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.
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.
October 10, 2016 § 27 Comments
We’re on the air! The brand-new Brevity Podcast is now available here and on Soundcloud. We hope you’ll enjoy our first episode, featuring interviews and readings from New York Times-bestselling author and noted memoirist Dani Shapiro, and Brevity author and Pushcart Prize nominee Thaddeus Gunn.
Soon, we’ll be invading the world of iTunes, Stitcher, iCatcher, and other podcast services, but for right now, we’re right here, and downloadable for listening on the go. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. If you’re on Soundcloud, please do follow us.
Let us know what you think—and we’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests!
Show Notes: Episode #1 People, Books and Places
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity, Literary Orphans, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He has over twenty years of experience of writing for print, Web, and broadcast. He currently works for his own advertising and branding company, Goldyn Gunn, co-founded alongside Kevin Golden. Find him on Twitter @thaddeusgunn, and enjoy his Dear Gregory blog.
Thaddeus’s essay for Brevity, Slapstick
The writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 is Michael Arndt.
The Hemingway app (Hemingway Editor)
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of the memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion, and Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Her five novels include Black & White and Family History. Dani’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Elle, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been read on NPR’s This American Life. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University, and is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Dani is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveler.
Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille
Philip Roth’s Patrimony
Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
February 19, 2016 § 41 Comments
A guest post from Woz Flint:
When I was five, I wrote my first poem about the wonders of bubblegum. It was silly, it was sassy, and it was my gateway into the world of the written word.
Over the years, I continued to pen poems and create characters for fun. This became part of who I was and I never thought twice about why I was doing it. I just did it and I loved it.
Yet, somewhere along the line, someone, perhaps a well-meaning teacher, suggested that maybe one day I’d become a published writer.
Something in me shifted.
I no longer longed to be a writer, but instead, a published one.
I got my first taste of publication when I landed a stringer position with a local community newspaper. I was so excited to share my words with the world. Or, in most cases, the family members and friends who were kind enough to read my pieces.
Every week when that paper came out, I rushed to the section what displayed my name and I beamed, reading my words over and over again until I could practically recite the piece verbatim.
But there it was — that byline. It seemed to be surrounded by glitter and fireworks on the page. I was hooked.
Several years later, I would find myself published in a popular online newspaper and there it was again — that byline. It seemed to shine brighter than ever and became my new drug.
I landed it again.
And then again.
I began to write not with joy, but instead with one intention only…to get another byline.
And once that was the goal, not another piece was published.
A year has passed since that last byline was pressed and I’ve tried over and over again to sit down and write pieces for publication. The delight and happiness I had as a child has been replaced by bitterness and resentment. There’s no ease, no bliss, just struggle.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been concentrating on a story I’ve wanted to tell for years. I start each writing session with excitement and end sessions with thoughts like:
“This idea is terrible. No agent will represent you.”
“No reputable publishing house will touch this mess.”
“If you think you’re the next Dani Shapiro, you are seriously delusional.”
Writing, for me, has become a chore devoid of the wonder and joy it once held.
Why? Because somewhere along the way, it became about seeing my name in print rather than sharing my ideas and words with the world. It became more about the notoriety than about the craft. It had become an obsession.
I long for the days when my words were only for me. Hidden in the pages of a messy journal where obscure ideas and characters were born.
So this is why I’m giving up on the idea of being published.
I will no longer write with an editor in mind.
I will no longer write with the payoff of a bestseller on my brain.
Instead, I’ll just write. And maybe, just maybe, that bubblegum sass and glory will open that gateway once again.
Woz Flint is a writer, mama, and lover of green olives and toast. After getting her degree in Interpersonal Communication from Ohio University, she made her way to New Mexico where she lives with husband and their 5-year-old son. Her essays have been featured on The Huffington Post and Mamalode.
August 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
Dani Shapiro writes for The New Yorker on how forging a literary memoir is different from posting to social media, which can often feel “thin and undigested, a skimming over of data rather than a deep sink into the specificity and emotional reality of human experience.” Here is an excerpt followed by a link to her powerful, brilliant, brief piece:
My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? Instead of sitting numbly on the plane, with the help of several little bottles of vodka, would I have purchased a few hours of air time with Boingo Wi-Fi and monitored the response—the outpouring of kindness, a deluge of “likes,” mostly from strangers? And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?
Dani Shapiro’s full piece can be read here.
January 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
Dani Shapiro responds to a criticism with style and humor in her recent “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook.” Read the excerpt below and then surely click the link and read the entirety.
We live in a random, merciless jumble, and those of us who write memoir – along with those of us who read memoir – are looking to make music out of that jumble. This is why we have in our canon magnificent memoirs that are about only one aspect of a writer’s life. Say, William Styron’s depression. Vivian Gornick’s relationship with her mother. Tobias Wolff’s boyhood. The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.
July 17, 2011 § 6 Comments
Interesting reflection on the memoirist’s dilemma from Dani Shapiro, in The New York Times this morning:
On a recent weekend morning, I set out with my son to do errands. As we drove from the post office to the health food store, he began fiddling around with the radio, looking for NPR. I reached over and turned it off. He turned it back on. I turned it off again. He shot me a look, puzzled. After all, he knew I enjoyed the fact that, at age 12, he was a fan of public radio. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“No problem,” I said. “I just don’t feel like listening.”
I couldn’t tell him that later that afternoon, “This American Life” would be rebroadcasting an episode with a reading I did years ago from my first memoir, Slow Motion. That I was afraid a promo would come on the air, and that suddenly, improbably, horrifyingly, he might hear his mother’s voice of more than a decade earlier, telling a story of events in her life that had happened more than a decade before that, a story no parent would want her child to hear.
Essay continues here.