‘Shut your mouth and open your ears’ is one tip I found when looking for advice on how to work with an editor. Another advisor entreated me to view my editor as an ally. True but tricky. I’m used to working with colleagues on government policy documents so I’ve never felt ownership of those. But working with someone on a memoir requires a different kind of partnership. Chasing Ghosts is MY memoir. Surely I’m the only one who can say how I think and feel? How would an editor actually help me and would I find the process more difficult when she’s is a long-standing friend?
My editor-friend went for dramatic effect. I’d been telling my story in chronological order but she suggested starting with a funeral, moving on to a journey of self discovery as a young adult, with the next chapter giving my account of meeting adoption workers for the first time. She then suggested I went back to my childhood before moving further backwards to tell my adoptive mum and dad’s love story, set in India during World War Two. I needed a few bridging paragraphs and explicit dates to make sure the reader didn’t get lost in time, but it worked because it built up suspense.
I included my three siblings’ adoption stories too by writing three separate chapters focusing on them. My editor pointed out that I was the focus of my memoir and these accounts seemed to detract from my main story. How about interweaving their journeys with my own discoveries? Did their experience of searching for birth family whet my own appetite or did it make me scared? I moaned about re-writing. I’ll see what I can do, she said. Back came the manuscript with sections of my siblings’ stories interspersed with my own search. I could see the logic of this but it required a bit of work because I had to use a flashback technique which can be confusing to the reader. The use of words such as ‘I recalled’ and ‘I remembered’ helped. I used the conversations with my brother and sister as a means to reflect on my own feelings about adoption and reunion. The reordering meant that changes in tenses sometimes didn’t make sense. I was tasked to think about why I switched to the present in certain cases. I decided only to use the present in the recent searches for my birth family. This gave a sense of immediacy to the search for my birth family.
My friend wanted me to tell stories I didn’t want to tell. I baulked at writing frankly about the death of family members, my love life and awkward characters! But it makes it human, she said. I had to acknowledge that sometimes I didn’t feel anything, especially about death. Then write about why, she said. That was the most difficult thing about the editing process – did I really want to expose myself to that extent? You have to, she said. It’s a memoir. In the end I did write those stories and became more in touch with my own feelings as a result.