The [Panel] Art of Memoir

December 28, 2022 § 5 Comments

Promoting a Comprehensive View of a Memoir’s Purpose through Thematic Structure

By Margaret Moore

When I look at the complete manuscript of my debut memoir, I see panel art.

Panel art, formally termed a polyptych, is an image divided into sections that are depicted on separate canvases. Side by side, the canvases collectively show the entire image.

In this butterfly polyptych, for example, the side panels solely feature the wings while the center focuses on the tagmata. Viewers can see the fine details the panels offer independently along with the larger image they form together.

My memoir was not intended to be a polyptych. Originally, I envisioned employing a strict chronological arrangement. Aiming to inspire others to overcome obstacles, my book narrates my experiences growing up with Cerebral Palsy, using a wheelchair, walker, and communication device, losing my father to cancer, and being raised by a single mother who enabled my pursuit of regular education, athletics, and other activities.

Since childhood, I have aspired to author a series of memoirs about different segments of my life—a book chronicling my birth through my elementary school graduation and sequels on middle school, high school, college, and so forth. Given my focus on specific time periods, chronological structure seemed most sensical.

For my debut memoir, I planned to dedicate the opening chapters to my birth, my family’s adjustment to my disability, and my father’s death. Once my narrator entered school, each chapter would focus on a specific academic year.

Written between childhood and college, the first drafts of the book were married to this structure. In college, I became disenchanted with it—my prose felt rigid and list-like, as if I was saying, “then I did this interesting thing, and that interesting thing…” Mentors seemed to offer identical critiques—that my book came across as a collection of anecdotes that, though entertaining, possessed no articulated purpose.

Before beginning my MFA, I started reordering my scenes. I didn’t dare make drastic changes to my book structure—each chapter still narrated my childhood years in order—but I ventured as far as removing the chronological arrangement of scenes within the chapters, selecting a moment sure to capture readers’ attention at the opening and determining what followed based on the topics of other scenes and how smoothly I could transition to them.

While pursuing my MFA at Fairfield University, something still seemed to mute my book’s purpose. The solution came after working to deepen my descriptions of navigating the world with a disability. Employing embodied writing techniques, I learned to use granular levels of detail to depict my narrator’s physical, emotional, and mental experiences and to follow these with retrospective reflections on the significance of her participation in activities. In my book, embodied writing materializes as step-by-step narrations of my narrator’s actions—the juxtaposition and sensations of her body and procedures of operating assistive technology. The prose is layered, incorporating not only her movements and sensations but also a deep look at her thoughts and emotions. The in-the-moment narratives and retrospective reflections are designed to demonstrate why her story is unique and keeps the memoir pointed toward its intended purpose.

Employing this technique required substantial expansion of my prose, which seemed to make my book’s purpose more prominent. At first, I left the book structure as it was, with each chapter centered on a specific school year.

“Your structure works,” one mentor said, reviewing a chapter. “Though if you wanted to delve further into the disability experience, you could experiment with breaking these events into multiple chapters to allow space for expanding on how these moments impacted you.”

I could see the benefits, but I feared that it would require a full-blown restructure of the book.

I later found myself stumped on directions for a new chapter. This was supposed to be the last in the book, narrating my fifth-grade school year and my experience attending an intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy program. Considering how drastically these topics differed from each other and how much space I’d need for describing the therapy through embodied writing, I worried the narrative would be pulled in too many directions.

I soon realized my mentor had provided the solution before I even encountered this problem, and I divided this chapter into two. By giving the therapy experience its own chapter, I didn’t have to balance the topic with others. I now had unlimited space to craft my narrative, not only to have characteristics of embodied writing, but also to detail how my family found this program and navigated the financial implications, types of therapy I previously had, how this one differed, and benefits gained. Concentrating on the one theme ultimately allowed me to paint a more thorough picture for readers.

Pleased with this effect, I reorganized my book into a thematic structure during my thesis semester. One chapter, for example, centers on accommodations and technology that enabled my pursuit of academics. Another focuses on experiences with discrimination, how society views—and often stereotypes—people with disabilities, and how my family, educators, and I have combatted that. Identifying my narrator’s age in multiple scenes enabled me to include moments from different years in the same chapter while making clear for readers when in her life my narrator experienced them. The book still draws on her progression from birth to fifth grade, but the timeliness has faded into the background, allowing the themes to shine more brightly.

Reviewing chapters individually, I neglected to see this structure’s full effect. Examining the memoir as a whole and contemplating what to write for an introduction to my thesis, I noticed the polyptych. Each chapter functions as a panel depicting one aspect of life with a disability. The chapters work together to depict a comprehensive view of the experience—or at least my disability experience, since no two people encounter it the same way.

If purposefully employed, what impact does this polyptych structure have? Perhaps it aids in delivering more exhaustive illustrations of the narrators’ experiences and the intended purposes of memoirs.

___

Margaret Moore is a summer 2022 graduate of Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, where she earned a degree in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is an editor and the marketing coordinator at Woodhall Press and an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her debut memoir is currently at the beginning stages of its publication process, and her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications. Find her on Twitter: @mooreofawriter

Artifacts, Essays, and Exploring a Non-Binary Genre

October 7, 2022 § 13 Comments

In Curing Season: Artifacts, Kristine Langley Mahler blends lyrical, inventive-hermit crab essays with memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of place-based, experimental writing. Curing Season examines the author’s sense of displacement, after being uprooted from her pioneer-like upbringing in Oregon to the Southern traditions of Pitt County, North Carolina, a feeling that surges into her adulthood. It’s about adapting, fragmenting, and extrapolating memories and merging them with truth.

Leslie Lindsay, who talks with Kristine Langley Mahler below, is an award-winning writer living in Greater Chicago by way of St. Louis, with a Minnesota detour. Though they both admit to feeling displaced, the two connected online after Lindsay learned of Curing Season and reached out for an interview. Here, they talk about how to determine structure, the fluidity of genre, being an objective observer, and more.

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Leslie Lindsay: What did you learn, if anything, about the craft of writing from working in such an expansive form? You have many threads in Curing Season and examined time in a unique and evocative way.

Kristine Langley Mahler: I held so many of the moments that I reconstructed in the essays for Curing Season for years, and over the years as I wrote about them, I found myself either adding on another layer or stripping off an older layer to examine what material I had used the last time. Time is strange when working with memories that still feel as prominent and imminent as they did when I was younger; as I wrote about in “Alignment,” it was like a time-zoom through a vacuum, because I didn’t know how I could remember my own middle school years with such clarity when I was old enough to have a middle schooler myself. What did I learn? That writing about time is removing mold from a memory. A memory gets soft over the years as it decays, sometimes altered to the point that you think it might need to be thrown away, but if you’re lucky, sometimes the years can be scraped off and you can see the memory as it once was, if a little diminished in size.

L.L.: Curing Season is more than ‘just’ a reflection of a displaced childhood, but a formally inventive and elegant exploration of form and memory. Did writing it change how you think of ‘standard genres’ of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir? The reading experience gave me the sense that genre is fluid—non-binary–and I loved that interplay.

Kristine Langley Mahler

I love that phrase—that genre is non-binary. So many writers are stretching the boundaries of those traditional fences around the genres, and nowhere is that more exciting than within nonfiction and memoir. I learned so much about how to reconsider “what the genre is” from the work of boundary-breaking pioneers like Jenny Boully, Sarah Minor, and Elissa Washuta (among so many others!) and I carried those possibilities with me as I wrote Curing Season.

L.L.: I often think of writing—memoir especially—as narrative archaeology rooted in curiosity. We can’t possibly know how it will end, or what we’ll uncover, until we do. In Curing Season, you chip away at the pieces of lost time, fragments of memory, and the trauma of uprooting to a semi-foreign land, plus the death of your best friend.  Did writing about these moments provide clarity?

I think that every time I reencounter a memory, I understand it a little better. I called the essays “artifacts” because I was thinking of them in the anthropological/archaeological sense—artifacts are the remnants of a specific era, people, and place, but their historical significance is only understood through context, which might have disappeared over time. The more one studies the context, the better one can understand the artifact. I am always gaining new context for my memories, and so I am also always noticing new facets notched into them which suddenly make sense.

L.L.: What I loved about the hybridity of Curing Season is that it became a portal into not just your experience, but invited readers to extrapolate events and experiences as a participant. In other words, readers are not just an objective observer but interlinked with the narrative. Was this a conscious decision on your part? How did you determine the structure?

Absolutely, a major goal for me with Curing Season was inviting readers into the experience of determining meaning from the work. I wanted readers to consider how I was consciously shaping memories—because I revealed my biases right there on the page—and how they themselves might have shaped moments from their past for various reasons. I wanted to bring readers, who might have felt like outsiders themselves at one point or another, to the doorway while reaching out a hand to pull them into the darkness if they were willing.

L.L.: What advice might you give to writers on structure?

For both essay structure as well as book structure, I think my advice might be the same: consider the subject material and how your work can be shaped to complement it. It can be such a fantastic opportunity to take a piece (or book) and make it resemble the core material right there on the page. I do that with several essays in Curing Season (for example: “Shadowbox” and “Mädchenfänger”) but also with the book itself, which is thirteen essays because a part of me will always be thirteen (the age I was when I finished 8th grade).

Leslie Lindsay

L.L.: Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

My true “next” project is already wrapped—I have a slim essay project called A Calendar is a Snakeskin coming out with Autofocus Books in 2023, which is a collection of three related essays examining the selves I needed to shed within the span of one calendar year, but I am also working on a big book project called Home Trap, about the privilege of home, ancestry, and what it means to belong to a place—which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read Curing Season!
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Leslie Lindsay’s writing has been featured in The MillionsThe Florida Review, Levitate, The Rumpus, ANMLYThe Tiny Journal, Essay DailyHippocampus, Psychology Today, Mutha Magazine, Ruminate’s The Waking, Visual Verse, Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Motherwell, with forthcoming work in The Smart Set and ELJ. She was recently accepted to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop and has participated in continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University. She resides in the Greater Chicago suburbs and is at work on a memoir exploring ancestral connections. She is a former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. and can be found @leslielindsay1 on Twitter and Instagram where she shares thoughtful explorations and musings on literature, art, design, and nature. 

Rivering the Memoir: Chris Dombrowski on Time, Nature, and the Geography of the Body

October 6, 2022 § Leave a comment

Chris Dombrowski’s forthcoming memoir The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water revels in the wilderness of parenthood and western Montana, traversing discovery and wonder with the deftness of a wolf crossing a stream. The author of three acclaimed poetry collections and the highly celebrated non-fiction book Body of Water, Dombrowski lives with his feral family at the confluence of three great rivers in Missoula, Montana. Noah Davis sat stream-side with Dombrowski in early September to discuss the much-anticipated book. 

Noah Davis: Can you talk about melding the geography of the land with the geography of the body? You write these beautiful depictions of your wife Mary’s pregnant body, an elk’s heart, your children’s bodies growing before your eyes, right alongside the course of rivers and erosion of the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains. 

Chris Dombrowski: I love how you say the geography of the body, because we often see ourselves as in a place and not part of a place. I became fascinated by that idea when I started to contemplate the constellation of the natural world, which we are threaded into. We tend to think of place and our surroundings as permanent even when they aren’t. And we think the same thing about our bodies even though they’re changing all the time. One of the ideas that I got at by chance in this book is that of the body being permeable. When we’re standing in a stream it’s literally moving through us on a molecular level. We’re not being eroded away as quickly as a sand bank, but if we stand there long enough, we will be swept away. 

ND: One of the great strengths of the memoir is your ability to treat time like an accordion. You bring events that might feel ancient in human eyes—like Glacial Lake Missoula, the Salish people’s history—and press them right up against your life in the late 20th and early 21st century Missoula, Montana. What was the thought process behind that? 

CD: It actually starts with the title, and that came late in the game. The title comes from the DaVinci quote: “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.” Wherever we are, we’re touching the past and present. I think that to love and be in a place with honesty we need to know what has come before and how our actions will impact the future. The accordion-like folding that you describe is a result of research—history of place, landscape, and people—combined with poetic instincts. We fold in and out of the present into history. I wanted to engage with that truth. 

There’s an amazing book by Jim Fergus titled A Hunter’s Road, and in one story, Jim goes to the Blackfeet Reservation with a man named Woody Kipp whose family goes all the way back to the first chiefs of the Blackfeet tribe. As they’re hunting, Fergus bends down and picks up an interesting rock and puts it in his game pouch. Kipp, who’s guiding him, looks back and says something like: “You may have that rock.” Fergus realizes that Kipp’s ancestors’ bones are under that rock. Time is compressed in that one moment of realization. That to me is engaging with reality at the deepest level humanly possible. The geologic, the tribal, the colonial; our darkest moments help us understand our present moment. 

ND: And with that folding of time, there had to be ideas on how to craft it. They aren’t exactly vignettes, but you also don’t write in unbroken chapters. How did you work through the form of the book? 

CD: I thought about the narrative structure like a river, and I envisioned side channels, like any healthy river has, as those shifts in focus. A river should be allowed to meander; we prose writers can sometimes become too constrictive with subject matter, but the poet in me likes to amble. My favorite Ian Frazier line is, “Wandering is acceptable in an essay.” I tried to live that in this book. Just as tributaries and creeks feed a river and add to its momentum, the more “in-flow” I allowed the narrative—by way of natural history, characters, food, you name it—the more momentum it gained. 

ND: The softness and vulnerability of fatherhood isn’t at the forefront of parental literature. What was it like writing toward that and the necessity of that? 

CD: I certainly wasn’t writing toward it initially. And I hadn’t read a lot of books featuring vulnerable fathers, not a lot of western narratives about men changing diapers or giving their newborns baths in the sink. I think it was something that arrived through direct contact. We can be knocked out of ourselves by direct contact with the actual. Children are if anything disarming; you think you have an idea of how you’re going to approach them, but they will shake you free of those preconceived notions soon enough. In that sense, the softness came from my family; they brought it out of me. Not to mention watching the incredible fortitude and grace of a woman through a pregnancy, someone whose body is changing visibly in real-time—that throttled my cosmology and made me think differently about agency. So I’d say that parenthood softened me the way water softens a rock. I was changed by that. 
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Noah Davis’ poetry collection Of This River was selected by George Ella Lyon for the 2019 Wheelbarrow Emerging Poet Book Prize from Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry, and his poems and prose have appeared in The Sun, Southern Humanities Review, Best New Poets, Orion, The Year’s Best Sports Writing, North American Review, and River Teeth among others. His work has been awarded a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the 2018 Jean Ritchie Appalachian Literature Fellowship from Lincoln Memorial University. Davis earned an MFA from Indiana University and now lives with his wife, Nikea, in Missoula, Montana.

Telling the Unwanted Story: an Interview with Memoirist Jill Kandel

July 19, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Coomber

Your second memoir, The Clean Daughter: a Cross-Continental Memoir, takes us to five different countries, yet all of your experiences tie into figuring out your prickly relationship with your father-in-law. How did you get to the heart of that story?

This was a hard book to write, because it is really personal, and it touches on not only my life, but my in-laws, my husband, my children and my grandparents.

It circles around three themes. One of them is my relationship with my father-in-law, Izaak, who spent his entire life in the Netherlands. We had a difficult relationship, and I felt in order to understand him, I needed to understand the Netherlands better, so I did quite a bit of Netherlands research.

Izaak was a child in Nazi-occupied Holland, so I went to the Netherlands several times to research World War II, learning what it was like for him as a young teen growing up under Nazi oppression.

In 2008, he decided that he wanted to end his life using euthanasia, which was legal in the Netherlands. He did not have a terminal diagnosis and was a relatively healthy man. We didn’t understand his decision, so part of my research focused on euthanasia in the Netherlands. I felt if I could understand those laws, I could understand his choice better.

Tell me about your writing process.

I didn’t want to write this book as memoir—I was afraid of my own story, afraid I’d get it wrong, afraid I’d offend people. My first three versions of this book were fiction. But it did not work at all.

I threw those drafts away and shifted to memoir, trying out a few different structures, and ended up going with straight chronology. As you read the book, you learn about euthanasia and World War II and my father-in-law as I learned about them. You’re viewing the story through the eyes of someone else who’s learning it, so we’re learning together.

We’ve had conversations about the challenge of writing stories involving our families. How did you get past your initial resistance to sharing tough experiences?

I crossed that bridge in my first memoir (So Many Africas, Autumn House Press, 2015). There were things my husband didn’t want me to write about then that I needed to write about. So I wrote. He would read it and get upset or wouldn’t talk to me for a while, and we’d let it set, and then get it out again and talk about it.

In a sense, writing hard things was a way for me to have a voice in things we needed to talk about. It opened up those doors.

In life?

In life. And I’d say that’s true about this book, too, because the parts where I wrote about euthanasia, my husband would say, “Can’t you write about something else?” And I couldn’t. If I could have not written this book, I would have not written this book. But I was compelled to find answers.

How did writing this book change you as a person?

In the five years it took to write, I learned empathy toward Izaak, partly from what I learned about his boyhood in World War II. I have more compassion for his fears. He wasn’t sick when he chose to die, but he was very fearful of the future. As I age, I understand that fear a bit more.

I learned something else as well while writing. I always thought Izaak was a difficult man, but I was an American girl, and he was an older Dutch gentleman. I was difficult for him like he was difficult for me. I don’t think I realized that before.

You wrote this book while a member of an all-woman writing group, which I joined after your manuscript was complete. The group’s sharing process is different from other writing groups I’ve been part of. Instead of pre-reading each other’s writing, we read our work aloud to the group. How did this practice impact your book?

The writing group definitely shaped this book. Collectively, we’ve published ten books, so we’re all experienced working writers. I think when you read out loud to a live audience, it’s a very organic process. It’s living. And so it’s much like a reader reading your book. They don’t have time to think over it and stew over it and make all sorts of intellectual comments. It’s a little bit off the cuff, but the writing group off-the-cuff comes with years of experience, and it flows. We talk back and forth, and we trust each other, so it’s more like a conversation, which I feel you learn more from.

How does it feel to have The Clean Daughter out in the world?

This isn’t the story I wanted or asked for—or even liked, but it is the story I was given, and I found the writing of it offered me a sort of release.

When it’s finished and accepted for publication, it’s made into this thing called a book, and you don’t own it anymore. It’s a sort of mysterious, difficult gift that you give the world.

I think that’s the glory of memoir, when words can take pain and turn it into art. Then art can do its work to bring mercy into the world. All the difficulty and hardness of writing this book has become a joy, something I have to give away and offer to others.

Memoirist Jill Kandel began writing at the age of forty to make sense of a life lived on four continents and a cross-cultural marriage that has lasted more than forty years. Her first memoir, So Many Africas, won the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award.

Sarah Coomber, neighbor and fellow memoir writer (The Same Moon, Camphor Press, 2020), walked over to Kandel’s Minnesota back yard for this visit about Kandel’s new book, The Clean Daughter.

Learn more about Kandel and her writing at www.jillkandel.com

A Fan Letter to Brian Doyle

May 27, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Jason Poole

If I had written a fan letter to Brian Doyle before he died, I’d have told him how he (almost singlehandedly) changed my life, starting with the time I read one of his pieces in Creative Nonfiction magazine, in an issue about bringing joy back to writing, because, at the time, there was so little joy in my writing life, and I wondered who this man was who wrote such long-and-winding sentences, and then it dawned on me: this man was writing with joyful abandon and his words were like kids rolling in the grass, like that moment when Carrie, from Little House on the Prairie, goes running down the hill in the show’s opening credits, and then she wipes out, but nothing terrible happens; instead her head pops up above the greenery, and even though the moment is grossly overscored by the show’s theme music, you can almost hear her laughing, and that’s how Doyle wrote (but never saccharine or sappy), and I know that to be true because after I read his piece in the magazine, I immediately went online and searched the database at The Strand and found out they had several of his books, his collections of “proems,” and the next day I went there and climbed up one of those dangerous ladders which resemble staircases (the ones which look innocent but if you make a false move, they’ll send you sprawling and crashing into those impossible shelves on the main floor, maybe knocking down and an old person, or two, who’d only come inside to get out of the rain or the sun, who might’ve been enjoying a temperature-controlled moment in the quiet of the stacks and o! thank! god! that didn’t happen), and I bought all the Doyles without even opening them to read a page or two, because I trusted that anyone who could write like that—like rolling down a grassy hill—would be my new favorite writer, and then I walked across the street to Au Bon Pain and stood at the counter in the window (because they never have an open table), and I read the first book and got all misty-eyed, and then—afraid people would see me as a simp—I poured myself into a cab and went home to read them all, cover to glorious cover, while lying on the couch and crying into a cup of lukewarm coffee in the safety of my own home, and my world shifted, I think (picture pulling on an ingrown hair, which on the surface may look like just a little black speck, but when teased with the tip of tweezer, reveals itself to be as long as an arm and wildly twisted like the root of a tree), all those words and images, those grainy images, growing clearer and sharper and smarter as I read them, making me want to push myself to be a better writer, and I wish now I’d written to him, dear Brian Doyle, and thanked him and told him I loved him before he died.

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Jason Craig Poole is a word nerd who plays in all the literary sandboxes. His work has appeared in riksha, Paterson Literary Review and his songs and story are featured in the documentary, Sons of Hālawa. He’s currently working on his first novel for middle grade readers. He lives with his family in South Orange, New Jersey.

Opening Literary Windows to Better Understand Our World

May 6, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Candy Schulman

It began during the pandemic lockdown. Teaching my nonfiction writing workshops to Zoom rectangles, I could hear Black Lives Matter marches outside my 14th floor Greenwich Village apartment. Their voices made me understand that my own reading habits and recommendations to students were still not diverse enough.

My millennial daughter pointed out that I was drawn to work by women whose lives mirrored mine. These writers made me feel less alone in a complex world. One weekend my daughter’s friend read aloud the first paragraph of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had….If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.”

Kawakami’s first novel, Heaven, was about bullying. This heartbreaking, deeply disturbing allegory transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn—where I too had been bullied at fourteen, 6,894 miles away from Osaka. My essays on bullying were similar to Kawakami’s experience, and also different. Reading diverse authors emphasized the universality of the human condition.

Next my daughter recommended Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a historical novel spanning 300 years, from Ghana to American slavery and beyond. It was so disturbing that I could not read it before bedtime. In my classes I’d often paraphrased Kafka’s claim that the job of an artist is to make us uncomfortable, not happy. Gyasi’s horrifying descriptions of the mistreatment of slaves emphasized Kafka’s view that “We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

As writers we need to “wake up” in order to surprise our readers and create original voices. With over two million books published worldwide, I was grateful for my daughter’s guidance. I’d introduced her to reading and was always proud that she grew up to love literature. Now she was teaching me.

I followed her recommendations as if she were my book club leader. Minor Feelings, by Cathy Park Hong, illuminated her shame, depression, and racial identity struggles as the daughter of Korean immigrants in America. As soon as I read the last page of Hong’s hybrid memoir of personal experience and cultural criticism, I put it on my syllabus. An Asian American student emailed me: “Minor Feelings changed my life. Thank you.”

I studied books and styles I might never have read before. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an inventive memoir about psychological abuse in a love relationship between two women. Its innovative structure where each chapter is crafted around a narrative trope made me think anew about ways we order our essays and memoirs.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, a Chinese American coming-of-age story begins, “Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house…” Her first paragraph was the lengthy kind I urged my students to divide into shorter morsels. Yes, a writer could break the rules—once traditional craft is mastered.

One night in class, after workshopping a student’s personal essay written in the second person, I warned that the “you” voice was tricky and rarely effective. A student recommended “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” a second person epistolary essay by Ocean Vuong. His brilliant lyricism, in spite of numerous transitional spaces, was the kind I warned students often made prose feel jumpy. I changed my mind when saw how effortlessly Vuong achieved it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Writers need to stretch and grow. I tell my students that learning to write is a lifelong process. My essay style has evolved over the years. Broader reading tastes have enabled me to penetrate new boundaries in style, format, chronology, and language. All writers can spread our literary wings across oceans. After 35 years of teaching, I’ve expanded my knowledge about the craft of writing—as well as systemic racism, slavery, immigration, and prejudice.

My teaching syllabus has evolved from mostly white voices of women who’d grown up with more than one or two windows in their house. The daughter of first-generation Americans, I was raised in a modest Brooklyn house with five windows. My apartment today has eight windows. I keep opening them as wide as possible, inviting a wide array of today’s literary voices into my writing life and my classroom.

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Candy Schulman is an essayist, memoir writer, and creative nonfiction professor at The New School in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Longreads, Salon, among others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press), Same Time Next Week (In Fact Books/Creative Nonfiction), and forthcoming Embrace the Merciless Joy (McSweeney’s). Candy has twice won the Best Essay Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and notable honors from Best American Essays.

Rotating the Writing Crops

April 18, 2022 § 7 Comments

by Kate Walter

After writing and publishing a memoir in essays in less than two years, I felt my essay ideas had dried up. I had pushed myself hard because the subject of my book – a pandemic memoir – was timely, and because I had a firm deadline from my publisher.

By the time my memoir, Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter, was released last fall, I felt completely wiped out. Not just from writing and editing and proofreading during such a short window of time, but I was exhausted from living through the pandemic by myself, which is the subject of my book. I knew I was supposed to be writing related new essays to promote the book, but I just didn’t have any in me.

I did promotional events in December (a Zoom panel, a podcast, a radio interview). I even squeezed in one in-person reading before Omicron hit. Then I stepped back to work on scheduling events for the spring. I wrote copy for flyers for upcoming events. But no essays. I had gone from churning out personal pieces to no output. I started to panic a little.

So when an editor offered me a fun assignment reporting about a museum, I accepted. It was good to be back writing and I could use the money. I also realized that I’m like a farmer and needed to rotate the crops. Give essays a rest until that soil is fertile with ideas again.

Should go back to that novel I started years ago which includes outtakes from my debut memoir? When I read part of it in my writing group years ago (when we were still meeting in person) people really liked it, especially the younger writers. The story takes place in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, before their time. They loved the details about a friend throwing down the keys from the fire escape after we called from a pay phone because we didn’t have cell phones and some tenements did not have buzzers by the door. Or should I return to that queer murder mystery? I had moved away completely from fiction during the pandemic.

The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.

The strange thing is that after I came to this conclusion and stopped pushing myself to come up with essay ideas, I came up with three ideas. This happened organically which is basically how my process always worked.

So I’ve started a new piece about what it will feel like to take off the masks in my large New York City apartment building, starting April 1. What will it be like to step into the hall or elevator without a mask? And I realized this topic compliments my pandemic memoir.

I’ve learned it’s fine to rotate away from essay writing for a few months. If I take a break, I am composting and when I do that, ideas pop into my head. What a relief to realize that.

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Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and many other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades.

The Power of the Prompt

March 28, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Colleen Kinder

I’m one of those writing teachers who swears by prompts. Narrative directives like, “Write about a childhood memory, set in a car.” or “Begin every single sentence with ‘I remember.’” (Hat tip, Joe Brainard). “Write an apology letter to a place.” 500 words, tops. Ready-set-go.

Usually, the more specific the prompt, the more magnificent the outcome. Students I would not have called exceptional writers burst out with essayettes I’ll remember for years. In ten minutes, they slide under the spell of voices so unmistakably their own, grounded in the radiant particulars of their lives. Again and again, it astonishes me: how writing students churn out their finest, most strident work when forced to create inside what seems like a box. All I have to do is design the walls of the container, then flip over the egg timer. Go.

I know teachers who take these constraint principles even further, assigning lipograms—essays or poems in which only one vowel is fair game—and pushing students to the point of exasperation, to the sense of handicap, which only disarms them for amazement at what they improbably produce.

“I’m jealous of your prompts!” I’ve joked many times to my students, because I’m one of those writers who chronically craves more time, more space. When I start a writing project, I easily get lost in it for years, paying zero heed to my snow-balling word count let alone the modest figures in my bank account. In short: I’ve always known, deep down, that the very creative limits I dole out to pupils would do me good.

Seven years ago, I finally acted on that hunch. What if “the prompt” wasn’t such a rudimentary tool, exclusively impactful in the classroom? Perhaps other writers also stood to benefit from some creative straightjacketing. When I asked around, my peers responded to these questions and theories with some version of “Amen,” or “yes, please.” With their help, I co-founded a literary magazine, Off Assignment, whose every column is rooted in a specific prompt.

Of all our early columns, “Letter to a Stranger” was the mightiest, the most universally generative. Write a letter to someone you’ve met in passing but still think about, we challenged writers. Write it in letter form, in the second person. 800-1200 words was the sweet spot, we said, setting a deadline that was arbitrary, but a deadline nonetheless.

Leslie Jamison was the first writer to submit a “Letter to a Stranger” essay. “Immediately, I knew the stranger I would write about: a one-legged traveling magician I’d crossed paths with several times when I lived in Nicaragua,” Jamison writes in the Foreword to Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, March 2022), a collection inspired by this flagship column. Like so many writers I’ve by now worked with on “Letter to a Stranger” essays, Leslie didn’t have to mull the prompt over—not for a month, or a day. Memory had done the work of distilling the scene, casting a strobe light on that one, glinting figure.

“Honestly I didn’t really know what [my letter] would be about,” Jamison goes on. “I just knew it would be a letter to him. And when I wrote it, several weeks later, it came out dark and gleaming and alive, as if it had already existed inside of me, fully formed. A secret stowaway. It just needed a home. The invitation of a letter had given it a home. This invitation said: Write to this man, even if you don’t know why you want to. It said: Write into that mystery.”

Another letter, from Lavinia Spalding, rolled in shortly after—a focused and searing account of a dalliance on a Thai beach. As for journalist Ted Conover, he sort of already had a “Letter to a Stranger” in progress, a side-story jotted down while on a New Yorker assignment in Rwanda almost twenty years earlier.

These seminal letters, published in the inaugural batch of essays in Off Assignment’s “Letter to a Stranger” column, opened the floodgates for hundreds more missives. Stories about missed connections and near-death scrapes; stories featuring gamblers and widows and DHL drivers; scenes set in the northern reaches of Norway, the rainstorms of Benin, Caracas at night, the South Pacific at age 22. 

The letter, it turned out, was the perfect vessel for these particular tales: a form brief and intimate, one keen on collapsing distance. What electrified Off Assignment early on was the sense that we’d found a literary shape that corresponded with a species of story already alive inside the writer. The letter form works like a whispered summons, coaxing out the long-dormant story. Come out. Here’s your place. Come, ghost: fill this nook out here in the world. If you’re going to haunt so persistently, then haunt us all. 

I no longer worry that we might exhaust the form of the “Letter to a Stranger,” thanks to the endless parade of writers who have since walloped me with surprises, bending our prompt in fresh ways. Writers like Anna Vodicka, who wrote not to one stranger, but to a room full of them at a Bolivian hostel; and Rachel Yoder, who penned a letter to the man who stalked her in high school, a fuming missive that felt destined for our collection, and yet entirely unforeseen.

I learned so much from editing the 65 essays that comprise Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us: namely, that any nagging ghost makes for a glorious muse; that memory goes to work on the rough drafts of our pasts like a ruthless editor, whittling them down until all we see clearly are the scenes that glint with significance; and that there’s a great kingdom of narrative at the terminus of a simple, specific question: “Who haunts you?”

I’m convinced now that we “seasoned professionals” often need a dose of the medicine we prescribe to our apprentices. When our students amaze us with their output and their focus, their sudden lyricism and the singularity of their sentences, we’re wise to pay heed to what triggered it: those narrow instructions that sent them right on their way.

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Colleen Kinder is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Geographic Traveler, Virginia Quarterly Review, AFAR, Salon.com, Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, A Public Space, and The Best American Travel Writing. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us (Algonquin Books, 2022), and the co-founder of the nonprofit magazine Off Assignment. A former Fulbright scholar and MacDowell fellow, Kinder has taught writing at Yale University, the Chautauqua Institution, and Semester at Sea.

Of Book Burning, Nostalgia, and Little Women: An interview with Jennifer Niesslein

March 23, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Brooke Champagne

How does a self-proclaimed nostalgic square her affection for the past with progressive politics?  How can one remain a nostalgic American when others use that sentiment for ill intent?  Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, addresses these and other issues in her exciting new collection Dreadful Sorry: Essays on an American Nostalgia.  She spoke with me about race, class, family, humor, and Little Women for the Brevity blog.

Brooke Champagne:  Jennifer, I loved this book, and want to thank you for writing it.  Dreadful Sorry could not have been more prescient for this moment in American culture.  I was curious if there was an event or essay or epiphany that created the impetus for this themed collection on nostalgia.  How/when/why was the first idea for this born?

Jennifer Niesslein: Thanks, Brooke! Like most writers, I have my themes I return to again and again. Over the years, I’d been writing essays: The one about my boot-legging great-great-grandmother. The one where I visit my childhood hometown—during an eclipse—for the first time since we left. The one where I talk to a psychic medium. They all start out with some degree of nostalgia, and I didn’t realize this because I’m a nostalgic, through and through. The theme was invisible to me for a while.

At some point I realized that the more regressive people in the country were using nostalgia as a tool for evil. (I live in Charlottesville. I’m not using “evil” lightly.) I wanted to explore how nostalgia—a source of comfort to me—could also create such devastation.

BC: This book feels like a crucial examination of White identity in a way that’s feared in politically-conservative circles.  What role do you think nostalgia plays in the current right-wing preoccupation with banning books dealing with a difficult, complicated American past? 

Jennifer Niesslein

JN: The book banning in schools is part of conservatives’ efforts to undermine public education, no different from the anti-intellectual actions designed to undermine other professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to understanding policy and medicine and justice, etc. If you don’t trust anyone but the people encouraging you to distrust, you can only put your trust in their authoritarian regime.

I can’t really speak for the conservatives, but I suspect that they use nostalgia to appeal to a time when White people—White men, in particular—were considered the neutral standard and everyone else was an aberration. Are you Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Hispanic, Latino, or normal? Are you a woman or are you normal? Do you have a disability or are you normal? I mean, holy hell, Archie Bunker has been off the air for forty years.

Speaking for myself, once I realized that a White perspective is an actual perspective, it opened the door to my becoming a more just person.

BC: I so appreciated how you spoke so openly about class in these essays.  In your essay “Respect,” you note how in college, you learned much about historic female trailblazers, but little about the American working-class women who made you, and built this country.  As not just a writer but an editor, I was wondering how you think this translates into the publishing industry today.  Do you see a particular privilege or pedigree in much of what we see lionized in publishing?

JN:  I don’t know. I can only see from my little corner of publishing. At Full Grown People, I’m definitely partial to essays about class. But I’ve always been struck by what Deesha Philyaw said about publishing rewarding the dominant narrative: writing that reinforces the status quo gets the attention. Class-wise, we definitely saw that with Hillbilly Elegy. And did you see Tara Westover’s piece in the NY Times, “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream”? She’s definitely pushing against the idea that, with enough gumption, anyone can achieve what she did.

Brooke Champagne

I think it’s hard to write about class especially in the big squishy middle (where everyone imagines themselves) because there are such different forms of status symbols. Take my son: he’s a highly skilled musician with a breadth and depth of musical genres that’s rare. But we were talking about a recipe I sent him, and he didn’t know that if the recipe calls for broth, you can just pop a bouillon cube and water in the pot. After we hung up, I thought, “Shit. I forgot to teach him how to be poor.”

BC: There’s such a fun, dry wit in the book that comes from the most surprising places.  Are you intentional about how and where you employ humor?  Is it a way for the medicine (of discussing difficult subjects like race and class) to go down easier?

JN: At this point in my career, the humor is just a reflex. It’s not so much a literary device as it is a life skill for me, so it comes out in my writing.

That said, some passages didn’t make it into the book. When the funny distracts from critical thinking, it doesn’t work.

BC:  In your essay “Little Women,” there’s a reference to your childhood couch having been used on the set of the 1994 movie version.  I’m deeply nostalgic for the Susan Sarandon of that time, before I unfairly blamed her (and many, many others) for the Democratic loss of 2016.  Can you share the story of how your couch made it to 1994’s Little Women?

JN:  Without giving too much away about the essay, I think the couch stands in for a truth my mom knew but we sisters didn’t realize yet.

Part of my identity, though, is rooted in being one of four sisters, and Little Women, both the book and movie adaptations, are the go-to for the four-sister-and-mother archetype. I love any mention of it because I love us. I reread the book not too long ago, and I had to laugh at how preachy it was. There’s one point when Marmee tells Amy that, essentially, Beth is a better person than Amy is. Jesus, Amy, just try. No. Harder.
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Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece ‘Exercises,’ which was published in The Normal School and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019. Her writing has appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Under the Sun, Barrelhouse, and Hunger Mountain. She is seeking publication for her first collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.

Using a Newsletter as a Prewriting Exercise and Research Tool

March 16, 2022 § 6 Comments

A sepia toned photograph of a dark haired woman holds an infant while a toddler sits beside them. All are wearing white frilly dresses.)
My great grandmother Bertha Hander Polan, my uncle Eddie, and my grandfather. Taken in Baltimore in 1907

By Sarah Einstein

I came out of the worst of the pandemic feeling creatively dull and uninspired, in spite of having a book under contract with WVU Press that I was very excited about. I was really enjoying the research process, but I just wasn’t able to get any words on the page. Starting a Substack newsletter, Writing Family Histories, about my research really turned that around, and I think it might be useful to other writers of nonfiction as well.

My current project asks the question of whether or not I am, or even could be, an Appalachian Jew. It relies on family history, and I started the newsletter as a way to share my research with my family in a centralized way. It’s been a great boon because multiple relatives send me email after almost every post, filling in missing pieces of our history and—especially—letting me know when I’ve gotten something wrong. I’d tried a few other ways to do this before, including a Facebook group, but the newsletter has been the most effective way for us all to engage, perhaps because when someone answers the email I send out, it only goes to me, so nobody’s starting any family fights.

I’m also excited by the way it allows me to get nearly instant feedback on my research from both family and fellow writers doing the same sort of work. My partner and I are about to embark on a three month research trip—where, among other things, I’ll be visiting the part of Lithuania my great-great-grandparents lived before emigrating to escape Russian persecution—and I’m relieved that I can share what I find and get responses quickly enough to alter my research trajectory when someone with more complete knowledge is able to recognize a mistake or opportunity.

An unexpected boon of the newsletter has been the way it’s become really useful prewriting for the final project. In order to share my family stories, I have to write them out, but with none of the pressure of working on the manuscript. It’s absolutely lifted the pandemic pall and I wake up excited to write again. The immediacy of it, but also the fact that it feels very low stakes, has been really helpful in getting me over the post-lockdown funk. As soon as I learn some new thing—the story of my Uncle Henry’s murder, or the fact that my grandfather didn’t want my mother to give me an obviously Jewish name, I’m excited to share that with my family and the growing group of other writers who have joined the community. It has absolutely gotten me back in the chair.

Sarah Einstein

There are three things I wish I’d known starting out that I’d like to share with you:

  • More people will be interested in what you’re writing than you expect, and you should plan for that. Originally, I expected to be writing something only my own family members would be interested in, but in just a month we’ve built a community of writers and Jewish folk interested in genealogy of just over 200 people. If I had understood that there would be an audience for this kind of work, I’d have planned the elements of the newsletter that are about engagement a little better. I’m now set up with conversations and writing prompts for subscribers, but initially I was just writing about my family for my family. So, plan for people to show up and have something to offer them.
  • The paywall is an absolute necessity if you’re writing about anything that can rile up the internet trolls. I had to trash the first iteration of my newsletter because I didn’t have one, and almost instantly got a couple of online bigots posting antisemitic messages. You have choices you can make about what content goes to people with free memberships; I’ve set mine so that everybody can read everything, but only paid subscribers can make comments or join discussion threads. Even if you’re writing about something you think is troll-proof, remember that the internet can get het up about almost anything.
  • If you’re at all like me, you’ll start out so excited to be doing a new project you’ll want to post every—or even several times a—day. Unless you think you can keep this up, don’t. You don’t want to set an expectation you aren’t going to meet. I post 2-3 times a week, and vary the posts so that sometimes I’m talking about my findings, sometimes I’m talking about my methodology, and sometimes I’m just talking. I’ve even revived an old comic strip I used to co-write for a Jewish punk zine back in the 90s, Ma and Pa Shtetl, just for the newsletter. Keeping things varied ensures that different parts of your audience are finding something that is engaging to them.

I hope you find this useful for your own writing practice. I like to think of my newsletter as a set of public process notes—here is what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what I’ve discovered—toward the final manuscript. But it’s also becoming a place where other people are sharing their stories with me, and that’s helping me to find and create more context for my own. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll join us, and if you start your own newsletter, please let me know!

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Sarah Einstein teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been reprinted in the Best of the Net and awarded a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

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