Interviewing My Mother for My Memoir Helped Me Start to Forgive Her

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)
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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.

How To Find an Ending: What I Learned from Reading Fifty Contemporary Memoirs

May 10, 2021 § 11 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.

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Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.

Memoir and Indescribable Magic: An Interview with Alden Jones

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.
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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?

Alden Jones

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.

Morgan Baker

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.
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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.

Not a People Person? No Problem. Five Face-to-Face Research Tips I Gleaned From an Extrovert

April 6, 2021 § 13 Comments

Black and white author headshot of Kirsten Voris, a white woman with long dark blonde hair in a black scoopneck top and wrapped patternedscarf
Photo by: Mamta Popat

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.

However:

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?

Nope.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Own your title. A researcher is someone who researches. That, my friend, is you.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
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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.

OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

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.)

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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.

A Conversation with Naturalist Writer Scott Weidensaul

March 25, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Lynn Haraldson

Twenty years ago, when I worked at a small newspaper in northwest Pennsylvania, the local Audubon chapter asked if I would interview naturalist Scott Weidensaul to publicize his upcoming lecture. They gave me a copy of his book, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds (North Point Press, 1999), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Although impressed by the Pulitzer nod, I was skeptical about the topic. I liked birds and all, but four hundred pages of them?

I decided I would skim a few chapters so I could ask a few reasonably informed questions. But from the first paragraph, I was drawn into a world I’d never really seen, although it was all around me.

Sitting in the Pennsylvania sun…a redstart sings. I open my eyes and he’s right in front of me, in a low willow thicket that was half-flattened by the winter ice floes. He is no bigger than my thumb, all black except for the colorful patches on his wings, flanks and tail – the same pink-orange color, it occurs to me, as the meat of the native brook trout that still live in the small headwater streams hereabouts, the same color as a monarch butterfly’s wings, and the wild turk’s-cap lilies that bloom here in summer. That symmetry feels proper, somehow, almost pre-ordained.

I read every word of this vivid prose, captivated in the same way as when I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces.

Scott and I spoke again recently about his writing and about how, and why, it reflects his compassion for nature and passion for conservation.

Growing up in the shadow of Ashland Mountain in central Pennsylvania, his mother each year noted in a journal when the juncos, white-throated sparrows, and geese returned to their yard. It was there, on the Kittatinny Ridge, where he first witnessed raptor migration. It was also where he witnessed the destruction of their habitat.

“I was all over that ridge as a kid,” he said. “A powerline crossed the top of the mountain, and I could look south into the valley where we lived, a quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch farming valley, or north toward the town of Girardville, where the anthracite seams were close enough to the surface to deep mine and strip mine — to my eye, a hellscape wasteland of stripping pits and culm banks and dead streams. The impact was profound, and I remember making a very clear decision: I don’t want a world that looks like that.”

The heart of Weidensaul’s writing is inspired by authors such as American naturalist John Burroughs, environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and J.A. Baker, Henry Beston and Carl Sofina. He strives to bridge the world between science and lay knowledge, and takes us with him to places we might never go and invites us to consider questions we might never have asked.

“I’ve often chosen topics about which I knew a little, but wanted to know much more,” he said. “And while publishers require a fairly detailed sense of what the book will say and the narrative framework in which I’ll say it, there’s definitely a great deal of let’s-see-where-this-leads, and simple serendipity.”

Weidensaul’s new book, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds (W.W. Norton, 2021), expands on his research from Living on the Wind, and while the poetics are similar, his writing is more personal. Whether he’s comparing the diets and physiology of godwits to humans, describing the plight of spoon-billed sandpipers along the Yellow Sea coastline or his encounter with a grizzly bear while banding thrushes in Denali National Park, his descriptions are breathtaking and at times urgent, in the vein of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

When he began working on A World on the Wing, Weidensaul thought his job would be to document the destruction of migratory bird populations. In the prologue, upon spying a grey-cheeked thrush in his own backyard, he writes:

It was an utterly ordinary, extraordinary bird – as is every migrant that makes the leap into the void, guided by instinct, shaped by millions of generations of toil and savage selection, crossing the vaults of space through dangers we cannot comprehend, by lucky chance and near-calamity and great endurance, on the strength of its own muscle and wings. For eons uncounted, that has always been enough. But no longer. Now their future, for good or ill, lies in our hands.

Further along in the book, his storytelling pivots a bit and reflects a cautious hope that, while there is widespread loss of habitat in many places around the world, conservation efforts are succeeding in others. He keeps readers close to his side and asks – without lecturing – for us, like him, to view this other world through the lens of appreciation, awe, and reverence, and to own our culpability and responsibility for the world we inhabit.

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Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. Her book, Common Ground: Writings on Family, Change, Loss & Resilience, is a collection of more than twenty years of her columns and blogs. She writes at ZenBagLady.com.

Virtual AWP: Dinty W Moore “Signs” His Hellish Book

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.

You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.

It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:

To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.

The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.

Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”

If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.

Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.

Crossing the Border between Memoir and Fiction: An Interview with Anika Fajardo

March 1, 2021 § 3 Comments

Anika Fajardo

Minneapolis writer, Anika Fajardo, was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, a memoir about crossing continents to connect with her Columbian father and brother. In her debut novel for young readers, What If a Fish, her main character, Little Eddie, is also both Colombian and Minnesotan and, like Fajardo, wrestles with issues of family and identity.

Sara Dovre Wudali, St. Paul, Minnesota, essayist and poet, met Fajardo at the Mississippi River—which divides Minneapolis from St. Paul—to talk with her about crossing the border between genres.

When I first met you, you identified as a nonfiction writer—your first book is a memoir and you teach creative nonfiction—but your latest book is fiction. What caused you to make the move from memoir to fiction?

I wrote my young adult novel during depths of despair while I was trying to get my memoir published. I decided that the memoir was never going to be published, but I still had things I wanted to say, so I repurposed my memoir and kept the emotional core. I have never been an 11-year-old boy, but I took the questions I had at that age like, “Where do I belong?” and “How do I fit in?” and “What does it mean to have this happen?”—questions that I don’t know the answers to, and I let my character grapple with them.

Were there ways in which this movement between memoir and novel, tackling the same themes, and even similar plot lines, helped or hindered your writing process?

I also kept a lot of the same things. You know, what’s funny, I was being interviewed by this woman who was Peruvian and she liked What If a Fish but she questioned, “Why would he never have visited Colombia when he was a kid? Why didn’t his mom ever bring him there?” I didn’t have a good answer except to say that it was because I never did. So some of the plot points weren’t the best thought-out in terms of craft for the novel because I was relying on my own experience.

Sara Dovre Wudali

Did your work on the novel help you revise the memoir?

Working on a novel helped me learn about pacing and narrative arc, but mostly it was the other way around. Because I had written a memoir, the novel was easy to write. I wrote it like a nonfiction writer. I first had to come up with all of the truths in that world and then just sit down and write what happened, not straying from those first invented truths. In fact, eventually I was forced, first by my agent and later by my editor, to make changes that I didn’t want to make because in my internal ideas for the book, their changes were lies—not what had happened. From the standpoint of a nonfiction writer, I was saying to myself, “Well, I can’t just make that up!” even though I’d actually made up everything.

And the editor replied, “Why can’t you make it up? This is fiction.”

Right. And they would write, “This scene doesn’t work.” And to myself I’d say, “But it happened, so I have to tell about it!” So, maybe my brain is broken. Or maybe once a nonfiction writer, always a nonfiction writer.

So when it came to writing fiction from memoir, how did you initially invent the details and markers of your identity? Did you change the “what ifs” for the world of your novel, for example, “What if you lost your father because of death rather than divorce?” or “What if you’d been told you had a brother and had been allowed a relationship with him when you were a child?”

I think it was purposeful. The seed for the book was 2 things: First, I saw someone catch this gigantic fish on the lake and then get bit by the fish. And, at the same time, I was thinking that if I had been born a boy, I probably would’ve had the same name as my brother. It’s common for Latin American families to name their kids the same first name and different middle names. So my brother and I would’ve been siblings with the same name and basically the same age. And how weird would that be? And what would that have done to my identity? And so I went to an extreme with the fiction. In reality my brother and I are the same age, so the extreme in the fiction is that the brothers are much different ages.

Are there similar “what ifs” that you’re doing with your next project?

Yes! When I first met my brother, we all listened to reggae. And we all went to the same reggae bar in Santa Cruz. And after I met him, I thought, I could’ve stood in line next to him at this reggae bar before we even met. Would I have known it was him? Would he recognize me? So in my next project, another middle grade novel, Meet Me Halfway, my main characters are two 12-year-old girls who are half-sisters, one who knows they are sisters and one who doesn’t but thinks, “This is really creepy—she looks just like me.” So that’s the what-if I’m playing with. And I was racking my brain trying to figure out why one girl hates the other. But then from my memoir, I remembered what my brother had been told by my dad: that I didn’t want to meet him. That I wanted nothing to do with him. And that solved the problem because, of course, hearing that would make a 12-year-old girl hate someone. If I just use my real-life story, everything makes sense. I wasted so many weeks trying to figure that out. I’m trying to be a fiction writer, but all the answers are in nonfiction.
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Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was a 2020 finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards and awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages. She is the author of the middle-grade novels What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020) and Meet Me Halfway (Simon & Schuster, forthcoming, spring 2022). A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis.

Sara Dovre Wudali is a writer and editor from Saint Paul. She grew up on the plains of southwest Minnesota, where the wind blows strong and box elder bugs rule the earth. Her poems and essays have been published in North Dakota Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction, Sweet, Streetlight Magazine, Saint Paul Almanac, and as part of a public art project in Mankato, Minnesota.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!

Here are the particulars:

SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register

WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST

At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795

And here’s more on the book:

Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more. 
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“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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Election Anxiety Got You Down? Write More, Post Less

October 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

In the fall of 2016, as the insanity of the presidential election approached its fever pitch, I found myself, like many of you, embroiled in what felt like an endless maelstrom of social media debate. Encouraged by the steady accumulation of “likes” from like-minded followers, I peppered my Facebook thread with pathos-rich political ads, Anti-Trump opinion pieces, and lengthy articles by overworked fact checkers, and then I planted my flag in the comment section of every pro-Trump post that showed up in my feed.

It felt like rhetorical calisthenics—my daily denunciation of hypocrisy, logical fallacy, and fake news—but in the end, what good came from arguing online with neighbors, high school friends, and that old lady from my childhood congregation? If the goal was to change hearts and minds, then not much.  In all my 2016 social media activism (such an oxymoronic phrase—like “healthy tan” or “bacon cleanse”) I didn’t win a single convert.

In the face of unremitting Trump anxiety though, it was easy to get caught up in what former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya calls “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” of online engagement. It was easier to imagine such interaction as a noble, civic-minded exercise of free speech, than to accept the reality that such debate often felt more like throwing punches on the playground or leaving a flaming bag of poo on old man Moore’s front porch. 

What it almost never felt like? Self-awareness, empathy, and the mind-expanding reflection that comes whenever I essay. If social media debates are generally about declaring to the world what I think I know, and then daring other people to disagree with me, then essaying is a declaration to myself that I don’t know anything, and then daring myself to do something about it.

 Montaigne says it best, I think:

“We only learn to dispute that we may contradict; and so . . . it falls out that the fruit of disputation is to lose and annihilate truth.”

Not that political disagreements and public debate are inessential to discovering truth, but that too often online debate has more in common with Alex Jones than with Alexander Hamilton.

Thus, in the wake of the 2016 election, disillusioned by my online echo chamber’s inability to actually change the world, I found myself in a hopeless stupor of slack-jawed exhaustion. And in that stupor, I nearly forgot that I write essays—that making sense of the world at its most senseless is sorta what essays do best, and that outside the insular and artificial world of social media, I had plenty I wanted to make sense of—white supremacists marching on Charlottesville, a racist travel ban on Muslims, black Americans losing their lives to police and vigilante violence. Toxic male culture, religious nihilism, and a bougie disregard for the poor at every turn. Refocusing my intellectual work away from social media and towards writing helped remind me that where social media so often fails, the essay just might succeed—maybe not in changing the world, but certainly in changing me. And that’s an important start.

In his 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Internet technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier argues that social media engagement is depleting our creativity, dumbing-down our belief systems, and stunting our ability to see and do good in the world. He writes that too many of us are sacrificing our intellectual energy on the short-term benefits of a social media presence:

What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everyone with nothing?

And though Lanier isn’t talking about literary publishing, is there a more apt description of what we all aspire to do than “heeding a passion for ethics or beauty” in hopes of “deeply reaching a small number of people?” One might even argue that literary endeavors and social media engagement are incompatible, or at least working in opposite directions.

For my part, in the months and years since the last presidential election, I have tried to write more, and post less. I haven’t managed to quit social media entirely, but I have written a book. And though it likely won’t go viral or win any national awards (or many Amazon reviews for that matter), it does represent the best of my ideas revised and reconsidered over the past four years—ideas born of research, self-reflection, meditation, and a desire for clarity about some of the ugliness in the world and my part in it. And that feels like a small, but important literary victory—the kind of victory that comes not from the closed fist of the social media rant, but from the open palm of the essay.
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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

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