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.”
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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.
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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.

The Joy of Detail in Nonfiction

October 4, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Sonya Huber

“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.

In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.

I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.

It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.

I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.
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Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.

So That’s Why I’m Writing These Pages: An Aspiring Memoirist’s Response to Joy Harjo’s Wisdom

September 29, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Margaret Moore

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I sat in my living room as U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recited these words during the virtual 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference keynote address. I was engaged in the event, drinking up the magnificent art of Harjo’s lines as they mixed with melodies played by her band in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With the long work week catching up to me, my mind faded in its attention to detail, though, listening to the poetry as something relaxing.

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I jumped when Harjo posed these questions, sitting back up from the slightly reclined position I had been lounging in my motorized wheelchair.  

Harjo was describing the troubled state of the world. I’m sure her lines were intended to ponder the wisdom that will emerge from the pandemic and current societal tensions. I couldn’t help but take these words more literally, though, considering how they describe my writing process.

I have been writing my first memoir for thirteen or fourteen years.

I am 24 years old now.

Yes, I started writing my book as a fourth grader.

I still have some drafts from my early youth. With misspelled words like ‘delishus,’ lines like “Lois made me chocolate pudding and it was yummy,” and attempts to depict every detail of my school day, every friendship I had, and every story that my teachers told about the goofy stuff in their home lives—something I’m sure they would (not) appreciate—they make me laugh and inspire me on days when writing seems impossible.

I was pegged as a writer in second grade, when my teacher recognized my talents. Having almost lost my life at birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, I grew up as a physically disabled child with a wheelchair and communication device. My father died of cancer when I was a baby, and my brothers and I were raised by a single mother. Because of my mom’s initiatives to find the best school system and assistive technology, I have succeeded in academics and extracurricular activities. My teacher thought my story could inspire others and suggested that I write a memoir. I had loved writing since I composed my very first story in her class. Her vision became my dream.

Knowing my strengths and desire to pursue a writing career, my high school guidance counselor put me in a senior creative writing class as a freshman. I also took an advanced creative writing independent study as a senior, where my project was to draft my memoir.

“I know why this is important to you—I’ve seen you live it for three-going-on-four years,” my teacher said each time he reviewed a chapter. “But you need to show readers that don’t know you why it is. Why is it significant that you played soccer in your walker on a team and did Girl Scouts with your able-bodied friends? What is your ‘so what?’”

I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I was told that I was partaking in activities typically labeled ‘off-limits’ to people with disabilities and that I should share my experiences so others may find their way to similar endeavors. I wanted my book to help people. That’s all I knew.

Part of me wondered whether I would ever be able to adequately depict my intended ‘so what’ and that, if I was not able to, my memoir would merely seem like a collection of interesting anecdotes.

Now pursuing my MFA in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, I’m rewriting the scenes that remain major fixtures of my story—those that show me participating in activities alongside my abled-bodied peers.

One of the most influential gems I have gained from the program is that I need to provide vivid descriptions of what it physically and emotionally feels like when I move my tight muscles and use assistive equipment. I’ve learned to dissect the actions that my family, school staff, and I take to make activities accessible, giving readers an in-depth look at these accommodations.

I recently rewrote a scene in which I joined Girl Scouts at five years old. I describe how I did not have the muscle coordination to form the three-fingered Girl Scout sign and how, to compensate, my mother guided my hand into position and held it like that at every event. I intended for this scene simply to show my physical experience of scouting, but, after rereading it, the themes at the heart of my memoir leapt out. There were the concepts of inclusion that made all the difference in my life. There was my mother bridging the gap between my abilities and the requirements of able-bodied activities. I suddenly found my ‘so what’—that individuals coping with disabilities and adversity can overcome barriers to participate in life’s ordinary and extraordinary activities.

My scenes, I realized, needed to be just like this Girl Scout one, magnifying actions that my family, my school, and I have taken to ensure inclusion. They must have layers showing what it felt like to physically move while supported by others or assistive technology and how it felt emotionally to navigate obstacles.

My book is by no means a guide possessing all the answers for how inclusion must be implemented for every disabled person in the world, but I hope it can be a source of inspiration that offers ideas on overcoming challenges.

“What will we know when this page is done?” Joy Harjo asks. “Who will we be?”

If we delve deeply into details of our physical and emotional experiences, we will find ourselves discovering who we are as writers. At the end of the page, we will be warriors who have successfully weathered life’s most grueling terrain. We will be fierce advocates for inclusion, justice, and peace. We will be leaders guiding others to a more accessible and compassionate world.

_____

Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.

Can Writing Memoir Trigger Old Emotions? Within The Hidden Landscape of Our Heart

September 22, 2021 § 14 Comments

By Mary J. Breen

In the many memoir classes I’ve taught, I’ve blithely told my students that since writing might stir up old and difficult feelings, it was good to pay attention as they can teach us a lot. By old feelings I meant flashes of anger or frustration, or the reawakened pain of old wounds. I assumed the arrival of these stirred-up feelings would be very obvious.

Then I started writing about my mother.

Some background: I was born in 1944, the only child of 41-year-old, devout Catholics. To my kind and loving father, I was a miracle; to my mother, I was a gift, but also a project. She was going to be the exemplary mother of an exemplary child, and to achieve this, she would use the same guiding principles that had made her an exemplary teacher: be completely in charge and know all the answers. And so, she set about trying to have absolute control over me: what I ate, wore, read, played, said, and learned. To get my compliance, she didn’t hesitate to use sudden hard smacks and loud anger. (I wonder if she ever understood how afraid I became of her, and if she thought this was how it should be.) When I was a teenager and later an adult, she continued her attempts to mould me through relentless criticisms of my looks, actions, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. But it didn’t work. I became her great and embarrassing failure, and a heathen to boot. Her shame, her stubbornness, and her fury increased with every passing year to the point that she wouldn’t allow me and my children to visit, and in her will, she left most of her treasured things, including her house, to people I didn’t even know.

Forty years after her death, I no longer hear her scoldings playing in my head, and I would have said that I have, for the most part, put her criticisms behind me. Of course, I’ve talked about her and thought about her a great deal over the years. I’ve also published many memoir pieces, but I hadn’t before tried to spell out in detail the exact nature of my mother’s tyranny. I didn’t unearth new significant memories during the writing process, but the writing certainly helped to give me a better understanding of my parents and their choices. It also led me to feel more sympathy for her, and it showed me that her loneliness in her later years was not all my doing. It also gave me the freedom to say publically that, despite how many people—including my dear, dear father—loved and admired her, she was wrong to have treated me this harshly. It’s even allowed me to move closer to accepting that, like it or not, she was my mother.

While I was writing, I felt neither sad nor angry nor fearful, just very preoccupied. Then, a month or so in, I began to feel nervous and vulnerable at home—but only at home. My partner would say something like, “What have you been doing today?” and I’d immediately feel afraid, sure I was going to have to account for how I’d spent my day, and sure this was the beginning of the kind of interrogation my mother specialized in that would lead to criticism and punishment. More and more, I found myself within a fog of apprehension, with moments of genuine fear when I was asked to make decisions about utterly minor things like what we might cook for dinner. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t yet connect these new feelings with writing about my mother.

And then, a few weeks later, I happened to read something that reminded me of how memoir writing can trigger old emotions, and the penny dropped: could it be that I was actually being ambushed by old feelings of fear and anxiety because I was writing about them? Could it be that the writing had rekindled the feelings I’d had so often when I lived with her? Was this why it seemed as if I had been thrown back to a time when my mother governed me and my life? With this realization, the thinking part of my brain woke up and set about reminding me that my mother would not be descending from above—as she had been wont to do in real life—ready to persecute me for whatever I had chosen to do. Moreover, it reminded me that I do not live with someone who picks on me, and reacting to this patient, kind person in my current life as if he were a threat was very unfair. As I paid more attention to the feelings, the incongruity between what I knew and what I felt became more understandable and less overwhelming. And within this process, these distressing feelings mostly faded away.

I don’t know if what I experienced is commonplace. I don’t know if feelings from the past often arrive like a kind of covert mission, infiltrate the brain unannounced, and then appear as if they belonged in one’s current life. I don’t know how long these periods typically last, nor how intense they can be. I also don’t know the best ways to handle them.

What I do know is that when my students are writing about the past, I plan to be much clearer in my warnings about how subtle and challenging these feelings can be. It certainly has been a huge reminder that we can never fully understand the landscape of our hearts.

If Brevity readers have thoughts about this issue, I, and maybe others too, would love to hear them.

___

Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Windsor Review. She also spent several years writing and editing easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada where, among other things, she sometimes teaches creative nonfiction and memoir classes while continuing her fruitless search for a publisher for her memoir.

What Makes for Good Creative Nonfiction Writing?

August 13, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Suzanne Farrell Smith

One of the many measures my sons’ elementary school has in place for pandemic-time in-person learning is file boxes: an open box under each chair to hold all personal materials, so no one shares crayons or germs. Smart—in theory. In practice, the boxes are a bit of a mess. In and out go folders, books, pencils, markers, stickers, rulers, paper clips, paper masks, notes from home, notes for home, open hand sanitizer bottles, used tissues, animal crackers, empty juice boxes, pepperoni, Cheetos. The box is like a closet without bars and shelves. A catch-all with no way to catch.

I love my closets with their bars and shelves, dedicated boxes and bins. As a highly organized person, I hang my dresses from sleeveless to long sleeve, knee-length to ankle. My tops are sorted by color, then by pattern. Towels are stacked by shape. My closets are 3D Excel spreadsheets.

When I think of creative nonfiction, I think of the genre as a wide-open box, one that is ever expanding to include more shapes and inventions. I love it. But … well, I like my bars and shelves, my containers.

To better understand the contours and corners of creative nonfiction, I organize the genre. Using Sue William Silverman’s definitions in “The Meandering River,” I’ve built a spreadsheet that arranges the subgenres by focus and length. I’ve developed a list of characteristics for each subgenre and a list of characteristics specific to brief pieces. I’ve catalogued my library by content and again by type (traditional memoir, experimental memoir, essay collections, etc.). I like to find things easily. I like to know a type of writing when I see it. I like to place essays in conversation with each other, to read similarly styled pieces in one sitting, to learn more about the whole by reading lots of the parts.

The resource I use most often, in both teaching and writing, is my list of what makes creative nonfiction writing good. Before I share the list, a caveat: search “traits of good writing” and you’ll find pages for days. When I taught elementary school, my colleagues and I assessed our students’ work with “6 Traits” and, later, “6 + 1 Traits” from Education Northwest. To evaluate my undergraduate students’ essays, I used the campus writing center’s 10-characteristic rubric. Teaching graduate school, I offered a four-criteria scale on creative works. (These resources are included below this post.)

Adult writers are my students now, and over the past few years, I’ve combined and condensed the lists into one that I find easy to teach, apply, and remember. The list is a touchstone for my students when they ask for and provide specific feedback and as a means to closely evaluate their prose. Good creative nonfiction writing is COCOC: clear, organized, coherent, original, and correct.

  • Clear: The writing is clear, both at the macro level and sentence level. It has a strong core, or purpose/central idea. (Recall being asked “What is the main idea?” on reading comprehension tests.) The piece reads fluently. If an essay is clear, readers are not lost in time and space. Readers don’t re-read sentences or paragraphs searching for context. The only questions readers ask are the ones the writer wants them to ask. 
  • Organized: The piece has a form, shape/controlling design, and structure. For example, for a particular story, I might choose the subgenre of personal essay (form), use a symmetrical pattern to swing back and forth between the personal and the universal (shape), and decide where to start, where to end, and how much of each side to include (structure).
  • Coherent: Summaries, scenes, and details support the core. Nothing seems like a diversion too far afield. Everything hangs together (like a well-organized closet).
  • Original: The voice is distinct and reveals identity and personality. There’s evident commitment to telling a true story with craft and connecting in an honest, intimate way with readers. The writer has taken care to say things in new ways.
  • Correct: Rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are followed. If a rule is broken, it’s intentional and meaningful. 

For very brief pieces, I add a sixth trait: compressed. Like a peony on the verge of blooming, a small wonder, or flash, contains a showstopper inside a bud no bigger than a marble.

The funny thing about all my defining and listing is that I edit a journal called Waterwheel Review, and we don’t label the pieces we publish by genre. Not creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Nothing. We let the author decide what it is and let readers decide how to receive it. And we infuse each issue with other arts: music, film, painting, sculpture, a science project, a video of two men chopping logs for a fence. As a teacher and writer, I order everything. As a publisher, I let Waterwheel be a big ole file box.

~

Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of The Memory Sessions, a memoir about her search for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a guidebook for writing teachers. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for her essay “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity. She teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop, mentors emerging authors, reads for Longridge Review, and is founding editor of Waterwheel Review. Suzanne lives by a creek in the Connecticut woods with her husband and three sons. More can be found at suzannefarrellsmith.com.

~

References

Elementary (6 + 1 Traits from Education Northwest)

  1. Ideas: The student has a main point or storyline with supporting details. The writing has clarity, focus, and a sense of purpose.
  2. Organization: There’s a sound internal structure of the piece. The student organizes, groups, and sequences.
  3. Voice: The student brings the topic to life by showing enthusiasm for writing. The writing shows evidence of the writer’s personality and style.
  4. Word choice: The student understands there are different ways to say things and stretches to use new words and phrases.
  5. Sentence Fluency: The writing has rhythm and flow, with a variety of sentence structures and lengths.
  6. Conventions: The student shows awareness of spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, and capitalization.
  7. Presentation: The student has taken care with the overall appearance of the work.

Undergraduate (points range from 1 to 5 for each)

  1. The essay is coherent.                                           
  2. The essay is clear.                                                 
  3. The essay makes a well-organized argument.
  4. The essay proposes an original perspective or otherwise advances an existing debate.
  5. Adequate research is included.      
  6. The essay effectively uses quotations, summary, and paraphrase.                                                 
  7. The essay uses details and examples effectively.
  8. Paragraphs are clear, focused and structurally sound.
  9. Transitions between sentences and paragraphs skillfully move the writing forward.                      
  10. Standard English grammar is correctly used.

Graduate (points range from 1 to 25 for each)

  1. The piece tells one true story with a central conflict and resolution/learning.
  2. The piece includes actions, details, and dialogue to bring the true story to life.
  3. The piece is clear, coherent, and organized.
  4. The piece is on time; has been revised through the writing process; is edited and proofread for conventions; includes name, the title, and page numbers; is double-spaced in a standard 12-point font.

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