Shut Up and Listen: A Recent MFA Grad’s Thesis Journey

August 15, 2018 § 5 Comments

AIRushBy Amanda Irene Rush

In my journals from twenty years ago I have found entries of what I can only see now as early drafts of my thesis. Bitter passages about my alcoholic father and his inappropriate confessions, laments about my mentally ill mother and how I felt her a ghost, an early account of a cherished family relic and what it symbolized. My thesis had been in the making for a very long time.

Yet, when I entered the Ashland University MFA in Creative Writing program in 2016, it was not a family memoir I had in mind. What I had was a revision of a manuscript I had begun in 2009 about my first four years as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The first 125 pages covered the span of 12 weeks. I recently did the math: at that plodding pace I was on my way to over 2,000 pages.

The problems with the manuscript became clear during my first residency. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and realized I had a situation but no story. I had never considered the difference. Steve Harvey drove the point home with his gentle but relentless focus on theme — what, he asked, is my narrator’s comment on life?

Steve also taught me about kronos and kairos — those two ways of experiencing time on the page — and what a crucial thing pacing is. My pages were steeped in scenes. Everything got equal time, so even if I had a theme, it was diluted with my overpour of words.

From Bonnie Rough, I learned the difference between the character self and the narrator self. I had been relying on my fiction training: I was showing a lot through my character self, but telling little. Until I read Phillip Lopate, I didn’t know you could — and should — do both in creative nonfiction.

I left that first residency with a plan: go back to the manuscript; focus on one chapter; eliminate any unnecessary scenes; add exposition; shrink or expand time as needed; locate my narrator self and get her on the page; identify my themes. Easy peasy, I thought. It would be like those paint-by-numbers I used to do as a kid. I didn’t have to know what to draw; just follow instructions.

It didn’t work. The revised version — though I had followed all instructions carefully — was even worse. The words seemed dead on the page. I felt that the harder I tried to cram the manuscript into my box of a plan, the less control I had over it. I knew I had to find a better way.

zz PhiloNotesI have been a doodler since college. I call them “doodles” because they are born from my subconscious, not my imagination. I don’t render them into existence, so much as they seem to choose to be expressed. Whenever I try to draw something on purpose the image is crude and uninspired. But, when I let the pen or pencil or crayon do its thing, what comes out is usually the beginning of something surprising and engaging which I can then enhance.

I wondered: could I do this with writing? I started with a prompt (a picture, a doodle, a memory, a journal entry, an object) and I free-typed with as little preconceived notion as I could muster. I could feel the difference immediately. The words started to take on a shape and texture like never before. I started a new folder in Google Docs called “Raw Doodles,” each file a piece that may or may not fit later into a larger whole. I shelved my expectations and just kept doodling. When each packet came due, I scrapped chronology and arranged the “doodles” into associative patterns, trusting that eventually my themes and my story would emerge — this time not by my pulling and prodding, but by me listening to what the material was trying to tell me and letting it guide me to where it wanted to go.

It worked. It was my “in.” And what I learned was that the story of becoming a nurse practitioner — the story of finding myself in a position that I felt I simultaneously did not belong and was made for — was not the actual story; it was merely the situation. The real story was deeper and more complex. A story about how we break and search for wholeness, how we struggle to make sense of our experience, how we ask questions that are mostly unanswerable, how we go on anyway — asking more. Ultimately, it’s a story of me looking at where I came from to understand who I have become.

This was all well and good.

But how to structure it all in a way that was both cohesive and aesthetically pleasing? Over winter break, before my final, thesis, semester, I tried many ways to intuit the structure the manuscript wanted to take. I spread the pages out, cut sections and taped them elsewhere, shuffled and sorted and sweated over the sheets and sheets before me. I was hoping for a pattern to arise; none did.

For my first draft submission to Kate Hopper I patched it together best I could, actively avoiding any kind of chronology for fear I’d fall into the same rut as before. I had worked with Kate in the past; I trusted her instincts. But when she came back and suggested a chronological arrangement — to eliminate confusion for the reader, to avoid unnecessary repetition, to enhance the sense of urgency — well, let’s just say I was not in agreement. But, as I said, I trusted Kate, so, after a few weeks of kicking-and-screaming contemplation, I started to arrange things chronologically.

And it worked. The structure emerged of parallel narratives. The “now” of the story beginning with a scene in my therapist’s office in 2008 when I am on the cusp of becoming a nurse practitioner, wondering how I got there and why I hurt. The “then” of the story, reaching back before I was born, and moving forward in time with brief intervals between sections wherein I return to my therapist’s office. Within each section, the material is still largely associative, but the underlying chronology gives the manuscript much needed solid footing.

The manuscript is far from finished. I know that. What I also know — perhaps the most important thing I will take from this program — is that each writer must find her own way, must do the work herself. There is no prescriptive way of doing things. No paint-by-number shortcuts. At least, not for me. Through this thesis process, I felt more a channeler than a writer. My story was there all along; I just had to shut up and listen.

Amanda Irene Rush is a writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner living in central Ohio. Her work has appeared in Vanderbilt Press’ 2008 anthology The Way We Work and the Bellevue Literary Review. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University.

On Searching for a Book’s Structure

July 30, 2018 § 15 Comments

rae_pBy Rae Pagliarulo

I’ve been trying to find a structure for my book. You know, the book that doesn’t exist. The one I haven’t written yet.

It’s like building a house when you don’t have any furniture yet. Wait, no – that’s a totally normal thing to do. Nobody builds a house based on what furniture they have. What a crappy metaphor.

Okay – trying to build a structure for a book you haven’t written yet is like opening a restaurant before you have any recipes. Or plates. Or silverware. Or money. I think that works. Does that work?


I have a folder in my Google Drive where I collect all the new things I’m writing. Not the long, meandering documents where I braindump about how I’m talentless and unmotivated and will never achieve the literary greatness I know I am destined for. No, I just put in the essay starts. The intriguing sentences. The snippets of dialogue. The scenes I can’t stop replaying in my head. The stuff that will probably turn into something.

Some of them turn into flash pieces, brief and bursting with detail and images. Some of them are long, drawn-out stories with background and context and reflection. Some are about the central narrative in my life – my relationship with my father. Some are totally unrelated – stories about my first love, jobs I’ve had, minor disasters. (Although – are they unrelated? That’s a different conversation.)

When I look at them all together, mismatched shreds of stories clashing, I wonder – how can I somehow create a cohesive thing, in which all of these pieces make sense?


A mosaic is defined as “a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.” Also, as a verb – “to combine distinct or disparate elements to form a picture or pattern.” Disparate. Diverse. Distinct. Coming together to create a pattern. More or less. Maybe that could work as an extended metaphor. I like that.*


Sometimes I feel like I can’t write another thing until I know what my structure is. Am I writing super-short essays with an overarching metaphor connecting them, like Beth Ann Fennelly did in Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs? Am I creating a braided narrative with four or five (or ten) distinct story lines, all with their own themes and recurring images, like Maggie Nelson did in Bluets? Am I manipulating an established form to illustrate my story through content and context like Joan Wickersham did with The Suicide Index? Or am I writing in-depth, longer essays that seamlessly merge research, personal narrative, and cultural context like Meghan Daum did in The Unspeakable? Maybe I’m meditating deeply on one core idea and creating surprising connections through a wide variety of stories from my life like Megan Stielstra did in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.


Sometimes I feel like I’ll never know what structure will work for me unless I keep writing, keep telling stories, keep getting it all out of me and working on it and manipulating it and rewriting it and rewriting it again. The stories will tell me what kind of house they want to live in, maybe. Are they in charge? Or am I? Who is our real estate agent? Do we want a condo or a split level?

This metaphor is not working.


I envy writers who can see the skeleton of their story before they’ve written it. A colleague of mine is teaching a class next semester on planning and outlining your novel. That stuns me. Is it possible for nonfiction writers to do the same thing with their essay collections and memoirs? Yes, it is. Just not for me.


So, I keep searching, questioning – and yes, essaying – towards a form, while trying to be comfortable with the journey. I know that, based on the way I work, and the discovery that occurs while I am working through an essay, I won’t be able to frame out the house before I’ve bought the furniture. I’ll have to keep collecting chaises and end tables, filing away scraps of vivid wallpaper and lush fabric, and I’ll have to believe that the pieces I’m compiling will eventually tell the story of a three-story townhouse near the water, with a screened-in back deck and bay windows in the front. I’ll have to keep the faith, as the dining chairs and throw pillows continue to pile up, that once I find that townhouse and fill it with all my treasures, the lot of it will make sense. Not just a house, but a home.

Huh. I guess the metaphor works after all.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.


Author and editor Steven Church also tackles finding a structure for a book of essays in his 2015 Brevity Blog post “How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book.


Verlyn Klinkenborg and Creative Destruction

July 25, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz_amosBy Peter Amos

I tried to read David Foster Wallace again. I also have a college friend who listens to Paganini for pleasure, a cousin who likes fried egg on his bacon cheeseburger, and a coworker who swears by the ‘cronut.’ Wallace mania is similar. I have nothing against him. It’s just a little much for me. I’m more the type for Palestrina, red onion and swiss, or sesame with butter (coffee light and sweet).

My favorite writers rotate daily, but Joan Didion and George Orwell border on obsession. I want to write like they do. I love plain language. Simple sentences sparkle with magic, no matter the complexity of the idea. Orwell never uses two words when one will do. Miles Davis moves blocks of silence around. Brevity is, in point of fact, a byproduct of vigor. The obvious problem is that I’m long-winded. The deeper problem is that I’m bad at editing.

My dad is an English teacher and suggested I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. It’s a bizarre little book, alternately cryptic and remarkably direct. To Klinkenborg, the sentence is foundational. Creative vocabulary languishes in a shoddy sentence. Tricks of the trade bend and buckle when the glue is weak. He suggests writing only sentences; not grouping them in paragraphs, but treating each separately. He forms them mentally, editing in real time and revising out of order and context. If a sentence stumbles without its neighbor, it has no business on the page.

I’ve tried my hand at burning dinner, juggling a soccer ball, and separating the roots of baby tomato plants. The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true. If I enjoy what I do, I’ll improve a bit and enjoy it more. If I grit my teeth and get better, I’ll have fun and the improvement accelerates.

I got a bit better at editing and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I delete the painfully clever sentence that doesn’t quite fit and I never look back. As I strip out the dust and refuse, the thing changes meaning. It’s like carving the form of a bird’s nest from a block of wood and sanding it into the shape of a mockingjay. In general, it’s no surprise that a bird hides in a nest but it feels like sorcery.

Of course editing is a thing you do, and work evolves. But I’ve always thought that adding words changed meaning and removing them clarified what was already there. Maybe there’s no difference. Some critics argue that art is what it is; words are words and color is color. Klinkenborg puts it differently. Meaning can’t be separated from the words. A bird is a bird regardless of the metal that makes the cage. But writers don’t capture an idea under a crosshatch of letters and spaces. Not just any word will do. The words are the idea and when I change them, even slightly, the meaning changes too. A verbal uncertainty principle. I can’t paraphrase an idea without changing it.

It sounds like voodoo until a draft lies in scraps on the parquet floor. I pluck a word from a sentence, trade a weak clause for something compact, and shrug. Three times, five times, ten times, a hundred and I’m staring at an idea I never noticed rattling around in my head. What remains is unfamiliar.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

Lately, There Have Been No Essays

July 23, 2018 § 8 Comments

Brame BW 300dpiBy Chelsey Clammer

Lately, I’ve been writing sentences that begin or end with “lately.” (Now with both, apparently.) Perhaps it’s my way of welcoming the reader to my words, to my present-day life, like I’m giving her a status update. Though the number of people who have read these “lately” essays is roughly zero because I have yet to finish any of them.

Lately, I’ve had a hard time final-drafting my essays. I got close to finishing “June Bugs” (opening line: “I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”), but then I ran into the problem of elocution. Within “June Bugs” is an entire narrative thread that discusses my relationship with my ex-husband by using the word “elocution” to define how we can’t resist one another, even post-divorce. But as I worked on what I thought was a close-to-final draft, I found out that I had the definition of “elocution” all wrong. This, of course, relocated my essay’s meaning from the land of This Is Brilliant to the wasteland of FML This No Longer Makes Sense.

I first came across “elocution” when it was’s word of the day—a nifty notification I receive on my phone through the company’s app. This ensures that I learn a new word every morning, 8 am. When I first read elocution’s definition, I thought it was a term that meant being able to speak in a controlled and elegant way—something that doesn’t happen when I’m around my ex-husband/current boyfriend. (Yes, we’re dating because that’s just how we roll. Also, interesting side note: the morning after our first sex-rendezvous, that day’s word of the day was elocution). So I wrote a whole essay about love and how when I feel the rush of a crush brewing into something more, that mutual desire sizzling into something else, I lose my sense of elocution. That is, there isn’t anything controlled or elegant about the ways in which I love. Elocution’s actual definition, though, is that it’s simply the way in which a person controls/delivers her own speaking patterns—elegance isn’t necessarily a part of this.

Lately, especially during that last paragraph, I’ve been wondering if this essay is interesting to people who aren’t me.

I’ve also been wondering that if I were to actually finish this essay, would the reader make it to its last sentence. This is about interest. About how I’m still interested in dating my ex-husband, regardless.

I have come to realize that finishing these essays has been difficult for me because I’m writing stories I haven’t yet finished living. That is, I start essays about my narcissistic ex-husband and how terrible he was and how invisible, disrespected, and abandoned I felt in our marriage and then, during mid-essay-revisions, he and I hook up in real life and I lose my sense of elocution around him and so then my essay no longer feels totally true or fair because I guess I have my own zest of narcissism (I am, after all, an essayist), so of course I have to do revisions and explore how our marriage always felt like a battle, like we were forever competing for the top position on the priorities totem pole, and how we were both victims of disrespect. Revisions then begin to feel overwhelming, like a solid run-on sentence.

Though lately, my ex-husband has been pissing me off because he’s a self-involved ass-hat who said he has better things to do than listen to me bitch about frustrating things like roundabouts and essays that are based off of incorrect definitions. Also, when I tell him that I can tell that he’s not listening to me, he then mocks me because that’s helpful, and I’m back into that invisible space, and back to revising the essay I just revised because my ex-husband is a narcissist and terrible, and I, of course, have nothing to do with that.

Lately, things keep changing.

Or maybe things aren’t changing but I’m just questioning the true definitions and descriptions of my life’s main relationship.

Though I do have a few lines stuck in my head that stand true, regardless:

“I’ve been talking to June bugs lately.”

“I lose my sense of elocution when I’m around him.”

“_________, regardless.”

Re: “_________, regardless.”

How I’ve been ending sentences with the word “regardless” because to me it sounds like that one word holds a lot of complex narrative power, regardless. Like how our love for one another is powerful and super-complex, regardless.

How I begin sentences with “lately” and am now starting to end them with “regardless.” How these are my writing patterns. How I also begin sentences with “how” if “lately” is not already in that sentence’s lead-off position. How I’ve witnessed other writers begin their sentences with “How.” How I don’t know if this irritates me or not.

Lately, as I’ve been writing this essay, I have been considering the structure of my sentences and therefore wondering about redundancy. Time and again, same thing over and over. Like all of those “lately”s. Like all those attempts to date my ex-husband.

Though I guess repetitive sentence structure is better than no sentence structure because lately I have had a hard time with not only finishing essays, but with getting past that first sentence, too. It has something to do with performance anxiety or maybe just the innate knowledge that I’ll never finish writing the essay because I won’t be done living the story for a while. Things change. Flux. Ex-husbands become boyfriends. That said, I did get myself to begin this current essay. I think it’s all about that first “lately.” How my repetitive sentence structure is my fallback when I don’t know what else to write and maybe that’s okay, like how we always return to love, regardless. At least right now I’m writing, which is perhaps only because I know that my relationship with my ex-husband can’t mess up this essay because I am now writing an essay that knows how to exist without him.


I’ve been using the word “finally” as its own sentence lately because I need to convince myself that one day, when I write an essay about my ex-husband, that last “finally” will remain fact. How our relationship will have to eventually come to a conclusion, for better or for worse, together or apart. Either way, there will be a “finally.”

Lately, I have stopped wondering about why I begin my sentences with “lately,” and have instead been wondering about how things will end. How it is that I know I’ll eventually have to reach that final “finally” in both word and meaning, regardless.

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome, and won the Inaugural Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing.


Writing the Quiet Memoir

July 20, 2018 § 14 Comments

avk_headshot--hair_looseBy Ann V. Klotz

On the Upper West Side, over brunch, Marcia and I talk about Educated, Tara Westover’s recent memoir. We are awed by the narrator’s resilience.  We marvel at how family norms define us and ponder how much we can’t know is “normal” if we have nothing else to compare it with.  We wonder what other horrors and atrocities brilliant Westover may have omitted, what she may have blocked.  I mourn Westover’s mother’s inability to attend to her daughter, even as I acknowledge the fact that the mother couldn’t keep herself safe.

Over sausage, we talk about the coming summer—my plan to organize my memoir, by tacking the titles of scenes up under headings on the walls of a purchased, but not yet renovated, small house at the foot of the driveway of the house I still call my mother’s house, though she has been gone for eight years.  It may be years before we renovate the new, small house—other projects take precedence, so I decide I might as well use it—when else will I have an empty house to play in? I imagine carrying my coffee cup and my resolve down the driveway from our house to the new house’s empty rooms. I’m hoping a new space will help me make sense of the jumble I’ve assembled.  More than 300 pages of disconnected bits, a mish-mash.  I’m determined to finish a draft this summer.

“My book is called a quiet memoir—nothing really dramatic. It’s a bunch of scenes organized around the summer months in Eagles Mere.  About my family. Sort of a collage,” I explain.  No hurling a hiking boot down a mountain, no cruel and abusive family to flee. The energy of my story is smaller.

Do I feel inadequate that I am not Cheryl Strayed or Tara Westover?  Some days. Still, I have been working on this collection of fragments and essays for three years now.  “It’s not a memoir at all,” a writing teacher counseled.  “It’s a collection.”  First, that discouraged me, but it’s true.  More than a century is a lot to tackle in a narrative arc, especially since I missed the first forty-five years, having not yet been born.

Eagles Mere’s architecture is also a mish-mash.  Over many decades, architects fashioned houses full of whimsy. Gothic and Queen Anne homes pose, elegant, next to spacious shingle cottages. Mansard roofs, arched windows, clapboard, board and batten, steeply pitched eaves cohabit. Decorative trim serves no function but to delight and evokes another era. New houses bloom on lots, made to look old. Many original 19th century cottages expand over time. Eclectic turrets and tiny paned windows and wrap around porches make each home distinct. These are houses devoted largely to leisure, to relaxation, but houses, too, in which families expand and contract.  My computer often shares a table with a kerosene lamp, artifacts from different eras–a hodge-podge.  Right now, my memoir reminds me of this unruly architectural mélange, this mingling of old and new, lots of unrelated bits to shape into an appealing structure.

Marcia, my brunch pal, is a Broadway producer; she tells me about a theatre project in development—a story within a story that has moved her. She notes that, for her, good stories always center on the conflict the main character must negotiate.

I smile, grim:  “Loss, grief. That old stuff. It’s not lost on me that I started writing this piece after my mom died—and that I need to finish it before I can write any other big pieces of my life.”  Marcia nods.  Everyone has a family, knows the pull and the tensions, loss, fear tinged grief—what else may be lost?  I’ve built this memoir bit by bit in classes, during the spaces in between, snatching time from obligations, putting off my family with, “Just one more minute; I’m working on a piece.” I explain the generous comment Molly, an online classmate, offered about doing.  She said my prose was livelier when I described all we did in Eagles Mere, one summer to the next, generation after generation.

Marcia smiles.  “For me,” she says, “Eagles Mere isn’t about doing at all—it’s the opposite.  Eagles Mere means all these people who come together because we love you; we stumble into the kitchen, waking up over coffee.  Some go to the porch and some to the beach, and I walk around the lake—no agenda.  And we meet up again the late afternoon, and we have to make dinner all together because there isn’t any place to go. So, we cook together and we eat a great meal at the dining room table, twenty of us—it’s about community and the ways our lives cross each other’s, with you at the center.”

Her words comfort me.  The summer stretches out, weeks ahead to sift and sort through the jumble, to arrange ingredients—houses, meals, stories. My stories center on Eagles Mere—our home the center of the web, whose filaments draw us each summer.  Blue and white china is arranged on a long table. Not everything matches.  The lake stretches out beyond the front windows. An assortment of people gather around the table to eat and laugh—a summer meal in progress, a memoir to fashion.

Ann V. Klotz is a writer and teacher who lives in Shaker Heights, OH during the school year and in an obscure mountain top resort called Eagles Mere, PA during July, where she works — with varying degrees of ferocity — on a memoir-ish collection.  Her work has appeared on the Brevity Blog, in Literary Mama, Mutha, Thread, The Feminine Collective, Grief Diaries and The Manifest Station.  She’s proud that her chapter on becoming a teacher was included in one of the In Fact anthologies published by Creative Nonfiction.  You can follow her on Twitter at @AnnKlotz or read her blog:

The Writer as Eulogist

July 16, 2018 § 4 Comments

michelleBy Michelle Bowdler

I am the designated eulogy giver in my family, a role that became mine years before anyone called me a writer. Writing and then reciting a good eulogy require that I sit my own sadness down on a pew as I walk to the podium, adjust the microphone and speak.  At the funerals of my relatives, I work to evoke shared memories that allow family members and friends to grieve as if we are one body.  It is our collective eulogy offered up by one of us in the tribe.

We loved her so. 

We remember that mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

We recall a turn of phrase, an unruly lock of hair no product could tame, the way she loved yard sales or a pint of beer or the Lawrence Welk Show, or the lap of a puppy’s tongue.

Or, or, or. 

My skills have improved over time as the losses pile up.  To get a eulogy right, one must edit down a life to fewer than ten spoken minutes or you’ll lose the crowd. One must find words and stories to make the crowd laugh and cry, titrating the feelings out in just the right dosage.

When my Grandma Esther died, I told jokes. She was married four times and divorced twice.  She was known for questionable recipes designed to save money. “If the ingredients are good, how can it be bad,” she’d say while using the meat grinder affixed to the wall to combine Monday’s salmon with Tuesday’s chicken with last Thursday’s liver. It seemed we often laughed at her rather than with – like the time she divorced her third husband when she found a bra in his dresser, and admitted later it was probably hers.

When my mother died, inspiration failed me. Our relationship was fraught and her early death robbed me of the chance to work anything further out with her.  I pulled up a piece I had written about her and scoured it for anything to share.  My mom was half Persian and turned so brown in the summer that as a young woman on vacation in Florida in the 1950s she was asked to sit in the back of the bus and sit she did. “It wouldn’t have been right if I showed them my tan lines like my friends said I should.”  Now, that would have been a good story to tell, but I waved it aside.  Instead, and the choice baffles me still, I struggled to convey how her physical beauty took all of our breath away – She looked a bit like Sophia Loren mixed with Cher; maybe more like Rita Moreno with a hint of Ann Bancroft.  I reminded the crowd how all the married men in the neighborhood came over after my dad died with offers to help out and wouldn’t leave. My mother’s sisters asked me later why I didn’t talk about what a devoted mother she was and how desperately she had loved my sister and me. I learned, then, that a writer needs to know her subject to evoke anything useful.

My aunt Marlene died a few months ago.  She was, for me, the exception in an array of deaths of complicated characters who loved deeply yet were challenged at times to convey that love.  All efforts to write this eulogy failed. My page stood empty, waiting.

An hour before the service, I found my metaphor.  Passover had ended just a few weeks prior to Marlene’s death, and I had sung the song Dayenu multiple times around a Seder table.  The phrase itself means: “It would have been enough,” as it honors deeds and blessings for which we are grateful.  Even when there might be more good works coming, the crowd asserts dayenu, acknowledging that whatever we already have been given is enough. As I shared each tiny and precious memory of my aunt in a funeral home in Chicago, I said repeatedly – dayenu.  Each kindness, each moment of feeling special in her presence, each time I heard joy in her voice when she knew it was me on the other end of the phone.  Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu.  What each of us wanted so much was that one moment more, but the memories would have to do. They would have to be enough and so – dayenu.  It was a Passover death, and this word resonated as the crowd was shouting it with me by the end of the eulogy.

After I spoke, someone came up to me and said, “You are a beautiful writer,” and my heart hardened. It was the only time since I coveted that identity that I did not want the compliment. I wanted only for the grieving crowd to see my aunt and the light she left behind. I wanted my words to be in service of evoking her only. I wished for the writing to disappear and for everyone to see and feel my beloved Marlene fully one last time.


Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times, and her writing has been seen in Burningword Journal, Gertrude Press, The Rumpus, and other literary magazines. She has two essays in a book entitled: We Rise to Resist: Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action (McFarland 2018). She is a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction recipient, a Ragdale Fellow, and a Boston Grub Street Memoir Incubator alum.


On Being an Unreliable Narrator

July 6, 2018 § 10 Comments

illickBy Hilary Illick

The first friend I met in college I remember as wearing a bow tie. He was fresh out of Utah Mormon country, and stood out to me as exceptionally clean cut—as well as earnest, dry-witted, and able to see the world with unique perspicacity. “I’ve never worn a bow tie, Hil,” he says, to this day, “never even owned one.” But my mind tells a different story. Circa 1982, John is standing there in the unfortunate fluorescent lighting of a Freshman dorm dining hall, blue eyes dancing, wearing a bow tie.

As a girl, in school, I got in trouble quite a few times for insisting something happened that in fact did not. I wasn’t lying. I was clinging to the images in my mind that I experienced as true, even though it turned out more than once they were not.  The most egregious of these examples was the time in fourth grade that I told my classmates my uncle had come to our house and was crazily trying to bite off the heads of our pet chickens. (We lived on what was called a “gentleman’s farm,” meaning we had a surfeit of pets, some of them true barnyard animals like goats and lambs, but we were not farmers. In fact, we were overwhelmed. At least, I was. It was the ‘70’s and my parents were winging it with the permissive parenting approach that their own parents had not used in the late-40’s-early-50’s, letting me Go For It with pet acquisition.) The tale of my unhinged uncle disturbed my classmates, which made its way to the teachers, who promptly sent me down the hall on a route I knew well to the school psychologist. Who picked up the phone and called my mother.

My mother, to her credit, came to the school and helped sort things out. Luckily, she was in graduate school becoming a family systems psychotherapist, so she could translate what the eff I was saying to my friends. “Okay,” said my mom, in her Merimekko Minidress and long dark That Girl! hair. “Hilary’s uncle hasn’t tried to hurt any of our animals, but he is going something quite dramatic right now that has us all concerned.” She explained that the adults were talking fairly constantly behind closed doors about what was going on with my uncle, and how I on my own must have tried to connect the dots by creating my far-fetched story. “So even though the facts are all wrong,” Mom told the school psychologist, “what Hilary is saying is emotionally true.”

I exhale deeply as I write this, forty-plus years later—feeling so grateful to my mom, not only for bailing me out in the shrink’s office, but helping me to understand myself.

Memories are strange subjective animals.  How many times have you heard or said, “That is not how it happened.” “I never said that.”  “That’s not what she did.” Or something along those lines. “That big family meltdown did not take place on vacation! It happened in our kitchen!  At home!”  Or how about the good ole back and forth that goes: “I did not.” “Yes you did.” Or, “He did not.” “Yes he most certainly did.” There is an expression, posed as an inquiry: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?

Even though I know there is emotional truth to my memories—to the exaggerations and hyperboles I experience as true—I am also aware that it is highly likely my renditions do not line up with consensus reality. In experiments, run by both psychologists and teachers of memoir writing, groups of people asked to describe the exact same scenario witnessed en masse, describe it differently. The order of events varies from account to account, lines of dialogue alter, details such as hair color and clothing may swap from one person to another. There has to be such a thing as consensus reality, stuff we can all agree on, but the emotional margins are subject to personal interpretation—to emotional truth, which is different for each of us.

I’d like to think my inaccuracies are fairly benign: an added accessory here, a few punched up lines of dialogue there. My brother refers to my style as X+1, and I’ve learned to take responsibility for the +1 and be willing to jettison it when challenged. To be honest, though, I may go a round or two defending my memory. “Okay okay okay, so maybe that woman yelling at us in CVS didn’t—in fact—have a yapping dog in her purse with ribbons on its ears. But don’t you think she may as well have?” I try to defend the emotional truth of my brain’s symbolic additions. “Just grant me this: if that woman were a dog, she’d live in a purse with ribbons on her ears, right?”

Hilary Illick is an inspirational speaker, an Executive Coach, and a faculty member at the Hoffman Institute—as well as a writer and playwright.  Published in both France and the United States, Illick’s work has appeared on national television and off-Broadway.  She has won an Emmy Award for television writing and appeared on The Today Show for her autobiographical off-Broadway play on parenting — Eve-olution.  Her blog——offers wisdom gained from life coaching combined with personal confession.


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