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.
October 7, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Brian Watson
In 1994, I was in love for the first time. I glowed with an ecstatic radiance, visible from space. Newfound amorous happiness flipped a writing switch in me. Every night I sat down at my Macintosh Plus, with the massive forty-five-megabyte hard drive atop my desk, and I wrote. Disparate memories of my youth flowed together in a story that inexorably concluded in that ne plus ultra of human endeavors: true love!
But it wasn’t a memoir.
I was certain of one thing: it was right and fair to cast it all as fiction. I believed that my family and friends would prefer a veneer of invention separating them from my realities.
I secretly printed the book at my office in Tōkyō, and mailed it to a college friend in New York. She sent back corrections and marginalia, and I revised. I sent it on to my high-school English teacher and received a kind-yet-disappointing reply: An author’s first work is never their best work. Write something else.
Dreams of bestsellers waned. I packed away the printed manuscript, and as my love and I moved from Tōkyō to Kirkland, from Kirkland to Bellevue, from Bellevue to New Westminster, from New Westminster to Burnaby, and Burnaby to Kent, I lost the manuscript.
Misplacing the manuscript was not intentional. Important boxes were always opened after each move, but we’d amassed a small set of boxes with nondescript labels like textbooks and Brian’s things, and we ignored them. I wondered sometimes where the manuscript went, but never enough to mount a search.
In September of 2020 I began writing again. This time it was unabashed. A true memoir. Nothing changed. Nothing veneered.
As the first draft neared completion in December, I converted the upstairs rumpus room to a studio of sorts. To frame prints, to store books, to work on macro photography techniques. (Yes, too many hobbies!) My husband and I opened piles of boxes there, passing on any KonMari routine. We shelved everything we found. It sparked joy anyway.
In the very last box, at the very bottom, I saw the blue binder and squealed. My manuscript’s title page greeted me as it arose from its nest: In So Many Words.
I brought it down to my office and decided I wasn’t looking at it until the memoir was complete. The fiction was a virus. I didn’t want it to infect my true memoir.
Months passed. I reworked, revised, and restructured the memoir. A friend read the first half. His notes and suggestions came as I planned a brief vacation to Oregon. On an impulse, I packed both his notes and the old manuscript.
Afternoons in Portland were spent in an Adirondack chair, my iPad beside me, the notes and the old manuscript in my lap.
I started to read In So Many Words.
My writing is terrible. And who are these people? I had no notes indicating which friends were assigned which fictional names. Wait! Did that really happen?
Between the melodrama and the navel-gazing, there were sparks, twinkling out at me. I remembered that I’d included an occupation: average housewife, on conference name tags in Japan, no doubt inspired by my own camp and chyrons from The Phil Donohue Show.
I stopped after the fifth chapter, unable to discern whether events themselves were fact or fiction. Did I really answer a personal ad in Jock magazine in 1988? I shook my head in disbelief. Jock? So off-brand.
And my writing made me cringe:
He and his family lived in an apartment house right on the river, and despite the fact that the location proved great for catching eels and crabs during summer vacation, and the added bonus that the apartment house had a pool, there was, between the apartment and Our Lade of Perpetual Sorrows Parish School, an immense hill which Matthew had to climb every morning in order to get to school.
As copy-editor extraordinaire Benjamin Dreyer might say, how very twee!
But with each cringe came a reinforcement.
I have grown as a writer since 1994.
I write better, with more confidence and clarity.
And that 1994 writer, fictionalized as Matthew, is one of the people I’m writing for.
My memoir calls my protagonist home to the me I now am. Where all of those boys — the confused boy, the angry boy, the lonely boy, and the desperate boy — I once was can find safety and acceptance.
And every time I feel the unneeded despair, at each doubting of my skill and talent, my reinforcements now await me:
You are not who you were.
You have grown, as you will continue to do.
You left a fictional life back in 1994 and the memoir is better for it. What a wise choice!
Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Their cantankerous old cat, Butters, has crossed the rainbow bridge. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com; follow him on Twitter @BMemoirist.
March 1, 2021 § 3 Comments
Minneapolis writer, Anika Fajardo, was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, a memoir about crossing continents to connect with her Columbian father and brother. In her debut novel for young readers, What If a Fish, her main character, Little Eddie, is also both Colombian and Minnesotan and, like Fajardo, wrestles with issues of family and identity.
Sara Dovre Wudali, St. Paul, Minnesota, essayist and poet, met Fajardo at the Mississippi River—which divides Minneapolis from St. Paul—to talk with her about crossing the border between genres.
When I first met you, you identified as a nonfiction writer—your first book is a memoir and you teach creative nonfiction—but your latest book is fiction. What caused you to make the move from memoir to fiction?
I wrote my young adult novel during depths of despair while I was trying to get my memoir published. I decided that the memoir was never going to be published, but I still had things I wanted to say, so I repurposed my memoir and kept the emotional core. I have never been an 11-year-old boy, but I took the questions I had at that age like, “Where do I belong?” and “How do I fit in?” and “What does it mean to have this happen?”—questions that I don’t know the answers to, and I let my character grapple with them.
Were there ways in which this movement between memoir and novel, tackling the same themes, and even similar plot lines, helped or hindered your writing process?
I also kept a lot of the same things. You know, what’s funny, I was being interviewed by this woman who was Peruvian and she liked What If a Fish but she questioned, “Why would he never have visited Colombia when he was a kid? Why didn’t his mom ever bring him there?” I didn’t have a good answer except to say that it was because I never did. So some of the plot points weren’t the best thought-out in terms of craft for the novel because I was relying on my own experience.
Did your work on the novel help you revise the memoir?
Working on a novel helped me learn about pacing and narrative arc, but mostly it was the other way around. Because I had written a memoir, the novel was easy to write. I wrote it like a nonfiction writer. I first had to come up with all of the truths in that world and then just sit down and write what happened, not straying from those first invented truths. In fact, eventually I was forced, first by my agent and later by my editor, to make changes that I didn’t want to make because in my internal ideas for the book, their changes were lies—not what had happened. From the standpoint of a nonfiction writer, I was saying to myself, “Well, I can’t just make that up!” even though I’d actually made up everything.
And the editor replied, “Why can’t you make it up? This is fiction.”
Right. And they would write, “This scene doesn’t work.” And to myself I’d say, “But it happened, so I have to tell about it!” So, maybe my brain is broken. Or maybe once a nonfiction writer, always a nonfiction writer.
So when it came to writing fiction from memoir, how did you initially invent the details and markers of your identity? Did you change the “what ifs” for the world of your novel, for example, “What if you lost your father because of death rather than divorce?” or “What if you’d been told you had a brother and had been allowed a relationship with him when you were a child?”
I think it was purposeful. The seed for the book was 2 things: First, I saw someone catch this gigantic fish on the lake and then get bit by the fish. And, at the same time, I was thinking that if I had been born a boy, I probably would’ve had the same name as my brother. It’s common for Latin American families to name their kids the same first name and different middle names. So my brother and I would’ve been siblings with the same name and basically the same age. And how weird would that be? And what would that have done to my identity? And so I went to an extreme with the fiction. In reality my brother and I are the same age, so the extreme in the fiction is that the brothers are much different ages.
Are there similar “what ifs” that you’re doing with your next project?
Yes! When I first met my brother, we all listened to reggae. And we all went to the same reggae bar in Santa Cruz. And after I met him, I thought, I could’ve stood in line next to him at this reggae bar before we even met. Would I have known it was him? Would he recognize me? So in my next project, another middle grade novel, Meet Me Halfway, my main characters are two 12-year-old girls who are half-sisters, one who knows they are sisters and one who doesn’t but thinks, “This is really creepy—she looks just like me.” So that’s the what-if I’m playing with. And I was racking my brain trying to figure out why one girl hates the other. But then from my memoir, I remembered what my brother had been told by my dad: that I didn’t want to meet him. That I wanted nothing to do with him. And that solved the problem because, of course, hearing that would make a 12-year-old girl hate someone. If I just use my real-life story, everything makes sense. I wasted so many weeks trying to figure that out. I’m trying to be a fiction writer, but all the answers are in nonfiction.
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was a 2020 finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards and awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages. She is the author of the middle-grade novels What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming, spring 2022). A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis.
Sara Dovre Wudali is a writer and editor from Saint Paul. She grew up on the plains of southwest Minnesota, where the wind blows strong and box elder bugs rule the earth. Her poems and essays have been published in North Dakota Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction, Sweet, Streetlight Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, and as part of a public art project in Mankato, Minnesota.
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.
December 28, 2022 § 5 Comments
Promoting a Comprehensive View of a Memoir’s Purpose through Thematic Structure
By Margaret Moore
When I look at the complete manuscript of my debut memoir, I see panel art.
Panel art, formally termed a polyptych, is an image divided into sections that are depicted on separate canvases. Side by side, the canvases collectively show the entire image.
In this butterfly polyptych, for example, the side panels solely feature the wings while the center focuses on the tagmata. Viewers can see the fine details the panels offer independently along with the larger image they form together.
My memoir was not intended to be a polyptych. Originally, I envisioned employing a strict chronological arrangement. Aiming to inspire others to overcome obstacles, my book narrates my experiences growing up with Cerebral Palsy, using a wheelchair, walker, and communication device, losing my father to cancer, and being raised by a single mother who enabled my pursuit of regular education, athletics, and other activities.
Since childhood, I have aspired to author a series of memoirs about different segments of my life—a book chronicling my birth through my elementary school graduation and sequels on middle school, high school, college, and so forth. Given my focus on specific time periods, chronological structure seemed most sensical.
For my debut memoir, I planned to dedicate the opening chapters to my birth, my family’s adjustment to my disability, and my father’s death. Once my narrator entered school, each chapter would focus on a specific academic year.
Written between childhood and college, the first drafts of the book were married to this structure. In college, I became disenchanted with it—my prose felt rigid and list-like, as if I was saying, “then I did this interesting thing, and that interesting thing…” Mentors seemed to offer identical critiques—that my book came across as a collection of anecdotes that, though entertaining, possessed no articulated purpose.
Before beginning my MFA, I started reordering my scenes. I didn’t dare make drastic changes to my book structure—each chapter still narrated my childhood years in order—but I ventured as far as removing the chronological arrangement of scenes within the chapters, selecting a moment sure to capture readers’ attention at the opening and determining what followed based on the topics of other scenes and how smoothly I could transition to them.
While pursuing my MFA at Fairfield University, something still seemed to mute my book’s purpose. The solution came after working to deepen my descriptions of navigating the world with a disability. Employing embodied writing techniques, I learned to use granular levels of detail to depict my narrator’s physical, emotional, and mental experiences and to follow these with retrospective reflections on the significance of her participation in activities. In my book, embodied writing materializes as step-by-step narrations of my narrator’s actions—the juxtaposition and sensations of her body and procedures of operating assistive technology. The prose is layered, incorporating not only her movements and sensations but also a deep look at her thoughts and emotions. The in-the-moment narratives and retrospective reflections are designed to demonstrate why her story is unique and keeps the memoir pointed toward its intended purpose.
Employing this technique required substantial expansion of my prose, which seemed to make my book’s purpose more prominent. At first, I left the book structure as it was, with each chapter centered on a specific school year.
“Your structure works,” one mentor said, reviewing a chapter. “Though if you wanted to delve further into the disability experience, you could experiment with breaking these events into multiple chapters to allow space for expanding on how these moments impacted you.”
I could see the benefits, but I feared that it would require a full-blown restructure of the book.
I later found myself stumped on directions for a new chapter. This was supposed to be the last in the book, narrating my fifth-grade school year and my experience attending an intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy program. Considering how drastically these topics differed from each other and how much space I’d need for describing the therapy through embodied writing, I worried the narrative would be pulled in too many directions.
I soon realized my mentor had provided the solution before I even encountered this problem, and I divided this chapter into two. By giving the therapy experience its own chapter, I didn’t have to balance the topic with others. I now had unlimited space to craft my narrative, not only to have characteristics of embodied writing, but also to detail how my family found this program and navigated the financial implications, types of therapy I previously had, how this one differed, and benefits gained. Concentrating on the one theme ultimately allowed me to paint a more thorough picture for readers.
Pleased with this effect, I reorganized my book into a thematic structure during my thesis semester. One chapter, for example, centers on accommodations and technology that enabled my pursuit of academics. Another focuses on experiences with discrimination, how society views—and often stereotypes—people with disabilities, and how my family, educators, and I have combatted that. Identifying my narrator’s age in multiple scenes enabled me to include moments from different years in the same chapter while making clear for readers when in her life my narrator experienced them. The book still draws on her progression from birth to fifth grade, but the timeliness has faded into the background, allowing the themes to shine more brightly.
Reviewing chapters individually, I neglected to see this structure’s full effect. Examining the memoir as a whole and contemplating what to write for an introduction to my thesis, I noticed the polyptych. Each chapter functions as a panel depicting one aspect of life with a disability. The chapters work together to depict a comprehensive view of the experience—or at least my disability experience, since no two people encounter it the same way.
If purposefully employed, what impact does this polyptych structure have? Perhaps it aids in delivering more exhaustive illustrations of the narrators’ experiences and the intended purposes of memoirs.
Margaret Moore is a summer 2022 graduate of Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, where she earned a degree in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is an editor and the marketing coordinator at Woodhall Press and an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her debut memoir is currently at the beginning stages of its publication process, and her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications. Find her on Twitter: @mooreofawriter
December 19, 2022 § 11 Comments
Jeannine Ouellette, author of the memoir The Part That Burns, offers a generous abundance of clear advice in her recent Substack essay “11 Urgent & Possibly Helpful Things I Have Learned From Reading Thousands of Manuscripts.”
Her advice comes from “more than twenty years of editorial experience, including a decade of magazine editing, developmental editing, and book coaching” she explains, before distilling that experience quite brilliantly.
For instance, on attention to language in our nonfiction, Ouellette writes:
We must love the words for their own sake—for their shapes and sounds, their strangeness and quirks. And we must test those same words over and over again to see if they are the absolute best fit for the job. We must reject overly easy, overly familiar images and phrases and push ourselves instead for the slight adjustment that can make a world of difference. Take Larry Levis’s poem, Winter Stars, in which the speaker stares not through dark or bare or wide branches of an oak, but wet branches. And in which he gives us not bright or twinkling or sparkling stars, but a “thin haze of them, persisting.” This is what it means to defamiliarize language enough to let it hold truth. If the language is so familiar it washes over us, any truth it contains will be lost.
Ouellette also offers thoughts on language, beginnings and endings, knowing your subject, time control, and this, on the need to pay true attention:
Too much of the writing submitted to me relies on abstractions and internal reflection without earning its proclamations with clear-eyed, truthful observations of the world we all share. I need precise, concrete renderings—of the world, this world, the one you and I both live in, the one I recognize—for work to come fully alive.
If you are wondering, “is my essay done and ready to submit,” you might use her “11 Urgent & Possibly Helpful Things ” as a yardstick to measure your own work.
To do so, you can access her entire essay here.
December 13, 2022 § 45 Comments
Learning to become aware of our story at a cellular level
By Charlotte Wilkins
It’s old but flawlessly restored, glinting metallic new-penny paint, a color that didn’t exist “back then.” A Chevy pickup, the 1940’s shape unmistakable. I’ll have to wait till it passes to pull into the street.
The truck reels past, the shutter freezing on a single frame in my windshield. Sound, movement, thought, breath all suspended, my fingers clamp round the steering wheel, foot jams harder on the brake. Bodily reactions leaving brain cells to catch up or ‘fess up. In The Body Keeps the Score, noted trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, MD writes, “trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”
Now there’s a catch in my mind like a crochet hook reaching, turning, dipping to pick up the next strand, chaining one loop of memory to the next. Neuronic dendrites reaching back into my hippocampus, attempting to connect body sensations and pickup trucks with a “back when” event. Something, still wordless, is being remembered in the body.
Sometimes a writing instructor suggests we should re-create a past event in our body so we can write about the experience. Re-creating engages the thinking process and attempts to produce a likeness to the original experience, rather than first becoming physically aware of sensory information stored in the body. In Tell it Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola encourage the writer to pay attention to the body’s sense gateways, which will lead to writing
. . . in a way that naturally embodies experience, making it tactile for the reader. Readers tend to care deeply only about those things they feel in the body at a visceral level. We experience the world through our senses. We must translate that experience into the language of the senses as well.
At the next stoplight, the driver’s thick, hairy arm elbows out the small window. Compelled by an intractable gut-goading, I roll down my passenger window, lamely calling, “Looks great!” then throw in a thumbs-up.
“Thanks,” he tosses down, as I lie indecorously stretched across my Prius’s center console, face craning up at him in the little cab.
“Brings back memories,” I babble on.
I tear up.
I’m crying over a 1940’s Chevy pickup?
We can re-create sensory elements as a writing technique, or we can learn to become aware of our story at a cellular level. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir holds that, “The key to writing that shows rather than tells is the senses.” We can begin by becoming aware of bodily sensations within a specific memory—taste, sound, smell, touch and sight—a trustworthy place to start.
The light changes and the Chevy truck rolls on. My Adam’s apple clutches at the flood of tears as my body pushes forward a long-forgotten first stick shift lesson with my then-husband. I turn left, swatting my eyes with the back of my hand, the 75-year-old skin so dry it could be a towel. The 50-year-old incident reels out on my interior movie screen:
A crayon blue sky
me hunched in the driver’s seat of our 1941 Chevy pickup, hands nervously circling the smooth steering wheel, pebbly brown bench seat smelling like warm oilcloth
his taunts and snickering laugh
my sweaty terror as the truck slides backwards downhill at the stop sign, stick shift jumping under my hand, legs unsure whether to brake or clutch
the grating grind of gears mis-shifting
him cursing me.
We are born with the ability to be aware. During the 25 years I’ve taught meditation and mindfulness, I’ve amused and irritated my students with the emphatic comment, “Thinking is overrated!” hoping to shimmy them out of their heads, into the truth residing in their bodies. But of course, we are thinking creatures and for our writing to be full-bodied, we need both the sensory body and thinking brain, the showing and telling. We can learn the language of our body’s lived experiences and bring that truth, which ultimately is a universal truth, to the page.
The fear, humiliation, and fury warehoused in my cells, cavities, and crevices for five decades was unlocked by a passing truck. But I’m aware this is a re-run. I allow the film to spool out. Years of meditation allows me to access, accept and appreciate my body’s cellular memory and how it helps me discover my true nonfiction. I keep in mind that whatever shards and shadows show up, I’ve already survived them. I’m not there and they aren’t here. The memory has no agency. Now I’m here as a witness, not a victim.
Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep. Find her at charwilkins.com
December 2, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
If you’re like me, while writing your memoir, you spend an absurd amount of time worrying about what everyone will think of you once you publish it. You may even make yourself physically ill like I do. Recently, though, I was reminded why I craft my pain into art regardless.
Eight years ago, my UCLA Extension instructor, and now personal friend, accepted a steamy but heartbreaking piece I wrote about my college boyfriend for an anthology she was editing. We took our published stories in paperbacks on a California book tour, including to the Bay Area where my former love now lived. It was terrifying and exhilarating and propelled me to write my full manuscript. Over the years, I have often wondered what the subject of my story would think if he ever read the essay I shared in public with strangers, family, and friends alike. Despite changing his name, I revealed private, excruciating details of our twentysomething selves, like any diligent memoirist would, finding solace my words only appeared in print, never to be found in a Google search.
The other day, I sent him a happy birthday message on LinkedIn, the only place we’re still connected. I hadn’t spoken to him online or otherwise in a decade and hadn’t seen him in fourteen years, since the night I met the woman who would become the mother of his children and, much later, his wife. One night after Christmas in 2008, I had dinner with them when they were in the honeymoon stages of dating, and I was still nursing wounds from a broken engagement and previous divorce. At the restaurant, I admired his then girlfriend’s bright, infectious smile and hopeful, sparkly eyes. Her eyes twinkled like mine did before he broke up with me with little explanation, shocking nearly everyone. I left dinner thinking, “Please don’t hurt her.” That night, for the first time in eleven years, I rejoiced over feeling like I was finally over him, despite the remnants of my heart most likely still swirling around the parking lot outside a certain former coffeehouse, where he once said, “I don’t think this is going to work out.”
In my LinkedIn message, I told him I have a knack for remembering birthdays, and I wished him and his family the best. He wrote, “How are you?” How does one explain the last fourteen years in a LinkedIn message to the man who pilfered her innocence? I gave him the short version: I’m still single. I never had children. I quit my job. My nephew is ten, and I wrote a memoir. I said I’d send him a copy someday when it’s published. He responded, “I would love to read your memoir. Good luck finishing it up.”
“My memoir is finished!” I wrote. “I’m just trying to find a home for it.” (Still.) This felt like an opening. “I actually wrote about you, and everyone liked it because it was a very nineties pre-internet look at a romantic relationship. If you want to read the [published version],” I can send it to you. He said he was “nervous reading a critique of [his] twenty-year-old self, but [he’d] take a crack at it.”
He thought he was nervous.
I sent him the published essay and the material I added to my manuscript when I was working with a book coach in 2017. He emailed he was busy but would “give it a solid read” when his time freed up. “No hurry!” I replied, meaning, “You don’t have to read it. Forget I ever mentioned it.”
The next morning, I received an email when I was in my bathrobe at my desk next to a handyman who was fixing the track on my sliding closet doors. The love of my young life and source of endless sadness wrote, “I have to admit, I really enjoyed reading these. I may have to set my computer on fire to destroy evidence, but I loved reading them.”
Then I received the clarification and apology I hadn’t realized I still needed after twenty-five years. “I’m really sorry how poorly I handled the breakup.” He called his former self “weak” and “super emotionally immature.” He had “needed more time to be free and date other people but didn’t know how to tell [me],” which, of course, most people need when they’re barely an adult. “I’m really sorry I caused you so much grief.”
Nowhere in his email did he ask me to change one word of anything unpublished I’d written, something I offered to consider if he had any major objections—particularly about the time I found him passed out drunk on the sidewalk or the day we passed sexy secrets back and forth quietly in a notebook during a philosophy lecture.
This felt like validation. This felt like the young him had loved the young me after all. This felt like my version and his finally gelled and made sense. We’d collided before he turned twenty and was a “mess,” back when I was naïve and wore my heart as a necklace outside my body—a recipe for a strychnine cocktail. While our breakup was inevitable, its abruptness had steamrolled me, but now I had more proof I wasn’t inherently unlovable.
After reading his email, I left my bedroom to head downstairs and watch the rare rainfall outside the backyard window, lest the old dude fixing my closet door see the tears streaming down my face. I thought about how a memoirist can’t predict a person’s reaction to her words, and in this full-circle moment, I could finally tell that twenty-three-year-old girl whose heart was pulverized for the first time that someday pouring her soul onto the page would be worth it. She would be seen, and she would finally receive the transparency and understanding she’d craved but never expected.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Coachella Review, and others. She edits at drysdaleeditorial.