Ten Things I Learned While Reading a Memoir I Will Not Review for Brevity

November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments

By Stacy E. Holden

1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.[1]

2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.[2]

3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.

4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.[4]

5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s[5] story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.

6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.[6]

7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke.[7] Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.

8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.[8]

9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).[9]

10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.[10]

_________

    Footnotes

[1]

Passengers don’t get on a plane just because it is going somewhere east that may be kinda nice. I need to remember to let my own readers know they are heading to Morocco to join me on a journey of midlife transition in the first few pages. I don’t want them to wonder what is the point of this work, as if lost in the labyrinth of the Old City’s winding streets. I am tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 journey to discover who I am as a midlife woman now past bearing children or rocking boob-shirts in bars.(go back)

[2]
The surprises of writing and writing and writing til you get it! I could rag on academia, where I work, suggesting the distance I always felt and blaming “them,” but my writing has led me instead to see how my comfort living in working-class places of Morocco stems from my own insecurities and a desire to find community among workers somewhere, since I educated myself out of conversations with family and some friends in the USA.

(go back)

[4]
Show don’t tell…excavate that day in Moulay Idriss when everyone annoyed you, even when they just offered you cookies. What led you to be fragile and sensitive and judgmental that particular day?

(go back)

[5]
Expats…I need to rethink how I describe those rich expats in Marrakesh and other Moroccan places who set up homes in poor neighborhoods of the medina.

(go back)

[6]
Aomar, an anthropologist whose Moroccan identity is wrapped up in sub-Saharan African and Tamazight culture, not Arab. Mina, a professor of history in Rabat. And Sara…the educated daughter of Aicha, friend, illiterate, who appears regularly in the ms.

(go back)

[7]
Moroccan time…do not mention “Moroccan time.”

(go back)

[8]
I thought I would write a love letter to Morocco by returning there to find the recipe for past happiness, but it turns out I am composing a Dear John letter to this country. You cannot repeat today what worked for you yesterday. Sometimes it is time to move on.

(go back)

[9]
Do I sound like a judg-y white American when I talk about Morocco? Is there a sense of using the culture of the US as a marker for how stuff—bathrooms, government administration, luncheon interactions—should work in a perfect world? If so, rethink…

(go back)

[10]
Remember, some will still condemn a white woman writing on her travels in an African country. But look deeply at your work and the images in it. Be confident in your descriptions of your engagement with the people and places in a country long considered a second home. Let the work go, and be damned with the reviewers who will or will not write about my book.

_____________________________________________________

Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.

The Unanticipated Future Reader

June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments

by Nicole Harkin

I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?

Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.

I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.

After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.

I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.

Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.

I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”

Yes.

I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”

Fifth? Really?

A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.

“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”

Good point.

Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.

My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.

We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.

I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.

It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.

But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.

When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.

We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.

We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.

______________________________________________

Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.

The Writing Conference in Your Living Room

April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

“That’s it, Bob! I need to re-order the material thematically instead of chronologically!”

Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.

If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.

That time has come.

Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!

April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.

As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.

Speakers include:

  • Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
  • Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
  • Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
  • Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
  • Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
  • Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
  • Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
  • Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
  • Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
  • Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
  • Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
  • Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
  • Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
  • Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge

There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.

Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.

Register here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts

March 21, 2019 § 13 Comments

Headshot of a white woman with blonde hair and brown eyes, looking at the camera and smiling without teeth. She wears a purple shawlBy Lisa Ellison

In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.

It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.

Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.

Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.

In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.

My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.

It might be The One.

Or it could be just another lesson.

What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.

Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.

In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.

________________________

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.

10 Ways I Show My Love to You, My Husband, on Our 10th Anniversary 

February 21, 2019 § 10 Comments

By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

  1. I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
  2. I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
  3. I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
  4. At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
  5. When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
  6. I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
  7. I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
  8. I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
  9. I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
  10. I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.

I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!

_________________________________________________

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.

The Second Hand Unwinds

February 19, 2019 § 35 Comments

Finishing a writing project is awesome. Hitting that last page, fingers speeding toward the end of what happened, now that you finally know.

Finishing takes forever. Thus far, I’ve published one short writing-life book with a hard deadline from a small press. From idea to publication took three years. I’ve written two more books of greater weight (for me), a memoir and a Young Adult novel. Each took ten years. Sure, they overlapped, I wasn’t writing continuously the entire time, I published other short pieces throughout, but from generating pre-first-draft material to querying agents was ten years.

The memoir agented but never sold. Recently, a friend urged me to revise and send it out again. She texted:

At this particular point in cultural and political history, a searing memoir…might be particularly welcome? Maybe the time is riper now…

While I appreciated the encouragement, that book is over. Years ago I would have been glad to publish. Now it’s not a life I want to present to the world. I’m not that person any more, and now-me looks at that manuscript—at ten years’ work—and says “meh.” It’s just not that good. The level of better I could make it isn’t worth the time it would take.

The YA novel is on a break from submission. Two months ago, I was devastated by a rejection from an agent who’d been very excited to read the full manuscript. She told me more or less, “Great opening, you write well, nothing happens in the middle.”

It took a week to become un-devastated. A couple weeks to actually receive the feedback and truly consider her words. I mean, hadn’t five beta-readers, all excellent writers themselves, loved it? What about the high-school student readers who agreed to come early to talk about the book and were already deep in discussion when I arrived at 6:50AM? Meanwhile another agent rejected the full: “It slows down in the middle.”

I printed one copy through Createspace having fun mocking up a placeholder cover, thinking if I read it like a real book maybe I’d notice what was wrong. I carried the book through three states and four countries without opening it.

Then a writer contacted me about editing her YA novel. I looked at the first 25 pages and emailed her, “You write very well, but the story hasn’t started yet.”

A bolt of lightning hit me. I dragged out my own book and flipped through.

Chapter One: Girl with gun ready to shoot

Chapter Two: Flashback…to a nap…in a library.

Chapter Three: Flashback...to a scene in which the girl recaps everything we already know to another character.

Well, fuck.

My readers were wrapped up in clever voice and interesting premise. They hadn’t noticed what a merciless stranger found: Nothing happens in the middle.

You can be an incredible writer and still lack dramatic structure. You can be a sharp structuralist and lack voice. You can make characters live and breathe on the page, then find them staring at each other over a kitchen table while the agent flips ahead to see if it gets good anytime soon. And you won’t know any of these things about your work until after you have invested as much time as it takes you to write a book, plus some more.

I’ve done the Seven Drafts process and quite a few more than seven drafts. I’ve had beta readers and entered chapters in contests. I’ve taken pages to a workshop and paid for query feedback. Theoretically, I’ve done everything right and I’m still not done. ‘Not done’ interferes with my sense of entitlement. I ticked all the boxes! Why aren’t I finished? It’s frustrating and annoying and makes it hard to want to work on the book. But now that I know it’s not as good as I can make it, now that I understand the problem, I need to work some more.

The biggest separation between writers who publish and those who don’t is that writers who publish keep working after they feel entitled to be done. They write yet another draft. They painstakingly revise thousands of words that end up cut. They let time pass.

The more involved we are in a particular project, the more meaningful it is to our writer-self, the longer we spent writing, the more time it takes to let serious feedback sink in.

We all feel the clock ticking, watching emerging writers spring forth apparently fully-formed. We all want to be done, to share our book with the world. It’s not just you. We all need a little more time.

____________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Follow her on Instagram—her bruised writer spirit could use some likes.

Writing From Immediacy

January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments

I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.

Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.

Dani Shapiro has both given and believed this advice. But her writing process for her recent memoir, Inheritance, countered the received wisdom. In an interview at The Millions, she says:

In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.

At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:

I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.

What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.

In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.

Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.

As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.

Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir.

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