May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
May 3, 2017 § 7 Comments
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore is featured this week on Signature-Reads.com, insisting that revision is the most joyful part of writing. His craft piece is excerpted from his new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir, which came out just yesterday.
Here’s an excerpt:
The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words – all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care – can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: you can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood reminds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.
In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”
Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”
Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing.
And here’s a link to the full Signature piece, though Dinty would like everyone to know that he had nothing to do with choosing the accompanying illustration.
April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments
by Colin Hosten
I graduated from my MFA program with an incomplete thesis. There was still a lot more of my story to be written, and yet I deliberately chose not to finish writing it. The idea of ending the program with only a partial story had seemed anathema to my goals upon entering the program. Yet I was pleased, even proud of the incomplete work that I submitted for my thesis—in part because of its incompleteness.
The thesis, you see, was technically “complete.” It fulfilled all the requirements—of length, formatting, and quality—specified by the program. I even numbered the front matter correctly and added extra space in the margin for binding. My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA.
But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.
Like too many MFA students, I entered my program with grand visions of exiting with the next American masterpiece. Yes, I read extensively and cranked out what seemed like hundreds of craft essays, but I stayed fixated on the goal of finishing the program with a finished book—and not just any finished book, but a brilliant, MFA-polished, finished book, ready to be snatched up in a lucrative bidding war by all the major New York publishers.
My first semester advisor listened and nodded as I spelled out the milestones and checkpoints I had planned for the two-year program, before gently telling me that writing a book in addition to a thesis was a difficult proposition—that, in fact, focusing on a book could potentially be counter-productive to my thesis.
“What’s the difference?” I wanted to know. Wasn’t it just a matter of reformatting the thesis for publication?
She preferred to show rather than tell me the difference, and she had to look no further than my first creative submission packet for the perfect example.
The difference between a book and a thesis was the difference between glossing the psychological trauma of my sexual confusion as a teenager in one paragraph, versus creating a fleshed-out scene about a boy who tortured me daily, highlighting his face, his clothes, his mannerisms, his breath.
It was the difference between using the setting of Trinidad as a mere backdrop, versus bringing the island to sensory life for the reader, almost as if it were a character in its own right, the way Antigua is portrayed by Jamaica Kincaid in her book-length essay, A Small Place.
It was the difference between submitting work with clunky and overwritten dialogue, versus taking the time to reread, revise, edit, and polish a manuscript thoroughly.
And so on.
Developing the perspective, precision, and—overall—patience to distinguish between a book and a thesis became one of the biggest and most important lessons of my MFA experience. I appreciate now that completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence, not just in setting realistic expectations and then making realistic plans to achieve them, but in the very way I conceptualize the writing process.
The story of my childhood in Trinidad is not a story to be rushed. It must be carefully crafted and finessed with the almost-obsessive attentiveness of an artist. It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried. It requires as much emphasis on the storytelling as on the story. I’ve come to see writing as a process, more than a means to an end. And I’ve learned that the more I take time to enjoy and savor that process, the more my eventual readers will, too.
The essays that became my thesis constitute just over half of the outline I’ve projected for my book. I haven’t gotten to the part where the sweet, little island boy leaves his homeland yet. But I think I know how to write it when I do. And I will, in time. There is no rush, you see; the patience is part of the process.
My incomplete thesis represented the end of my tenure as an MFA student. But it’s not the end of my story by any means. In many ways, it feels as though my work as a writer is just beginning.
Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, and Spry Literary. A former Assistant Editor at Hyperion Books for Children, he continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, while teaching in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.
April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Richard Gilbert
Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?
Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.
Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.
After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.
Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.
And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.
I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.
Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.
All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.
March 30, 2017 § 9 Comments
Thanks for sharing your messages. Overall, what I understand your work to be about is that facts don’t matter. If that’s not the intended meaning, I can point to a few examples of misdirection you might consider revising.
One strength of your messages is the consistency of the tone. The narrator’s voice is strong and appropriate for the perceived purpose of the work. So, good job with that. Your messages certainly feel new in their divergence from recent conventions, such as your use of “ramspecking,” which you informed us is a phenomenon that “is going back since the beginning of time.” The term itself hasn’t been used since the 90s, so by using it the current context you were able to make it sound new and exciting and slightly diabolical. What fun!
Another element that is working well in your messages is the sense of urgency. The stakes are high. That being said, at times it seems the narrator is withholding to increase the tension. For example, after a reporter asked you about FBI Director Comey’s announcement that there was no evidence of wiretapping, your response was:
What I’m getting at is that there’s a lot of information that we have come to learn about what happened in terms of surveillance throughout the 2016 election and the transition. And when you look at somebody like Michael Flynn, and you realize that, while they might have been looking at somebody else at that time, how does somebody’s name that’s protected by law from being disclosed get put out in public? Why was it put out in the public? Because the people in the intelligence community would have had access to that information. They could have found out who it was. But yet, you’ve got to question, why was a name that should have been protected by law from being put out into the public domain, put out there? What were the motives behind that? What else do we need to know?
Ambiguity should be purposeful not confusing. Withholding to create suspense is essentially manipulation. Even if the manipulation is unintended, it is unnecessary to artificially inflate the stakes, which are naturally compelling. You are working too hard; let the material work through you.
A couple places that could use some attention are the consistency and clarity of the content. It could be the lack of consistency causing the issues with clarity. Or, maybe, it’s actually the content itself that is causing the problem. In response to questions about Trump’s ties to Russia, you said, “There is a whole second set of concerns here in terms of what was Hillary Clinton’s role. When you look at the Obama history—the Obama administration and the Clinton’s involvement with Russia in terms of donations that the Clintons received from Russian entities, the idea that they sold off a tremendous amount of the uranium to the Russian government, and yet where was the concern for that? What are we doing to look into that?” Answering a question with a question is not the most rhetorically effective choice. In this case, the reader is pulled out of the narrative. Try not to disrupt the dream.
There is a lot of telling, which isn’t in and of itself a problem. It’s just that as it is, there isn’t enough showing to ground the reader. Like when you said, “This was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” Instead of telling, show the reader that this was true. Perhaps, consider using a photo? As a result of this overreliance on telling, the abstract moralizing doesn’t feel earned. At times the exposition feels repetitive and recursive. Here again, some scenes showing specific facts on the ground might justify, or perhaps change, the story in the sky. One easy fix would be to address inconsistencies in the use of pronouns. For example, the pronouns switch between “we” and “them” rather quickly and neither is clearly defined: “That’s why we slow it down and make sure that if they are a five year old that maybe they’re with their parents and they don’t pose a threat. . . . To assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be wrong.” The binary “us versus them“ trope, if that is what is meant, is overused and tired. This may be the one case in which more creativity rather than less is advised.
Finally, and this too could be a consequence of content, the arc isn’t clear. While the stakes are high, they are always high. There is no building or resolution. This may be why the pace feels both stilted and jarring. You might consider slowing down, maybe getting closer. As encouraged above, showing, using scenes and specific examples might be a way to close that narrative distance. Also, you might experiment with switching to present tense or including another point-of-view to shake things up. It doesn’t feel like this piece is what it wants to be yet. Some of these changes might help it figure out what it needs to be.
As always, do what you want. It’s your work.
But it’s also mine.
Morgan Riedl lives in Fort Collins, where she writes, rides horses, and practices jui jitsu. She will be graduating from Colorado State University with an MA in creative nonfiction this May. She’s currently working on a collection of personal essays on the body.
March 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
By Zoe Zolbrod
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip-Smart and a new essay collection Abandon Me, which is about, among other things, meeting her birth father, an all-consuming love affair, and the way we tell our own life stories to ourselves. In this interview, she talks about the process of writing her new book to Zoe Zolbrod, author of The Telling.
Zolbrod: I’ve been a fan of your work since Whip Smart, and after I read it I gobbled up any interviews I could find. I recall you talking in one—I believe it was the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi—about working on a novel, discussing it with your agent. Now here you are with Abandon Me. When did you know that you were writing another book of nonfiction? Did you leap toward it, or did you have to convince yourself?
Febos: Neither, really. Nonfiction has never been something I leapt toward, nor something I had to convince myself of per se. It has always come for me, and with a force that precludes argument. Here is what I knew: the essays that were occupying me required that I reinvent my process. I also knew that I was going to write a book about meeting my birth father and this love affair that had consumed me for two years. I knew little else. But once I had written about four of these essays, it occurred to me that they were the book. That I was working my way into those subjects in an unprecedented way, through sound and image.
Zolbrod: Please talk about the structure of the book, which is unusual. The initial seven essays are followed by a section, “Abandon Me” that at 170-some pages long could be a book in itself. I’m interested in how you made this choice. What input did your agent or editor give, if any? What factors played into the decision?
Febos: While there were many choices later on, these essays knew their own forms before I did. It was much more a process of discovery than invention. Although later on, in revision, I had to devise some creative ways to figure out how to make those structures within each essay crack open to reveal the content, if that makes sense. I made maps and mobiles; I chopped them up with scissors; I taped them to the walls. I had to uncover a new way of building a piece of writing, which was both terrifying and wonderful, because my process before that had been so circumscribed and functional.
When I started the final, title essay, I didn’t know that it would become so long. I estimated that it would be about forty or fifty pages. When I crossed the hundred-page mark, I knew I was dealing with a very different kind of animal.
I made a decision to completely finish the book before I showed it to any editor or agent, and that was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made, in respect to these things. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew it would look better than it would sound if I tried to describe it beforehand. And I am very lucky to have found both an agent and an editor that recognized the strange form as its true one. They didn’t ask me to change it at all. I know many editors and agents would have wanted to reshape it into something more conventional.
Zolbrod: In many of the early essays, you cover the ground of early childhood and coming of age, but you also include “Leave Marks,” “Wunderkammer” and “All of Me,” which explore aspects of the central romantic relationship that is traced from start to finish in the long title piece. They’re written from a close perspective within the love affair. How did you think about chronology as you were organizing your material, and its relationship to your themes of exploring love and loss? How did you think about perspective?
Febos: I actually wrote those essays while I was in the love affair. I wrote the majority of the long one during its final phase, too. I went back and made some revisions, but I was writing and living my way through the book simultaneously for most of it. I would not have recommended this to anyone, but I think it’s the way I had to write it. The writing process was how I made sense of living the experience; it was a way that I processed it. And so, it is both a record and a reflection. I think that you can feel that in the essays, to some degree. There is an immediacy that reflects it, and a mythology to them that marked the ways I build stories inside of that love as it was happening.
Zolbrod: There’s a section in “Abandon Me” that I love. You describe your wide sexual experience, which can make you sound like an uninhibited wild child by standard measures. Then you write, in the context of becoming lovers with the woman who’s about to shake you to your core, “I discovered at nearly thirty years old that I was shy.” There’s much in the book about being seen—the desire we have for someone to see us, the shame we feel about it, the way lovers both can and can’t see us clearly, or can cloud as well as sharpen our view. There’s another line, in “Labyrinths,” that resonated with me: “I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession.” How does writing personal nonfiction play into this dynamic, the tension between the desire to be and shame of being seen?
Febos: Writing is my solution to that tension. I know I’m not alone in this, and maybe your interest in those passages is proof of that. I think we all eventually come to understand what Winnicott meant when he said “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” In writing, I can reveal myself while still alone. I can try out different ways to name the things I am afraid to name, and then, when I get it right (or as right as I am capable of), I can show it to someone. It’s self-exposure one step removed, and with a privacy we don’t have when just relating or talking to other people.
In many ways, this book is one about the stories we create in love: about ourselves, our lovers, and our love. Writing is also the way I smash those, and the way I build new ones when I’m able to let the early ones go.
Zolbrod: The book covers your meetings with a sister, aunt, and biological father you’ve seldom or never met. The lonely intensity of encountering strangers with whom you share blood and lineage is so well drawn. As you mention, you were coming into these meetings with the fact of Whip Smart and your other writing out in the world. I love the part where your aunt apologizes for not having read the book, and you’re like: That’s okay! But your sister had read the book before she met you.
Is there any way that having such personal material out there made meeting new-to-you relatives easier, and not only more awkward? In general, what can be the silver linings for nonfiction writers who cover intimate ground and who then have to go to job interviews and family reunions and so forth knowing that the kind of juicy personal details most people keep under tight wraps are available on Amazon for $5 off the retail price or used for 99 cents?
Febos: When I talk about it being easier in some ways to write myself down and give that to others, I mostly mean the people who already know me. And the strangers who might identify with my experiences. In job interviews, or meeting my family for the first time, I generally tried not to think about it. It doesn’t feel like my business what they make of those stories, if they find them. When I actually want to get to know a new person, I try to act as if that information isn’t out there, because I can only get to know someone by participating in the interaction, if that makes sense. It also feels like modeling the kind of interaction I want to have, which is distinct from the interaction they might have had with the text. People often don’t know what to do with it. By people, I mean my colleagues, students, et al. They don’t know if reading my work counts as an intimacy between us. So I find ways to show them that it isn’t. As a memoirist, I’ve had to teach people in this (mostly) gentle way how to separate me from the text, and our relationship from the one they’ve had with my work.
Zolbrod: You express several times an explicitly non-judgmental view towards what could be labeled as failure or weakness in others. Your perspective has been broadened by what you’ve confronted in your own life: addiction, the mental illness of loved ones, imperatives of the body that defy common sense. I was struck by these beautiful lines you wrote on the subject: “We are all broken. And repair often hurts. And the ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing.” It’s something I recognize.
This kind of compassion and open-mindedness is so helpful in building relationships. Specifically, in “Abandon Me,” when you’re encountering relatives who live lives different from your urbane urban one.
But sometimes in my own life I’ve wondered about the downsides of a rigorously non-judgmental view. For example, there’s the moment in the book when you confess to your mother that you almost want your girlfriend to do something awful so you’re justified in leaving her, and your mom tenderly tells you that she already has, which is clear to the reader.
When does a value of open-mindedness conflict with the need for self-protection, or actually interfere with self perception? And how does this play out in nonfiction when we’re writing about people who have not just hurt us, but done something morally wrong?
Febos: This is such a good question. It is a complex thing, having empathy for the sometimes hurtful ways that humans pursue healing, or security, or relief. I mean, the empathy is not complicated; it is precious. But the ways that we express it, or respond to it can be. It feels easy for me to see the ways that cruelty comes out of woundedness. It always does. But that doesn’t erase an adult person’s accountability for their actions, their treatment of others. In the past I’ve excused treatment that I shouldn’t have, because I could see the wounded place it came from. And I’ve used my own woundedness, or the world’s flaws, to rationalize my own wreckage. I want to be able to hold empathy and accountability at the same time. Compassion does not require that we receive any kind of treatment or justify any behavior—our own or others’. Being an adult means accepting what we’ve been given, unfair though it may be. We often have to overcome a lot to be kind, to be generous in love and to ourselves. But that is our work. To linger in lament or blame just slows that process, slows our movement toward a more generous way of loving.
Zolbrod: Here’s another line that holds so much. “I had come here looking for something and found nothing but these broken people, who were my people.” Your paternal grandfather was from the Wampanoag tribe. You mention the study of epigenetics, that massive cultural trauma can be passed through the generations. You’d always known you had native blood, and describe being taken to a powwow at nine by your adoptive father, and feeling a distance. How do you view this aspect of your lineage now? Was there anything about writing this book that affected your relationship to it?
Febos: This book included a process of negotiating the difference between claiming a “native identity,” which I have never felt entitled to (and still don’t), and claiming the private thing that that ancestry has meant to me. From childhood, I understood my identity as comprised of many pieces of things: I was half-adopted, had a Puerto Rican father, was queer, had this other father who was a stranger and also part Native. I didn’t feel enough of anything to claim it, so I decided that I was nothing. But a decision does not erase what made you, or what you are made of. In order to write this book, I had to retrieve those exiled parts and draw them together in my self-conception. That was one purpose of this book. And it did bring me back together.
I had also felt estranged, and ashamed, of the compulsive parts of my personality, which had governed so much of my young adulthood. No one else in my immediate family, the family that raised me, was an addict. There were parts of me that weren’t mirrored in them. Physical aspects, tendencies—not all “dark” ones like addiction, but my aloneness in them felt like a kind of darkness. It is part of what drove me to find my birth father and his family. And did confirm that I was not alone, not defective. Those parts came from somewhere, and I don’t only mean the genetics, but the historical and familial legacy as well.
Zolbrod: You open the book by writing about your story-rich childhood, and you draw on your rich knowledge of story and poetry throughout, from Greek and Egyptian to Rilke to stories in popular culture. I’m curious about how you organized this material during the writing process, or just the role it played in the creation of the book. What was the chicken and what was the egg? Like, did you dip into touchstone texts as you were wrestling with your material and come out with metaphors, or did you go looking for metaphors, with a good sense of where to find them?
Febos: Definitely the former. The personal narrative and driving questions of the book were the chicken, and as I worked my way into them, I looked to the texts I knew and trusted to help me along. And the conversations I had with those texts made their way into the book. In many ways, I think of the essay as a thought process, or an artful transcription of a thought process, and so it seemed natural to let them in as I was articulating my own inquiry.
The book also takes for its subject the nature of narrative, how we build it, how it builds us, and so I went to the most fundamental examples of this in my own life: the books I loved as a child, the stories I’ve come back to again and again.
I spent less time looking for metaphors in this book than anything else I’ve ever written, which may sound strange because it’s so thick with metaphor. But it is also an excavation of the metaphors I’ve carried with me the longest, the ones I always have with me. The films, the books, the places of my upbringing—the images and stories that first defined me, and so carry parts of me.
Zolbrod: You’ve talked and written so articulately about how powerful personal writing can be, how far outward it can reach, even as we dive deeper inward into what some call belly-button gazing. The essays and talks I’m referring to (not that there aren’t others), as well as this book, were written in pre-Trump era. Have any of your views on personal writing changed in the face of this regime? Have any of your writing inclinations or habits?
Febos: Belly-button gazing! That sounds adorable. That sounds like something I’m interested in.
My views on personal writing have not changed post-election. There is an increased urgency in me, to be more explicit in the activism inherent to how I teach and write, and perhaps a different sense of economy in my subject choices. That is, I am more inclined to prioritize those subjects that speak to this particular moment, but that still includes the personal. It is through personal stories that we encourage empathy, and that we record the lived experiences that our institutions hope to erase or define or ignore or rewrite.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, Lit Hub, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor.
March 15, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Ronit Feinglass Plank
I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.
I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to tell the story of my childhood. And this story, which I thought I knew so well, was becoming something else, different than I had always understood it.
I was beginning to learn for myself how the memoirist’s relationship to their narrative is ever-changing, revealing itself page by page, sometimes moment to moment, the way motor oil and water mingle in a puddle, colors swirling together in endless combinations. Just when you think you see how the colors and patterns are playing off each other, the light changes, or your vantage point shifts and you notice something new. Memoir is like that.
I continued excavating my past on the page, yet, even as I accumulated chapters, I was hesitant about this new genre. When friends asked what I was working on I’d practically apologize before confessing it was memoir. I had this idea nobody would want to read it. My self-talk went like this:
-Other memoirists might have had more painful experiences, what do I have to contribute?
-Don’t people think memoir is whiny?
-There are more important things happening in the world, who has time for a personal narrative?
But, the longer I worked on my project the more confident I felt. I read a ton of memoirs and finished the first draft of mine. While I did I learned how to push past my misgivings with a kind of pep talk about memoir that goes like this:
1) My story isn’t as painful as other memoirists.
Writing memoir is not a competition for the worst or saddest story. Memoirists are charged with looking at their lives to find pattern and achieve some kind of understanding, not to out-pain other memoirists. People read memoir to understand a mind at work, hard at work in most cases, trying to piece apart what happened during a period of time and why the memoirist is still thinking about it now.
No one but you knows what it was like to be you and no one knows what it is like to be you looking back beginning to understand what you didn’t understand then. That’s why no two memoirs are the same even if they are both about mothers who leave or marriages that break up or the ravages of chronic illness, whatever your story might be.
It’s a memoirist’s response to their experience that is interesting. When faced with trouble in their lives, why does one person leave, while another digs in? Why does one person blame herself, and another blames others?
It is the memoirist’s unique insight that creates the point of view and voice that can make memoirs captivating.
2) Memoir is whiny.
I used to think memoir was navel-gazing, the writing equivalent of pouting or, worse, blaming others. I may have gotten this idea from the way I lived my life, thinking that I was supposed to be “strong” at all times. I believed I should suck it up, should handle hardships on my own. I worried that it was weak to dwell on events of the past, which is what I thought memoir was. But memoir is not for finger-pointing or for self-pity. Just like healthy relationships get built with honesty and improve with accountability, so does memoir.
It is courageous to look at the story you have told yourself for years and pick it apart to understand it more, to recognize your own habits and tendencies. Vulnerability is not a liability; it is a form of strength. It takes guts to see how you have played a part in what has occurred in your life.
The power of a memoir lies in the ability of a memoirist to see herself clearly, to see the part she played. It is the opposite of woe is me or why me? It’s more of a how come and what next? Now that you see more of the truth, what will you do with it? This is the momentum that drives the narrative forward, the tension the reader feels witnessing a dynamic mind at work.
3) There are bigger problems in the world than my lower middle class American story.
Sometimes it feels like pain is everywhere. And, for me at least, when I see how much hardship there is close to me, around me, very far from me, I feel overwhelmed. So why should I add my voice to the chorus of sadness?
My answer is the more room we make within ourselves, the more room we have. When a child gets hurt we take care of the child, we don’t push them away and tell them other kids have it worse. That would only teach them not to have empathy for others or for themselves.
Readers of literature care about people, they are interested in their experience. Writers give them that experience. People might read a memoirist’s story and see that they are not alone, or feel it as a call to action, to pay attention and look for meaning within themselves, try to understand the people they are close to.
Learning about other people’s lives is a way to see what you think about your own. Can you feel for others as you feel for yourself? Can you feel for yourself as you feel for others? I believe there’s no limit to the compassion in the world. There’s room for us all.
These days when people ask me what I am working on I tell them, “the second draft of my memoir”. I definitely still have doubts, but I know I’ll never finish if I let fear take over. And I don’t want to stop writing my story. I really want to see how it turns out.
Ronit Feinglass Plank’s work is forthcoming in Proximity Magazine and has appeared in The American Literary Review, Salon, Best New Writing 2015, and The Iowa Review (runner up, The 2013 Iowa Review Award for Fiction), among others. Her story “Gibbous” won the Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose and her story “The Plan” won Sequestrum’s 2016 New Writer Award and will appear in their summer 2017 issue. She earned her MFA at Pacific University and is currently working on a coming-of-age memoir. More about her and links to her work at http://www.ronitfeinglassplank.com