Design Your Life Around Writing: An Interview with Guinevere Turner

June 2, 2023 § 1 Comment

Guinevere Turner

Tamara MC interviews Guinevere Turner

Turner is a screenwriter (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page), film director, actress, and now author of a debut memoir, When the World Didn’t End. Turner spent the first eleven years of her life (1968-1979) in n urban hippie commune with approximately a hundred adults and sixty children. Like other cults, there was an “Us versus Them” mentality, medical care was restricted, children were homeschooled, and girls were chosen to be brides by thirteen or fourteen. The group was apocalyptic and believed the world would end—members would be taken to Venus via UFO.

Like Turner, I grew up in a community with similar cultic thinking, but mine was Sufi. I sat down with Turner over Zoom and asked her craft questions.

Tamara MC: What’s the definition of a writer to you? 

Guinevere Turner: I always ask people who want to be a writer, “Have you ever written anything?” All you have to do to be a writer is write a bunch of stuff down. Ta da, you’re a writer. What do you need to do to be a good writer? Who knows. One of the many things you must do to be a successful writer, whatever success means, is never to stop. You have to know there will be times when you feel like you have nothing to say, that people are ahead of you, that people don’t understand you, or that you’re uninspired. Or blah, blah, blah. But it doesn’t matter. To be a real writer, who lives the writer’s life, is to know you’ll never quit. And that’s hard. It’s hard for me. 

TM: What does the “writer life” include or look like besides writing?

GT: I have an excuse to do anything in the name of experience. By anything, I mean engaging with other people’s work, visual and in all forms of writing, television shows, and movies. It’s all inspiration. I laugh because Proust famously locked himself in a room for 15 years to write Remembrance of Things Past and wasn’t engaging with other people’s work. He was aggressively not. And he wrote a good series of books. So, to each his own, but it’s crucial, and I wish someone had told me this when I was younger. It took me until my 40s to realize this.

TM: What’s your advice for creating a writing life? 

One, you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to design your life around writing. So you’re always writing, not saying, “Oh, maybe I’ll write today. I should put on my beret and smoke in a café.” Inspiration, as a concept, is sabotaging because we think there’s this elusive thing we can’t control. Give up on the idea of inspiration. Just always be writing. 

Two, this is the one I really wish someone had told me. Half of your job is to find your practice. My friend Don does a thing with a timer, which sounds crazy, but he writes for one hour daily. I have other friends who can only write with music on or can only write in a loud cafe full of people, which is unthinkable to me. I’m way too much of a distracted monkey. 

Figure out who you are. What does the writer need? When is she most creative? What disrupts her writing? Then build a life around the writer. Treat her like she is the moneymaker of the house. What snacks does she like? Will she feel rewarded by a hot shower? But she’s only allowed one if she writes x number of words or gets to a certain goalpost. 

Half of the writer’s life is finding your practice. Then the rest is that when you’re not writing, you’re setting up your life so that you can have everything you need when it’s time. There are no excuses, like, where’s my chair? Where’s my coffee? Where’s my pen? Treat the writer like another person. I didn’t know that. I realized I’m the best and most clear-headed in the morning before speaking with anyone and before any practical thing distracts or frustrates me. I wish someone had told me that when I was 20. I spent a good 20 adult years being all over the place, often being late on deadlines or spending half of my writing energy stressed out because my circumstances weren’t right. If you’re committed, you’re committed.

You must figure out who you are as a writer. Part of that is letting go of romanticized ideas of how writers you love wrote. I was very interested in other people’s processes, and it was fun to try them on. But you need to realize you’re unique with your unique processes.

TM: You said in your memoir that you dreamed of becoming a journalist. You were also good at spelling. Can you speak about those two things? 

GT: Spelling came naturally to me, so I focused on it. It’s a compulsive thing to be good at and to get right. But it was also easy for me. My 11-year-old self wanted to write books, like those I loved at the time, A Wrinkle in TimeLittle Women, or The Chronicles of Narnia. Then I realized that if you become president, you make little money. And it’s a tough job. I also started to realize I wanted to be on TV. That’s how I landed on journalism because you can be a writer and be forward-facing. As a teenager, journalism sounded like writing with the most integrity and the least self-indulgence. You’re doing something for and about other people. 

TM: In the opening of your memoir, you wrote about the power of writing.

GT: Writing to me is like breathing. It’s a survival tool. To paraphrase Joan Didion, We write to discover what we think. Writing brings clarity. So it’s a friend, a blanket, a compulsion. It’s therapeutic, but I’m hesitant to say that because there was a lot of trauma in writing this book. People said, “This must have been cathartic.” I don’t know. It may be, so I’ve kept an open mind. But in writing this memoir, I re-traumatized myself but with purpose. 

Writing is the one thing I’m good at, aside from crocheting. Writing isn’t even my profession. Or my art. Writing is an extension of me. But because it’s so automatic, it’s organic. It was a happy accident I was introduced to writing early on because I took to it like a fish to water. 

Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor/activist and cheerleads worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. Her Ph.D. is in Applied Linguistics, and she researches how language is used to manipulate vulnerable populations. Tamara attended Columbia University for an MFA and has been published in New York Magazine, Salon, The Independent, Food 52, Parents, and Thrillist. 

Memoir is Exploration, So Keep Yourself Open: An Interview with Abigail Thomas

April 20, 2023 § 10 Comments

Like Abigail Thomas’s previous memoirs and essay collections, Still Life At Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing, is wise, reassuring, funny, and at the very same time unsettling. Thomas manages this apparent contradiction through her signature style: passionate and unwavering honesty. Nothing is off limits, and everything is examined with eager eyes and a dash of acerbic wit.

The primary subject, as her title signals, is aging, how it feels to be turning eighty, facing diminished capabilities yet also a growing understanding of what matters in an authentic, deliberate life.

Vanity Fair hails the memoir as “irreverent, wise, and boundlessly generous,” while no less than Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) calls it “a little jewel box of a book, full of epiphanies that are comforting and merciless in the gentlest possible way.”

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore talked recently with Abigail Thomas about the new book, about the craft of memoir, and about those things “a body remembers”:

Dinty W. Moore: You said during your virtual reading this past weekend that “If your memoir ends where you thought it was going to end, you aren’t doing it right.” Can you expand a bit on what you mean?  

Abigail Thomas: Well, first of all because there are usually surprises along the way. Leave room for them. After all, the word “memoir” comes from “memory,” and memory is a fickle creature. Unreliable. Tricky.

Writing memoir may bring ways of seeing the past from an angle that changes it a bit, moments you had forgotten that show up. If you have these surprises, maybe you are thinking of avoiding them. Don’t. Because part of the deal in memoir is having to face things you’d rather not know, especially about yourself. We all have things we’ve buried, if they appear you need to dig them up and take a look at yourself from what may be an unattractive angle.

This is called progress. You are about to learn something worth knowing. Write as honestly as you can about whatever it is. Memoir doesn’t consist of stacks of neat unalterable facts, writing memoir is a fluid messy process, there are rough patches, maybe a tsunami or two, and what you are writing might take you somewhere you hadn’t imagined.  Your original ending is now unnecessary, or too neat, or somehow leaves out everything you’ve learned along the way. Because at its best, writing memoir can lead to a clarity you’ve hungered for without even knowing it. 

DWM: In Still Life at Eighty, you tell us that “a shift in the way we look at ourselves and our lives is one of the benefits of writing memoir.” Have you experienced those benefits personally? Or to put it more directly, is your life better because you chose to share it with readers, even the grief and various personal difficulties?

AT: I think most memoir writers write first of all for ourselves, not for any specific audience. We write for our own clarity. The painful admissions, the ways in which we are upset by ourselves, our actions, things we did, things we failed to do, all of that has to be honestly faced. No point in skirting the truth. Who would we be fooling? Ourselves?

So it has to all come out and get looked at honestly. If it belongs, then it goes in the book. If not, then we’ve learned something worth knowing about our role in our own lives, and in the lives of others. It’s about clarity, which really is the best gift we could give ourselves, and as it turns out, it is useful to others

DWM: That’s one of the aspects of your new book, Still Life at Eighty, that is so wonderful, the way you process lingering guilt and feelings of dread so straightforwardly, but also celebrate with us as readers how the small, wonderful moments—a lightning bug, a feather, remembering how tiny fish swim in silver schools—demand our attention as well. I’m also taken by the way you will occasionally refer to yourself in third person—  “… her body is still remembering the kinds of things her body remembers, she needs to sit down and stay still while she waits for it to forget.” Is essaying, for you, a way to “sit down and stay still,” do you write at times to put these memories to rest?

AT: The feather! What a perfect end to that moment, it appeared and disappeared at the perfect moment. I write sometimes to put the memories to rest, and sometimes to go back to them. Because there are some griefs, some longings, that the body wants to return to, despite the pain, and writing will take me there. As for dread, it happens, it needs to be honored by recording it, but I hope it never comes back.


Abigail Thomas is the author of many acclaimed memoirs, including A Three Dog Life, Safekeeping, and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock, New York, with her dogs.

Dinty W. Moore is the founder and editor of Brevity magazine and is likely out in his garden at this very moment.

Keeping It a Small World After All

April 14, 2023 § 4 Comments

The Challenges of Bringing Your Narrator into the Broadest (and Most Magical) Places on Earth

By Margaret Anne Mary Moore

It was the section of my memoir that I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive about writing—the trip to Disney World.

My rationale for including this part was clear. My debut memoir narrates my childhood experiences growing up with a physical disability, Cerebral Palsy, relying on a wheelchair, walker, and speech device, losing my father to cancer, and being raised with two brothers by a single mother who enabled my pursuit of education, athletics, and extracurricular activities. Its intended purpose is to teach others living with disabilities or adverse circumstances that they, too, can persevere and thrive in ordinary and extraordinary endeavors. The Florida trip presented opportunities to delve deeply into both the disability and single-parent family experiences.

The lead-up to our vacation was easy to align with the book’s purpose. This layered narrative discusses my mother’s desire for us to visit her brother’s family and to fulfill the dream she and my father had of giving us a childhood experience at Disney—an ambition that had to remain on the bucket list when my father’s final decline left him too sick to travel. It also details my mom’s intent for the trip to be a much-needed respite following a twelve-year period in which she was caring for a family member—my maternal grandfather, my father, then my maternal grandmother—during their lives’ final stages and how she gradually saved for and made the road trip from Connecticut as cost-efficient as possible.

A lifelong Disney fanatic, I looked forward to spending several writing sessions depicting our experiences there. Yet, as a writer mindful of creative nonfiction craft, writing about the parks concerned me. The narrative had the potential of wandering in too many directions, and its purpose would easily get lost.

Lots of narratives about people’s Disney adventures exist, I thought. What makes mine unique?

To address this, I needed to center on the physical and emotional sensations of moving with a disabled body at the parks and the accommodations enabling my narrator to go on rides.

Having a child narrator on an inaugural Disney trip, I sensed that my first priority should be to depict her excitement before turning the narrative into a discussion about accessibility. The best scene to open with seemed to be one in which my narrator passes through Magic Kingdom’s gates, buzzing with elation while looking around at the mascots greeting visitors. This part is very measured, showing just enough to convey the depth of her enthrallment.

The focus then shifts to her mother, who suggests that they first find the guest services office to pick up the accessibility pass. The disability experience claims center stage here, beginning with an explanation of how my narrator’s disability qualified her for a line cutter pass—a ticket permitting handicapped persons and their families to bypass lines at rides to avoid having medical equipment or impaired limbs collide with crowds. This segment tapers into the scene of my narrator’s first time on a ride, It’s a Small World—a boat tour past singing Audio-Animatronics figures in scenes of countries across the globe.

As the disability experience is described most deeply in this scene, it becomes the Disney narrative’s main fixture. Through embodied writing techniques, I highlight my narrator’s physical and emotional sensations and the procedures that must be followed as she embarks on the ride. Embodied writing mandates the use of granular levels of detail to illustrate the narrator’s physical, emotional, psychological, and sensory experiences. My scene gives a step-by-step narration of the process—the movements, the sensations of her body making contact with the equipment, and how her relatives guide her—that my narrator uses to rise from her wheelchair and take a seat in the boat. My prose delves into the family’s need to put an arm around her shoulders to aid her in keeping her body upright during the ride. The rest of the scene balances between describing the physical sensations encountered and her emotional reactions. This depth of description works to emphasize the distinction between the able-bodied and disability experiences—that enjoying the ride involves a process more complex than the average park visitor’s. It also shows how the narrator’s family devised a system to enable her to go on rides while balancing her physical needs.

After writing this scene, I realized the book only needed one of its kind. Had I employed this step-by-step description to depict more than one ride, my prose would become redundant, explaining the same process of leaving the wheelchair and being supported by family. To avoid this, the scene includes a line stating that this process was used for each ride.

Being a narrative about Disney, though, I couldn’t just include one ride scene. I wanted—and needed—to show what attractions enthused my narrator. To uphold the memoir’s purpose, I knew the disability theme had to remain at the center. In considering how my physical impairments affected my experience on other rides, I found a direction for my prose. Immediately following the It’s a Small World scene, I explain that, because of my narrator’s weak trunk control, rides with sudden twists, turns, and jolts were not feasible. This served as a great segue into sections on her favorite aspects of Disney World. Noting that, with the extensive offerings of rides, character meet-and-greets, and other activities, the narrator hardly noticed the restrictions affecting her ride selection, I was able to briefly describe favorite attractions and interactions with characters. The explicit disability discussion temporarily recedes but still anchors these descriptions.

The key to having a narrator navigate the broadest of places without offsetting a memoir’s purpose is simple: Focus on characteristics that distinguish their experiences from the norm. Find your Small World scene, use it as a centerpiece, and surround it with less-pertinent details to provide a comprehensive picture.

The Disney trip was the memoir section that I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive about writing. Now it is perhaps one of the book’s strongest depictions of navigating life’s extraordinary endeavors with a disability.

Margaret Anne Mary 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 Bold, Brave, and Breathless: Reveling in Childhood’s Splendiferous Glories While Facing Disability and Loss will be released in October. Margaret’s 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

Who Gets Final Say in Our Family Stories?

March 23, 2023 § 12 Comments

By Esther Aarons

My mother killed my memoir. My father helped.

I’m not angry with my father because he didn’t lead the charge. If this had happened ten years ago, we would’ve fought for days, then made peace. He’s not up to leading a charge now. He gets lost driving to the grocery store. I don’t know that I’ll ever be livid with him again. I miss it.

My family has a lore: My grandparents were Jews who fled Nazi Germany with my father and his siblings. They smuggled just enough money out to buy a small store in the American south; by the 1990s they had vastly expanded the business through hard work, business savvy, and fierce determination. It’s an inspiring story with resonance and heart, of immigrants who arrived with almost nothing and achieved the American dream.

But of course it’s complicated–isn’t everything? In my memoir I questioned how Jews who fled Nazi Germany could implement, in their store, the very Jim Crow-era mandates that Hitler and the Nazis had looked to when concocting their hateful Nuremberg laws. Our store had separate bathrooms for whites and Blacks, separate water fountains. How could we escape from oppression only to turn around and engage in oppression? What is it about human nature that permits that kind of shift? Isn’t it important to try to understand it, to fight to overcome it?

I find these questions vital. My mother thinks they needlessly and irrevocably taint the family’s upstanding and civic-minded reputation, which they worked long and hard to build.

My father insisted that if we had flouted Jim Crow laws, we couldn’t have stayed in business. I don’t doubt it. “What else could we have done?” he asked, after reading my memoir. Then he said, “I guess we could’ve settled somewhere else.”

I spent years working on the memoir and only showed it to my parents when my agent was ready to go on submission. This timing coincided with the wave of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while other officers watched. The protests were largely peaceful, but some demonstrators set fire to cars, some smashed windows. My mother believed my memoir depicted the family as racist and worried that rocks would be thrown through the windows of my parents’ house. Was I putting my family in harm’s way? I think I painted a nuanced picture; I don’t think we come across as villains. Still, we don’t exactly live in a time that prioritizes nuance.

When my parents read the memoir, they learned what I really think of the family legacy they spent their lives building and protecting. In response my mother told me all that was wrong with the book I’d spent years writing. She disapproved of how I portrayed myself, and her, and my father’s mother. She thought I aired family tensions that should stay hidden.

In response I said, “You want to know why you come across in my writing as not caring about your children? This is an example of why.” Finally we agreed not to say another word about it.

The story of my life is that I can’t figure out how much say my family should have in the story of my life.

It’s no surprise that they disapprove of my version. I’ve always seen a different story. Even as a girl, when each of my siblings seemed eager to go into the family business, I told my parents I’d never end up working there. I was drawn to the energy and excitement of the clan, but I always felt on the outskirts. I always had a different take. Now, after decades of living far from my parents and taking no role in the family business, here I am still, on the outskirts, with my own take.

What on earth made me think my parents would sanction it?

There are benefits, though, of lifelong patterns. My parents and I fight. We act cruelly. Time passes. We pretend nothing happened. We almost forget something did. Then we fight again.

I’ve set aside the memoir and started a novel based on my family’s story. But fictionalizing the story hasn’t untethered me from my parents. When I told my mother about the novel, emphasizing that she would get no advance look because it’s a novel, she sent me this text: “When writing your work of fiction, please be sure to honor your grandparents and parents. We love you very much.” She doesn’t care if it’s made up; she worries readers will believe it. In my mind she’s reading over my shoulder as I type, whispering in my ear when she believes something reflects badly on the family.  It’s impossible to write this way. So I’ve created an alter ego: Esther Aarons. She’s the author of my novel, just as she’s the author of this essay. I love having her. I can’t write about the issues that consume me without getting tangled up in whether I’m upsetting someone. But Esther can. Nobody’s ever heard of Esther; nobody sends her undermining texts. Esther is entirely free.


Esther Aarons is a pseudonym.

The Lyric Essay as Resistance: An Interview with Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

March 22, 2023 § 3 Comments

By Laura Laing

The lyric essay is not new, but 25 years after Deborah Tall and John D’Agata gave it a name, the form is being anthologized and has earned a place within the literary academy. Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold’s The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins (Wayne State University Press) collects lyric essays that not only resist form and content but also our expectations of the world at large. In this Q&A, essayist Laura Laing talks with Bossiere and Trabold about their book, as well as the state and future of the lyric essay.

Laura Laing: Why lyric essay?

Erica Trabold: Well, there’s the academic answer, and there’s the personal answer, right? For me, lyric essay, because it’s what I know best. Zoe and I both studied creative nonfiction in undergrad. It always felt like this same conversation over and over. But it always gets stopped at that gatekeeper question, “What is the lyric essay?” We had a lot of favorite lyric essay writers that weren’t always represented on those reading lists. There’s space for many [lyric essay anthologies] to exist, and we figured we needed to contribute.

Zoë Bossiere: I wanted to show students the range of what the lyric essay could do. The anthologies that I was choosing for the class would include a couple of examples of lyric essays. And they’re very good. But sometimes, when students are exposed to only that very small fraction of what’s out there, they begin to think, “So this is what a lyric essay is and this is what it can do. And that’s it.” They come away with a very narrow definition of what the lyric essay is. We wanted to completely turn that upside down with a book that includes lyric essays that do things that essays shouldn’t be able to do or that resist even the idea of narrative. It was really exciting to put this together with all of that in mind.

ET: It was even fun thinking about how we would order them. How could we arrange it in a way where just when you think that you’ve figured out what a lyric essay is, the next essay will completely turn that on its head and be a total zag away from whatever definition you’ve formed? We didn’t want to try to nail down anything to do with definitions. It was just to offer the widest range possible.

LL: I’ve been thinking a lot about essay as the larger umbrella term. Essay is kind of the kid in the family who doesn’t want to fit in or behave. If you agree with that notion of what an essay is, where does the lyric essay fit in with that?

ZB: Essays often break things within a structure, so there’s this surprising but inevitable break that happens in a lot of idea-based essays. A hermit crab is going to escape or transcend the form in some way. Or in a braided essay, at some point the braid is going to come undone. And that’s maybe a genre expectation of essay and for each different form. But what I love about the lyric essay is that it has this genuine surprise. Anything could happen. Because each one is making itself. If you read a lyric essay, you read exactly one lyric essay. And [that essay] doesn’t tell you something about the next one you’re going to read. So I would say, it’s the most essayistic essay possible.

ET: Yeah, well, I think that’s right. It’s the most essayistic essay. I just always fall back on the idea of [the lyric essay] being this this quality of poetic sensemaking that essays at large may or may not have to do in the same way. Breaking something is very necessary.

LL: That brings me to the next very big question: why now? Why has the lyric essay become its own space?

ZB: We talked about this in the introduction, how there are examples of what we might call the lyric essay throughout history. It’s just that they weren’t called the lyric essay. And I think a big reason for that is because the lyric essay wasn’t seen by the center. The lyric essay has become begrudgingly and sort of uncomfortably accepted by the academy. And certainly more and more teachers are utilizing it in the creative writing classroom. So it’s being studied in a way that it wasn’t before.

ET: I think that shifting from the margins to the center is exactly right. But I would even broaden it and backup a little too, because that’s the whole story with the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s only relatively recently been a genre that you can study, right? That’s where Zoe and I really started. The seed of this idea was talking about how we were maybe one of the first generations of students who actually came up in the academy where creative nonfiction was already an existing track that you could study. Lyric essay is a narrowing down of that margins-to-center idea, all the way back to the larger genre conversation as well, which I think most creative nonfiction writers can understand and empathize with to some degree.

ZB: Oh, yeah. And what’s really fascinating about the lyric essay, like within that entire structure, is that even though like, you know, we are seeing it in center spaces, it still doesn’t fit there quite neatly. The essays that are included in the anthology, are all examples of essays that don’t I think exist within the academy in this readily accessible way to the center.

LL: That makes me wonder: What happens if the lyric essay is widely accepted by the center or is no longer in the margins?

ET: I don’t think you have to, as a lyric essayist, find yourself in the center in order to find readers or people who appreciate your work or can recognize some aspect of themselves in it. The important idea we took away from bell hooks was that it’s vital to maintain the perspective of the margins. Because that’s not something—if you’ve always existed at the center—you can accumulate. But it’s something that is vital to hold on to, because although your circumstances may change to a certain degree, you’re not like a different person. And those perspectives and those stories can only be told by you.

ZB: And to be accepted by the center is not necessarily to be of the center. The center has its own aims, and it wants to hear from certain marginalized perspectives for its own reasons, and those are sometimes icky reasons. Maintaining that tie to the margins is really important. Because if you don’t, it’s really lonely. If there isn’t a book like the one that you need, you get together with writers that you really love and admire and you put one together. That was the project of this anthology, to create something that we wished that we had had when we were students ourselves and when we were first starting to teach.

ET: I don’t think that anyone but Danielle Geller could write “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary.” I have trouble with even thinking about another person with a different way of looking at the world and different experiences could even work within a similar form.

LL: Let’s talk about the whole idea of resistance. To me, the lyric essay feels like a double whammy. It’s not just the form as resistance, but it is the content as resistance.

ET: I think the third dimension is that it resists something in the real world about our expectations. [“The Dry Season” by Melissa Febos] does all those things, right? It resists any type of chronology or linear structure that that you could invent. It’s chaos. It also, in the real world, resists sex, right? She’s celibate. That’s the project for a year, which is radical. And it’s also resisting some assumptions even that we would have about the lyric essay, because it’s doing some funky things with research and movies. When you try to describe all the things that [these essays] are about, and that they do, it just almost always sounds like it shouldn’t work.

ZB: Yeah, it’s the kind of trifecta of resistance.

Zoë Bossiere is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). Her coming-of-age memoir, Cactus Country, will be published by Abrams Books in 2024.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, which won the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize in 2018. She is an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College.

Laura Laing’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, and Consequence. She is currently writing a hybrid memoir that blends lyric memoir passages with abstract mathematics.

The Season Finale—What if Your Memoir is Anticlimactic? 

March 3, 2023 § 29 Comments

Joelle Fraser and her mother in Reno

By Joelle Fraser

Will it ever end, I mutter each morning as I venture onto the icy porch, boots crunching and breath billowing. In the black elm above, doves hover while I scatter seeds in the frozen feeder. It’s been an especially wet, cold winter in Reno. A chill has settled into my bones and my back aches from shoveling a crushing kind of snow we call “Sierra cement.” In the house, my cabin-fevered cats perch at the window, hunched and surly. 

But soon enough, spring will come, with all its light and warmth.

What doesn’t seem to have an end is my book-in-progress.

NO ONE CAN FIND YOU: a Daughter’s Memoir, is about my hopes and fears for my elderly parents, who live dangerously off the grid and scrape by from one social security check to the next. For the past decade they’ve lived in a tiny, isolated mountain cabin, hauling up water, stoking the wood stove in bone-chilling cold and washing with vinegar. The punishing rough road batters their decades-old truck, so they rarely travel the 5-hour round trip to town, even though my 81-year-old mother has constant UTI issues and has lost all but five of her teeth.

The Cabin

Our pleas for them to move into affordable senior housing, growing more strident by the year, are ever-kindly brushed off.

When there’s no certain end, we imagine the worst: a wildfire, food poisoning, a bad fall or hungry cougar, a rattlesnake under the outhouse.

None of these horrors are how I want their lives—or my memoir—to end. Yet the best outcome is the most anti-climactic: before next winter, they finally agree to move to town. All that fuss and fear for nothing?

The other possibility is they choose to stay, perhaps for years longer.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to move onto another book, but their story has become tied with mine. Every day I get texts from my mother: …Making biscuits but have no eggs …. How are you doing dear daughter? My feet are freezing this morning.  For years, each morning I check the forecast and picture their day: Is it too windy for a walk? Are they melting snow for dishwater?

One way or another, I will write this story, our story.

But how do you write a boring, predictable ending—or one that simply drags on and on?

For writers in this fix, here are some options I’ve considered:

1. Purge my fears by making it fictional, as a cautionary tale. Add a character or two (a crooked sheriff? A sinister neighbor?). Tell it, perhaps, from another POV, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

The problem with this option is that although fiction is appealing, I’m just not very good at it. Besides, veiling the truth in an outsized narrative seems like a deceptively easy way out for me. The real story of my parents and me would linger, like those birds hovering in the trees, waiting for resolution.

2. Write it now as a long essay, despite the messy limbo.

3. Finish the book now, again despite the messy limbo.

4. Wait for the ending, whatever it is, whenever it is, and write it in all its truth.

The second and third options would mean ending in medias res. This would likely frustrate not just me but my readers, who expect something to happen and want to see how the author gets herself through that “something.” As literary agent Estelle Laure explains, a great memoir ending is one that gives the reader both a feeling of completion and hope.

So I need to see the story through before I can discover, and share with the reader, the meaning I crave. If I wrote it now, I would only be pretending to be at peace with the situation.

For now, I have chosen the final option.

Hopefully my parents will go to town sooner than later, and live with some comfort in their remaining years. We can visit the land, I tell her often. I’ll take you there. It won’t be goodbye forever.

There would still be tension in that dramatic transition, after all—one we must face in one way or another, for our loved ones and one day for ourselves: a letting go and making peace with life’s season finale, whatever it may be.


Joelle Fraser is a MacDowell Fellow and the author of two memoirs: The Territory of Men (Random House 2002) and The Forest House: a Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss, and Starting Over (Counterpoint 2013). Joelle received her MFA from the University of Iowa, and her award-winning work has appeared in many journals, including Crazyhorse, Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review, and was recognized in Best American Essays by Christopher Hitchens (2010). She is also a teacher and editor whose clients have placed work in numerous publications, including the NYT‘s Modern Love column, The Sun, and Hippocampus Magazine.

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 § 18 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.


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!

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. 

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

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