November 8, 2018 § 5 Comments
Several weeks ago, Elizabeth Bruenig’s essay “What do we owe her now?” ran in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a teenage girl in Arlington, Texas who, in 2006, accused two of her peers of rape, and was immediately doubted, mocked, and driven out of her community. It’s a remarkable piece of writing—part literary personal essay, part investigative journalism—that tries to understand “why [the victim] wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business.”
The way Bruenig grapples with unfinished business provides us with a model for working through uncertainty in our own writing—and in doing so, greatly enhancing the depth and tension in our work.
[If you haven’t read it yet, click through to read it here (CW for rape) and come back for discussion.]
Bruenig’s essay follows two different narratives. In the foreground, we follow Amber Wyatt and the horrific events that shaped her young adulthood. We root for her, and feel dismay at the many ways her community failed her.
In the background, we have a second protagonist: the author herself, grappling to understand these events. Bruenig’s struggle to explain the inexplicable provides the momentum that propels this essay forward. We want to see her understand the events that have haunted her for so long, to arrive at an explanation that sheds light on the cruel injustice she describes. This essay’s resolution doesn’t lie in the turn of events, but in how those events are explained.
Towards the end, Bruenig offers this answer:
Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Bruenig doesn’t stop there. Instead, she brings us back to uncertainty, and asks us to continue to be bothered by Wyatt’s story.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.
This kind of writing—the kind that plumbs the depths of human motivation and experience—takes time. Bruenig interviewed dozens of people for this story, and wrote it over the course of three years. She conducted this research, unsure of where or when the story would make it to print. In other words, uncertainty shaped not just the content of the writing but the process. I asked Bruenig about this and she told me “Since there were such long periods during the drafting process during which I wasn’t sure where it would ever be published, I went through a lot of different ways of thinking about telling the story. Different formats, I thought, might make it a fit with different outlets that would potentially publish it. And it did change forms over time. In retrospect, I’m sort of glad it took the time it did. It gave me time to mature as a writer, which allowed me to tell the story better than I would’ve at 24.”
Uncertainty can be one of the most uncomfortable feelings to sit with as we write the stories we need to tell. It can cause us to slow down, to doubt ourselves, to write the same scenes over and over, praying we might finally hit the mark. But absolute certainty doesn’t yield good writing. The hesitation, the doubt, the endless revisions—these are the signs that we’re doing it right.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided that industry. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
November 6, 2018 § 18 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:
People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
September 11, 2018 § 9 Comments
When my family arrived at the beach this year, my two teenage boys ran to the surf. They didn’t hesitate as they dove through the curling waves. I wasn’t so bold. I meandered to the shoreline and let the waves lap my feet. I waded in further. I watched the kids beyond the break. At some point, they tried to pull me in. I resisted. They laughed, rolled their eyes, and told me to dive in. I moved out deeper until the waves broke against my waist. After too much agony, I finally dove.
“It’s about time,” the boys called. “What took you so long?”
Why did I do this to myself? Why didn’t I dive in like they did? I knew how. But I got stuck. What if a wave knocked me over? What if I stepped on a broken shell?
I find myself hesitating on the shore when I’m writing too, questioning my story rather than letting it flow. Learning to trust I have a story to tell has challenged me as a novice non-fiction writer. It didn’t help that I spent part of my beach vacation reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which sent me into an existential spiral of self-doubt. I wanted to edit every sentence I’d written. Not a bad thing, but I was on vacation. I hadn’t even realized I had a trust problem until my mentor focused on a couple of sentences I’d dropped into my memoir about three drafts ago. She returned the draft to me with a note telling me to “DIG DEEP HERE.” It was a “very important moment in the narrative.”
I couldn’t ignore her comment. She was the third person to make it. Why didn’t I trust the others’ feedback? But I wasn’t ready to jump in. Instead, I played with sentences, changing a word here or there, hoping that would fix it. It didn’t, any more than watching the waves would get me into the surf. Yet I knew by now I had to address it, not play around with it, however uncomfortable I was. I had to wrestle with my past, with my rocky relationship with my mom. I had to tell the truth about a lie I told to my daughter and why I told it.
Yet, there I was again, standing at the water’s edge. Stuck. I thought about what I needed to write as I walked my dog each morning. I brought my pages to therapy and talked to about what I needed to write and why it was so hard. When I commented I thought I could cover the material in a paragraph, my therapist laughed.
“Oh, it’ll be more than a paragraph.”
After days of inching toward the deep water, I remembered what I learned from Allison K Williams at a memoir workshop earlier this summer. She emphasized how important it was to “deal honestly” with our own behavior, including our bad behavior. While we could be heroes in our stories, “even heroes mess up,” Williams wrote in a recent blog, Heroes and Villains.
I had to dive into my inner villain. I wrote and rewrote. I re-read the paragraphs. I liked them, particularly the simplicity of how I ended the section. I put it down and came back to it a day or two later. Then the doubt crashed over me. I wrote a few more sentences to make my point, forgetting that once was enough. I sent the revised section to my mentor. She loved it. Except she said, I over-explained. I began moralizing. I should have trusted my original ending. My kids would have rolled their eyes at me.
I told my mentor, I needed to trust myself more.
It’s not easy.
“Trust your material,” Zinsser wrote. “It seems hard advice to follow.”
The more I trust my writing, the better it becomes. I see the weaknesses on the page, particularly my desire to tie everything up neatly. To keep the trust, I’ve given myself a new editing tool. I read my work aloud and ask myself whether my teens would roll their eyes at me. If they would, I know I did it again. I let those sentences go, scattered like broken shells on the shore, and dive.
Christine Corrigan is a writer. Her essays have appeared in Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Racked.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. At 51, she’s working on her first book, a memoir about surviving cancer twice. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2.
September 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
When asked what my memoir-in-progress is about, I sometimes say, “I’m writing about the year I was raped as a teenager.”
It’s a great way to shut down a conversation.
My description is almost always met with awkward silences, lost eye contact, mumbled “I’m sorry’s.” Then I change the subject so they don’t up and leave.
I’m frustrated by this reaction—about 1 in 6 women will be raped, which means 1 in 6 women that you know. My experience isn’t particularly unusual, and recently, reading and writing about it isn’t that unusual, either. It seems that when it comes to talking about writing about it, though, we’re not quite there yet.
At times I don’t mind the awkward responses—in fact, they serve a purpose. It’s healthy to make people face what I have experienced, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. But overall, I find fielding their discomfort exhausting. And there’s only so big an impact that a sentence-long conversation can make.
But being a writer is not only part of who I am, it’s also my job. I like talking about writing, but even if I didn’t, it’s not something I could easily avoid.
Eventually I figured out a workaround: when somebody asks, “What’s your book about?”, I usually mention only its secondary plot.
“I got sick with the plague bacteria while traveling around the world at age 18,” I say. “It’s a pretty weird story.” They nod, enthusiastic, eager, to hear more. They take what I say at face value, satisfied that’s a meaty enough topic for a book-length project, that there’s no second story lurking beneath.
Though this strategy works, I wish I didn’t have to rely on it. I wish I could bring up rape, and writing about rape, in everyday conversations—without ending those conversations. I wish that I didn’t have to hide this central aspect of my identity as a writer in order to fit into social situations. I wish I could talk about the subject of my book as easily as I’ve noticed many other writers talk about theirs.
Recently, there has been an outpouring of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction about sexual violence and rape culture. Authors are incorporating their experiences of violence and harassment into their work—not only including it, but even centering it. These issues come up in writing conference panels and workshops and book reviews. We are talking more—but not enough, and the conversations don’t yet come easily.
Paradoxically, I think the only way to solve this issue is to keep telling my story. For now, that mostly means sharing my story via writing—an option I find far less emotionally draining than facing conversations in person. I’m writing these stories in my memoir, in my personal essays, in my reported articles. But I don’t want to stop having spoken conversations about what my writing is really about—not completely.
What I want is for the responses to improve. I want all of us no matter how difficult it is, to engage with the difficult subject of turning sexual violence into art. Not knowing what to say is not a good enough excuse not to say anything at all—there is always a better alternative than shying away from the conversation. I want the subject I’m writing about to be treated like other books’ subjects: with curiosity, respect, and interest. I want writing and talking about rape to be normalized, because if there’s one thing that feeds rape culture, that allows violence like what I experienced to continue, it’s silence.
So when in doubt, listen. Ask me to tell you more about my book. I hate the initial, awkward moment of telling—I hate not knowing what response I’ll have to handle, I hate the emotional labor involved in “cleaning up” after these conversations—but like many writers, I love to talk about my work: its craft and career challenges and triumphs. And I want the conversation to be about the artistic process of writing about trauma, not about the trauma itself.
As the #MeToo movement grows, as we become more accustomed to hearing stories of violence and harassment, I hope I can answer the question, “what’s your book about?” honestly, without ending the conversation. But until we reach the point where #MeToo stories are more easily accepted in day-to-day conversation—or perhaps, in order to reach that point—I plan to continue writing mine. I hope you’ll join me, whether by listening, asking questions—or writing yours.
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution—all while traveling alone as a teenager. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Entropy, and elsewhere.
September 4, 2018 § 10 Comments
It’s been five months of exciting technical challenges since the last Brevity Podcast, but we’re back! This episode, we finally reveal the fifteen One-Minute Memoirs, and our podcast host Allison K Williams and Audio Editor Kathryn Rose discuss why we chose them (from over 300 submissions!), the process of reading and listening to all the submitted essays, and key things writers can do to make their work stand out from the rest of the submissions pile.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Anne Boaden earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and is writing a memoir of her active duty with the United States Marine Corps flying AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review and NELLE. She lives in England with her husband, two cats, one dog, flock of chickens, and brand-new baby Robin Anne Delgaard Boaden.
Tracy Royce is a poet, writer, and doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared in The Fat Studies Reader, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Affilia, and Mother of Invention: How Our Mothers Influenced Us as Feminist Academics and Activists.
Anne McGrath’s work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, The Brevity Blog, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. Ms. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Irvin Weathersby is a Brooklyn-based writer and professor from New Orleans. His work has appeared in literary journals and magazines including Notable Black American Men Book II, Killens Review, The Atlantic, Ebony, and Esquire.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. All the Colors We Will See, her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging is now out from Thomas Nelson, and has been named a Fall 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
MFC Feeley attended UC Berkeley and NYU. She has published in The Tishman Review, Mainstreet Rag, WicWas, Plate In The Mirror, and Ghost Parachute, and was a 2016 fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist. She won the Raven Prize for CNF and is writing a series of short stories inspired by the Bill of Rights for Ghost Parachute.
Jamie Zvirzdin teaches in the Master of Arts Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, Issues in Science and Technology, Creative Nonfiction, and CONSEQUENCE.
Evie Gold is a non-fiction humor essayist, a sushi connoisseur, and a wandering nomad.
BK Marcus is a homeschooling dad in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he also performs and coaches live storytelling.
Erin Murphy‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including The Georgia Review, Memoir Magazine, The Normal School, Field, Southern Humanities Review and North American Review. She is the editor of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona.
Georgie Hunt’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, NANO Fiction, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” and Brevity. She was a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s 11th Annual Nonfiction Contest, and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
Karen Egee writes to savor the good and try to make sense of the rest. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and dog. They spend as much time in Maine as possible.
Rhonda Zimlich’s fiction and memoir has appeared in publications such as Crow Pie, Acorn Review, and Ink Stains. She enjoys living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, twin daughters, and feisty black cats. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts this summer.
Scott F. Parker’s book A Way Home from Oregon: Essays has just been released from Kelson Books.
Jennifer Lang writes mostly about her divided self. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. She’s been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize, and is writing her first memoir.
Next episode, we’ll be talking about Writing Hard Things.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast. She’s writing this in Paris, yesterday she was in Tunisia, New York the day before, and tonight she’s back home in Dubai…hence our erratic podcast schedule.
August 23, 2018 § 9 Comments
Once, from the next room, my fiancé heard the clicking of my fingertips against the computer keys stop. He thought I had finished writing, but when he came to check on me, I was stoically staring out the window barely blinking.
“Where are you right now?” he asked.
I said, “I’m in the morgue standing over my father’s body.”
Now, whenever he sees me sitting too still, staring too blankly, he always asks with trepidation where I am, so he knows just how far I’ve gone.
There are many moments when I get so lost in the past, it’s easy to forget that my feet are touching the ground. Sometimes it takes me a very long while to find my footing and acknowledge that I am not the same lost person I was over a decade ago—to remember that I’m a twenty-nine year old established woman with a career and a fiancé and not an eighteen-year old child who just lost her father.
To write memoir, we have to be multiple simultaneous selves. We need a reflective “I” that is our present with all our wisdom and fortitude. We also need the past “I,” the one experiencing everything for the first time. But the “I” that is not on the page is important, too. The “I” that has relationships and doctor’s appointments and dinner plans and anticipation for Patriots game-watch parties on Sundays.
I flew to the Azores in 2015 to learn and write about my father’s death. At times, my drive to deliver was unstoppable, even a bit manic. I’d get up in the morning, grab a bowl of cornflakes, and sit at my desk near the floor-to-ceiling windows. But rather than gaze out at the cerulean currents scribbled across the navy blue Atlantic, my attention was on the black keyboard and stark white screen of my laptop. I’d spend eight to ten hours typing, only stopping for a brief lunch and the occasional bathroom break.
My feet were on the floor, but my ears were ringing with my mother’s screams, my eyes watering at the sight of my grandfather’s distraught face, my fingertips burning at the touch of my father’s lifeless forearm. This zone of mind is good for writing because it allows writers to sink deeply and emphatically into their pasts, but it is also a treacherous slope—one that must be treated with caution—as it destroys all notions of a present life. Like a moth drawn to light, writers must acknowledge the allure of such a space, but we must recognize its danger, too.
If you ever get lost in your past “I” and need to find your footing again, do something that makes you feel human. I did a lot of cooking while I was writing in the Azores—lemon-frosted cakes, Oreo puddings, double-chocolate cookies, and chorizo-stuffed Portuguese lasagnas at 2AM. I only realized why I was cooking so much after I came home to Boston—because when I ate that lasagna at two in the morning, my senses were on fire. It was hot, spicy and damn good. I felt my bare feet on the kitchen floor, the coolness of the tile. I was cold. I was feeling. I was firmly grounded in the present.
Whether it’s cooking or dancing to extremely loud music or going for a run or having sex—do something that will transport you immediately to the present. Though it seems obvious, it is easy to forget—it is the present and not the past in which we live. Though you may be writing a tragic memoir filled with suffocating experiences that have caused you enormous pain, there is freedom in taking breaks to remember that you are more than just this past “I.”
I’m back in Boston now—back in my real life—but I still have a similar writing process. I dive into my words and drown in them. I find my quiet space, turn the TV and music off, and let the work come slowly, deliberately, out of me. It feels like a birthing. Any time I have produced writing worth reading, I was in one of these zones. A zone where the only thing keeping my body from floating towards the sky like an unruly birthday balloon are my fingers hitting the keys at a constant pace. But whenever I do reach that euphoric, nirvana-like state where the work flows from my fingertips and I am simply the vessel delivering it from my mind to the page, it is important to remind myself that I am not a vessel. I am human. Not a means to an end, but a person, living in the present. As much as it is worth fighting like hell for the past to come alive on the page, it is just as important to come out alive, too.
August 16, 2018 § 14 Comments
Here’s what I remember about high school: General name-calling, a particular pejorative yelled and hissed, shoving, spitting, dating a lot of too-much-older guys. I finished (minus a week or two), but I didn’t graduate—I’d skipped too many classes, due to what I now know was clinical depression.
Here’s what I wrote about high school: An award-winning, profitable one-woman show; a recently-completed novel; several published essays.
I wouldn’t trade back.
If my conception of the Almighty Being came to me in a burst of light and said, “You can go back in time, and you will be popular and liked and have a fantastic high school experience,” I’d say, “No thanks.”
If the Almighty Being came to 13-year-old me and said, “You know how middle school really sucks right now? Well, you can either have a terrific high school experience or you can wait 10 years and perform a show audience members love and send emails about, and wait 10 more years to finish a book you’re very proud of,” I’m pretty sure 13-year-old me would say, “I’ll take the work. Bring on ninth grade, mofo.”
I tell this to another writer at the conference we’re at, adding, “If you’re OK with where you are, you have to be OK with how you got there.”
She nods. She tells me, maybe if you’re not OK with your past, you’re still on the journey. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace or closure that makes the past OK.
Another writer chimes in. One of her students just emailed. The student was finally able to finish the memoir that seemed unfinishable in last year’s class, because the closing event was something in her life this year. Her story literally hadn’t finished. The end was unwriteable because the ending hadn’t happened yet.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by the people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memoirists stick to the truth, and if the truth isn’t done yet, we’re still stuck with it. But the truth is a gold mine of details and happenings that we’ve survived, and that survival is itself the story.
My first memoir was unsellable, largely because I hadn’t finished living the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t wrap up a plot about depression while I was still depressed. I wasn’t at the destination; I hadn’t reached closure.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing on the page, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down what happened, checking facts, realizing, That happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we can embrace what happened.
Am I still hurt by the actions of kids around me? Yeah, a little. But mostly, my past is a rich trove of information. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Every terrible detail I tease out to make a novel deeper, every time I use a bad experience as a good essay, puts me in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m OK with what it took for me to get here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past helps you recognize and own it. Maybe you’re still living your memoir with no end in sight. Flip back through your pages. Can you tell book-you: Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and processing and release still to come.
Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be presenting Writing the Memoir Proposal and Twenty-Five Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life at Hippocamp in Lancaster, PA, August 24-26.