A year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a craft essay for Brevity about being a literary late-bloomer and finishing my first manuscript, an essay collection about my relationships, in my forties. In the piece, I said I was “done” with my book. Since then I’ve received encouraging feedback from agents and editors, but no solid bites. Over time, I realized my manuscript wasn’t finished yet, despite many months of editing, but I felt stuck on how to proceed. An editor who requested my manuscript said if I wanted to maintain the format, I needed to expand personal stories into a broader conversation about the current state of womanhood, but that topic wasn’t driving me. Then I found an editor whose vision aligned with my own.

When Joshua Mohr of Decant Editorial advised that I zoom in on key scenes, making the book more personal instead of less, his advice resonated. The original manuscript consisted of seventeen chronological, standalone pieces. After I moved a juicy bit from page seventy-six to page one, we began the freeing task of assembling a puzzle that was more precise, more identity-illuminating, and no longer linear. Setting values to characters resulted in a few people appearing in more than one chapter and others being served their walking papers. I toiled to ensure each chapter contributed something new to an ongoing, cohesive conversation.

I learned to not be afraid to cut huge swaths of decent writing if the material wasn’t moving the story forward and shedding light on my emotional trajectory, as “memoirs are always an investigation,” Mohr said. Once I started making tough decisions about what was “earning its space,” it became obvious that four essays I had diligently crafted—one for seven years—were no longer needed. Meticulous dialogue, tornadoes, a sudden death, a doozy of a New Year’s Eve, an atrocious haircut that solidified my resolve to move, and the unlikely prophecy of an obnoxious stranger on a pier all got axed. Somewhere is a crowded cemetery replete with precious darlings I don’t miss.

Another Mohr gem: “Build a collage of stories that don’t necessarily seem like they fit together, and figure out why they do.” In one chapter, I seesaw between scenes a few years apart, one in which I’m rebounding from lost love and another when I’m the target of someone else’s rebound. Each section ends with a mini, momentary cliffhanger. In another chapter, I intersperse my tale of first love with my experience teaching high school, reflecting on a teenager who reminded me of my first boyfriend. There I found the “organic triggers” between past and present.

I wrote scenes that never happened as a “what-if” technique; I created wedding vows I should have written and spoken; I envisioned an anniversary party that never transpired; and I approximated a breakup’s dialogue that I can no longer remember, keeping the reader abreast of what was fabricated.

I raised tricky questions without clear-cut answers, compelling the reader to be an active adjudicator. For instance: Having never had a child—a lifelong desire—is being an aunt, a dog owner, and a pseudo-parent to other children enough? Is it better to have a child with the wrong person or not at all?

When writing about past relationships, Mohr said to shortcut origin stories and nix long goodbyes. This has been challenging for me from the get-go. In workshops, I’ve always received the same note: “We want to hear more about you.” Mohr said, “When you’re writing about people who’ve left your life, they don’t have to say goodbye to the book.” So I jettisoned the where-are-they-nows.

Along these same lines, I tried to be economical about events involving other people if they were only tangential to my path. “Be true to your vision and what you feel comfortable including about other people. Ethically, where does that fall?” Mohr asked.

The end result is a manuscript that’s eighteen thousand words shorter than the original, with a boatload of new content, including a chapter about my immediate family, my present-day voice where pertinent, and material I was terrified to explore but knew I must.

When I’ve heard authors say they’ve rewritten their books more than once, starting from page one, I’ve thought, “There’s no way I could do that.” But I did, and I’m grateful. Now I relish the lengthy process and trust it. It can’t be forced. I’m putting in the work and letting aha! moments unfold naturally. As a result, I’m journeying to enlightening places I never thought possible.


Chelsey Drysdale is a writer and editor in Southern California. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.