Next May, it will have been 10 years since I last stood in front of a room full of college students to share my thoughts about books. In July 2006, a few months after I taught my last class, I published a short piece about quitting academe in The Chronicle of Higher Education called Not Slinking Away. I saw the piece as the end of a memoir I was writing about my experience as an adjunct professor of English. I couldn’t yet see it was actually the beginning. Since then, I have made a version of that article into the Prologue of my book.
That July nine years go, I imagined I would take a year to shape and polish my many notes and journal entries into a well-crafted memoir. I planned to begin querying agents in the summer of 2007.
That I might still be fiddling with an unpublished draft nine years later never occurred to me. And a good thing too–because I can see now it was the idea of the book, the idea of sharing my story in the near term, that carried me through those first years. After investing ten years on an academic career that didn’t pan out, I would have had no patience with idea it would take another ten to write a book about that failure.
But now that I’m almost on the other side of that decade, I’m glad. Coincidentally, as I’ve been thinking about how time and reflection have improved my narrative, a story appeared in the New York Times about memoir: Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir? Oddly, the title focuses on the age of the writer rather than the distance from the events. I think the question the writers grapple with isn’t how old you are, but whether you’ve had time to reflect on what you’re writing about.
So what’s enough time?
The answer depends on the purpose of the writing. A friend of mine wrote a memoir of early grief called Rare Bird, about the loss of her 12-year-old son in a drowning accident. She published the book just a few years after her son’s death. And she did a beautiful job. I’m sure her telling of these events will change over the coming years, but her point in writing the book so soon was to tell the raw story of how she saw her experiences in the moment–before the years had a chance to pass. And it works. It works because parents have a desire to know how a mother or father survives, day by day, during those first terrible years of loss. We are terrified by the idea of it, and yet we cannot fathom it. Rare Bird works because it draws back the curtain for us, letting us see what our worst fear looks like without slipping into hopelessness on one hand, but without the amelioration of time on the other.
My book, on yet another hand, was not working in its original form–the one written in the immediacy of my post-academic moment. One of the authors of the New York Times articles says, “I believe we tell our stories when we need to tell them.” I agree. But not every story is ready to be heard in the moment when it needed to be told. Mine was one of those. And it has taken some excellent readers in the past two years to show me that.
Unlike Rare Bird, my story needed time to soften its corners, the way wind and water will wear away the jagged edges of a mountainside. In the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma, I wrote on this blog about my struggle to tell an angry story without alienating readers with an angry narrator. I didn’t know how to make my narrator likable without taking the bite out of my story. I think the condition of adjuncting (working part-time as a professor for a quarter of the pay tenure-track professors make with no job security, little or no benefits, and little or no opportunity for improvement) is one that promotes bitterness. I thought readers should see how my job changed me into a spiteful person I hadn’t been before. But how to be spiteful and sympathetic too?
The answer, I discovered, was in this blog. Over the past two years, many readers have offered words of encouragement about my book, telling me they couldn’t wait for it to come out. Reading those comments I felt sure my blog readers would be disappointed with the book, but I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, I realized it was because of the difference between the person who writes this blog and the person who wrote the memoir. While readers might like me here, I understood they would not like me there.
Because my narrator had no distance.
My narrator hadn’t learned anything yet.
It’s not that I suddenly have all the answers about why crappy things happen to us. It’s just that I no longer feel as angry as I did in 2006. So in the last year, I’ve converted my memoir into the past tense and told my story with this current voice, the one softened by ten years of wind and rain. The experience has been transformative, for me and for the book.
Of course it’s not done (are you tired of hearing me say that?) but it is close – at least in this latest iteration. So while I’m glad I didn’t know it would take so long to finish this book when I started it in 2006, I’m glad it did. Since then, public awareness about the condition of adjuncts and the problem of contingent labor at colleges and universities has grown. Adjuncts have banded together online, students have become more aware of their professors’ working conditions, and articles like this one and this one have made it into the main stream news.
I hope with that changed landscape and my changed perspective, this story I’ve needed to tell for a decade is ready to be heard.
Now if I could just finish it already!