December 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”
That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.
Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)
It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.
For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.
Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”
Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.
After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.
Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!
Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”
For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.
And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?
It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.
January 9, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Melanie Brooks
In the summers of my childhood, my parents would load our pop-up camper with dented pots and pans, melamine dishes, a Coleman stove, deep, rectangle coolers filled with easy-to-cook food, mosquito coils, sleeping bags, pillows, board games, and whatever else necessary to sustain our family of six for a week in the outdoors. They’d hitch the trailer to our wood-paneled station wagon, load us all in, and set out from our home in Moncton, New Brunswick, to destinations around the Canadian Maritimes. The Bay of Fundy region was a favorite, and we’d often travel by ferry from Blacks Harbour to camp on Deer Island or Grand Manan Island. Day trips would take us to the third of the “Fundy Sisters,” Campobello, for hikes on its pristine trails or visits to the beaches and lighthouses that inhabit the island, home to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer retreat. These vacation days stretched long in the luxury kind of way. Time that in “the real world” rushed us from one necessary thing to the next, took on a different cadence. We were together. We were focused on each other and, for a little while, we were in-tune to the quiet beauty of the world around us. Nostalgic images of these family trips by the sea nestle in the folds of my memory.
Thanks to Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, directed by author Penny Guisinger, these memories reawakened when I spent four days last August in a charming cottage turned conference center overlooking Friar’s Bay in FDR International Park on Campobello Island. Under the guidance of visiting faculty – author and Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore and poet Mark Doty – I dove into the world of crafting short-form prose. Daily workshops, facilitated discussions and nightly readings provided me the opportunity to immerse in community with twenty-six other writers, a fundamental refueling for my motivation to keep plugging away when the confines of my desk and laptop feel lonely.
But, Iota’s setting, this quiet, unassuming New Brunswick Island, also held that familiar tug toward what was once, for me, home. A separate world almost, where people like Theresa, our facility manager, represent nine generations of island residents. A place where life isn’t quite so hurried.
There, embraced by briny air, breeze-rustled leaves, pebbled shores, and panoramic ocean views, I found what I tend to forget I need the most: space. Space to ignore the pull of responsibility to work and family. Space to disconnect from public events and politics. Space to, for just a little while, dwell in simple tranquility. My mind was free to wander in that space to creative intersections where language and images collide to make something meaningful, even beautiful. I wrote. Words. On the page. And some of those words were actually good. Good enough, at least, to take home to work on some more.
How fitting that a conference called “Iota” helped me to understand that surviving this writerly life is not about excess. Sometimes all we need is a bit. A bit of space. A bit of time. To linger a little. To breathe a little. To remember that just a moment can fill us completely.
This year’s Iota conference will be held July 8-11, with faculty members Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart. Information on registration can be found on the Iota website.
Melanie Brooks is a writer and college professor from Nashua, New Hampshire. Her recent work has been published in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus Magazine, Word Riot, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, the Stonecoast Review, and The Recollectors. She was awarded the Michael Steinberg Prize for Nonfiction for Solstice Literary Magazine’s Annual Writing Contest, and her first book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, is forthcoming with Beacon Press in February 2017.
March 17, 2015 § 4 Comments
by Amye Archer
I first read Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping as a new mother, my belly still plump, my babies still purple, and my world still so vulnerable and tenuous. In Thomas’ beautiful memoir, I found someone who understood these things, the difficulties of becoming someone’s mother and someone’s wife, while still unsure of your very self. Safekeeping was the right book at the right time for me in so many ways, and with Thomas’ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, I found that same understanding and reassurance at-once again-the exact right moment.
What Comes Next is the story of a lifelong friendship between the author and Chuck, a man we come to respect as Thomas’ equal if not soul-mate. However, as with every book Thomas writes, this is a story of deep reflection and self-examination of herself as a mother, friend, writer, and most importantly woman. The narrative is comprised of three main threads: the author’s friendship with Chuck, her daughter’s devastating diagnosis and subsequent battle with cancer, and finally, Thomas’ remarkable insight into aging-gracefully. These threads are punctuated with stories of Thomas discovering a new passion for painting, and of course, there are the beloved dogs.
What I’ve always admired about Abigail Thomas is her ability to articulate the nuance of femininity in all of its states, including the most important state of all: as fallible beings. In What Comes Next, Thomas speaks openly of her divorce and the effect it had on her young children, “I talked about what happened to my children when I got divorced, and I got upset, remembering how they had suffered…Then I burst into tears.” On love, “Every now and again I’m afraid Chuck will fall in love with somebody and I will lose him. This comes from the worst part of myself, the possessive part.” Always frank, always honest, always pure. There is much introspection in these pages, hard-fought truths for which Thomas has battled bravely. She must forgive those who’ve wronged her, she must quit smoking, and she must give up the drinking for which she has become too fond. Thomas’ ability to shine her light on the darkest parts of herself endear her to the reader. We trust her, and wherever she goes, we follow.
What Comes Next is full of heart, passion, and a great sense of comfort as we, the reader, realize that in the end-everything will be okay. We are left with the belief that family, friendships, feuds, pets, grandchildren, all of these things that comprise our shared human experience will endure. And in some cases, things will be better. After a disappointing dating experience Thomas writes, “But being seventy has its advantages. I did not spend any time wondering what I’d done wrong, or what I could or should have done differently, whether I was too old or too fat or ask too many questions. I am who I am and it has taken me a long time to get here.”
As with Safekeeping, What Comes Next was the right book for me at the right time, but I’m beginning to think this is not a coincidence. I think anyone would do well to read any book by Thomas at any time. Some memoirists write their experience. Abigail Thomas has an uncanny ability to write our experience.
Amye Archer has an MFA from Wilkes University and blogs at www.thefatgirlblog.com.
September 9, 2014 § 16 Comments
A guest craft essay by Paul Zakrzewski on narrative drive in the segmented memoir:
Recently, I found myself re-reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, a fabulous memoir-in-fragments about marriage and motherhood. And once again, I’m struck by a contradiction at the heart of the book:
How does the author create such narrative drive, such a fully realized portrait of a life, in a memoir whose form would appear to undercut these achievements?
Even if you don’t know Abigail Thomas’s memoir, it’s likely — especially if you’ve gotten an MFA in the past – you’ve heard it name-check. It’s one of those more experimental books, like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which make the rounds in CNF courses. You know, the ones advisers push on you during conferences. The ones your classmates urge you to read in their manuscript margin notes.
The book is comprised of dozens of short sections—some four or five pages, others as brief as a single sentence. And while characters and motifs reoccur, each vignette is self-contained, so that at first glance the book looks more like a collection of prose poems. A disjointed one at that, with jumbled chronology, so there’s often years, sometimes decades, between sections.
Then there’s the narrator herself, frequently switching between past and present tense, or between first- and third-person.
With all that lack of connective tissue, all that shifting of tenses and point-of-view, you’d expect the narrative flow to be constantly disrupted.
Quite the opposite, though. Both times I’ve picked it up, the experience of reading Safekeeping has been the same: the gaps fall away, much the same way as clacks on a speeding train smooth themselves out.
How does Thomas accomplish this?
In at least four ways:
- Tight thematic control. As students of the genre are often reminded, the secret to a good memoir is some kind of focus—a subject, theme, or era, for example. Here, the narrator is squarely focused on the subject of grief. In a terrific essay called “Getting Started,” Thomas recounts how the book’s experimental form grew out an intense period of reflection:
When I began writing Safekeeping, which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir, I had no idea in hell what I was doing, all I knew was I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up.
The power of that grief is what pulls things together, giving the book its emotional stake, its sense of urgency.
- A strong narrative persona. Married for the first time at 18, remarried at 27—Abigail Thomas’s life was full of wrong turns. She’s got a lot of living under her belt. Yet the narrator here keeps things light and crisp, avoiding the trap of becoming overly self-judgmental. Instead, here the persona is vulnerable, startlingly honest, unsentimental, wry, and above all, entertaining.
In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes how great memoirs feature a “truth-telling” narrator. We trust the voices of writers like George Orwell or J. R. Ackerley or Annie Dillard because they seem so honest and self-aware. Thomas’s is one of these.
- Effective use of reflection. By nature, I fall more on the side of meditative essays than memoir. I don’t think in terms of scenes, at least not initially, but I can cogitate endlessly. It used to get my essays all tied up in knots. One thing that’s helped is to understand that reflection is more effective when it arises directly from action in scenes. As in this example, toward the beginning of Safekeeping:
…She looks at her watch. Two-thirty in the morning. She is tired, but nothing is wasted, she uses it to remember the old days. Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master. She looks out her window, uptown, at the water towers, at the squares of light in other windows. Where a man she hadn’t met back then, a man she was about to meet, a man whom she would love and hate and love again, a man with whom she would spend the next thirty years, give or take, has died. Died. It seems impossible. She can almost see his windows from her window. She can almost hear his voice. Anything might happen. She doesn’t want to go to bed.
Apart from some breathtaking lines (“Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master”), notice how Thomas weaves reflection in and out of specific moments. It’s nearly seamless.
- Strong endings. Thomas uses the short section or vignette as the basic building-block of her book. But like chapters or scenes in a more conventional memoir, each of these builds toward some epiphany, some moment of resolution. This propels the reader forward. Here’s one example, titled “Something Overheard,” in its entirety:
It was at a party in what was to become SoHo, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn’t catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, ‘Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security.” Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. What was so funny? What did it mean?
Now I get it.
Notice how that long sentence at the beginning pushes forward, not just setting the scene but filling in telling details, growing more specific as it tumbles along. That, along with the repetition in the final sentences, sets us up for the narrator’s epiphany.
Thomas is also a master at conveying the multiplicity of time. Phrases like “…where a man she hadn’t met yet” and “what was to become Soho” create a bumping, vertiginous, cinematic rush. Even as we’re pinned to the here and now, memory reaches across many other moments in time.
* * *
Thematic control, a truth-telling persona, the effective use of reflection, strong endings. These elements are the building blocks of good memoir writing. Haven’t I been studying and reading about each of these for years? In countless workshops?
I just didn’t get it while I was reading Safekeeping the first time. I mean, I noticed some of these, but I was much more transfixed by the book’s unusual form.
Now I get it.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more about his SoCal writing workshops at http://www.pzak.net/workshops.
February 12, 2013 § 2 Comments
1. Our 2013 Sonora Review Essay Contest is currently underway! Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity Magazine and author of Between Panic and Desire (winner of the Grub Street Book Prize for Nonfiction), will serve as the judge.
- 1st Place: $500 and publication in Sonora Review’s Issue 64.
- 2nd Place: $250 (and possible publication)
- 3rd place: $75 (and possible publication)
2. Issue 63, our Banned Books Issue, will be released at AWP next month in Boston.
- Issue 63 will include nonfiction pieces from BJ Hollars, author of Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa (forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press); Abigail Thomas, author of Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life; Manuel Munoz, author of What You See in the Dark; Kaethe Schwehn, an up-and-coming writer out of Minnesota; and an ensemble of other wickedly talented writers.
Be sure to stop by our AWP booth and take a look!
3. We are now accepting submissions for Issue 64 of Sonora Review. We’re currently working on our “theme” for this issue, but please feel free to send us work on any subject/s and in whatever form/s that speak to you.
June 23, 2009 § Leave a comment
Marion Winik, author of the brilliant memoir First Comes Love, writes thoughtfully and specifically about the difficulties of memoir, especially when the memories involve past illegal behavior.
When I published my first collection of essays in 1994, lawyers marked every “actionable” sentence, every instance where I mentioned someone else’s drug use, homosexuality or criminal behavior. There were a lot of them. I have a memo dated Sept. 9, 1993, which includes the following bullet points:
p. 11 I suggest we omit a specific street address. It invites trouble from owners or landlords (called a junkie on page 13.)
p. 41 If Carolyn Mahoney is a real name I suggest a change since she appears several places and here we described her taking drugs.
p. 129, 130 Nancy and Steven. Steven is dead so no problem. Nancy’s privacy is being invaded. We should get her consent even if we change her name since as the author’s sister she will be identifiable anyway.
p. 155 Anita should be disguised completely due to heavy drinking and lesbianism.
Anita, Carolyn Mahoney and my sister Nancy all read the manuscript and signed releases. The address of the building was omitted. And Steven was dead — so no problem!
December 14, 2007 § Leave a comment
If you don’t know the work of Abigail Thomas, for instance, Three Dog Life, you really should. And after reading the book, you should definitely enter the 2008 Iowa Review Nonfiction contest:
$1000 to the winner / $500 to first runner-up plus publication in The Iowa Review’s December 2008 issue
Submit during January 2008
The rules are posted here: RULES