July 30, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Susan Barr-Toman
Four years ago, I attended an author event for Martha Cooley’s Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. At the time I was stuck. I was a novelist, who couldn’t make stuff up anymore. Years before I’d studied fiction in grad school and had workshopped with Cooley. Back then, I was adamant about being a fiction writer, who did not rely on autobiographical material to create, having no interest in writing about my life.
At the reading, Cooley spoke how she’d lost eight friends in a decade. Her elderly mother had been in ill health back in the States, while she was in Italy working on translations with her husband Antonio Romani and trying to make progress on a novel. But her loss would not be ignored, and she began journaling. Her novel languished in the corner as essays came forth demanding her attention.
I caught up with Cooley afterwards and told her I found myself in a similar situation – my novel writing having halted and only essays arriving. She told me to write what was coming for me now. The novel will wait, she assured me. “Write those essays!”
I remember the novelist Elizabeth McCracken coming to give a talk at Temple University in 2008. For the first time she had written a memoir. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is about her two pregnancies: the first stillborn and a year later a healthy child. She said she never thought she’d write nonfiction, but then she didn’t have anything to write about. Until she did.
I remember thinking, I hope I never have anything to write about.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. In 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2015.
For each of us it seemed our grief demanded its due. If I ignored my loss and failed to listen in order to force myself to work on fiction, I would dig myself deep into a writer’s block. To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page. For the time being, my husband was my muse. Nonfiction was my medium.
I followed Cooley’s advice and stopped beating myself up about the novels. Of course, a part of me knew this is what had to happen, but I needed to hear it from someone else. A former professor’s permission helped me to accept my move to nonfiction. But even after that, I assumed I was meant to write a book length memoir about my life with my husband, about his illness and death. Still, those essays kept coming.
Finally, I realized that I had been putting my story down all along, and that it wouldn’t be a memoir, but a collection of essays. Flash essays to be precise. They operate as the perfect vehicle for my experience of grief. They come upon me unexpectedly and hit quick and deep with a lasting ache.
I recognized that my life and my experiences would shape what I created. Limiting my idea of who I was as a writer limited my writing. Once again, I learned the lesson that letting go of what I thought my life would be and who I thought I should be opened me to more creativity, more possibilities.
I printed out a stack of essays to consider for the collection and prepared to go on my first writer’s retreat. In the back of my mind, I wondered if making a collection would allow me to return to writing fiction.
As I packed for the retreat, I logged on to a Zoom author event at the Center for Fiction for Martha Cooley’s new novel Buy Me Love. I folded laundry and listened. Cooley admitted that she’d been working on the novel for over fifteen years. She hadn’t been working on it the whole time, she said; she’d taken time off to do translations with her husband and to write an essay collection – Guesswork.
I found myself smiling. Cooley was right. She’d written what was coming to her and had let the novel that languished in the corner wait. Perhaps she’d been working on it in the back of her mind all the while, but she had finished it. It could be done. Her novel had waited. Maybe mine will too. I’m open to the possibilities.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her flash essays have appeared most recently in Longleaf Review, JMWW and Zone 3. She teaches Mindful Writing workshops through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com.
July 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Margarita Gokun Silver
I wasn’t always committed to writing, for two main reasons: (1) Soviet teachers and (2) Soviet parents.
I’ll start with the teachers, because when we were growing up we weren’t allowed ever to question the teachers. I’m just making up for lost time.
Most Soviet teachers fell into two camps—flustered or scary. Our Russian language and literature teacher was scary. She usually walked into the classroom with her neck askew like a hawk, her large wire glasses perched on her pointy nose, and her stare steely as if she was practicing to be Stalin. Most of the time she didn’t teach us anything, so we copied forewords and called them essays. I’m not proud of this but, also, I never got caught so I guess that’s something to be proud of? Not that it was easy to catch plagiarism then—Google’s Sergey Brin wasn’t born yet and there were plenty of forewords to go around from all the editions of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky littering our neighborhood libraries. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Brin invented Google. Maybe his mother or grandmother was a Russian literature teacher.
Then one day my luck ran out. No, I didn’t get caught for plagiarizing. But I got caught for something equally as scandalous (apparently!):
ME [with a smirk and the attitude of a 16-year-old who knows everything]: I don’t really care about Russian literature. I’m going into the technical field. I won’t need it.
MY FRIEND [nodding in agreement]: Lucky you.
I got a 2 (an F equivalent) for my next essay. And another 2 for the essay after that. And after that. When I brought home my third disgrace, my mother decided to take matters into her own hands. She marched to our school, a box of chocolates in her bag, and asked the teacher why her daughter, who until then had been bringing 4s (a B equivalent) for those plagiarized essays (to be clear, my mother didn’t mention they were plagiarized), was now only getting 2s. The box of chocolates was a bribe; you didn’t go anywhere in the Soviet Union without a bribe. The value of your bribe depended on your economic level, with a box of chocolates reserved for the Soviet middle class intelligenzia. (Foreign soap was also a thing, as were bottles of Armenian cognac.)
The teacher explained, eyes owl-wide and shaking her head, that she overheard me trashing Russian literature. Sacrilegious, she meant to communicate. (Note to the legal team: I’m pretty sure that teacher is no more, but if she is, please don’t tell her I named my dog Pushkin.) My mother wrung her hands, added a pleading look at her box of chocolates, and negotiated a truce. That’s how I found my name being called the moment the teacher walked into the classroom the next day.
ME [standing up]: Yes?
THE ENTIRE CLASS (including the boy I had a terrible crush on) [staring with that mix of curiosity, pity, and fear—the same exact kind of stare my great-uncle got when they took him to the gulag]
TEACHER [walking to her desk, gold earrings swinging in her ears]: Why did Tolstoy have Anna Karenina kill herself at the end?
ME [praying that boy cannot see red because I’m turning the color of cooked beet all the way from my ears to my cheeks to my neck]: …
I’m not going to recount the answer, mostly because I can’t remember what I said, but also because it was some Soviet propaganda bullshit I’d gleaned from a foreword the night before. My mother had told me I’d be called on to answer a question and I spent the hours I usually spent staring at the phone willing that boy to ring me memorizing forewords. Because I had a good memory, I passed. The teacher began grading all of my essays at a 3 level, which is like a C but with a lot of parental heartbreak. My mother wondered if the box of chocolates was past its prime because those 3s were accompanied by a Baikal Lake of red-ink comments that pointed out my ineptitude in all things written. I never again said anything about Russian literature aloud. And I wrote off all possibilities of me writing ever again.
Here I should point out that it wasn’t really up to me to write it off. Even if I were the Evgeny Kissin of literature, even if I knew then that I wanted to become a writer, and even if that teacher hadn’t killed any desire I may have had to put words on paper, I wouldn’t have gone into writing. I also wouldn’t have gone into performing. Or into art. Or into any kind of career that didn’t involve a math entrance exam, a study of thermodynamics, or an encounter with cadavers at a Moscow morgue. Which is to say I had a choice that limited me to becoming either an oil and gas engineer or a doctor.
I was not banned from studying something else. Not technically, anyway. Conceivably, I could have told my parents that I wanted to become an actress (I did do a mean interpretation of blue-haired Malvina, Buratino’s girlfriend, in school) or the nation’s next Isaak Babel or a sculptor of Lenin busts (I was very good at sketching statues and because Lenin’s was basically everywhere, I perfected that almost to the level of plagiarizing forewords). Even more conceivably, they would have looked at me and laughed. Not because they didn’t believe in me, but because engineers didn’t give birth to artists in the Soviet Union. And artists didn’t give birth to engineers. I mean, there were six engineers in my family, one doctor, and zero artists of any kind. As a Soviet child, you followed in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents: those were the rules. And we didn’t make the rules. If you were related to physics geniuses and math whizzes, you couldn’t go on sculpting Lenin, even if you were better at that than at math.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and NPR, among others. This essay is excerpted from her recent essay collection I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales). She tweets @MGokunSilver.
July 14, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Anne Liu Kellor
- Did I emphasize enough how much I felt like a failure leaving China, leaving jobs, leaving my boyfriend, leaving my studies of Chinese, not accomplishing anything tangible, except to realize how weak I was? No. But on some level, that became the point of my book: not a triumph in accomplishment, but a triumph in being able to realize my own essence and needs.
- Heart Radical was always a memoir, but for years I thought it had to be more informative, investigative, researched, male, “smart.” It wasn’t enough just to write about my own heart’s travails. I needed to look outward, educate the world about modern China, be an ‘expert’ on something else besides my inner world.
- I used to fantasize about getting a video camera and trekking off alone into the Tibetan countryside. Filming and documenting some remote place. That would be brave! That would be admirable and interesting to others! Instead, over time, I just grew more focused on myself and my life with my boyfriend. I saw this as failure back then. But now I understand why I needed to go in that direction. That doesn’t mean I still don’t criticize myself for being too self-absorbed. I still ask myself all the time how I can widen my circles of inclusion and action; how I can witness both myself and others, ever more.
- I never learned how to say “spiritual path” in Chinese. And I still struggle to explain what I mean by that in English. Figuring this out too, was a part of the point of the book.
- I didn’t include how I used to say things to my boyfriend like, Shangdi hui bangzhu ni: God will help you. I was more comfortable using the word God then than I am now (even though I still am okay with the word, in the right contexts). That is one benefit of growing up without religion—I’m not overly allergic or attached to one version of a concept. Because, yes, God is a concept. Just as it’s an experience, an unspeakable knowing, a truth beyond words.
- China is about the least spiritual place I know, I wrote once, something I implied but never directly stated in my book.
- I also used to use the word karma a lot more, as in, I wonder what karma we still have to play out together. It’s not that I don’t believe in karma or fate anymore; I just am more okay with my ambivalence with not naming things as such. Not getting caught up with grand questions of “my life’s destiny.” Just letting the moment, heart-song, unfold. Just letting Intuition, call it God, call it Buddha-nature, guide me forward to the next right choice. Just trying to stay aligned with that same essential desire I had then as I have now: to give with my life, to be more generous and compassionate, even when—or especially when—that means forgiving my own limitations.
- I chose to leave my parents out as much as possible, in part because my mom once point-blank told me not to write about her. But… how do you write a coming-of-age memoir about returning to your mother’s birthplace without writing, at least a little, about your parents? So I did, a little. I tried to be honest and empathetic, yet brief. I’m still scared they will latch on to the few “negative” things I say, and not see how much I am simply trying to understand how I seek what I seek, in part because of how I was raised. How we all are wounded, in our own particular ways, however mild or extreme the wound may appear. And how we pass that down to future generations if we never speak of or address the wounding. I didn’t know I was writing to address core wounds when I first set out; I was too young to see it that way. But of course, the deeper I went into my edits over the years, the more obvious it became that I could not leave out my parents, as much as I tried. For everything is connected.
- Traveling alone in another country where you arrive knowing no one puts you at the mercy of others’ kindness. As such, I saw chance encounters back then as fate. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have met X. But if this is so, isn’t it also true that fate is always happening? We just tend to notice it less when we are living our sedentary lives. We think nothing is happening or nothing is going our way, when in fact, everything is happening; gifts or messengers are always appearing, if we are paying attention.
- So you want to be a writer still, I wrote in 2002 near the end of my three years in China. Believe, sister, BELIEVE. Even if it takes you twenty years to publish your book, I might have added too, and laughed at what would have sounded then like hyperbole.
Anne Liu Kellor is a mixed-race Chinese American writer, editor, and teacher based in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, Fourth Genre, Witness, New England Review, The Normal School, Literary Mama, and many more. Anne earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is the recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, Seventh Wave, Jack Straw Writers Program, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. She teaches writing workshops across the Pacific Northwest and loves to support women writers in finding their voice and community. Praised by Cheryl Strayed as “insightful, riveting, and beautifully written,” Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Longing is her first book. To pre-order or learn more, please visit: anneliukellor.com
June 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Krista Varela Posell
Before the pandemic, I hadn’t published anything in three years. I don’t even think I even finished writing a single essay that entire time. I had not one but two book manuscripts that had stalled out. Major life events kept me from writing regularly: my mother’s dementia diagnosis, the death of my first dog, and a significant transition in my marriage. I kept telling myself, “you are just living the life you’ll write about later”—though that did little to assuage the guilt I felt thinking I should be more disciplined if I wanted to call myself a writer.
When California’s shelter in place orders went into effect last March, I decided to use the shakeup in my routine as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing practice. For inspiration, I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a frequently recommended book on craft and one that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year after I found it on clearance in a bookstore.
I committed to reading a chapter a day, which amounted to just a few pages, to get myself to think about writing. Looking at the table of contents—65 chapters including the introduction—I thought, I won’t even finish this before life goes back to normal. It seemed like a productive and pleasurable way to pass the time. As of this writing, 423 days since I started working from home, I could have read the book several times over.
I established a morning ritual: sitting at my desk to read, then writing down a line or two that captured my eye. I followed up with journaling, trying to capture the strangeness of daily life in an unprecedented time. “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical,” Goldberg writes. “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”
And so, I did my best to record the details, filling almost an entire notebook in six months. Many pages served as to-do lists. I became obsessed with keeping straight the basic tasks I had to accomplish to get through the day: “Put out the trash bins. Repot the plants. Weed the backyard. Hang up the laundry. Return book to the library.” Writing down any task became the first step in being able to complete it. If it wasn’t on the page (short of eating and bathing) it wouldn’t get done, disappearing in my brain amongst the riptide of constant anxiety.
As the pandemic pressed on and it became evident that we would still be living in this reality far longer after I finished Writing Down the Bones, my motivation for reading evaporated. The book was meant to serve as a time marker, a source of optimism. But one of the rewards for finishing it—going back to “regular” life— was no longer there. Even something as small and manageable as a single chapter felt too overwhelming.
After taking a break for a few weeks, the chapter I returned to began, “When you are not writing, you are a writer too,” as though Natalie Goldberg knew that was exactly what I needed to hear to get going again. These words reinforced what I wanted to believe during those years I hadn’t been writing but wasn’t comfortable enough to embrace until now.
I’ve tried to do my future self a favor to document as much as possible when I have the energy for it. In between my lists, I’ve kept other notes, unfiltered raw thoughts of what I don’t want to forget about this past year, mostly frenetic musings on loneliness and angst:
June 5th: “It’s hard to know what to even write. Black people are dying.”
August 20th: “I can’t feel excited about turning 30 when I’m feeling so anxious about just surviving.”
December 22nd: “I’m still feeling an all-encompassing restlessness that makes it so hard to get through the day. I’ve never felt so much animosity toward just having to exist.”
Having to be gentle with myself for all the complicated feelings arising during the most stressful time in recent history, I’ve let go of the idea of a daily practice, of sitting down at the same time and space to write every day, for good. Even Goldberg acknowledges the importance of cutting yourself some slack, of making sure you don’t become too rigid in your routine: “Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly towards it.”
And yet, for the sporadic fluctuations to my process, I had more victories in 2020 than I had in the three years prior combined. All that journaling eventually began rendering itself into actual essays, some that I managed to publish throughout the year. I also started a blog and got my first paid byline. Writing finally feels like it has a regular place in my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in grad school. And by regular, I mean one that doesn’t feel so tenuous if I can’t manage to do the thing for a week or two.
I still don’t write every day, but the biggest difference is, I no longer feel guilty about it. We are living in a pandemic, after all. I spent years wringing my hands over whether to call myself a writer, feeling like it’s a title I don’t deserve. Now, it’s an identity I comfortably inhabit, one that is pliable and forgiving of the circumstances of life. When I’m not sure where to start, I simply write down the knowns, the truths of what I’m experiencing: “It’s your life, begin from it.”
I haven’t finished reading Writing Down the Bones yet either. Instead of rushing toward the end to move on to something else, I’ve chosen to savor it like a decadent dessert I come back to when I need a little pick-me-up. Over thirty years later, it feels as though Goldberg is still speaking directly to our present: “In the middle of the world, make one positive step,” she writes, “In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
Krista Varela Posell (she/they) is a queer Latina writer living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Bold Italic, GO Mag, Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Krista earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is co-creator of the community blog Poly in Place.
May 24, 2021 § 7 Comments
By Lilly Dancyger
Most of the people I interviewed while doing research for my memoir, I spent a few hours with. Usually one long conversation, sometimes a few follow-up questions over the phone or email. But with my mother I just kept digging, and kept finding new depths. We spent dozens of hours, stretched over years, talking about her relationship with my father, their shared heroin addiction and the shadow it cast over my childhood, their breakup, and his death. Each conversation felt like she’d finally borne her soul to me, but I always found more bubbling up later: more details, more truth, more pain, more ugliness.
If I had asked my mother for all of these details—what she and my father fought about, when they were using and when they were clean, all the reasons they split up—in a purely mother-daughter context, there’s no way it would have been a calm, productive conversation. It would have been too raw for both of us, my wronged daughter-self lashing out at her flawed mother-self. She would have gotten defensive, which would have made me push harder, until we weren’t digging toward a truth together but just screaming our own grievances.
We’d never agreed on what our life together had looked like; what she was like as a mother, what I was like as a daughter, who was more at fault for so much friction. We’d never even really acknowledge that there was friction, that there was any blame to place. We’d just moved on from the explosive teenage years—when we only spoke to each other in angry screams and passive aggressive jabs—without ever exploring the damage.
But now this wasn’t about me and her directly. Now it was about the story, and I could ask her in my detached reporter voice, “What was that like?” even if underneath, what I meant was “How could you let this happen?” The structure of interviewing in service of storytelling kept us focused, pushing calmly ahead. I was collecting these moments of our lives, even the ugly ones, to build something out of them. Not demanding apologies, just stories; just material.
We were taking the story down in chunks—years of this excavation, years of phone calls that opened with bracing questions, like “When did you start using again in San Francisco?” and “What was the last straw that ended your marriage?” But she never received these calls with hostility, or resistance, or even annoyance. She’d say, “Well!” and I could hear her settling into her chair and trying to put the words together carefully but truthfully.
I had been wary about interviewing my mother at first, had wanted to guard my project against the flood of her emotion, worried the story I was trying to tell—about my father, and his art, and all that I inherited from him—would be overtaken. And she did overtake it in a way, but not the way I’d expected. As I started to understand her more and more through these stories, I realized I was shifting the landscape of my relationships with both of my parents where I’d only set out to explore and shift one.
I realized somewhere along the way that whatever I wanted to call it—interviews, research—this was also me asking my mother all the questions that it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask her at all until she was dead too, and I went again searching desperately for something that was gone. I thought during some of these interviews, and between them, that I should appreciate them for what they were: not just traces of my father, but honest, intimate, past-plumbing conversations with my mother.
In the midst of all of these conversations, I published an op-ed in a national paper about a viral photo of a little boy strapped into a car seat, staring into the camera, while his guardians sit nearly dead from opioid overdoses in the front seats. In the piece, I compared myself to that little boy and wrote about what it’s like to be the child of addicts—all the feelings that had been churning around about how it’s not their fault but it’s still their responsibility, and how it creates a shame that’s impossible not to inherit no matter how much you defend them, or how much you believe those defenses.
My mother called to tell me that when she first read the piece she was hurt, she wanted to argue, to point out that they never put me in that position. That most of the time they were just doing enough heroin to “maintain,” to avoid withdrawal, that they weren’t even really getting high, let alone doing enough to overdose. We were on the phone, so thankfully I didn’t have to mask the mounting rage on my face as I held my tongue while she rationalized, holding back an outburst about how ridiculous she sounded explaining that they were “good” heroin addict parents. But then, she said, she’d thought about it. She’d been rethinking a lot lately with all of these conversations we’d been having, and she’d realized that she’d convinced herself that because she did some things right, she had been a good mother. I had two parents who loved me, who cared whether I was fed and safe, who played games and read me stories. She’d focused on that part, and pretended that growing up knowing my parents were addicts, watching it tear their marriage apart and kill my father, somehow hadn’t affected me.
I pressed the phone to my ear, overwhelmed, realizing how badly I’d needed to hear her say these things. I didn’t interject; I just let her keep talking, repeating herself, explaining how her own perspective was shifting as we had all of these conversations and she was finally seeing that of course I had been harmed. Saying she was sorry.
Hearing her finally admit that she wasn’t a perfect mother, that she let me be exposed to things no kid should know about, that she’d let me fend for my own emotional wellbeing when I most needed her help—hearing her apologize—cracked something open in me. I’d wanted for years to throw all of this in her face, to accuse her, to expose her. But as soon as she admitted it, all I felt was forgiveness—flooding in through the cracks in the wall between us, cracks that had been formed by all the interviews, just enough to let some light in.
** This blog entry is excerpted from Lilly Dancyger’s memoir Negative Space (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021)
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award; and the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger. Find her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.
May 10, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Cheryl Achterberg
I wanted to learn to write memoir, specifically, how to end a memoir. Some say you must read to write. So, I read 50 memoirs with a few questions in mind. If a memoir is a fragment of a person’s life, is every memoir time-bound? How long might that time be? May I write about a long relationship that cuts across a lifetime, but is not in itself my whole life? Is that fragmentary enough? Does it make a difference if the narrator is a young adult or an older adult? According to C. S. Lakin, a memoir ends when “you’ve arrived,” but is that always obvious? What are the tropes in memoir, both good and bad?
It took two years to read a set of 50 memoirs. There are, of course, books about how to write memoir as well as webinars, blogs, and magazine articles. I’ve read many of those books and taken many of those webinars in the last two years as well. But they didn’t address my central question—how to end a memoir? Romances and mysteries have lists of do/don’t instructions. Why not memoirs?
My sample set was based on availability, a list of the 50 best memoirs in the last 50 years from the NY Times, and a specific interest in Alzheimer’s Disease. The COVID lockdown interfered with acquisition. Books were treated as if radioactive at my local library. The place was closed for months. Eventually, I could order books, but many had to be obtained from other libraries across the state. Browsing shelves was not an option.
I read the set of 50 books. Two-thirds were by women. Almost half (N=21) were written in the last five years (2015-2020) and ten were published in the 1990s. Most of the older ones are classics in the memoir genre, for instance, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and The Color of Water by James McBride. Six were by authors of color, two were LGBTQ. I generally avoided travel memoirs and celebrities except for Michael J. Fox’s latest. His No Time Like the Future is a model of story construction. Some memoirs are narrative masterpieces (e.g., Bauby, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Some are so memorable you will never forget them (e.g., Educated by Tara Westover). Here’s what I learned.
Memoirs deal with serious subject matter. In my set of 50, more endings dealt with death than any other topic. Five deaths were either patients the narrator cared for (e.g., Magnusson’s Where Memories Go) or the narrator’s directly, (e.g., Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face). Another eight were about coming to terms with one’s own mortality (e.g., Saunder’s Memory’s Last Breath) or the death of a parent, child, or loved one (e.g., Tretheway’s Memorial Drive).
Memoirs address humanity’s biggest emotional questions. Beyond death, the second largest ending category was resolving relationship problems including prodigal son/daughter themes (e.g., Karr, Cherry), understanding parents/seeing truth (e.g., Laymon, Heavy), escaping a bad marriage (Gee, Higher Education, Marijuana in the Mansion) or resolving sexual identity and marital relationships (e.g., Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Some confront grief (e.g., Before I Forget by B. Smith and Dan Gasby).
Meeting goals and challenges are prominent in endings. I defined a goal as something freely chosen such as Nita Sweeney setting out to run a marathon in Depression Hates a Moving Target. A challenge was an unplanned or unsettling event the narrator had to overcome as in Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. Together memoirs about goals and challenges accounted for 16 of the 50 memoirs I read. They show hope is justified, things can get better, and people can recover from setbacks. Rarely is failure ever documented (my sole example is Grann, The White Darkness).
Coming of age stories are represented but NOT dominant among memoirs. This finding was contrary to my expectations because I thought if there is a trope in memoir, coming of age would be it. There were six entries in my sample that recounted youth and adolescence ending in college entry, marriage, or moving. They might be called traditional or archetypic female narratives. However, both men (e.g., Wolff, The Boy’s Life) and women (e.g., Murray, Breaking Night) writers were represented in this set.
I did not find the proverbial tropes in memoir. There were no rags to riches stories nor were there any helpless female fatales. Neither did I find a standard timeline—a book might cover weeks or years or even a lifetime—so long as the “fragment” of a life was narrowed to a puzzling relationship, a question to be resolved, or challenge to be surmounted. Paula Balzer advises that memoirists should write with the end in sight. That may not be possible if self-discovery occurs in the process of the author’s writing. Besides, some things really are unending. A writer may learn that only by writing. As Lilly Dancyger noted, you can’t pretend your issue is “neatly resolved when it’s not.” And sometimes, that may be the point.
I learned there are no magic formulas, but memoirs are not about time. That finding answered my central question. Memoir endings can land anywhere and be anything if they carry a meaning. The memoirist should just write without worrying about the ending. The more important issue is what does the writing have to teach and share with yourself, other people, and the world at large. That’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.
April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
April 6, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Kirsten Voris
When I first decided to write a book about a vaudeville-era stage psychic, my research skills included visiting archives, amassing details, and wishful thinking. Years later, I’m still no professional, but I’ve earned the right to call myself an amateur pain in the rear. I had a few things going for me before I started:
I love making lists.
I love archives.
I love details.
I never tire of digging up new information.
I’m not a researcher.
I’m conflict avoidant.
I’m sure I’m disturbing you.
And, I never tire of digging up new information.
Curiosity is good. That’s how stuff gets found. One more archive, I might think, then I’ll stop. Only, I can’t stop. And I don’t want to. Because the next step is synthesis. (Actual writing!) And if you never tire of digging, there’s a lot of material. In my case, archival.
I heart archives. Apart from the librarian who will ask me to open my bag and prove I’m pen-less, I don’t have to talk. If other people show up, they will be quiet people. If they’re not, they get busted.
In the early 2000s, when I began delving, my psychic was long gone and her contemporaries were old. Possibly deceased. Yes, I thought. They’re deceased.
A few years in, I was cornered at the registration desk of a magic conference. I was presenting, and this magician’s enthusiasm for my topic alarmed me. It was familiar. It was like mine.
As I signed in, he grilled me. Had I consulted the index of births and deaths, phone books, census records, court documents, newspapers? The Ask Alexander database?
Had I found the kids? The stepkids? Descendants of pallbearers and housekeepers? Had I sent letters to the current occupants of the last known residence? Had I interviewed anyone?
As the dust settled on this second set of questions, I knew myself. I was a microfilm jockey in a sea of prestidigitators. Folks who would be rolling quarters over their knuckles at dinner that night, right up until the salad arrived. They never quit refining. They’re relentless. I’m not. I’ll quit digging as soon as I have to talk to someone.
In fact, I’d found the kids. And the stepkids. And couldn’t make myself contact them.
I had composed a sample letter in my head. Hello, it began. I am a person you’ve never heard of with no credentials. Let’s just call me a researcher. I wanted to ask a few questions about your late stepmother. The one who totaled your parents’ marriage.
My new friend, I would learn, takes it a step further. He asks whether there are publicity photos, scrap books, personal letters, props. A trunk in the attic?
It sounded crass. Like trying to hook someone on a pyramid scheme. I didn’t think I could do it.
He got me to do it. By exerting the same gentle pressure he applies to survivors of show-business families who don’t want to talk to him. (And if you’re writing a book about early radio mentalism, you’ll need what he’s dug up.) He wore me down. And normalized the practice of being a pain in the rear.
Five suggestions I profited from:
- Assume family members want to hear from you. Most will be curious about why you’re so interested. Others will refuse to talk to you. Or take you seriously. Or be polite. Just like in real life.
- Own your title. A researcher is someone who researches. That, my friend, is you.
- Send letters. Better yet, make phone calls. Consider the age of people you hope to contact. Not everyone can comfortably type or text or hold a pencil. The phone is your best bet. Phoning is scary. Decide how you will reward yourself.
- Persist. If a letter is rejected or goes unanswered wait, then send another when you have something to share, like information you found or a relevant article you’ve published. Repeat this process until you’re asked to stop.
- Befriend other researchers. Especially those mining the same ground. These are the folks who will call your obsession normal and propel you onward with love and goodwill when you feel defensive about the way you’re spending your time. If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would drop my fear of being scooped and collaborate more generously.
Overcoming my fear of contacting people came down to attitude and approach. In the end, the strangers I called shared scrapbooks and photos and some of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. I’ve absorbed more drama and gossip than one book can hold. And one happy day, a woman I had interviewed wrote to say she wanted to live out the rest of her life without ever hearing from me again. At last, I was too much! I’d graduated to close up magic and survived my first coin drop.
Sometimes, I actually kind of love talking to people.
But not in archives.
Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.
April 5, 2021 § 27 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.
I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.
After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.
Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling. My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.
I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.
While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.
A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.
But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.
Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.
I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.
By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.
That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.
In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.
Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.
Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.
If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.
“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)_________________________
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.