When I started writing the essays that would eventually become my first book, Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood, I did not have a concrete vision of what the book would be about. All I knew was that I had a lot of childhood memories inside of me – good and bad and fun-loving and challenging – and a lot of people had done their fair share in shaping those memories. There was a lot to explore. Those memories and stories were pounding inside me, pleading to be let out, pleading to be set free.
The stories were timid at first, sweet and innocent moments of my childhood. They were special to me, but to a stranger, they meant little. Readers who didn’t know me needed a reason to care about what they were reading. Who is this Kate Meadows? And what is so remarkable about her life?
I certainly could not have answered those questions in the early stages of writing the book. Those simple, innocent memories were strong, and I knew I wanted to explore them on the page, but why? I didn’t know. I needed the writing itself to tell me.
The more I worked at the stories, the more prominent a larger theme became. As I continued to write and revise, write and revise, I realized I was venturing into unexplored territory: the essays were becoming an exploration of my complex emotions toward and relationship with my grandparents.
Now that, I never intended.
I fought the impulse at first. No, I argued with myself. That’s not the direction I want to go.
But the writing kept leading me that way. A major detail was missing in those low-stakes stories about my childhood memories: Readers needed a reason to care.
Without meatier substance, the sweet little memories I was writing about were just that: sweet little memories. They mattered to me, but if you had no idea who I was and I asked you to read a book about my favorite childhood memories, what would you say?
You’d probably say, “Why?”
As I thought about the deeper meaning behind these memories, I started venturing down the tunnel of my grandparents’ roles in them. Much as I wanted to fight it (there was some hard and ugly stuff there that for all intents and purposes could have stayed well and buried), my mind – and my proverbial pen – kept wandering into that territory.
Trust me, the writing seemed to be saying.
The writing was hard. It was agonizing at times. It scared me. Some sentences I pounded out through tears. To see my thoughts, black and real, staring back at me from the computer screen was at once alarming and freeing.
I didn’t know it at first, but in this act of writing I was communicating and coming to terms with some hard truths. I was knitting together a story I never actually set out to tell. But it was, I realized through the process, the story that needed telling. Among the thorns and roses of memory, a story of complex love emerged.
A story of complex love, messy with mistakes and emotions and raw beauty.
A collection of one girl’s innocent childhood memories.
Which is the story you’d be more likely to read?
So often, writing is an act of faith. You recognize a single loose end of a thread and you start to pull it, unsure of how it’s going to unravel. The writing becomes an act of discovery. You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know where you’ll end up. All you know is that you have to keep going.
That’s faith. It’s having the courage to take the next step, even though the rest of the path is still dark. Sometimes, you only have enough light to see directly in front of you.
Through the tough writing and the unraveling of some momentous events that, years after taking place still needed mining, I finally set a complete story free. Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood (Pronghorn Press 2012), recounts my years as an only child growing up in the harsh and untamed country of western Wyoming, being molded by and learning to love the very people – those grisly, fiercely independent characters – who you’d think would have been the least likely to teach me about life’s greatest gift.
Without faith – without a willingness to discover, that story would still be buried, never explored, never told. The work started innocently. To be sure, my recounting of my childhood memories was no waste of time. It just wasn’t the final destination. It was the steppingstone I needed to get to what really mattered.
Is there a thread in your writing that you need to follow, in an act of blind faith? Where is your writing leading you right now? Share in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.