Finding the Form: From Fiction to Memoir

February 16, 2016 § 43 Comments

Dorothy Rice

Dorothy Rice

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 § 7 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.

And recoiled.

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

Anika Fajardo

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.

Sara Dovre Wudali

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

PhotoAaronTeelWe 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 FormThis 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

awp manA 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.

Memoir of My Marriage: Finding the One [Version, Revision, Iteration, Incarnation] that Finally Worked

May 11, 2022 § 14 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Six years ago, when I was confidently writing my first memoir, I broadcasted to the whole world, blogging about what I should—and shouldn’t—tell my teens about my cross-cultural, inter-denominational marriage, how I filled in memory gaps with old letters to my mother and friends, and why my manuscript eventually hit a wall.

Really, though, I started writing this story long before that. For my first workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts two years earlier, I shared “Root and Reach,” my essay contrasting my ungrounding moves with grounding yoga poses. The feedback: write a book. Each move should be its own chapter, and each chapter needed more scenes. Overwhelmed, I put it away.

After reading my essay about running for shelter during an Israeli military operation in 2014 and during the First Gulf War 23 years prior, my mentor suggested I write about my marriage, about love and compromise. By graduation a year later, I’d written 65,000 words. The facts were straight, my emotional truth was clear, but something bothered me. The writing was flat, uninteresting; the story overwritten.

Time passed. A writer-friend in northern California and I offered each other feedback on our manuscripts. She, like one of my VCFA mentors, suggested I ask a different question, write more my journey, less my marriage. 

That same week, I read the British magazine Mslexia’s call for submissions:

J is for… a piece of creative non-fiction, up to 300 words.

A word jumped at me: jury. I opened my manuscript and found the sad day when my spouse and I sat in our White Plains, New York sunroom, deliberating about his need to return to Israel, where we met and married 20 years earlier, and my desire to stay stateside. I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled until my long, dull chapter reached 294 words and sang. Every month, I answered their calls for K (for Kasher), L (for Lire), M (for Mess), slowly working my way through the alphabet.

That spring, I took a flash workshop with Kathy Fish, responding feverishly to her prompts, each capped at 500/300/250 words. The result: the fewer my words, the clearer the writing. The group feedback: write a memoir-in-flash about my Israeli life.

On fire, I reframed my question, focusing on my search for my authentic self since landing in Israel in 2011, writing short vignettes of varying lengths, each under 1,000 words.

Then, last year, a reader-friend in southern California, encouraged me to consider putting together a chapbook. Did I have anything I’d already written centered on a certain theme?

I opened my first memoir. Zoomed in on the beginning, the middle, and the end: when my husband and I met in Israel in our early twenties, when we raised young children in America in our thirties and early forties, when we returned to Israel at almost fifty. Again, I cut and sculpted, compressed and chiseled, aiming for short and concise. I searched for prose chapbooks, entered it in competitions, and received a slew of rejections. Six months later and still submitting, I stumbled upon an open call for experimental prose. Clueless and curious, I opened my vignette called Zigzag and spread the text across the page to reflect the title. In Pro-Con, I formed two columns and used the + and – to show my list. On and on I went to follow one mentor’s sage advice and play on the page. The result: an experimental memoir-in-shorts (which I call memoir-ella), complete at not quite 10,000 words.

In early November, my manuscript was one of four finalists and received encouraging feedback from the editor. It didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Later that month, I submitted it to Vine Leaves Press, a traditional publisher that prints vignette collections. A few months later, I awakened to an email with subject line: OFFER OF PUBLICATION and a two-page, in-depth letter of evaluation, highlighting everything that works and why. My heart bounced—with relief, with gratitude, with awe. For the learning curve, the process, the persistence.

One night, between REM and some other disturbing midlife sleep state, I realized that I have two memoirs: this shorter, playful part I about my marriage and a longer one, also in vignettes, about me part II. My greatest hope is that it doesn’t take me another decade and five more iterations to find a special press that says yes.
___

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Often findable on her yoga mat–practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003–with her legs up her living room wall. Her experimental memoir-in-shorts, Places We Left Behind, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in September 2023.

Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in a New Anthology

May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.

What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.

These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.

But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.

But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.

My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.

Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.

I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.

RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?

DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.

And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.

RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?

DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.

Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.

RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?

DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.

RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?

DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.

RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?

DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:

It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?

I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.

____

Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.

How Creating a Writing Workshop Brought Me Back to My (Neglected) Memoir

May 3, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Nina B. Lichtenstein

If you are anything like me, you have a partial or completed manuscript that you’re dreading getting back to. You have spent a lot of time writing, thinking about, workshopping, editing, developing, and fine-tuning this yet-to-be published project, but there are limits to your perseverance, so your darling has been stuck in the proverbial drawer for longer than you care to admit, even to yourself.

A memoir I am working on, My Body Remembers, started as writing assignments during my MFA in creative nonfiction. I’d woken up one night during my first semester with a terrible ache in my hip. Having just lost a friend to cancer I immediately felt gloomy about my pain, but also grateful for a body that had, after all, been my reliable companion for more than fifty years. Four semesters later, my thesis consisted of a “full-bodied” 270-page manuscript with chapters titled “breasts,” “hips,” “nose,” “hands,” etc. I felt stoked about the concept and my completed degree, but now what?

After a good while writing shorter pieces and publishing personal and craft essays about other topics (walking away from the body-project felt really good), I decided it was time to find a developmental editor who was willing to work with me and my manuscript. Her extensive notes and edits were what I expected: a frank and generous validation of my writerly abilities and a detailed outline on what needed to be improved and how to do it. Ah, the revisions. What a pain. Back in the drawer my manuscript went for another long while. Months. Seasons. 

Then my friend Jennifer Lang, who runs a writers’ studio in Tel Aviv where I live, invited me to teach a workshop. There is nothing like having to prepare a presentation or workshop to whip me into shape around the topic I care about and have been working on. Give me a deadline and an (even small) audience, and I perk right up. Add some (even paltry) financial compensation to the mix, and now I also feel more professional about the topic.

I had a few weeks this winter to build “Writing the Body” into a 3-hour meaningful writing experience for the participants; now I was excited to unearth all that body material I had worked so hard on for several years. I re-discovered my carefully crafted introduction that could serve as a jumping-off point for the workshop, and all the body writing prompts I had created in my manuscript for the reader. Now the words, sentences, scenes and chapters in my manuscript served a new purpose, and this energized me about the work still to do.

Running a workshop will not only revitalize your own work, but your students/participants’ work can spark new insights and deepen understanding of your subject and yourself. One “Writing the Body” participant picked “vagina/labia/uterus” from the wild-card writing-prompt basket I had prepared, and what she shared with the group blew me away. I had never thought of (my) uterus in a cross-generational way, but she not only wrote with gratitude about her own, having carried three children, but connected this to the uterus of her mother who had given her life, and to that of her daughter, about to give the author her first grandchild. Suddenly, the idea of our bodies telling stories grew in scope as the writer evoked a whole new and meaningful perspective of bodily connections through time. How can this idea enhance my own work? I thought.

Thanks to the workshop I was able to prepare and teach, body parts—including what I call their muscle and emotional memories—moved to front and center in my consciousness again. This is where they belong if I want to finish revisions and take my project to the next level: publication.

If you need a kick in the butt (or a gentle nudge in the hip) to get moving on a project you’ve been writing for a while but grown tired or discouraged about, creating a workshop, conference presentation or session is one way to get re-invested and re-energized.

Participating in the literary community—being a good literary citizen—through teaching keeps me in the loop about our profession/field and helps me build relationships with other writers, which in turn bring ideas and opportunities. Often, and especially since Covid, this typically takes place online, but that is how I got to know Jennifer Lang, who runs the Israel Writers Studio and invited me to run a class. Go ahead, dive in and find your opportunity: you won’t regret it.

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv. She has a PhD in French literature and an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Tablet, the Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Lilith, and AARP’s The Ethel, among other places.

AWP Thursday Event: Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future

March 22, 2022 § 3 Comments


If you are attending AWP this week, please drop by Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future: A Speculative Brevity Reading on Thursday morning at 10:35 am, in Room 124 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Deesha Philyaw, Natalie Lima, Ander Monson and Ira Sukrungruang will discuss future possibilities for the flash nonfiction form and genre hybrids just now emerging, along with brief readings and audience discussion. Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will moderate.

With the popularity of flash rocketing forward, it is a good time to explore what’s next for this incredibly rich genre, why it is so perfect for the classroom, how it helps us write about trauma and other difficult subjects, the overlap with poetry, and the growing body of memoirs in flash.

Following the panel/discussion, authors from The Best of Brevity anthology wll be signing copies of the book at the Rose Metal Press Table in the Bookfair, Table 550. The signing should start around noon (depending on how long it takes us to walk over.)

See you in Philly!

Search Results

You are currently viewing the search results for From Fiction to Memoir.

%d bloggers like this: