A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making

April 7, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

Exactly a decade ago, only two months into my MFA, I attended my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I knew little to nothing about this yearly literary gathering and what it was all about, but I’d been urged by people in my program to attend, and, since it was in Boston, only forty-five minutes from my house, I went. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to join for three days the swarm of 13,000 writers filling the Hynes Convention Center. What it would be like to sit in the audience as writers I’d long admired delivered keynote addresses. To attend a myriad of panel presentations on topics ranging from craft elements to genre-specific themes to advice on landing an agent. To walk up and down the aisles of the massive book fair and cautiously approach the exhibitors’ tables that showcased commodities from publishers, literary journals, and writing programs. I didn’t know that being in that space would drape over me a daunting (and heavy) awareness that I was only at the start of this writing life. That I had so far to go with the painful story I’d just begun to find words for. That, more than once, I’d have to resist collapsing to the floor in an incoherent heap of uncertainty, doubt, and exhaustion. That perhaps I didn’t belong there at all.

But then, on the afternoon of the second day, I slipped into a panel presentation about writing paralyzing stories of loss, and I listened to poet and author Kim Stafford read an essay called, “How a Book Can Set You Free” that told what it was like to get in the mail the galley of his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Memoir, about his brother’s death by suicide. He read about reaching that place on the long road to bringing what had felt like an “impossible story” to the finished page. “I had set down a difficult and awkward burden and could step forth along a new path. There was an opening ahead.” As I listened, my eyes burned and tears gathered at my lash line. I want to be able to write an essay, like that, I thought. I want to arrive at that opening and step on that new path. I reached for Stafford’s words, gathered them in my hands, and clutched them to my chest like a promise. A tiny spark ignited. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for my own impossible story yet.

Fast-forward ten years.

I’m nestled against the arm of a leather couch near the entrance of the Seattle Convention Center at AWP 2023. It’s late in the afternoon, and most of the day’s panels have just finished. Voices hum from conversations around me, and people stream by as they head toward the escalators or out to the street. I smile up at some familiar faces in the crowd.

It’s been a busy few days. I’ve connected with friends from my MFA days and other writers I encountered in the process of writing and publishing my first book. I’ve chatted face-to-face with acquaintances who, until now, I’ve only known on social media. An hour earlier, I had a drink with a lovely poet I’d met when we shared an Uber from the airport. This morning, I spoke on a panel called “Building an Author Platform Based on Tragedy Without Sounding Perpetually Tragic” with four other writers who are putting stunning writing out into the world. Afterwards, a young woman came up to thank me for voicing some of the fears she’s been having as she tackles her own hard story on the page. As she shared her uncertainty and doubt, I heard echoes of my own.    

Beside me on this couch sits Kim Stafford. He’s showing me some photos of his 100-year-old mother-in-law on his phone and describing the tender family gathering that took place around her deathbed two weeks earlier. He tells me about some of his recent work—notably a commissioned poem for the Pediatric Intensive Care Waiting Room, at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. I describe the narrative medicine program I began in the fall and the ways it’s informing my work, particularly as I prepare to launch my memoir in September.

“Do you know,” I say softly, touching his arm, “that it has been exactly ten years since that first time I met you in Boston?”

He considers this. Stafford has some sense of the impact his part in that panel had on me that day. I wrote about it at length in the introduction to my first book in which I interviewed him and seventeen other memoirists about their journeys to write and publish their stories. We’ve stayed in touch, and I make a point to try to see him when AWP brings us to the same place at the same time. I hadn’t made it to the conference since before the Covid pandemic, though, so it had been a while. As it was an “anniversary” of sorts, this reunion felt particularly meaningful.

There’s a tremble in Stafford’s voice and his eyes are wet when he finally says, “When you write or read something, you never can know exactly the way your words might affect someone else. But here you are. And look at everything that’s happened for you since then!”

Stafford is not assuming responsibility for the writing career that has taken shape for me in the last decade. His genuine humility would never land on that claim. But I am not shy about giving him a share of the credit and my deepest gratitude because even if he couldn’t know the effect of his words that day in 2013, I know them. The little spark of hope that I carried with me away from that panel presentation, away from that conference, and back to my writing desk was the encouragement I needed to keep going when the going got especially tough. Grabbing hold of Stafford’s insights inspired me to gather more insights from others who were doing this difficult work so I could hear similarly sustaining stories of writing past the difficult ending and finding something new on the path ahead.

The path ahead feels closer than ever, especially when I arrive home from Seattle to an email waiting in my inbox from my publisher. Attached is the electronic galley of my memoir, a book containing a story that began almost forty years ago and took me close to ten years to write. A book that has the potential to connect me to readers who could be waiting for my words to spark their own. I open the file to the title page and feel something like a weight lifting. Maybe there’s an essay here, I think.


Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and creative writing in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her interviews and essays have been published in Psychology Today, the HuffPostYankee Magazine, the Washington PostMs. MagazineCreative Nonfiction, and other notable publications. Her memoir, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All, will be published in September by Vine Leaves Press. Though her Canadian roots run deep, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college), and two Labs. 

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§ 19 Responses to A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making

  • youngv2015 says:

    This made my eyes water. Community is so important in writing.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    You never know when the spark is going to ignite! You just put yourself out there and see what happens!

  • Prentiss Tubby says:

    Melanie, I took a workshop with you about writing hard stories as I was going through a very difficult divorce initiated by my husband who had dementia. As Kim Stafford said, “When you write or read something, you never can know exactly the way your words might affect someone else”. You and your encouragement, your words, affected me greatly. I have completed my memoir, “Upended: An Odd Case of Dementia and Divorce,” and now am focused on getting it published. Thank you.

    • I remember you well, Prentiss! ❤️ I’m so happy to know that the work we did in that workshop was helpful and excited to hear about your book! Congratulations!

      • Prentiss Tubby says:

        Thank you, Melanie, for the congratulations. You started me on a most fulfilling journey. I am committed to publishing my book. However, I am finding, perhaps, ageism in the publishing world, having received only rejects and silence for this 80 year old. Though, of course, it certainly could be my story and my writing. I’m exploring self publishing on Amazon. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. I know you will inspire many others on their way in this fascinating, sometimes frustrating, craft. Again, thank you very much for your gentle kickstart.

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Melanie, you have certainly connected with me. A well-thumbed copy of “Writing Hard Stories” winks at me from my bookshelf, and I’m standing in line for “A Hard Silence.” Thank you, too, for pointing me to Kim Stafford’s essay, which gave me the paragraph I needed to calm my two aunts, who worry about me writing my own hard story, underway. All my best to you!

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  • Sandra says:

    I, too, had a full circle moment at the Boston Book Festival in 2019. It was the highlight of my professional career. Thank you for sharing your own journey so beautifully that it made me remember mine.

  • It’s such a comprehensive platform that allows me to do everything from content creation to publishing in one place.

  • Angelique Tung says:

    I love full-circle moments. Thank you for sharing yours. Curious about your narrative medicine program. I’m applying to one and would love to know if you’d share where you’re taking courses.

  • lgrizzo says:

    I bought Stafford’s book at AWP – not Boston but Portland, OR (where I now live). And I was there in Seattle just a few weeks ago. I love your take on AWP. And I was in the audience at your panel discussion. Next time I hope to meet you!

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