The frugal part of me resisted doing this, but it’s great to have a full apple drawer in the ice box again.


Editor’s Desk #1

Workbench cleared for seeding onions.

The value of having a good editor is something every writer knows. When one is self-published, isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a novice at book-length writing, a meet up with an editor is inevitable.


My process this year began simply: produce 1,000 words daily, five days per calendar week, and edit on Saturday. It sounded simple and doable when I began. I hadn’t expected the writing process would be a flight into imagination with no net and a flimsy tether. Maybe the editor’s job is to rein that in, put a fence around it, and get it to grow the way sheep do. There is a case to be made to turn edited rushes (results of a daily writing session after my first edit) immediately over to an editor. What decent editor would take such work without compensation?

Just because I work without income doesn’t mean an editor should. I would argue that free editors must be viewed with skepticism. Why are they doing the work, and for free? By the nature of quarantine writing, meet up with a professional editor will be delayed.

Writing the daily 1,000 is like mining coal: the writer follows the seam where it goes. As a result, common themes are found in different daily rushes. There is bad writing that must be improved. Part of the editing process is to hang thematic segments together on a time line and create a consistent, readable narrative. It takes more time than I allowed as I spent parts of last Saturday and Sunday working on rushes. I’m far from done editing and feel an urge to write more rushes.

The autobiography writer’s imagination isn’t linear or sequential. One session leads to new things, not all of them related to each other. In some cases I spent the rest of the day considering events and people once forgotten. In others I discovered new information after writing the initial rushes. The first challenge is to remember what happened and get those things written down regardless of order.

Looking at photographs and reading historical accounts informs a steady yet irregular emergence of what happened. For example, I’m working on a section called Piety Hill, which is the last place Mother said she was born at home. I remember her different accounts over the years and am not sure whether Piety Hill was her final answer, or the original and only one. I settled when writing her obituary, “Born at home on July 28, 1929, near LaSalle, Ill.” An editor might accept that as my siblings did before publication. This evaluation of stories of a single event told by different people is something Clifford Geertz wrote about. While there are multiple stories about a single event, the writer has to decide whether to present them all or to keep them simple and singular as I did with Mother’s obituary.

While thematic issues like education, work, family and travel may hang well on a timeline, the timeline is not the narrative. Too, I can’t imaging writing a sequential work with each paragraph’s content isolated from others. That’s not how we live and to construct such a thing would be a monstrosity and eminently unreadable.

For example, one of the stories I tell repeatedly is about a gathering at Mother’s sister’s home on Gooding Street in LaSalle the night Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. We children were sleeping in the living room when Father came in the room and announced the news. It seemed unusual for him to do that at the time, giving the event increased importance to our family.

The date is fixed, Aug. 4, 1962, and that anchors my narrative in popular culture. Maybe the reason I retell the story is its relationship to popular culture as something more important than what we kids were doing. The role of the autobiography writer is to de-emphasize broader cultural images and focus on the single life. My habit, and it’s a bad one, is to get out the same well worn narrative sawhorses and retell them. An editor could point out those segments and ask, “Do you really want to say that?” I need to recognize it on my own.

Because this is pandemic writing I don’t see getting an editor until I get enough written to call it a first draft, hopefully a year from now. For the time being I need a better rush editing process because even two days a week will not be enough time. That may change as I evolve into the work and gain experience with long-form writing. This week I also must return to last week’s themes and fill out detail. As I continue to unbox the archives this process will be constantly present.

One positive note is the rush editing process has helped me consider the broader themes and narrative. The end result is likely to benefit. For now, suffice it that I recognize the need for an editor. Until I get more of the first draft written, that editor will be me.