We are All Storytellers

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How to write an adoption memoir that's rich in feeling, images, and detail.

By Janis Cooke Newman

Did I grow in your stomach?" my son, Alex, asked me when he was two years old.

"No," I told him. "You grew in another lady's stomach."

"Who was she?"

"A Russian lady."

"But who?"

"I don't know."

Like many adoptive parents, I don't know much about my son's biological parents. I don't know if he has siblings, if his birthmother was young and frightened, or was just too poor to keep another child, if his birthfather ever knew he existed.

What I do know is that my husband and I first saw Alex on a videotape of Russian orphans, that we immediately fell in love with this naked ten-month-old little boy with big eyes and feathery hair that made him look like a baby bird, that we traveled halfway around the world to bring him home.

A few weeks after Alex asked me to name the woman who'd given birth to him, I took out my computer and began to write the story I did know. Starting with my mother's death from breast cancer, which made me first want to have a child, through months of infertility treatments, adoption meetings, and trips to Moscow, I told the story of how Alex became my son. While he napped upstairs, I sat at the kitchen table, furiously typing out the only history I had to give him.

Two years (and quite a few naps) later, Alex's story became a book, The Russian Word for Snow. When I began talking with other adoptive parents, I discovered that this desire to give our children a history is something we all share. It's the reason we glue snapshots of orphanages and ticket stubs from flights into baby books. Why we preserve letters from birthmothers, save e-mails from adoption agencies. Why so many of us want to write the story of how we brought our children home.

So whether you're looking to publish, or just want a history for your child, here are tips to help you write your story.

Never tell yourself that you're writing a book. The idea that you are going to sit down and write two hundred or more pages is so paralyzing, that eventually you'll start doing something less ambitious, like repainting the house. Instead, start small. Tell yourself that all you're going to do is write a paragraph about what the orphanage looked like, or how you felt the first time you smelled your daughter's skin. Once you've done that, write about what happened next, and then what happened after that, until you have a scene. Which is how you write a book, which is, after all, just a collection of scenes.

Show, don't tell. This is the writer's mantra. Ask yourself: which is more compelling, standing in the doorway telling someone about the terrific fight going on in the living room, or inviting them in to see it for themselves? Instead of telling us, "my husband and I were so happy the morning we found out we could adopt the little boy we'd seen on the videotape," show us your husband whipping off his towel and dancing naked around the bathroom.

Use all of your senses. Even experienced writers sometimes limit themselves to describing only what they see, and forget about the things they can smell and hear and touch. Write about the boiled-cabbage smell of the orphanage, the stickiness of the just-born baby in your arms, the wailing of the frightened child stumbling off the airplane.

It's all in the details. Fill your pages with specifics, like the Russian orphanage worker who dresses in a white lab coat and babushka, the driver who pours water on his windshield because his wipers have been stolen, the baby who wears a rag for a diaper.

Put words in people's mouths. Dialogue always makes a story more interesting. Let readers hear the translator who mumbles when she can't think of the right word, the woman at the Department of Justice who assures you that your missing fingerprints "could surface in a week or two."

Show some emotion. The main thing readers want to know is "How did you feel?" This is the most important part of your story, and the most difficult to write, because "I felt happy" doesn't really say much. Try using a physical response to describe an emotional state, "Seeing my son on videotape for the first time, I felt as though my heart had grown too big for the space that contained it." Or come up with an analogy, "We searched for the Moscow restaurant the way you search for a favorite shirt, certain that if you don't find it, you've lost not only the shirt, but every good memory you ever had wearing it."

Write in images. Imagine what you're afraid of: getting on the plane home from China with only a paperback and an inflatable pillow. Picture what you long for: you and your child splashing in the sea.

Create some tension. Always let the reader know what's at stake in every scene. When you write about your homestudy, include your nervousness about failing if the social worker discovers that your idea of cleaning is to throw everything in the closet. When you describe the drive to pick up your child, put in the fear you have about your ability to love another woman's child.

Be willing to murder your darlings. I once wrote a scene about my husband and I wandering romantically through parenting bookshelves. Everybody in my writing group hated it. But I was so in love with the scene that I rewrote it no less than 50 times, until the group finally made me see the truth. It was slowing everything down. Cutting that scene felt like murdering something I loved. But it did make for a much better book.

Get a little help from your friends. Writing is a solitary pursuit-except for those times your child wanders in to crayon a pirate ship on your notes. So, from time to time, you're going to need a little feedback. Sign up for a writing class at a bookstore or community college. Form a writing group with the people you meet there. They will push you to go deeper into your emotions, cut the self-indulgent paragraphs about your childhood, stop using so many adverbs.

But most of all, a writing group will encourage you to keep going. And that's the most important thing. Writing is hard work. But it'll be worth all the effort the day your child comes to you looking for a history, and you have something to give her.

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption (St. Martin's Press).

Credits: Janis Cooke Newman

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