Allen Harder’s Reflections on Memoir Editing

John L. Taylor’s Autobiography Off the Beaten Path

John Taylor is married to my wife’s sister (both are Indonesian). I have known him since 1990. For the better part of his last 55 years, John has lived and worked in Asia in international development as an urban planner.  Most of that time was spent in Indonesia. On a visit to our home in Abbotsford, he plunked a 400-page typed manuscript down on my table as asked if I would like to give it an edit for publication. I read it over, swallowed hard, but told him I could potentially see a story there.  It read like a extended resume with some personal anecdotes, written in a technical style like a report to the World Bank.  He is a professional technical writer, has published, and he thought his manuscript should be close to being publishable.  About three years later, after incredibly hard work, sweat and agonizing discussions, we self-published his autobiography with Friesen’s Press. 

Challenges and Lessons Learned

  • Focusing and narrowing expectations. John expected to submit his manuscript to a commercial publisher. Given the current market and that he was not a big-name in his field, that seemed unadvisable. He also expected to reach an audience of young urban planners to encourage them to enter international development work. In the end, we decided that the urban planning field and international consulting work context had changed so dramatically since his career span that targeting them would not be the best focus for his autobiography.  When finally we settled on writing for other international consultant types like him—and there are many—who had dedicated their whole career to international work and living cross-culturally, we landed on a viable audience to write for. That helped focus the themes, content and tone. We also decided that he should include his somewhat estranged family (as a result of his career focus at the expense of family) as his audience, and through the memoir, work at family reconciliation. Even though his book contains much technical information, I could recognize that it didn’t have the analytical depth to contribute much to the evolving discipline of the developing urban planning field. So, we settled on writing for legacy. Overarching themes emerge as we chipped away at it. John could let his goal of publishing with a commercial publisher go when he came to terms with the fact that he was not expecting financial remuneration (he was happy to pay the costs without reimbursement), and he was no longer interested in building his reputation.
  • Gently replacing the ego on the pedestal with the big themes of his story. Self-identity for males, especially alpha-males, tends to be wrapped around career achievements. The manuscript I was given made distinct dichotomy between “personal life and professional life”, and it was repeated so often that I wondered if he was trying to prove his worth to himself.  A discussion about this with my feminist theologian sister-in-law drew attention to this male concern, and that writing about personal life would require drawing more on the feminist side. I hoped to tease this out of John and achieve this balance. The way to work at his self-focus was to work at the deeper meaning of his life, and that life and work were integrated. His personal story was just as meaningful and valuable than his recitation of accomplishments. The second approach was to address the fact that the majority of sentences beginning with “I…” were becoming a real distraction. Changing sentence structure (vastly reducing the “I..” starts) toned down the self congratulatory elements. It also changed the tone. Mixing his sentence structures made the text more readable and helped with the pedantic style of the technical writer. I also encouraged him to add more anecdotal material, and add more stories about his family, which were really lacking.Important, integrating themes that emerged were how his Quaker values informed his career (and how in his life he sometimes abandoned them—and then recovered them!), his philosophy of international development, and a surprising theme—“where is home? Where do I belong?” He has retired in Indonesia, and that provided much fruitful source for reflection. By the end, was coming to terms with a new identity—the transcultural retiree. 
  • Chronology and context   John’s career path was quite discernible, replete with decision making “forks in the road”, diversions, his relational style for “getting the next contract”, dilemmas and conflicts.  However, his manuscript provided insufficient context to understand how he was a product of his time, how his field was changing, and how his career as an urban planning consultant was impacted by what was happening on the large scale. Like a technical report, the manuscript appeared very flat.  Doing a detailed reconstruction of his chronology and the context helped to order his story.  It was crucial to identify the arc of his career from its beginnings through to his retirement. Identifying when and how his career peaked, and how it was interconnected to his context was a turning point. He had not realized that his career began to wane after a major political upheaval, changes in national redirections, the replacement of international consultants with local expertise, and the aftermath of a marital crisis, coupled with reaching the age of 65. Only then could he come to terms with the events resulting in the decline of his career. He could begin letting go of his angst about his “demise” and accept it. With a clear career and life arc, we could start hanging the rest of his story on that arc with a measure of continuity.  His move toward full retirement and where to settle down in retirement required considerable attention. This was happening during the three-year course of working on the autobiography.  In that sense, this endeavour resulted in achieving wholeness as well as legacy—even though we did not start out with it.  Many things needed to be put to rest as we worked at it.
  • Redundancy    When we circulated a draft for comment, one of the main responses was regarding the repetitiveness in the draft. After combining and integrating what we could, I think we deleted several thousand words from the original. When we sent the final draft to Friesen’s Press, the editor was a stickler for weeding out redundancies (and she was stickler on telling the story chronologically!) “If you’ve said it once, it doesn’t need to be said again,” she said. That was excellent advice. Trickier were hidden redundancies within or between paragraphs.  Now I read almost everything with an eye for redundancy. (I hope I haven’t been too redundant in writing this up.) 
  • Non-relevant material     The manuscript was peppered with insignificant anecdotal material that didn’t contribute to the story. John had his reasons for including them, but they would only distract the reader.  There was other anecdotal material that was important, but was disconnected.  These needed to be woven in and connections made.
  • The reader’s perspective     As we were getting to final drafts, I constantly asked, “how will your readers understand what you are saying.”  Since his was no “ordinary” story, we needed to keep checking. I kept in front of his mind the adage, “Assume that whatever you write will enter the public domain. Keep your potential readers in mind, even the ones whom you don’t think will ever get a hold of your book!” The story also contained some sensitive material, particularly as it related to family and relational issues.  I wanted to be sure that it would not convey any unintended messages. Keeping his intended readership in mind also helped decide which stories to include. 
  • Titles, headings and acronyms       Chapter and subsection titles need to reflect the main thrust of the book sections and chapters. The technical writer sometimes needs help with imagination! The chapters were replete with sub-titles up to the third and forth levels, lots of bullet points etc.  The Indonesian acronyms were so thick they were mind numbing—even for someone like myself who understands Indonesian and the context.  Only the most important ones were kept intact and others replaced with commonly understood descriptors. These were all issues that would deter the average reader.  We needed to make the sometimes-technical sections that described his urban planning work accessible to the average reader.
  • Consistency     Achieving consistency in style, spellings (a lot of unfamiliar terminology and names), use of special terminology, weeding out contradictions etc. became time consuming and exasperating toward the end. Checking and rechecking always seemed to turn up more to revise and correct. In the end, one has to say “enough!”.  What is will be.
  • Publishing    Self-publishing ended up being quite an involved process. We decided that Friesen’s Press self-publishing option would meet John’s expectations for professionalism and quality. The Friesen’s Press editorial staff persuaded us that a thorough edit would make an already good manuscript shine. They were right. The final product was very attractive and professionally done. They performed formatting feats—especially with diagrams and charts—that we could not have done with the MS Word capacity we had to work with.  The book also needed to be formatted for the e-book platforms.
  • Outcome    The primary accomplishment, in my opinion, was that John had done a deep reflection of a life well lived, let go of some personal issues and come to peace with himself. He could now be confident that his life story was worthy to share with family, friends and former colleagues. In the end, John was very satisfied and proud of his accomplishments.