How I Turned Essays Into Memoir

April 21, 2020 § 20 Comments

By Sandell Morse

I started with a name given to me by poet Marilyn Kallet. Jean Hirsch was a nine-year-old resistance courier during the Second World War, a time that interested me. The boy lived in Auvillar, France, a village where I’d been awarded a writing residency. My maiden name is Hirsch, and with those matching names, I felt an instantaneous connection to this child’s history. During my residency, I would research and write essays about him and his family. As I dug deeper, I began to uncover Auvillar’s secret history of both resistance and collaboration.

The web of the boy’s story spread to Paris, Toulouse, Montauban, and Beaulieu sur Dordogne. For six years, I returned to France every fall. I followed leads. I interviewed a ninety-two-year-old woman who had been a caretaker in a secret house that protected Jewish refugee children. I read widely. I wrote about myself, a woman in my seventies, traveling solo, searching, and researching. I wove my story into these French stories, and I published my essays in ASCENT, Ploughshares, Solstice, Fourth Genre, and others.

Why not gather them into a collection?

But how? I signed up for a seminar, “Finding Your Book.” The instructor was a literary agent. What could be better? She suggested I begin each essay or chapter with an italicized paragraph that would stitch the collection together. “Of course, you’ll need to transform some of these essays,” she said.

A good student, I followed her advice. If my collection had been a dress, it would have been sewn by a five-year-old, large stitches, small stitches, sleeves long and short, hem uneven. But in the process, I had unspooled more of my own story—narrative glue.

Virginia Woolf wrote about rods. She described those rods as an underlying pattern. I thought of a shadow story under each of my French stories. Where was Woolf’s text, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary? I lifted each down from my book shelf and scanned for markings. Now, Moments of Being. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf writes: “… one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool.”

Woolf’s “cotton wool” is daily life, the living we don’t remember, taking out the trash, cooking dinner, washing clothes. A pattern is drawn under that cotton wool. I felt that pattern in my manuscript and in myself. I was a persona, writing from a certain time and place. I was also a person who had been shaped by memory and thought, salient images and knowledge. All of my writing, each word in that manuscript, had formed in relation to an invisible pattern. A trip to an open market brought back images of my childhood, when I shopped with Mama, my grandmother, an immigrant from a place she called Russ-Poland. We all lived together, my mother, my father and me, in Mama’s and Papa’s yellow stucco house in Morristown, New Jersey. Mama and I would pull my red wagon up Early Street and into town where we’d shop at the vegetable store, the chicken store, and the bakery. Every step, every breath in France became research. At home in Maine, I wrote and I rewrote. I pulled my own story from background to foreground. I filled in gaps. I tore the manuscript apart and rearranged chapters and scenes. I followed my intuition: This feels right. Not this, at least, not here.

I dove deeper. I turned to Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story. I wrote a quote on a sticky note and attached it to the edge of my desk: “It’s the depth of inquiry that guides the personal narrative from essay into memoir.” I thought of Adrienne Rich, and I reread “Diving into the Wreck.” A different subject but a similar emotional truth. I was going down, “Rung after rung and still/ the oxygen immerses me/ the blue light/ the clear atoms/ of human air.” Like the protagonist in the poem, I was searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.”

At my computer, I remembered an evening in Paris. I had made my way to a tiny bistro in the Marais. Inside, wooden tables sat on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine. As I struggled to find space for my knees under the table, an image rose, my grandmother’s black lace up shoe, her foot pressing down on the treadle. Again, the past swam under the clear surface of the present. My grandmother spoke with a Yiddish accent. My father taught me to be ashamed of that accent. He denied my Eastern-European roots. “We’re German-Jewish,” he said.

Remembering that evening I swam deeper into questions and doubts about my own story of growing up Jewish in America and deeper into the stories of Jews in Vichy France who believed they were French, only to find themselves herded into boxcars heading east to the camps. Often, I’d chosen to hide my Jewish identity and pass. Yet, had I been a toddler living in Paris during Nazi Occupation, most likely, I would not have survived.

My book of essays became a double journey: an exploration of my Jewish identity and an historical and imaginative rendering of the stories of my travels and research. I needed an ending. I found it in the middle of my manuscript, a transformative moment. I moved it to the end. Voilá, a finished memoir. Nearly nine years will have passed from first essay to publication.

Transformation takes time.


Sandell Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in ASCENT, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Solstice, among others. Her memoir, The Spiral Shell, A French Village Reveals it Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II is now out from Schaffner Press. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @sandellmorse.

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