February 16, 2016 § 43 Comments
A guest post by Dorothy Rice:
I have wanted to write books, novels to be precise, since I was a girl. Impressed by the likes of Alcott, Dickens and Austen, I pictured a respectable row of leather-bound volumes on the library shelf, each bearing my name in gold leaf.
The fantasy evolved over time. I admitted the possibility of paperbacks and stories that might earn a few bucks yet not ascend to the pantheon of timeless classics and fancy bindings. My books had titles, plots and characters. I designed cover art and crafted elevator pitches. But I didn’t write them.
I waited for life to simplify, for jobs to become less consuming and for children to grow, sustained by the notion that when I was ready, the stories I’d been saving up would write themselves. After all, the idea was the hard part.
Over five years ago, my father, nearing ninety, fell. He cracked his head on the kitchen linoleum and survived emergency surgery, barely. When I visited, he seemed to have shrunk several sizes. His voice came from a distance. His gnarled fingers gripped the thin blanket.
“One foot in the grave I’m afraid,” he said, attempting a wry smile. “Old age, I don’t recommend it.” He said that too, with a sage nod, as if the sentiment was something new. Platitudes, “old chestnuts,” were his conversational stock-in-trade.
He had always been a private man. He frowned at emotional excess, said it was unseemly, unnecessary. Not knowing how long he might live, there were things I wanted to say, and hear, conversations neither of us knew how to have.
Driving home from the hospital, cheeks wet with tears, the winding road swam before me. The obvious became clear. My father would die. And I was well over fifty, past the halfway mark. Yet I wasn’t writing. I feared I’d waited too long.
I began to write, not one of the novels I’d held in reserve but rather about my dad, a prolific artist and teacher whom I’d always admired and emulated, yet never felt at ease with. I sat by his bedside. Uninvited. I filled the awkward silent patches with prompts and questions and, when those failed to elicit any response, unbidden soliloquies, as I struggled to shake the tacit rules of our relationship.
“You remind me of a dental hygienist,” he said, his smile more sour than wry.
In the two years before he died, I filled notebooks with my father’s scant words and gestures and the memories they conjured. I then wove the minutiae of his final days around a contrived plot involving a fictive daughter losing the father she scarcely knew. It never occurred to me to attempt anything but fiction. When I imagined I was well along, I signed up for a novel revision workshop offered by the author of a series of detective novels.
He reviewed the initial pages of my manuscript, dragging a red pen down each page, circling the rare concrete noun or action verb. “Nothing happens,” he said, “try throwing a corpse onto the page.”
My rambling discourse on fathers and daughters became a murder mystery, the first victim an aging artist, the second his wife, a vamp with a swoop of dark hair covering one eye. There was now no doubt. This was fiction. The kids in the junior college creative writing classes I enrolled in dug my twisted mystery set in San Francisco in the 60s. Encouraged, I churned out hundreds of pages. The finish was in sight. To give my draft a final polish and secure an agent, I enrolled in an MFA program.
Initially my lead professor was jazzed. “It’s sort of noir,” he said. That sounded cool. I immersed myself in the genre. I pared down my sentences, distilled the dialog. In workshop there were questions about motive, character development, believability, lack of subtext. I puffed my manuscript back up, six hundred plus pages of forged art, foggy avenues, envy and lust.
My professor suggested the story was perhaps now more hippie soap opera than noir. Not the reaction I’d hoped for. “Set it aside,” he said, “work on something new, then reread it in six months and see if you don’t agree.” I waited four months and was grateful for his honesty.
I extracted the murders, the tenuous subplots and red herrings, the ill-conceived Irish detective, until I was back with my “fictional” daughter and her dying father.
In the final quarter of my MFA program—where for two years I’d studied fiction and screenwriting—I took a nonfiction class, my belated introduction to a genre I’d always associated with the terrifying true-crime books and celebrity biographies my sister devoured. My first essay was about finding my father in that hospital bed. Those few thousand words felt more honest, more alive on the page, than anything else I had written.
With the tools acquired over five years of reading and writing practice, of learning from generous, talented writers and professors, I abandoned the “novel” and returned to my initial pages about my dad. I accepted that it would be hard work, as much craft and persistence as inspiration. Alas, my stories would not write themselves.
I never planned to write memoir. But we write what demands to be written, what’s in our heads and our hearts. My father was in mine and all the convoluted efforts to wrap my truth in fiction rang false. What began as an attempt to rationalize our relationship, perhaps even to “fix” it by having us evolve beyond ourselves in fiction, became a tribute to a complex man, perhaps never to be understood, but to be honored nonetheless and depicted to the best of my ability. When I stopped trying to turn the hole inside me into a story, I found the story.
Despite my determination to force it into some other frame, the material found its form. It took awhile. But as my father used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Dorothy Rice earned an MFA in creative writing at age 60. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice 1918-2011 was published in November 2015 by Shanti Arts, and her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Louisville Review, Brain Child Magazine and a few others.
January 15, 2016 § 5 Comments
The always thoughtful Richard Gilbert returns to Vivian Gornick’s now-classic Fierce Attachments to explore how genres differ and to reflect upon memoir’s peculiar appeal:
But would I be loving Fierce Attachments if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?
Let’s get something out of the way. Gornick once mentioned to a roomful of journalists that she invented in Fierce Attachments a street encounter she and her mother experienced. The reporters were soon baying at her, and the flap spread online. I can’t endorse what she did, but it hasn’t bothered me as her reader because her goal seems only to fully and honestly portray herself and mother. She might have handled her imagination differently, such as cued the reader, but instead she embroidered.
Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel. Would I find it as absorbing? I kept asking.
Read Gilbert’s conclusions here.
October 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
We continue to explore Rose Metal Press’ fascinating new flash anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form. This week, Meg Pokrass interviews Aaron Teel about Teel’s novella in flash Shampoo Horns. Teel’s novella incorporates a number of pieces originally written as memoir, including one that appeared in Brevity’s Winter 2008 issue:
MP: When or why did you first get the inkling that your memoir stories such as “The Widow’s Trailer” had the potential to be linked and shaped into a novella-in-flash?
AT: I wrote “The Widow’s Trailer” and a couple of others without any kind of larger project in mind, but kept finding myself wanting to return to that world. There’s something about the confines of a secluded, self-contained place that’s very exciting to me from a storytelling perspective and that lends itself, I think, to an episodic structure.
MP: Can you give us an example of the way in which you navigated that ambiguous terrain between fiction and memoir while writing Shampoo Horns?
AT: Perversely, making the switch to fiction allowed me to see those characters more clearly than I had. My actual memories of being around Cherry Tree’s age are fuzzy and distant and composed mostly of disconnected sense-images or anecdotes that have been told and retold and have, at best, a nebulous relationship with journalistic truth. The memoir material allowed me to access a set of emotions and images that I could more fully explore with fiction than I was capable of doing with any fidelity to my half-formed memories.
MP: How does emotional memory inform the process of reshaping memoir into fiction?
AT: Emotional memory informs everything. It’s difficult to imagine a peopled, empathetic fiction (or memoir) of any kind that doesn’t draw on the author’s emotional memory. I don’t know that it’s actually any easier to write from the perspective of a character that’s loosely based on a former version of one’s self, though. Whether working in memoir or fiction, a writer has to tap into his/her own well of experience when rendering the sticky, humiliating stuff of being human.
MP: Do you have advice for other literary adventurers who hope to embark on the same path with their writing?
AT: Mining one’s own memory for fiction is a valuable experience for a writer, I think. There’s a reason so many first works are largely autobiographical. Whether working in memoir or fiction, though, I would recommend concerning one’s self firstly with subjective truth and allowing your reader to inhabit the human, and therefore necessarily subjective, point of view of your subject. Make your reader see and feel what and how your characters see and feel. Even journalism, as we know from constant example, only pretends at objectivity—but a memoirist or a fiction writer who draws on her own experience is under no obligation to pretend.
Aaron Teel hails from Austin, Texas, and is currently an MFA fiction fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared previously in Tin House, Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Brevity, and others. His novella-in-flash Shampoo Horns won the Rose Metal Press Sixth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest in 2012.
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
I scribbled, jotted, tried to keep up. And of course, I couldn’t. I couldn’t seem to match stride with the panelists, any panelists. I wanted to simply listen, simply be there in the cramped rooms, smiling, nodding, sometimes laughing. But my primary focus was on notes because I don’t trust my memory. As I sat through three panels on the first day of AWP 2014, I was scribbling, jotting, trying to keep up. Always getting a little too attached to one phrase or sentence, attempting to get it down word for word and, more often than not, failing.
So I was surprised when I attended an afternoon panel called “The Peculiar Yesterday: The Memoir Today.” Moderated by Debra DiBlasi of Jaded Ibis Press, it featured four authors who discussed their experimental memoirs. Cris Mazza presented a description of her book, Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir, a work that preserves the process of its own creation, its transformation and the simultaneous effects of its generation on the author’s life and her life on its composition, as she seeks to examine her unfulfilling sex life. Jane Rosenberg LaForge formed her presentation into the structure of her memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, in which she presents, through oblique association, the “most honest and intimate self-portrait” that she could, the portrait of her imagination as she grew up in Hollywood at the dawn of Hippydom. Dawn Raffel walked us through the process of creating The Secret Life of Objects: A Memoir, a collection of seemingly mundane but meaningful objects that have accreted around her throughout life, which are illustrated by her son, and through which she explores connections, memories, and meaning. Finally, in discussing The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, Anna Joy Springer delved not only into the impetus for this work—the death of her lover—but also the cultural influences from which she has produced her genre-blurring “grotesque,” a work of “experimental spiritual auto-ethnography.”
But I wasn’t surprised by the experimental memoirs or the processes that led to their composition and publication. I wasn’t surprised that Debra DiBlasi had chosen to publish these books because she found in them “a person, an individual, an honesty, an integrity.” I was surprised that, as I listened to the presentations, I began to take notes not on what was being said, but what was implied about memoir. I began to write things like “memoir as last resort? As springboard for getting other work [i.e., fiction] published?” “Memoir as accidental composition?” Only Anna Joy Springer self-identified as a memoirist, while Cris Mazza, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, and Dawn Raffel were primarily fiction writers, and LaForge had brought up some of the problems and questions I began to write, but the overwhelming feeling that I got as I listened to the first three panelists was that memoir was just what its critics have said about it, and what the first three panelists perhaps unintentionally perpetuated: navel-gazing and self-indulgent, which is to say, less than. Of course this view ignores the fact that memoir has a prominent spot on bookshelves because it is a place to explore the human condition, a point of connection for a kind of animal that is, by virtue of its consciousness, given to loneliness.
I walked away from the panel very much interested in the books that were discussed and in Jaded Ibis Press, but also a bit, well, jaded at the fact that, while none of the panelists openly derided memoir or creative nonfiction as a genre, some of them seemed to do it in the ways that they talked about memoir. But perhaps I’m just being defensive and overly sensitive about a genre that I admire and practice. Perhaps it’s just me.
Zach Jacobs is a Presidential Graduate Fellow at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where he is finishing his MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. His work has been published in Fine Lines.
November 26, 2020 § 12 Comments
So often, to get to that goodness, we need an axe. As with turkeys, memoirs often call for dismemberment of the past, careful plucking, and a great deal of dressing to present the important parts for the feast. Garnishes. Good china. All so your friends can gasp in admiration (via Zoom, this year!) and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Cousin Sue.
Our holidays this year take extra effort for community. Effort, perhaps, saved from shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and the forced gaiety of a table full of kin instead of family-of-choice. This year, anyone you’re seeing, you’re seeing on purpose.
We see you. We share this rough year, and we’re glad you’re our community. Glad you read, glad you write, glad you share your words with us, and Brevity’s words with your friends.
Thank you for contributing to our mission with your talent, your attention, your money and your time.
And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. We’re here for you. Thank you for being here with us.
November 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jody Gerbig
On a warm, pandemic day, my five-year-old triplets flee from the house in search of escape. “Let them run wild,” my mother tells me over the phone. I have been complaining to her that my life feels loud and uncontrolled, that I have no time to write the parenting memoir I’ve started as though chronicling past chaos will sort out the current one. “You kids ran around the neighborhood, and you’re fine.”
The triplets return. They demand snacks and run off again, leaving crumbs in their wake. I brush these up in a dustpan like a bird erasing their trail home.
Later, I hear them playing together, without fighting, yelling, or demanding, and I see an opportunity. Hurrah! It’s writing time. I retreat to my office. One daughter follows and begs for yet another snack. She is not only hungry for food, I remind myself, but also for mom time.
I, too, am hungry, to write, to ponder, to be myself. “Please, honey, give Mommy a few minutes,” I say with gritted teeth, and then wince at its irony. Go away, child, so Mommy can write about how much she loves you. I might as well have pushed her into the wilderness and locked the door after her.
In her absence, I struggle to produce anything. I worry about where my children are and what they are into. I recognize yet another conundrum: my subjects must be-and-not-be present to write about them. I must think-and-not-think about them to type words on the page. I struggle with the many contradictions of drafting a parenting memoir: how to unearth the past when I’m too exhausted to absorb the present; how to tap into all that archived data in the mere minutes before children interrupt again.
I make myself write, at first only images (the snow falling in sheets the day doctors pulled babies from my womb), then scenes (my children being wheeled away before I could touch them). Somehow, more memories break through, and I am writing thousands of words, some even relevant. I feel giddy. I am both mother and writer! I can do it all!
And then a child—the one begging earlier—vomits the sugary treat she snuck while I was absorbed in work, and the words fall away again.
Over the next six months, I draft in frantic spurts on my phone—while standing at the stove waiting for water to boil or in an empty field watching kids run circles. I jot down thoughts on the calendar as though needing to record their occurrence in time: I knew their differences before they were born, I write on April 11. Last Christmas, they wanted to know about death, I note on May 21. But even these minute-long diversions feel like betrayals, my children chanting Mom, Mom as I thumb the phone’s keypad. Later, as the kids watch cartoons or drift off to sleep, I open my laptop to flesh out the calendar notes, but I can only feel the bones of them.
I know I must cull and shape these thoughts into a coherent draft, the details of our lives whittled away like shavings on a wood cutter’s floor. But I don’t know what moments to ignore (the moment the first stood and walked?) and which details to add (the time a woman said she’d kill herself if she got pregnant with triplets?). I worry the story will seem too tidy when finished. Perhaps only a body as ravished as mine can be honest.
In this way, the process of revising—shaping the arc of my parenting story from beginning to end—feels reckless, as though finishing the manuscript will end some part of our lives together. If I write a memoir about raising three babies, does that mean those babies are grown? I worry I haven’t done enough in this process. I worry I’ve done too much. Perhaps, my children don’t need me anymore. Maybe I’ve shaped our story irresponsibly.
And yet perhaps another possibility exists, one both scarier and more freeing, the truth we must all face while committing our stories to ink: the only ones abandoned on this journey are our own egos—to the process and the letting go. Our role as memoirists and parents requires us to do what we can with our progenies while we have them, then urge them into the world, smile, and trust they will thrive because we once held them.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere. She is also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words.
July 22, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Vicki Lindner
In December of last year, I finished my ‘60s memoir, Baby, It’s You. (I won’t admit how long “finishing” took.) Then I placed the 300-page manuscript in a black plastic box and buried it in my walnut cabinet. Here, I thought, Baby could rest like a tulip bulb waiting to bloom —for three months.
When Alan, a writer friend, asked how “Baby” was going, (hesitantly, as if inquiring how many millimetres a melting glacier has shrunk), I said, “It’s done.”
“Wow,” Alan said, “Congratulations! Are you sending it out?” And I confessed I wasn’t, not yet. I’d come to understand that I sent my stuff to likely prospects all too soon, and only after rejections popped into my inbox, realized that the manuscript needed work—from cutting and shaping to re-imagining. And if that was true of an essay or short story it would likely be truer for the monster snoozing in the black box. Despite compulsive revisions, I told Alan, “Baby” was too vast for my limited literary vision to take in just yet.
Alan said that failure to “see” new work applied to his process too. As it does, I think, to many writers. We finish, so full of hubris, trepidation, even boredom, in such a hurry to “succeed” or to “win” that we gulp down encouraging feedback from other writers and forget the endurance that writing, the toughest extreme sport, demands. “Patient sustained labor,” Vivian Gornick called it.
That was one truth, but I faced another, more psychological: I’d been nurturing “Baby” so long that to throw the infant to sharp-toothed critics in cold publishing waters seemed like diving naked into the Arctic Ocean myself. And I admit, writing the memoir had transported me back to the ‘60s, a transformative era, more rewarding than the current one, enmeshed as it is in this global pandemic.
So I called Melissa, a wise Montana poet and essayist. She, too, asked about my memoir. I explained that “Baby” was hibernating like a Grizzly in winter. Melissa loves bears, but she didn’t exclaim, as Alan did, “Good idea.” Then I raised a painful topic—the time I refused to resubmit my short story collection to a contest, in which it had been a finalist, after the judge strongly suggested I should, assuring me that the book didn’t need more and better stories as I insisted. (No, I didn’t rush to the psychoanalyst Junot Diaz recommends for all writers.) And now, after years of kicking myself for not exploring my fear of rejection, I asked Melissa, “Am I doing what I did with the contest by putting my memoir down for a long winter’s nap?”
“YES,” she answered without missing a beat.
But though I did self-destruct by not resubmitting the story collection, I still thought I should give my memoir time to ferment. Nobody was clamoring to publish it in a pandemic. And it focused on a subject that could benefit from additional thought—a taboo relationship, which helped the teenaged girl I was in the memoir to jettison the ‘50s stifling script. Plus an agent had told me what I already knew: My first chapter sucked.
After revision I’d called that chapter “good,” but needed time and space to be sure. Another question: Had I figured out what my father—a munitions expert who’d conceptualized weapons systems for the Vietnam War—was doing in this work? After three months of thinking instead of pretending to think by re-writing compulsively, I knew.
But back to “Baby”, germinating in the cabinet. While waiting for the proverbial tulip to bloom, I wrote shorter works, a new short story, an essay, and my morning prompts — “comments” to The New York Times. And I kept reading relevant books and stuffing notes in the black box.
Then came the early spring day I’d vowed to awaken “Baby” from torpor. I duly extracted the closeted box, and forbidding myself swings between depression and elation, pencil-edited the manuscript. I’d been right to wait. How had the best chapters turned into the worst ones? With refreshed vision I saw countless passages that would shine after tightening, or in some cases, loosening; I empowered verbs and batted away pesky commas. Most important, I judiciously developed essential ideas and remodeled misshapen sentences. Then I began typing my handwritten edits into the computer, seeing more opportunities for betterment. (But when I caught myself changing new words back to the old ones I knew it was time to stop.) The governor’s stay-at-home orders, I guiltily admit, proved a gift, though some days I stared into space, immobilized by anxious inertia. Ultimately my apartment lockdown revealed that I needed to let go of the past as who could say how long my present would last.
Now I’m about to mail the manuscript to a few friends who’ve agreed to read it. Then I will write a query, the hardest part.
And when “Shelter-at-Home” turned to “Safer-at-Home,” I visited Tess, my new Jungian shrink.
Vicki Lindner writes memoir, personal essays, and short fiction in Denver, Colorado, where she also teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her essays have been published by Gastronomica, American Literary Review, In Short: An Anthology of Brief Nonfiction, Seneca Review, Shadowboxmagazine.org, New Writing, Western Humanities Review, and others She has won two Wyoming Fellowships for Creative Nonfiction, a National Endowment for the Arts for fiction, and two New York State fellowships, also for fiction.
June 22, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Sue Hann
- Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.
‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.
‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town?
- Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.
‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.
‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.
- Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.
‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’
I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.
‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say. I remain silent. I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.
- Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.
‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’
Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.
- Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.
‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.
‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.
Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.
‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.
- The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.
Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’
‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life. ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’
Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.
Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.
‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.
The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.
- Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.
The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again. Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.
April 21, 2020 § 20 Comments
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.
April 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Connor Beeman
New Ohio Review has extended its annual contest until April 22nd — that’s just three more days — and we’re happy to announce that Ira Sukrungruang is our nonfiction judge. Sukrungruang is the author of two memoirs, Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy; a short story collection, The Melting Season; and a collection of poetry, In Thailand It Is Night, as well as the recent collection of essays, Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations. He’s a Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College and the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award as well as several prominent fellowships.
Sukrungruang’s writing often confronts his upbringing, and in particular deals with his Thai heritage, eastern religion, and life in America as the son of Thai immigrants. Buddhism plays a vital role in many of his works, as can been seen in essays from Buddha’s Dog. “The Animatronic Dog,” for instance, blends a vivid account of growing up Thai in Chicago with a story of Buddha befriending a dog. This story is told to Sukrungruang by his mother, who is herself an unforgettable figure throughout the book. Another essay, “The Dog Without a Bark,” finds a young Sukrungruang briefly befriending a local dog with cut vocal cords and finding an unexpected connection. Looking back on this moment, Sukrungruang writes, “I remember that Sheltie for the lessons I carry with me: you don’t need a voice to know what you want. You don’t need to sound like everyone else to make yourself heard.”
We’re excited to have Ira Sukrungruang—an inimitable voice in his own right and a wonderful writer and teacher—as our nonfiction judge, and we look forward to seeing the work that you share.
Connor Beeman is an Editorial Associate at New Ohio Review.