Why My Memoir Hit a Wall

February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz Lang

Jennifer Lang

By Jennifer Lang

From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.

Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.

Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.

By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.

After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.

I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?

I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.

Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.

But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.

How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?

And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.

And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.

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Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com

Writing Like an Orphan and Publishing in The New York Times

February 21, 2017 § 30 Comments

By William Dameronzz dam.jpg

I resigned myself to rejection several weeks before the email from The New York Times editor landed in my mailbox. This was the fourth essay in as many years I had submitted to the popular Modern Love column. The “Thanks, but no thanks,” email always arrived punctually at the six week mark. But this email came a day or two after twelve weeks. When I read the salutation, Dear William Dameron, my heart sank. I took a deep breath and readied myself for the inevitable rejection. I am interested in your essay.

I stopped breathing.

For many memoir writers, a byline in the Modern Love column is the holy grail of publication. Book deals have been struck based on those 1,500 words and the odds of being published in the column are slim. Out of 7,000 submissions annually, only 52 are accepted, less than one percent. But this one finally took and I was going to give birth to my beautiful newborn essay!

I have an unexpected opening soon and want to be assured that your family is OK with publication. Are they?

“Ok” seemed like a vague term. What exactly was his definition? I thought about my daughters’ role in the essay. In it they chat on the telephone and sleep through my goodbye. They had minor roles; sure, they would be ok with that.

What about the handful of other people in this essay: my childhood neighbor, the college girlfriend, the guy in the bar from more than thirty years ago and the man from Match.com? They were just cameos; no problems there. My mother? She was a little trickier, but I could easily edit those two sentences.

And then I considered my ex-wife.

Here is the thing about writing memoir; you can’t just scratch the surface and expect readers to care. You have to dig deep and expose the fault lines. You must jump into the abyss and then somehow claw your way back to the top. No one makes that trip alone. Sometimes we work together, often we fight each other for a toehold and sometimes we stand on each other’s shoulders. But sometimes, we let go.  And this was an essay about letting go.

For the past three years I have been getting up at 5 a.m. to write a book-length memoir. Each morning I think of Anne Lamott’s quote:  “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”  And another one that sticks with me is Joyce Maynard’s quote: “Write as if you were an orphan.”

This essay was not vengeful. Neither was it a tribute. It was truthful and there were two paragraphs regarding my ex-wife that had never been revealed to the public. Those two paragraphs held the others together like a keystone. Without them, everything else crumbled.

I sent the essay to my ex-wife with a note explaining how our story was so important and that revealing yourself, warts and all, was incredibly liberating. Her response? “I can’t believe you even wrote those two paragraphs about me. They need to be removed immediately.” But I didn’t remove them. I modified them and sent the changes back to the editor who was quick with his own reply.

With essays like this, you can’t be coy or evasive or you lose credibility. With the change, you’re making readers fill in the gaps, to speculate, to fumble around. It’s like in trying to walk a tightrope you end up falling off both sides.

I had a sickening feeling in my gut that felt like falling. Falling back into the abyss where I had braided together 75,000 words that lay coiled like a rope on the cavern floor. They would never see the light of day.

Yes, we own everything that happened to us, but do we own everything that happened to others which in turn affected what happened to us? When can we claim someone else’s secret as germane to telling our own?  While Lamott’s directive “Tell your stories,” seems clear, reality is not.

I have shared my most intimate secrets with complete strangers in writer’s workshops and received accolades for dubious life choices I have made. “Oh you abused steroids? What a perfect metaphor. You have to include that!” Through the process of writing about my life, I have become inured to the pain and hardships. But I had not allowed others to process what happened to them because of what happened to me.

I took a deep breath, crafted an email to the editor and told him that the two paragraphs must be removed. If the essay fell apart, then I had to accept the consequences.

Four days, three hours and twelve minutes later, I received an email from the editor, certain that it would be “Thanks, but no thanks.”

We’re going to run the essay short and I’ll use the space to promote our college essay contest.

When I re-read the essay I realized it didn’t fall apart, but it had shifted focus and in turn, so did I. This was an essay about love after all and so I needed to show it.

Every morning I wake up early and tell my stories. Yes, I will always write as if I am an orphan, but when I publish them, I’ll remember that I am not.

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William Dameron‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Boston Globe, Saranac Review and The Huffington Post. He has been named a Blogher “Voice of The Year” for 2014-2016. He blogs somewhat infrequently at www.living-authentically.com. William is currently working on a memoir.

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Brevity’s 54th Issue

January 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

salvage-slideBrevity’s January 2017 issue looks at typos, teeth, Toledo, lunch lady arms, and Einstein’s theory of time and space, featuring fine flash nonfiction from Brenda Miller, Daisy Hernandez, Sonya Huber, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Sean Lovelace, Beth Ann Fennelly, Lucinda Roy, Jill Talbot, Lori Jakiela, Elizabeth K. Brown, Paula Cisewski, Eleanor Stanford, Allegra Hyde, Michele Morano, David Naimon, Staci Greason, and Maya Zeller. With original artwork by Allison Dalton.

In our craft section, Brandon Schrand considers our ability to equivocate artfully in the essay, Peter Selgin examines the need to resist total seduction by sounds and surfaces, and Rachel Tolliver and M. Sausun discuss nonfiction and social justice in the new political era.

Exactly what are you waiting for?

A Writing Life, Despite

January 16, 2017 § 9 Comments

zz_nina_bw_02smallBy Nina B. Lichtenstein

A few years ago I took a fancy-schmancy aptitude test in an elegant historic brownstone in Boston. I had just completed my PhD in French lit, and had fast come to realize that a little “portfolio diversification” would be wise, considering French departments were shutting down across the nation, and that to each job opening there were typically 400+ applicants; this regardless if it was for a tenure-track or a contingent faculty position, or if it was in Muskogee, Oklahoma or at a small New England private college where I had envisioned myself growing old amidst the climbing ivy and quintessential campus quad.

I decided it would be worth the rather steep price for the two-day testing with a follow-up session deciphering the results, because as long as my work could involve writing of some sort, I was committed to keeping an open mind to options beyond academia. I wanted, or hoped, to leave with some proof on paper of other useful abilities of mine that I could combine with writing. What if I was really cut out for being a dairy farmer or social worker instead and just didn’t know it? The idea intrigued me as much as it horrified me. While I was afraid to learn things I was not prepared for, I also needed to find out that I hadn’t come this far for no reason.

After two days of intense testing, I left with one big, strange new word in my pocket: Ideaphoria: “An experience where one feels a constant onslaught of new ideas, creating a euphoric state of idea creation.” I, however, remain convinced that this term is just nice talk for ADD, the state of mind that can be both a blessing and a curse.

I know that this “diagnosis” might be a common problem among writers: Many of us keep generating neat ideas for essays and short stories, and we sit ourselves down, like Anne Lamott tells us to, butt in chair, and begin to write with enthusiasm and energy, only to find that after the second or third paragraph, we open another document, feeling urgently the need to move on to the next exciting idea, of which several have revealed themselves by association as we were writing. Enthused anew like a butterfly in its mid-morning ecstasy on a mild summer day, fluttering from flower to flower in an instinctive and euphoric search of the sweet nectar, we move on.

The problem is, of course, that few things are completed this way for humans looking to develop their vocation as a writer.

I can tell you that this ideaphoria thing feels like being high, and when it hits I run as if airborne to my computer where my fingers dance on the keyboard while I float, gleefully, like I’m catching an exhilarating ride on the wings of a butterfly. However, contrary to the butterfly who might be rescuing a colony of pupae, or ensuring the continuity of a genus of wild roses as it moves on to the next source, my fluttering remains just that: a sweet but brief lingering among fertile but incomplete paragraphs that cannot and will not develop unless I pollinate them consistently and with conviction. The result is that I have countless folders of undeveloped barely begun stories.

Just now, for example, I feel an immense and uncomfortable restlessness because since I sat down this morning and began writing this piece, I have a new, brilliant, and urgent idea for a blog post. I also thought of a pitch for “Israel Story,” the Israeli version of “This American Life,” that I simply must pursue, like now. Waiting until I’m done here feels like torture. Or masochism, since I don’t have to take it, but do anyway.

But, I will take it this time, because it would be too ironic if I leave this page now.

Since I was born and raised both in a time (1960s-70s) and in a country (Norway) where diagnosis such as ADD and ADHD were neither made nor medicated, I must have taught myself how to adapt and adjust. I recall report cards reading, “Nina disrupts in class and walks around the room without asking permission,” and as a kid I didn’t hide under the covers with a flashlight and book, but roamed my neighborhood in search of curiosities I would get in trouble for exploring.

Somehow, I managed along the way to complete a BA, an MA and then the PHD, requiring no small effort of task completion. I forgot to say that I’m also insanely stubborn and have occasional perfectionistic tendencies: curses in relationships but blessings in the business of finishing a project, although more often the butt out of chair kind, like painting or re-organizing my closet.

I have come to realize that in many ways I’ve learned to navigate this “diagnosis” ever since those early years in Oslo, since although I struggle to bring all the ideas I get so euphoric about to paper, and then onward toward completion, the stubborn part in me enables me to eventually finish a few of them, and send them out into the world. And there is struggle: the frustrations and disappointments from rejections as well as the inevitable self-doubt laced with resignation and self-loathing. But, occasionally it happens, an essay is accepted, and a veil is lifted as I realize I can do it. In fact, this sounds just like what I keep reading a writer’s life is often like.

And nobody said it was going to be easy.

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Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature from UCONN. She has lived, studied/taught, and raised three sons in CT. A fresh empty-nester, she migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted (see diagnosis). Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa just came out, and currently she lives in Jerusalem working on a new book project. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com/, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Lilith Magazine, and Literary Mama, among other places.

A Review of Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

9780226356068.jpgBy Joey Franklin

All my life I have been a browser of dictionaries, a Sunday-afternoon flipper of phone books, a belly-on-the-carpet peruser of atlases and anthologies. I’ve been a geek for information since I picked up my first children’s illustrated encyclopedia. But I also love a good story, which is probably why I read essays. Who can resist the genre’s uncanny alchemy of information and personal narrative steeped in the mind of a thoughtful observer? Life is chaos, as information is chaos, but the essay reveals order, structure, and meaning in both. It’s the kind of literature that helps us find, rather than escape ourselves—the essay as atlas to the heart, dictionary of our own self-definition or, as Mary Cappello describes it in her new book, an almanac to mood.

Cappello’s new collection of essays, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, is a 300-page thought experiment on mood, but calling it a collection doesn’t do justice to the scope of Cappello’s project. These essays don’t merely play off one another. They are distinct, stand-alone attempts at describing the often ineffable nature and origin of mood, part and parcel of one another—much the way that moods themselves are distinct and unique, but collectively make up the reality of who we are.

If you’ve read her book Awkward: A Detour, you’ll recognize in Life Breaks In what I call the Cappello Approach. It’s a disciplined, if idiosyncratic, dive into a subject, a Mariana Trench-level exploration that defies metaphor, or else demands a mixing. She’s not only turning her subject over to see it from every angle, but cutting it open, and cutting it up, tincturing bits in alcohol, grinding some into powder, spinning some in a centrifuge. Her subjects go under the knife and under the microscope; she looks under the hood and under the bed.

Subjects that get the Cappello Approach in this book, to name a few: clouds, the View-Master, family photos, mood rings, the physiology of hearing, parent/child relationships, taxidermy, dioramas, the classic children’s book Good Night Moon, and, most interestingly, a 19th-century orphanage-turned-natural-history-museum. Through all this, Cappello develops a subtle argument for mood as an essential piece of the self-discovery puzzle. She writes, “If mood defies representation, we should be protective of it, for it must have something to tell us that we cannot see and need to know.”

The Cappello approach is to the essay what I imagine the Swiss Army knife is to the toothpick, what Majong is to tic-tac-toe. In Life Breaks In, she confesses her love of “writing that resists its reader.” “I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol,” she writes. “Or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” Studious. Funky. Playful. Brooding. This is not a book you bring to the beach. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a joy to read. On the contrary, Cappello is the best kind of daunting. Life Breaks In is inspiring in the way of performances by preternaturally gifted musicians and athletes—a “wouldn’t it be great if I could jump that high, pluck strings that beautifully, sing with such grace, pull a double-pump-fake lay-in from under the rim with my tongue hanging out” type experience; except, it’s not Mike I want to be like, but Mary.

How about a classical author comparison? Cappello is at times as cerebral as Bacon, but where Bacon’s essays amount to a series of declarative statements that imply an immense amount of introspection, Cappello’s work is an immense amount of introspection that implies a series of assertions. If Bacon posits himself as a font of wisdom and right thinking, Cappello posits herself as a font of curiosity and deep thinking. And her mood is never Bacon, always Montaigne.

Near the beginning of Life Breaks In, Cappello claims, “in order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.” And it may be Cappello’s passion that comes through most clearly in this book—a passion wide enough and deep enough to encompass life and all its many moods.

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Joey Franklin’s first book, My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, won the 2015 Association of Mormon Letters book prize for nonfiction, and was a finalist the 2016 Utah Book Award. His essays have appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Gettysburg Review, and many other publications.  He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and is currently at work on a memoir about the saints and scoundrels hiding in his family tree.

True Stories, Podcasts, and Cult Music

December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

truestory-issue1-coverMatt Tullis has hosted 49 episodes of Gangrey: The Podcast so far, focusing on literary journalism, and how it is reported, written, edited, and revised.  In a recent installment, Tullis talks with Steven Kurutz, features reporter for the New York Times, about “Fruitland,” the story that launched Creative Nonfiction magazine’s new series, True Story.

“Fruitland” explores the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, “two brothers … who as teenagers in the late 1970s self-recorded an album in a log-cabin studio their father built for them on the family farm. The album, Dreamin’ Wild, flopped upon its release but was rediscovered in a junk shop in 2008 and reissued by Light in the Attic records to critical and cult acclaim–but not without bringing out ghosts from the past and taking an emotional toll and the brothers and their family.”

Also joining the podcast on this episode is Hattie Fletcher. Fletcher is the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction, and is editing each installment of True Story.

Give it a listen.

 

Summary Judgment

December 15, 2016 § 5 Comments

WTS

Write this as a scene?

A few days ago, I heard a writer read the first five pages of his brand-new manuscript in process, the first book he has ever tackled. It wasn’t the time to point out issues, it was the time for encouragement. Keep writing. You can do it. Don’t judge the first draft, just get it on the page.

But there were some issues. The same issues I see in most writers’ first drafts–often in my own first drafts. And the biggest issue was summarizing. We’ve all heard “show don’t tell,” and we all have some level of understanding what that means. But it’s hard to recognize and root out of our own work explanations that don’t serve the narrative.

One way to track down telling? Look for summaries.

He told her about the day he’d had, that he’d seen his boss and asked for a raise.

They met by moonlight and exchanged vows of eternal love.

If I were editing this imaginary book, I’d comment on the first sentence, “Can you write this as dialogue?” and on the second, “Can you write this as a scene?” These two comments end up in almost every manuscript I edit. They are so common, I have them set up as text-expanders. Just as we type “omw” and our phone helpfully texts “On my way!” I can type “wtd” or “wts” and pop out these key comments. (I have a number of text-expanders–my favorite is the very useful, “It’s hard to tell what this means–these words aren’t effectively carrying out your intention here,” which expands from “wtf.”)

Yes, there are times when summaries are useful. If we’ve just come out of the chapter where Prabhat has asked his boss for a raise and she threw a fax machine at him, we might open the next chapter with “He told her about the day he’d had.” Though I’d still push for Prabhat walking through the door on “I asked.” and rubbing his bruised head.

Think about the movie of your book in your head. Are you watching a scene play out in a location with people taking actions and talking to each other? Or are you hearing the protagonist’s voice, I told Ruth about the day I had, that I’d seen my boss and asked for a raise. I hoped she’d understand, but she said I deserved it and she was going home to her mother, narrating a silent movie or a series of snapshots?

“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean “describe everything,” as Joshua Henkin points out in Writer’s Digest. We don’t need all the furniture in the room. But first-draft summaries can often be treated as shorthand. We use descriptions of scenes and summaries of dialogues as placeholders, both consciously and as writing habits, and it’s much easier to revise a first draft than to work from a blank page. But whether it’s a narrative summary or your note to yourself-as-writer, PUT KITCHEN SCENE HERE WHERE THEY FIGHT AND SHE GOES HOME TO MOTHER, hunt down summaries in later drafts. When a character tells another character about something that happened somewhere else at another time, when you catch He explained that… and They discussed… and I told them… with no quotation marks in sight, mentally read those as:

“Scene to be written here.”

“This will eventually be dialogue.”

Consider them your own text-expanders.

 

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast and recently recorded the webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir, now available from Editors Canada.

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