A Review of Scarlett Thomas’ 41-Love

March 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Kelsey Cleveland

I deflated as if a service ace had whizzed past me when I discovered Scarlett Thomas (Oligarchy) had written a memoir about her return to her childhood love of tennis as a 41-year-old. An essay on the same topic awaited my edits in my drafts folder. Then I rushed to get a copy of 41-Love: On Addictions, Tennis and Refusing to Grow Up to read how the experience of the British novelist compared to mine in the United States.

By the second page of the Prologue, I couldn’t put down the addictive read. At first, Thomas’ experience mirrored my return to the tennis courts in many ways, including her technique:

I have no idea how much is wrong with the way I hit the ball. My whole technique is modeled on the way the cool older guys used to play at the local hard courts in Chelmsford when I was a kid. Flat, low, skimming the net.

I felt as if Thomas witnessed my first lesson in over two decades played when she described her session standing far behind the baseline, hitting groundstrokes with Coach Dan. “I am just pleased I can hit the ball at all, that I can keep a rally going with this coach.” Like me, she left her lesson at the local leisure centre “…happy and complete in some way I haven’t experienced for a long time, aching to play again as soon as possible but with various muscles beginning to go into spasm.”

Thomas throws herself into the sport playing every day and improving her technique and fitness with coaching sessions. She also joins the local tennis league. The highly competitive woman soon wins a singles trophy of the first amateur tournament she entered. Again, her experience reminded me of my own. Thomas and I preferred playing singles over doubles, a rarity in women over 40 in England and the United States. We both couldn’t imagine playing in a league when we started playing tennis again and won the singles title of the first amateur tournament we entered.

Soon after her win, Thomas met her literary agent in a busy London pub. I laughed out loud when her agent, David Miller, didn’t recognize her in the newspaper photo of her tennis tournament win. Thomas shared her plan to write a tennis book during her sabbatical, which gave her an excuse to devote more time to her hobby. “I’m going to spend 2014 playing tennis and I’m going to see how far I can get. In a year. As a forty-one-year-old.” He asked if she could potentially enter Wimbledon. As a writer, I agreed that would make a great narrative arc, but I didn’t think it was possible as a tennis player.

Despite the book’s subtitle having the word addiction in it, I thought this book would be an upbeat sports memoir told from the perspective of an amateur pursuing the sport rather than the reflections of a famous athlete. I imagined the protagonist would face challenges, and then the book would end with a major win on or off of the tennis court. In a New York Times interview, Thomas went into the project thinking the same thing. 

Scarlett Thomas’ interest in the sport turned into a time-consuming and expensive obsession. Between coaching sessions, hitting sessions, and matches, she spent four to five hours a day playing tennis. Plus, she had sessions with a personal trainer, time on the rowing machines in the gym, Pilates, and yoga classes. She also traveled the country to play in tournaments, stay in hotels, and get massages to recover. When Thomas arrived on court, she wore the latest designer tennis outfit by Stella McCartney for Adidas and Asics shoes to face either fellow middle-aged players or sometimes teenage opponents with mothers her age in the stands.

I rooted for Thomas as her quest took her from the Indoor Tennis Centre near her seaside home in Kent to the storied grass courts of the All England Club. Along the way, Thomas deftly wove in scenes about her childhood, the death of a beloved pet, and her parents as she did almost everything possible in her desperate desire to win. At the start, she had no Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) ranking as an over 40 player in Kent. Her meteoric rise in four months took her to second in her county, sixth in Great Britain, and 131 in the world for her age bracket.

My heart thumped with excitement as she arrived for the Seniors’ Wimbledon tournament. “I go through a door that says PLAYER’S ENTRANCE and feel impossibly excited. I’m a player! At Wimbledon!” She continued, “I feel like I am not just being allowed to go backstage, but actually to be part of the production.”

The sports memoir turned into a dark one about mental health challenges as readers witness in real-time as Thomas loses in the semifinal and then suffers a nervous breakdown when she returns home. Her obsession came with a cost, which led to her disastrous fall.

Soon after Wimbledon, she wrote:

I am rubbish. I will soon officially enter the national top ten in my age group, but I feel as if I can barely play the game. I’m stupid, pathetic, a loser. I must now give up tennis, this ridiculous passion. I’m too old, too inexperienced, too prone to psychological collapse.

In the postscript, Thomas writes, “I have now pretty much made peace with the fact that I was a bit of an idiot in 2014, but I still don’t know what actually ‘happened’ to me.”

Her tennis adventure ended when she quit the sport. I highly recommend 41-Love to fellow tennis fans, sports fans, or anyone dealing with the challenges of the middle-aged body or mental health issues.

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Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan.  Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as Cultural Programs Manager at Portland Japanese Garden. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.

Experiencing Loss Changed How I Write

March 10, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Shayna Goodman

Just before the pandemic I experienced two major, simultaneous life ruptures: my partner left me for a mutual friend and my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Lewy Body Dementia. I moved out of our apartment, dropped the classes I was supposed to teach that semester, and several weeks later, left New York when the city went into lockdown. I am permanently changed by these intersecting traumas. Included in these changes are the ways I create and consume art.

I was 28 years old and smug when I started my MFA in memoir. One of my professors said that older students were often better writers because they had more life experience to draw on. I rejected this idea. I thought writing about one’s trauma and grief was not as “serious” or “literary” as the essays I was trying to write. I wanted to incorporate research and cultural criticism. In the same way so many men would rather say they are writing anything—a prose poem, a work of autofiction, an “autobiography”—than a memoir, I tried to separate myself from classmates as an “essayist.”

I didn’t want the stigma of trauma. I fancied myself the only “normal person” in a room full of traumatized people. While my older classmates were doing the brutal work of reconstructing memories of life-altering tragedies, I was intellectualizing the pain of my breakup with a boyfriend of three months. I wasn’t a bad writer; my pain was legitimate. The point is my professor was right: the essay might have been stronger if I had more life experience. While I thought I had done a good job of highlighting the universal lessons of my particular experience by inserting a political analysis of white femininity, I wasn’t able to find the vulnerability necessary to admit what was really driving my desire to write about this heartbreak. In some ways it is easier to write about gender as a construct than to ask the reader a question so potentially pathetic as “why did he leave me?” But that question was the true driving force of the narrative; acknowledging that might have made for a stronger draft. Meanwhile, my classmates had the necessary life experience to get to what my friend calls “the real” or what Mary Karr calls “emotional truth”—it’s the thing you’re writing around, which is hardest to admit.

Once, in a mixed genre workshop with British and American students, I submitted a draft of a personal essay and a British man confused it for fiction. “This is hilarious,” he said, “it must be satirical. The narrator is constantly referring to her trauma like a stereotype of an American.”

I felt embarrassed. In The Art of the Memoir, Mary Karr quotes Cezar A. Cruz: “Poetry should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I saw, with proud resignation, that I had crossed the line from comfortable to disturbed. Instagram therapist accounts have made us cringe at the overuse of “trauma.” But trauma has entered the zeitgeist because it is—especially at this moment—ubiquitous.

I believe the collective trauma of the COVID-19 lockdown has changed what we want from art. Is it a coincidence that a show like HBO’s Euphoria, so engaged with the topics of grief and trauma, has such wide appeal in this cultural moment? I’ve re-read essays I once loved, which now seem emotionally distant and cavalier. One was about the gentrification of Williamsburg and the author’s proclivity for dating men with addiction issues. When I re-read the essay in 2021, I kept thinking the author was writing around the thing that could have truly exposed her and allowed me to relate to the piece.

At the same time, I’m finding a higher tolerance for consuming art I once found unbearably disturbing. Before the pandemic, I tried to read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, in which she writes about losing her entire family in a tsunami in Sri Lanka. I remember removing the book from my bedroom because I could not tolerate the symbolic presence of such tragedy so close to where I slept. I didn’t want to know. Ironically, I dismissed this work as low-brow or unserious, precisely because it was very serious. But in the aftermath of my own losses, reading this memoir was a profound experience. Deraniyalga expertly creates order and beauty out of pain and chaos. I envied her ability to do this—and saw for the first time how difficult her work had been.

Perhaps this sounds trite but it’s true: when I was young, I didn’t realize how truly universal suffering is. I didn’t know that as we age, we all experience losses that send us desperately searching for solace and meaning. During the lockdown, I created lists of essays that not only comforted me but gave me new ideas about how to successfully write about loss and grief. I saw how these writers managed to convey their experiences without ever sounding overwrought; how they wrangled the messy material of overlapping heartbreaks into compelling narratives. I needed their work more than ever in that moment.

In her upcoming 6-week workshop at The Loft, Writing Through Loss in Creative Nonfiction, Shayna Goodman shares her reading list of essays on loss and grief, and together with participants will explore how these authors crafted their work and what we can learn from them.

Shayna Goodman’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Cut, Salon, Jewish Currents, the Takeout, and Grub Street Literary Magazine, among other places. Her work was nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA in memoir from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic studies and MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College.

A Review of Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts

February 18, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.

You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. 

When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,

If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.

I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.

Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?  

Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.

In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end. 

Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft.  “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.

Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.

Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed?  Williams writes:

Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.

Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.

Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.

Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.

In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.

You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?  

Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.

Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:

Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.

She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.

Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.  
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

Cringing, Crying, and Celebrating

February 15, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Morgan Baker

I recently reread my memoir-in-progress, about my oldest daughter leaving for college and my subsequent collapse in despair. My daughter is now 11 years out of college and has been married for four. I am older too, and have recovered from that depression. But as I read it, I squirmed in my chair with anxiety.

I have restructured, revised, and refined this manuscript more times than I can count. I’ve worked on the focus/purpose of the story, and added more details. I started this project almost ten years ago, then after much frustration and a futile attempt at getting an agent, took a 4-year hiatus, sticking it under my desk while I worked on other projects. The memoir just couldn’t come together. Now, however, I’m in a completely different place—and my vision for the memoir has changed as well.

In one of my previous drafts, the reader learned I got depressed, a key turning point in the memoir, but truthfully, I glossed over it. Drove around the speed bump. I didn’t want to slow down and remember, and I didn’t want to share the gory details.

In a later draft, my editor encouraged me to go deep. I revised with more honesty and vulnerability. When I sent the memoir off to my father to read, he said he had a hard time reading about my depression. He thought the chapter was well written, he just never had known I could get so low, low enough that when I drove, I looked at guardrails and wondered what it would be like to go crashing through one. I never did, but sometimes I still wonder.

My husband avoided reading that section of the memoir as well, because he says, “I lived it.”

I didn’t enjoy writing that segment, either. My spine tingled when I recalled times I sobbed and sobbed, didn’t eat, screamed at my family, berated myself. I don’t share a lot about my depression outside my writing. I’m embarrassed by it, and no one really understands unless they’ve been there. Being depressed, as I described to a friend recently, is an out-of-body experience. I have no control over my emotions, or my behavior. I am not rational. Trust me when I tell you it’s not the same as being sad. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps or get on with the program, as my mother used to suggest. If I could prevent myself, or anyone, for that matter, from feeling this way, I would. It’s horrible.

Just as I surprised myself by cringing at my portrayal of my own depression, I stunned myself by crying during a section where one of our dogs dies. Ezzie was four and we were about to breed her, but suddenly she developed a virulent cancer. She was dead the following Tuesday. I had to stop working on the manuscript section. It’s been six years since that dog died. Why did reading about it make me cry?

Robert Frost famously said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”  I didn’t really know what that meant until now.

Will I be the only one to cringe and cry?

I didn’t write the memoir to upset readers. I wrote it for myself first, to try and understand what happened to me and why. But I hid from myself and my reader. If I didn’t put it all on the page, then maybe it really wasn’t that bad. I didn’t want to share myself the way I think I have in the latest draft. I can’t hide anymore. I can’t pretend my sense of humor isn’t masking my depression, although it’s a fun challenge.

Luckily, medicine, friends, family, dogs, and therapy have kept me from sinking again into that quicksand of depression. It does, however, suck me in occasionally, reminding me not to get too comfortable. I work out, write, visit with friends, and rely on my husband and daughters to keep me in check.

But my memoir isn’t just about depression and death. It’s also about love, life and moving forward. I smile as I read scenes I wrote about watching another of our dogs give birth or my daughter as a field hockey goalie. I’m able to enjoy my family, dogs and quilting—a way to be kind to myself—as well. Now I celebrate watching my daughters move forward in their lives, standing tall as they walk away.  

Rereading sections of my memoir, I am surprised at how emotional I get. I lived it, I knew it first hand. Why did reading about it elicit such reactions from me? Perhaps because, finally, I slowed down over the speed bump.         

Morgan Baker has written for The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The Bark, The Bucket, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, Motherwell, and several times for the Brevity Blog. She teaches at Emerson College and runs workshops privately (see bymorganbaker.com). She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two dogs, from where she signs on to co-write as often as possible.

I’m Ready to Admit I Haven’t Read The Year of Magical Thinking

February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Catherine Lanser

I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.

My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.

“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.

It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book. 

This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.

I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.

Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking. 

The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.

I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return. 

I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.  

I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.

While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.

She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”

Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.

I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep.  I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.

As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.

Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.

I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow. 

Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now. 
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Catherine Lanser is a writer from Wisconsin who is working on her memoir. She has been published in Ruminate, Essay Daily, and many anthologies. @catherinelanser

Memoirists: Worried Your Story “Isn’t Interesting Enough”?

January 17, 2022 § 8 Comments

You have a memoir idea, maybe even a first draft, have poured your heart and soul into the project yet the insecure voice that asks “Who will even care?” refuses to quiet itself. When you read what you have on the page, the emotions swell up in your own heart, but you wonder if the words will come alive this same way for a reader.

These are basic concerns facing all writers of memoir. Though our stories – the truth of our pain, our struggles, our progress, our redemption – reverberate on a personal level, we don’t write for ourselves, we write for others. So, how do our personal stories become universal, resonating with readers who don’t know us?

How, as Jeannine Ouellette asks, can we write “the kind of truth that makes somebody else’s heart beat faster with recognition?”

I’ll be offering a 75-minute Webinar in conjunction with Jane Friedman later this month exploring the difference between a Personal Story and a Public Story, and highlighting specific craft choices that help stories resound deeply with potential readers.

Remember this: though writing remains a solitary pursuit, we aren’t alone. Our potential readers are an audience of living, breathing, curious people on the other side of the page. Only by focusing on these readers, by acknowledging that we are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence, will we find a way to truly reach our audience.

I sincerely hope you can join me. The details are here:

Even if you can’t attend live, everyone who registers will get access to the recording. 

Writing the Story of a Marriage

January 12, 2022 § 23 Comments

By Nancy McCabe

When I set out to write about my ill-advised, ill-fated youthful marriage, I didn’t realize what an almost impossibly daunting task was ahead of me. I didn’t realize that opinions about my life would feel inextricable from opinions about the writing. That judgments about the characters would feel inseparable from judgments about me. That proceeding would require a mix of steely determination and foolish tenacity.

Even before my wedding at 20, I was writing in coded ways about my ambivalence. In a short story, the source of my protagonist’s unhappiness was not, like me, her lack of romantic feelings about her husband. Instead, she struggled with mixed feelings toward an unplanned pregnancy. A few months later, newly married, I wrote a series of poems. From the point of view of a wife, they were so jaded that my classmates concluded that the narrator had been married for at least thirty years. My classmates were puzzled and kind, as if maybe it wasn’t normal for a newlywed to be quite so miserable.

Four years later, I finally tackled my situation head on. I wrote about an inattentive husband who stayed out drinking with his friends every night, a young wife whose illusions about marriage as a source of safety in a dangerous world, of home as a refuge from turmoil, had crumbled. In my story, the husband was warm and funny, restless and inconsiderate. Perhaps I neglected to similarly develop the wife. My workshop classmates largely sympathized with the husband. The wife, they thought, was too compliant. I started to wonder if societal expectations of women were antithetical to what made a sympathetic character.  

When, a year later, my husband and I ended the marriage with deliberate kindness, we reassured our friends that they didn’t need to take sides. They took sides anyway. I doggedly set out to write a story in which no one needs to take sides. I stubbornly resisted the notion that a marriage that ended in divorce had to be written off as a mistake.

Several years later, I finished a novel. Classmates in my PhD fiction workshops, agents, and editors tended to forgive the husband who repeatedly threatens to end the marriage rather than make compromises. They were more critical of the young, inexperienced, economically dependent wife. “Make her spunkier,” said my classmates. “Have her replace her husband’s eye drops in the medicine cabinet with superglue. When he moves out, have her hide shrimp shells in his curtain rods to stink up his apartment.”  It was fiction, so why not? But none of these things rang true to me. Would I somehow be better off if I’d done those things?

Eventually, I’d revised my story so many times, I couldn’t even see it anymore. I gave up on the novel altogether. But more time passed, and with the same rash persistence with which I once held my marriage together, I returned to the material. I ruthlessly stripped away the disguises and started writing a memoir. I no longer had the leeway to make up details and detach myself from my characters. Maybe now, I thought, I could really tell an honest story that was fair to both the husband and the wife.

Two years later, I finished a draft. “I feel sorry for the husband,” an editor said. “She should have never married him if she wasn’t in love with him.” Now that the narrator was more obviously aligned with me, it was hard not to be defensive or wonder why readers weren’t more critical of the husband. Shouldn’t he be a more considerate lover? Shouldn’t he honor his commitment? I revised some more.

To tell a story about finding my own strength, I knew, I had to admit to my weaknesses. After all, the cardinal rule of creative nonfiction is to be harder on ourselves than on anyone else. But when I owned up to my flaws, some readers instantly, ferociously, disliked the narrator. How, I wondered, did you capture the totality of an earlier self without creating an unfocused mess?

The next year, I published a hermit crab essay that used the form of a women’s magazine quiz to tackle the material, resulting in e-mails from women who related to my experience. I didn’t know if I’d done a better job or just found a kinder audience. Or maybe the meaning and interpretation of a story changes as the culture changes.

Over the next several years, I broke down the memoir into essays. “What a jerk!” some readers said about my ex. “He’s so manipulative!” I was frustrated. Had I skewed the narrative too far in the wife’s favor? That wasn’t my intention, either.

Scratch that. A press’s external reviewer lambasted my selfish, self-centered narrator at length. I gained new appreciation for my ex-husband’s perpetual generosity in not objecting when I wrote about him. Maybe, no matter what I did, some readers would always take the wife’s side. Maybe some would always take the husband’s.

Thirty years after I’d started writing my story, my book, Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir came out. And gradually I realized what I should have aspired to all along: to reach those readers who said that the book helped them recast their own early “failures” as essential parts of their own stories rather than as sources of shame. That, I was reminded, is the purpose of memoir. Not to set the record straight or make ourselves look good or win others to our side, but to offer our experience and insight as honestly as we can, and hope that our words help others make sense of their own lives.

___

Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir (Missouri, 2020). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, Newsweek, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart and her work has been recognized on the notable lists eight times of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Drip, Drip, Drip

December 9, 2021 § 23 Comments

By Heidi Croot

Writing the first-draft hot mess of my memoir was easy—a mudslide down the inky slopes of several thousand journal pages.

Rewriting countless drafts, fun—an archeological dig I’ve never tired of.

Restructuring the thing, hell—as I struggled to place backstory at the precise moment of reader thirst. 

But none of those ups and downs compared with the anxiety I felt about sending my manuscript to my two aunts and my uncle, who appear frequently in its pages.

I had reason to be nervous.

My memoir is about their eldest sister, my mother—a woman they were estranged from most of their lives, my own longest estrangement from her spanning a mere seven years. My aunts and uncle tried to have my back through the turbulence. An only child, I leaned heavily on their love and support.

Yet as soon as I mentioned I was writing a memoir, I detected frost in the air. Heard rumblings of that old lament, “airing the family’s dirty laundry.”

I understood their wariness.

They were of a generation that preferred to hold troubling family truths underwater with the flat of their palm. I am driven to haul those truths out, towel them down, assess them from every angle. What can they teach us? How might they heal us?

My aunts and uncle don’t read memoir. I knew if they were going to accept my manuscript, I couldn’t just thrust 300+ pages at them and hope for a miracle. I would need to chart a wayfinding course to the genre using signposts and lamplight.

And about two years ago, drawing on what I knew about awareness campaigns from my 35+ years in corporate communication, that’s what I did.

I casually sent them essays by memoirists who acknowledged their vulnerabilities and the challenges of truth-telling.

I sent book reviews and memoir quotations to show what other writers were sharing with the world.

I sent updates on my own project with excerpts from my work-in-progress that I hoped would demonstrate a balanced take on our difficult family circumstances.  

This drip-drip-drip approach paid off when the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay, “How to Tell Your Mother She Can’t Go Home Again,” describing one of the harshest events of my mother’s life (and mine)—her first day in a nursing home, eight years before she died.

With that, my memoir project could no longer be ignored. Nor could its intent, tone or potential reception in the world.

My aunts and uncle read the piece and sent congratulations.  

We had taken the first hill.

It was time for the second.

By now the manuscript was ready for beta readers. I promised my relatives a copy but kept them waiting while I finished some edits. One aunt in her eighties complained that at this rate she might not be around to finally read the thing. My uncle asked how it was going. I could hear the other aunt’s fingers drumming from her home in California.

They were eager to read.

Good.

I emailed the pdf to the California aunt. She immediately responded with family stories triggered by my chapters, as well as helpful editorial suggestions and a factual correction.

“For the duration of the reading it was as though my sister were alive, in front of me with all of her strife and fury…” she wrote me when she finished reading. “You’ve done yourself proud, Heidi.”

My beloved writers’ groups responded to this news with jubilance.

Meanwhile, I invited my other aunt, and my uncle and his wife of 50+ years, to my home, where I presented them with coil-bound copies. We spent a convivial weekend enjoying a charcuterie board, tacos, wine, and quiet time as they turned pages.

They didn’t offer encouragement, though my uncle remarked that his avid reading signaled his interest, and his wife dissolved into tears at one point, acknowledging the painful path our family had been forced to take in tangling with my mother.

In my beta reader guidelines, a one-page menu of suggestions I developed for first-time readers on what kind of comments would be most helpful, I had asked for their feedback within a month—one week away as I write this. I’ve invited them back for a second weekend to close that loop. After all, this was a business arrangement: their access to my full work in exchange for their editorial catches and family history tweaks.

No reply yet.

Offering feedback can be challenging when you’re not used to it. 

No reason to be nervous, I want to tell them. You’re in safe hands here. It’s going to be all right.

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi on Twitter @heidicroot.

Puerto Rico and Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls

November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Ashley Espinoza

I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.

So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.

Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.

The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.

While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.

I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.

Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.

Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?

My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”

“Yes.” I said.

“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.

“I promise.”

I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.

I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
___

Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.

Same Memoir, Different Planet: An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders

November 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

by P.J. Powell and Natalie Lockett

Charlie Jane Anders / Photo by Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

In Never Say You Can’t Survive, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction author Charlie Jane Anders blends memoir, anecdote, and expert writing advice into a how-to guide for writers on using creativity to get through hard times.

P.J. Powell and Nat Lockett interviewed Anders for the Brevity blog, exploring how memoirists can use a sci-fi master’s writing tools to convey defining moments of their past.

Nat & P.J.: You talk about getting into a character’s head and transporting yourself to another place when you write sci-fi. Could a memoirist think of their past in the same way?

Charlie Jane Anders: Totally. The moment you turn something that really happened into a story, it [moves] beyond an unprocessed series of events that you’re putting on the page as they happened. You massage it. You create a narrative around it. You channel your imagination and try to create a scene and a moment—try to draw people in and push them through a chain of events with a certain logic. Real life never quite has that cohesiveness.

Memoir, personal essay, and creative nonfiction require a lot of the same muscles, strengths, and ideas fiction does. You can still do a lot of the stuff in Never Say You Can’t Survive in terms creating characters, plots, scenes, momentum, and through-lines. Even if you’re writing about real people, you’re still kind of turning them into characters.

Natalie Lockett

N & PJ: What can you do in sci-fi writing that could help someone telling a true story?

Charlie Jane Anders: You can do what we can’t in real life: control the focus and the frame; juxtapose things.

In reality, you can’t cut directly from a person saying something to that person doing the exact opposite. Those things might happen three weeks apart, but in your story – fiction or nonfiction – you can skip that time and cut right to the next important action.

You can also slow down or speed up time. Live in a moment for pages, then go through 100 years in a paragraph. And while you’re writing, even as you’re emotionally inhabiting the characters in the moment, there’s a part of you that can be building in an extra layer of meaning and allowing us to see the bigger picture. You can depict that layer through what the characters notice and see, the narrative itself, or the order in which you present things.

N & PJ: What advice do you have for rendering real people in written recollection?

CJA: Part of how I deal with my past is trying to understand what really happened. If you put yourself in the shoes of other, real people, that can be powerful. It’s hard to do, and there’s nothing wrong with telling your story as you see it. Just know other people might see things differently. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll have a version of events in my head that’s like, “Okay, this happened and this happened,” but then I’ll go back and find actual facts or documentary evidence proving my recollection is flawed and it didn’t quite happen the way I think it did.

It’s really liberating and healthy to realize we all fudge the past a little bit. Your perspective is always going to be limited, and you have to accept that and try to get a reality check as much as you can. But at the same time, yeah, it’s your story, it’s your experience. You’re writing about what you feel happened. I’ve written personal essays where I was like, “Okay, I know everybody, we all agreed at the time this is what happened,” and then I’ll write it and people are like, “Oh, is that what happened? I mean, I feel like…” Because time has passed, and our recollections may have diverged.

Memory is weird.

N & PJ: As someone whose stories can take place anywhere from augmented-reality San Francisco to a space society orbiting a living blob, what world-building advice can you give to people writing creative nonfiction?

CJA: The thing people and worlds have in common is they’re meaningless without a history. Real or made-up people don’t exist out of nowhere; they’re a product of all the things that have happened and the choices they’ve made. It’s the same with the settings where your memoir takes place.

In The City in the Middle of the Night humans have been living on this other planet for hundreds of years, and I had to keep going back and thinking of that so the settings and characters would feel real. Everywhere you look, you see the past. We know there were wars between these two human cities because there’s this war memorial. Later, we go to a garbage dump, and there’s random, weird crap from the war effort and back when these two cities used to trade.

P.J. Powell

Real life is like that, too. New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Ida will always look different than New Orleans before. I read an article about Confederate statues standing for over 100 years. People got used to them being there. Why? To understand that you have to understand not just the Civil War, but Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and this mythology of the lost cause people created in the South after the war.

A sense of past makes the world of the story feel lived in; it helps us understand why the characters are the way they are.

N & PJ: Never Say You Can’t Survive is about writing to help us as individuals and as a society through tough times. Why is the concept of “story” so important in fiction, nonfiction, and life?

You can present a million statistics and facts, and it doesn’t make any difference. People are swayed by anecdotes, narratives, and emotion. Not so much information, as by the emotional content of, “Here’s a really compelling story.”

I’ve worked as a journalist and you’re taught that, yeah, you might have a ton of facts showing there’s a problem, but you need a narrative hook. If this problem affects lots of people, [find] a person affected by the problem, make them a character in your article, and show us their journey. Show us how it affects them personally. Nobody is going to care if it’s like, “Oh, a million people had this problem.” Who cares? I can’t encompass that. My brain can’t wrap itself around a million people doing a thing.

But if I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this specific person had this problem and I feel really bad for them” and there’s a picture of them looking really sad, or, “Oh, they did this thing and they’re awesome” and they look really happy, that’s how we process the world, and that’s a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to get us to grapple with abstract things like climate change, pandemics and other nebulous, hard-to-encompass problems.

Stories are powerful. Stories are what the world is made of. If you can tell a story that’s compelling, whether it’s made-up or real, it could change people’s views of the world. It can rewrite our ideas about reality and that’s powerful and important.

___

P.J. Powell and Natalie “Nat” Lockett co-host Write Away with Nat and PJ, a podcast where they explore writing and books they love by interviewing authors and publishing professionals. (More writing advice and conversation with Charlie Jane Anders will be featured on the November 15, 2021 episode.) P.J. Powell’s short fiction and essays have been published in Evening Street Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Youth Imagination, and other placesNat Lockett is an author and essayist with nonfiction work featured in Herstry and Across the Margin. Her first novel, The Dead King, is currently haunting editor inboxes via her agent Tara Gonzalez of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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