The Grudge: On the Journey of Writing Memoir

July 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

By Allison K Williams

Words on the page.

I am still married. My friend is still my friend. My lover is still my lover, and then he is not. Scroll up, and we are paying bills, or shopping, or sneaking around. Scroll down, we are fighting, or consoling each other on unhappy affairs, or breaking up over another woman. Zoom out, past the glow of the screen and my fingers on the keyboard, and all of it’s gone. I am in another life.

Now, I sort out themes and carefully choose incidents for a better sense of tension—tension! My God, there was tension!—my temporal continuity notes in all-caps, places to fill in more details highlighted yellow, the color of cowardice. I stall on a section for days, I don’t want to go there. I write forward instead, discover what should be in the past, what is missing from the path, and put it there. Cut-and-paste, so much easier than living it, so much scarier to revisit in words that route that thrilled me when I didn’t know what lay ahead.

Memoir is a rare country. Making the map of personal experience, writing the guide that says, This was five stars and everyone should do it. Don’t waste your time on that, is not unlike rappelling. The more control you have, the less compelling it becomes. The straight guidebook, detached, evaluative, arranged by area or chronology, is a dry thing (I snorted once, “‘Enjoy Chowpatty’s sights but don’t eat the vendors’ food?’ What is this, Fodor’s Travel For Scared Old White People?”). And yet the writer must never lose the rope entirely—the ramblings of a diary are indecipherable, plotless, sans perspective. Only your little sister wants to break the lock and see.

The middle trail is perilous. Step here, where you cannot see the path. Let go of the safety tether. Pack thoroughly, by all means, but remember that the beginning of the Appalachian Trail is scattered with cast-iron frying pans, winter-weight parkas, packets of extra food. Too heavy. Unneeded on the journey—until crisis, when the memory of your preparations must buoy you through the tangle of knowing not just how you felt, but what happened.

You must grudge to write memoir. If things had turned out exactly right, as your due, there would be no story to tell. You must know that you grudge, and that here, unlike your diary, you are probably not a hero (If you are a hero, let someone else write you). You earn the right to write the pettiness, the silliness, the nasty selfishness of others, as you write your own.

My ex-lover calls, out of the blue. I do not want to talk to him. But as the end of the draft approaches, I know, I have to say what was good about you.

Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor.

The NYer Archive, Redux

July 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Make_a_ListMany thanks to Sonya Huber for assembling this excellent list:

Literary Picks from the New Yorker

Selections from the New Yorker’s archives are free this summer, which got me into an obsessive bout of clicking and downloading. I’d recently seen a compendium of good lists of what to read, and then as I read through, I realized the lists’ personal essay and memoir selections were a bit sparse. So here are some good ones I found… heavy on the McPhee, of course, and only back until 2007.

READ Sonya’s list here.


Listen Up!

July 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

RadioI started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.

As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.

If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:

Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.

Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)

If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:

Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.

Start with: The California Confederacy, Like a Virgin, and Seeking Asian Female

If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:

Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.

Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference

If you’re approaching a difficult topic:

Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.

One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)

Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!

Strap on Your Running Shoes

July 25, 2014 § 4 Comments

Timeless Beauty (22)By Shuly Cawood, a blog post reprinted with her kind permission:

This morning, while trying to think of titles to my essay (and coming up with nothing but corny ones), I decided to lace up my running shoes and head out the door. That’s because I do some of my best “writing” when I am not writing at all. Often, ideas come when I am running or walking (or in the middle of a drive or standing in the produce section). I need to be startled into ideas: they come when I least expect them to, or when I start focusing on something else—say, not tripping over a stick. If I stare at the door, they do not knock. I have to look away, even go away, for them to whistle their way in.

Some tips on making this work for you:

  1. Always have a notebook and pen. I have a mini-notebook that can fit in my pocket, and a mini-pen, but I never take these running. I keep them in my purse, though, at all times.
  2. For walking, running, or sports in general, if you have a cell phone, use the recorder on it. Most phones have them. There are voice-to-text apps, but that is too fancy for me. I just use the basic recorder that came with my phone. I also use a note-taking app that allows me to type my ideas into a note.
  3. Try not listening to music when running/walking. This distracts me. Instead, I think about the writing issue, then let my mind wander and notice the maple tree leaves shifting in the breeze, and the sweep of clouds on indigo sky. This way, the writing issue percolates in the background.

So, full disclosure here: While running this morning, I did not in fact think of any new titles to my essay-with-no-name. I did get three miles of (slow) jogging in, but that’s not all. I did figure out what topics to research on a different essay I have been struggling to expand. Not what I expected, but that’s the whole point.


July 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oliver TwistBraided essay, hybrid essay, mixed genre—all attempts to define a style of fluid nonfiction grounded in the writer’s experience but with…more. More what? How more?

Leslie Jamison, author of the remarkable new essay collection The Empathy Exams does more. Personal events—getting hit in the face, a failed heart surgery, watching reality television—are written as memoir but woven through with journalism and criticism.

In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of our brains light up when we feel for other people. I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better?

If you’re contemplating an essay that you want to be “more,” but unsure how to begin, or if that’s your favorite way to write and you’d like to take it further, Ms. Jamison’s How To Write A Personal Essay, at Publishers Weekly, is an excellent starting point.

Read the whole thing.

The New Yorker Archive is Open

July 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

imagesThe New Yorker has made all of its archives going back to 2007 available online at no cost until the end of this summer, and Buzzfeed has assembled a cool list of 14 “Fantastic (Fiction) Stories You Should Read from the Archive.

We are headed out of town (excuses, excuses) so can’t slap together the Fantastic Nonfiction version of the list just now, but if anyone wants to put together a list of his or her own favorite nonfiction works in the New Yorker archive, we promise to feature it here.

Send to brevitymag(at symbol) along with your bio note.

Move East, Young Nonfiction Author

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

tumblr_l2kihku4tp1qbo5v7o1_1280Josh McCall offers a fascinating and well-researched discussion of who wins (and does not win) book prizes.  Here’s a taste, followed by a link to the entire Mayborn essay

Suppose you wanted to win a nonfiction book prize, not the attractive but obscure medal awarded by your local Rotary Club but something more illustrious. A Pulitzer, let’s say. And let’s also say you’ve already written a pretty good book, even a great one. What else might you do to improve your odds?

First, you could relocate to that stretch of the East Coast between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. If possible, you’ll hang your hat in one of the regional metropolises, extra points for New York City, likewise for landing a job at a prominent newspaper or magazine, though if your leanings are more academic, similar advantages can be gained by joining the faculty of an Ivy League college. After that, things get tricky. For example, it’ll help, a lot, if you’re a white American, though I suspect you need to be born that way. Similarly, if you have a superfluous X chromosome, you’ll want to exchange it for a Y, or at least display the expected phenotypic traits. These are not uncomplicated strategies, though neither is writing a great book.

Of course, prize juries do not pluck winners and finalists from the literary wilds simply because a writer happens to be white or male or occupy a rent-controlled walk-up in the East Village. And yet there is something about these characteristics that radically affect one’s odds of being plucked, at least for the awards we examined: the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Award (NBA) for Nonfiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for General Nonfiction ..

Read the entire essay here.


PS — Josh McCall also happens to be the web wizard who put together the various moving parts of our nifty main Brevity site.  If you need web design work, call Josh.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,745 other followers

%d bloggers like this: