February 27, 2015 § 2 Comments
By Erin Morgan Gilbert
Where I grew up, green obscured all evidence of human endeavor, softening corners and blotting out other colors. Moss devoured cars and mattresses abandoned in the woods, blanketed roofs, and carpeted the roads. Bodies of water reflected a profound verdancy in their very names: Lake Wilderness, Cedar River, Green River. Even my mother’s eyes were green. Once, she said her favorite color was green too, and I felt disappointed, as if she had admitted to me a secret fatalism, a willingness to disappear into the background. I thought that by allowing the color surrounding us to colonize her personal preferences she was signaling her acceptance of the strict parameters—the poverty and ignorance—that constrained our lives.
Years later, after she died, I found a tiny emerald ring she used to wear, but the gem had cracked. For me, green became associated with loss, but it wasn’t until I read Marie NDiaye’s surreal memoir, Self Portrait in Green, that I understood what the recurrence of the color in my memories meant: my mother was a woman in green.
The first woman in green appears beneath a banana tree in the overgrown garden of a house NDiaye passes on the way to her children’s school. NDiaye watches the woman, and the woman watches her, but when she asks her children about the mysterious figure under the tree, she discovers they can’t see her. Who is this woman, visible only to the author?
Just as electrical currents can affect a magnetic field, the women in green are preceded by disturbances in NDiaye’s version of reality. The subject of most memoirs is the author’s relationship with people and events located in objective reality. NDiaye’s catalogue of women in green is different: she submerges objective details in her own subjective reality, where reality is shaped by authorial force. By acknowledging this process, and inviting the reader into complicity, she writes at the frontier of creative nonfiction.
Several iterations of these women in green crowd around NDiaye, outlining the negative space she writes from, so that she is not defined so much by what she does or doesn’t do, but instead by how she recognizes, imagines, and loses her green women. They are “untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.”
When she decides to park in front of the first green woman’s house, the woman is poised on a second floor balcony, ready to leap. The second is so mutable that she transforms herself from a childhood friend into an unhappy stepmother. She recognizes the third woman in green from another friend’s descriptions of someone’s wife, and stops herself from asking what color the wife wears, wondering if her friend had mentioned green, but realizing that by that point she can identify a woman in green regardless of what color the woman wears.
NDiaye’s reality is infectious, as hungry as the green I knew as a child. In a passage that reverberated through my own subjective reality, she introduces the fourth woman in green. “How strange it is,” she writes, “[that] your own mother, after you’ve butted heads with her on all manner of questions but most often and most violently on the inertia, the grayness, the deadly smallness of her existence, which, no doubt wrongly, you thought darkened and depersonalized your own, how strange it is that this woman you can no longer bear to know so well should suddenly metamorphose on her own into a green woman….”
The surreal atmosphere of Self-Portrait in Green began to create disturbances in my own reality, like the flooding Garonne running through the pages of the memoir or the Cedar River that once flooded my mother’s house. NDiaye’s imagination seeps into the corners of my mind, until my own memories are submerged and saturated with meaning. Green blotted out all other colors.
For some, this kind of associative logic will seem like no logic at all, and the book will not merit the words “memoir” and “self-portrait.” Yet the result is autobiographical—unsettling in its intimacy and mesmerizing in its emotional honesty. As NDiaye confesses near the end, I too needed these green women, “to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”
Erin Morgan Gilbert’s essays, poems, and stories appear in publications such as AGNI, Bitch Magazine, and the Ilanot Review. She is an assistant editor at Asymptote, a composition instructor at Green River Community College, and a creative writing teacher at Hugo House in Seattle. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she grew up memorizing birdsongs, eating berries, and learning the scientific names of evergreen trees in the forest.
February 26, 2015 § 4 Comments
Paul Zakrzewski interviews Kerry Cohen:
For memoirists, no challenge feels quite as fraught as publishing work that touches on the lives of others. Successful memoirists appear to write honestly about friends, family members, spouses, lovers, others—but how do they do it, exactly?
Where’s the line between my story and that of family members I may choose to write about? Do I have a right to ‘other people’s secrets’—to use Patricia Hampl’s famous formulation? When should that stop me from publishing?
These are just of the questions explored in Kerry Cohen’s terrific and thought-provoking book, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity (Writer’s Digest Books). A longtime fan of her memoir Loose Girl, I used the excuse of Kerry’s new book to ask lots of questions about how and why our writing has the potential to set other people off—and when we have the right to ignore that.
Kerry is also psychotherapist and the author of two other books Dirty Little Secrets and Seeing Ezra.
The topic of how to navigate the pitfalls of disclosure in publishing memoirs has been covered before. There’s not only Patricia Hampl’s excellent essay, but also resources like Sari Botton’s “Writers Braver Than Me” interview series at The Rumpus, or Slate’s Memoir Week roundup. Why a book-length treatment?
Because it continued to be the number one question for most of the people who came to see me read or for the people I taught. It was the thing they were most curious about, surely because they were most curious about it for themselves.
You named a couple of works, but they aren’t as accessible as needed. What I wanted to do is what so many people would love to have the opportunity to do, which is to sit in a room and listen to a whole bunch of memoirists answer that question as they did.
There’s such a range of responses in your book—everything from those by authors like Alison Bechdel, who acknowledges that “there’s something inherently hostile” in writing about others, to Sue William Silverman, who says it isn’t the task of the memoirist to worry about protecting others. “I firmly believe in my right to tell my own narrative, which is exactly what I did,” writes Silverman.
Yeah, it’s quite a range.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started. Part of why I wrote this is because I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed in my introduction: is the art more important than the feelings of people I care about?
I’ve always felt like, well, yes it is, because the art is not for me. It’s not some narcissistic act. It’s about being human, about all of us connecting as humans and feeling seen. Memoir does such a positive thing for its reader, so it did feel more important. Also, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I think that’s the main thing I got out of doing this book. If you’re not trying to hurt anyone – and you work your best to not hurt anyone, but to also tell your truth – then that’s really the answer.
What rules do you think memoirists should follow in terms of showing their work? Should you show your memoir to people involved in manuscript form? Wait for galleys or an advanced reader’s copy?
One of the things I learned in writing the book is that there are no hard and fast rules. I do think there’s a basic rule in this case, which is that it’s really not a good idea to show anybody that you’re writing about in the book until it’s done. At least done in draft form.
I mean, memoir is a story of your memories, not the other person’s. So it’s important to get it down the way you remember it. Then, if you decide to share it with people who had a different experience, then they can argue or grapple with how they’re portrayed. Or maybe make a few changes.
In my case, it’s a little different. Not to sound conceited, but I’m an experienced memoirist, so I really feel solid when I’m writing. (That said, every memoir is a completely new challenge, especially around form. But that’s a whole separate issue).
Here’s a case where I broke my own rule. My husband is a writer, so I share a lot of my work with him the way I would in a writer’s group. We share writing a lot as we’re working. In my current memoir I did share a chapter about him that’s potentially incriminating, and he told me that he didn’t like it. It made him feel really awkward that other people would be reading about this thing. Also, my agent told me the section had too much about our relationship and not enough about what the memoir’s about.
In the end, I took out almost all of that material, and it’s better because of that. Now it’s much more about me in relationship to the thing I’m writing about.
I want to ask you a bit about the format of your book. You’ve interspersed your own reflections with many, many quotes and over 20 stand-alone short essays by other writers on their experiences. There are even assignments/questions you give out. How did you arrive at this format?
Well, like any book one writes, or any creative process, I learned along the way. I sold it on proposal. All I had at that point were chapters based on the different types of people one might write about (i.e. “Writing about Family” or “Writing about Children”) and that I was going to interview as many memoirists as I could.
I didn’t know that I was going to have a chapter on ‘what memoir is’ (“Are You Ready to Write a Memoir?”). That didn’t really work in the original chapter, and then I realized it should be expanded upon because it’s a really important question when writing about other people.
Some of it was that I had some back and forth with my editor at Writer’s Digest. Some of it we just brainstormed together. I came up with this idea of having other memoirists write actual essays. My hope had been that the book wouldn’t all be in my voice by having various interviews. Then I thought, what if we have a whole bunch of specific stories? That’s how I came up with the idea for the essays. Same thing with the exercises.
I liked those writing exercises! Have you heard back from anyone else who’s tried them?
I used the book in one of my MFA classes at The Red Earth Low Residency program in Oklahoma City. It was amazing what came of it. I had everyone do the first exercise in the entire book. (See Below). Then I gave them a second exercise, which was to find the chapter in the book that spoke to the kind of memoir they’re writing and pick an exercise from that chapter.
The most meaningful example—I don’t want to say too much because it was private and [this student] may write a book about it. But this one student picked an exercise from the “Writing About Spouses, Friends, and Exes” chapter.
He wrote a scene about a woman who he had been in love with 17 years earlier and who had died of leukemia. He was in love with her while she was dying. After she died he met his wife and got married. He wrote about the first time they had sex—actually just the part where they got back to his apartment and they both knew what was going to happen. She tells him, “We don’t need birth control because the chemo kills everything.” It was incredible—so good. I mean, everyone was crying. He wound up with this amazing scene.
# # #
Kerry Cohen Exercises
- Why do you want to write a memoir? Include your personal, interpersonal, and any larger societal motivations for your writing.
- Write down your top concerns about your memoir. What are you fears? How might you and others benefit from your memoir?
- Make a list of memories and events that you think are vital to your story. What makes each of these memories and events important to you and your narrative?
- What aspects of your story do you think would resonate with others? Is there a larger social dialogue or universal experience that your memoir would be a part of?
—from Chapter 1, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Cohen.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.pzak.info.
February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore had the great good fortune to be guest faculty at the 10th Annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival down in Mexico earlier this month, and to host a spoken word evening that included winners of The San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. The nonfiction winner was Diana Spechler, which reminded our editor of what a wonderful essay Diana wrote for our May 2014 issue, “Things She Says.”
Here’s the start, followed by a link to the full essay:
Things She Says
by May 6, 2014
about things she said
I never said that. You’re making that up. Stop making things up. Stop making things up about me.
Stop making that up: No one hates you. Everyone is jealous. Everyone falls in love with you. My gorgeous girl. Lots of men will fall in love with you. You’re my sweet girl. The men who don’t love you are gay.
about sustaining the body
Suck in your stomach. Let me see you do it. Pretty good. Me, I can’t eat food from a box. No airplane food. I’ll throw up. No red meat. They served a ham and I thought I would die. I’m addicted to that Biggest Loser low-sodium popcorn. I’m still full from last night. I always get on the scale. Every morning. No matter what, I face it.
February 24, 2015 § 28 Comments
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the beat of MC Lars’ “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock.”)
Don’t let a writing workshop turn into something it’s not meant to be. Here are some tips on how to stay grounded.
1) No problem solving—unless it relates to writing. Remember that you are in workshop to discuss the craft of writing and the world on the page. You aren’t there to coach a writer on how to heal from a traumatic childhood, a dance with addiction, or a spiritual crisis. You are not in workshop to help anyone slay their personal demons, unless those demons deal with writing better scenes, understanding narrative arc, or improving sentence rhythm.
2) Kindness is good. Empathy is dangerous. Pity is bad. I get it: You are a decent human being. You care about other people. By all means, be kind. After all, you are talking about someone’s real life, so don’t be crass or insensitive about his or her experiences. But don’t go overboard. Empathy might sound like a good trait, but it’s dangerous in a workshop. It can tempt you to identify too much with the narrator and her experiences, which can derail a workshop discussion and send it skidding out of control, devolving into a well-intentioned (but ultimately unhelpful) chorus of “me too.” A few steps beyond empathy is sympathy, and beyond that is the minefield of pity. Don’t go there. The events on the page may be uncomfortable or even horrific, but workshop is not the place for sentiments such as “You poor thing” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
3) Question the right things. When dealing with creative nonfiction, you can question the author’s craft choices, but not her life choices. Feel free to point out muddy writing, confusing inconsistencies, clichés, awkward passages, and boring descriptions. Go ahead and question anything that doesn’t feel believable on the page, but limit your comments about believability to the work itself. People do weird and unbelievable things in real life all the time. Your only concern is how those actions are presented in the story at hand.
4) Depersonalize the discussion. Although the narrator is a facet of the writer herself, the two are not wholly one and the same in creative nonfiction. Treat the narrator like a character. When you’re talking about the “I” of the essay, use terms such as “the narrator” or “the persona,” and use third-person pronouns. Try not to say things like, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where your mother leaves you.” Instead, say, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where the mother leaves the narrator.” This might feel strange and contrived at first, but you’d never conflate a fictional protagonist with the writer of a short story or novel, even if you suspect (or know) that the story is drawn from the writer’s own life. Depersonalizing the language helps to keep the discussion focused on the craft.
5) No comments about bravery, please. If someone chooses to write about a personal event and share it in a workshop, she doesn’t need you to tell her how brave she is—either for surviving the event or for sharing the story. You’re not in workshop to comment on the writer’s courage; you’re there to give feedback on her work. As a creative nonfiction writer, I never feel more squeamish or vulnerable as when someone encounters my work and tells me how “brave” I am. I don’t write to be brave. I write to create art. I’d much rather hear: “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!”
6) What happens in workshop…(say it with me)…stays in workshop. Don’t overstep personal boundaries outside of workshop. Unless you are already friends with someone or she initiates the conversation, don’t assume that you and the writer you just workshopped are now BFFs who can talk about her dark and twisty past. It’s creepy to assume this kind of familiarity.
7) If you’re the workshop facilitator, set the ground rules and stay focused. As the workshop leader, it’s your job to set the tone and direction of the workshop. People will be people, of course, and even the most conscientious participant may veer off into therapy territory. If this happens, gently but firmly course-correct your ship. Be a captain, not a therapist.
The act of writing may be a form of therapy. And a bad workshop might make you feel like you need therapy. But remember: You gotta keep ‘em separated.
Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan writes, edits, and teaches from southwestern Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about losing her religion. She is not currently in therapy. Visit her online in The Word Cellar. She tweets @thewordcellar.
February 23, 2015 § 17 Comments
For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.
A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:
“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”
I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t too busy and she hadn’t forgotten. In the column I examined how my writing evolved after a particular retreat combining lots of physical activity with writing prompts.
There was yoga on horseback and running with horses through Vermont forests; I couldn’t engage these particular things because of my M.S. and balance problems, but I walked out to the horses and stood with my friends who climbed up on their backs. I went to the edge of the forest. I put my hand on a horse and felt his heartbeat as my friend climbed onto his back. I felt my own fear. I could do other things, like follow a series of yoga poses to Eminem and drop to write to serious prompts about someone who loves me. This was more frightening in many ways than climbing on a horse. Fall off the horse? Blame disease. Blame the handler. Blame the weather or whatever external thing I could claim. Fail to really tell my story? There can be only one soul responsible at the end of the day.
I discovered how not letting my body’s knowledge speak up on the page was limiting my work. My body’s weakness was always an excuse. This breakthrough was accompanied by some crying jags and complete withdrawal for a few hours, but it was all worth it. It was a purge of my bad writing habits, like over-intellectualizing and avoiding emotional honesty by writing only with the rational mind.
My friend’s message continued, “I am somewhat terrified that you weren’t quite there yet. I entirely get that none of us are ever quite there yet and might not ever be, but you, to me, are a very scary role model of the unflinching look at the necessary, the real, the uncomfortable. And you weren’t there yet. It doesn’t mean I’m not happy for you, but it does mean that sometimes I don’t leap into reading something you wrote. I’ll keep working on it. And I hope you will keep sharing your writing with me. It always always always makes me think. Even when I wish it wouldn’t.”
I wonder if we all have writers we want to read but sometimes can’t or won’t, because what they reveal in us is uncomfortable or confusing or even downright unpleasant. I think about how I’ve picked up Toni Morrison’s work exactly once, and not because I don’t admire her writing or don’t want to know what she has to say. Or maybe that is exactly it, I don’t want to know what she has to say. I don’t want to know it. I felt like Beloved would kill me if I kept reading, and I’ve never gone back. Like my confessing friend, I have very complicated feelings about this reality. I feel like a coward, but I also know how hard and powerful narratives can be, how they become part of who we are, how we can’t go back to who we were before we read them. Once I’ve established a grip on writers who can do this to me, who will unavoidably alter my life with their work, I tend to exercise tremendous discretion around the right time to read them. I have in rare instances decided not to read them at all.
It is not an easy thing to admit this deeper thing, this truth that I choose at times to put distance between myself and the raw reality of other people. Writers are human beings who want and need readers to connect, to understand their experience and, yes, their pain. Readers are human, too. I’m grateful my friend felt she could tell me how she feels, and I’m honored that what I’m doing is significant enough to someone that she might not want to read it; but of course, I hope she will.
Elizabeth Gaucher is a writer, an editor, and a degree candidate for the MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElizGaucher.
February 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
Brevity upcoming special issue focused on on experiences of gender is now accepting submissions.
We are looking for work that considers gender: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how gender is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of gender shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
This special issue will feature new work by Kate Bornstein, the original gender outlaw. Ms. Bornstein’s books include Gender Outlaw, My (New) Gender Workbook, and Queer and Present Danger. The issue will be guest edited by Silas Hansen and Sarah Einstein. Silas is an assistant professor at Ball State University and has published personal essays that explore his experiences as a transgender man in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Sarah is the past Managing Editor of Brevity, author of the upcoming book Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and a queer writer whose work explores the murky spaces between formal identity and lived experience.
We are looking for flash essays (which we define as 750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of gender, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open until April 20th and the issue will be published in mid-May
February 20, 2015 § 7 Comments
I’m at an artist residency, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, which I highly recommend. A small group of “associate artists” are chosen to work with a “master artist,” someone notable in our field. There’s a daily class meeting, provided meals, and a lot of free time in a beautiful location to work work work…or relax and let the ideas flow.
I’m a work-work-work-er. And when I was here last year, I finished a book, so I came this year ready to rock-and-roll. Except…for the two editing projects that were overdue. And the last traces of bronchitis dogging my mornings, making it hard to get up and go. And of course the initial awkwardness of always feeling like the uncoolest kid at the party, any party. It’s been three days, and I haven’t actually written anything yet. But I’ve sure aced that quiz on the periodic table, my current time-suck when I know I should be doing something else. (Yttrium, ytterbium, rubidium, zinc…)
I feel like a failure. Like I’m wasting this incredible gift of time and space.
At Essay Daily, Peter Grandbois writes, in Ode to Failure:
We are the kings of catastrophe, the queens of ineptitude. Princes and princesses of disappointment. We pile the shattered bones of our missteps on the pyre of our imperfections. Our national anthem sings of soot-black air and beaten dogs. We pledge allegiance to distant shores we will never reach and storms that drag us away from any sight of land.
He writes about the difference between fencing as a young man and fencing now, his old style of “rhino” attacks giving way to running out the clock, to the wily practice of feints and false openings. He writes about how a novel that sold four hundred copies felt like more of a success than the one that sold thousands. About how the openings created by failure can be more valuable than the immediacy of success. He quotes the Japanese proverb, Fall down seven times stand up eight, which brings me back to the time I created a show based on that proverb, a show that burned through $200,000 without making anything back, and what my money bought was learning how to fire people. Tuition, so to speak.
Grandbois rhapsodizes on failure:
Lord deliver us from the ugly hands of “success.” Take us, instead, down the road of failure in the trunk of a dead car. We beseech you to protect us from paths with a pot of gold at the end, roads that appear too easy. Let us wake to the blank page each and every day and not be sure how to fill it. Let us enter our daily tournament knowing each and every person there can beat us. We ask that you pluck out our eyes so that our black sockets can roll back into heaven. Grant us scorched earth that our dying weeds might grow. Only then can we know strength. Only then can we understand character.
OK, then. Failure it is. Failure today doesn’t mean failure tomorrow, or maybe it does and I’ll learn something from that, too. Maybe I’ll write faster, or write something else, or walk the paths here in quiet despair and write something from that.
Bring it on. Let’s fail. Let’s stand up eight times, nine times, ten times, until falling itself becomes an art, until the ground speaks when we land.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.