January 26, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Linda Murphy Marshall
Except for a book I co-authored on the South African “click” language Xhosa, this is my first book, so most of the advice I offer I learned looking through a rearview mirror. I’ve made mistakes.
Even if you can afford a publicity team, they’re not holding your hand 24/7, and their tenure doesn’t extend indefinitely after your book publication. You’re on your own.
* Approach friends or publications willing to include a review or interview, if that’s your goal, but make sure you have enough lead time, at least three months.
* Submit your manuscript to Kirkus, though there’s a fee. I’ve shamelessly parlayed my starred review into a major publicity plug. There’s no guarantee they’ll favorably review your book, but you can choose not to have it published, or can cherry pick words/phrases you like, even if those positive words are drowning in dross.
* Build a website. I did not have one initially and, given my lack of technical expertise, hired a talented web designer to create mine. In the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do category, make sure you know how to update it. I’m a linguist, but honestly, the instructions seem like a language I will never master, so that has been challenging.
* Court libraries. I wrote an e-mail to everyone in my address book (but only bcc contacts) asking them to request that their library buy my book. You’re just asking them to do something you can’t do, while also getting the name of your book “out” there.
* Approach bookstores and libraries from your hometown or — if different — where your book takes place, in my case a suburb of St. Louis, where I grew up. Reach out to your undergraduate university and, if relevant, graduate university. The goal is to appear in your school’s Alumni Notes, the least the school can do, considering the boatload of money you or your parents or someone else paid.
* Find your themes and unique qualities: Ask yourself what makes your book “valuable and different.” What are the sub-themes running through it? In my case it was languages and translation. Capitalize on any and all connections.
* Order swag: stickers for signings, custom bookmarks, posters for book festivals and book signings. My bookmarks have the image of my book on the front, and on the back an excerpt of the Kirkus Starred Review and my website link. You can hand them out wherever you are; not everyone wants to buy your book on the spot.
* Sign up for a portable payment device (Square, Venmo, PayPal) so you are ready to sell your book at festivals, bookstores, or book groups.
* Research contests and submit your book; decide how much you are willing to invest because they can be costly, then choose wisely.
* Talk to book clubs in real life and on zoom. Add book discussion questions to your website to make it easier for groups to find traction.
* Write reviews: if someone says they loved your book, pounce, ask them to please write a review. You need the reviews or your book will disappear.
* Think outside the box: in my memoir I compare my father’s relationship to model trains to Candice Bergen’s father’s relationship to his ventriloquism dummy, so I contacted her on her official website. A former U.S. Senator, Claire McCaskill, is from my home state, Missouri, and currently lives in the suburb where my memoir takes place, so I contacted her on her website. Have I heard from either of them? No. But I’m no longer afraid to reach out to make those connections.
* Be bold. If you’re an introvert, step outside your comfort zone and talk/share/push/plug/ submit/insert your book into every conversation.
As they say in basketball, you only make the shots you take…Good luck!
Linda Murphy Marshall has a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her memoir, Ivy Lodge: A Memoir of Translation and Discovery, received a starred review from Kirkus. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Catamaran Literary Reader, The Ocotillo Review, Mom Egg Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Two of her paintings were featured in literary magazines.
She is also a Trustee for the National Museum of Language and a docent at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her second memoir comes out in 2024.
January 25, 2023 § 18 Comments
By Rose Saltman
It’s that time of year again…the comment desk is looking for your evergreen pitches for December/January. Send to [The Guardian] with SUMMER PITCH in the subject line.
This tweet arrived towards the end of October. There was no guidance on word limit—I’d asked—so I decided to punt on a piece that suited the theme and was ready to go. My pitch celebrated the delight of ocean swimming in Australia and cited a 30-year history of doing laps at my local beach, one of Sydney’s most loved destinations, as evidence that I was qualified to write about this topic.
I was about to follow up two weeks later when I received an email from the deputy opinion editor.
Thank you for sending this piece. This is a lovely read, but with more than 3,000 words it’s too long for our purposes. Would you be open to editing your piece down to around 1,000 words? Thank you for considering it, best wishes.
I didn’t reply immediately. The piece was barely out of the starting gate, with only two other journals having declined it. I could put The Guardian’s offer to one side and keep trying to find a home for the long version. Going down this path, of course, risked rolling rejections.
The alternative was to grab the offer with both hands. The Guardian has a daily print-edition circulation of 111,000 and more than one million digital subscriptions worldwide. Half of the latter are outside the UK, dominated by US, Australian and European Union readers. Who was I to be precious about an acceptance predicated on something shorter?
The editor suggested I do the first cut, offering tips on where to start. Excising content peripheral to the theme—the boats I swam past, my wetsuit, a waterfront restaurant—dropped the word count to 2,700. I was now in uncharted territory, having to decide what more to prune without losing the general structure of the piece. I’d done it often enough with other writers’ work. Could I do it with my own?
I began with easy fixes: turning passive into active voice and whittling away at adverbs and adjectives. “I stop for long enough to line up a passage that will lead me to…” became “I line up a passage to….” A paragraph that wasn’t germane to the story took care of 121 words.
I assumed readers would know that the top of a hill is a good spot for admiring the view, shedding another four. The word count fell with each click of the shears, but if I wanted to get anywhere near the target, I’d have to be ruthless.
A sadness overcame me. I’d spent weeks crafting my story, its rhythms and cadences redolent of my intimacy with the ocean. It spoke to, for and of me as well as the collective that shares my enthusiasm for ocean swimming. To see this exercise through to the end I would need to don the mantle of executioner, killing darlings as dispassionately as a bulldozer clearing centuries-old oaks for a freeway.
I asked myself: did the reader need to know the history of daily sea temperature recordings (107 words), how swimmers feel about shark threats (170 words) or that the former net was both an eyesore and trapped rubbish (151 words)? No. The test was always the same: whether the piece could stand without this or that sentence or paragraph. If the answer was “yes,” out it went.
I was at 1,200 words, amazed that I’d shaved more than 60 per cent off the original. I emailed my draft to the editor. That’s a wrap, I thought.
Days passed with no response. Surely The Guardian hadn’t changed its mind?
I followed up at the end of November. Yes, things were still ticking along, she said, and I’d hear in the coming weeks about further edits and a publication date.
The editor contacted me two days before Christmas.
Thanks for your patience with this. I’ve now done some more edits additionally to the ones you’ve done, and which are great. The piece is now at around 850 words, which is perfect for our purposes. Please let me know if there’s an issue, preferably today, as it’s my last day before going on leave for two weeks.
Eight-hundred-and-fifty words? I didn’t believe that a work of such brevity could be a creature of mine. Gone were ignorant swimmers, memories of childhood squad training, how I navigated a course through moored boats, and why I had to cut short a winter swim due to hypothermia. I asked my husband for his opinion. We agreed that it was faithful to the intent of the original.
In taking the word count to 835—I double-checked!—the editor had spotted what I could no longer see: further opportunity to trim fat without compromising the piece’s cohesion.
A Solitary Morning Ocean Swim is a Salty Sanctuary for Introverts like Me was published on 27 December 2022 and syndicated across The Guardian’s global network. The response at home and abroad, has been overwhelming.
Rose Saltman is an urban planner, writer and editor who lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure, Overland Literary Journal and The Guardian, among others. She blogs at Someplace in Sydney. You can reach her at her website.
January 23, 2023 § 1 Comment
In our latest Craft Essay offerings, Aaron Gilbreath demonstrates how “theme” in nonfiction can “expand the gaze of one person’s life to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships.” Here’s an excerpt from Aaron’s wonderfully useful essay:
Without a universal theme, personal essayists can end up writing anecdotes or catalogues of events that lapse into myopia and fail to connect our experience with readers’ experience. An anecdote is defined as “a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” To that I would add it’s “something that limits, rather than expands, a personal story’s interest, and largely confines that interest to the people in the anecdote.” A harsher take would be “something that makes a story insular, provincial, or boring.” Since anecdotes are stories of limited scope, they limit their readers. Some aren’t even stories: They lack the structure of beginning, middle, and end, and fail to extrapolate meaning from the chronology they string together. …
Think of theme this way: Themes make personal experience universal by relating your private experience to the reader’s experience, and to the larger human condition. Let the reader see themselves in you. They will connect to your personal essay if they can relate to you through your story’s theme. Themes expand the gaze of one person’s life—usually our protagonist’s—to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships. Every story is about something more than its events. Things happen, yes, but what do they tells us about ourselves and our world? How does your chronology of personal events distill meaning that strangers—your readers—can relate to? As the writer, you must really work that rich thematic vein beyond plot. You want to show readers why this story is relevant.
You can read Aaron Gilbreath’s full discussion of “theme” in Our Craft Section, here.
January 20, 2023 § Leave a comment
In our latest Craft Essay offerings, Anna Farro Henderson explores the intricacies of world-building and narrative structure in effective science writing:
A key element of the scientific process is play. This is often overlooked. When I say play, I mean the kind of game that might end with everyone crying. The suspense, risks, hope, joy, and dead ends of making hypotheses, forging wilderness, and running experiments are messy. Wonder fuels inquiry and, often, human connection sustains it. What we read about science usually leaves out these cultural and emotional landscapes. To harness and incorporate humanity into our stories about science, we can use both creative process and craft…
I’m in the editorial process of a book of essays I’ve written about being a climate scientist and going to work in politics. I started with a traditional narrative: a problem needs to be solved, the hero tries and fails, the hero has a breakthrough, everything is better. But I haven’t solved climate change—research is incremental. My drama is the attempt to translate nature into science and science into political action. To capture this effectively, I had to let the essays take other shapes.
You can read Anna Farro Henderson’s entire essay, and her extremely useful thoughts on how to tell our science-based stories in Our Craft Section, here.
January 19, 2023 § 3 Comments
In our latest offering of Brevity Craft Essays, accompanying our first issue of 2023, Bryan Furuness joins Sarah Layden to advocate for using “lenses” in the revision process, and they also provide a series of highly effective editing prompts. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:
When the poet Tom Lux revised his own work, he used an approach he referred to as “lenses.” He took multiple passes over a poem but only focused on one aspect per pass. If he was reading the poem through the “cliché lens,” for example, he only looked for clichés. Then he might take another pass with the “verb lens,” looking for passive voice and questioning every verb ending in -ing (e.g. the dubious “looking” and “questioning” in this sentence). Then another pass with the “line break lens,” and so on.
Lux’s approach can be useful for nonfiction writers, too, because it gives you a specific and limited job for each pass. As an added benefit, your understanding of your manuscript and its architecture will deepen with each reading draft, so that after several passes with different lenses, you’ll see the bones of the manuscript more clearly than you could after the first or second read.
Ready to try?
You can read the entire essay, and the extremely useful suggestions for “lenses” to use on your own work-in-progresss, in Our Craft Section, here.
January 17, 2023 § 9 Comments
How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?
By Beth Kephart
A word is a choice. A sentence is a story. Consonants and vowels are strike and extension, collision and hush. Every single letter we place upon a page, every mark of punctuation, says something about our writerly selves, about what sparks the urgent within us.
I think of urgency as the tale we must tell, the one that wakes us from our dreams and also permeates them. When we are urgent with a story, we do not have time to waste. Our tangents can’t dawdle. Our backstories can’t yawn. We sculpt the scenes that have something to say, then place them in the order that keeps the reader turning pages. We want clarity, of course. And we want pace.
We want our readers with us.
Even the kind of memoirs I call The Art of the Moment memoirs—works in which the moments themselves and the way they are arranged are of primary intrigue and importance—require clarity and pace. Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, for example, is a braided series of reflections on the natural world and human grief. It’s a quiet book, a poetic book, and yet it begs to be read in a single sitting. There is urgency in nearly every scene—eruptions of telling details, economical pace—and there is urgency, too, in the juxtaposition of the scenes, the ways in which the present day teases the past forward, just as the past opens a view toward the present.
Recently, when compiling A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class, a new book designed to honor the nine writers who joined us for a nine-month memoir master class, I found myself thinking, again, about urgency and the ways we might achieve it. As part of the program, I’d asked our memoirists to read out loud to one another at the beginning of each session—a mere 150 art-of-the-moment words inspired by prompts and readings I’d suggested. There, in our Zoom room, we all paused. We leaned into language, rinsed our souls, protested and prayed, declaimed and rejoiced, became ever more acquainted (and grateful) for the community that was of our own making.
Listening, watching, I began to see their work as a kind of choral poetry. And so, as I sat down to build the anthology (a book of many parts that also includes flash non-fiction, fully developed essays, and writing prompts), I wondered what might happen if I slid edges of one writer’s sentences up close to the edges of another’s. How would passages excised from their original context give rise to unforeseen shared stories? How might deconstructing and reconstituting our writers’ words yield a resounding resonance? How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?
The exercise proved remarkably instructive, even profound. In one choral poem, a father’s steadfast refusal to take an airplane adventure becomes amplified by a story about a silenced piano. In another, a mother’s obsession with building kites from supermarket bags is given new meaning when filtered through a story about the rocks a son turns into a garden wall. Three writers writing of very different possessions—a white straw purse, a grandmother’s advice, a piece of furniture—yield new insight into what it is to be alive. Beloveds are carried in a multiplication of hearts. Illusions prove essential. There are fish, and there’s a bathtub.
We write toward urgency by perfecting our scenes—shedding the pedantic, favoring evocation over reporting, making smart use of verbs and image. But urgency also lives in the sequencing choices we make—what goes first, what comes next, and what comes after that. If you’ve lost the pace on an in-progress piece, if you are no longer quite as eager to get to work or quite as certain that your work is alive and matters, perhaps you’ll consider crafting a choral poem using your own work as the raw material—taking your pieces apart, setting them down in new ways, and discovering, in the process, a brand new beating heart.
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a book artist. Her recent memoir is Wife | Daughter | Self, and the anthology A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class is now available. For more on literary obsession, urgency, and telling details, join Beth’s Craft Talks webinar, “The Art of the Moment,” January 25th. More info/register here.
January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Regina Landor
My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”
I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.
But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?
I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?
Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?
She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.
The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.
Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.
She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”
Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?
I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.
I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.
This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?
It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.
I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.
Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!
The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.
Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.
January 5, 2023 § 26 Comments
By Margaret Hawkins
Simone Weil supposedly said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. We speak of paying attention, as if this gift is a currency. Writers certainly want to be paid in this currency (as well as in others, let me go on record as saying), but attention is also what writers pay to the world. Annie Dillard advises us to “admire the world for never ending on you – as you would an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.”
How to begin, though? I have various tricks, but here’s my favorite.
Go into the world and listen to what people are saying to each other. I used to tell students to eavesdrop but that’s the wrong word. You don’t have to stand under someone’s window or break any code of etiquette. All you need do is get in line at the post office, walk your dog, get a coffee. Everywhere, people are talking, often shouting into phones. Just tune in. Or maybe you’ll “overhear” words on a handmade sign or a t-shirt or tattooed on the tender inside of a girl’s forearm.
Go home and write it down. It belongs to you now. Let it steep for a few days, or years. Then give yourself ten minutes, or years, and write about it. It stuck in your memory, why? Who said it or don’t you know because it floated as a scream out of an upstairs window? Do you mind that you find yourself wondering if that person who said it is stupendously wrong? Or maybe she’s right. Which is worse? Write about that. Why did what you heard make vomit rise in your throat and your day go dark? Write about that if you dare.
What I usually find when I do this, and for me it’s more an addiction than an exercise, is some mystery at the heart of the overheard thing, or some secret, or a portrait of some pure emotion I recognize, but never recognized other people also felt. If I overhear someone yelling about politics while I’m walking my dog, the words slip away. I’ve heard it all before, this side and that in the same tired phrases. It’s the weird stuff in between—the infinite, subtle fractions of human experience that appear between the plodding integers that are our official opinions—that stop me in my tracks. I collect these bits like a treasure hunter and take them home to fondle in private.
There was the man who, when his male dining companion ordered a glass of wine, said, “My mother says men who drink wine are philanderers.” I still hear his voice, like Marlon Brando, and see him butter his steak the way you’d butter a stack of pancakes. Why did he bring his mother into it? I can’t stop thinking about him, or about the woman behind the counter at the jewelry store back when you had to go to such a place to replace your watch battery. She was wearing enormous, jewel-encrusted engagement and wedding rings, which I noticed when she gestured to the curled and faded snapshots of two King Charles spaniels taped to the cabinet behind her and said to the man in front of me, “They were the loves of my life.” And what’s up with the two signs posted side by side that I saw on a back road: “No Dumping Animal Carcasses” and “House for Sale”?
It’s these glimpses into private places that move me, like the weirdly excited feeling I got as a child when I would make myself think about the fact that every other person around me had an inside that was just as deep and unknown to me as I was to them. It was like thinking about the ocean or outer space or the Sunday School promise of eternal life or the infinity mirrors in the YMCA locker-room where I took swimming lessons that reflected me back to myself forever, a sight that kept me awake at night, terrified. Everything’s so much deeper than we want to believe.
I use this exercise in my classes. I tell students to go out and listen, then follow a quote and let it lead them exactly where they need to go in their writing that day. As for me, I don’t listen to help myself write; I listen because I can’t stop myself, and if this compulsion to know what’s going in other people’s lives ever goes away, I will not only no longer be a writer, I will no longer be alive.
So, if you want to jumpstart your daily writing practice, walk your dog. Or sit on a train or go get a haircut. Unless you live in a remote place, you will soon encounter other human beings, most of whom are on their phones ignoring the scenery and you. They are talking about their children, their parents, their spouses, other people’s salaries and sex lives and sometimes their own. Love and disappointment, and what’s for dinner. I have eavesdropped recipes and tried to recreate them. This is how I learned to put radishes in potato salad. All you need is one good quote to keep your keyboard busy all day.
Margaret Hawkins’ third novel, Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her memoir about family schizophrenia, How We Got Barb Back, came out in 2011. She writes essays and short fiction; “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” appeared in The Missouri Review in January 2022. Her column about art ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, and she now writes criticism for Visual Art Source and essays for The Democracy Chain. Margaret teaches at Loyola University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when she’s not writing or teaching, can be found walking her dog, Willem. She can be reached on her website.
December 30, 2022 § 27 Comments
By Heidi Croot
I was sitting across from my grandfather at the game table one New Year’s Eve as he clutched his belly in helpless laughter.
“Mein Bauch, mein Bauch!” he said, barely able to form words.
I was seventeen years old that night and learning euchre at the round pedestal table in my parents’ little brown bungalow. My German immigrant grandparents, then in their seventies, had made the two-hour train trip from Toronto to ring in the new year with us in our small bedroom community outside London, Ontario.
Opa and I were euchre partners and losing madly to Oma and my father. We were using cards as counters, but because of our losing, Opa and I had turned ours face down. When it was his turn to deal, he kept mistaking our counters for someone’s stack. Every time my Oma, my father and I shouted “No, no!” in unison, Opa’s forehead would graze the table, and our drinks would sway.
I clutch my own belly to remember it.
Precious mote of memory.
And one that may have been lost forever had I not described this New Year’s Eve in a letter to my aunt in California, and had I not saved a carbon copy of that letter, as I did with all my correspondence, and had those letters not grown into a foot-high pile of pink and yellow onionskins—an archiving habit I picked up from my mother.
A useful habit it was, too—the archive serving as a time machine for many writing projects, including my memoir. The essential tool was carbon paper, a page coated on one side with dry ink. My mother and I would slip a sheet between our letterhead and a piece of translucent paper as flyaway frail as an onion skin, before rolling all three pages into the typewriter. She had trashed her tower of onionskins by the time I was called upon to clean out my parents’ house, a loss for me as I sought understanding of my fugitive family.
My mother does not appear in my letter. She took a dim view of card games and despite idolizing my grandfather, had probably retired early that New Year’s Eve. Yet I picture her smiling in her bed on the other side of the thin wall.
It was my dad with his dry English wit who had been the architect of that night’s hilarity. It started even before the cards came out. We’d been teasing my shy, girlish grandmother about her horrified reaction to the word “sex”—don’t ask me how sex came up in the conversation—and Oma had giggled so hysterically she wet the couch. I remember because my father snapped a photo of the spot. I still see her holding the back of her hand to her mouth, eyes streaming.
Later, while playing a round of Michigan Rummy, Oma kept turning up sixes, so whenever she said “sechs,” German for “six,” my father and I countered with “There she goes again! Can’t get sex out of her mind!”
Whereupon—according to my letter, my youthful penchant for hyperbole in full flight— “everyone would get up, lie down on the floor, and split their sides laughing.”
“I don’t think it’s safe for me to go to bed tonight!” Opa said.
And still I squirm. A daring thing for my legendary Opa to say in front of his sheltered teenaged granddaughter. No doubt I worked hard to avoid catching Oma’s eye, even as I laughed with her in a thrill of embarrassment.
The day I found the copy of my letter describing that night, it was as if my Oma and Opa were alive again. I felt their presence rising, saw the contours of their beloved faces, heard the timbre of their voices like an old, forgotten song. Their love was warm breath on my cheek, their arms the embrace I yearned for, so safe, so tender. I knew my place in my family, not something I’ve been able to always count on.
The sensation was mostly gone by morning, but for a day and night it was mine.
When I emailed excerpts from the New Year’s memory to my relatives, my California aunt, with whom I share a nostalgic bent, mourned the loss of letter-writing as a way for future generations to understand their past.
History will take “a mighty blow,” she said.
My heart hurts for those generations caught in the fast lane of electronic communication, unable to bring beloved people back through the portal of words in letters warmed by the hand that holds them.
They’ll think they can fill the emptiness through other means—they’ll knock their knuckles on their memory banks and wink—but memories are capricious, content in their own company, like dreams cavorting in a far-flung field.
How will the void manifest for the people standing on the porch as the shadows lengthen, hearing a distant echo, unsure of what they are longing for, missing something they can’t even name?
Heidi Croot is a recovering corporate writer whose creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mud Season Review, Writescape blog, Linea magazine and elsewhere. She is a member of the Brevity Blog editorial team and is gathering courage to query her memoir. She lives in Ontario’s beautiful Northumberland County. You can reach her on Twitter.
December 28, 2022 § 5 Comments
Promoting a Comprehensive View of a Memoir’s Purpose through Thematic Structure
By Margaret Moore
When I look at the complete manuscript of my debut memoir, I see panel art.
Panel art, formally termed a polyptych, is an image divided into sections that are depicted on separate canvases. Side by side, the canvases collectively show the entire image.
In this butterfly polyptych, for example, the side panels solely feature the wings while the center focuses on the tagmata. Viewers can see the fine details the panels offer independently along with the larger image they form together.
My memoir was not intended to be a polyptych. Originally, I envisioned employing a strict chronological arrangement. Aiming to inspire others to overcome obstacles, my book narrates my experiences growing up with Cerebral Palsy, using a wheelchair, walker, and communication device, losing my father to cancer, and being raised by a single mother who enabled my pursuit of regular education, athletics, and other activities.
Since childhood, I have aspired to author a series of memoirs about different segments of my life—a book chronicling my birth through my elementary school graduation and sequels on middle school, high school, college, and so forth. Given my focus on specific time periods, chronological structure seemed most sensical.
For my debut memoir, I planned to dedicate the opening chapters to my birth, my family’s adjustment to my disability, and my father’s death. Once my narrator entered school, each chapter would focus on a specific academic year.
Written between childhood and college, the first drafts of the book were married to this structure. In college, I became disenchanted with it—my prose felt rigid and list-like, as if I was saying, “then I did this interesting thing, and that interesting thing…” Mentors seemed to offer identical critiques—that my book came across as a collection of anecdotes that, though entertaining, possessed no articulated purpose.
Before beginning my MFA, I started reordering my scenes. I didn’t dare make drastic changes to my book structure—each chapter still narrated my childhood years in order—but I ventured as far as removing the chronological arrangement of scenes within the chapters, selecting a moment sure to capture readers’ attention at the opening and determining what followed based on the topics of other scenes and how smoothly I could transition to them.
While pursuing my MFA at Fairfield University, something still seemed to mute my book’s purpose. The solution came after working to deepen my descriptions of navigating the world with a disability. Employing embodied writing techniques, I learned to use granular levels of detail to depict my narrator’s physical, emotional, and mental experiences and to follow these with retrospective reflections on the significance of her participation in activities. In my book, embodied writing materializes as step-by-step narrations of my narrator’s actions—the juxtaposition and sensations of her body and procedures of operating assistive technology. The prose is layered, incorporating not only her movements and sensations but also a deep look at her thoughts and emotions. The in-the-moment narratives and retrospective reflections are designed to demonstrate why her story is unique and keeps the memoir pointed toward its intended purpose.
Employing this technique required substantial expansion of my prose, which seemed to make my book’s purpose more prominent. At first, I left the book structure as it was, with each chapter centered on a specific school year.
“Your structure works,” one mentor said, reviewing a chapter. “Though if you wanted to delve further into the disability experience, you could experiment with breaking these events into multiple chapters to allow space for expanding on how these moments impacted you.”
I could see the benefits, but I feared that it would require a full-blown restructure of the book.
I later found myself stumped on directions for a new chapter. This was supposed to be the last in the book, narrating my fifth-grade school year and my experience attending an intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy program. Considering how drastically these topics differed from each other and how much space I’d need for describing the therapy through embodied writing, I worried the narrative would be pulled in too many directions.
I soon realized my mentor had provided the solution before I even encountered this problem, and I divided this chapter into two. By giving the therapy experience its own chapter, I didn’t have to balance the topic with others. I now had unlimited space to craft my narrative, not only to have characteristics of embodied writing, but also to detail how my family found this program and navigated the financial implications, types of therapy I previously had, how this one differed, and benefits gained. Concentrating on the one theme ultimately allowed me to paint a more thorough picture for readers.
Pleased with this effect, I reorganized my book into a thematic structure during my thesis semester. One chapter, for example, centers on accommodations and technology that enabled my pursuit of academics. Another focuses on experiences with discrimination, how society views—and often stereotypes—people with disabilities, and how my family, educators, and I have combatted that. Identifying my narrator’s age in multiple scenes enabled me to include moments from different years in the same chapter while making clear for readers when in her life my narrator experienced them. The book still draws on her progression from birth to fifth grade, but the timeliness has faded into the background, allowing the themes to shine more brightly.
Reviewing chapters individually, I neglected to see this structure’s full effect. Examining the memoir as a whole and contemplating what to write for an introduction to my thesis, I noticed the polyptych. Each chapter functions as a panel depicting one aspect of life with a disability. The chapters work together to depict a comprehensive view of the experience—or at least my disability experience, since no two people encounter it the same way.
If purposefully employed, what impact does this polyptych structure have? Perhaps it aids in delivering more exhaustive illustrations of the narrators’ experiences and the intended purposes of memoirs.
Margaret Moore is a summer 2022 graduate of Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, where she earned a degree in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is an editor and the marketing coordinator at Woodhall Press and an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her debut memoir is currently at the beginning stages of its publication process, and her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications. Find her on Twitter: @mooreofawriter