Hybrid Genre, Broken Rules

MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE, as you know, is a true story—or more accurately, it is a true set of stories. It is, therefore, a memoir. It’s not a pure-bred memoir, though, because lots of fiction is stirred into the mix. You’re not supposed to do that in memoirs, but I did it anyway, and in this post I am going to tell you why.

The publisher calls MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE a “Fictional Memoir,” which is a description that I like. The book is more true than false, but it’s chock full of little lies. I imagine that puts it in the category of “hybrid genre,” which is a thing, and (as I learned) one that big publishing houses are not wild about. That’s ok.  Keeps a girl humble.

Here are the 3 reasons that I combined fact with fiction in this book:

1. I fudge the truth to protect people’s privacy. Rather obvious, I imagine. This is why I changed most names except mine and the cat’s, and changed details of people’s families and such like. People who never asked to be written about are going to find themselves on these pages, and I feel like the least I can do is not throw everybody COMPLETELY under the bus. Right?

2. I’ve made things up to fill in the blanks. This is the reason for most of the fiction mixed in with literal memories in MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE. Keep in mind that the writing of this book took place over a 20-year period from 1996 through 2017, and during that time I may have sacrificed a few brain cells. There are so many things I don’t remember or never knew. You can’t, for example, write a book about 4 college students living together if you don’t remember one of your roommate’s majors. So, you make it up. And then you have to make up more things in order to make it believable. You end up with quite a web of fabrications. And? The story is still true. Another example is that I don’t remember where Dan went that summer, so I made up some adventures for him. Who cares? The point isn’t what happened while he was gone. The point is what happened to Nina when he came back. I don’t remember where the heck Sheila’s Grandma Friesen lived, so I put her in the retirement community. Sorry, Grandma. I don’t remember what Mean Tabitha really said that upset me so much the night Beth invited her over to dinner, but I remember how I felt about myself and how I felt about her. Etc, etc.

3. I use fiction to develop characters and situations. A conversation with Beth might be mostly or partly fictional because the point of the story is what we talked about and the conclusions we drew, not which exact words we used. The completely fictional segments of the book are there to illustrate a relationship, or a realization, or a dilemma, or dynamic that the combination of actual experience and my imperfect memory couldn’t provide me with. But something still needed to be said. So I made something up—drew my best picture where I didn’t have a photo.  And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones they are no matter how nicely you ask.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, there is some type of debate going on about things like this in the memoir-writing world. I had no idea about this debate because I invest zero effort into discovering what current writing debates are. I just write the things that stand in front of me and won’t get out of the way.

The person who clued me in is someone I contacted to ask for a promotional statement to use on the back of the book. Imagine my surprise when she mentioned that the “mix of fact and fiction” in my book causes her concern because “these kinds of questions are ‘hot’ in memoir writing right now,” and she is unsure of where my “particular blend of these things” puts me “in the debate that’s out there.”

I am sure my eyes widened as I read. Debate? There’s a debate about this? Oh.

My next thought was that I’d better get busy with my friend Google and try to figure out what’s going on with the debate so that I can determine where I am in it. I mean, it’s “hot” and all, right? I wouldn’t want to be some clueless jungle dweller and find myself in the middle of a debate I know nothing about.

Or would I? I think I might.

I’m not going to change the book or retract my story no matter what any “hot debate” says, so maybe ignorance is bliss. This would be a particularly bad time for me to start second guessing my work. (This person was not suggesting that I should second guess anything. She was referencing something that I’m sure she thought I was already aware of, and, in true Diana form, I wasn’t.) I can investigate the “debate” later if I’m curious.  I’m not claiming that this book is a straight-up memoir anyway. I’m calling it a fictional memoir. If “hybrid genre” is a genre, then I guess I’m a little confused about why the debate in memoir writing. You can hybridize other genres but not these two? Yo no sé.

I bounced back and forth many times over the years on whether this book should be presented as a novel or a memoir.  I had finally settled on “novel” when the New York agent who tried to sell it in 2017 said something to the effect of, “This is a great book but why are you calling your memoir a novel?” Which was a good question because he was completely right.

So sit back and enjoy the ride. Crossing the lines between literary genres is just the beginning of the rules that are going to get broken.

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“So What Made You Write The Book?”

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie is my new memoir that will be released this fall.  The most common question that I hear regarding it, other than “What’s it about?” is “So what made you write it?”  In this post I will answer both questions, and explain how what the book is about changed over the 20 years it has been with me.

The scene in “Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie” is the summer of 1991—the summer that 3 other college girls and I lived in our first apartment. I’m calling it a memoir because it is more truth than fiction, although there are splashes of imaginary details/events/conversations stirred into the batter. You will learn more about that in a future blog post.

I wrote the first version of this book in 1997, when the summer it describes was only 6 years in the past. The manuscript was about 40 typed pages, completely factual, and I called it “The Summer of the Riotous Walls.”  Why I wrote the original story is different than why I “wrote the book” that is going to be published in the fall.  Let me explain.

In 1997, I was 26 years old and married to my first husband. I had a job that required me to show up at a small tourist information center and wait for tourists who needed information. It wasn’t exactly a busy place. And what do you do when you have all day to stay put and wait? You think about things. And what do I do when I think about something for a while? Exacatmente.

I wrote “The Summer of the Riotous Walls” for the pure joy of it, for my own entertainment, and so that I wouldn’t forget anything about what I recognized as a pivotal summer in my life.  I was still in my 20s, mind you, but even then, I could tell that summer was one of those points of no return. Not because of something cataclysmic that happened, but because underlayers began to melt, laying fault lines for the giant chunks of iceberg that would break free later, reshaping the land and seascapes of what is me. I wanted to remember what we did, the things we said, what mattered, what hurt, how things came together and fell apart. Because that process is important. And necessary. Unless, perhaps, you never “leave home.”

And the title? We painted all over the interior walls. What started out as a fun idea (yes, we got the landlady’s permission) to decorate horribly disgusting walls turned into a disastrous riot of multicolored chaos. It went from cheerful and pretty to ugly and desperate. Or at least that’s the way I remember it.

I wrote that first version of the book for the same reason you take pictures—or for the same reason we took pictures before digital cameras and cell phones. Now, we take pictures to show off. We used to take pictures to remember. I wanted never to forget how I went from being the little girl in my first book, When the Roll is Called a Pyonder, to the adult I am. It didn’t all happen that summer, but that summer was the end of something and the beginning of something else.

And then I put the story away for 17 years. It was too short to be a book, but too long to be a short story. And nothing really happens in it—nothing dramatic like rapes, murders, house fires and terrorist attacks. Which is a shame, because I thought it was pretty good. But not that good. But still, a shame to have it just there on a sheaf of papers in a folder. But hey. It is what it is. Or isn’t.

Then, in 2014, my book When the Roll is Called a Pyonder was accepted for publication. I kind of couldn’t believe it, and I knew that if that book has something to say to the world, this one has more. They each speak more clearly when they speak together. I knew immediately that what I really have is a trilogy (yes, there is another one) that maps how the little girl from When the Roll turns into a woman like me. And that story about that summer in the apartment is the pivot point in the middle.

But it was going to take A LOT of work.

So, I pulled it out, typed those 40 pages into the computer and started working. Between 2014 and 2017 I added scene after scene. The focus of the book changed. It wasn’t about nutty girls painting on walls anymore. I realized that the only way to tell the story right would be to add scenes that are snapshots from my first visit to Costa Rica. Yes, Costa Rica entered the book. I tried to keep it out because it complicated everything for me, but books don’t care how much they complicate your life or how hard they are for you to write.

It turned out that the book wanted to be about a lot more than the amusing antics of girls, although it is still built on them. All along, it wanted to be about the summer after I came back from my first visit to Costa Rica and was turned inside out by it in more ways than I had words to express. I kept waiting, that summer, to feel like the same self I was before and it wasn’t happening. The book wanted to be about breaking apart, connecting, and it wanted to be about expectations. Thus, the new title, Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie, is drawn from a line in the first chapter where I contemplate possibilities for my future.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie had to wait a long time for me because it’s not a book a 20-year-old can write. That’s not an insult to 20-year-olds, either. If I hadn’t written the (very entertaining) bones of it when I was 20, how could I have given it the rest of its body at 40? The 20-year-old has the adventures and takes the pictures. The 40-year-old pulls it together and tells what it means.

I needed this book desperately when I was the girl in the story, but I didn’t have it. I needed the permission, the forbearance, and the open ended questions.  Now, I have it to give.

 

*  * * * *

Do you have a question about the book?  Ask me, and I will answer (or address) it in a future blog post.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie

GREAT NEWS!

My new book, MARRY A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE will be coming to you via Workplay Publishing this fall.

What is it about?

Once upon a time, in a mid-west college town, there were 4 girl-women that rented a ramshackle apartment for the summer. They did lots of silly, crazy, and a few potentially-dangerous things as they tried to figure out, like people feeling around a dark room with their hands, how to begin to be adults. They broke rules because they could. They asked questions they were supposed to already know the answers to. The girl-women were Mennonites, or the daughters of Mennonites, or a new generation of Mennonites in full sail toward the edge of what they were told was a flat planet.

This book is written snapshots from that summer, placed together to tell a story. The story is a memoir and it is fiction. Everything is true, some things are false, nothing is impossible.

If you ever had to map your own terrain, if you ever were 20 years old or went to college, if you ever realized that the rules you memorized from the rulebook don’t apply to the game you’re playing, if you ever wondered if you were going mad, you may find snapshots of yourself here.  Many of us make the journey. I took pictures.

Marry a Mennonite Boy and Make Pie continues the story begun in my first book, When the Roll is Called a Pyonder, but it is not a direct sequel.  It is set 11 years later when that spunky little 9-year-old is just as spunky but not as little.  Some of When the Roll is Called a Pyonder‘s audience will also enjoy MARRY  A MENNONITE BOY AND MAKE PIE.  Some of that audience will be offended.  I will do my best to promote this second book in places where it will find appreciation and not create offense.  I hope you will join me!  Get ready to learn more about it in the coming months as I do my best to give it the promotion it deserves.

The Good Book That is “Too Quiet”

I thought you might be ready for a change in subject matter. And I have been talking to myself about something new lately, so I’m not forcing a different conversation. I need your input. I want your opinion, maybe your permission, perhaps your forgiveness. This conversation that I’ve been having with myself is not unrelated to the events in the last year of my life, which I think will be obvious. But it is also not about sickness or death.

Whew.

I have a book. It’s not a new book; it’s one I’ve been working on (off and on) for 20 years. I’ve mentioned it before, although not recently. It’s the memoir, with some fiction stirred in, of a certain summer in the middle of college.  It’s a damn good book. I mean, really. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind. And it’s as finished as it’s going to get. Not perfect, but good enough, and done.

After “When the Roll Is Called a Pyonder” was published in 2014, I pulled this one out of the vault, and worked on it as hard as I could for …about 2 years. I poured my heart and soul into it. I paid real money for a writing to coach to help me. And then I started sending it to publishers.

Through 2015 and 2016, I sent this book to every small publisher that (a) publishes either fiction or memoir and (b) doesn’t charge a reading fee of more than 20$. I even pitched it to a bunch of literary agents. I have the loveliest collection of complimentary rejection letters you ever saw. Like I said, it’s a good book. But nobody wants to publish it. Nobody is convinced it will make them boatloads of money, which is what “the business” is about. What can I say? These people know their business. They’re probably right.

Then in January 2017, something amazing happened. A real literary agent in New York City wrote me back and said he loves my book, he thinks he can sell it to a big NYC publisher, and would I sign a contract? I was so happy I practically cried, and Pio was so proud of me. I almost splattered the great news all over Facebook, but then I didn’t. Because a contract with an agent does not equal a book deal. And how embarrassed would I be if he couldn’t sell it either?

Which is exactly what happened.

The feedback from The Big Boys is that I don’t have a big enough “platform”—meaning followers on my blog and on social media. In other words, it’s a good book, but I’m Nobody. And that my book is “too quiet.” I interpret that to mean there’s not enough, sex, drugs and violence. Well.  Guilty as charged. First, I don’t really write about sex, drugs and violence. Why would I? After “Pulp Fiction,” what could I possibly add?  Second, it’s a book about Mennonite kids, for the love of God! A little imagination? Anyone?

So, I can think of 3 possibilities for this book:
1. Give up.
2. Spend more years of my life sending this book to publishers and agents.
3. Self-publish.

The problem with #1 is that I can’t do it. I’ve even tried, but I can’t.

The problem with #2 is that I have a limited number of free hours to spend on surfing/reading/writing/lying in my hammock looking at the stars/pestering the cats/drinking wine… doing anything that isn’t sleeping or working. And honestly? I have other things to write. I can either spend my free time on cover letters (like I did for 2 of the last 3 years) or I can get on with life and write something else. I would love that.

The problem with #3? It has 2 problems. On one hand, even though this may be bogus, self-publishing a really good book feels like a cop-out, like giving up. And maybe there are ways in which I am ready to do that. What the hell? Who am I kidding?  What am I doing?  Hold out for an imaginary audience of people I don’t know, when I have you and me to write for?  Why?  Are they better people or more worthy?  I think not.

The other problem with self-publishing is a very deep very personal can of worms that I would rather not open. But if I self-publish this book, the worms are going to be all over the place, let me tell you. All over. And I might need a whole lot of moral support.

I would rather have introduced this book to the world with the support of a traditional publisher (no matter how small) behind me because this “too quiet” book is going to deeply upset/offend/dismay every single person in the state of Pennsylvania (and a few in upstate New York) who is a blood relative of mine. Each and every single one. I am choosing my words carefully as I write this. If you don’t get what I am saying, go back and read that again. Unless I somehow publish this book “in secret” (oxymoron?!), there are going to be painful personal conversations as a result. That I am not looking forward to. And I would just rather have had a publisher who thinks I’m awesome holding my hand, instead of having to stand here spitting into the wind all by myself. But I’m not sure I’m going to get my way this time. Sometimes, being a big girl sucks.

I’m 47 years old. It shouldn’t matter. I didn’t think it would at this point in my life. If I had known, at 17 and 27 and 37, that it would still matter this much, I would have been devastated. So now I know: it’s never going to go away. Never. Which ties directly, for me, to the reason you have to read this book—the reason it must get out of my computer. Because if I have a heart attack in my bed tonight and this book NEVER gets read by anyone, THAT will be the real and true failure. I will have failed to face something that has been waiting for me my whole life.

I actually believe this. It makes me shake in my shoes in the way that happens when you know a thing is true. …And it’s kind of also what the book is about.

So.  What do you think?  I’m asking.

 

P.S.

Please know: There is nothing even remotely scandalous in this book for anyone who was born anywhere other than where/when I was.

(O, the ironies of knowing your “too quiet” book will shock the covering pins out of some people’s hair…)