Chris Connolly: Thoughts on Completing My Memoir

Excerpts from Chris Connolly’s memoir-in-progress have appeared on True Stories Well Told: Excerpt from “I Went Away, But Then I Came Home Again” and My 3rd Most Violent Vomiting Experience

Chris recently showed me the LAST chapter of the memoir. I asked him to share how it feels to reach such a tremendous milestone. (He’s completed 356 pages, or about 137,000 words.) Here’s his response. 

Dear Sarah’s legions of fans:

Finishing my memoir was one of the coolest things I ever did. The day I wrote “The end” at the end of a book was up there with my wedding and the births of my sons. Seriously. I joke a lot, but that’s not a joke. It was the accomplishment of something I’d literally wanted to do since I first started having sentient thoughts.

My book is, obviously, a memoir. It’s called “I Went Away, But Then I Came Home Again” and it deals with a three year span I spent living in the former Soviet Union nation of Latvia just after the fall of communism. When I think about it, it took me almost 20 years to write “I Went Away.” It took four years to live it, 10 years to get good enough at writing to trust myself to attempt it and then three years to do the actual writing. I published hundreds of magazine and newspaper stories during that time, but I was always cognizant that I was only practicing—shoring up my skills in preparation for my memoir. Given all that went into producing the book, the day I finished it was a staggering experience.

For those of you who won’t know me, I’ve been a magazine writer/editor and a freelance travel journalist for the last decade. But even though writing has been my profession for all that time, I’ve always considered myself sort of a “minor leaguer,” because I hadn’t yet written my Latvia memoir. I wrote the first sentence and the last sentence of I Went Away on the same day in 2001, then it took me a decade to connect the dots.

Now, I wasn’t just playing computer solitaire or staring at a blank page during that dry spell. I did, as I said, write hundreds of stories for commercial publication. I also traveled to every continent on Earth and about 25 countries on various assignments. All that time I kept my book with me (in my head) but I didn’t set another word down in print until just under three years ago. I think memoir is a little different from other kinds of writing because there isn’t much plotting to do. If you take a pretty conventional approach then you already know what happens in the book, don’t you? It all happened to you. At that point it’s just an exercise in choosing what to include and what to leave out.

Once I did start working on “I Went Away” I charted the book out virtually from start to finish in my notes. Using this document I was able to keep to a very precise schedule, so when I was approaching the end of the book I knew almost exactly how long each remaining section would take. When I realized that the act of typing “The end” was about two writing sessions away, I started making plans for the big day. I knew the occasion would be special no matter what, but I wanted it to be really special. An unencumbered day of reflection and celebration I could spend alone thinking about my own awesomeness. (I do have a family, and I wanted to celebrate with them as well, but writing is a solitary art, and I wanted to spend the first couple hours by myself savoring my accomplishment.)

I nurtured the occasion of finishing my book with jealous care. When I realized, two chapters from the end, that I’d eventually need to add a foreword to the book, I stopped working on the conclusion to write the foreword because I didn’t want to type “The end” harboring the secret knowledge that I’d really need to dive back in the next day to shore up the beginning. I knew, and still know, that I’m going to need to do a lot of editing to my first draft, but somehow that knowledge doesn’t counteract the idea that I finished the book.

Anyway, when I got everything lined up for the finish, I picked a day when I had little to do, hammered out the last few pages and then made my dream a reality: I typed “The end” at the end of an actual book. The second I wrote those words I knew the whole process had been worth it. If the book doesn’t sell, if it gets panned, if it never even publishes, the act of completing the project ratified all the work I put in. I slammed my head down on my desk and shook for a while. I didn’t actually cry—I don’t know why, maybe social conditioning–but my body reacted as if I were weeping.

I drove to the beach near my house and started walking an 8-mile route that I take a lot. I was feeling so much emotion that I wanted to cry, but just as at my desk, my eyes wouldn’t cooperate. The tears would start, but then I’d laugh instead, or do this weird coughing thing, and the tears would creep back into me. I was, I realized, feeling so much emotion, my body didn’t know how to let it out. My hormonal system probably thought I was being pursued a bear, so it went immediately to DEFCON 5 and locked me into survival mode.

I dug into my bag and took out my iPod. I’d wanted to take the walk in a pure state, un-tethered to electronics and the rest of the world, but I felt that music might help free up some of the feelings bottlenecking inside me. I dialed up a Rage Against the Machine record and let it rip. By using the medium of music as a crutch, or maybe I should say as a lever, I was finally able to engineer a release. It was not what we on the East Coast call a “beach day.” It was raining, high winds were driving the rain across the sand like hail, and I couldn’t see a single other person for miles in any direction. This was actually perfect for me. Unobserved, I could act like the complete lunatic I am, so I used the music a guide and cut loose: I cried, I whooped, I sprinted, I danced, I threw my fists into the air and otherwise just had myself a raucous one-man mosh party.

When I finally exhausted my energy, I shut the music down and thought about what might be next. I actually did most of the plotting for my second book on that walk. It’s going to be an economics allegory featuring a ninja master with hippie leanings set in the Peruvian Amazon—yes, another one of those, but I think I can offer a fresh take on it—I ’m going to start writing after an upcoming Christmas trip to Paris. I don’t know what’s going to happen in my career. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to support my family by writing books, I don’t know if five people will buy my book or five hundred thousand, but I do know this: You can’t write books two, three or four until you crank out book one and I’ve now taken that step.

There was one lyric in the Rage Against the Machine song “Township Rebellion” that really resonated with me while I was having my wild rumpus on the beach. It’s a song inciting rebellion and action against oppression and contains a chant: “Why stand on a silent platform? Fight the war. F–k the norm!”

Now, I don’t care all that much about f–cking the norm, but I do like the first two clauses. “Why stand on a silent platform? Fight the war.”

Life is a war in a lot of ways. The way I see it, life’s war is going to sweep you up whether you agree to it or not, so you might as well start throwing punches. My book may be a hit or a miss. I might go broke. I might get rich. But I do know this: I’m not going to stand on a silent platform. I’m going to fight this war. And the norm better watch out too.

Chris Connolly on a vastly different beach than the scene of his book-wrap beach party.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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