September 22, 2021 § 16 Comments
By Mary J. Breen
In the many memoir classes I’ve taught, I’ve blithely told my students that since writing might stir up old and difficult feelings, it was good to pay attention as they can teach us a lot. By old feelings I meant flashes of anger or frustration, or the reawakened pain of old wounds. I assumed the arrival of these stirred-up feelings would be very obvious.
Then I started writing about my mother.
Some background: I was born in 1944, the only child of 41-year-old, devout Catholics. To my kind and loving father, I was a miracle; to my mother, I was a gift, but also a project. She was going to be the exemplary mother of an exemplary child, and to achieve this, she would use the same guiding principles that had made her an exemplary teacher: be completely in charge and know all the answers. And so, she set about trying to have absolute control over me: what I ate, wore, read, played, said, and learned. To get my compliance, she didn’t hesitate to use sudden hard smacks and loud anger. (I wonder if she ever understood how afraid I became of her, and if she thought this was how it should be.) When I was a teenager and later an adult, she continued her attempts to mould me through relentless criticisms of my looks, actions, thoughts, opinions, and decisions. But it didn’t work. I became her great and embarrassing failure, and a heathen to boot. Her shame, her stubbornness, and her fury increased with every passing year to the point that she wouldn’t allow me and my children to visit, and in her will, she left most of her treasured things, including her house, to people I didn’t even know.
Forty years after her death, I no longer hear her scoldings playing in my head, and I would have said that I have, for the most part, put her criticisms behind me. Of course, I’ve talked about her and thought about her a great deal over the years. I’ve also published many memoir pieces, but I hadn’t before tried to spell out in detail the exact nature of my mother’s tyranny. I didn’t unearth new significant memories during the writing process, but the writing certainly helped to give me a better understanding of my parents and their choices. It also led me to feel more sympathy for her, and it showed me that her loneliness in her later years was not all my doing. It also gave me the freedom to say publically that, despite how many people—including my dear, dear father—loved and admired her, she was wrong to have treated me this harshly. It’s even allowed me to move closer to accepting that, like it or not, she was my mother.
While I was writing, I felt neither sad nor angry nor fearful, just very preoccupied. Then, a month or so in, I began to feel nervous and vulnerable at home—but only at home. My partner would say something like, “What have you been doing today?” and I’d immediately feel afraid, sure I was going to have to account for how I’d spent my day, and sure this was the beginning of the kind of interrogation my mother specialized in that would lead to criticism and punishment. More and more, I found myself within a fog of apprehension, with moments of genuine fear when I was asked to make decisions about utterly minor things like what we might cook for dinner. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t yet connect these new feelings with writing about my mother.
And then, a few weeks later, I happened to read something that reminded me of how memoir writing can trigger old emotions, and the penny dropped: could it be that I was actually being ambushed by old feelings of fear and anxiety because I was writing about them? Could it be that the writing had rekindled the feelings I’d had so often when I lived with her? Was this why it seemed as if I had been thrown back to a time when my mother governed me and my life? With this realization, the thinking part of my brain woke up and set about reminding me that my mother would not be descending from above—as she had been wont to do in real life—ready to persecute me for whatever I had chosen to do. Moreover, it reminded me that I do not live with someone who picks on me, and reacting to this patient, kind person in my current life as if he were a threat was very unfair. As I paid more attention to the feelings, the incongruity between what I knew and what I felt became more understandable and less overwhelming. And within this process, these distressing feelings mostly faded away.
I don’t know if what I experienced is commonplace. I don’t know if feelings from the past often arrive like a kind of covert mission, infiltrate the brain unannounced, and then appear as if they belonged in one’s current life. I don’t know how long these periods typically last, nor how intense they can be. I also don’t know the best ways to handle them.
What I do know is that when my students are writing about the past, I plan to be much clearer in my warnings about how subtle and challenging these feelings can be. It certainly has been a huge reminder that we can never fully understand the landscape of our hearts.
If Brevity readers have thoughts about this issue, I, and maybe others too, would love to hear them.
Mary J. Breen has been a writer and editor for the last 25 years. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including The Toast, Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Windsor Review. She also spent several years writing and editing easy-to-read health information. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada where, among other things, she sometimes teaches creative nonfiction and memoir classes while continuing her fruitless search for a publisher for her memoir.
August 13, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Suzanne Farrell Smith
One of the many measures my sons’ elementary school has in place for pandemic-time in-person learning is file boxes: an open box under each chair to hold all personal materials, so no one shares crayons or germs. Smart—in theory. In practice, the boxes are a bit of a mess. In and out go folders, books, pencils, markers, stickers, rulers, paper clips, paper masks, notes from home, notes for home, open hand sanitizer bottles, used tissues, animal crackers, empty juice boxes, pepperoni, Cheetos. The box is like a closet without bars and shelves. A catch-all with no way to catch.
I love my closets with their bars and shelves, dedicated boxes and bins. As a highly organized person, I hang my dresses from sleeveless to long sleeve, knee-length to ankle. My tops are sorted by color, then by pattern. Towels are stacked by shape. My closets are 3D Excel spreadsheets.
When I think of creative nonfiction, I think of the genre as a wide-open box, one that is ever expanding to include more shapes and inventions. I love it. But … well, I like my bars and shelves, my containers.
To better understand the contours and corners of creative nonfiction, I organize the genre. Using Sue William Silverman’s definitions in “The Meandering River,” I’ve built a spreadsheet that arranges the subgenres by focus and length. I’ve developed a list of characteristics for each subgenre and a list of characteristics specific to brief pieces. I’ve catalogued my library by content and again by type (traditional memoir, experimental memoir, essay collections, etc.). I like to find things easily. I like to know a type of writing when I see it. I like to place essays in conversation with each other, to read similarly styled pieces in one sitting, to learn more about the whole by reading lots of the parts.
The resource I use most often, in both teaching and writing, is my list of what makes creative nonfiction writing good. Before I share the list, a caveat: search “traits of good writing” and you’ll find pages for days. When I taught elementary school, my colleagues and I assessed our students’ work with “6 Traits” and, later, “6 + 1 Traits” from Education Northwest. To evaluate my undergraduate students’ essays, I used the campus writing center’s 10-characteristic rubric. Teaching graduate school, I offered a four-criteria scale on creative works. (These resources are included below this post.)
Adult writers are my students now, and over the past few years, I’ve combined and condensed the lists into one that I find easy to teach, apply, and remember. The list is a touchstone for my students when they ask for and provide specific feedback and as a means to closely evaluate their prose. Good creative nonfiction writing is COCOC: clear, organized, coherent, original, and correct.
- Clear: The writing is clear, both at the macro level and sentence level. It has a strong core, or purpose/central idea. (Recall being asked “What is the main idea?” on reading comprehension tests.) The piece reads fluently. If an essay is clear, readers are not lost in time and space. Readers don’t re-read sentences or paragraphs searching for context. The only questions readers ask are the ones the writer wants them to ask.
- Organized: The piece has a form, shape/controlling design, and structure. For example, for a particular story, I might choose the subgenre of personal essay (form), use a symmetrical pattern to swing back and forth between the personal and the universal (shape), and decide where to start, where to end, and how much of each side to include (structure).
- Coherent: Summaries, scenes, and details support the core. Nothing seems like a diversion too far afield. Everything hangs together (like a well-organized closet).
- Original: The voice is distinct and reveals identity and personality. There’s evident commitment to telling a true story with craft and connecting in an honest, intimate way with readers. The writer has taken care to say things in new ways.
- Correct: Rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation are followed. If a rule is broken, it’s intentional and meaningful.
For very brief pieces, I add a sixth trait: compressed. Like a peony on the verge of blooming, a small wonder, or flash, contains a showstopper inside a bud no bigger than a marble.
The funny thing about all my defining and listing is that I edit a journal called Waterwheel Review, and we don’t label the pieces we publish by genre. Not creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry. Nothing. We let the author decide what it is and let readers decide how to receive it. And we infuse each issue with other arts: music, film, painting, sculpture, a science project, a video of two men chopping logs for a fence. As a teacher and writer, I order everything. As a publisher, I let Waterwheel be a big ole file box.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of The Memory Sessions, a memoir about her search for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a guidebook for writing teachers. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for her essay “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity. She teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop, mentors emerging authors, reads for Longridge Review, and is founding editor of Waterwheel Review. Suzanne lives by a creek in the Connecticut woods with her husband and three sons. More can be found at suzannefarrellsmith.com.
Elementary (6 + 1 Traits from Education Northwest)
- Ideas: The student has a main point or storyline with supporting details. The writing has clarity, focus, and a sense of purpose.
- Organization: There’s a sound internal structure of the piece. The student organizes, groups, and sequences.
- Voice: The student brings the topic to life by showing enthusiasm for writing. The writing shows evidence of the writer’s personality and style.
- Word choice: The student understands there are different ways to say things and stretches to use new words and phrases.
- Sentence Fluency: The writing has rhythm and flow, with a variety of sentence structures and lengths.
- Conventions: The student shows awareness of spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, and capitalization.
- Presentation: The student has taken care with the overall appearance of the work.
Undergraduate (points range from 1 to 5 for each)
- The essay is coherent.
- The essay is clear.
- The essay makes a well-organized argument.
- The essay proposes an original perspective or otherwise advances an existing debate.
- Adequate research is included.
- The essay effectively uses quotations, summary, and paraphrase.
- The essay uses details and examples effectively.
- Paragraphs are clear, focused and structurally sound.
- Transitions between sentences and paragraphs skillfully move the writing forward.
- Standard English grammar is correctly used.
Graduate (points range from 1 to 25 for each)
- The piece tells one true story with a central conflict and resolution/learning.
- The piece includes actions, details, and dialogue to bring the true story to life.
- The piece is clear, coherent, and organized.
- The piece is on time; has been revised through the writing process; is edited and proofread for conventions; includes name, the title, and page numbers; is double-spaced in a standard 12-point font.
July 16, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Linda Downing Miller
I’ve taught a weekly memoir and creative writing class for more than six years through the Center for Life and Learning, in Chicago. September to June, the CLL offers a variety of educational programs for adults 60 and older. Each meeting of memoir brings about a dozen participants together to read their writing aloud. Their life stories fill and enrich our sessions. Writers get to know one-another as they deepen their understanding of how writing engages an audience.
My job during class is to keep the process moving so everyone has time to be heard, to lead and guide follow-up comments that help writers learn and improve, and to offer a prompt at the end of each meeting that sparks their creativity for next time. Good prompts help writers unearth, explore, and find meaning in memories they may not have thought about for years.
I took on this role without thinking much about how I would come up with new prompts. The friend who taught the class before she connected me with the opportunity seemed to find ideas all around her. Fresh from a low-residency MFA program where I relished our in-depth writing discussions, I was eager to share the passion.
For my first class, I brought an old New Yorker piece by John McPhee called “Silk Parachute,” in which he remembers his mother and a toy she once bought for him. (As with all wonderful essays, it can’t be summarized.) Sharing the piece in class, I tried not to let my voice catch at the perfection of the ending. Then I offered this prompt to the writers in the room: write about a childhood toy, or an object or piece of clothing from your childhood, that has stayed in your mind. Writers returned the next week with their “homework.”
I quickly realized the constraints of our 90 minutes together meant teaching was more like coaching, a little bit here and a little bit there, around the main event of their work. But by sharing examples of published writing each week and creating prompts inspired by that writing, I could call attention to different features, styles, voices, and forms. It wasn’t long before Brevity became a regular resource for me.
Write about where you were and what you were doing when something “big” happened in the world. (Read “In Orbit,” by Brenda Miller.)
Write about something you did on a regular basis on one particular day. (Read “Solstice,” by Joanne Lozar Glenn.)
Write about a fight or a time when you said something you wished you hadn’t. (Read “Girl Fight,” by Joey Franklin.)
Write about yourself at 18. Begin “in scene”—in a place where you spent time with others. (Read “Ten Years Ago,” by Sarah Beth Childers.)
Write about a dance, date, or relationship from your past that you have not thought about in a long time. If you’d like, speculate about that person’s view of you then. (Read “Invisible Partners,” by Ira Sukrungruang.)
Ah, romances of the past! And the opportunity the author demonstrates to enter the imaginary in literary nonfiction. I remember this prompt bringing particular energy to the room.
No surprise, each Brevity example I share also models concision. To make time for everyone’s stories, memoir class members aim to limit the length of their pieces to about 500 words, a parameter established by the previous teacher. (Beth Finke has since written a guidebook about her process.) I allow some length leeway and try to rein it in when inspired writers approach Brevity’s 750-word cap.
Last fall, participants wrote personal ghost stories, with Maggie Smith’s “Ghost Story” for inspiration. (Have you ever encountered a ghost? Felt like a ghost? Been “ghosted” by someone?) Class members conveyed the trepidation of staying in an allegedly haunted room, the strange sense of a lost loved-one’s presence, the remembered mystery of a ghostly object sliding across the Arizona sky, and more.
Haunted by memories of your own? Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Employ whatever tools you use to capture words. As I tell the writers in my classes, let yourself write as much as you want on your first draft. Then see what you have, and revise from there.
Seeking more writing prompts, for yourself, for students, for others? Pick a Brevity piece at random and see where it leads you. I’ve found a wealth of inspiration in the Brevity archives, and I’m thankful for the new material that arrives with each issue. The connections and creative energy built in a memoir class can keep writers—and their coach—coming back, year after year.
Linda Downing Miller has led creative writing classes in Chicago at the Center for Life and Learning, the Newberry Library, The Clare, and elsewhere. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and other publications, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Water~Stone Review, The Florida Review, and the Chicago Tribune. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
June 11, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Lisa Rizzo
At seven years old I fell out of bed, slicing open my chin. I woke up with blood pouring onto the rug. My mother scooped me up, pressing a towel to my face as my father sped through empty streets to the hospital. The towel, originally white with a bright polka-dots, slowly turned red.
I tried not to cry at the stinging shot of Novocain and a blue cloth placed over my face. Overhead lights shone through the material turning the shadow of the doctor’s hands into terrifying five-legged animals. No pain but the tug of needle and thread piercing my skin. Afterwards, I shivered at the row of black stitches crawling like a spider out of my face. Now the only reminder of that night is a thin white scar across the bottom of my chin.
My experience, while frightening, cannot compare to the devastating, life-threatening injuries Marcia Meier suffered as a five-year-old. Her book, Face: A Memoir, shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and an honorable mention in the memoir category, opens on a bright summer day in Muskegon, Michigan. Marcia, proud that she has just learned to ride her new red bicycle, was in the middle of a crosswalk near her home when she was struck by a car. She writes:
I had been dragged, caught with my bike under the car, nearly two hundred feet…
I was lying on the street under the driver’s side. The bike was stuck under the carriage;
I was still holding the handlebars. The left side of my face was gone.
She begins recounting her recovery with the question What is a face? Her memoir asks the reader to consider what a face represents to a person as well as those around her, and how losing that familiar face could affect who we become. Weaving the past and present together, Meier seeks answers to help her heal. Using a braided structure, she moves deftly from the voice of a hurt child to that of the reflective adult seeking to make sense of how that initial trauma influenced her life.
Meier spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, enduring twenty surgeries until, as a teenager, she gained the courage to refuse more operations. With her injuries partially mended, she began to build a better life for herself: graduation from college with a degree in journalism, a successful newspaper career, marriage, and motherhood.
A few days before her wedding, Meier’s father gave her an envelope filled with photographs and documents related to her medical treatments. Unable to face them, Meier tucked the packet away along with other unwanted items in a storage unit, just as she tucked away thoughts of those treatments, believing she had accepted her past and its scars. But in 2006 when her marriage began to fall apart, Meier realized she had to confront her childhood.
Many of the book’s chapters open with epigraphs using excerpts from the surgeon’s notes of her procedures. In much the same way that Joan Didion returns again and again to her husband’s heart attack in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, these notes create a circular pattern, returning to the little girl in her hospital bed before spiraling into future events. The repetition of medical terms reminds the reader of the terror Meier as a child must have endured, even as she deals with how that suffering influenced the adult she became.
Similarly, Meier cycles back to the people in her life: her mother and father, husband and daughter, siblings, the clergy and nuns of her parish, and the surgeon who reconstructed her face. This highlights her struggle to understand how the aftermath of her accident affected them as well as her relationships, particularly with her mother. Even as her mother kept vigil at her hospital bed, she remained emotionally distant from her child. Meier seeks answers to what happened between them and how her mother’s own tragedies influenced their interactions.
Meier makes good use of her background as a journalist by including investigation into subjects such as Jungian psychology, the history of skin grafts as well as research about childhood complex trauma. This information is skillfully woven, moving from objective facts to personal narrative, giving the reader the impression of the author stepping back now and again before coming close to confront the extent of her pain.
This is a memoir of self-discovery on both physical and emotional levels. Meier learns to accept her body scarred from skin grafts as well as her damaged face through horseback riding as a teenager and practicing yoga as an adult. She learns to accept her mother’s distance with empathy. She confronts her feelings of betrayal by her religion, recognizing that she blamed her parish priests and nuns for not giving her the solace she craved. And, most importantly, she learns compassion for herself, accepting the wounded child she was and in some respects will always be.
In the end, Meier returns to Muskegon where her story began, completing the cycle. She makes a pilgrimage to the important places of childhood: her family home, the site of her former school, the intersection where she was struck by the car. Completing the cycle by facing those places from her past helps Meier begin the next part of her journey.
Lisa Rizzo is a poet who has to turned nonfiction. She is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work has appeared in various journals including Calyx, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Brevity blog. A newly retired teacher, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she is working on a memoir. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com.
April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
March 24, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Marcia Aldrich
In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”
After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.
Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.
Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take. A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans.
Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions. After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book.
I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.
Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.
It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.
Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
February 1, 2021 § 34 Comments
By Aimee Christian
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started my memoir because I’d been writing personal essays and creative nonfiction for some time. It didn’t take me long to learn that I was wrong. Writing memoir meant wandering around in my past in a whole new way, and I learned that my past can be a pretty bad neighborhood to be in alone.
When I try to re-immerse myself in how it felt to be a child or a teenager, it’s nearly impossible not to feel all the feelings from those early years, which is great for the story but, as it turns out, is terrible for my marriage and my children. In revisiting my memories to write, I found myself mourning breakups, looking up old apartments on Zillow, Googling my bullies from summer camp, and spending hours rereading old journals and old yearbooks. The worst was when I cried for a month over a death as though it was yesterday. I walked around in such despair that I couldn’t quite believe that I was the only one in mourning.
“Why are you crying, Mama?” my daughter asked when she caught me.
I ran through my options. The truth, because my boyfriend killed himself, seemed like the wrong answer, especially when I’d have to tell her next that it happened eleven years before I met her father. “I bonked my funny bone,” I said finally, rubbing my elbow, and was able to smile when she gave it a little kiss, but when she walked away, satisfied, I started crying again. I felt stuck in the kind of time warp that wasn’t just a jump to the left and a step to the right. It felt like a jump off a cliff, with no coming back.
Life is difficult enough without giving myself PTSD anew just from trying to write a book. After revisiting some of the hardest things in my life for the sake of my manuscript, I realized that if I don’t remind myself that I’m deliberately going in and coming out, I could get stuck back in an ugly place I’ve already spent too much time in.
So I started a new ritual. When I’m writing, I turn on my Himalayan salt lamp. They’re supposed to cleanse the air and boost your mood. I’m not sure I believe in any of that, but mine casts a pretty pink light (and if it boosts my mood, that certainly wouldn’t hurt). When I light the lamp, it means I’m going in, and whatever happens while the writing lamp is on, I get to leave behind when I turn the writing lamp off. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough to serve as a reminder that whatever might feel like it’s happening in the present isn’t really. I am writing because I have learned from my experiences, not because I want to relive them all.
If new writers ask me for advice, I tell them to keep writing no matter what. They’ll figure out the craft in time. First they need to just write. And now, if writers I know turn to memoir and ask me the same, I tell them to find a ritual to protect themselves. Whether it’s turning a lamp on and off like I do, lighting a candle, saying a mantra or a prayer, setting a timer, or having some other routine, it’s helpful to have something to keep them – especially if they’re writing about trauma – grounded in the present, to help them remember who they are now, and that they already did all that work to get here once. Stay here. Yes, we need to dive deep, but equally important is making sure we know how to get ourselves safely back aboard the boat.
If we can do that, the rest will come more easily.
Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.
January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Kristin Gallagher
I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.
As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.
How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.
So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.
In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.
After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.
The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.
It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.
On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.
November 26, 2020 § 14 Comments
So often, to get to that goodness, we need an axe. As with turkeys, memoirs often call for dismemberment of the past, careful plucking, and a great deal of dressing to present the important parts for the feast. Garnishes. Good china. All so your friends can gasp in admiration (via Zoom, this year!) and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Cousin Sue.
Our holidays this year take extra effort for community. Effort, perhaps, saved from shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and the forced gaiety of a table full of kin instead of family-of-choice. This year, anyone you’re seeing, you’re seeing on purpose.
We see you. We share this rough year, and we’re glad you’re our community. Glad you read, glad you write, glad you share your words with us, and Brevity’s words with your friends.
Thank you for contributing to our mission with your talent, your attention, your money and your time.
And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. We’re here for you. Thank you for being here with us.