Memoir as a Lyrical Journey Toward Understanding: A Review of Cinthia Ritchie’s Malnourished

March 16, 2020 § 24 Comments

malnourishedBy Marie A Bailey

Caveat: Cinthia Ritchie, author of the memoir Malnourished: A Memoir of Sisterhood and Hunger, is my friend, and I read her memoir keenly aware of my affection for her. I don’t claim to be objective in my review, but, in all honesty, I don’t know that I’ve ever been objective when reviewing any writing. It’s the subjectivity of writing and reading that attracts me, after all.

This doesn’t mean that I would automatically give “5 stars” to Malnourished, although I will. It’s unlike any memoir I’ve read before now. Ritchie’s story of her relationship with her sister is so honest I sometimes felt I was swallowing broken glass.

Malnourished starts haltingly, as if Ritchie is trying to get into position before diving into her memoir. Knowing already that her sister died from an eating disorder, I felt hesitant about reading her story. I knew it would be painful and yet Ritchie’s acknowledgement of how “memory is a funny thing,” encouraged me to dive in with her:

“Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years.”

Richie’s conversational tone—as if we were two women sitting on a living room carpet, our backs against the couch, a bottle of wine between us, talking in the dark—kept me anchored. Even when she admitted to lying: “I lie, I’ve always lied. Growing up, we all lied, though perhaps this is common in most families, the ability and need to lie.”

We all lie. I think of how I might never be able to write a “true” memoir because of the lies told by my family through the years, although perhaps they’re not all truly lies. What do they call it? Selective memory? Choosing to remember some things and not others? Choosing to believe that not telling can mean it didn’t happen.

I cringed sometimes at Richie’s raw honesty as with her take-no-prisoners unearthing of her sexual use of men as she took herself farther and farther away from home, from her sister, Deena. They were close as children but grew apart during high school as Deena became anorexic.

Both of them were subjected to sexual abuse by their stepfather, although Richie never quite tells you that, except in one short paragraph, almost buried in the book. Before then, she doesn’t give you details, but she makes you feel her fear of the creaking of footsteps on stairs, the guilty relief when the door being opened is not the one to her bedroom. That one short paragraph gives you only the least of details, just enough to make your imagination explode in horror.

I cringed at her raw honesty, her (what some might call) promiscuity, her hunger and thirst for touch, just to be touched. I cringed because I recognized myself in a way I’ve never done with anyone else’s story. For once I could reflect on my own promiscuous era and believe that someone, notably Richie, would understand what drove me to that particular brand of self-destructiveness. She absolved me of guilt while she heaped it on herself.

Richie also doesn’t spare herself when describing her neglect or disregard of Deena as they grew older and resumed their relationship. Deena had become “crazy,” and Richie often didn’t want to deal with it. It was a losing battle, as such battles are with families, even those not dealing with abuse and eating disorders. Sometimes, as Ritchie notes, you just don’t have the energy. “We could barely keep ourselves together.” Again, I saw her story in myself, in the way I avoided my father as his mental health deteriorated, not wanting to deal with him when he needed me most.

Malnourished weaves back and forth, in and out of time, and at first that was a little disorienting. But Richie is a poet as well as a journalist and novelist and whatever writing -ist may be included. After awhile I read the ebb and flow of her memories as shifts between fasting and satiety, between lightheadedness and clarity, between not remembering and remembering.

Malnourished is a journey toward understanding: “It would take over fifteen years and her death before I’d understand that I’d never gotten over the closeness we shared growing up.” Malnourished is a journey I won’t soon forget.

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at She’s been published in Brevity, by Nightingale & Sparrow, and in various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

On Memoir Writing: Do We Have to Call It Therapy?

March 13, 2020 § 15 Comments

Mary J BreenBy Mary J. Breen

I teach memoir classes with seniors. People who hear about these classes are forever telling me how much they approve. “Writing is such good therapy!” they say, one after another. But is it useful to call it therapy? I don’t think so, and I think it’s time we stopped.

My students tell me they want to write their memoirs for many reasons. Often they want them to be gifts for their children and grandchildren; sometimes they want to honour someone now dead, and sometimes they want to give voice to people whose stories haven’t been heard. Some people want the opportunity of taking a good look back at their lives. I’ve never had anyone say they were there because they thought memoir writing would be therapeutic. They’re there to write.

And they’re right. The focus of a memoir class is supposed to be the telling and the writing of true storiesnot judging the lives people have led. Keeping discussion away from psychoanalyzing keeps the focus on the page where it belongs.

Therapy is what we need when something needs to be fixed; physical therapy, for example, might help regain the use of a broken wrist; family therapy might bring a family together again. I don’t think we should suggest to our students that they are broken and need fixing in any way.

Framing memoir writing as therapy suggests students should be looking for problematic topics to be addressed. I want my students to feel free to explore and write about—or not—whatever they choose. There is no question that catharsis can result from thinking about and writing about difficult events, but catharsis isn’t a daily occurrence for any memoir writer. I don’t want students to feel disappointed when their writing doesn’t feel “therapeutic” or “therapeutic” enough. Expecting therapeutic change, for example, may be unrealistic for someone writing about the many ways she and her big sister had such a hard time getting along, or for the writer describing a relationship with a neighbour who showed him never-ending love and acceptance while he grew up in a difficult family. These are perfectly good topics for a memoir. I don’t want students or teachers waiting for the “therapeutic” moments, and rejecting those that are not.

In my teaching experience, many people—especially older people—do not want to delve deeply into the painful parts of their pasts. I’ve often heard students say they want to remember the good not the bad, and as a teacher, I don’t think it’s my role to challenge this. This is especially important because some memories are so painful that they should not be recalled without care, and certainly not in front of a class. I remember asking a student if she was going to write about what happened to her as a small child in Germany during World War 2. She looked at me with alarm and simply said, “Oh, but I can’t.” When I saw the fear in her eyes, I realized how deep this old pain was, and I saw that pushing her in any way would have been very wrong. I have since learned that returning to memories of extreme trauma can lead to re-traumatizing—a painful reliving or even re-inhabiting of a terrible situation and the trauma that came with it. Few teachers would be adept at dealing with this.

Therapy suggests an intervention by expert professionals whose viewpoint is, by definition, outside the client. Referring to memoir writing as “therapy” moves the expertise away from the writer and into the hands of those who are on the outside looking in. Of course, experts can sometimes perceive things about us that we’re unaware of, but I want the writer to be firmly established as the authority in his/her life. I want decisions about what matters and what doesn’t to remain with the writer.

Older people are bombarded with advice about what we need—exercise programs, proper diet, vitamins, medical tests—in order to enjoy “healthy aging,” and I’m unwilling to lump memoir writing in with these prescribed behaviours. Like music and yoga and spending time with grandkids, memoir writing can be interesting and useful and fun, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as one of the approved ways to grow old correctly.

I’m not saying that writing can’t be “therapeutic.” There is no question that writing can take us deeper into what we know and who we are and have always been. It can illuminate things and let us examine parts of our past we hadn’t known were there. Some say that writing their memoirs was how they reclaimed their past. Others even say it saved their lives. Writing about our past can help us figure out our motivations and our fears, and it can give us a stronger sense of ourselves. It can also help us live more easily with what hurt us. If these things are “therapeutic,” then great. Even so, I prefer to talk about memoir writing as a chance to revisit your life, to start accepting yourself, warts and all—to look back and to look forward. The results can be a new and helpful perspective on who you are and who you want to be. Memoir writing is often enjoyable, interesting, illustrative, and even transformative. As memoir teachers, we have the privilege of helping people examine their lives—in whichever way they want. We are not therapists. We are teachers-cheerleaders-guides-coaches-listeners-witnesses, and I think this role is very important just as it is.

Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, and she has written two books about women’s health. She has taught creative non-fiction and memoir courses for the past 15 years.



Post-AWP Bargain: Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, Low Price, Free Shipping

March 10, 2020 § 3 Comments

Flash-NonfictionFieldGuide-300x426Since so many writers and readers had to change their plans to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last week (#AWP2020), and miss the bookfair, Rose Metal Press is offering a we-couldn’t-go-to-AWP online sale, with all books nicely discounted and free shipping too (use the code AWPFREESHIP).

Actually a lot of presses that had to miss the conference are offering post-AWP discounts, and please support them all if you can, but Rose Metal is home to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book, frankly, toward which we feel a great fondness.

But, hey, listen to Phillip Lopate: “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction … is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Great for teaching, and perfect for the the individual writer in need of prompts and inspiration!

The sale only lasts through March 12th, so jump on it today!


On Loving People I’ve Never Met

February 21, 2020 § 13 Comments

PREUS author photoBy Kaia Solveig Preus

At first, I was afraid to write my way back into my manuscript after it had been accepted for publication and had undergone its first round of edits. I worried that I had forgotten all of the facts that I had learned in order to write the book years before. My book, The War Requiem, is a book-length essay that blends memoir with historical fiction and research to bring to life a piece of music. I focus on Benjamin Britten, who composed War Requiem, Op. 66, and Wilfred Owen, the WWI soldier-poet whose poems were set in the music. I braid their stories along with mine––a college student learning to sing the War Requiem.

I was afraid, but I shouldn’t have been. As soon as I typed a few words, I fell back into the world I had created. I remembered these men, their voices, their signatures and preferred valedictions in the hundreds of letters they wrote. I knew their lives in the way I knew my own life seasons––my semester abroad, my lonely life in graduate school, my bumbling first few years of teaching––a little blurry around the edges, perhaps, but studded with crystalline memories so clear and sharp they cut me.

The fact that I’d never met either Benjamin Britten or Wilfred Owen, but still knew them, somehow, intimately––well, that was a kind of magic. We all do this to some extent, hopefully, by being open minded and willing to discover. Learning begets empathy begets understanding begets love. Yes, I love Britten and Owen. Yes, I love two dead men I’ve never met and even though I only know about a portion of their lives, I love them deeply.

Think of the way your beloved knows you––knows the backs of your knees, the difference between your fake and real laugh, the last nightmare from which you woke––think of all of the things they know about you. Now stack them up one by one into a pile reaching high.

Now think of all they don’t know about you––the way you sneezed four times in a row on your way to work today, the way your hamstrings ached to run even though you were stuck at the front of the classroom, the way, when you bit into your apple at lunch, you were jolted through time to a date with your high school boyfriend––the air so cold, your toes frozen in your boots, his gold Chevy Malibu in the apple orchard’s parking lot, the warming kisses that would soon take place there––

If you were to pile all the things your beloved doesn’t know about you––the person who ostensibly knows you best––the pile would tower dramatically over all that they knew. We hold so much within ourselves that can’t be given or released. It is not mentally or physically or emotionally possible. Such is the reality of being a human.

Now imagine the stacks of known and unknown things for a person who has died. For a person you know of but have never met. For a person you will never meet. The imbalance is so significant. Every known fact we have about another person, dead or alive, is a gift. A treasure. A thing to be held close to our thrumming hearts.

My grandfather, Paul, died ten years ago, when I was eighteen and he was ninety-six. At eighteen, I didn’t know much about myself. I knew that I liked to write and sing, but I did not know how much I would grow to love classical music. I could not have foreseen listening to a single piece hundreds of times or writing a book about it.

My grandfather was a musician: a conductor, pianist, and drummer. When we visited him, I would wake on the pull-out couch to the sounds of string sonatas on the radio and the scraping of a spatula on a pan as my grandfather made his strange breakfasts for us––scrambled eggs seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla. I wish I could show him my research and ask him what he thought about the War Requiem. I wish he could read my book and see how much I love music, like he did.

I wonder if my quest to learn about Britten and Owen is a quest to learn if it is possible to continue growing a relationship with people who have died. I do not have hundreds of my grandfather’s letters to read or biographies I can check out in a library. I have a few letters and birthday cards, and I have photographs, and I have the stories my family members tell me over the breakfasts where we miss him filling out his daily crossword puzzle. I have links to him, however small, that I can unearth and try to understand.

I remember the collage of songs my grandfather played on my family’s piano when he visited. It started slow and quiet, his slippers with the toes cut out pressing the una corda pedal. Over the next few songs, the tone grew lighter, the una corda and damper pressed less. Finally, he would swing into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and make me sing along. Sometimes, I will be crossing the street or falling asleep and I will hear the opening chords of my grandfather’s repertoire, and then just as quickly, as easily, it will fall away and I cannot remember it anymore. I asked him once to write down the chords of that first song for me. I held out the pencil he used for crosswords and a yellowed piece of blank sheet music that I’d found in a second-hand store. I watched, amazed as he played through it once and then sketched in the notes, the flats, the naturals, and the time signature without referencing the piano again. He handed it to me, and I told myself that I would learn to play it. I wish I knew where that sheet was now.

Kaia Solveig Preus is from Excelsior, Minnesota. She teaches creative writing in Minneapolis, and her first book, The War Requiem, is forthcoming from Essay Press in March 2020. Kaia holds her MFA from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia and was a 2019 Author Fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Pleiades, The Drum, The Briar Cliff Review, Watershed Review, and Barely South Review. She is currently at work on both a collection of essays and a novel.

Review of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: A Memoir

February 3, 2020 § 2 Comments

dreamhouseBy Candace Walsh

Imagine a memoir in the form of a centipede. Each segment of its body is a chapter. In each chapter, the narrative takes on a new genre’s characteristics, from noir to Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Carmen Maria Machado’s second book, In the Dream House: A Memoir. Her narrative flows through each discrete-genre segment like the centipede’s life force: potent, skittery, undulant, spiky, and fluid.

Once, Carmen Maria Machado fell in love with an unnamed woman writer, who gained her trust, mingled their worlds,  and then steadily turned their love affair from a fairy tale into a horror movie.

The story Machado tells, of her time with an abusive girlfriend, is executed in her signature gorgeous-surprising style, but the story of one woman abusing another is absolutely horrid, because we women can at least, while enduring vagaries petty and seismic of the patriarchy, comfort ourselves from the lofty moral high ground. No, we can’t? Not entirely.

In the book’s prologue, Machado acknowledges the brutal incompleteness of queer life in historical archives; even sparser, depictions of queer abuse. She writes, “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.”

Machado’s story is also absolutely horrid because we queer women can at least, while enduring homophobia, heteronormativity, physical threats, and microaggressions, feel smug because as Machado avers, “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” But it is sometimes hell instead? Yes.

The ever shape-shifting momentum of the book, powered by its thrumming, antic centipede energy, echoes the relationship’s mutability from heart-shaped bed to haunted basement, bliss portal to sinkhole; Machado’s role from chosen to chastised as her girlfriend rapid cycles through the roles of love-bomber, interrogator, waif, harpy, terrorist.

The book’s structure and craft choices also foil merciful dissociation. Even the most traumatized, abuse-experienced readers who would otherwise dissociate or put the book down are strapped in by her use of second person point of view, and captivated by the pleasures of her text: the how and the wow of Machado pulling off her ongoing legerdemain, iron-hand-in-velvet-glove with the recognition of Machado’s girlfriend’s moves and the speaker’s justifying responses. The gullibility. The freeze hunkered down in a seat reserved for flee: when the girlfriend squeezes her wrist, “It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static.” The mucky, shamed feeling of being treated like garbage. Maybe I’m garbage? Garbage that dare not speak its name: a partner-abused queer person.

Why the silence? That comes down to questions like: Who gets to be a bad person or be the prey of a bad person? Not a marginalized person, not without maligning the fragile reputation of their already-marginalized group. These conundra pace the perimeter of In the Dream House’s scar-tissued heart. It’s definitely Bad for Lesbians when an abusive lesbian is outed. Back when Machado was tweeting about writing this book, my unvoiced gut response took the form of tut-tutting thoughts: “Can’t you write about something else? Didn’t you get the memo about how we all have to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our meager patch of societal acceptability?” Queer women can’t afford to be as publicly bad or done-bad as straight white couples, for fear our singular stories will erase all the Ellen-and-Portia happily ever afters that justify us to straight relatives, friends, and legislators, and reassure vulnerable young queer folks that It Gets Better.

Garbage festers in dark, covered places. Having to be perfect is another way society tells us we’re not allowed to be who we are, what we are: flawed humans. Not flawed because of who we love. Flawed because we’re humans. As Machado puts it, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.”

For all this talk of flaws, Machado’s book is free of them. Machado is a master of roping the glancing and the glinting, the ineffable and the unseemly. She hazards offbeat comparisons: “In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with someone’s finger over the solar panel—fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether.” She also describes things we often banish from our minds before putting them into words, like the dissipating pleasure that anticipates an argument with a volatile person: “By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.”

In the Dream House is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and addictive like the best bad relationships are, but at the end, we aren’t abruptly dumped as readers the way the horrid girlfriend dumps the speaker. Machado ushers us to a curtailed freedom via final chapters limning her release and recovery: a chiaroscuro of rebound sex, epiphany, and her friends’ and acquaintances’ stinging skepticism: “Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?” She exits the dream house, but the dream house has forever changed the way she sees the world, imparting the fraught knowledge that far too many people on the outside are zombified by the same inertia and denial that once kept her captivated and captive.

Candace Walsh is a first-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. Her essays have recently appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Limestone Review, and K’in Literary Journal. She also has a short story in Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. Follow her on Twitter @candacewalsh.  

It Only Takes a Few Words to Love a Book

January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments

baileyBy Marie A Bailey

The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.

During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.

Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.

I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.

I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.

By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.

I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”

Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.

Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.

Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.

Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”

I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.

Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:

“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”

I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.

Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.

Biting Ants and Dengue Fever: Facing My Own Character in Memoir

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

RashBy Lisa Kusel

A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.

“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”

“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”

“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”

“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”

“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.

“Did I—what?”

“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”

“Well, I guess I learned—”

“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”

“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”

“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.

As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.

Should I tell the Bali story?

More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.

Could I tell the Bali story?

I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.

I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?

I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.

By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.

But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.

And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.

I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.

Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.

So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.

I gazed deeply into my own navel.

And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.

I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.

Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.

After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.

“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”

“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.

“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.

More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.

And I’m really glad I did.

Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: and Instagram:


Light A Candle: On the The Alchemy of the Narrative Arc in Memoir

December 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

circlingBy Susan Tiberghien

Writing the afterword for the 20th Anniversary Edition of my spiritual memoir, Circling to the Center: Invitation to Silent Prayer, I uncovered the alchemy of the narrative arc.

When first working on the book, I realized how each chapter brought more light into my life. I saw this as alchemy, almost magic. I saw how the first chapter circled around a small five petalled flower, a cinquefoil. And how the fifth and last chapter circled around a double buttercup, a renunculus. My little wildflower had become the golden flower of innumerable petals. Alchemy!

Memoir is story-telling, telling the story of one facet of our life. In every story there is a beginning, a struggle, the narrator (in memoir, the author) wants something. There is a middle, the narrator encounter difficulties which lead to a climax.  And there is an end, a resolution, the narrator has a transformation, however small. We are story telling creatures. When we relate an experience to a friend, we tell it in story form. Otherwise the friend may lose interest. When we remember our dreams, we are telling ourselves stories. And best to write them down lest we forget.

When I would sometimes take care of a few of our grandchildren, and when they were being rambunctious, I would ask them to sit still just a moment. Then I would say, “Once upon a time…” Two or three pairs of eyes would latch on to mine. All was quiet, attentive, expectant. And I would relate a fairy tale, a folk tale, a tale which has withstood the centuries. Or I would make up a new one, remembering the climax.

In my memoir. I was writing about darkness in my life, about deeply difficult experiences. As I I progressed, I saw the three steps of alchemy. First, putting the base metals into the furnace to burn away the dross. I would go into the dark to relate stories of adoption, of anorexia, of Alzheimer’s – nigredo, the blackening. Then the second step, washing and distilling, looking for the gold. I would come to grips with each ordeal– albedo, the whitening. And finally polishing the bits of gold and bringing them to the light. I would claim my own transformation – rubedo, the reddening.

I saw that these three alchemical steps are the three parts of story. The alchemy lies in the story arc. Without it, our memoirs may be beautifully written but they are flat. As memoirists, we are sharing not only a busy profile, a heart-breaking profile, or an attention-grabbing profile. We are sharing part of our being. We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how I survived, this is what it felt like. Or this is how I stood up for justice, this is what it felt like. This is the narrative arc that pulls the reader to the climax. How we overcame, or did not overcome, the odds.

This is the sharing that readers are looking for. We are all interconnected, writers and readers. We learn from one another. In writing memoir, we share an experience. It lights a candle in the darkness for the reader. We remember the metaphor of Indra’s net. How over the palace of the great God Indra, there was strung a net of thousands of jewels. They were arranged in such a manner that if one of them caught the light, it was reflected in all the other jewels.

Let your memoir catch the light by shaping its story arc. Be an alchemist!

Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, is the author of four memoirs, two writing books, One Year to a Writing Life and Writing Toward Wholeness, and most recently the 20th Anniversary Edition of Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer. She teaches at C.G. Jung Societies, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in Europe and the U.S. She founded and directed the Geneva Writers’ Group for 25 years. Recently she did two master classes for the Jung Society of Washington,.

Of Fact, Fiction, and Resisting Literary Classification

December 20, 2019 § 6 Comments

By Sheila O’Connor

SheilaPhotoThis is true: I didn’t know how to “classify” my hybrid book, Evidence of V.  I knew I’d written a deeply researched book that made ample use of fact, of archival documents, and narrative nonfiction. I knew it was inspired by the factual truth of my maternal grandmother, a fifteen-year-old dancer who in 1935 was incarcerated for being pregnant with my mother. I knew the intention of the book was to illuminate this little-known U.S. history of imprisoning thousands of girls for immorality and incorrigibility in the first half of the last century.

But, I also knew it was a book that welcomed fiction.  In brief, lyric flash pieces collaged between the research and the facts, I attempted to recreate the missing character of V, the talented young singer unjustly sent to the Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  My artistic impulse to imagine V to life through the act of fiction, grew out of my long-time writerly belief that imagination often yields a second kind of truth. An emotional, lived truth.

Evidence of V_Front Cover_HiResDuring the years I focused on writing Evidence of V, I didn’t consider what I’d call it, beyond “a hybrid text.” Instead I attempted to create a literary work that mirrored the negative space of absence—absent people, absent language, absent truth—and my own inability to piece together a cohesive narrative of my fractured history or family. As I’ve done with every project, published and unpublished, I allowed form to follow function regardless of the genre. Collage? Assemblage? Hybrid text? A Book-in-Pieces?  A Lyric Puzzle? At different points in time, in conversations with editors and agents and fellow writing friends, I called it all those things.

Early readers called it a poetry collection, creative nonfiction, a lyric sequence, a book of flash. Later, in his generous description of the finished manuscript, the poet Ed Bok Lee calls it among other things a “police report, ethnographic study, noir screenplay, historical account, existential spreadsheet” and “several other forms that are uncategorizable.” For so long, its inability to be labeled energized me. The book’s nerve came in part from its refusal to conform, its mirroring of a family legacy of noncompliance.

And yet, when Rose Metal Press—a publisher committed to literary works that move beyond the traditional genres—prepared to launch it, a subtitle was requested and required. What to call this text so that readers, booksellers, reviewers, grants and contests have the ability to name it, to place it in a category? In my mind, the book was as much a work of nonfiction as fiction. As much poetry as prose. Settling on any of those designations risked narrowing the scope of what it truly was. And yet, how to be sure the book would be read from start to finish, not as a collection of disconnected, separate pieces, say a collection of poetry, or lyric essays, or flash (all of which it also was), but as a work with a forward moving-narrative trajectory that opened on page one? In addition, there was the question of invented texts which was completely clear to me: the intimate details of V’s young life had been imagined.

The need to classify Evidence of V felt fraught with narrowing, with a kind of genre compliance I’d resisted from the start, but eventually we settled on a subtitle: Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. While it wasn’t without compromise, and perhaps not entirely accurate, in the end I’d advocated for calling it a novel, in transparent admission of all I had imagined, and in support of the way I wanted readers to enter and exit the book.

And perhaps more importantly, I considered it a statement on the truth and formal innovation I felt the novel form could hold. And yet the need to “genre” V immediately distanced it from discussions of poetry and nonfiction, despite the fact that pieces of the book have been published and recognized as both. And stranger still, most readers continue to refer to it as a work of nonfiction even with the designation of novel on the cover.  As one reader recently told me: “I thought the facts were fiction. They were that impossible to believe.”

Evidence of V is only a single text, but it’s one in a line of published hybrid texts that resist classification. And what to do with these incorrigible texts? Is there a future where agents and publishers, bookstores and journals, grants and contests and residencies, and MFA programs across the country, recognize the validity of the hybrid? Is there a possibility that literary gatekeepers and genre zealots will invite these hybrid books into their company without saying all they’re not?  All the ways hybrid texts have failed to conform.  Is there a way we can resist the need for tidy genre classifications in our desire to keep things clean?  Or at least work toward genre inclusivity as the hybrid text continues to claim its voice within the literary landscape?

In the case of Evidence of V, I made a choice to write a book that’s nonconforming, incorrigible, exactly like the girl for whom the book is named.  Fortunately, the price I’ll pay for that decision is significantly less than the six-year punishment my grandmother endured for her refusal to conform.  A book is just a book, but if Evidence of V has done its work, I have to hope it will find its willing readers, and maybe a literary gatekeeper or two, will open up the door.

Sheila O’Connor is the author of six books, including her most recent hybrid novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts and Fictions (Rose Metal Press). Inspired by her maternal grandmother’s incarceration as a pregnant fifteen-year-old in 1935, Evidence of V combines imagination and archival documents to shed light on the history of committing “immoral” girls.  Sheila is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.


On Finishing a Memoir: Keep Growing Back

December 9, 2019 § 13 Comments

AnikaFajardo_photo2018By Anika Fajardo

In the courtyard in my father’s house in Popayán, Colombia, grows a tree. Its pale branches challenge the brick walls and reach for the sky. The delicate petals of the yellow flowers bow over the hibiscus and impatiens in the garden below.

“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me as we stood in his garden looking at its leaves that brush against the broken bottles cemented to the top of courtyard wall meant to keep out intruders.

My father told me this tree is called the borrachero and if you speak Spanish, you’ll know that comes from the word drunken. Once, when the tree was in bloom, my father had inhaled the scent of the blossoms. He felt strange, not quite right, and went to bed with a headache. He slept for twenty-four hours, perhaps in a sleep as deep as the one in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The tree, he said, had poisoned him.

At the time he told me this story, I was eight years into the cycle of writing, revising, and submitting my memoir. I had been writing about getting to know the man who was my father but without whom I had grown up. I had revised and edited the stories about the city in which I had been born and my visit at age twenty-one to the village where Guambiano Indians chew coca leaves. I had been filling in the details about the baby carrier my parents had used to carry me on walks through the páramo before they divorced, before my mother brought me back to Minnesota. I had been rewriting the story of my marriage and birth of my daughter. For almost a decade, I had been writing about my father and this house with the borrachero tree in the courtyard.

The borrachero tree or Brugmansia, I learned later, is native to the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. The tree or shrub with yellow or white trumpet-shaped flowers contains a toxic substance called scopolamine, which can cause hallucinations, confusions, and even death.

Sometimes my memoir felt like that tree. Deadly. As I reworked it and rewrote it, twisting and turning the narrative and the themes, the whole thing would feel black, as if it emanated a noxious fume that filled me with doubt and despair and exhaustion. And yet. It was beautiful. There were turns of phrase that I loved, sentences that glistened with meaning and metaphor, chapters that tied themselves into neat bows.

“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me. I pictured him in work boots and thick leather gloves. Perhaps he wore a bandana around his mouth and nose to try to protect himself as he hacked the trunk. “But every time I cut it down,” he told me, “it grows back.”

It’s been two years since my last visit to Colombia. And now I think of my father’s story: the tree that cannot be destroyed. My desire, my wish, my need to finish and publish my memoir was like that tree. The pursuit of publication takes a frightening amount of determination and will. It defies all logic, that urge to put your words out into the world.

And now I look at the book that lies on my desk, the one with brightly colored flowers on its dust jacket. The one that tells the story of magical things happening in Colombia and in my life. My memoir.

And I realize you have to be like the borrachero tree—beautiful and powerful, growing back no matter how many times you’re cut down. Eventually, you just might reach over the barriers, touch the sky.

Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Her middle-grade novel, What If a Fish, is slated for publication from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in summer 2020. A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter:  Or Instagram:


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