Getting to the Truer Version of the Story

October 28, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Aimee Christian

Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?

That depends.

David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”

I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.

Just by writing it out.

Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.

I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?

After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?

Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. 

I wanted to tattoo Febos’s words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.

How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?

I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?

Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?

Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.

If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.

Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.

Because that’s the story people want to read.

________________

Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here

Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net


Writing Nonfiction as an Indian Woman

December 11, 2020 § 11 Comments

By Anandi Mishra

Earlier this year, after years of putting away the plan to write creative nonfiction, I decided to submit to literary magazines in the US and Europe. What awaited me was a sweet little dilemma. What could I write from my vantage point that would interest readers of those magazines that I had been reading myself for the last few years? 

I did not know what ideas I should and could pursue. One set of ideas would manifest itself as too bold in my south Asian Indian woman mind. What if my family read it? Would my friends be tolerant of knowing that I masturbate? What about that sentence that said that I smoked pot? All the what ifs would cloud my mind and soon blur my creative vision. I was lucky to have one friend who could give creatively balanced feedback — my boyfriend. M always created a comfortable ground before pointing out small issues here and there and helping me to see what was good to go. When I voiced my apprehensions, he would listen with a sensitive ear. His feedback would soothe me, instilling in me a little bit more confidence to go ahead and pitch my ideas.

My other worry was that my ideas were too meek, blunt, and superficial for American and European magazines. For my pitches to stand out, I thought they might need a bit of self-absorption, singularity, and navel-gazing. While I didn’t lack these qualities, I found it hard to understand how to distill them all into my writing. If I wrote a pitch, it would come across as too apparent. I worried it would excite my simple Indian literary taste buds but be too bland for the other side of the world. I would read, scrolling down websites, one after the other, skimming through essays written by my favorite writers of Indian origin. How did she strike this spectacular balance between the personal and the private? How did she allow this beautiful detail into the essay without prying deeper into it? Why can I not do this? How do I make some — heck — any of my pitches work?

Reading, making notes, penciling thoughts on margins or into my notebooks, I would let these favorite writers’ words weave inspiration around my head. I would parse through their words and let my imagination take off from there. Sometimes a sister thought would take hold of me, and I would quickly jot it down. On other occasions, I would go off on the same tangent mentally, trying to understand how to arrive at a topic that I would be the best person to write about.

As I went down this road of finding inspiration, seeking courage, the list of women writers of south Asian origin who gave me hope, kept increasing. I read more essays written by people all across the world, but especially by the women who came from backgrounds similar to mine. At least, vaguely, remotely, minutely similar to mine. I would scroll past their Twitter handles, into their websites, reading almost all the nonfiction pieces written by them. Although this all happened at the sub-conscious level, I was rapidly also creating a bank of my own ideas. Geeta Kothari, Abeer Hoque, Jhumpa Lahiri, Dur e Aziz Amna, Iva Dixit, Sejal Shah, Janice Pariat, Sumana Roy, Anjum Hasan — their essays, each vastly different from the rest, intrigued me. Picking up from there examples, I started internalizing how to find that perfect balance.

But it would still take me at least ten times the rejections against the acceptances to arrive at the first satisfying piece of writing. I understood that while Melissa Febos’ essays were mind-boggling, they were also, at least to begin with, uncharted territory for me. I could find courage to be vocal about my innermost demons from them, but I wouldn’t be able to be vocal about what kept me awake at night. Indian society still classifies certain subjects as taboo, and I wanted more and more people from my home country to read me. Nonetheless, my first essay addressed something that I had never seen another Indian woman writer address in her work.

My day job is as a communications professional, and with the 2020 pandemic lockdown, my home and bedroom became the place where I worked, attended office calls, ate, wrote, read, and slept. While my work continued on weekdays, during weekends I found it hard to get myself to write, to sit down and do the one thing that I have deeply enjoyed since childhood. Then one day, during an over-thinking spree, I figured out that I was looking for a go-ahead from someone. I moved out of my parents’ house in mid-2008 and since then have in one way or the other always needed permission to do something, anything, from them or from other “elders” around. It is common in our North India culture for women and also men (up to a certain age) to always feel the need for a sign off on every small thing, such as wanting to grow nails or go for a night out with friends.

When I sat down with an essay pitch, I worried that I was being devious. Was I cheating on my employers? Was I lying to someone? Was I being unthankful? Was I hurting someone by writing on the side? One weekend I checked with my boss and she assured me that she was perfectly fine with me publishing literary essays. I was still not fully convinced. What I needed then, I would realize later, was the final nod from an over-imposing authority. I waited, stuck in this limbo for weeks, for this permission to come through. And when it did not, an epiphany struck.

One Saturday afternoon, I sat in front of my bookshelf, wrested out a book of essays by a favorite writer, folded into a palthi, and thumbed through its pages. I read one essay after another, deriving from each of them permission to write, to feel, to wander and get lost about in the land of my own words. It was in those vulnerable moments that I, an Indian woman who doesn’t come from a family of creative types or moneyed types, gave myself the permission to forge on ahead on this uncharted territory. In doing so, I became my own muse, my own guru, my very own agent provocateur, my teacher, and my special student.

Later that afternoon, I decided to refuse the binary and marry my two sets of ideas. I would blend the two in a way that was idiosyncratic of my blog pieces that I had been putting out since early 2018. I would let my inner world come and live itself out on my pages in the way that I wanted. I told my stories my way, and in doing so, I owned the very essence of them.

I started from there, and I’ve been ploughing my way through. To quote the one and only Toni Morrison,

I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

Eight months from my first nonfiction publication, my writing journey has only begun. There is hardly that nuance that comes with the remove of a longer passage of time, but so far it has been a delicate ballet of awkwardness, one that I have learnt to enjoy. I am following Morrison’s advice and beginning to own this joy that comes with noticing, looking, and capturing the world in my words.
__

Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has also been published by or is forthcoming in Mint, Popula, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, Transformations, RejectionLit, Berfrois, Multiplicity Mag, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020).

Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

July 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

What is the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize?

Should be obvious, eh?

What will the winner receive?

One first place winner receives $1000 and publication.  Two honorable mentions receive $100 each.

Who can enter the contest?

Human people who have written something.

Who is this year’s judge?

The 2010 judge is Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart

How excited should we be?

See the photo accompanying this blog post.

What’s that URL again?

Right here: Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Melissa Febos at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

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