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Step Back and Squint

Memoir Incubator writer Eileen Toomey compares her mother's less-than-perfect DIY projects to her current memoir manuscript.

By Eileen Toomey

September 28, 2023

Over the years, my mother decorated every room in our house. She wallpapered, sewed curtains, and would even pick up a paintbrush on occasion. Her measurements weren’t always precise; sometimes the seams on the wallpaper didn’t exactly match up, or the curtain rod might be a bit crooked, but she was pleased. Once she completed a project, she’d gather us into the room.

“First, back up and squint,” she’d instruct. We’d obediently close our eyes slightly, blurring our vision. “Now look. What do you think?”

That became our funny ritual, a way of acknowledging that her DIY projects would not achieve perfection but could create a nice overall effect. As I edit and prepare the first draft of my memoir for the final reading round in the Memoir Incubator, I think about those exchanges with my mother. My manuscript is not going to be perfect either. All the lofty expectations that I had at its inception are now clashing with the messy reality of my first draft.

To begin with, memory is fickle. Some moments I’ve written about are crystal clear, while others are still obscured. I am bothered by the gaps, inconsistencies, and forgotten details in the manuscript. Remembering any actual dialogue is an uphill battle. While I have plans to interview my aunts and siblings, I understand that I must work primarily with my own memories and emotional responses. This is my story, after all.

Right now, the manuscript feels like a sketch before the final painting. It’s riddled with awkward sentences, clichés, and numerous (and I mean numerous) undeveloped ideas. Like many writers, I underestimated the time and effort required to complete a memoir. While I did not believe my first draft would be a literary masterpiece, I did expect it to be more finished.

But writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Crafting a compelling narrative takes time. Memoir writing isn’t just about recounting facts, it’s also about reflection. The first draft is just the beginning. Revision, editing, and fine-tuning are next. Now that I’ve done the hardest part, I hope that I find even more satisfaction within the process of revision. With this manuscript under my belt, I am excited that I have given myself the opportunity to refine my story and language over multiple drafts.

Just as my mother’s DIY projects were labors of love, so is my memoir. I believe that, if I take a step back and squint before I scrutinize, like my mother’s home improvements, my memoir will come together beautifully.

Eileen Toomey

Eileen Toomey’s works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The Rumpus, Oyster River Pages, and more. Her poem "Immunotherapy" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Red Bank, NJ with her husband, Michael.

Eileen Toomey’s works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The Rumpus, Oyster River Pages, and more. Her poem "Immunotherapy" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Red Bank, NJ with her husband, Michael.