How I Turned Essays Into Memoir

April 21, 2020 § 20 Comments

By Sandell Morse

I started with a name given to me by poet Marilyn Kallet. Jean Hirsch was a nine-year-old resistance courier during the Second World War, a time that interested me. The boy lived in Auvillar, France, a village where I’d been awarded a writing residency. My maiden name is Hirsch, and with those matching names, I felt an instantaneous connection to this child’s history. During my residency, I would research and write essays about him and his family. As I dug deeper, I began to uncover Auvillar’s secret history of both resistance and collaboration.

The web of the boy’s story spread to Paris, Toulouse, Montauban, and Beaulieu sur Dordogne. For six years, I returned to France every fall. I followed leads. I interviewed a ninety-two-year-old woman who had been a caretaker in a secret house that protected Jewish refugee children. I read widely. I wrote about myself, a woman in my seventies, traveling solo, searching, and researching. I wove my story into these French stories, and I published my essays in ASCENT, Ploughshares, Solstice, Fourth Genre, and others.

Why not gather them into a collection?

But how? I signed up for a seminar, “Finding Your Book.” The instructor was a literary agent. What could be better? She suggested I begin each essay or chapter with an italicized paragraph that would stitch the collection together. “Of course, you’ll need to transform some of these essays,” she said.

A good student, I followed her advice. If my collection had been a dress, it would have been sewn by a five-year-old, large stitches, small stitches, sleeves long and short, hem uneven. But in the process, I had unspooled more of my own story—narrative glue.

Virginia Woolf wrote about rods. She described those rods as an underlying pattern. I thought of a shadow story under each of my French stories. Where was Woolf’s text, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary? I lifted each down from my book shelf and scanned for markings. Now, Moments of Being. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf writes: “… one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool.”

Woolf’s “cotton wool” is daily life, the living we don’t remember, taking out the trash, cooking dinner, washing clothes. A pattern is drawn under that cotton wool. I felt that pattern in my manuscript and in myself. I was a persona, writing from a certain time and place. I was also a person who had been shaped by memory and thought, salient images and knowledge. All of my writing, each word in that manuscript, had formed in relation to an invisible pattern. A trip to an open market brought back images of my childhood, when I shopped with Mama, my grandmother, an immigrant from a place she called Russ-Poland. We all lived together, my mother, my father and me, in Mama’s and Papa’s yellow stucco house in Morristown, New Jersey. Mama and I would pull my red wagon up Early Street and into town where we’d shop at the vegetable store, the chicken store, and the bakery. Every step, every breath in France became research. At home in Maine, I wrote and I rewrote. I pulled my own story from background to foreground. I filled in gaps. I tore the manuscript apart and rearranged chapters and scenes. I followed my intuition: This feels right. Not this, at least, not here.

I dove deeper. I turned to Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story. I wrote a quote on a sticky note and attached it to the edge of my desk: “It’s the depth of inquiry that guides the personal narrative from essay into memoir.” I thought of Adrienne Rich, and I reread “Diving into the Wreck.” A different subject but a similar emotional truth. I was going down, “Rung after rung and still/ the oxygen immerses me/ the blue light/ the clear atoms/ of human air.” Like the protagonist in the poem, I was searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.”

At my computer, I remembered an evening in Paris. I had made my way to a tiny bistro in the Marais. Inside, wooden tables sat on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine. As I struggled to find space for my knees under the table, an image rose, my grandmother’s black lace up shoe, her foot pressing down on the treadle. Again, the past swam under the clear surface of the present. My grandmother spoke with a Yiddish accent. My father taught me to be ashamed of that accent. He denied my Eastern-European roots. “We’re German-Jewish,” he said.

Remembering that evening I swam deeper into questions and doubts about my own story of growing up Jewish in America and deeper into the stories of Jews in Vichy France who believed they were French, only to find themselves herded into boxcars heading east to the camps. Often, I’d chosen to hide my Jewish identity and pass. Yet, had I been a toddler living in Paris during Nazi Occupation, most likely, I would not have survived.

My book of essays became a double journey: an exploration of my Jewish identity and an historical and imaginative rendering of the stories of my travels and research. I needed an ending. I found it in the middle of my manuscript, a transformative moment. I moved it to the end. Voilá, a finished memoir. Nearly nine years will have passed from first essay to publication.

Transformation takes time.


Sandell Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in ASCENT, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Solstice, among others. Her memoir, The Spiral Shell, A French Village Reveals it Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II is now out from Schaffner Press. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @sandellmorse.

A Review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric

January 18, 2016 § 1 Comment


Sandell Morse

Sandell Morse

By Sandell Morse

Sometimes a book comes along and I take it in like breath, filling my lungs, then letting it go, slowly, dispersing and touching every cell in my body. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was one of those books, as was Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. These books transformed my thinking and changed the way I saw my world. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric is one of those life-changing books.

I found the book talking with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, poet and friend, about his work, about my work, each of us stretching our genres in different ways, Gibson moving into prose poems, me turning my hybrid essays about Jews, War and Vichy France into narrative. I like to read as I write, the words of others stirring my mind and filling the well of my creativity. I asked Gibson what he was reading. “Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It’s hybrid, prose/poetry.”

Although the book was a National Book Award finalist, I’d never heard of it. “Good?” I asked.


Citizen is about race but so much more. Visibility, invisibility. I thought of the early eighties when I was at Dartmouth, matriculating for a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree, studying with visiting professor Ishmael Reed, novelist and satirist extraordinaire and with Bill Cook, poet, English professor and chair of African-American Studies. Ishmael published my first stories in Quilt, a journal he edited with Al Young. Bill staged a reading of a play I’d written; yet, I understood that neither of my wise, witty and generous Dartmouth professors could hail a cab in New York City, the cabbie seeing only the blackness of their skin. And today? Better, but are we willing to settle for better?

In Citizen, Rankine blurs the line between you and I, between prose and poetry, as she writes eloquently and stingingly of race in America. There is so much white space in the text, as if to underscore the whiteness most of see, blinding us to the everyday slights of what it means to live inside black skin, a seat left empty on a train or a bus because the seat beside it is occupied by a person of color, a white person cutting in front of the narrator in a drug store line and then apologizing because he did not see her. In Citizen, racial slights are everywhere, at the supermarket, in a restaurant, at work, online, on TV, on the tennis court and at center court for Serena Williams. Visual imagery accompanies the text, and taking up a full page, a shocking photo of Caroline Wiozniacki, a former number one player, imitating Serena Williams by stuffing towels in her top and in her shorts, creating bizarre breasts and ass, mocking the black female body, Wiozniacki’s hand touching her own ass, her blond hair pulled back, her red lips smiling coquettishly, as she ridicules the best female tennis player of all time. All in good fun? A joke? Racist?

So many bad calls for Serena, serves and lines, so many bad calls for all black Americans, the cabbie who won’t stop, a neighbor who calls police because she sees a black person pacing in front of the house next door, police, killing unarmed black boys and men, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice…

Rankine’s mind is razor sharp, her prose clean, sparse and beautiful. She is a joy to read, but tough to bear as she holds up a mirror to who we are. We ask ourselves: what does citizenship mean? That we can answer a few basic history questions? Or that we share a commitment to equality? All of us, regardless of race or religion, are connected. The measure of our humanity lies in whether or not we will continue to tolerate injustice the injustice that surrounds us. In Citizen, Rankine is asking us to change the way we see. If we see, we will be able to act—if we choose.


Sandell Morse’s work has appeared in numerous publications including, Creative NonfictionPloughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Ascent. “Brown Leather Satchel” has won second place in the 2015 Tiferet nonfiction contest, and has also been named a finalist in the Orison Books Anthology 2015, nonfiction contest judged by Ann Hood. “Hiding” is a notable essay of 2013, listed in Best American Essays, 2013. “Houses” has been nominated for Best of the Net, 2014 and also for a Pushcart Prize. “Canning Jars,” has won an honorable mention in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, 2013. “Circling My Father” won the 2010 Michael Steinberg essay award. Morse has won awards for her work from Press 53 and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.

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