Writing the Pain: Memoirists on Trauma and Memory

February 27, 2017 § 104 Comments

Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects: zzzBO1,204,203,200_.jpg

MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?

BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.

MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma.  Would you agree with that?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.

zz-melanieMOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?

BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.

MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?

BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”


Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.


IOTA: Inspirational Space, Inspired Writing

January 9, 2017 § 3 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

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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.

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The Roosevelt Cottage, Campobello

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 PostBustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus MagazineWord Riot, the Huffington PostModern 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.

Loons, Fox, Wind, and Pines: Life at IOTA

August 26, 2016 § 7 Comments

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Our writing desks at IOTA

By Ryder Ziebarth

Just this past week, I took a busman’s holiday: four days at the Iota Conference of Short Prose in Campobello, New Brunswick, the former Roosevelt family compound on an island in Canada. The Inn is accessed by passport and a small bridge from the town of Lubec, Maine, the Easternmost point of the United States—a treat to myself, and a break after a receiving my MFA this June and starting right in on a memoir.

I am from New Jersey and it was quite a trek. Two planes from Newark (some lost luggage,) then a two-and-a-half-hour car ride north from Bangor, Maine. Once there, I entered a world so visually breathtaking (blueberry barrens, blue skies, coastal views) and stepped into a place and time so luxuriously unspoiled, my writer-self began scribbling long before my hands were off the steering wheel of my rented Jetta.

Penny Guisinger created Iota as her semester thesis project while a student at the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine in 2013. The conference, now in its fourth year, was fully attended with several repeat customers. Writers from states far afield including Maryland, Ohio, New York, Texas, Maine and Canada came for daily workshops led by guest writers Dinty W. Moore (Brevity founder and editor) and poet and memoirist Mark Doty. From Wednesday through Friday morning, we talked about all kinds of short forms–from micro-flash and flash, to short essays, memoir and prose poems. We read, swam, wrote, walked, napped, listened to song lyrics and music, discussed process and projects, and even celebrated a participant’s news of winning a Writer’s Digest prize. All this on a wraparound porch with views of a blueberry speckled lawn sweeping right into the Bay of Fundy.

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Prince Cottage, site of the IOTA Conference

We slept in cottages with our windows wide open to the sounds of loons, fox, and wind through tall pines. We ate, and then ate some more of the best homemade food we have ever eaten, including a lobster dinner with strawberry shortcake for dessert. We were also served heaping portions of readings from new and recent works from Mark and Dinty, Penny (from her book, Postcards from Here), plus author/feminist Arielle Greenberg. Just when we thought we were stuffed to the gills with food both for the stomach and soul, there was a late night feast of truly amazing readings from nearly all of the conference participants.

Did I get ANY writing accomplished? Absolutely, but even more than that I had fun. My goal in taking a four-day short prose workshop was to remind myself to stop digressing in the narrative of my work, to tighten up my sentences and therefore, the content of the memoir.  But I came away with so much more than just the lecture notes and workshop exercises I had bargained for: Dinty’s “Invisible Magnetic River” and Mark Doty’s poetic and useful advice toward writing short, concise prose: “Give enough complexity to honor the subject, but be brief enough to honor the reader.” A quote that will grace my work space on an index card.

I also came away satiated with new writerly friendships, connections in a world that can be at once as lonely and solitary as it is intrusive. I relished the company of a lovely woman who kept me company on the long car ride to and from Bangor who was struggling on a memoir of her own, and the kind young writer who encouraged me to let go of my resistance to read my work in the evening group, and another who shared her story with me of her choice to write prose poetry rather than the essays she had churned out for years. Some had published one or two books, some had shiny new book deals, many were teachers, some had published in literary journals, some were still struggling to find their niche; but all of us had two things in common, a love of reading and writing. It was the perfect vacation, busman or not.

Ryder Ziebarth completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and  is currently working on her first memoir, Cedar Ridge Farm: The Life, The Death and the Restoration. Ryder is an Associate Editor for Tiferet Literary Journal and a literary advisor for the Nantucket Book Festival. Her daughter is the fifth generation to have lived on the family homestead in New Jersey with her mom, dad, and three West highland terriers.

Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again

April 10, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Tarn Wilson

I have a friend, a single man in his late forties, who still broods over the love he didn’t get—still doesn’t get—from his emotionally inaccessible parents. They are the cause of all his suffering, he believes, the cause of his failed relationships. Even as I nod compassionately over our herbal tea, I want to shake him and scream, “They’ll never change! Don’t waste any more of your life! Get a new story!”

But if I’m honest, I know that—after years of writing about my own family—I’d really be screaming at myself.

I recently finished writing an essay in which my parents made only the faintest outline of an appearance. I was ecstatic, sure I was entering a new, more adult stage in my development. I would become one of those charming old people who tell the stories of their childhood—traumatic or idyllic—with the cadence and emotional distance of a fairytale. My parents would shrink to reasonable proportion in my history; they are, after all, just two ordinary people in a human family of billions. Now I could begin my real work: Waiting for National Geographic to ask me to write about arctic foxes or oil spills or peculiar algae or disappearing indigenous languages. Activism! Environmentalism! Anything more meaningful than my own small life.

Then, in my newest piece of writing, my mother returned like a zombie, dominating in all her horror and glory. She was stubborn and unyielding and I had no powers against her. After I’d wallowed around in the shame of my retrogression, I decided to re-examine my assumptions.

I began with my teaching. I teach creative nonfiction to high-school students, and in their writing, as in their lives, they generally try to avoid their parents. They write about breakups, bullies and ballgames, about the traumas of middle-school friendships, about the kindergarten teacher who terrorized them. Their parents hover, phantom-like, at the edges. But those edges are often where the real stories hide. When I conference with my students, I, who have been attempting to ignore my family, want to know about theirs. “Tell me about your parents,” I say. And they do. The affair. The stepparent. The young, single mother. The brave immigration from China or Russia. The long shadow of grandparents lost in the Holocaust. Boom. There it is.  Suddenly, their story has a center, dimension, depth.

Then I looked at my reading: I haven’t yet tired of family-centered memoirs. In my current favorite book of essays, Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, I meet trapped suburban mothers, Midwestern farm mothers, mothers with dementia, mothers who have been murdered; fathers who are pedophiles, fathers who are homophobic, fathers with hooks for hands. The stories are painful, yes, but full of value: beautiful, complex, poetic, redeeming in their truth-telling.

Even so, I resist returning again to my parents as a topic. I feel repetitive, self-indulgent, small-minded . . . un-evolved. Even worse, I fear I am imposing something unsavory on the reader, adding to the darkness in the world. But poet Mark Doty helped. In his essay “Return to Sender,” he writes about his struggles to write Firebird, his childhood memoir about his distant father and alcoholic mother: “Sometimes I’d catch myself saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have to write that, who wants to read it?’And then realize that in projecting these doubts outward onto readers, I was actually protecting not the potential reader but myself; I was the one who didn’t want to read about whatever it was that was troubling me.” So perhaps my self-judgment and anxiety is really a cover for a deeper fear: of the material itself, the discomfort of revisiting pain, the uncomfortable truths the stories hold. Doty ends with, “Once I understood that, I did want to read it, and to write it.” I can’t say I’m there yet, that I want to write it, but I am writing it, and that means something.

If I step back from my fears, I know that when we write honestly and richly about our families, we also write cultural history. While wrestling with my memoir about my hippy parents’ attempt to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness in the early 70s, I discovered that to truly understand my mother and father, I had to know the forces that shaped them: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the divisions and disillusionments of the Vietnam War; the rise of modern feminism; the movement toward an eco-spirituality. I began to see my parents not merely as individuals making choices, but as players in a larger cultural movement—pushed and pressed by their families, neighborhoods, religious backgrounds, cultural messages, by the books they were reading, the music that moved them. My father would not have been the man I knew without Jack Kerouc’s On the Road. So, ironically, by striving to know two individuals deeply, I inadvertently became a historian. So here’s a justification for writing about our parents: we flush out a history too narrowly defined by charismatic figures and dramatic events. We fill in the gaps. We reveal the pattern, texture, variety—the more layered truth—in our shared, global story.

And by understanding the stories we have inherited, we understand ourselves better. All cultures have their origin stories, their creation myths, which reveal their foundational beliefs about human nature, good and evil, power hierarchies, and the qualities of a hero. Our family story is our personal origin story. When we examine it, we see more clearly the assumptions—faulty or inspired—by which we live. To a comic book fan, an origin story is the tale of how villains or heroes acquired their superpowers and what interior and exterior forces drive them to good or evil. Dissecting our own origin story, we identify the source of our power and recognize how we have been shaped by our choices and by roles others insist we play. In short, we become more conscious.

And here’s a confession: I called my parents ordinary. And yours. But they are not. They are remarkable. Fascinating. Every single person, no matter how simple he or she appears, is a vast galaxy. A breathing miracle. A dynamic interaction of cells and liquids and electrical impulses, of stories and habits and smells, of conscious and unconscious motivations, of inexplicable courage and strength and grand failure. But if we saw each person who crosses our path as the elaborate, miraculous contradiction they are, we would face such a state of raw wonder—such openness to fragility, pain or admiration—we might burst right out of our skin.  We can’t bear it. So, in general, we adopt a shorthand, a reduction of someone’s being: the police officer, the cat lady, our first love.

But most of us met our parents before we could categorize, when the boundary between ourselves and others was thin and permeable. As a result, we often know them more deeply than any other human being, often more clearly than they know themselves. At the same time, we are also profoundly aware, in a way we are not with those we have so neatly tucked into simple, labeled boxes, of the vastness of their unknowable mystery. We can return again and again and never meet the fullness of them.

I believe this. And I want you to write your family story. But to be honest, I’m still hoping that my parent-centered writing might soon be over, that my most recent essay was the last unexpected wave, the last mother-zombie surge, that I will soon be getting that National Geographic call. I want a new story. But maybe the only way to get a new story is to transform the old one. And maybe the only way to transform the old story is by writing into it, writing into the tension and puzzles, writing through the shame or fear or confusion toward the edges of acceptance and understanding. When we write, again, about our parents, we are not narcissists: we are adventurers in the interior of the human cosmos—we just happen to be exploring the closest galaxy.

Tarn Wilson has been published in Gulf Stream, Inertia, Inlands and A River & Sound Review, as well as the anthologies Hard Love, What’s Nature Got to Do with Me?, and The Poet’s Guide to the Birds. New essays are forthcoming in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Life Writing, and The Sun. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Listening to One Another: A Defense of the Memoir Genre

February 21, 2011 § 35 Comments

Our managing editor Liz Stephens, a PhD candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and author of the smart, surprising “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back” in the Fall 2010 issue of Fourth Genre, responds to Neil Genzlinger’s recent attack on the memoir genre:

Dozens of memoirs line the discount table at my local chain bookstore. The slim edge of one book there makes me thrust my hand out in front of another customer before she can lower her own hand onto what might as well have been WWII silk stockings. I want it. Let her huff. She probably wanted the one about getting happy next to my choice anyway. She probably thinks my choice is inexplicable. She might have dropped my choice like a hot tamale. It’s Mark Doty’s Dog Years. And in fact, the book does change, if not my life, then my entire week, and everything I write for a few days.

Would everyone be moved by this book? Absolutely not. Cat people, for starters. People looking for plot, maybe. Looking for muggles or mysteries. On the other hand, on the list of preoccupations I share with Doty: a) pets. B) death. C) New York City in the Eighties. D) fathoming how our loved ones make us face the uncomfortable in everything. How we come out of it, not holy, but better.

Would Neil Genzlinger like my book, Genzlinger who recently in the New York Times expressed his dissatisfaction with that state of memoir publishing? I’d guess not. Presumably he’s over in the aisle with Lee Iacocca autobiography, Pete Sampras, Ronald Reagan. People who’ve Done Something.

But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters. Other people may go to the top of a mountain when their partner dies, and may subsequently write about it, but I for one am more likely, should that scenario come to pass, to do what Doty did. To sit on the bed I’ve recently shared with the deceased and stare at my dog, wonder what he thinks of the whole precious and fraught debacle of our human lives. Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up. I resist anyone’s story that tells me differently. And, gee, I’m just not planning on starting a car company.

“There was a time,” Genzlinger writes, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that early autobiography was usually the domain of the celebrated, both in America and abroad. But there have always been the Saint Augustines, of course; and he was a “nobody,” a monk who told us for hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the fifth century, that some days one considers one’s bellybutton and some days one feels the presence of God. So is there a precedent for “nobodies” telling their own stories? Doesn’t this tradition have its own rich history?

In 1906, an editor from New York published a book of “lifelets,” called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by Themselves. Butcher, bootblack, dressmaker, cook, nurse, minister. Putting aside the historical value of work like that, which is immeasurable, did it sell? It did.

It ushered in thirty hot and heavy years of writing, and a permanent precedent, for memoir by “ordinary Americans.” E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, John Cheever all started as light memoir writers.

Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better. Furthermore, you can bet there are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship. Are we all literati? Should we be?

Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir from which I drew the early century memoir examples above, points out that the appeal of writing by “ordinary” Americans at the time might have been the contrast to other, bleaker, views of the culture; may be, I point out, the contrast these polyphonic voices offer to a more consensual view of any place or culture. We’re all these things, like it or not. We can’t keep Wallace Stegner and not claim Britney Spears (I mean, can we?). We are as much Karr’s Liar’s Club as we are Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. We’re as much Dillard’s An American Childhood as we are Harry Crew’s A Childhood. And, because we’re keeping it real here, we are as much the woman in Eat, Pray, Love as we are that guy in Tuesdays with Morrie. I haven’t read Tuesdays, because I’m guessing its tone wouldn’t appeal to me, but do I know the way we as a culture deal with aging is an issue for me too? Yeah. I’m just going to have to find that lesson elsewhere, but I’m glad that book synthesized that lesson for so many people.

And do I supposed some memoir about the ubiquitous damage of growing up white and middle-class in a divorced family….well, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a subject that has zero to do with me, that’s my best attempt at a book I think may not need to be written….but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?

Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.

What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.

AWP 2011: Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

February 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

Guest blogger Margaret Kimball, a Tucson-based multidisciplinary illustrator/designer, reports on a lyric essay discussion at the most recent AWP Conference:
Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay
Panelists: Steven Harvey, Kathryn Winograd, Robert Root (in absentia), Rebecca McClanahan
In a standing-room only space amidst a largely and perhaps notably female audience, a group of AWP-goers gathered to discuss the lyric essay: what the name means, what it is, what it might be. Here are my notes from the conversation, delineated by speaker.
Introduction (Steven Harvey)
The lyric essay was first named by Deborah Tall in 1994, then-editor of Seneca Review, in a note to John D’Agata. What she said was that he was looking for a form not by information but by possibility of transformative experience. You are talking about the lyric, she’d said. Then Steven asked: but what does a definition matter? Rather, we should ask: when is a lyric essay good? The lyric is a license to experiment, to play with language but must always contain a sense of intensity, level of passion and intelligence. (Throughout the intro, names were dropped: Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, D’Agata and one affectionately named nay-sayer, Philip Lopate.)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Lyric Essay in 15 Minutes (Rebecca McClanahan)
  1. Something Like Music in My Head
    • – Not all music is melodic (atonal, minor key)
    • – Change a note or two and the essay is a different key
  2. Beauty is as Beauty Does
    • – Subject need not be pretty poetic or musical or serious
    • – Humor is almost never discussed with lyricism
    • – Does not have to be large or on the surface important
    • – Absolute attention is prayer
  3. Close Cover After Striking
    • – Need two or three elements to start something
  4. Lyric Essay as Time Travel, or Move Fluidly In and Out of Time
    • – Elements of the essay existing on independent and colliding time tracks
  5. How Many I’s Does It Take to Change an Essay
    • – Speaker as I
    • – The I might be absent at first
    • – There might be multiple variations on self (past, present)
  6. Caution: Contents Under Pressure
    • – Every word matters
    • – What is the musical score running beneath essay
    • – Subject must fit its container
  7. Say It Again, Sam
    • – Tone poems, repeating phrases/sounds/mantra
    • – Repeated loops or braids (In nebraska, ted)
  8. Take a Breath
    • – Music only exists because of silence between the sounds
  9. Right Here, Right Now
    • – Feeling of immediacy, of a mind is discovering its subject even as words appear on page
  10. Ride the Train of Thought or Language All the Way to Meaning
    • – Language (leaps of thought), engine that pulls the train of meaning
    • – Balance between music and meaning
  11. Imagine There’s a Heaven or Hell
    • – Speculate, wonder, imagine, the gift of perhaps
  12. Go Ahead and Wear the Crazy Hat
    • – Be weird, idiosyncratic structure
    • – Hat alone isn’t enough; object of affection/true subject
  13. Get Out While the Getting’s Good
    • – Endings as openings; allow reader to complete transaction; reader supplies final chord
This is Not a Lyric Essay (Robert Root, read by Harvey)
The lyric essay might be considered as a kind of blurting of words: unplanned, spontaneous, first and final draft, charged. It has a kind of inadvertence. The lyric can be felt in the blood. Place is a lyric essay. Deborah Tall said of the lyric it partakes of the essay in its weight, in its desire to engage with facts, in its passion. The form is simultaneously essay and poem and music; attends language with precision and rigor but with a different vision from poetry about what it might achieve. The lyric is an entity in itself; embodies a sense of wholeness; is an essence; is not decorative. As Lia Purpura says: the form is a necessity of thought.
How Important White Space is in Poems and the Lyric Essay (Kathryn Winograd)
In a poem, white space is everything on the page unmarked. It has the power of juxtaposition; is the poet’s unspeakable; it is movement mapped out. Essays speak of the vertical movement of the essay (verticality through associative memory, descriptions); they contain intersections of consciousness and unconsciousness, of associations. For a poet, white space is what they cannot or will not say, it is their essential unsayable; that which is understood only on intuitive level. Beneath everything I am writing is absence. The ultimate tension in writing, in white space: what is written v. what is not.

Unmaking of the Made-Up Self (Steven Harvey)
Harvey found the lyric after becoming weary of his own voice. After he realized the self as top hat and cape of imagination. The lyric offers a breakdown of the persona, a kind of portal in which the self comes apart, in which the process of disintegration is seen. In the lyric, the voice is absorbed by subject matter and the self-assured persona is liberated. In Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, we witness an insistently low-key self, a weary voice in transformation. In this voice, the I is enlarged by becoming part of something bigger than itself; the self does not have the last word but blossoms, allows itself to be transformed by bumps and texts and countertexts and new information.

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