March 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
By Zoe Zolbrod
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip-Smart and a new essay collection Abandon Me, which is about, among other things, meeting her birth father, an all-consuming love affair, and the way we tell our own life stories to ourselves. In this interview, she talks about the process of writing her new book to Zoe Zolbrod, author of The Telling.
Zolbrod: I’ve been a fan of your work since Whip Smart, and after I read it I gobbled up any interviews I could find. I recall you talking in one—I believe it was the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi—about working on a novel, discussing it with your agent. Now here you are with Abandon Me. When did you know that you were writing another book of nonfiction? Did you leap toward it, or did you have to convince yourself?
Febos: Neither, really. Nonfiction has never been something I leapt toward, nor something I had to convince myself of per se. It has always come for me, and with a force that precludes argument. Here is what I knew: the essays that were occupying me required that I reinvent my process. I also knew that I was going to write a book about meeting my birth father and this love affair that had consumed me for two years. I knew little else. But once I had written about four of these essays, it occurred to me that they were the book. That I was working my way into those subjects in an unprecedented way, through sound and image.
Zolbrod: Please talk about the structure of the book, which is unusual. The initial seven essays are followed by a section, “Abandon Me” that at 170-some pages long could be a book in itself. I’m interested in how you made this choice. What input did your agent or editor give, if any? What factors played into the decision?
Febos: While there were many choices later on, these essays knew their own forms before I did. It was much more a process of discovery than invention. Although later on, in revision, I had to devise some creative ways to figure out how to make those structures within each essay crack open to reveal the content, if that makes sense. I made maps and mobiles; I chopped them up with scissors; I taped them to the walls. I had to uncover a new way of building a piece of writing, which was both terrifying and wonderful, because my process before that had been so circumscribed and functional.
When I started the final, title essay, I didn’t know that it would become so long. I estimated that it would be about forty or fifty pages. When I crossed the hundred-page mark, I knew I was dealing with a very different kind of animal.
I made a decision to completely finish the book before I showed it to any editor or agent, and that was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made, in respect to these things. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew it would look better than it would sound if I tried to describe it beforehand. And I am very lucky to have found both an agent and an editor that recognized the strange form as its true one. They didn’t ask me to change it at all. I know many editors and agents would have wanted to reshape it into something more conventional.
Zolbrod: In many of the early essays, you cover the ground of early childhood and coming of age, but you also include “Leave Marks,” “Wunderkammer” and “All of Me,” which explore aspects of the central romantic relationship that is traced from start to finish in the long title piece. They’re written from a close perspective within the love affair. How did you think about chronology as you were organizing your material, and its relationship to your themes of exploring love and loss? How did you think about perspective?
Febos: I actually wrote those essays while I was in the love affair. I wrote the majority of the long one during its final phase, too. I went back and made some revisions, but I was writing and living my way through the book simultaneously for most of it. I would not have recommended this to anyone, but I think it’s the way I had to write it. The writing process was how I made sense of living the experience; it was a way that I processed it. And so, it is both a record and a reflection. I think that you can feel that in the essays, to some degree. There is an immediacy that reflects it, and a mythology to them that marked the ways I build stories inside of that love as it was happening.
Zolbrod: There’s a section in “Abandon Me” that I love. You describe your wide sexual experience, which can make you sound like an uninhibited wild child by standard measures. Then you write, in the context of becoming lovers with the woman who’s about to shake you to your core, “I discovered at nearly thirty years old that I was shy.” There’s much in the book about being seen—the desire we have for someone to see us, the shame we feel about it, the way lovers both can and can’t see us clearly, or can cloud as well as sharpen our view. There’s another line, in “Labyrinths,” that resonated with me: “I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession.” How does writing personal nonfiction play into this dynamic, the tension between the desire to be and shame of being seen?
Febos: Writing is my solution to that tension. I know I’m not alone in this, and maybe your interest in those passages is proof of that. I think we all eventually come to understand what Winnicott meant when he said “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” In writing, I can reveal myself while still alone. I can try out different ways to name the things I am afraid to name, and then, when I get it right (or as right as I am capable of), I can show it to someone. It’s self-exposure one step removed, and with a privacy we don’t have when just relating or talking to other people.
In many ways, this book is one about the stories we create in love: about ourselves, our lovers, and our love. Writing is also the way I smash those, and the way I build new ones when I’m able to let the early ones go.
Zolbrod: The book covers your meetings with a sister, aunt, and biological father you’ve seldom or never met. The lonely intensity of encountering strangers with whom you share blood and lineage is so well drawn. As you mention, you were coming into these meetings with the fact of Whip Smart and your other writing out in the world. I love the part where your aunt apologizes for not having read the book, and you’re like: That’s okay! But your sister had read the book before she met you.
Is there any way that having such personal material out there made meeting new-to-you relatives easier, and not only more awkward? In general, what can be the silver linings for nonfiction writers who cover intimate ground and who then have to go to job interviews and family reunions and so forth knowing that the kind of juicy personal details most people keep under tight wraps are available on Amazon for $5 off the retail price or used for 99 cents?
Febos: When I talk about it being easier in some ways to write myself down and give that to others, I mostly mean the people who already know me. And the strangers who might identify with my experiences. In job interviews, or meeting my family for the first time, I generally tried not to think about it. It doesn’t feel like my business what they make of those stories, if they find them. When I actually want to get to know a new person, I try to act as if that information isn’t out there, because I can only get to know someone by participating in the interaction, if that makes sense. It also feels like modeling the kind of interaction I want to have, which is distinct from the interaction they might have had with the text. People often don’t know what to do with it. By people, I mean my colleagues, students, et al. They don’t know if reading my work counts as an intimacy between us. So I find ways to show them that it isn’t. As a memoirist, I’ve had to teach people in this (mostly) gentle way how to separate me from the text, and our relationship from the one they’ve had with my work.
Zolbrod: You express several times an explicitly non-judgmental view towards what could be labeled as failure or weakness in others. Your perspective has been broadened by what you’ve confronted in your own life: addiction, the mental illness of loved ones, imperatives of the body that defy common sense. I was struck by these beautiful lines you wrote on the subject: “We are all broken. And repair often hurts. And the ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing.” It’s something I recognize.
This kind of compassion and open-mindedness is so helpful in building relationships. Specifically, in “Abandon Me,” when you’re encountering relatives who live lives different from your urbane urban one.
But sometimes in my own life I’ve wondered about the downsides of a rigorously non-judgmental view. For example, there’s the moment in the book when you confess to your mother that you almost want your girlfriend to do something awful so you’re justified in leaving her, and your mom tenderly tells you that she already has, which is clear to the reader.
When does a value of open-mindedness conflict with the need for self-protection, or actually interfere with self perception? And how does this play out in nonfiction when we’re writing about people who have not just hurt us, but done something morally wrong?
Febos: This is such a good question. It is a complex thing, having empathy for the sometimes hurtful ways that humans pursue healing, or security, or relief. I mean, the empathy is not complicated; it is precious. But the ways that we express it, or respond to it can be. It feels easy for me to see the ways that cruelty comes out of woundedness. It always does. But that doesn’t erase an adult person’s accountability for their actions, their treatment of others. In the past I’ve excused treatment that I shouldn’t have, because I could see the wounded place it came from. And I’ve used my own woundedness, or the world’s flaws, to rationalize my own wreckage. I want to be able to hold empathy and accountability at the same time. Compassion does not require that we receive any kind of treatment or justify any behavior—our own or others’. Being an adult means accepting what we’ve been given, unfair though it may be. We often have to overcome a lot to be kind, to be generous in love and to ourselves. But that is our work. To linger in lament or blame just slows that process, slows our movement toward a more generous way of loving.
Zolbrod: Here’s another line that holds so much. “I had come here looking for something and found nothing but these broken people, who were my people.” Your paternal grandfather was from the Wampanoag tribe. You mention the study of epigenetics, that massive cultural trauma can be passed through the generations. You’d always known you had native blood, and describe being taken to a powwow at nine by your adoptive father, and feeling a distance. How do you view this aspect of your lineage now? Was there anything about writing this book that affected your relationship to it?
Febos: This book included a process of negotiating the difference between claiming a “native identity,” which I have never felt entitled to (and still don’t), and claiming the private thing that that ancestry has meant to me. From childhood, I understood my identity as comprised of many pieces of things: I was half-adopted, had a Puerto Rican father, was queer, had this other father who was a stranger and also part Native. I didn’t feel enough of anything to claim it, so I decided that I was nothing. But a decision does not erase what made you, or what you are made of. In order to write this book, I had to retrieve those exiled parts and draw them together in my self-conception. That was one purpose of this book. And it did bring me back together.
I had also felt estranged, and ashamed, of the compulsive parts of my personality, which had governed so much of my young adulthood. No one else in my immediate family, the family that raised me, was an addict. There were parts of me that weren’t mirrored in them. Physical aspects, tendencies—not all “dark” ones like addiction, but my aloneness in them felt like a kind of darkness. It is part of what drove me to find my birth father and his family. And did confirm that I was not alone, not defective. Those parts came from somewhere, and I don’t only mean the genetics, but the historical and familial legacy as well.
Zolbrod: You open the book by writing about your story-rich childhood, and you draw on your rich knowledge of story and poetry throughout, from Greek and Egyptian to Rilke to stories in popular culture. I’m curious about how you organized this material during the writing process, or just the role it played in the creation of the book. What was the chicken and what was the egg? Like, did you dip into touchstone texts as you were wrestling with your material and come out with metaphors, or did you go looking for metaphors, with a good sense of where to find them?
Febos: Definitely the former. The personal narrative and driving questions of the book were the chicken, and as I worked my way into them, I looked to the texts I knew and trusted to help me along. And the conversations I had with those texts made their way into the book. In many ways, I think of the essay as a thought process, or an artful transcription of a thought process, and so it seemed natural to let them in as I was articulating my own inquiry.
The book also takes for its subject the nature of narrative, how we build it, how it builds us, and so I went to the most fundamental examples of this in my own life: the books I loved as a child, the stories I’ve come back to again and again.
I spent less time looking for metaphors in this book than anything else I’ve ever written, which may sound strange because it’s so thick with metaphor. But it is also an excavation of the metaphors I’ve carried with me the longest, the ones I always have with me. The films, the books, the places of my upbringing—the images and stories that first defined me, and so carry parts of me.
Zolbrod: You’ve talked and written so articulately about how powerful personal writing can be, how far outward it can reach, even as we dive deeper inward into what some call belly-button gazing. The essays and talks I’m referring to (not that there aren’t others), as well as this book, were written in pre-Trump era. Have any of your views on personal writing changed in the face of this regime? Have any of your writing inclinations or habits?
Febos: Belly-button gazing! That sounds adorable. That sounds like something I’m interested in.
My views on personal writing have not changed post-election. There is an increased urgency in me, to be more explicit in the activism inherent to how I teach and write, and perhaps a different sense of economy in my subject choices. That is, I am more inclined to prioritize those subjects that speak to this particular moment, but that still includes the personal. It is through personal stories that we encourage empathy, and that we record the lived experiences that our institutions hope to erase or define or ignore or rewrite.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, Lit Hub, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor.
March 15, 2017 § 15 Comments
By Ronit Feinglass Plank
I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.
I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to tell the story of my childhood. And this story, which I thought I knew so well, was becoming something else, different than I had always understood it.
I was beginning to learn for myself how the memoirist’s relationship to their narrative is ever-changing, revealing itself page by page, sometimes moment to moment, the way motor oil and water mingle in a puddle, colors swirling together in endless combinations. Just when you think you see how the colors and patterns are playing off each other, the light changes, or your vantage point shifts and you notice something new. Memoir is like that.
I continued excavating my past on the page, yet, even as I accumulated chapters, I was hesitant about this new genre. When friends asked what I was working on I’d practically apologize before confessing it was memoir. I had this idea nobody would want to read it. My self-talk went like this:
-Other memoirists might have had more painful experiences, what do I have to contribute?
-Don’t people think memoir is whiny?
-There are more important things happening in the world, who has time for a personal narrative?
But, the longer I worked on my project the more confident I felt. I read a ton of memoirs and finished the first draft of mine. While I did I learned how to push past my misgivings with a kind of pep talk about memoir that goes like this:
1) My story isn’t as painful as other memoirists.
Writing memoir is not a competition for the worst or saddest story. Memoirists are charged with looking at their lives to find pattern and achieve some kind of understanding, not to out-pain other memoirists. People read memoir to understand a mind at work, hard at work in most cases, trying to piece apart what happened during a period of time and why the memoirist is still thinking about it now.
No one but you knows what it was like to be you and no one knows what it is like to be you looking back beginning to understand what you didn’t understand then. That’s why no two memoirs are the same even if they are both about mothers who leave or marriages that break up or the ravages of chronic illness, whatever your story might be.
It’s a memoirist’s response to their experience that is interesting. When faced with trouble in their lives, why does one person leave, while another digs in? Why does one person blame herself, and another blames others?
It is the memoirist’s unique insight that creates the point of view and voice that can make memoirs captivating.
2) Memoir is whiny.
I used to think memoir was navel-gazing, the writing equivalent of pouting or, worse, blaming others. I may have gotten this idea from the way I lived my life, thinking that I was supposed to be “strong” at all times. I believed I should suck it up, should handle hardships on my own. I worried that it was weak to dwell on events of the past, which is what I thought memoir was. But memoir is not for finger-pointing or for self-pity. Just like healthy relationships get built with honesty and improve with accountability, so does memoir.
It is courageous to look at the story you have told yourself for years and pick it apart to understand it more, to recognize your own habits and tendencies. Vulnerability is not a liability; it is a form of strength. It takes guts to see how you have played a part in what has occurred in your life.
The power of a memoir lies in the ability of a memoirist to see herself clearly, to see the part she played. It is the opposite of woe is me or why me? It’s more of a how come and what next? Now that you see more of the truth, what will you do with it? This is the momentum that drives the narrative forward, the tension the reader feels witnessing a dynamic mind at work.
3) There are bigger problems in the world than my lower middle class American story.
Sometimes it feels like pain is everywhere. And, for me at least, when I see how much hardship there is close to me, around me, very far from me, I feel overwhelmed. So why should I add my voice to the chorus of sadness?
My answer is the more room we make within ourselves, the more room we have. When a child gets hurt we take care of the child, we don’t push them away and tell them other kids have it worse. That would only teach them not to have empathy for others or for themselves.
Readers of literature care about people, they are interested in their experience. Writers give them that experience. People might read a memoirist’s story and see that they are not alone, or feel it as a call to action, to pay attention and look for meaning within themselves, try to understand the people they are close to.
Learning about other people’s lives is a way to see what you think about your own. Can you feel for others as you feel for yourself? Can you feel for yourself as you feel for others? I believe there’s no limit to the compassion in the world. There’s room for us all.
These days when people ask me what I am working on I tell them, “the second draft of my memoir”. I definitely still have doubts, but I know I’ll never finish if I let fear take over. And I don’t want to stop writing my story. I really want to see how it turns out.
Ronit Feinglass Plank’s work is forthcoming in Proximity Magazine and has appeared in The American Literary Review, Salon, Best New Writing 2015, and The Iowa Review (runner up, The 2013 Iowa Review Award for Fiction), among others. Her story “Gibbous” won the Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose and her story “The Plan” won Sequestrum’s 2016 New Writer Award and will appear in their summer 2017 issue. She earned her MFA at Pacific University and is currently working on a coming-of-age memoir. More about her and links to her work at http://www.ronitfeinglassplank.com
February 23, 2017 § 30 Comments
By Annie L. Scholl
I’m not sure how I got the message that I had to write every day to be a “real” writer, but I’ll blame it on Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. I read it when it came out in 1992. Cameron suggests a daily practice of “Morning Pages:” Three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing you do first thing in the morning.
To be fair, Cameron makes it clear that your Morning Pages don’t have to be “high art.” You can rant, write your shopping list over and over, whatever you want. She does insist, though, that you fill three pages—every day.
I did Morning Pages religiously—for about a week-and-a-half. Over the years, I’ve tried again and again. Although the daily practice of Morning Pages didn’t stick, the idea that I had to write every day to be successful did. After all, Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White and Maya Angelou did.
To actually write daily, I knew I had to do it first thing in the morning, before the day got away from me. But to write “at first light,” as Hemingway did, actually requires getting your ass out of bed at first light.
Only one problem with that: I didn’t want to.
Now and then, though, I willed myself out of bed at the crack of dawn. With hands on the keyboard or pen in hand, words mostly landed on the page. “This is easy!” I’d think. “I’ll do this again tomorrow!”
But like the promises I made to myself about getting on the treadmill, “tomorrow” never consistently came.
That year I attended a memoir-writing workshop in Colorado with author Abigail Thomas. After that workshop, I was on fire. Fueled by the workshop and a writing group that grew out of it, I wrote nearly every day—until 2016. One day of not writing turned into another and another—and then I was out of the routine.
Nine months into 2016, my writing software gave me the cold, hard facts: I had worked on my manuscript exactly seven times.
That little voice—the one that said I had to write daily—was now screaming at me. But instead of believing it, I decided to question it: Was it really true that I had to write daily to be a successful writer?
Writers like Khaled Hosseini say yes. In a 2012 interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast, the international best-selling author of The Kite Runner said: “To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.”
Cue the self-flogging.
One especially grumbly not-writing day, I reached out to author Beth Kephart, who I’d studied memoir writing with last fall.
“Annie, I go months and months without writing,” the award-winning author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir told me. “And so when I do write, it all feels brand new—again.”
Kephart said she has never had the time to write daily.
“What I believe in is the power of holding one scene or moment in your head for a long time, before writing. I believe in urgency—that urgency must fuel the process and the page.”
To hell, she said, with writing an hour a day. “Go with fervor once a week or once a month, or whatever your life yields.”
Buoyed by Kephart’s response, I contacted Abigail Thomas, whose writing workshop had fueled my five-year, near-daily writing practice.
Do you write every day, I asked?
“Not unless I’m already engaged in something, then I write all the time,” said Thomas, whose most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, was published in 2015 by Scribner.
“Mostly I’ve no self-discipline unless I’m already in gear. Then it’s all I do,” she said. “It has nothing to do with discipline then. It’s a hunger.”
Bar Scott, author of the memoir The Present Giver, said she only writes daily “when I’m writing something that I’m on fire about and that my whole body needs and wants to express.”
“When I get like that, whether I’m writing a song, a book or a blog, I write non-stop,” she said.
But most days, Scott doesn’t feel like writing. So she doesn’t.
Kephart’s good friend, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, doesn’t write daily or weekly either.
“I wish I did,” said Rizzuto, whose memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. But instead, she said, “writing comes in waves—in and out.”
Still, Rizzuto, who teaches at Goddard College in Vermont and conducts writing workshops, recommends her students engage in daily writing practice.
“When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again, or at least not anything as good as what you have written.”
Rizzuto nails what’s been my greatest fear: That if I don’t write every day, the words won’t come when I do sit down. But I’ve learned over the past several months of non-daily writing practice that the words actually do show up. Especially if I don’t chase them down.
Annie Scholl is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Huffington Post, Unity Magazine, Daily Word, and unity.org. A native Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa, she moved to North Carolina in 2013 with her wife, Michelle. Annie is finishing her first memoir. She blogs at www.anniescholl.com.
February 22, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Alice Lowe
You hate writing from prompts, because you’re no good at it, because despite the human brain’s instantaneous capacity to absorb new input and coordinate an appropriate response, you cannot put pencil to paper with any degree of intelligence or coherence. Within seconds of hearing a prompt—prompts like “write about saying goodbye” or “riding the all-night train” or “a pool of blue water”—all potentially interesting and challenging topics—you’re at a loss, stammering internally, increasingly anxious as a fleeting memory or opening line evades you, as any possible direction remains out of reach.
You look around the table—prompt-writing usually takes place in a small group around a table—you look around as the prompt is being read, and at the dropped voice, the sound of the concluding period (or ellipsis) ending the prompt, it’s as if a starting shot has been fired, heads down, pens and pencils moving in notebooks with seeming constancy, confidence and speed. “Keep your pen on the paper,” you’re told, keep writing, don’t stop to deliberate or, god forbid, to edit, to scratch out a word and replace it with another; be spontaneous, let your hand be the channel for the words flowing unobstructed from your mind like water over the falls.
It doesn’t work that way for you, how well you know this, but you came here to write, to get past this impasse or phobia or whatever you want to call it, and so you grasp the prompt with both hands and hold it vise-like to keep it steady as you wrestle it to the table and firmly secure it with your left elbow, while with your right hand you grasp at the effluvia that looses itself from your mind until you have something in your fist, something soft and flabby but something nevertheless, and then, after more hesitation, after staring at the dark water stains like Rorschach blots on the ceiling, you start to write, and then lo and behold, you get on a roll of sorts, you write in fits and starts, but you write until “Time” says the timekeeper, and you stop abruptly, mid-sentence, mid-word, it’s like taking the GRE, pencils down or you’ll be disqualified.
Participants are encouraged though not required to read what they’ve fashioned, and the rules are reiterated—no comments or critique, as these spontaneous efforts rightfully fall into the category of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” accepted and forgiven no matter how abysmal, received with half smiles of concealed scorn or pity or envy—and you listen and think, jeez how’d she do that off the cuff, or what crap and here I thought I was bad, and then it’s your turn and you know you could pass but you think come on now, this is part of the discipline, what you came for, and you read, knowing as you do that it’s a heap of excrement, you’ve written business letters with crisper verbs and better development, but you read, your handwriting getting increasingly indecipherable as you go, so you skip a word here, a phrase there, until you finish and look up and smile wanly without making eye contact with anyone as the next person takes up the baton, and then it’s all over, and you pack up your stuff and say your goodbyes, and you go down the stairs and out the door and head for home, an hour-long walk, and wouldn’t you know it, about a third of the way there you’re struck with the big “aha”—this is what I could have, should have written to that prompt, and you beat yourself up a bit for not thinking of it earlier, but you’re excited, and you start composing in your mind, and you walk faster and faster to get home and get to your computer to spew out these finely crafted sentences, the spot-on metaphors, the brilliant stream of prose.
And when, after several drafts, after considerable editing and revision and all of the pains that go into a completed essay, you read through it a few times, and you smile and nod and say to yourself, “yes, this is it,” you submit it to several journals, and it’s accepted by one of them and published, and you look at it in print and recall that if it hadn’t been for that prompt, this sterling piece of work might never have seen the light of day—and yet you still hate writing from prompts.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and has been nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:
I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.” And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature. I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.
Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.
Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?
Cat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.
Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?
Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.
Jeanette: What is memoir to you?
Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.
Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?
Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.
Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?
Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.
Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?
Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.
Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”
Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.
Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.
Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.
January 2, 2017 § 27 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
“Write from your guts,” I told my creative nonfiction students on the last day of class. “Don’t ignore the pain. Don’t act like it isn’t there and try tiptoeing around it. You have to write your way through your own dark woods.”
I recalled the excruciating experience of back labor when giving birth to my son. His head was positioned against my lower spine as opposed to the normal, on-top-of-the-cervix way, so whenever a contraction came, instead of him pounding down to open said cervix, his head struck my spinal cord, igniting the nerve center in a ripple of unmitigated agony. After twelve hours of useless back labor, I accepted a drug. “Yes-fucking-please.”
My cervix went into overdrive and, in one hellish, body-wracking hour, blew open to the requisite ten centimeters, which meant it was time to push the baby out.
But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus.
“Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.” She had Birkenstocks and long gray hair that would have loved a little Miss Clairol. She was kind, smart, and sensible; I wanted to kick her in the face.
“I don’t know what that even means,” I cried between gasps. “How do I push into the pain?” I actually thought that if I argued enough, I could altogether avoid having the baby.
“It means,” she explained, “that when the contraction is at its worst then you must push the hardest. Don’t shirk from the pain.”
I’ll shirk you! I thought as I felt the onset of a killer contraction and longed to rail against it. How to do this? How do you leave your fingers on the burning stove, or step more deeply onto the tack? How does a person embrace her worst fears and invite more? How does she choose a life of writing pain?
“Now!” the midwife, urged. “Push now!”
I shut my eyes and swallowed back my resistance. With my jaw locked, I pushed my hardest—or so I thought—screaming until tears streaked my face. I did that five more times through five more contractions, the pain so unrelenting that I feared I might die. I pushed as if my life depended on it.
When the baby still didn’t come, the midwife, her face betraying alarm as she watched the monitor, reached for a pair of surgical scissors. “We have to get the baby out now!” she announced. No time to numb me, just the sharp snip of raw flesh like an electric shock on my perineum. My child was in danger. His heart rate had plummeted, and, at that point, only I could save him.
And then, my boy.
Write into the pain, I tell my students. Just when you want to write around the Catholic pretense that hides the abuse, or the sight of your mother in a pink bathrobe dead on her bedroom floor, and how that day, for the first time ever, you touched her cheek and forgave everything; just when you want to ignore the acrid taste of blood, the colorless gray of loss, or the married lover whose forbidden lips, if for only a few minutes in the back of his beat-up Honda Civic, answered every prayer you ever whispered from your lonely bed; just when you want to skip a part because it’s too shameful to remember, then you absolutely have to remember it. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.
Because I promise you this: if it doesn’t hurt at least a little, you will never birth your best writing.
Sandra Miller‘s essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film called “Wait” based on one of her personal essays. Kerry Washington starred.
December 15, 2016 § 5 Comments
A few days ago, I heard a writer read the first five pages of his brand-new manuscript in process, the first book he has ever tackled. It wasn’t the time to point out issues, it was the time for encouragement. Keep writing. You can do it. Don’t judge the first draft, just get it on the page.
But there were some issues. The same issues I see in most writers’ first drafts–often in my own first drafts. And the biggest issue was summarizing. We’ve all heard “show don’t tell,” and we all have some level of understanding what that means. But it’s hard to recognize and root out of our own work explanations that don’t serve the narrative.
One way to track down telling? Look for summaries.
He told her about the day he’d had, that he’d seen his boss and asked for a raise.
They met by moonlight and exchanged vows of eternal love.
If I were editing this imaginary book, I’d comment on the first sentence, “Can you write this as dialogue?” and on the second, “Can you write this as a scene?” These two comments end up in almost every manuscript I edit. They are so common, I have them set up as text-expanders. Just as we type “omw” and our phone helpfully texts “On my way!” I can type “wtd” or “wts” and pop out these key comments. (I have a number of text-expanders–my favorite is the very useful, “It’s hard to tell what this means–these words aren’t effectively carrying out your intention here,” which expands from “wtf.”)
Yes, there are times when summaries are useful. If we’ve just come out of the chapter where Prabhat has asked his boss for a raise and she threw a fax machine at him, we might open the next chapter with “He told her about the day he’d had.” Though I’d still push for Prabhat walking through the door on “I asked.” and rubbing his bruised head.
Think about the movie of your book in your head. Are you watching a scene play out in a location with people taking actions and talking to each other? Or are you hearing the protagonist’s voice, I told Ruth about the day I had, that I’d seen my boss and asked for a raise. I hoped she’d understand, but she said I deserved it and she was going home to her mother, narrating a silent movie or a series of snapshots?
“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean “describe everything,” as Joshua Henkin points out in Writer’s Digest. We don’t need all the furniture in the room. But first-draft summaries can often be treated as shorthand. We use descriptions of scenes and summaries of dialogues as placeholders, both consciously and as writing habits, and it’s much easier to revise a first draft than to work from a blank page. But whether it’s a narrative summary or your note to yourself-as-writer, PUT KITCHEN SCENE HERE WHERE THEY FIGHT AND SHE GOES HOME TO MOTHER, hunt down summaries in later drafts. When a character tells another character about something that happened somewhere else at another time, when you catch He explained that… and They discussed… and I told them… with no quotation marks in sight, mentally read those as:
“Scene to be written here.”
“This will eventually be dialogue.”
Consider them your own text-expanders.
Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast and recently recorded the webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir, now available from Editors Canada.