Writing the Pain: Memoirists on Trauma and Memory

February 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, editor of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring essays from Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas,Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others: zzzBO1,204,203,200_.jpg

MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?

BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.

MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma.  Would you agree with that?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.

zz-melanieMOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?

BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.

MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?

BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”

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Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.

 

Why My Memoir Hit a Wall

February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz Lang

Jennifer Lang

By Jennifer Lang

From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.

Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.

Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.

By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.

After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.

I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?

I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.

Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.

But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.

How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?

And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.

And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.

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Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com

Maybe You Don’t Need to Write Every Day

February 23, 2017 § 19 Comments

zAnnie_Scholl_Mug.jpgBy Annie L. Scholl

I’m not sure how I got the message that I had to write every day to be a “real” writer, but I’ll blame it on Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. I read it when it came out in 1992. Cameron suggests a daily practice of “Morning Pages:” Three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing you do first thing in the morning.

To be fair, Cameron makes it clear that your Morning Pages don’t have to be “high art.” You can rant, write your shopping list over and over, whatever you want. She does insist, though, that you fill three pages—every day.

I did Morning Pages religiously—for about a week-and-a-half. Over the years, I’ve tried again and again. Although the daily practice of Morning Pages didn’t stick, the idea that I had to write every day to be successful did. After all, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and Maya Angelou did.

To actually write daily, I knew I had to do it first thing in the morning, before the day got away from me. But to write “at first light,” as Hemingway did, actually requires getting your ass out of bed at first light.

Only one problem with that: I didn’t want to.

Now and then, though, I willed myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. With hands on the keyboard or pen in hand, words mostly landed on the page. “This is easy!” I’d think. “I’ll do this again tomorrow!”

But like the promises I made to myself about getting on the treadmill, “tomorrow” never consistently came.

Until 2011.

That year I attended a memoir-writing workshop in Colorado with author Abigail Thomas. After that workshop, I was on fire. Fueled by the workshop and a writing group that grew out of it, I wrote nearly every day—until 2016. One day of not writing turned into another and another—and then I was out of the routine.

Nine months into 2016, my writing software gave me the cold, hard facts: I had worked on my manuscript exactly seven times.

That little voice—the one that said I had to write daily—was now screaming at me. But instead of believing it, I decided to question it: Was it really true that I had to write daily to be a successful writer?

Writers like Khaled Hosseini say yes. In a 2012 interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast, the international best-selling author of The Kite Runner said: “To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.”

Cue the self-flogging.

One especially grumbly not-writing day, I reached out to author Beth Kephart, who I’d studied memoir writing with last fall.

“Annie, I go months and months without writing,” the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir told me. “And so when I do write, it all feels brand new—again.”

Kephart said she has never had the time to write daily.

“What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page.”

To hell, she said, with writing an hour a day. “Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.”

Buoyed by Kephart’s response, I contacted Abigail Thomas, whose writing workshop had fueled my five-year, near-daily writing practice.

Do you write every day, I asked?

“Not unless I’m already engaged in something, then I write all the time,” said Thomas, whose most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, was published in 2015 by Scribner.

“Mostly I’ve no self-discipline unless I’m already in gear. Then it’s all I do,” she said. “It has nothing to do with discipline then. It’s a hunger.”

Bar Scott, author of the memoir The Present Giver, said she only writes daily “when I’m writing something that I’m on fire about and that my whole body needs and wants to express.”

“When I get like that, whether I’m writing a song, a book or a blog, I write non-stop,” she said.

But most days, Scott doesn’t feel like writing. So she doesn’t.

Kephart’s good friend, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, doesn’t write daily or weekly either.

“I wish I did,” said Rizzuto, whose memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. But instead, she said, “writing comes in waves—in and out.”

Still, Rizzuto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont and conducts writing workshops, recommends her students engage in daily writing practice.

“When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again, or at least not anything as good as what you have written.”

Rizzuto nails what’s been my greatest fear: That if I don’t write every day, the words won’t come when I do sit down. But I’ve learned over the past several months of non-daily writing practice that the words actually do show up. Especially if I don’t chase them down.

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Annie Scholl is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Huffington Post, Unity Magazine, Daily Word, and unity.org. A native Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 with her wife, Michelle. Annie is finishing her first memoir. She blogs at www.anniescholl.com.

 

On Hating Writing from Prompts

February 22, 2017 § 10 Comments

zz Alice Lowe.jpgBy Alice Lowe

You hate writing from prompts, because you’re no good at it, because despite the human brain’s instantaneous capacity to absorb new input and coordinate an appropriate response, you cannot put pencil to paper with any degree of intelligence or coherence. Within seconds of hearing a prompt—prompts like “write about saying goodbye” or “riding the all-night train” or “a pool of blue water”—all potentially interesting and challenging topics—you’re at a loss, stammering internally, increasingly anxious as a fleeting memory or opening line evades you, as any possible direction remains out of reach.

You look around the table—prompt-writing usually takes place in a small group around a table—you look around as the prompt is being read, and at the dropped voice, the sound of the concluding period (or ellipsis) ending the prompt, it’s as if a starting shot has been fired, heads down, pens and pencils moving in notebooks with seeming constancy, confidence and speed. “Keep your pen on the paper,” you’re told, keep writing, don’t stop to deliberate or, god forbid, to edit, to scratch out a word and replace it with another; be spontaneous, let your hand be the channel for the words flowing unobstructed from your mind like water over the falls.

It doesn’t work that way for you, how well you know this, but you came here to write, to get past this impasse or phobia or whatever you want to call it, and so you grasp the prompt with both hands and hold it vise-like to keep it steady as you wrestle it to the table and firmly secure it with your left elbow, while with your right hand you grasp at the effluvia that looses itself from your mind until you have something in your fist, something soft and flabby but something nevertheless, and then, after more hesitation, after staring at the dark water stains like Rorschach blots on the ceiling, you start to write, and then lo and behold, you get on a roll of sorts, you write in fits and starts, but you write until “Time” says the timekeeper, and you stop abruptly, mid-sentence, mid-word, it’s like taking the GRE, pencils down or you’ll be disqualified.

Participants are encouraged though not required to read what they’ve fashioned, and the rules are reiterated—no comments or critique, as these spontaneous efforts rightfully fall into the category of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” accepted and forgiven no matter how abysmal, received with half smiles of concealed scorn or pity or envy—and you listen and think, jeez how’d she do that off the cuff, or what crap and here I thought I was bad, and then it’s your turn and you know you could pass but you think come on now, this is part of the discipline, what you came for, and you read, knowing as you do that it’s a heap of excrement, you’ve written business letters with crisper verbs and better development, but you read, your handwriting getting increasingly indecipherable as you go, so you skip a word here, a phrase there, until you finish and look up and smile wanly without making eye contact with anyone as the next person takes up the baton, and then it’s all over, and you pack up your stuff and say your goodbyes, and you go down the stairs and out the door and head for home, an hour-long walk, and wouldn’t you know it, about a third of the way there you’re struck with the big “aha”—this is what I could have, should have written to that prompt, and you beat yourself up a bit for not thinking of it earlier, but you’re excited, and you start composing in your mind, and you walk faster and faster to get home and get to your computer to spew out these finely crafted sentences, the spot-on metaphors, the brilliant stream of prose.

And when, after several drafts, after considerable editing and revision and all of the pains that go into a completed essay, you read through it a few times, and you  smile and nod and say to yourself, “yes, this is it,” you submit it to several journals, and it’s accepted by one of them and published, and you look at it in print and recall that if it hadn’t been for that prompt, this sterling piece of work might never have seen the light of day—and yet you still hate writing from prompts.

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Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and has been nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times

February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments

By William Dameronzz dam.jpg

I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.

I stopped breathing.

For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!

I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?

“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.

What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.

And then I considered my ex-wife.

Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go.  And this was an essay about letting go.

For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote:  “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”  And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”

This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.

I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.

With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.

I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.

Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own?  While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.

I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.

I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.

Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”

We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.

When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.

Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.

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William Dameron‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Boston Globe, Saranac Review and The Huffington Post. He has been named a Blogher “Voice of The Year” for 2014-2016. He blogs somewhat infrequently at www.living-authentically.com. William is currently working on a memoir.

 

The Language of Appalachian Storytelling: Cat Pleska’s Memoir Riding on Comets

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:

I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.”  And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature.  I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.

Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.

Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?

z cat.jpgCat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.

Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?

Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.

Jeanette: What is memoir to you?

Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.

Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?

Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.

Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?

Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.

Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?

Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.

Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”

Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.  

Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

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Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S.  Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.

In Search of Lost Swag: My Decade of AWP Conferences

February 14, 2017 § 2 Comments

liaoBy Kim Liao

As I packed for AWP this year, it occurred to me that my first conference in Atlanta was now ten years ago. I stopped sorting toiletries and thought, Who was I ten years ago? I was a writer in zygote form, somebody who was impressed by cocktails with paper umbrellas and awestruck by Tin House. I’ve experimented with several different AWP personas in the last decade: student, first-year writing instructor, journal section editor, book reviewer, slush reader, and panelist. This year was the first time I attended simply as a writer.

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At AWP in Atlanta in 2007, I was 22, and just before I left for the conference, I kissed a poet in my graduate school program. I was aflame with possibility. I took copious notes at panels, seeing the study of writing craft and literary theory as an alive, pulsing thing. I discovered my love of dirty vodka martinis and the Book Fair. Working the Redivider table as a fiction reader, I got hooked on chatting with writers who stopped by, our would-be subscribers and submitters. It conjured up my love of selling books over years of working in my town’s independent bookstore in high school and summers during college. That summer I started submitting my first essay to journals in manila envelopes with enclosed SASEs. My relationship with the poet didn’t even last a week.

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At AWP in New York City in 2008, I was full of sophomore swagger, the rising Nonfiction Editor of Redivider with my first publication forthcoming in Fringe Magazine. I shared a hotel room five ways with my closest Emerson friends, who were also my trivia team. I played with them every Tuesday night after the Nonfiction Book workshop class I was taking with my mentor. This was the book project that would turn me into a writer, with its magnetic pull encouraging me to dig deeper into the suppressed stories of my father’s family and with its endless frustrations along the path to crafting compelling storytelling. The manuscript would take much longer to finish than I could ever imagine. On late Saturday afternoon of the Book Fair, we auctioned off Redivider issues for rock bottom prices, and I ran around to other journals’ tables in a frenzied haze, swapping Redividers for journals that would become the basis of my authoritative lit mag collection.

*

At AWP in Chicago in 2009, I shared a hotel room with my writing group. We danced on our beds and drank beer and took photos before they were called selfies and laughed endlessly. I was about to graduate, almost finished with my thesis, an excerpt of my family memoir about retracing my grandparents’ footsteps through the Taiwanese martial law period. Through the writing process, I realized that I would need to go to Taiwan in order to get the whole story of what happened to my grandparents after World War II. I gushed about the free issues of Poets and Writers at the Book Fair to my friend in the conference hotel elevator, only to have Kevin Larimer say next to me, “I’m the Editor of Poets and Writers,” as he departed to his floor, leaving me a deep shade of magenta. I went to the Dance Party on Saturday night with two girlfriends, feeling drunk on the intoxicating force of women in control of their destiny. After accidentally falling asleep in my friend’s room, I took the elevator back upstairs at 7am in party clothes and bare feet. When travelers looked at me with judgment in their eyes, I just gazed back at them and smiled.

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In 2012, at AWP in Chicago, I spoke on a panel about finding funding opportunities such as fellowships and residencies, having just returned from a Fulbright year of book research in Taiwan. Someone mistakenly put us in a lesser ballroom. The other panelists did fine, but I crashed and burned, and did so slowly, because an hour an fifteen minutes is not a short amount of time. Before the panel, I poured bourbon into my paper coffee cup, in case I got anxious and needed to relax. That probably didn’t help. I wasn’t working on a journal anymore, and felt lost and untethered as I walked through the Book Fair. I stopped by the Fourth River table, who had finally published an essay I wrote five years earlier. They were polite. Right before leaving Boston for AWP, I kissed the same poet again. Have you learned nothing??

*

A year later, at AWP in Boston, every Emerson alum, student, and faculty member who I’d ever met attended AWP. We all recognized each other with more warmth and charitable familiarity than we showed one another as classmates. I was almost done with the first draft of my family memoir of the Taiwanese Independence Movement, but this draft had exacted a toll on my body and soul. Writing this draft felt more like vomiting than like composing, and being almost done was like being almost finished with an exorcism. Someday the demons would finally exist outside of my body. I shared a hotel room with one friend, and we marveled at finally having our own beds. We felt so grown up.

*

Last year, at AWP in Los Angeles, I came to get a break from the full-time grind of my nine-to-five day job working for an attorney. I packed almost nothing, flying in on Thursday morning and out on a red-eye Saturday night – a parenthetical vacation. I desperately needed a reminder that I could still write stuff and sometimes even publish it. It’s been a long time. I don’t teach anymore. I walked around the Book Fair like a ghost. What do I want? What am I looking for? I met my mentor who was teaching in LA that semester; we had a cup of tea and it grounded me. I told him that after getting blocked on revising the family memoir, I started writing a novel to teach myself how to tell stories again. He thought this was a great idea, and that these things unfold organically. I pitched my novel to an Amazon fiction editor at a party and she gave me kind and helpful notes.

On my way out of the Book Fair late afternoon on Saturday, I spotted Kevin Larimer, the Editor of Poets and Writers (his face etched in my long-term memory for life), and pitched him a Literary Life essay I had been thinking about for awhile. He encouraged me to write and submit it. The essay would not get picked up by P&W, but instead would be published in Lit Hub and directly precipitate my signing with a pair of literary agents. On that particular Saturday, however, I knew none of this, so I celebrated the end of another AWP in the hotel bar with friends and strangers and my world swam back into focus.

*

On this past Thursday, I flee a blizzard in New York on an Amtrak train. It’s a reunion of three Boston friends in my hotel room suite, and our hotel serves free breakfast. A 9am AWP panel after eggs is literally a revelation. There are 12,000 of us this year and endless possibilities at every time slot. My friends and I mostly want to do different things during the day but agree to meet up at night. Everyone here looks so young. When did we get old?

I go to more panels than I ever have before, since I just want to hear talks by writers who I love. I listen to and fall madly in love with Jennifer Egan, Karen Joy Fowler, Hannah Tinti, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Celeste Ng, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Julia Fierro, Emma Straub, Ann Patchett, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Is AWP getting better, people, or am I just getting better at picking stuff to see?

On Friday, I leave the hotel room at 9am and don’t return until almost midnight. I say hello to the Redivider table, impressed that they have a whole new section for “graphic narrative.” I meet a poet friend for coffee, who admits that the Book Fair exhausts her and that attending panels helps her recharge. I laugh and tell her I feel the exact opposite. My great anxiety is the agency party tonight, because my agents have had my novel manuscript for almost a month and I don’t know if they hate it or not. Do they hate me? My telepathic powers are stubbornly on strike.

At the party, my agent smiles when she sees me, and introduces me to her other authors. I ask their advice, a carefully phrased plea for comfort. “You just gotta be real chill,” says the first author she signed, who has been working with her for a decade. “When they are reading, you just can’t do anything. Try to distract yourself.” Another agent who works on nonfiction asks me for my elevator pitch. “I’m pitching it differently each time,” I say, and give it a new spin. “Would you crack that book open?” Collected together, we are like a little family. The competitive sneer you sometimes hear at AWP is gone, because here, everyone is rooting for everyone else’s success.

On Saturday afternoon, right before that weariness overcomes the Book Fair like a great wind toppling a house of cards, I take a seat at a giant banquet table near the windows. I watch young wide-eyed students, grey-haired older women holding political signs for that night’s White House candlelight vigil, and two new parents with a young infant. I am none of them. Looking back over a decade of growing up, I see that in many ways, AWP is where I found my writer self, my particular mixture of scholar and artist, of salesman and kindred spirit. This year, AWP has grounded me, stabilizing my soul, heart, and mind, even while wreaking havoc on my liver, digestive system, and adrenal glands. When we are here, we are all home. Yet none of us would survive it for more than four days.

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Kim Liao’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Lit Hub, SalonRiver Teeth, The RumpusVol. 1 BrooklynAnother Chicago MagazineFourth RiverFringeCha: A Journal of Asian LiteratureHippocampus Magazine, and others. She received her MFA at Emerson College, was a Fulbright Taiwan Creative Research Fellow in 2010-2011, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing her first novel.

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