Memoirs and Research: When Memories Aren’t Enough

February 3, 2023 § 7 Comments

By Ronnie Blair

My memory is clear. On a Sunday night when I was a child in the 1960s, my family gathered around our black-and-white TV to watch the much-anticipated moment when the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I sat breathlessly on the floor near the TV screen, not wanting to miss a moment. A few feet away a coal stove provided heat for me and for our tiny two-bedroom rental house. Just to my right was the entrance to the small kitchen where my mother whipped up banana pudding and other delights. But at this moment my mind was far from any sugary desserts that the kitchen offered because Sullivan was introducing those four guys from Liverpool and young women in his audience were starting to scream.

It’s a wondrous childhood memory of a pivotal moment in pop culture history. Unfortunately, it is faulty. The Beatles made their first appearance on Sullivan’s show on Feb. 9, 1964. My family moved from that two-bedroom house in 1963. Somehow, my brain mixed its signals, taking the image of me watching TV in one living room and melding it with me watching the Beatles in another house altogether.

In the grand scheme of things, no big deal. But, for anyone writing a memoir, it serves as a warning about how memories play tricks on us. When I was a journalist, skeptical people in newspaper newsrooms, understanding the need to question everything, liked to say: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” For memoirists, that can be adapted to: “If your memory tells you anything, check it out.”

Memoirs certainly are about our memories, whether the memoirist is conveying stories from childhood, the first year in a career, or a traumatic episode that changed their lives. But memories aren’t enough and need to be supplemented with good hard research.

Sometimes that’s because, like with the Beatles incident, memories betray us and research helps us avoid errors, small and large. There is also this: We add depth to our memoirs when we include historical, geographical, cultural, or other information. How many miles long is that river? Why did the city council change your hometown’s name a century ago? What TV shows were you likely watching while recovering from an illness in fifth-grade?

In one part of my memoir, I was writing about Christmas of 1966. I remembered it snowing that year, but could my memory have confused 1966 with another year? Or, is it possible that my memory just added snow because we associate Christmas with snow? Research showed that not only did it snow on Christmas Eve in 1966, but the eastern part of the country endured a major storm that created all sorts of havoc. My memory was confirmed and I added an extra layer of detail to my tale that I otherwise would not have had.

One of the great advantages of the age we live in is that so much information is available online. As long as we are careful about what sources we use, we don’t necessarily have to make a trip to the library or write to a government agency and wait for weeks to receive the document we requested. A Google search can even reveal source material we didn’t know existed, and so never would have asked for.

Two examples: A U.S. Department of Labor report about a 1959 steel strike helped me fill in some blanks about why my father was laid off from his coal mining job that year. A newspaper article about a long-closed theme park fleshed out details about the park that my memories from a 1965 visit could never have conjured.

Books also can be useful. My late father served in World War II and I wanted to write about his experiences, but the meager stories he told while alive and the dates and places on his discharge papers didn’t amount to a lot of material. Several war books came to my rescue. For example, the discharge papers said that, among other things, my father participated in the New Guinea campaign. What happened there? What would he have seen and suffered through? I discovered two books specific to that campaign that gave me the answers.

Be sure to cite your sources. In addition to crediting mine within the text, I included a bibliography.

Of course, you won’t be able to check everything. Your memoir likely will include anecdotes about events that happened to you and there exists no government record, newspaper article, or book that will confirm or refute them. As a youngster, I borrowed a friend’s pony one afternoon, an incident that became a humorous tale in my memoir, providing a lesson on being careful about what you wish for.

Once the animal’s owner left, it was just me, the pony, and an otherwise empty pasture, so I had absolutely nothing to go on but memory – reliable or not.
____

Ronnie Blair is lead writer in public relations for Advantage Media Group. He is also author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.

Revision is Remodeling (Not Dusting the Furniture)

February 2, 2023 § 16 Comments

HOW TO AVOID TWO COLOSSAL MISSTEPS IN REVISING MEMOIR

By Dinty W. Moore

“Writing is revision,” Tracy Kidder famously suggested, and if the number of times I rewrote this blog post is any indication, he is entirely right.

But being a mentor and writing coach for countless memoirists and essayists over the years has shown me that two colossal missteps keep many of us from realizing the massive benefits that re-visioning – seeing the work through fresh eyes even after completing a first or second draft – can provide. 

The first misstep is entirely understandable, because it follows age-old advice about starting any worthwhile task “at the beginning.” We sit down for a new draft and the first thing we do is to begin polishing the first sentence. “Got to make this one better,” we murmur to ourselves. “The first line has to be good.”

Making any sentence more vivid, more compelling is a positive thing, but, yes, this approach can be a waste of time. 

To make serious use of the revision process, writers need to let go of the natural urge to preserve the sentences we have already written. We need to be entirely open to the possibility that large chunks of our current draft are just trial runs. Our first sentence, our first paragraph, our first page – all of these elements are just auditioning for the role. They haven’t earned it yet.

They may need to be replaced, rearranged, or perhaps your story will be stronger simply by taking them out and letting the remainder stand by itself.

One way to think about the difference between minor revision and serious revision is to imagine that you are remodeling your family living room. Simply proofreading your second or third draft and fixing a few awkward sentences is like remodeling a room by dusting the end tables and rearranging the pillows on the sofa. Not much of a change. A minor improvement at best.

The true act of revision comes when a writer is willing to move each and every piece of furniture out onto the front lawn, roll up the area rugs, take the pictures down, unscrew the wall sconces. Then, on a case-by-case basis, the writer can decide which elements returns to the room, and where they will be situated. Sometimes the old sofa needs to be left out on the curb for recycling, because it just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe some new furniture is purchased (a new scene is written). Perhaps the walls are painted a new color (voice or point-of-view shifts.)

In some cases, maybe all the furniture is returned to the room, but not to the same location. Put those tables over there, where they are more useful. Arrange the chairs so they face the window and its excellent view of the weeping willow branches. What’s important is that nothing goes back inside the metaphorical living room until and unless the writer makes the conscious choice that it belongs. And where it belongs.

This may seem like hard work, and indeed it is, but well worth the effort. Writing is an act of detection, an attempt to determine what the writer thinks and feels, so it only makes sense that the author’s idea of what a memoir or essay should say and do will transform over time.

Be ruthless with your early, auditioning pages. Show no mercy.

*

And the second colossal misstep? Dreading the revision process. “My work is so bad I can’t stand to look at it,” we grumble. Or maybe, “Cripes, there is so much to fix, what is wrong with me?”

It’s really, however, just a matter of how you think about it.

Personally, I love revision. “Oh my goodness,” I tell myself. “What a lucky break. I get to fix this mess. I get to fiddle around in here and save the good parts, cut the weak parts, connect the parts that need to be connected, before anyone sees what a ham-handed early draft I wrote. Thank goodness!”

Life doesn’t give us enough do-overs, but writing always does. If we grant ourselves the space.

*

I’ll be talking more about all things revision next week as part of Jane Friedman’s amazing webinar series. The webinar – The Art of Revising Memoir – is $25, live on Wednesday, Feb. 8th, at 1 pm Eastern. (But you can register and download a recording if that time is not free.) 

I’d love to see you there. We’ll discuss the best ways to approach revision, the numerous, overlapping stages of improving your work, and what questions to ask as you journey happily through an early draft in search of the better, final version.

__

Dinty W. Moore is founder and editor of Brevity magazine. He is author of the writing guide Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, and Mexico.

When Our Words Become a Commodity

January 31, 2023 § 11 Comments

What happens when we write private conversations?

By Trish McDonald

“Thank you for loving me,” he whispered as I turned up the hem on his velvet Christmas dress. No one had ever thanked me for loving them.

I look at my draft. Should our words be kept private? Am I cheapening them by sharing? Is this a fear other writers have? Do they parse their words to protect loved ones? I can write this, but never that.

“Once I published that book and my words became a commodity, something broke between us,” writes Lily King in Euphoria, a fictional account of a brief period in the life of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead. It’s the story of a field expedition to New Guinea, a love triangle, and professional rivalry between the researchers. At one point, Nell Stone (Mead) decides to publish her notes in her name only, instead of including her husband. In retrospect, she realizes her publication of their private conversations will destroy the relationship.

As I’m reading King’s words, I stop and reread the sentence. A warning. I copy the sentence down, underlining, highlighting. If I publish our words, will it harm our relationship?

Would our words become a commodity, publicly traded, like a stock? Would they yield merchandise like T-shirt sayings, coffee mugs, bumper stickers? 

I decide on autofiction as my narrative form and keep writing. I’m introduced to the voice, the method, and the stirrings of courage I’d need via Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Chee used essays. In my story of gender fluidity, I would attack my own biases— perfectionism, shame, unworthiness. At the age of seventy-seven, amid the expectations of the culture where I live in Florida, in the current political climate, I plot my strategy to leave a legacy of hope.

After Paper Bags was published, I feared judgment by others because of my revelations. Curiosity had driven me to write about gender fluidity and a sense of wonder helped me to accept things I didn’t understand. I imagined I’d be an activist and stand on a platform, but for now I’m happy to be a bridge to a deeper conversation about human rights.

Who do our written words belong to? Once published they become a product—vendible, material, and for a lucky few, evergreen. I’m of the “No Expiration on Dreams” philosophy. I’ve picked out the artwork for Paper Bags greeting cards, sticky notes, and guest towels. They’re embellished with: Thank you for loving me.

________

Trish McDonald is the author of Paper Bags, a story of self-discovery, metamorphosis, and gender fluidity. According to her DNA profile, McDonald is 86% Irish. For a storyteller, this “blarney” heritage comes in handy when writing about issues of trauma. An avid camper, McDonald lives in a tiny house in an RV park in Southwest Florida. Her writing has appeared in Oldster Magazine, Maudlin House, and Shout-Out Miami. Learn more about her work at her website.

Writing the Urgent

January 17, 2023 § 9 Comments

How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?

By Beth Kephart

A word is a choice. A sentence is a story. Consonants and vowels are strike and extension, collision and hush. Every single letter we place upon a page, every mark of punctuation, says something about our writerly selves, about what sparks the urgent within us.

I think of urgency as the tale we must tell, the one that wakes us from our dreams and also permeates them. When we are urgent with a story, we do not have time to waste. Our tangents can’t dawdle. Our backstories can’t yawn. We sculpt the scenes that have something to say, then place them in the order that keeps the reader turning pages. We want clarity, of course. And we want pace.

We want our readers with us.

Even the kind of memoirs I call The Art of the Moment memoirs—works in which the moments themselves and the way they are arranged are of primary intrigue and importance—require clarity and pace. Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, for example, is a braided series of reflections on the natural world and human grief. It’s a quiet book, a poetic book, and yet it begs to be read in a single sitting. There is urgency in nearly every scene—eruptions of telling details, economical pace—and there is urgency, too, in the juxtaposition of the scenes, the ways in which the present day teases the past forward, just as the past opens a view toward the present.

Recently, when compiling A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class, a new book designed to honor the nine writers who joined us for a nine-month memoir master class, I found myself thinking, again, about urgency and the ways we might achieve it. As part of the program, I’d asked our memoirists to read out loud to one another at the beginning of each session—a mere 150 art-of-the-moment words inspired by prompts and readings I’d suggested. There, in our Zoom room, we all paused. We leaned into language, rinsed our souls, protested and prayed, declaimed and rejoiced, became ever more acquainted (and grateful) for the community that was of our own making.

Listening, watching, I began to see their work as a kind of choral poetry. And so, as I sat down to build the anthology (a book of many parts that also includes flash non-fiction, fully developed essays, and writing prompts), I wondered what might happen if I slid edges of one writer’s sentences up close to the edges of another’s. How would passages excised from their original context give rise to unforeseen shared stories? How might deconstructing and reconstituting our writers’ words yield a resounding resonance? How might one writer’s call become another writer’s response?

The exercise proved remarkably instructive, even profound. In one choral poem, a father’s steadfast refusal to take an airplane adventure becomes amplified by a story about a silenced piano. In another, a mother’s obsession with building kites from supermarket bags is given new meaning when filtered through a story about the rocks a son turns into a garden wall. Three writers writing of very different possessions—a white straw purse, a grandmother’s advice, a piece of furniture—yield new insight into what it is to be alive. Beloveds are carried in a multiplication of hearts. Illusions prove essential. There are fish, and there’s a bathtub.

We write toward urgency by perfecting our scenes—shedding the pedantic, favoring evocation over reporting, making smart use of verbs and image. But urgency also lives in the sequencing choices we make—what goes first, what comes next, and what comes after that. If you’ve lost the pace on an in-progress piece, if you are no longer quite as eager to get to work or quite as certain that your work is alive and matters, perhaps you’ll consider crafting a choral poem using your own work as the raw material—taking your pieces apart, setting them down in new ways, and discovering, in the process, a brand new beating heart.

_______________

Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a book artist. Her recent memoir is Wife | Daughter | Self, and the anthology A Weave, a Basket, a Vessel: Outtakes from a Memoir Master Class is now available. For more on literary obsession, urgency, and telling details, join Beth’s Craft Talks webinar, “The Art of the Moment,” January 25th. More info/register here.

Writing Despite the Odds

January 4, 2023 § 3 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

We write nonfiction to witness the world. We write nonfiction because we believe in its power to reflect reality, and so we hold up our observations to readers like an offering. But chronicling contemporary culture is difficult when the world no longer makes sense.

I began writing my latest book, Halfway from Home, at the start of what seemed like the end of the world. When the pandemic began, time stretched on but also seemed to be running out. The environment was on the verge of collapse, as was my emotional state. Like the climate, my family back on the West Coast was in crisis, but I could not help them from my place on the East Coast. Existing in my real life—to say nothing of writing about it!—sometimes seemed hopeless.

I wrote memoir to replace harsh reality with sweet nostalgia. I wrote about the many places I’d called home—California coasts where tidepools were full of starfish, Nebraska prairies with roots so deep they could survive fires—because I could not go back to visit. I wrote about a natural world that was full of abundance—monarchs gathering together for warmth each winter near my childhood home, my family fed on fields full of tart berries—because everything was on the verge of extinction. I wrote about my many adventures with my father—digging in my childhood treasure hole, polishing ordinary rocks to shine like gems—because I did not know when I would see him again, or, after he was diagnosed with cancer, if I would at all.

The memories of the past soothed me, but they also supported me. The fears and frustrations I felt during my daily doomscroll were augmented with memories of kindness, compassion, and community. The anger I felt over humanity’s apathy was replaced with agency as I chose what stories I wanted to share. As I crafted the narrative of my life, my feelings of hopelessness were replaced with a deep appreciation.

Soon I felt strong enough to reflect on the present. I wrote about the collective grief Americans faced watching our natural and national landscapes under attack. I wrote about how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. This writing helped me to process the pain and understand my anger, but it also helped me to develop compassion. Much of my grief came from feeling alone, but nonfiction requires us to broaden beyond the personal to create something akin to universal meaning, and by doing so, I regained the kinship I’d been missing.

Writing memoir about the past and present also prepared me for the future. This is not to say that writing prevented painful realities. The pandemic continues, along with new threats. National and natural landscapes grow increasingly hostile, and we collectively ache for what is lost. Human connection is disappearing even as our yearning for it increases, and we bear the burdens of so much grief. We have lost our sense of safety, our ability to pay bills, our hope that things will get better. Many of us have lost the ones we love.

Now when I feel helpless, I sit down to write because this gives me the power to shape the world on the page. Nonfiction puts us in the role of the observer and this practice invites us to not only witness and record, but to acquire agency through the act of writing. As humans, we often feel whittled down by the world, but as writers, we are the ones who shape creation with our stories.

When I feel lonely and afraid and full of grief for the things I cannot control, I turn to witness. I watch a red fox find sustenance in the dead of a winter that seems like it will never end. As the spring bursts forth in fragrant bloom, I watch bees busy at the clover and a million shoots unfurling themselves from the frozen ground. In summer, I spy deer wandering through the yard with their wobbly fawns. By fall, they are grown, another year almost gone.

Noticing this way inspires the wonder of my childhood and takes me back to a time before the world changed and the chaotic news cycle began. A time before so many of us were separated from our families and even our country seemed a stranger. A time before we were on the edge of environmental and emotional collapse.

If I can observe beauty and joy in the world, I can share this with others through my craft. No longer is memoir a means to escape, but instead a moment to memorialize.

So even as the earth aches, I notice a great blue heron swooping low through my Massachusetts yard on its way to roost. This takes me back many years and a lifetime ago to when I lived in Nebraska and the sandhill cranes that did the same, returning to the same nesting ground for thousands of years to hatch their young, to ensure their survival despite the world’s many dangers.

And I recall the robins my father showed me during my California childhood, back when he was still alive. The creatures were open-mouthed and wailing, determined to fly even though they did not seem ready for what the world would offer. Their shells were blue jewels, small as a thimble, as a whispered prayer. It was easy to miss the cracked halves, if you weren’t careful. If you didn’t pay attention. Witness requires guidance, and my father taught me to watch.

How the birds flew, took to the sky despite the odds.
____

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Diving into Immersion Memoir

December 20, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

One night as I flipped through TV stations, a woman with bleached-white hair, French-manicured talons, and an unmistakable Long Island accent caught my attention. Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, supposedly channeled dead people.

Even though I’d always been fascinated by the paranormal, I was skeptical. I knew there wasn’t much reality in reality TV. I have been talking with the dead for three decades—as a professional genealogist. I channel long-forgotten ancestors by digging up historical documents, reassembling the pieces, and recreating their life stories. Although I’m not religious, I do believe in an afterlife. I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to become a medium and talk directly to those dead relatives? They could put me on the right track in researching and telling their life stories.

With no plans for my six-week winter break from teaching online, I decided to become a “stunt journalist.” I’d be the Nellie Bly of mediumship. I’d immerse myself in the world of mediums to see if a middle-aged woman with no prior, youthful psychic, visionary, or near-death experiences could not only talk to the dead—but get a response. Then I’d write about my experience in an immersion memoir.

What is an immersion memoir?

Robin Hemley in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, writes, “The immersion memoirist is interested in self-revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his/her vehicle.” Immersion writing can be “a quest, experiment, investigation, reenactment, or infiltration.” My immersion memoir would have four of these elements: I was on a quest to become a medium and converse with the dead. It was an experiment to see if I could do it. I investigated the history and mechanics of mediumship (there is a science to it). And I infiltrated the world of mediums through classes and development circles, where mediums and novices like me practice communicating with the dead.

What makes it different from other types of memoirs?

Hemley adds, “The I becomes a stand-in for the reader, an anchoring consciousness who develops a rapport with the reader and in effect stakes claims of reliability and authenticity: this is what I saw. This is what I did and observed. Trust me that I’m being as accurate as possible, but draw your own conclusions.”

I began my quest in 2012 and kept a detailed journal with notes from my research and classes, and all my failed and successful attempts to talk with the dead and get a response. One of the advantages of writing an immersion memoir is that you know the goal, so you can keep a diary and, when you write, you don’t have to rely solely on memory.

While immersing myself in the world of mediumship, I also read and studied other immersion memoirs (Hemley has an extensive bibliography in his book), such as Dinty W. Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style, Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, to name a few. I wanted to see how they structured their memoirs and how they informed readers about a subject they may have known nothing about.

I wrote several drafts of my immersion memoir, but found it was (a) too long and (b) too much of “I did this, then I did that.” What was I missing? I returned to Hemley’s book and one question he posed struck me: “What was at stake?… There has to be something more substantial at stake emotionally for the writer. If there isn’t, then yes, you’re simply writing for the sake of the gimmick, and the reader will soon lose interest.”

When I thought about it, there were several things at stake: What if I spent all this time trying to communicate with the dead, and I couldn’t? That would be a disappointment for me and the reader. No book there. What if in becoming a medium I jeopardized my friendships and career as a respected, professional genealogist? Would people think I was a kook? There’s conflict there, that might work. But then I realized that the biggest issue at stake, what was most at risk, was my close relationship with my only child, my daughter, Laurie. She is a scientist and skeptic about the existence of an afterlife, let alone communicating with dead people. During my journey, we had several disagreements, which I recorded in my journal, including our email exchanges. Ah-ha! High stakes and big conflict. Now, I had “the real story” as Hemley puts it.

From that point it was easy to decide what to include and exclude from my five-year quest and substantial journal entries. It must have worked. I submitted the manuscript for Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead to an indie press on a Wednesday in August of 2021, had a contract the following Friday, and the book was published in June, 2022. Of course, I’m leaving out the multiple drafts and many readers who helped me get to this point, and the two friends who asked to be removed from my story, but that’s for another blog post.

Is an immersion memoir right for you? Check out Hemley’s book and read other immersion memoirs. There might be a story just waiting for you to dive into.

__

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is the author of Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books) and twenty-six other books, including the biography, In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K. (Scattered Leaves Press). She has also been Brevity’s copy editor since 2012. She can be reached through her website, www.TheGenealogyMedium.com.

Author Bio? Author Crisis!

December 12, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

—The End— 

Yay! My creative nonfiction piece is complete. 

Phew.

Next: Double-check the submission deadline and guidelines. Check for typos. Then, send: Off it goes. 

Happy dance. Cup of tea. Catch up on house chores. 

And wait. 

One morning, my email inbox pings: Accepted! Oh, my goodness, yes

But then, what’s this? They need an “author bio.” 

An end piece that describes me as a writer. 

Ah. OK. Fine. 

But is it?

I’ve been writing for decades yet am sparsely published, so what to say? Shall I count up my blog posts? My Facebook posts? Um, no. An author bio should surely indicate bigger, better accomplishments. While I could pull such a list together, the places my writing has been published are more popular than literary, more journalistic than journal. Does that matter to the CNF world?

Maybe I could ignore those niggling details and simply take a cheerful approach. 

“Amanda Le Rougetel is excited by words. She writes CNF at her desk while the cat swirls about her ankles, inspiring and provoking her in equal measure. She is already working on her next piece [insert happy face emoji here].” 

Or maybe a studious tone would be more appropriate. 

“Since learning to write on a manual typewriter at age 10, Amanda Le Rougetel has toiled with intention, researching the attributes of pieces published in print and online journals. She is committed to a daily writing practice—her focus CNF and occasionally flash fiction—and takes courses to enhance her writing skills.” 

Alternatively, readers might be interested in how I got here. 

“Amanda Le Rougetel set a goal of being a capital-W Writer by spring 2023. To achieve this, she created a blog in 2018 and posted regularly. Since then, she has gained a (small) subscriber list and a (slightly bigger) readership. Her long-term writing objective is…well, once she figures that out, she’ll include it in her next bio.”

Crap. 

This is much harder than I expected. All those words are just me telling about myself. There’s no showing, no “third party validation” via actual bona fide publication. That can’t be right. 

An online search for “how to write an author bio” results in more than 800 million hits, adding to the dilemma. The advice includes “write about yourself, your credentials, your hobbies, and other information you wish to share with readers.” Fine, but what “other information”? And hobbies? Really? Readers care that I garden and bike-ride? And credentials, truly? This isn’t academe, so who cares about my BA and MA? 

Stop, Amanda. Go back online and this time look at author bios in the journals you regularly read. That would be smart. 

And here’s what I find: Shorter or longer lists—but lists, nonetheless—of the writer’s publishing history. An article placed here. A story there. A piece accepted by an anthology. And more writing in other places. Nothing about hobbies. Nor about the author’s personal activities. 

I have come to realize that a list of places published is proof that the person not only writes but is a writer worth reading. No one can dispute that writing vetted by an editor + publication = Writer. 

We write CNF because we have something to say, something about ourselves and, by extension, the world around us and those who share it. But how challenging it is when the editor turns the focus squarely on us, putting our skill to the test in crafting a readable, credible piece of micro-autobiography. 

The author bio is at once fleeting and lasting. While we who write for publication hope our bio is ever evolving, we know that the version of ourselves that lands on the printed page or screen lasts for an eternity of readers who encounter it in that spot. Our best hope is that we capture in the moment not only the facts but also the spirit of who we are as Writer.

___

Amanda Le Rougetel writes creative nonfiction, usually personal essays, three of which have been published in Canada’s Globe and Mail. Her work has also appeared in Herizons magazine, and twice in Brevity Blog. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she challenges herself by writing flash fiction, blogs at Five Years a Writer, and teaches “writing as a tool for transformation” courses through writingastool.ca.

On Publishing My Memoir While My Mother Is Living

December 6, 2022 § 21 Comments

I’ve made accusations and judgements.

By Sonya Ewan

“Do you want to hear the introduction to my book?” my mother asked me in a recent phone conversation.

A week after that conversation, as I hit “send” to submit my memoir manuscript to an agent, I flashed back to a web link that had popped up after I googled Educated, by Tara Westover. That link directed me to a book cleverly titled Educating, by LaRee Westover—Tara’s mother. On Goodreads, LaRee writes that she has always known she would write her memoir, and that some of the impetus for publishing it is Tara’s memoir. She feels “a compelling desire to shine a light of accuracy…” and tells a conflicting story to that of Educated.

In my own memoir, I’ve shared a lot about my and my mother’s time together and—spoiler alert—the details aren’t all positive. When people learn that my mother is living, they often ask whether I’m using my real name for my book, Tall: A Memoir of Growing. After careful consideration, I’ve decided that the answer is yes. And yes, I’m nervous about that. I’ve made accusations and judgements and I’ve held my mother accountable. I’ve said that I believe she has narcissist personality disorder. I haven’t used my mother’s first name in the manuscript, but our surname is the same and what I’ve written may make our family, her friends, and strangers think poorly of her (or of me). Regardless, I’ve waited as long as I can to tell my story.

As an undergrad, I experienced a practice run with both memoir and my mother’s reaction after reading it. For an autobiographical paper, I diligently interviewed my mother, quoting her verbatim with the assistance of a Casio recorder (it was 1989), and reporting what she had described to me. Yet she was disappointed with the final product—even angry about some of what I had written—which confused the heck out of me. It was also a valuable lesson that people whom I’ve interviewed won’t necessarily interpret what I write afterward as I expect they will.

While I was writing Tall, my mother re-read her copy of that college paper. This time, she said she loved it. I figured she was hinting that she imagined she’d prefer the college version of my memoir to the modern, post-therapy version.

My mother once told me about Tall: “Write it like I’m not going to read it.” A month or so later, we debated whose memory was more accurate. “I can see I’m not going to like any memoir you write,” she snapped. Later still, my mother said, “I wish I could read your book before you publish it to be sure you remember everything accurately.”

I rolled my eyes. No one remembers everything accurately. But her statement did remind me of Augusten Burroughs being sued by the Turcotte family, whom he lived with during his adolescence and then wrote about in Running With Scissors.

I’ve fantasized about my mother reacting as Mary Karr’s mom did as she was reading The Liars’ Club. I recall from The Art of Memoir that Karr’s mom repeatedly commented, “I was such an asshole.” The reality is, Karr’s mom’s was not the reaction of a narcissist mother, and I’ve acknowledged that.

Reading reviews of LaRee Westover’s Educating, I was reassured by the abundance of support expressed for Tara. And after my mother read aloud her own memoir introduction, I was less anxious about whether she might contradict me and more convinced that she would be writing about experiences that had little to do with me.

There’s no denying that my mother will love and hate anything I write about her. No doubt the experience of hearing my mother’s reaction to my memoir will be challenging. The entirety of our relationship has been challenging. It’s taken me decades to arrive here, but I’m finally at a place where I value myself more than my mother’s feelings. Ariel Leve has said in an interview on her similarly-themed memoir, An Abbreviated Life, that, “It felt like I had to write this book in order to be free.” I second that.

Sonya Ewan has contributed features to Women’s Health and The Hockey News and was a regular contributor to Albuquerque The Magazine and East Mountain Living. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four air-purifying plants. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sonyaewan and read her introspective blog at sonyaewan.com.

To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.

November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments

By Nancy L. Agneberg 

I worked on my memoir for years. Years. 

Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction. 

I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”

Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.” 

I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk. 

Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too. 

Then I entered a time of discernment. 

Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.

First, I posed some possible scenarios:

  • Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
  • Self-publish after revising.
  • Self-publish without major revisions. 
  • Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
  • End all involvement with the memoir. 
  • Retire. 

Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:

  • Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
  • Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
  • If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
  • Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
  • Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
  • Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)

In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project. 

And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.” 

True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?

The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.

These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely. 

Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.” 

I believe that. 

I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be. 

I will continue to write, but not my memoir. 

__________________

Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth

Who’s On First?

November 3, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Regina Landor

A new magazine recently accepted one of my pieces for publication. It had been a long time since I had any of my work published and my first thought was, Really? That piece? It’s a story I wrote during the pandemic about an argument my husband and I had which resulted in our sleeping in separate bedrooms. Was I really ready to invite my friends and family and possibly multiple strangers into my bedroom at the very same time? I must have been. 

It was only after I received a congratulatory email that I gave the story a closer look. I closed my computer before I rounded the end. I groaned. I couldn’t read it. A paragraph stood out that was all wrong. Not only did I feel I sounded arrogant, I felt that some of the tone in that paragraph may have been hurtful to my husband. I had to get a hold of the editor. Publication was in three days. 

I attempted to reach him on four separate social media platforms. I asked him if I could send him a rewrite of the paragraph which began, “During a dinner-time conversation….” on page six. He didn’t reply. I finally made a decision: it was more important to me to get that paragraph right than it was for me to be published. If I can’t change it, I’d like to withdraw the essay, I wrote in another email. I said I was sorry. 

To my great relief, he responded, apologizing for the delay and very kindly telling me to send the updated version. He said he would read both versions and then they’d make their decision. 

Within the hour he wrote back. He preferred the original. It built “a vibrant and immersive scene…” The second version of the paragraph “weakens the strength of the scene.” 

He offered a compromise. If I were willing to keep the original opening of the paragraph on page six, he’d be fine with the other changes I wanted to make. I was relieved. But I was surprised that he saw something in my original draft that I didn’t see. I condensed the paragraph and thought I was making it better. But he thought my first draft was better. I agreed to the compromise—we would keep the original opening words of the paragraph on page six, but I would change how the paragraph ended—and that was that. The story came out the next day.

The exchange confirmed something for me about my own writing. Often, my first drafts are better. I know we’re encouraged to write multiple drafts. Anne Lamott lays that out—after who knows how many drafts—in Bird by Bird. But I’m often blind to what works and what doesn’t work in my own writing. It helps to be in a writing group. But sometimes what comes out of my fingertips the very first time just works. 

Last month I sat in an airport terminal and typed on my phone—with my thumbs!—a Facebook post about having just deposited my first-born son off at college. I’d written the piece in my mind already, while lying in bed the night before, and while walking that long distance through the airport and away from my son, my body numb with letting him go. I only needed to type it out. Sitting in my seat in the airplane, I did a quick check for punctuation, then managed to hit “post” before losing connectivity as the plane roared to life down the runway. I needed to hear from my friends and loved ones when I landed on the other end. My need for love and support was urgent. Grown men cried. From that first draft, I tapped into an emotion that so many could relate to. Somehow, I managed to hit it out of the park. 

It is possible for sparks to fly with our spontaneous acts of writing first drafts.

Once, as a teacher, I sat in the audience of my school’s guest speaker, the children’s author Linda Sue Park. She spoke to the elementary school children about the variety of writers. I remember her saying that there’s not one, single way to be a writer. Even though she addressed a group of children, her words stayed with me. There may be as many methods of writing as there are writers, she said. I hope I wasn’t the only one in the audience who took in her words. 

A long time ago I read an op-ed piece—I’ve forgotten the writer’s name and the paper—about rewriting one’s work. She wasn’t a fan. At least, she was making the point that not everything needs multiple drafts. She was so convinced of her theory, she told her readers that the very piece we were currently reading was a first draft and she wasn’t planning on rewriting it. 

That’s pretty much how I feel about this piece. Sure, I’ll go back and reread what I’ve written. I’ll change a word here and there and reorganize a few sentences. But it’s a first draft and I’m probably not going to write a second. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to write this morning.  

___

Regina Landor, preschool teacher, lives in Maryland. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas, in Serbia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. She wrote a book called Forever Traveling Home about life in the Foreign Service and moving overseas with toddlers. Her second book, Marry Me Stop, is about her mother’s life and lapse into dementia, and how she lived with Regina and her family in Bangladesh. Regina likes Maryland, but misses the monkeys in Dhaka.

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