Finding the Form: From Fiction to Memoir
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.
Fiction? No. Memoir!
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.
Crossing the Border between Memoir and Fiction: An Interview with Anika Fajardo
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.
Reading Memoir as Fiction
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.
My Very End of the Universe: Flashing from Memoir to Fiction
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.
AWP 2014: Some Notes on Memoir (Mostly) from Fiction Writers
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
A guest post from Zach Jacobs on a perplexing memoir panel:
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.
Is Chat GPT Coming for Creative Nonfiction?
May 1, 2023 § 8 Comments
Could a personal essay be crafted by 1s and 0s?
By Lise Funderburg
At the close of every semester, I’m plunged into nostalgia for the fierce band of young writers I’ve come to know, and filled with pride at all they’ve absorbed and attempted and achieved. They’ve learned the sound of their own voices and come to see their strengths and blind spots, not only in terms of craft, but also in how they portray themselves in relation to their world. I’ve witnessed their deep, deep pleasure when they manage, as the writing teacher William Zinsser advised, to get one thing right, to articulate something about the project of being human with breathtaking precision and particularity.
Yesterday, in the final creative nonfiction workshop of the term, we got to talking about ChatGPT, the AI chatbot designed to mimic human conversation. Some of my colleagues bemoan ChatGPT’s potential for cheating, and indeed, my students had friends who’d used it for assignments. But could it mimic memoir, we wondered? Could a personal essay be crafted by 1s and 0s?
We chose to experiment with actual essays the students had written, stories of homophobic parents, homesickness, biracial identity, summer camp, and the spark of sexual attraction. We began with a gorgeous essay from a student named Lila, one that threaded themes of longing and home and discovery into a narrative about leaving California, where she’d grown up, and coming East to college. Her piece began:
A month or so into my freshman year of college, my mom sent me six oranges by mail. She apologized, when I called to thank her, for not sending more. She explained how she’d picked 15 that morning from our tree, brought them to the post office, set them on the scale in a plastic grocery bag, knotted at the top, and how the price on the scale had been absurd. So she’d whittled down the weight of the package, subtracting from it one orange at a time, wincing slightly on each loss, until the scale matched what she had budgeted for. Thus, the six pieces of fruit, which were sitting now in a small cardboard box on my desk. I just wanted you to have some, because the oranges out there are not as good as ours back here.
With my cheek pressed tight to the glass of my phone, I thanked her. I told her, yes, I will share with my roommate, and yes, I love you too and I hung up. I imagined her driving home, nine extraneous oranges rolling across the plastic floor of her backseat.
It was only in hindsight, in the neon shadow of an east coast city where I was a stranger, I understood oranges as sacred.
We fed key facts from Lila’s piece into ChatGPT. “Write a personal essay about growing up in California and eating oranges there,” we instructed, “before moving to Philadelphia for college.”
Almost instantly, ChatGPT came up with 400 words, opening with:
Growing up in California was a delightful experience, filled with sunshine, beaches, and the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted. The smell of fresh oranges was an integral part of my childhood, and I remember always having a bowl of them in our kitchen.
As a child, I would often go on family trips to local orange orchards and enjoy the taste of freshly picked oranges. The bright orange color of the fruit, the tangy taste, and the sweet aroma were all so intoxicating. There was something magical about biting into a juicy, perfectly ripe orange on a warm, sunny day in California.
My family and I would also visit farmer’s markets, where we would find a variety of citrus fruits such as mandarins, grapefruits, and lemons. We would take them home and make fresh squeezed juices or add them to our meals.
Lila had also written about the smell! About bowls of oranges in her kitchen! Disturbing coincidences, sure, but beyond those, there was no resemblance. Lila’s piece had soul; the AI narrative was a bowl of coherent but bland treacle, complete with a lessons-learned finish that felt borrowed from a motivational poster, trumpeting the value of cherishing memories.
I know a teachable moment when I see one. “What’s missing?” I cried out.
“Character details,” said one student. “Specificity,” said another.
I could have wept with pedagogical joy.
Lila had made herself into a rich, dimensional character on the page, with a point of view (opening with the anecdote about her mother’s care package), an acute sense of how she occupies space (“cheek pressed tight to the glass of my phone”) and a specific way of seeing the world (“in the neon shadow of an east coast city”). Lila’s “I” is round, not flat, as the anthologist and essayist Phillip Lopate champions in his timeless craft piece, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into A Character.” The more fleshed-out she is, the more credibility, interest, and trust she builds in the reader. Humans are endlessly idiosyncratic, and even if the narrator’s experiences don’t map exactly onto ours as readers, we can understand them as analogous; we can connect to their core.
Even with ChatGPT’s more-is-more approach to adjectives (“delightful…sweetest…fresh…tangy…intoxicating…magical…”), their generic ring is clear. The attempt at an internal emotional landscape falls flat, and we human writers — as long as we draw ourselves on the page with all the shading and dimension we can muster — will leave those simulated memoirs in the pixelated dust.
Learn to characterize yourself in your creative nonfiction and how to plumb your personality and experiences in service of your themes. Join Lise for the CRAFT TALKS webinar Who Am I & Why Am I Here? this Wednesday May 3rd at 2PM Eastern (replay will be available to all registrants).
Lise Funderburg’s latest book is Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, a collection of all-new work by 25 writers, which Publishers Weekly deemed a “sparkling anthology” in its starred review. Her essays have appeared in ThreepennyReview, Harper’s, Broad Street, Brevity, The New York Times, The Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. Lise teaches CNF at the University of Pennsylvania, the Paris Writing Workshop, and, for those who prefer sweatpants, on ZOOM.
The Season Finale—What if Your Memoir is Anticlimactic?
March 3, 2023 § 29 Comments
By Joelle Fraser
Will it ever end, I mutter each morning as I venture onto the icy porch, boots crunching and breath billowing. In the black elm above, doves hover while I scatter seeds in the frozen feeder. It’s been an especially wet, cold winter in Reno. A chill has settled into my bones and my back aches from shoveling a crushing kind of snow we call “Sierra cement.” In the house, my cabin-fevered cats perch at the window, hunched and surly.
But soon enough, spring will come, with all its light and warmth.
What doesn’t seem to have an end is my book-in-progress.
NO ONE CAN FIND YOU: a Daughter’s Memoir, is about my hopes and fears for my elderly parents, who live dangerously off the grid and scrape by from one social security check to the next. For the past decade they’ve lived in a tiny, isolated mountain cabin, hauling up water, stoking the wood stove in bone-chilling cold and washing with vinegar. The punishing rough road batters their decades-old truck, so they rarely travel the 5-hour round trip to town, even though my 81-year-old mother has constant UTI issues and has lost all but five of her teeth.
Our pleas for them to move into affordable senior housing, growing more strident by the year, are ever-kindly brushed off.
When there’s no certain end, we imagine the worst: a wildfire, food poisoning, a bad fall or hungry cougar, a rattlesnake under the outhouse.
None of these horrors are how I want their lives—or my memoir—to end. Yet the best outcome is the most anti-climactic: before next winter, they finally agree to move to town. All that fuss and fear for nothing?
The other possibility is they choose to stay, perhaps for years longer.
In the meantime, I’ve tried to move onto another book, but their story has become tied with mine. Every day I get texts from my mother: …Making biscuits but have no eggs …. How are you doing dear daughter? My feet are freezing this morning. For years, each morning I check the forecast and picture their day: Is it too windy for a walk? Are they melting snow for dishwater?
One way or another, I will write this story, our story.
But how do you write a boring, predictable ending—or one that simply drags on and on?
For writers in this fix, here are some options I’ve considered:
1. Purge my fears by making it fictional, as a cautionary tale. Add a character or two (a crooked sheriff? A sinister neighbor?). Tell it, perhaps, from another POV, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.
The problem with this option is that although fiction is appealing, I’m just not very good at it. Besides, veiling the truth in an outsized narrative seems like a deceptively easy way out for me. The real story of my parents and me would linger, like those birds hovering in the trees, waiting for resolution.
2. Write it now as a long essay, despite the messy limbo.
3. Finish the book now, again despite the messy limbo.
4. Wait for the ending, whatever it is, whenever it is, and write it in all its truth.
The second and third options would mean ending in medias res. This would likely frustrate not just me but my readers, who expect something to happen and want to see how the author gets herself through that “something.” As literary agent Estelle Laure explains, a great memoir ending is one that gives the reader both a feeling of completion and hope.
So I need to see the story through before I can discover, and share with the reader, the meaning I crave. If I wrote it now, I would only be pretending to be at peace with the situation.
For now, I have chosen the final option.
Hopefully my parents will go to town sooner than later, and live with some comfort in their remaining years. We can visit the land, I tell her often. I’ll take you there. It won’t be goodbye forever.
There would still be tension in that dramatic transition, after all—one we must face in one way or another, for our loved ones and one day for ourselves: a letting go and making peace with life’s season finale, whatever it may be.
Joelle Fraser is a MacDowell Fellow and the author of two memoirs: The Territory of Men (Random House 2002) and The Forest House: a Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss, and Starting Over (Counterpoint 2013). Joelle received her MFA from the University of Iowa, and her award-winning work has appeared in many journals, including Crazyhorse, Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review, and was recognized in Best American Essays by Christopher Hitchens (2010). She is also a teacher and editor whose clients have placed work in numerous publications, including the NYT‘s Modern Love column, The Sun, and Hippocampus Magazine.