May 10, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Cheryl Achterberg
I wanted to learn to write memoir, specifically, how to end a memoir. Some say you must read to write. So, I read 50 memoirs with a few questions in mind. If a memoir is a fragment of a person’s life, is every memoir time-bound? How long might that time be? May I write about a long relationship that cuts across a lifetime, but is not in itself my whole life? Is that fragmentary enough? Does it make a difference if the narrator is a young adult or an older adult? According to C. S. Lakin, a memoir ends when “you’ve arrived,” but is that always obvious? What are the tropes in memoir, both good and bad?
It took two years to read a set of 50 memoirs. There are, of course, books about how to write memoir as well as webinars, blogs, and magazine articles. I’ve read many of those books and taken many of those webinars in the last two years as well. But they didn’t address my central question—how to end a memoir? Romances and mysteries have lists of do/don’t instructions. Why not memoirs?
My sample set was based on availability, a list of the 50 best memoirs in the last 50 years from the NY Times, and a specific interest in Alzheimer’s Disease. The COVID lockdown interfered with acquisition. Books were treated as if radioactive at my local library. The place was closed for months. Eventually, I could order books, but many had to be obtained from other libraries across the state. Browsing shelves was not an option.
I read the set of 50 books. Two-thirds were by women. Almost half (N=21) were written in the last five years (2015-2020) and ten were published in the 1990s. Most of the older ones are classics in the memoir genre, for instance, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and The Color of Water by James McBride. Six were by authors of color, two were LGBTQ. I generally avoided travel memoirs and celebrities except for Michael J. Fox’s latest. His No Time Like the Future is a model of story construction. Some memoirs are narrative masterpieces (e.g., Bauby, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Some are so memorable you will never forget them (e.g., Educated by Tara Westover). Here’s what I learned.
Memoirs deal with serious subject matter. In my set of 50, more endings dealt with death than any other topic. Five deaths were either patients the narrator cared for (e.g., Magnusson’s Where Memories Go) or the narrator’s directly, (e.g., Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face). Another eight were about coming to terms with one’s own mortality (e.g., Saunder’s Memory’s Last Breath) or the death of a parent, child, or loved one (e.g., Tretheway’s Memorial Drive).
Memoirs address humanity’s biggest emotional questions. Beyond death, the second largest ending category was resolving relationship problems including prodigal son/daughter themes (e.g., Karr, Cherry), understanding parents/seeing truth (e.g., Laymon, Heavy), escaping a bad marriage (Gee, Higher Education, Marijuana in the Mansion) or resolving sexual identity and marital relationships (e.g., Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Some confront grief (e.g., Before I Forget by B. Smith and Dan Gasby).
Meeting goals and challenges are prominent in endings. I defined a goal as something freely chosen such as Nita Sweeney setting out to run a marathon in Depression Hates a Moving Target. A challenge was an unplanned or unsettling event the narrator had to overcome as in Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. Together memoirs about goals and challenges accounted for 16 of the 50 memoirs I read. They show hope is justified, things can get better, and people can recover from setbacks. Rarely is failure ever documented (my sole example is Grann, The White Darkness).
Coming of age stories are represented but NOT dominant among memoirs. This finding was contrary to my expectations because I thought if there is a trope in memoir, coming of age would be it. There were six entries in my sample that recounted youth and adolescence ending in college entry, marriage, or moving. They might be called traditional or archetypic female narratives. However, both men (e.g., Wolff, The Boy’s Life) and women (e.g., Murray, Breaking Night) writers were represented in this set.
I did not find the proverbial tropes in memoir. There were no rags to riches stories nor were there any helpless female fatales. Neither did I find a standard timeline—a book might cover weeks or years or even a lifetime—so long as the “fragment” of a life was narrowed to a puzzling relationship, a question to be resolved, or challenge to be surmounted. Paula Balzer advises that memoirists should write with the end in sight. That may not be possible if self-discovery occurs in the process of the author’s writing. Besides, some things really are unending. A writer may learn that only by writing. As Lilly Dancyger noted, you can’t pretend your issue is “neatly resolved when it’s not.” And sometimes, that may be the point.
I learned there are no magic formulas, but memoirs are not about time. That finding answered my central question. Memoir endings can land anywhere and be anything if they carry a meaning. The memoirist should just write without worrying about the ending. The more important issue is what does the writing have to teach and share with yourself, other people, and the world at large. That’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.
May 6, 2021 § 20 Comments
My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.
I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.
Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.
Sources I recommend:
Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.
The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!
While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.
Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.
Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.
Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)
Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.
It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.
The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)
The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.
The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.
Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.
People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.
You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).
Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.
Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.
April 26, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Naomi J. Williams
The year I grew tired of braided essays was also the year when my hair grew long enough to braid.
I was reading all the braided essays because I often review applications and entries for various writerly goodies, each of which required writing samples, and many of the samples were essays, and many of the essays—many—were of the braided variety.
My hair had grown long enough to braid because of the pandemic. Before the pandemic I had a short, stylish bob. A year later, I had become a Japanese monster lady, face drawn and pale and framed by witchy white hair.
Sometimes I try to braid it. Some people are adept at braiding their own hair. Not me. I have not practiced, on my own head or anyone else’s, in decades. And my fingers are no longer nimble. I may be developing arthritis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am.
This is where I might throw in a bunch of facts I learn from Googling arthritis.
But I already spend far too much time looking up old-lady ailments, each more undignified than the last, many of them vaguely comic when they’re happening to someone else and altogether demoralizing when they’re happening to you.
I’ll share instead some etymological findings, as one does.
The word braid comes from Middle English breyden, a verb meaning “to move suddenly, snatch, plait,” which comes from Old English bregdan, which is related to Old High German brettan, which meant “to draw (a sword).”
All of this comes from Merriam-Webster.com, of course, boon companion to braided essayists everywhere.
I could meditate on what it means to move suddenly, as opposed to slowly, or even regularly. But reflecting on regular movements could lead to regularity then right back to undignified physical ailment territory.
I could become interested in how linguists determine kinship between an Old English word that means “plait” with an Old High German word for “draw (a sword).”
Or I could randomly share that when my sons were little, they had two genres of pretend play: “Swords & Magic” and “Blasters & Spaceships.” The plots were remarkably similar, but required different props for the inevitable fight sequences. (Swords) were drawn in the former and (blasters) for the latter.
Perhaps, in a pinch, Old High Germans used short swords to part their hair into sections for braiding.
Perhaps badass Middle Ages Germanic women braided short daggers into their hair to discourage bad men.
This beleaguered middle-aged Asian woman wishes she had enough hair to braid a weapon into it. How cool would that be?
But I’ve never had enough hair for that. And certainly not now. Because my hair, my witchy white hair, is also my witchy white thinning hair.
Wherein I decline to elaborate.
Here’s the thing about braiding hair: Sure, you can braid something that’s not hair into your braid. A ribbon, say. Maybe some flowers. But mostly you’re working with hair, and it’s hair growing from the same head, so it has some coherence, it’s literally about the one scalp, and then you pin the braid or braids in place or secure their ends with ponytail elastic or hairspray or—dang, someone online actually staples their braids. Okay!
Here’s the thing about braided essays: So many of them attempt to weave together strands that are brittle, or that appropriate someone else’s locks, or just don’t stay in place, or simply aren’t weavable—like wow, you just tried to braid (a sword) into your essay and lopped off your own head.
More and more I find myself craving the sustained narrative that stays with something—a moment, an event, a relationship, a place, a time period, an idea—and really excavates, down past one’s readily-accessed memories and even-more-readily accessed factoids from Wikipedia and approaches the hot, dangerous, beating-heart center of the thing.
Speaking of readily-accessed memories, those studies that establish the cognitive decline associated with menopause? Simultaneously validating and terrifying.
Speaking of hot and dangerous, the studies that say women who are thin, Asian, and don’t smoke have fewer hot flashes than other women? Well, all I can say is that they didn’t talk to me!
I don’t think age confers wisdom. There. I said it.
Wherein we learn that the magic potential of the braided essay inheres in juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas or threads and voila! the unexpected truths emerge, like liver spots.
In medical lingo liver spots are called solar lentigines, which is plural for solar lentigo, which is much nicer than liver spot so can we please just start saying that instead?
Here’s the thing about any successfully braided thing: It’s an object of beauty. The heft of a braid in the hand. That taut, satiny smoothness. The visual pleasure of the weave. The sensuous strength of the strands holding each other in place.
This is true of braided hair. And braided fabric trim. And rugs. And baskets. And challah. And essays.
Naomi J. Williams is the author of the novel Landfalls. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Electric Literature, LitHub, One Story, and A Public Space. She lives in Sacramento, California, and teaches at the low-res MFA program at Ashland University. Learn more at naomijwilliams.com or follow her on Twitter at @NaomiWilliams.
April 20, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Alle C. Hall
It is a marvel, to create an entire world and a complete life in 500-5000 words—especially if you hope to do so by pulling a few paragraphs or pages from a full-length manuscript. Be warned, however: creating short, standalone pieces is just as consuming—if not more so—than starting from the God-space of The Blank Page.
There is dejection is leaving out the 70-or-so thousand words that took years to write. We ask ourselves, Is my work is superfluous, the time wasted? That fear makes us want to cling to each syllable, to stuff the entire story into the excerpt.
Forcing too much was the mistake I saw most often, as Associate Editor for Vestal Review (flash fiction under 500 words) and Senior Nonfiction Editor for jmww journal (500-4000). Even if the submission came in under word count, an overriding heaviness persisted.
When adapting, it is essential to let the new piece grow free of the existing prose—even if this creates dissonance between the full narrative and the emerging short piece. Focus on a moment of change that drives to a realization and then dissolves, movie-scene-change-like, into resolution.
You’re more likely to find a workable excerpt in your opening chapters, where exposition is built in. I’ve excerpted as far into a manuscript as chapter ten out of twenty-two, but those shorts came from a travel adventure. “Place” was constantly refreshing itself and new characters entering offered new perspectives.
My own work-in-progress, “American Mary,” involves a marriage of two chapters into a short story. I started with a 3800-word chapter, “North.” In taking a fresh crack at it as a short story, well! Why did I think the reader needed to know how the protagonist found a hotel? How she checked in—zzzzzzzzzz … sorry, dozed off there for a moment.
Once you have found a likely few paragraphs or pages:
- Drop the reader, boom, into the most active section. No exposition.
- The first sentence should be clear to the point of simple: subject-verb-object establishing who and where, who and what, or what and where. From Alice Munro’s mesmerizng “Red Dress—1946”: My mother was making me a dress.
- To create simple sentences, even long simple sentences, delete every adjective and adverb. Munro’s second sentence: All through [WHEN] the month of November I would come from school and [WHERE] find her in the kitchen, surrounded by [WHAT] cut-up red velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern.
- Replace conjunctions (I’m looking at you, “but”) with a noun or verb. See where that takes you. An existing sentence from “American Mary”: I’d escaped my father. But with Jean; if I could feel anything, it would be terror. New sentence: I’d escaped my father. Jean, however—if I could feel anything, it would be terror.
- Kill backstory. Clarify only that which needs to be explained, and only as you encounter it. My writing mentor, Carlie L. Glickfeld, says “Move relentlessly forward.”
- Rid the piece of the tangents that a longer work allows. Existing sentence from “American Mary”: … my Lonely Planet guidebook, yellow and green cover proclaiming ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’. New sentence: … my Lonely Planet guidebook.
- Banish transitions. Paragraph-return! New section!
- Some prepositions can be disposed of. Existing sentence: She swung sinewy legs to the bar by crossing them, so that two guys approached. New sentence: She swung sinewy legs by crossing them, throwing around a great deal of hair in the process. Two guys approached.
- Don’t be shy about pulling from various parts of the manuscript to make the short piece work.
I’d converted the original chapter to 2500 words. But now I had a piece that would be markedly more difficult to place—between the 1000-1500 many literary magazines expected for a flash and the 5,000 expected for a short.
To nurture my 2500, I went back 50 pages in the manuscript and annexed half of another chapter, one that I’d previously considered adapting. Even so, as many times as I read it, it never struck me as having the “there” there. Coupling it with “North,” however, enriched both: “Mary” sets up “North”; “North” brings “Mary” to fruition; and the piece moves toward wholeness, which is critical in excerpting. The adaptation should benefit from brevity. You might begin by asking yourself: Why does the new piece I imagine need to be told as a short?
The converse is also true. After you’ve played with a section, miraculously, you will find that your original draft could use a good weeding. Your new story will act as a napkin-sketch for excavation. Ultimately, I pruned the chapter I added and, behold! Sentences had deep subtext, huge chunks of exposition tidied up, sentences with multiple clauses blended into clean-lined rows.
Trust yourself: as challenging as it may seem, you may have the miracle of the short draft in your full-length work.
Alle C. Hall’s work placed as finalist for the 2021 Lascaux Prize and as a semi-finalist for the New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. Other work appears in Evergreen Review, Litro, Tupelo Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Another Chicago, Literary Orphans, and The Citron Review. She placed First in The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition, and is a Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net nominee. Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Find her on Twitter @allechall1
April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
April 14, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Chelsey Clammer
I can’t carry a tune with my voice so I let my pen do the singing. Melodies of life moments, those metronomed memories, a symphony of sentences, and some harmonized hashtags (I actually don’t know what that last one means, but it sounded cool and that’s eventually going to be my point). There’s a certain flow a writer must follow. Each time pen hits page, it’s a different flow. But the pen is that steady rhythm in each writing attempt. The movement of words tapping their foot along to the beat of each pen stroke. Getting into that flow means something might come of it.
I worry, though, about when this isn’t the case, like for me, lately. Recent words I have written have been a series of paragraphs that either never sang or meant anything. Just words clunked on the page. And I’m not talking about typing. Literally clunk like a snapped piano string.
I know I’m a terrible singer, even though I love to sing. I once recorded myself singing because I felt like I was doing pretty good at it, then I listened to the recording and ending up crying because I was laughing so hard at how terrible it was. No joke. Oddly, I’m relatively talented (for a white girl) at rapping. I think it’s about that flow and the words that link up with them. Although I can’t listen to music as I write or else my words will start rhyming with the lyrics and so when those sentences stand alone in silence, they’re a mash-up with another medium the reader can’t hear and won’t ever understand. Unhelpful.
So, no music while writing, but I will—like I am right now—nod my head to a beat only I can hear. A rhythm like a strong bass I try to pulsate into each word. It might not be a successful rhythm—ending up on the page sounding distorted and flat and like it keeps skipping random beats or has fallen to the fate of a scratched cd—but I have to believe in that rhythm. That sound. That knowing that there is a flow and at some point I’ll sink into it. Sync up with it. Or there are those times when that rhythm gets going but the words don’t quite mean anything. More sound than purpose. But aha! Point. Sometimes, we just need to write to hear how the act of writing feels inside of us. It’s about the movement. The sound. The writing. The flow.
What I’m trying to say—trying to convince myself of—is that it’s okay that a series of recent paragraphs never sang. Perhaps that’s the warm-up, the throat-clearing, those vocal exercises that yes, sound as stupid as the nonsensical concept of harmonized hashtags, but they serve a purpose. Preparation. Getting into the music of each moment, stretching those vocal chords—those tenacious tendons of writerly fingers—until they’re ready to burst forth and sing with rhythm and meaning. Keep writing regardless of what is written down. Go for that flow. Write like no one is listening.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017) and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor. Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. http://www.chelseyclammer.com
March 31, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Maggie Pahos
My mom died when I was twenty-two, and four months later, I boarded a plane for Ghana—to try to find solid ground, to be touched by something other than my own life, to remember what was still beautiful in the world. For eleven months, I traveled with my boyfriend, Will, onto South Africa, and then to Europe. When we landed back in the States, I applied for MFA programs, and the following year, I started as a nonfiction student at Chatham University, where I began the manuscript for She Made You That Way—the story of my mom’s life and death and those eleven months Will and I traveled.
My mom had died two-and-a-half years after a re-diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a slow process, and painful and beautiful and bewildering and harrowing and surreal and a mess, in the way slow deaths can be. I’d just graduated college, and my mom was becoming my best friend, so her death completely devoured me, that age-old description of grief as a wave, a tidal force so powerful and consuming all you can do is hold your breath and hope you live long enough to again, one day, find air.
When I started writing the manuscript, my instinct was to write in present tense. I love reading and writing present tense narratives. There’s an urgency I find compelling and alert in the present, a language not tamped down by distance and time. But as part of my courses at Chatham, I was starting to study memoir in earnest and noticed most memoirs are written in past tense. For good reason. Much of the joy and beauty of memoir is its ability to shed light, offer insight, and infuse wisdom based on the unique human ability to make meaning out of trauma and chaos and heartbreak. By creating vantage points at various places in time from which to perch and convey these insights, a writer can create complexity and differing perspectives for the reader. Present tense, so scene-based and immediate, can make it harder, though, of course, not impossible, to do this.
But that kind of reflection and wisdom offering memoir can provide wasn’t my goal. I knew I had no wisdom to give. I wasn’t capable of reflecting. Each time I tried to write in past tense, I grew a feeling under my skin, a physical sensation—a man following behind me at night, a bad phone call about to come in, a foreign sound on the dark porch—telling me something was wrong. I abandoned the past tense as quickly as I tried it each time.
There was that lurking sense of unease but also a crush of dishonesty. It felt instantly like I was writing fiction instead of my own life, writing about a stranger named Maggie who went through something I didn’t know. My mom’s death still completely calibrated my life, so present it defined my every move. To act as though I could look back on it as something of the past, something separate from me, was like shoplifting or cheating on a test, a violation and probably not worth it. The alarm bells of inauthenticity screamed in my ears. My skin felt like someone else’s, and it disgusted me. And it seemed a disservice to her. I was going to make a packaged artifact of her life in the form of a book? An inert, unfeeling thing in past tense, deadly finite?
So, in present tense, alive and breathing and full of moving possibilities—full of her—I stayed.
Every so often, I would change a couple sentences in the manuscript to past tense, just to see how they read, and each time, that feeling. Then one day, a few years into writing, I tried it, and nothing happened. I converted a few more sentences, waiting to feel ill, and still no ick, no urge to jump ship. I did this for a whole paragraph, read it back to myself, and for the first time, it sounded true. I could suddenly see all the doors it would lead me to on top of its truth, the lateral movements and jumps in time. Maybe I would even find a way to reflect.
Eventually, I changed the entire manuscript to past tense, and that’s how it will stay. But I know why the present tense felt like the only true way for so long. Part of me thought I could keep her alive if I wrote about her as if she actually still were. She is sleeping, she walks to her closet, she tells me, “I love you so.” No “ate” or “snored” or “laughed.” No. Those verbs were for dead people. I could keep her with me if she was active in the present. I could make it so she wasn’t fully gone. She could still breathe beside me. I could still stand with her in a room.
I won’t go so far as to say I offer any kind of wisdom in my manuscript, past tense as it now may be. But I do feel like I’ve finally done justice to her, to my family, to Will, to myself because I’m able to explore us all through the many dimensions we contain, to show development, change, and regression across time and space. While past tense isn’t the best way to tell every story, not by a long shot, it seems to be working now for this one.
I’ve been able to track my grief through how I’ve been able to write about it, and it’s been a humbling and gratifying experience, one that’s held my hand and kept me on some kind of path through the dark woods. Even in the past tense, I get to sit down with my mom each day at my computer, to hear her words, and see her smile. “I love you,” she said. She says. She pulls me to her. “You’ll always be my baby.”
Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hippocampus Magazine, Bark, the Rumpus, Flyway, Nowhere, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions. You can find more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.
It’s all in the Details: The Importance of Naming Things, Using Sensory Description, and Giving Specific Examples
March 17, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
Let’s say I want to tell you about my hometown. What if I told you it’s small and the downtown is on two streets and it has stores and places to eat? Are you getting a picture in your head? Probably not.
What if instead I told you the town’s name is Yellow Springs, and the downtown stretches across Xenia Avenue and Dayton Street, with a one-block street called Short Street? If you’re hungry, you can eat at Ye Olde Trail Tavern or the Wind’s Cafe or order at the deli counter at Current Cuisine (I love their Broccoli Moroccan Salad with peanuts and raisins) or head to the Sunrise Cafe (try their Super Veggie Scramble for brunch or their Thai Peanut Tofu for dinner—and take the wooden booth at the front that has a big window looking out on Xenia Avenue). For dessert, walk over to the Corner Cone and order a coconut-flavored soft-serve ice cream cone—vegan, even—at the window and sit outside on the patio. Want to shop? For groceries, Tom’s Market or Starflower Natural Foods. For clothes, Wildflower Boutique or Kismet. And for gifts, Asanda Imports, Urban Handmade, Yellow Springs Pottery, Dark Star Books & Comics or Epic Book Shop, or pick out an eeBoo jigsaw puzzle at the Yellow Springs Toy Company, or try on Birkenstocks and smell the incense at Earth Rose. What if I told you there are places to hike nearby? What if instead I named them—Glen Helen, just a few blocks from town, or Clifton Gorge?
Are you getting a sense of my town now?
Naming things can make a difference. Specifying. Providing details. If I said I grew up in a house in town, you might come up with some idea in your imagination of what that place looked like. But let me tell you more: I grew up in a house that is a remodeled barn, and it smells like cedar as soon as you walk in. Upstairs is a huge picture window that lets in the sky but also the summer sun, which beats into the room and heats it up. Downstairs stays cool, and in the dining room where there used to be carpet the color of wild rice, now the floor is tiled—blue and yellow and brown—and a set of French doors (honey-colored wood with big panes of beveled glass) leads from the dining room to the den. Even though the house is in town, when you step into the yard, what you hear is birdsong—of black-capped chickadees, cardinals, house finches. The yard has peppermint plants all along the fence, a maple tree canopying the center of the yard, blue spruces near the green shed, and circles of flowers for all seasons: purple crocuses, daffodils, coreopsis, autumn sedum, and a bunch of light-pink peonies in the far back.
What about now? Do you have at least a sense of the place I am trying to describe?
When writing our stories, details are key because our own lives are so vivid and clear to us—we forget we need to help the reader experience it as we do. We need to take the reader with us. We need to recreate it on the page.
But being specific means more than just details and description and naming things. It also means giving examples of what we are trying to convey. I took a memoir class while I was writing my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and the chapter I had turned in described someone I had dated: “He was soft-faced, thick-haired, broad-shouldered. His voice was deep and calm enough to steady me in its tone. Everything about him said he was substantial and sturdy, but his face could close unexpectedly, like a moon obscured by a rush of clouds plumed from cold temperatures.” I was trying to say he could become angry with me at times when I didn’t expect it. Can you give an example?, the teacher asked me. I sure could, as I had many examples, but it hadn’t occurred to me to put any of them into the chapter. I added this: “One time, he had arrived at a bicycle race frustrated and scowling because he had spent too long searching for me and our friends through the crowds, though I had told him we were standing by the water tower. When he asked if I had been watching for him and I could not say yes—though I knew that was the only right answer—he turned away and ignored me for the rest of the race but talked and laughed with everyone else.” Adding this example not only helped the reader understand the person about whom I was writing, but it also helped the reader understand me.
Now, I try to teach this to my students—give examples when it’s important, name things that will help give context to the reader, use sensory description to convey a sense of place and to build an emotional landscape. I don’t often have details and specifics in my first drafts—or at least, not enough—but in my second and third and subsequent drafts, I add them when they matter.
Details make a story come alive; details fill in the gaps; details do so much of the work if we just remember to let them.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of The Going and Goodbye: a memoir and the short story collection, A Small Thing to Want. Her latest book is a poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.
March 10, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Rasma Haidri
On Twitter yesterday I saw someone ask if he can call himself a memoirist because he keeps journals. No, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I resist engaging in social media conversations with strangers (although I’m told that is the point of social media). Nothing proves Goethe’s adage, “The spoken word comes not back,” better than Twitter where every utterance is carved in cyberstone. What if I changed my mind? What if I got trolled? Anyway, he wasn’t asking me. And besides, what do I know?
I know that the word mémoire is French for memory and what we write in journals is not memory. It is the present preserved. We write in journals to explore, confess, deny, blame, examine, discuss. We write in journals so our thoughts are not—what’s the saying—lost to memory? Even when writing about something remembered, it is the present moment of remembering that we record in the journal.
“This is not a book,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin in the first line of his journal. Rightly so. A journal is private interior writing that we do for many reasons, none of which is public consumption. A memoir, on the other hand, is a book. We write them to be read by the world at large. Even an unread, unpublished memoir is a book rather than a journal, because it is a rendering, a creation, a work. Even published diaries, like those of Anaïs Nin, or Gauguin for that matter, are works someone has annotated and edited, transformed from journal to book.
I am writing a memoir based on my mother’s private personal writings that she left unsorted in a box. That box has made me a memoirist. As memoirist I am a thief, stealing my mother’s private thoughts in order to imagine and construct her life. As memoirist I am a Dr. Frankenstein, awake at all hours frenziedly piecing dead fragments into a living whole. It is dark and bloody work. It is a scream in a frozen field where I unveil the body and behold a chimera. I think it’s my mother, but it’s me. The memoirist is not the writer of the journals. She is the one who exhumes them from a box, dissects the body, inspects the archeological find, and renders from the amalgated past a memoir.
All writing is hard work, and the memoirist’s work is among the hardest. Journaling, whether stuttered fragments or flowing spontaneous prose, is among the easiest as it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere or impress anyone. No one is going to read it. Journals are where we record the raw material for memoir. The journal narrates ideas, dreams and struggles in a context we are now far removed from. The journal’s narrator always predates who we think we are today.
Some years ago, my daughter told me that if the house burns, I must hurl my several dozen personal journals out the window. She wants to read them when I’m gone. I asked her what she thought she’d find there. She said, “A young woman I never knew.” I told her she can ask me anything now, no taboos. My mother allowed no personal questions, but I am determined to be the opposite. I told my daughter I will answer any question openly and honestly. She said, “I know.” She doesn’t ask. She has no questions.
I wonder if I’m wrong about my mother not allowing personal questions. In my honest moments I must ask myself: is it possible I just didn’t pose any? Perhaps a mother must die before her daughter realizes that the person she knew is only part of the woman who was her mother. Only when the mother is gone do the questions the daughter never asked begin to form. They are the beginning of memoir writing.
I haven’t decided if I will leave my journals for my daughter. Is it enough that she knows what she knows? How will all that spontaneously written rubbish in my journals distort her understanding of me? I am a writer of poems and memoir. I render the stuff of my life into literary works and offer them to my daughter to read. She hasn’t gotten around to reading much. Not yet. And she has a plan to find me in my old journals.
I might die, as my mother did, before I have decided what I want to do with my boxes of personal writing. If they do end up in my daughter’s hands, she will discover that the work of understanding her mother’s journals is the work of memoir, which ultimately requires a reconciliation between what is written there and what is already known, and what is unknowable.
The memoirist depends on journals for answers to questions that were never answered or asked. Whether it is one’s own journal or someone else’s, the journal once written serves the same purpose: to illuminate the past and inform the present. That’s what I’ll tell the man on Twitter. If I find him. Journals don’t make you a memoirist. Your journey through them exploring the past will.
Rasma Haidri writes in a pinewood room on an island off the coast of Norway. She is the author of the poetry collection As If Anything Can Happen, and is at work on her MFA thesis, a memoir about her mother’s box. Visit her at www.rasma.org.
March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments
One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.
These memoirs don’t work.
They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.
Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.
But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.
Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.
Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because
We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.
How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?
- If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
- After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
- Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.
See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.