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.
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.
April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
March 24, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Marcia Aldrich
In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”
After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.
Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.
Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take. A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans.
Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions. After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book.
I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.
Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.
It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.
Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
February 1, 2021 § 34 Comments
By Aimee Christian
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started my memoir because I’d been writing personal essays and creative nonfiction for some time. It didn’t take me long to learn that I was wrong. Writing memoir meant wandering around in my past in a whole new way, and I learned that my past can be a pretty bad neighborhood to be in alone.
When I try to re-immerse myself in how it felt to be a child or a teenager, it’s nearly impossible not to feel all the feelings from those early years, which is great for the story but, as it turns out, is terrible for my marriage and my children. In revisiting my memories to write, I found myself mourning breakups, looking up old apartments on Zillow, Googling my bullies from summer camp, and spending hours rereading old journals and old yearbooks. The worst was when I cried for a month over a death as though it was yesterday. I walked around in such despair that I couldn’t quite believe that I was the only one in mourning.
“Why are you crying, Mama?” my daughter asked when she caught me.
I ran through my options. The truth, because my boyfriend killed himself, seemed like the wrong answer, especially when I’d have to tell her next that it happened eleven years before I met her father. “I bonked my funny bone,” I said finally, rubbing my elbow, and was able to smile when she gave it a little kiss, but when she walked away, satisfied, I started crying again. I felt stuck in the kind of time warp that wasn’t just a jump to the left and a step to the right. It felt like a jump off a cliff, with no coming back.
Life is difficult enough without giving myself PTSD anew just from trying to write a book. After revisiting some of the hardest things in my life for the sake of my manuscript, I realized that if I don’t remind myself that I’m deliberately going in and coming out, I could get stuck back in an ugly place I’ve already spent too much time in.
So I started a new ritual. When I’m writing, I turn on my Himalayan salt lamp. They’re supposed to cleanse the air and boost your mood. I’m not sure I believe in any of that, but mine casts a pretty pink light (and if it boosts my mood, that certainly wouldn’t hurt). When I light the lamp, it means I’m going in, and whatever happens while the writing lamp is on, I get to leave behind when I turn the writing lamp off. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough to serve as a reminder that whatever might feel like it’s happening in the present isn’t really. I am writing because I have learned from my experiences, not because I want to relive them all.
If new writers ask me for advice, I tell them to keep writing no matter what. They’ll figure out the craft in time. First they need to just write. And now, if writers I know turn to memoir and ask me the same, I tell them to find a ritual to protect themselves. Whether it’s turning a lamp on and off like I do, lighting a candle, saying a mantra or a prayer, setting a timer, or having some other routine, it’s helpful to have something to keep them – especially if they’re writing about trauma – grounded in the present, to help them remember who they are now, and that they already did all that work to get here once. Stay here. Yes, we need to dive deep, but equally important is making sure we know how to get ourselves safely back aboard the boat.
If we can do that, the rest will come more easily.
Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.
January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Kristin Gallagher
I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.
As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.
How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.
So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.
In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.
After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.
The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.
It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.
On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.