On Visuals in Creative Nonfiction

April 17, 2019 § 24 Comments

Hanel_author photo_1_3x4

Rachael Hanel

By Rachael Hanel

One question I often ponder as I read creative nonfiction: Why don’t more books include visuals?

I’m a big fan of the ones that do, such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich, and Memory of Trees by Gayla Marty. I’m not talking about full-on graphic nonfiction, such as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or March by John Lewis. I’m talking about primarily text-based books that use visuals to enhance and supplement the story.

My memoir includes a photograph to start each chapter. I was inspired by The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, where photos at the beginning of each chapter add to the book’s evocative mood. As I was writing my memoir, I had clear images in my head of family photos I had looked at for years, which had sparked my imagination about my family. I wanted my readers to experience a spark of imagination as well.

I had always heard that it’s expensive for publishers to include photos in books, so that’s why it’s not often done. When I sat down with my editor as we talked about getting the book ready for publication, I was shy in asking about the inclusion of photos. I wanted the photos so badly; I was afraid he’d turn me down. Much to my surprise, he said: “No problem. Sounds great. Let’s do it.” He said as long as photos are black and white and printed on the same page stock as the rest of the book, there’s no added cost.

I primarily teach media writing classes at my university job, but on occasion I also teach multimedia and design classes. In my first career as a newspaper reporter, I was taught to think visually—what photos or illustrations can pair with news stories? Can a portion of the text be better expressed through a photo or infographic? Twenty years later, that thought process still guides my work, and I often require my students to include multimedia alongside their written assignments.

When I read nonfiction and visuals aren’t provided, I find myself doing Internet searches for photos. I’m sure I’m not the only one. These people are real, and I want to know what they looked like. Susan Orlean’s description of John Laroche is one of the most perfect descriptions ever written: “John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.”

Her description only provoked curiosity—I just had to find out what this strange-looking man really looked like.

In fiction, I don’t want illustrations. The point of making up people and places is to be imaginative, and part of the fun for me is to take a written description and try to imagine it for myself. I don’t want illustrations in Lord of the Rings or Pillars of the Earth. That’s also why I want to read a book before seeing the movie—the visuals of the movie will ruin my imagination.

But if people and places are real, readers don’t have to invent them for themselves. So why not be provided visual evidence of the real thing?

Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She’s working on a narrative biography of Camilla Hall, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who was killed by Los Angeles police in May 1974. Find her on Twitter at @Rachael18 or Instagram at @rachael_hanel.

Just After Yes: The First Book Deal

April 5, 2019 § 39 Comments

sandramillerBy Sandra A. Miller

Your wish of four long years is granted in a blink. You just got a “Yes!” A book deal for your memoir. “Congratulations!” your friends at work enthuse, trying to shake you from the stupor of the news, that, just one-hour old, still doesn’t feel real.

Later that night in your warm, messy kitchen, the pop of the champagne cork punctures the not-quite numbness, more like disbelief, and a tiny bit of uh-oh.

You aren’t a narcissist. You know the world is bigger than your book, your life of searching for treasure with the hope of filling that ache inside, the hollow place in your heart that you’ve been pressing on since that day you were five and had to send a piece of yourself away for protection. The memory of that girl, all pigtails and longing, is as clear as the crystal champagne glasses that your husband is setting on the counter, cluttered with bills and pens and a coffee mug that your daughter painted for you—the quiet, lovely ordinariness of life.

But this moment doesn’t feel ordinary. Something has changed. Until today the full story of searching for your heart has been private, except for essays, small ones, easy to hide, to dismiss. A book, rather less so.

Your colleague Maureen, also a memoirist, says it’s the pride taboo, and I’m not good enough. And what will people think of me? Earlier that day, you huddled in her office, two Catholic girls in their 50s, talking through their shame about sharing intimate secrets. It’s okay you assured each other over salad and chocolate bars. “We asked for this. We wanted this.”

As a girl you huddled in the back of your dark closet writing stories in a pink diary with a flimsy silver lock. Still you kept those stories safe. Soon you’ll be sharing them with anyone who wants to hit the buy button. And all of those anyones will be able to access that diary full of longing, a yearning so alive it flows off the page, like the geyser of champagne that your husband, scrambling for a dishtowel, tries to catch in one of the crystal glasses.

Your husband. Have you been fair to him in this narrativized version of your marriage? And is he up for the exposure? You wanted to tell the story of a middle age woman looking for hidden treasure, both real and metaphorical. It’s a conversation about marriage that you’ve been trying to conduct for years, and now you have been handed a baton of sorts. This privilege of yes means the chance to be visible, to step in into the light. The funny thing is, you rather like the shadows.

Only yesterday you were asking who will ever publish this? Today you are asking, when this is published who will see me? And will it even matter? Will your first boyfriend read it and learn of your indifference? Will the married man? Your children who are both nearly adults but very much okay with a limited knowledge of their parents’ private life. You hope so. You hope not. You want to sell a billion copies as much as you want to crawl back into the safety of your closet, that smelled of cedar and mothballs, and find that pink diary and burn it.

You think of your parents, both deceased. Your mother’s closest friends have either passed or are in their final years, so you’re almost safe there. Except for Peg, nearing 90 and still sharp; you call each other now and then. “I miss your mother every day,” Peg always says, her voice a raspy cackle, reminding you that there are people who never knew the back side of your mother’s hilarity, the detailed affronts that drive your story.

Your husband hands you a cool flute of champagne, and you both pause. How many times have you envisioned this moment? No less than 100, you guess. And here it is, almost ironic. The two of you toasting to a book, one that opens your marriage to scrutiny. But you make yourself hold still and try to savor the complexity of this writing wish coming true.

Then you look at your husband, beaming pride, and think of all the moments your readers will never see, like this one, when he lifts your chin to meet his eyes, and puts his mouth close to your ear and whispers, “You did it.”

You smile at him and nod. You hear the thin clink of crystal. When you sip, the bubbles rise inside you, a counterpoint to the heaviness of this uninvited worry. And for the first time, you realize something: that this pale gold dream coming true is complicated, like your story. But it’s also just another part of that story, a good part, one in which you are vulnerable, grateful, joyful, terrified, and maybe even a little bit brave.

Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure is available for pre-order from Brown Paper Press and Amazon.


On the Value of Women’s Memoir: A Response to Alexandra Fuller’s “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.”

February 27, 2019 § 25 Comments

By Zoë Bossiere

zamanEarlier this month in the New York Times Book Review section, writer Alexandra Fuller took three recent memoirs to task, including Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, and Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in one brief but cutting review.

Fuller begins her article with the blithe suggestion that Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston should seek counseling, writing, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.” She then goes on to enumerate the ways each of these writers’ books is “poorly conceived,” dubbing the works both “special-interest” and “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape.” At one point Fuller even uses the tired phrase “navel-gazing” in reference to Zaman’s memoir, a book about the devastating effects of silence on women’s safety and well being, which Fuller deems too narrow in scope to truly “inspire the reader.” According to Fuller, what distinguishes a “good” memoir from a “bad” one is the ability to “reach beyond itself,” though how this should be accomplished is limited to comparing these works unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s classic and perennial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Fuller’s is an argument nonfiction writers have heard many times before—writing about the self has been subject to this kind of withering scrutiny since the days of Michel de Montaigne, who famously prefaced his work with a warning to the reader that it “would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject” as a book entirely about him. No, not even the great-grandfather of the nonfiction essay was immune to this variety of criticism, and not much has changed since the 16th century in that respect. There will always be readers to whom the memoir does not appeal, and that’s okay; no book can be all things to all people. Still, it’s always shocking when the condemnation of the genre comes from one of our own, especially from a memoirist as widely celebrated in the writing community as Alexandra Fuller.

shalmiyevAs a teacher of creative nonfiction workshops, I am constantly reminding students—and particularly the young women in my class—that their writing has intrinsic value. Many of the stories my students choose to share from their lives are intensely personal. They write about surviving sexual assault, losing family members, struggling with addiction, living in the United States as the child of immigrants, as a person of color. I encourage them to write toward the truth they’d most like to tell, toward the audience they’d most like to pick up their future book, without concerning themselves with what good writing is “supposed” to do.

Contrary to what Fuller says, nonfiction, and especially memoir, does not have to “be inspiring” or “reach beyond itself” to any great or meaningful extent. In fact, many wildly successful books don’t—think heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of whom has written not one but ten plodding autobiographical novels to warm commercial reception. Both of these writers tackle almost exclusively personal subjects, detailing the minutiae of their lives in a way that might be labeled “confessional” if they were women. The only real difference I can see between their books and the memoirs Fuller mentions is that Sedaris and Knausgaard are men.

Writer and feminist Adrienne Rich put it best when she wrote how “women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which values only male experience.” This sentiment is still demonstrably alive and well in the writing world today. Readers seem to have a great deal more patience for male writers, whose work is far more likely to be published than women’s, according to the latest VIDA Count, despite men being outnumbered by women in MFA programs across artistic disciplines. Male writers are also more likely to receive free publicity for their work in the form of book reviews, interviews, and other opportunities.

houstonI don’t claim to know how Fuller personally feels about writers like Sedaris or Knausgaard, but I can’t help but question her choice to negatively review Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s memoirs as “navel gazing” books with little substance—even if she personally didn’t care for the work. Because, in doing so, articles like Fuller’s quietly perpetuate the sexism already lurking in the writing world.

By this, I don’t mean to imply that a woman cannot be in any way critical of another woman’s work. As writers, critique is the air we breathe—a welcome and necessary component of the writing process. But to broadly lambaste the memoir genre using three recent examples by women—and from a position of privilege and power as a book reviewer for The New York Times—is difficult to justify under the umbrella of constructive criticism, especially when one considers the subtext of some of Fuller’s statements:

To write that a memoir is “poorly conceived” suggests that the writer should have written her book differently in order to better fit what “good” or “successful” writing is supposed to look like. To write that a published, otherwise well-received memoir is not a “successful” book is to imply it is not worth reading. To imply that a memoir is not worth reading is to dismiss the value of the story it tells. To dismiss the value of this story is to dismiss the woman telling it.

There are so many women writers who look up to Fuller and aspire to her level of craft, myself included. As an established memoirist and a woman, herself, Fuller should know her words have the power to silence those in earlier, less confident stages of their careers.

In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that silence, once imposed, is a highly effective weapon. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.” In a political climate where women, people of color, and queer-identifying writers are in very real danger of losing basic rights and freedoms, we need to make places for these stories, perhaps now more than ever before.

Because when Fuller writes that these memoirs are “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape,” her words imply they do not have a place on our society’s figurative bookshelf. That they are neither casual enough for light leisure reading, nor analytical enough for its heavier, high-brow counterpart. But memoir does not exist solely within the binary of guilty pleasure and intellectual rigor. There is room within the genre for stories that exist between, even outside of this spectrum. Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s books each bear witness to the interiority of the human condition. Their voices are unique to their experiences, and contribute to our collective understanding of our world. That should be enough.

In one final strange twist of irony, Fuller quotes Maya Angelou in her review, writing: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It would seem Fuller has neglected to heed, as it were, her own advice. The memoir is not going anywhere, and the writing world is harsh enough as it is. As women, we have a responsibility to hold each other up throughout our careers, and not to pull the proverbial ladder of opportunity up behind us. We have a responsibility to value each other’s stories, even when others don’t. And this is what I most want my students to take with them as the writers of tomorrow.

**The essays quoted above include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” by Adrienne Rich and “A Short History of Silence” from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit.

Zoë Bossiere
is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She also serves as Brevity’s Managing Editor. Find more on her website at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere

Facing the Post-Publication Fear: Will I Be Able to Do This Again?

February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments

thresholdBy L. Roger Owens

Opening the box of ten free author copies, then holding the book, feeling the weight of its 70,000 words, of it 186 pages, being surprised by my name on the front cover, which I knew would be there, and by my photograph on the back, which I didn’t—it all feels like a miracle. Where did you come from?

The sense of the miraculous deepens as I reread words I wrote. I know these words slid out of my mind, down my arm, and slipped from the tip of my pen onto the page. But I don’t remember how the words got into my mind—this turn of phrase, this rambling sentence, this metaphor—even though the name on the cover should be proof enough that I conjured them.

That is, I feel alienated from the spiritual memoir I wrote. I struggle to imagine how it came to be, which invites a sense of dread: If I can’t conceive how it is that I wrote this book, then isn’t it possible that I won’t be able to write another?

If its birth was a miracle, what guarantees it can happen again?

In the face of this fear, there’s only one choice—attend to reality, force myself to recall some of the signposts on the journey from idea to book, signposts that remind me it wasn’t just a felicitous conjoining of miracle and serendipity that produced this book. Agency and intention were at work as well—mine.

I let an idea stick. That was a choice. I have lots of ideas, and they flutter away as fast as they appear. But I let this idea stick. I wrote it down the evening I had it. I explored it the next day in my morning pages. I turned the seed of an idea into sentences and paragraphs and pages. These were acts over which I had some control. Certainly, I can again let an idea with energy linger, show it some hospitality, nurture it.

That part wasn’t luck.

I sent up test balloons. When the book arrives in a box on your doorstep, it gives the impression it simply appeared fully formed, Athena from Zeus’s head. But my investigation of reality tells me that’s not true. I wrote shorter pieces along the way. I let other people read them (I received invaluable feedback from a group of writers at the Collegeville Institute). I submitted a portion of the book as an essay to the journal Rock & Sling, which published it. In each case, these test balloons were greeted with encouraging feedback that helped me improve the writing and beckoned me to keep at it.

Holding portions of the work to the light of day wasn’t a fluke. It’s something I can do again.

I continued to hone my craft. I didn’t begin the book knowing how to write it. I’d never written a book like this before. The form was new to me—forty short chapters, each a kind of personal essay, but which together needed to maintain a narrative arc. I had much to learn. So I took an online course through the journal Creative Nonfiction called “Spiritual Writing” while I was midway through badlands of writing the book. The assigned readings inspired and challenged me (Could I attempt the kind of density of description characteristic of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work? I wondered). The feedback from the instructor showed me that I needed to prioritize the reader’s experience and taught me how.

It eases my mind to know that, when I begin my next project, I don’t need to have it figured out before I start. I can learn as I go.

I kept my hand moving. This is what I learned from Natalie Goldberg in the first creative writing course I took twenty-one years ago, her most important rule for writing—keep the hand moving. From my first notes, scribbled in orange ink in a Moleskin journal on November 27, 2015—“But I had another good idea today …”—to final revisions sent to my editor three years later, I kept the tip of the pen scratching across the page. That was the only way those 70,000 words showed up (along with the 10,000 that didn’t make the cut).

If I was the one moving the pen, then it can happen again.

Other ingredients went into creating the book as well: chats with my wife and children, feedback from friends, a sanity-saving conversation with my English professor brother as I despaired over editorial changes.

Along with, no doubt, a dash of miracle and a pinch of luck.

But mostly choices I made and can make again—like getting my butt in a chair, a pen in my hand, and words on a page.

Roger Owens is the author of the spiritual memoir Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife, along with three other books. He teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Dipping My Mother’s Hair in Ink: On Later Doubts About Memoir

February 6, 2019 § 22 Comments

zz-brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

The boy who sat behind my mother in primary school dipped the tip of her braid into the inkwell carved into his desk, turned her hair into a brush slashing calligraphy across the back of her shirt, marking her with his intent. My grandmother told her to be flattered, said it meant he liked her, but did my grandmother worry about this boy, this ink, his intent? Did she scrub and scrub at her daughter’s shirt, hoping it would come clean? Did it ever come clean? Did the ink wash out of my mother’s hair, dark swirls of it disappearing down the drain, or did it seep deeply into each shaft, dyeing it until her mother trimmed off the ends, littering the floor with the intent of that boy? And where is it all now, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy, in what landfill, what house, what dust molecule? Have I breathed in flecks of it, that shirt, that hair, that ink, that boy?

The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, the memoir I wrote about my mother, her delusion, her suicide, was the most necessary book I’ve ever written; as hard as it was to write, I desperately had to get it out of my body, get it onto the page, start to find shape for the mess of my grief. Writing it helped me find compassion for my mom, helped me feel closer to her than I had in years, if ever. It helped me feel much clearer inside myself, more whole. Still, when it was published in late 2017 and interviewers asked how my mother would have felt about the book being in the world, shame crept over me, and I started to wonder: had I done the same thing as that boy? Had I dipped my mother’s hair in ink, too, used her as an unwitting pen? Was I as complicit as that boy, doing something without her consent, taking what was hers and making it my own? Were my hands irrevocably stained?

Trusting the urgency of the creative process is one thing; holding on to that trust after publication is another. While the book was received with overwhelmingly open arms and led to breathtakingly profound conversations, I also received Tweets like “Shame on you” after an excerpt was published, and “If I was your mother, I would kill myself, too.” Of course I am not alone in such trolling—it is sadly part and parcel of being a writer in the world these days, especially a woman writer—and I’ve received very little compared to many writers I know, but those Tweets got under my skin, fed the doubts and guilt already bubbling and growing inside me like a yeast. What had I done to my mother? Was I that boy, that ink?

The question of how my mother would have felt about my memoir came up again at a university reading last year, and the same shame started to re-percolate in my gut. Then my gracious host said he sensed my mom would have loved seeing her face on the cover of my book, and I realized, yes, that’s true—my mother always wanted to be the center of attention; she would likely be thrilled to see herself on the cover of a book. Something relaxed in me at this revelation. And I trust that at her best, truest self, my mother would understand I wrote this book from a place of love, from a sincere desire to fathom her, to connect. I may have started writing my memoir with a lot of anger and confusion, but every single word ultimately became a love letter. If I’ve plunged my mom’s hair into ink, I’ve also written her more deeply into my heart, tattooed her there, her presence now refreshed, indelible.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com


Anatomy of a Book Deal

January 11, 2019 § 58 Comments

sandramillerBy Sandra A. Miller

It’s the thing you most need to write, so for years that’s what you do, between teaching jobs and magazine gigs, between kids’ soccer games and the holiday dinners where you sit with the restlessness of the story wanting to be told, most inconveniently when your family expects your presence, but all you can do is wonder if the homemade gravy was worth the hours away from words.

You write and rewrite through the seasons, until autumn circles around again, and you find yourself making a familiar wish on your lovely white cream birthday cake: to finish your memoir and find an editor who takes it.

At last, one autumn day it’s done, and you send out queries, and when the email arrives like a Christmas miracle, your family dances you around the kitchen in the fading winter light. There’s a phone call and a contract and a trip to NYC where you sit across from your spunky agent in a Union Square diner on a custom-made spring day, and between bites of a salad, you whisper your thanks to the literary goddesses.

You go back to Boston and rewrite again, this time with—that magic word—representation. Then the agent sends it out, and you cross your fingers and look for signs—pennies, trinkets, stones, and fortunes—that the publishing world will soon shout yes.

Random House says, “It’s wonderfully written, earnest, humorous, and endearing. The problem is the author’s small platform.”

And Viking says, “I’m sorry not to be able to take it forward at this stage. She’s a compelling writer and something about the voice is quite good.”

And with every “almost, but…no” comes a pain as real as a punch to the gut, one that radiates to the heart, the head, the limbs. But then you recover and dive back in and tweak again and wish again and send again, until your birthday comes around again and your favorite cake tastes less like Chantilly cream and more like longing. You are starting to feel like you are made of longing.

Your writer friends throw lifelines, doing for you what you have done for them, reading and editing, praising, cheering. And you toast to their book deals with a bittersweet joy, wondering if your turn will come. At night in bed you count the years like mistakes. In the morning you scan LinkedIn for a job—any job—that’s not baring your soul into a void.

But then Cynthia says, “It’s no. It’s no. It’s no. Until it’s yes.”

And Erica says, “It took me 27 fucking years!”

And your husband says, “I believe in you,” which makes you cry because you are struggling to believe in yourself.

You are afraid to doubt. You are afraid to hope. And you’re afraid not to hope because the universe can hear the tick of your uncertainty. You plant a crystal in the dirt outside of the Flatiron building, but when nothing grows, you call Lisa in despair. “Trust that your book is strong enough to make the journey,” she says. But it’s your birthday again and the journey has worn you down, and you don’t really want the cake that your husband carries to you, as if cradling your pain.

Another Christmas. Another New Year’s. Spring flashes past, then it’s summer again, you rewrite again, and Graywolf says you have a great eye and a strong, resonant story, but it’s not a bulls-eye for our list.

And that’s when you quit.

You quit the agent. You quit the pain. You quit pretending that you can wait anymore for one of the cool kids to want you. So you shut your eyes and sail your words off to a place across the country where you feel like they might be heard.

An hour later the editor calls and wants more. Two hours later, she wants a phone call. And the next day, you talk to her, the editor you’ve been waiting for. But she’s only read half, so you have to wait. Five days later the email comes. “No, but almost…” She wants it shorter. She wants less thru lines.

You whet your knife and cut 100 pages, take it right down to a sharply focused story about a girl so full of longing that she spends her life on a search for treasure.

You send it back, this tiny gem that you’ve been shaping and polishing for years. You wait. Then one sunny December day you have a phone call. When you hang up, tears are streaking your face, and your heart is just a big, beautiful ache of gratitude.

Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove will be published by Brown Paper Press in the fall of 2019.







On Radical Love and How to Be Alone

January 9, 2019 § 10 Comments

aloneby Zach Shultz

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, something within me exploded. One minute I was cooking dinner, and the next I was hunched over the couch and dialing my psychiatrist to explain through unintelligible sobs, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Despite countless therapy sessions to help cope with the pain of estrangement from my parents—whose unrelenting homophobia over the years has strained our relationship beyond repair—whenever the holidays approach a familiar feeling of unshakeable loneliness creeps up. There is no shortage of seasonal triggers: Christmas music on loop in every store; the aroma of freshly cut pine wafting in the wind from trees languishing on sidewalks like forgotten kids at daycare; the persistent questions from well-intentioned coworkers, such as “What are your plans?” followed by disingenuous invitations to tag along in their Hallmark family moment.

I had reason to hope things might be different this year. After three years of dating a semi-closeted man, he invited me to his family’s gathering for the first time. We would finally be together as a couple, openly, and I’d never spend the holidays alone again—or so I thought. On Thanksgiving Day, however, my ex called to let me know it was too much for him; he “needed space” and told me to “do my own thing.” Breathless from the gut punch of news, I chased down a Klonopin with a glass of wine, waited for the wave of numbness to wash over me, and sent a resolute text in reply. “Goodbye.”

zach shutlzWeeks later, still reeling in the post-breakup melancholia, I told myself: Enough. Instead of rushing home to mope after work, I schlepped down to Brooklyn for a monthly reading series in a charming bookstore underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I had come to hear Garrard Conley share an excerpt from his conversion therapy memoir but stayed for the surprise delight of Lane Moore reading “Happy Holidays to Everyone But You, You Lonely Weirdo,” from her collection of essays How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t

In a creative nonfiction course I once took, the teacher told us that the goal of good writing should be to make the reader “tingle with recognition.” If that’s the case, How To Be Alone is like watching the most stimulating ASMR video on YouTube. When Moore writes, “It takes, in no uncertain terms, bravery to admit to yourself, but especially out loud to other people, that your family is not safe, did not do enough, and are not people you want in your life,” a powerful sensation trickled from the back of my hippocampus down my spine.

Moore possesses an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly from bits of self-effacing humor— “Even when I was ten, I was easily forty in trauma years”—to heart wrenching prose that exposes the painful depths of desire, the desire to belong, to be held, to be loved. “I’ve spent so many of my relationships being terrified the person I love will hurt me,” she writes of meeting someone new, “worrying if I love more, or feel more, and what that means if it’s true.” This worry of wanting “too much” is traced throughout her life, from the betrayal of a best friend in high school to a series of failed romances in adulthood.

Like Moore, if I’ve gleaned any lesson from my traumas, past and present, it’s that the people you love most in your life will inevitably disappoint you. That seems like a shitty takeaway, a fact of life we shouldn’t be forced to accept. And yet, Moore lands on something more unexpected and transcendental in the end of How To Be Alone: radical love for yourself and others. “So be the idiot who cares too much,” she urges. “Because someone will remember you forever. In the way that I remember everyone who has ever been kind to me.”

After the reading, with a newly purchased copy of her book in hand, I went up and said, “I wasn’t expecting to hear any of the things you just read out loud tonight, but I’m so glad I did. That’s me!” She was open and generous, chatting with me for a few minutes about how difficult it is for those who don’t come from a broken home to understand what it’s like. She signed my book in messy, elongated lettering, the kind you might find on a note passed to your friend in middle school. “I’m so glad you don’t talk to your dumb family,” she wrote.

“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!” I beamed, and we both laughed in that knowing, self-deprecating way that only true orphan souls would understand. And for the first time in a very long time I felt happy, if even for a brief moment, and a little less alone.

Zach Shultz is a law school administrator in New York City and freelance writer and blogger. He has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, INTO Magazine, and the Gay and Lesbian Review, and has essays forthcoming in The Rumpus and Entropy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.

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