Memoirs and Research: When Memories Aren’t Enough

February 3, 2023 § 7 Comments

By Ronnie Blair

My memory is clear. On a Sunday night when I was a child in the 1960s, my family gathered around our black-and-white TV to watch the much-anticipated moment when the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I sat breathlessly on the floor near the TV screen, not wanting to miss a moment. A few feet away a coal stove provided heat for me and for our tiny two-bedroom rental house. Just to my right was the entrance to the small kitchen where my mother whipped up banana pudding and other delights. But at this moment my mind was far from any sugary desserts that the kitchen offered because Sullivan was introducing those four guys from Liverpool and young women in his audience were starting to scream.

It’s a wondrous childhood memory of a pivotal moment in pop culture history. Unfortunately, it is faulty. The Beatles made their first appearance on Sullivan’s show on Feb. 9, 1964. My family moved from that two-bedroom house in 1963. Somehow, my brain mixed its signals, taking the image of me watching TV in one living room and melding it with me watching the Beatles in another house altogether.

In the grand scheme of things, no big deal. But, for anyone writing a memoir, it serves as a warning about how memories play tricks on us. When I was a journalist, skeptical people in newspaper newsrooms, understanding the need to question everything, liked to say: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” For memoirists, that can be adapted to: “If your memory tells you anything, check it out.”

Memoirs certainly are about our memories, whether the memoirist is conveying stories from childhood, the first year in a career, or a traumatic episode that changed their lives. But memories aren’t enough and need to be supplemented with good hard research.

Sometimes that’s because, like with the Beatles incident, memories betray us and research helps us avoid errors, small and large. There is also this: We add depth to our memoirs when we include historical, geographical, cultural, or other information. How many miles long is that river? Why did the city council change your hometown’s name a century ago? What TV shows were you likely watching while recovering from an illness in fifth-grade?

In one part of my memoir, I was writing about Christmas of 1966. I remembered it snowing that year, but could my memory have confused 1966 with another year? Or, is it possible that my memory just added snow because we associate Christmas with snow? Research showed that not only did it snow on Christmas Eve in 1966, but the eastern part of the country endured a major storm that created all sorts of havoc. My memory was confirmed and I added an extra layer of detail to my tale that I otherwise would not have had.

One of the great advantages of the age we live in is that so much information is available online. As long as we are careful about what sources we use, we don’t necessarily have to make a trip to the library or write to a government agency and wait for weeks to receive the document we requested. A Google search can even reveal source material we didn’t know existed, and so never would have asked for.

Two examples: A U.S. Department of Labor report about a 1959 steel strike helped me fill in some blanks about why my father was laid off from his coal mining job that year. A newspaper article about a long-closed theme park fleshed out details about the park that my memories from a 1965 visit could never have conjured.

Books also can be useful. My late father served in World War II and I wanted to write about his experiences, but the meager stories he told while alive and the dates and places on his discharge papers didn’t amount to a lot of material. Several war books came to my rescue. For example, the discharge papers said that, among other things, my father participated in the New Guinea campaign. What happened there? What would he have seen and suffered through? I discovered two books specific to that campaign that gave me the answers.

Be sure to cite your sources. In addition to crediting mine within the text, I included a bibliography.

Of course, you won’t be able to check everything. Your memoir likely will include anecdotes about events that happened to you and there exists no government record, newspaper article, or book that will confirm or refute them. As a youngster, I borrowed a friend’s pony one afternoon, an incident that became a humorous tale in my memoir, providing a lesson on being careful about what you wish for.

Once the animal’s owner left, it was just me, the pony, and an otherwise empty pasture, so I had absolutely nothing to go on but memory – reliable or not.
____

Ronnie Blair is lead writer in public relations for Advantage Media Group. He is also author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

When Our Words Become a Commodity

January 31, 2023 § 11 Comments

What happens when we write private conversations?

By Trish McDonald

“Thank you for loving me,” he whispered as I turned up the hem on his velvet Christmas dress. No one had ever thanked me for loving them.

I look at my draft. Should our words be kept private? Am I cheapening them by sharing? Is this a fear other writers have? Do they parse their words to protect loved ones? I can write this, but never that.

“Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us,” writes Lily King in Euphoria, a fictional account of a brief period in the life of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead. It’s the story of a field expedition to New Guinea, a love triangle, and professional rivalry between the researchers. At one point, Nell Stone (Mead) decides to publish her notes in her name only, instead of including her husband. In retrospect, she realizes her publication of their private conversations will destroy the relationship.

As I’m reading King’s words, I stop and reread the sentence. A warning. I copy the sentence down, underlining, highlighting. If I publish our words, will it harm our relationship?

Would our words become a commodity, publicly traded, like a stock? Would they yield merchandise like T-shirt sayings, coffee mugs, bumper stickers? 

I decide on autofiction as my narrative form and keep writing. I’m introduced to the voice, the method, and the stirrings of courage I’d need via Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Chee used essays. In my story of gender fluidity, I would attack my own biases— perfectionism, shame, unworthiness. At the age of seventy-seven, amid the expectations of the culture where I live in Florida, in the current political climate, I plot my strategy to leave a legacy of hope.

After Paper Bags was published, I feared judgment by others because of my revelations. Curiosity had driven me to write about gender fluidity and a sense of wonder helped me to accept things I didn’t understand. I imagined I’d be an activist and stand on a platform, but for now I’m happy to be a bridge to a deeper conversation about human rights.

Who do our written words belong to? Once published they become a product—vendible, material, and for a lucky few, evergreen. I’m of the “No Expiration on Dreams” philosophy. I’ve picked out the artwork for Paper Bags greeting cards, sticky notes, and guest towels. They’re embellished with: Thank you for loving me.

________

Trish McDonald is the author of Paper Bags, a story of self-discovery, metamorphosis, and gender fluidity. According to her DNA profile, McDonald is 86% Irish. For a storyteller, this “blarney” heritage comes in handy when writing about issues of trauma. An avid camper, McDonald lives in a tiny house in an RV park in Southwest Florida. Her writing has appeared in Oldster Magazine, Maudlin House, and Shout-Out Miami. Learn more about her work at her website.

Swimming Out of the Safe Zone

January 25, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Rose Saltman

It’s that time of year again…the comment desk is looking for your evergreen pitches for December/January. Send to [The Guardian] with SUMMER PITCH in the subject line.

This tweet arrived towards the end of October. There was no guidance on word limit—I’d asked—so I decided to punt on a piece that suited the theme and was ready to go. My pitch celebrated the delight of ocean swimming in Australia and cited a 30-year history of doing laps at my local beach, one of Sydney’s most loved destinations, as evidence that I was qualified to write about this topic.

I was about to follow up two weeks later when I received an email from the deputy opinion editor.

Thank you for sending this piece. This is a lovely read, but with more than 3,000 words it’s too long for our purposes. Would you be open to editing your piece down to around 1,000 words? Thank you for considering it, best wishes.

I didn’t reply immediately. The piece was barely out of the starting gate, with only two other journals having declined it. I could put The Guardian’s offer to one side and keep trying to find a home for the long version. Going down this path, of course, risked rolling rejections.

The alternative was to grab the offer with both hands. The Guardian has a daily print-edition circulation of 111,000 and more than one million digital subscriptions worldwide. Half of the latter are outside the UK, dominated by US, Australian and European Union readers. Who was I to be precious about an acceptance predicated on something shorter?

The editor suggested I do the first cut, offering tips on where to start. Excising content peripheral to the theme—the boats I swam past, my wetsuit, a waterfront restaurant—dropped the word count to 2,700. I was now in uncharted territory, having to decide what more to prune without losing the general structure of the piece. I’d done it often enough with other writers’ work. Could I do it with my own?

I began with easy fixes: turning passive into active voice and whittling away at adverbs and adjectives. “I stop for long enough to line up a passage that will lead me to…” became “I line up a passage to….” A paragraph that wasn’t germane to the story took care of 121 words.

I assumed readers would know that the top of a hill is a good spot for admiring the view, shedding another four. The word count fell with each click of the shears, but if I wanted to get anywhere near the target, I’d have to be ruthless.

A sadness overcame me. I’d spent weeks crafting my story, its rhythms and cadences redolent of my intimacy with the ocean. It spoke to, for and of me as well as the collective that shares my enthusiasm for ocean swimming. To see this exercise through to the end I would need to don the mantle of executioner, killing darlings as dispassionately as a bulldozer clearing centuries-old oaks for a freeway.

I asked myself: did the reader need to know the history of daily sea temperature recordings (107 words), how swimmers feel about shark threats (170 words) or that the former net was both an eyesore and trapped rubbish (151 words)? No. The test was always the same: whether the piece could stand without this or that sentence or paragraph. If the answer was “yes,” out it went.

I was at 1,200 words, amazed that I’d shaved more than 60 per cent off the original. I emailed my draft to the editor. That’s a wrap, I thought.

Days passed with no response. Surely The Guardian hadn’t changed its mind?

I followed up at the end of November. Yes, things were still ticking along, she said, and I’d hear in the coming weeks about further edits and a publication date.

The editor contacted me two days before Christmas.

Thanks for your patience with this. I’ve now done some more edits additionally to the ones you’ve done, and which are great. The piece is now at around 850 words, which is perfect for our purposes. Please let me know if there’s an issue, preferably today, as it’s my last day before going on leave for two weeks.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty words? I didn’t believe that a work of such brevity could be a creature of mine. Gone were ignorant swimmers, memories of childhood squad training, how I navigated a course through moored boats, and why I had to cut short a winter swim due to hypothermia. I asked my husband for his opinion. We agreed that it was faithful to the intent of the original.

In taking the word count to 835—I double-checked!—the editor had spotted what I could no longer see: further opportunity to trim fat without compromising the piece’s cohesion.

A Solitary Morning Ocean Swim is a Salty Sanctuary for Introverts like Me was published on 27 December 2022 and syndicated across The Guardian’s global network. The response at home and abroad, has been overwhelming.

___

Rose Saltman is an urban planner, writer and editor who lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure, Overland Literary Journal and The Guardian, among others. She blogs at Someplace in Sydney. You can reach her at her website.

‘Caught up in the Jaws’: Writing for Theme

January 23, 2023 § 1 Comment

In our latest Craft Essay offerings, Aaron Gilbreath demonstrates how “theme” in nonfiction can “expand the gaze of one person’s life to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships.” Here’s an excerpt from Aaron’s wonderfully useful essay:

Without a universal theme, personal essayists can end up writing anecdotes or catalogues of events that lapse into myopia and fail to connect our experience with readers’ experience. An anecdote is defined as “a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” To that I would add it’s “something that limits, rather than expands, a personal story’s interest, and largely confines that interest to the people in the anecdote.” A harsher take would be “something that makes a story insular, provincial, or boring.” Since anecdotes are stories of limited scope, they limit their readers. Some aren’t even stories: They lack the structure of beginning, middle, and end, and fail to extrapolate meaning from the chronology they string together. …

Think of theme this way: Themes make personal experience universal by relating your private experience to the reader’s experience, and to the larger human condition. Let the reader see themselves in you. They will connect to your personal essay if they can relate to you through your story’s theme. Themes expand the gaze of one person’s life—usually our protagonist’s—to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships. Every story is about something more than its events. Things happen, yes, but what do they tells us about ourselves and our world? How does your chronology of personal events distill meaning that strangers—your readers—can relate to? As the writer, you must really work that rich thematic vein beyond plot. You want to show readers why this story is relevant.

You can read Aaron Gilbreath’s full discussion of “theme” in Our Craft Section, here.

Exposing My Truth

January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Regina Landor

My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”

I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.

But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?

I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?

Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?

She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.

The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.

Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.

She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”

Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?

I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.

I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.

This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?

It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.

I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.

Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!

The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.

___

Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.

A Whole Life: Essay Collection as Miscellany

January 6, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Steven Harvey

The beech tree rising in our bow window finds its own shape without any help from me. It is a gift from my friend, the artist and naturalist Dale Cochran, who walked the woods with me before I built my house spotting which trees to keep. “Definitely that one,” he said pointing to the healthy beech sapling with a split trunk, each one about as wide as my arm, that I have watched bulk up mightily over the years. He was right. In the summer it sprouts lovely, light-green leaves that turn coppery in the winter and rattle in the wind, and the bark is a smooth gray with scars that mark any blow it has taken. The word “book” can be traced back to beech tablets where the ancients carved sacred texts in runes, and in German and other modern European languages the word for book and beech are the same. As I wrote the essays that eventually filled the collection called The Beloved Republic, the tree inspired me.

The Beloved Republic began as separate essays that over a quarter century of writing became a book. While I worked on it, I raised four children and enjoyed five grandchildren with one more on the way, taught at one college, played in one musical group with whom I still perform, and lived with my wife in this house where I have spent nearly half of my life. The book had no predetermined focus. While I wrote it, I became who I am, and it tagged along, and in the shadow of the tree that looms overhead, I slowly discovered what it was about. The essay as a form began in this desultory way, as a loose collection on random subjects that Michel de Montaigne called essais, the French word for attempts. Some of the finest collections in the past likewise grew organically out of the author’s life finding their shape over time. Many, like mine, began as magazine pieces and later, almost as an afterthought, were collected in books. This kind of nonfiction miscellany has fallen out of fashion, I fear. Contemporary readers and publishers apparently prefer a focused book that drives home one idea, predetermined or discovered early by the writer. These focused collections take the shape that the author consciously gives them in advance. Thoreau’s Walden with its theme of living deliberately boldly announced in its first essay is an example.

What I admire about the miscellany is that it is held together not by a vision, discovered early and pursued single-mindedly, but by a whole life. As essayists put together such collections written over decades, they do not explore a concept or a set of related concepts; rather, they reveal who they are, and, perhaps, why they are here. Like the beech, they grow into themselves over time. It is not easy going for the reader who has to begin anew with each essay and in this the miscellany is much like a book of poems, meant to be read slowly, but as in poetry, the rewards can be great as reader joins writer on a quest to discover willy-nilly what one life is about. There is an intimacy in this method, a sense that the parts are cherished, glowing by their own light without ulterior motive.

But if the writer is lucky, the sum is greater than its parts, and a vision, as well as a life, can emerge, and that is what happened for me in my book. The glue, the ultimately unifying discovery of The Beloved Republic, is the old idea that creativity is valuable in itself, a view that goes in and out of favor. In an age when the planet and its people face unthinkable, unspeakable horrors, the need for social relevance is obvious, but as I wrote, I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political. It generally brings out the best in us and helps us weather evil. Those who do this work form the “Beloved Republic,” a phrase E. M. Forster coined for the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. He described it as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” They are “sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They form an invincible army of losers in the service of love. My book slowly opening in surprises over decades can be read as dispatches from this beleaguered land. It grew into the idea and, like the beech, took its own, sweet time.
__

Steven Harvey is the author The Beloved Republic which won The Wandering Aengus Press Award and will be published in early 2023. His books include a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a book-length essay, Folly Beach, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove.  He is a founding faculty member at the Ashland University MFA, a Contributing Editor at River Teeth, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website. He lives in the north Georgia mountains with his wife, Barbara.

Writing Despite the Odds

January 4, 2023 § 3 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

We write nonfiction to witness the world. We write nonfiction because we believe in its power to reflect reality, and so we hold up our observations to readers like an offering. But chronicling contemporary culture is difficult when the world no longer makes sense.

I began writing my latest book, Halfway from Home, at the start of what seemed like the end of the world. When the pandemic began, time stretched on but also seemed to be running out. The environment was on the verge of collapse, as was my emotional state. Like the climate, my family back on the West Coast was in crisis, but I could not help them from my place on the East Coast. Existing in my real life—to say nothing of writing about it!—sometimes seemed hopeless.

I wrote memoir to replace harsh reality with sweet nostalgia. I wrote about the many places I’d called home—California coasts where tidepools were full of starfish, Nebraska prairies with roots so deep they could survive fires—because I could not go back to visit. I wrote about a natural world that was full of abundance—monarchs gathering together for warmth each winter near my childhood home, my family fed on fields full of tart berries—because everything was on the verge of extinction. I wrote about my many adventures with my father—digging in my childhood treasure hole, polishing ordinary rocks to shine like gems—because I did not know when I would see him again, or, after he was diagnosed with cancer, if I would at all.

The memories of the past soothed me, but they also supported me. The fears and frustrations I felt during my daily doomscroll were augmented with memories of kindness, compassion, and community. The anger I felt over humanity’s apathy was replaced with agency as I chose what stories I wanted to share. As I crafted the narrative of my life, my feelings of hopelessness were replaced with a deep appreciation.

Soon I felt strong enough to reflect on the present. I wrote about the collective grief Americans faced watching our natural and national landscapes under attack. I wrote about how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. This writing helped me to process the pain and understand my anger, but it also helped me to develop compassion. Much of my grief came from feeling alone, but nonfiction requires us to broaden beyond the personal to create something akin to universal meaning, and by doing so, I regained the kinship I’d been missing.

Writing memoir about the past and present also prepared me for the future. This is not to say that writing prevented painful realities. The pandemic continues, along with new threats. National and natural landscapes grow increasingly hostile, and we collectively ache for what is lost. Human connection is disappearing even as our yearning for it increases, and we bear the burdens of so much grief. We have lost our sense of safety, our ability to pay bills, our hope that things will get better. Many of us have lost the ones we love.

Now when I feel helpless, I sit down to write because this gives me the power to shape the world on the page. Nonfiction puts us in the role of the observer and this practice invites us to not only witness and record, but to acquire agency through the act of writing. As humans, we often feel whittled down by the world, but as writers, we are the ones who shape creation with our stories.

When I feel lonely and afraid and full of grief for the things I cannot control, I turn to witness. I watch a red fox find sustenance in the dead of a winter that seems like it will never end. As the spring bursts forth in fragrant bloom, I watch bees busy at the clover and a million shoots unfurling themselves from the frozen ground. In summer, I spy deer wandering through the yard with their wobbly fawns. By fall, they are grown, another year almost gone.

Noticing this way inspires the wonder of my childhood and takes me back to a time before the world changed and the chaotic news cycle began. A time before so many of us were separated from our families and even our country seemed a stranger. A time before we were on the edge of environmental and emotional collapse.

If I can observe beauty and joy in the world, I can share this with others through my craft. No longer is memoir a means to escape, but instead a moment to memorialize.

So even as the earth aches, I notice a great blue heron swooping low through my Massachusetts yard on its way to roost. This takes me back many years and a lifetime ago to when I lived in Nebraska and the sandhill cranes that did the same, returning to the same nesting ground for thousands of years to hatch their young, to ensure their survival despite the world’s many dangers.

And I recall the robins my father showed me during my California childhood, back when he was still alive. The creatures were open-mouthed and wailing, determined to fly even though they did not seem ready for what the world would offer. Their shells were blue jewels, small as a thimble, as a whispered prayer. It was easy to miss the cracked halves, if you weren’t careful. If you didn’t pay attention. Witness requires guidance, and my father taught me to watch.

How the birds flew, took to the sky despite the odds.
____

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

The Celestial Vault

December 22, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Deborah M. Prum

Years ago, I read a book that animated and forever changed my creative process.

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says, “It is a universal experience that a work of art has no existence apart from its translation into material form.”

That is, people think a painting doesn’t exist before it’s painted, a sculpture before it’s sculpted, or a story before it’s written.

But Sayers went on to posit that a work of art, let’s say a story, not only lives in our minds before we write it, but exists before that first thought inspires us.

Her unconventional idea moved me to envision a celestial dome, a ceiling resplendent with a riotous swath of lustrous stars splashed across a blue so deep and dark you could lose yourself in the magnificence. I imagined the arched archive housing my creation, glimmering outside my experience of time and space.

With my story orbiting in that space, all I need to do is inch my way toward an entity that already exists. As words pour out of my soul and the piece emerges, it’s as if I’ve ascended into the vault and embraced my creation. And if I wind up deliberating over every word, that’s fine, too. Either way, I feel less anxiety during the process.

I’m driven to finish most tasks as quickly as possible. My fiction projects, though, may linger in limbo for years. The concept of a vault helps me relax as I wait for the rest of the tale to emerge.  The waiting is never static. New experiences and discoveries inform and change me—often providing what I need to complete a story. Rather than force myself to churn out a product, I allow myself space to be attentive and expectant.

The Celestial Vault [Unsplash]

As a writer, I’ve struggled with self-doubt. Early on, I’d ask, “Can I even call myself a writer?” Mid-career, I’d admit to being a writer, but question whether I was successful. Now, I wonder if I was successful enough. But, when I remember to view my writing as a calling and see myself as receiving a story that I’ve somehow already created, my doubts dissipate.

This perspective enables me to risk multiple failures at the start of a creative venture. I’m more likely to fling myself into the process, to explore a new style, a new genre. This has led me to write poetry, young adult fiction, audiobooks and iBooks.

Quantum physicists might not think the idea of a celestial vault so strange. Many believe that the past, present and future happen all at once.

To help us understand that concept, Brian Randolph Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and co-founder of the World Science Festival, suggests we picture a giant loaf of bread, each slice a life parallel to the other slices, all part of the same loaf, all lives happening at the same time. Past and future are merely perspectives, different slices of that long loaf.

What if we creatives were to think of time as a long loaf of bread, each slice a bit of glittering eternity? Furthermore, what if we were to envision a celestial vault arching over slices of that loaf, a personal, heavenly shelter for all our creations, past, present and future?

One can poke holes in the idea of a celestial vault. We know all that glitters is not gold. There is no guarantee that the world will consider my completed creation as brilliant or to even have merit.

So what?

Perfection isn’t the point. This way of thinking is an invitation to a life of joyful creation. Ms. Sayers might be rolling in her grave at the liberties I’ve taken with her book, but I’d have to say, it works for me.

___

Deborah M. Prum’s non-fiction has appeared in The Washington Post, Southern Living, Ladies’ Home Journal and elsewhere. Her radio essays have aired on NPR-member stations. Her fiction has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin, The Virginia Writers Centennial Anthology, and elsewhere. Her articles on writing have appeared in The Writer, The Writer’s Handbook and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin. Deborah leads workshops on topics such as giving voice to grief and forgiveness, writing history for young adults, and humor writing. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A Publishing Contract: When Jupiter Aligns with Mars

December 14, 2022 § 61 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

Finally, after a year spent fretting over the difference between a synopsis and an overview, what to include in a proposal, which comp titles are actually comparable, and submitting my manuscript to more than 20 small presses I had three offers for publication.

The first was contingent on my changing the structure, because “essay collections don’t sell.” I’d need to rewrite the book in a more traditional memoir format. Excited to have an offer, I considered it; even spent some time working on the rewrite. But it went against my vision for the book. I want it to be read in the bite sized pieces a bereaved person can manage.

We bereaved can’t focus. Our attention spans are gnats, buzzing around our heads for seconds at a time. By the time we’ve read one chapter we’ve lost our place, can’t remember how we got here. Where are my keys? Did I feed the cat? What month is it? Do I even care?

The second offer came from a small press with some good titles and interesting cover designs, though after a call with an editor, that one didn’t feel right either. It’s hard to explain. The edges were jagged. There was a vague unsettledness and I felt myself holding back, my enthusiasm waning. But who am I to be picky? Shouldn’t I grab the first offer I get? Alliteration notwithstanding, what fun I would have withdrawing all those submissions. “I’ve accepted an offer of publication. Thank you for your consideration.”

Sure, we all dream of a traditional publisher, not necessarily one of the big five, but a press with some heft. A well-known name. An editor who shares our vision. A robust social media presence.  Some gorgeous cover designs. But the universe opened her arms to me through the little press that accepted my manuscript. To paraphrase the well-known song from the musical  Hair, for once “Jupiter aligned with Mars.”

The offer came from Apprentice House, a small university press in Baltimore, my hometown. Loyola University is my alma mater. It’s where I first started writing about my daughter’s suicide for what became my master’s thesis.

As I looked at the books Apprentice House had published, I noticed one by Michael Olesker, a former syndicated columnist for The Baltimore Sun newspaper. His wife was one of two midwives at the Baltimore Birth Center where my daughter entered the world. Although not present for the delivery, she came to our home the following day for a postpartum visit. Seeing her name brought me back, full circle, to the time of my daughter’s beginning.

When I started thinking about requesting blurbs, one of the first people I thought of was an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins whom I’d met because of a serendipitous flyer posted in an elevator when I worked as an RN at the hospital. He taught a popular course in bereavement in the Pastoral Care program at Loyola. I contacted him and he asked me to send the manuscript.

Whether I’ll get that blurb remains to be seen, though I marvel at how everything is finally coming together. I’ve seen it happen so often now, for writer friends. I still grapple with feeling happy about it. How can I be happy to be publishing a book that I wish I could not have written? Writing the essays in this collection was sometimes excruciating. Why couldn’t I put it behind me? Why couldn’t I move on?  

To write about grief, especially the suicide of a child, feels risky. The stigma is real. Will readers judge me? After all, what the hell kind of mother could I be? My child took her life and I’m capitalizing on it, seeking attention by writing a book. Even including some humor. What the hell is wrong with me?

I can only tell you that when newly bereaved, I wanted nothing more than to read authentic stories by real people who had survived the most terrible loss imaginable. Stories that would show me it was possible to find a place of bearable sorrow. I hope my stories will do that for someone else. 

___

Eileen‘s work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives,” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. “How to be the Mother of a Dead Girl” was a finalist in the Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Contest.  Eileen’s forthcoming essay collection received a Gold Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and was chosen 1st runner-up unpublished book of the year.

The Body is Nonfiction

December 13, 2022 § 45 Comments

Learning to become aware of our story at a cellular level

By Charlotte Wilkins

It’s old but flawlessly restored, glinting metallic new-penny paint, a color that didn’t exist “back then.” A Chevy pickup, the 1940’s shape unmistakable. I’ll have to wait till it passes to pull into the street.

The truck reels past, the shutter freezing on a single frame in my windshield. Sound, movement, thought, breath all suspended, my fingers clamp round the steering wheel, foot jams harder on the brake. Bodily reactions leaving brain cells to catch up or ‘fess up. In The Body Keeps the Score, noted trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk, MD writes, “trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”

Now there’s a catch in my mind like a crochet hook reaching, turning, dipping to pick up the next strand, chaining one loop of memory to the next. Neuronic dendrites reaching back into my hippocampus, attempting to connect body sensations and pickup trucks with a “back when” event. Something, still wordless, is being remembered in the body.

Sometimes a writing instructor suggests we should re-create a past event in our body so we can write about the experience. Re-creating engages the thinking process and attempts to produce a likeness to the original experience, rather than first becoming physically aware of sensory information stored in the body. In Tell it Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola encourage the writer to pay attention to the body’s sense gateways, which will lead to writing

. . . in a way that naturally embodies experience, making it tactile for the reader. Readers tend to care deeply only about those things they feel in the body at a visceral level. We experience the world through our senses. We must translate that experience into the language of the senses as well.

At the next stoplight, the driver’s thick, hairy arm elbows out the small window. Compelled by an intractable gut-goading, I roll down my passenger window, lamely calling, “Looks great!” then throw in a thumbs-up.

“Thanks,” he tosses down, as I lie indecorously stretched across my Prius’s center console, face craning up at him in the little cab.

“Brings back memories,” I babble on.    

He laughs.

I tear up.    

I’m crying over a 1940’s Chevy pickup?

We can re-create sensory elements as a writing technique, or we can learn to become aware of our story at a cellular level. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir holds that, “The key to writing that shows rather than tells is the senses.” We can begin by becoming aware of bodily sensations within a specific memory—taste, sound, smell, touch and sight—a trustworthy place to start. 

The light changes and the Chevy truck rolls on. My Adam’s apple clutches at the flood of tears as my body pushes forward a long-forgotten first stick shift lesson with my then-husband. I turn left, swatting my eyes with the back of my hand, the 75-year-old skin so dry it could be a towel. The 50-year-old incident reels out on my interior movie screen:

A crayon blue sky

me hunched in the driver’s seat of our 1941 Chevy pickup, hands nervously circling the smooth steering wheel, pebbly brown bench seat smelling like warm oilcloth

his taunts and snickering laugh

my sweaty terror as the truck slides backwards downhill at the stop sign, stick shift jumping under my hand, legs unsure whether to brake or clutch

the grating grind of gears mis-shifting

him cursing me.

We are born with the ability to be aware. During the 25 years I’ve taught meditation and mindfulness, I’ve amused and irritated my students with the emphatic comment, “Thinking is overrated!” hoping to shimmy them out of their heads, into the truth residing in their bodies. But of course, we are thinking creatures and for our writing to be full-bodied, we need both the sensory body and thinking brain, the showing and telling. We can learn the language of our body’s lived experiences and bring that truth, which ultimately is a universal truth, to the page.

The fear, humiliation, and fury warehoused in my cells, cavities, and crevices for five decades was unlocked by a passing truck. But I’m aware this is a re-run. I allow the film to spool out. Years of meditation allows me to access, accept and appreciate my body’s cellular memory and how it helps me discover my true nonfiction. I keep in mind that whatever shards and shadows show up, I’ve already survived them. I’m not there and they aren’t here. The memory has no agency. Now I’m here as a witness, not a victim.

____

Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep. Find her at charwilkins.com

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