October 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Aimee Christian
Memoirists often ask themselves, Would anyone actually want to read my story?
David Mura says, “I view the process of writing as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.”
I wrote an entire draft of my memoir and when I was done, I felt great. I submitted it to my writing group, who reflected back to me something I could not see myself. My first draft was not just shitty, it was ugly. Angry. Fury, all over the page. A 90,000-word vent. As Allison K Williams calls it in Seven Drafts, it was the vomit draft. But as I continued to revise and revise, I let go of so much wrath. As I cut the ugliness away from the narrative, I found that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need unpleasant words to describe other characters not only because I wanted the readers to draw their own conclusions—but because I didn’t feel that way anymore.
Just by writing it out.
Which is great. But was not enough to make the story the truth.
I’m not suggesting my memoir wasn’t true, or that your memoir isn’t true. But what is truth?
After you’ve edited for factual correctness; reckoned with what you remember versus what you don’t and how you plan to address the differences; and carefully crafted an acknowledgement that your book is your version of the truth, what comes next?
Melissa Febos put it so beautifully in her essay collection Abandon Me that when I listened to the audiobook in the car, I had to pull over to rewind again and again, writing down her words like it was the 1980s and I was trying to decipher The Cure’s lyrics from a tape. Stop. Listen. Stop. Scribble. Rewind. Repeat.
We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you.
I wanted to tattoo these words on my eyelids, on my fingertips, so that I would remember them with every single word I typed. I suddenly understood why I’d grown bored of my own manuscript. I’d written detailed accounts of all the stories I’d told over the years, of the smoothings over, the ironings out of truths. The stories I’d told myself that made my pain points a little less sharp, that made my shame a little easier to hold at night, that made my life a little easier to live. But in doing so, I’d left out all the parts that were not genuine. The pieces that made truly interesting memoir worth reading were just not there.
How would I begin to unravel the layers, peel back the covers, get at the rawer truths?
I did it and am still doing it painstakingly. Poring over a paragraph at a time, asking myself questions through a series of writing prompts, about sentences, dialogue, exchanges, actions. Why, why, why, okay and why, great but why, and why, no but why? Why did I do this? What did I mean? What did I really want? Why did I behave this way? What would this scene look like from the other person’s perspective? What if I wrote this scene in five sentences? What if I wrote it again, and again, and again?
Here’s an example: I know my mother, and I know how my mother behaves. So when I did that thing all those years ago, was I really so surprised when she behaved exactly as she always did? Or was I just looking for another excuse to feel wronged? Why did I do what I did? What did I think would really happen?
Getting this honest with myself, I didn’t like what I saw. But it was a much realer picture. And even I had to admit, the story that was unfolding on the page was much more interesting than the one I’d set out to write. I began to feel better about who I was. David Mura was right. I was becoming the person I wanted to be when I sat down to write the book. She was waiting for me.
If you’re going through the pain and vulnerability of writing a memoir at all, write the real one. Not the curated one. The one you don’t want people to see. The one you’ve tucked away all this time.
Dig it out. Dust it off. Get reacquainted with it. Learn to embrace it and maybe even love it.
Because that’s the story people want to read.
Join Aimee Christian for three Wednesday evening writing sessions beginning December 1st to get to the truer version of your story, looking at those parts that Melissa Febos says need to hurt, not flatter, and not comfort. “Let’s meet our own gaze and see what’s really looking back.” Includes readings, writing, and one workshop. Info and registration here.
Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net.
August 12, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Morgan Baker
When I was young, my neighbor, Caroline, in New York City and I created our own private library, before my parents’ separation when I was nine and I moved. We made pockets in which to put library cards in the back of our books and shared them between ourselves.
In the summers after the divorce, I spent hours lying on the scratchy rug at the local library with my cousin Betsy. There, I picked out all the stories about happy families like The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, and Cheaper by The Dozen.
I’m 63 now and aspects of that time still hit my nerve endings. My craving to write stemmed from wanting to tell all my parents how hard the divorce and the subsequent remarriages were on me as a kid and teen. I was lost in the melee of my parents’ acrimonious divorce and the fallout that continued for decades. I wasn’t sure anyone thought about how the children were managing. Well, I would show them. I acted out. I wasn’t welcoming to my stepfather, I was mad at my mother and I missed my father. I don’t remember any conversations between any of my parents and me, about how I was doing. Perhaps my mother worried about my behavior, but her pain colored any objectivity.
Now, writing gives me a voice, one I didn’t have when I was younger. I’m not the most outgoing person, but on the page, I feel safe. When I started writing professionally, it was with feature stories related to parenting, health, travel, growing older, and even business.
I began writing creative nonfiction as a way to understand my life and bring clarity. Essays addressed my childhood, dogs, moving, mothering, and even writing.
I’m now editing a memoir I wrote because I wanted to understand the depression I fell into after my oldest daughter left for college and our family parted with a litter of puppies. Another project of linked essays about my family’s generational history on Martha’s Vineyard sits on my computer, waiting its turn. I wanted to save pieces of my life and that of my family’s, of a time when life there was easier and more casual. I want my daughters to know those stories. I’m drafting another memoir about my move to and from Hawaii as a 60-year-old with my husband. Writing about living on Oahu helps me own that experience and acknowledge how beneficial it can be to take risks at an older age.
Putting our stories down isn’t just about getting them published and going on (perhaps virtual) book tours. Writing also chronicles our lives for those who come after. I hope my memoirs find a wider market, but if they don’t, I’ve helped myself along the way and left a legacy.
Both my father and stepfather are sharing their own life stories now. My father wrote A Pewter Spoon about his childhood, professional, and personal life. Coincidentally, my youngest brother and I decided to interview my stepfather/his father, on his life story.
My relationships with my fathers were not always smooth. Ripples spread from where rocks were skipped, rough and many until they settled with time. Now, the water gently laps the shore where I stand with these two men, 88 and 91. My understanding and compassion for both of them grew with the reading and interview. I know why they both like to putter around their homes, fixing, painting, landscaping. I read about one father’s work that took him away from the kids; I appreciated how hard it was for the other to marry someone with three children.
There is value in writing and/or recording your history to pass on to your children. Sometimes, however, the readers’ memories don’t match the writer’s. Maybe they won’t agree with your view of a particular incident, or they might get sad revisiting their grandmother’s (your mother’s) death, but you thought it was important to chronicle. I want my memoirs to enter the world so readers will know they’re not alone fighting depression, that they too can take a chance on a huge adventure, and that a family’s history is often anchored in a place. If my projects never see an agent’s or editor’s desk, that’s okay, because when my children are ready, they’ll read about my life which, I hope, will enrich theirs. They may have questions that hopefully, I’ll be around to answer, just like I wish I could ask my mother who died in 2005 if she was sorry for the pain the divorce caused her children. More importantly, over time, I’ve forgiven myself for my behavior during my teens and twenties. Writing my story has helped me get there. I wish I could tell my mother about my life.
Morgan Baker writes about dogs, family, writing, moving, aging and places. Work is forthcoming or published in Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, The Bark, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Motherwell, and more. She is the Managing Editor of thebucket.com and teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. Morgan also runs private CNF workshops on Zoom. She lives with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs in Cambridge.
August 3, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Joanne Furio
I once had a roommate who was an artist. She claimed that de Kooning himself had once seen her work and proclaimed her a genius. Despite such praise, she wanted more. “You should write about us!” she told me one night, in front of a group of friends who were all artists. I happened to be stoned at the time, so it was not cool that she was pressuring me during my weekend chill-out time. I fumbled a few responses, but she pressed on, in front of that speechless group of friends who pitied me because a) they didn’t want to discuss business, either, on a Saturday night b) they knew how annoying my roommate could be with her self-promotion schemes and c) they all knew at the time (and I didn’t) that my monthly $500 for a room in her run-down two-bedroom farmhouse apartment was not contributing to the rent, but paying it in its entirety. Once I discovered this I moved out, and ultimately forgave her. She would eventually be forced out of the apartment by new owners and had to move back to her parent’s house. She died young and undiscovered.
One day I noticed the preciseness of a bob on a woman I had recently befriended and interrupted our conversation with, “Who cuts your hair?” A gay man in the next town. I contacted him and we hit it off immediately. When he found out I was a writer, he started sketching out his life in dramatic form, revealing more details with each salon visit. His older sister had died tragically and he had gallantly stepped in to take full guardianship of her children. That was in the early ’80s, when the idea of gay parenting was beyond most people’s comprehension. So, yes, this was a great story, maybe even a salable one. But I had my own tales to tell and with two children and a part-time magazine job, barely the time to write them. Exasperated by my blasé response, he blurted out while washing my hair, “You should write my story!” He delivered this with a toothpaste commercial smile, and I admit to being dazzled, but his insistence caused something in our relationship to change. It wasn’t until I moved away that I had an excuse to make the cut.
P.S.: I no longer wear a bob.
“You should write about Mom,” my father says one morning over coffee at his condo. I told him I had indeed started writing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and the effect it was having on our family. By then my mother was in a nursing home, a terrible decision my father had to make. Little did I know then, I would not see my father for the next year and a half. COVID prevented me from returning to New York twice a year, from spending part of every day of my two-week visit at the nursing home, ten minutes away from my father’s condo. A year later my mother died from the virus because she didn’t like wearing a mask. When I returned to New York after my mother’s death, my father asked: “Aren’t you writing something? A novel?”
The one person I have written about in my father’s family was his aunt, a woman who was institutionalized for life after having a nervous breakdown at age 40 in 1940. Through my interviews with the remaining family, I discovered that this great aunt’s death did not end the way my father thought it had. My father’s other paternal aunt and her daughters did have a wake with an open casket and a funeral, but did not invite my father’s family. My father and his sister had believed for years that their aunt had died alone in an institution and was buried without ceremony. When I told my older sister the news, she said, “Don’t write about that.” But I am the daughter who does not listen. When my father read the published essay, he said that I had written a nice tribute to his aunt and mentioned nothing about the funeral.
Recently I wrote about being seven and watching a woman, the mother of one of my friends, have a nervous breakdown on the altar, in the middle of mass. She imagined that the handsome new priest was Jesus incarnate. I remember the scene clearly and that my sister was sitting next to me, but some of the minor details of that seminal event remain sketchy. So I did what any writer of creative nonfiction would do: I filled in the blanks to the best of my ability. When it was published in a literary journal, I sent a link to my sister. At first, she did not respond. Finally, she read the piece. “It’s good,” she said, “but that’s not what I remembered.”
Joanne Furio is a Berkeley-based writer who likes to come up with her own subject matter. Her essays, journalism and author interviews have appeared in publications that include The New York Times, Believer, The Evening Street Review and Cumberland River Review and on the websites Juked, Panoply and Catapult. She teaches writing at Holy Names University in Oakland and is a regular contributor to the digital news platform Berkeleyside.
March 4, 2021 § 30 Comments
Most writers have a love/hate relationship with their book’s acknowledgements page. It’s the writer-equivalent to the 45-seconds where the actress thanks everyone under the bright lights on the Academy Awards stage, only you were probably wearing your pajamas and not a made-to-order Vera Wang gown when you compiled your own gratitude list. Even so, it’s your moment to offer thanks for those who put up with you while you were working on your book. Writing the acknowledgements also means you are nearly finished, or at least you think you are, and for those brief seconds, while you’re typing ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, you might be delusional, but you are happy.
But when you send your manuscript off, the acknowledgements become a source of stress. Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night in a panic after realizing someone important was left off? After publishing six books, I believed forgetting someone was the worst of it. I never considered including someone could cause so much trouble, until it did.
In my latest book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I gave some backstory about my mother’s childhood; it was important for the reader to see where she came from, why she behaved in the ways she did—she was sometimes mean, but never in the abusive ways of her own parents.
Before she died, my mother read the manuscript. She knew she had veto power, as the closest people in my life do, but she hardly ever used it. She was glad I was telling her stories, though she did joke, “This is plagiarism!” When I asked what she meant, she said, “You’re stealing all my stuff.” Then she warned me that some of the family might not like what I had written about her parents.
Soon after Bad Tourist came out, I received a scolding Facebook message from my cousin, which she also posted publicly on my Facebook wall, trying “to set the record straight” about our grandparents. While I decided what to do, I blocked her so she couldn’t write more public messages. Being blocked enraged her, so she took to the internet, posting her complaints in the comment section of guest blogs and under reviews of my book. She said my book was “fabricated nonsense” and “rubbish.”
I sent her my carefully crafted response, saying “I understand your narrative is different, that the people you knew as your grandparents were different than the parents my mother grew up with, and I am sorry if this information is hurtful to you. All our narratives and our personal truths coexist and all are valid.”
She wrote back, admitting she did not know if what I had written about our grandparents was true or not, but that I had, in fact, written “lies.” She insisted I had written that she and my aunt supported the book, “throwing them under the bus.” She wrote, “Even if I said you could use my name, that’s besides the point … you never sent us a draft of this story before you published it, and you quoted in your book that family and friends had read and agreed the draft.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I went back to the chapter in question, and as I had thought, I had written no such thing. I closed my laptop and went out skiing. About a mile down the trail, I realized what she had meant: The acknowledgements page!
I had acknowledged both my cousin and my aunt as people who were “cheerleaders and confidants.” They were in the large list of people who had also read drafts of my book, giving me valuable feedback, though the sentence was clear that not everyone on that long list had read (and approved of) the book. I wrote back to my cousin, asking her to look at the actual words on the page. I said that being listed was meant to be a nice thing.
I also vowed not to include an acknowledgements page in my next book.
And I learned (or re-learned) these lessons:
- There’s no reason to use someone’s real name. It might seem weird to you that your husband or daughter or cousin has a different name, but most readers won’t know or won’t care (even if they know you in real life).
- If you use someone’s real name, make sure he or she has agreed to it in writing after reading the manuscript. If you already know they won’t approve of the material, but you’re not planning to change it, you must change the names. My cousin would have been angry with me even if I had changed her name, but her grievances would carry less weight. And if I had let her read it, and she outright disagreed with specific parts, like the recreated dialogue, I wouldn’t have changed it, but I would have let the reader know she remembered things differently than I did.
- Make sure whatever you’re writing is your story to tell. In this case, it was very much my story to tell. If it’s your story, you don’t need permission to tell it. If your story also happens to be a friend or family member’s story, you should get permission or risk losing the relationship. The person I needed permission from—my mother—granted it
- Don’t let friends and family read early drafts—ever. The parts they object to could possibly be cut in the revision process, and you’ve created trouble for yourself for nothing. Only let friends and family read the final draft (with time to change their names). And be ready to defend your writing—you are the only one with ultimate veto power.
- Even though you think it’s an honor, some people might not want to be listed in your acknowledgements page.
In my cousin’s last message, she wrote, “I’m sad this has happened because we did genuinely care about you … I do wish you all the best for the future.”
Losing my aunt and cousin feels like I’ve lost another piece of my mother, which makes me profoundly sad. But at the same time, wasn’t their “care” always already conditional, based on the tacit agreement to hide our family secrets?
When we write the stories we must tell, even if others would rather we kept them secret, it’s never a betrayal. The real act of violence is in the attempt to silence someone else’s voice. Anyone who genuinely cares about you, in the present tense and unconditionally, will eventually come to understand you must continue to tell your own truth.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
December 8, 2020 § 25 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
December 1, 2020 § 20 Comments
The writer sitting next to me in a workshop last year was sharing excerpts from her memoir about her narcissistic mother. During our discussion of her vivid and heartbreaking prose, she blurted out, “I just want to finish my book before I die.”
My brain lit up with recognition. “That’s exactly what I always think!” I said. “I guess I’m not the only one.”
I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who grew up in an unstable family and understood the particular anxiety of wondering if you’re good enough to write a book, if you even deserve to write a book, if you can complete a book before you get run over by a truck or the world disintegrates into fiery chaos.
Because doom awaits. That’s how my psyche works. The future, to me, is precarious, unpredictable, and limited.
“Children of narcissistic parents,” writes Julie L. Hall in Psychology Today, “particularly children who are routinely devalued or scapegoated, commonly internalize feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and imminent threat that create a sense of foreshortened future.”
I first learned about the idea of a foreshortened future years ago from my therapist, but it’s only recently that I’ve connected it with my fear—the anxiety I usually repress and deny—that I can’t finish my book-length memoir. That’s something other people can do, “normal people,” people who aren’t fundamentally damaged.
Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder and narcissism created in me the subconscious belief that I can screw anything up at any time. I won’t see it coming. I’ll fail at whatever I most hope for, and I won’t know exactly why, except that it’s my fault. There’s just something about me that doesn’t work right.
As Hall writes, I experience a “dissociation from [my future] and alienation from those who have confidence in living relatively long, full, and stable lives.”
How do The Normals do it? Where does that confidence even come from? It’s as if they were given a rulebook at birth teaching them how to make life work and my copy was inexplicably lost.
But I am determined not to let others see this anxiety in me. I’m afraid letting it show will give it power.
Essentially, I’m faking it until I make it. I work on myself and work on my book even with this relentless inability to imagine a future in which I succeed.
My memoir, Terrible Daughter, is about freeing myself from my parents and accepting all the parts of me: beautiful, strong, damaged, or whatever. Sometimes I feel it, that inner strength and self-belief I write about, as I dare to tell the truth about my life. I’m revealing family secrets I’m supposed to hide. It’s empowering to break the rules.
Writing the truth is a radical, artistic act that salves my psychic wounds in a unique way, like weaving together disconnected threads inside of me. I can glimpse what wholeness might feel like.
So book or no book, I’m determined to keep trying. And I know I’m not alone. I know there are other writers who share this fear, who, in their solitude, grapple with the dread of failing to write a book as well as the uncertainty inherent in the writing process itself.
Even when we feel confident, we can never be sure of how a story will end. Writing has a way of leading us to emotional places and even revelations we don’t expect. But I rely on this as a crucial part of my process: I may not see what’s coming, but what’s coming might be gratifying, even healing. All I can do is to write when I can with as much clarity and courage as I can.
I don’t have any three-step plan to eliminate the fear of a foreshortened future. Perhaps it will always be there. If so, I hope I can accept it as a part of who I am; not an enemy of my work, but a presence reminding me of all I’ve been through and accomplished so far.
I do believe that I, and all of you reading this, have a right to tell the truth. And when those moments of strength show up, I grab them and go to work.
Amy Grier earned her MFA at Lesley University. A singer and classically trained pianist, she has taught music and English in the U.S. and Japan. Amy has a master’s in East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and one in Literature and Writing from Rivier University. Her prose and poetry has appeared in Poetry East, eratio, Streetlight Magazine, xoJane, and Dream International Quarterly. Her memoir-in-progress, Terrible Daughter, is about surviving childhood with a mentally ill mother.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
February 13, 2020 § 18 Comments
If you write, there are times you think you have a little piece of your story straight, and maybe you do. You see something, hear a few lines of a lyric, have an especially vivid dream fraught with meaning, or read a passage, and there’s a spark of recognition; a memory of something true you’d long forgotten or a nugget that had never quite made its way into your conscious mind to begin with.
You get it down as quickly as you can since sparks are, by nature, fleeting. You pencil notes into the Moleskine journal you carry with you for this very reason, or if you’re tech-driven like I am, you frantically key them into your phone. Maybe you make a voice recording to which you may listen at some future date. And when you do—listen, or read—if you’re very lucky, that ember will flare for a moment. That’s what you hope for, one tiny moment of greater illumination that lights the way to the ones that follow.
That’s what this process of writing (and of living, for that matter) is really made of: orbs of radiance strung together like so many Christmas lights, guiding your eye from one to the next, a sleight-of-mind that causes you to see only the captivating glow instead of the sizeable spaces of darkness between.
This brings me to my current struggle: writing clearly about the life and early death of my first child, Eric. It would be so much easier if I could keep it simple. I could begin with that little boy with the chubby, rosy cheeks and the freckled face (the kid on the Wheaties box, that’s what his pediatrician called him). I’d tell about the time when he was seven and, adventurous from the start, spent 10 days with a friend’s family in the Adirondacks, his first extended trip away. I’d mention his sage words of reassurance: “You know, Mom, it’s good to get away from home now and then.” There’d be his first solo flight, at 12, to visit friends in South Carolina. The older woman he’d charmed on the first leg of the journey, who insisted on introducing him to the pilot as she disembarked as “our future president.” He and his friend, John, in high school then, on their way to Stratton Mountain for a day of snowboarding, waylaid by the need to take me to the hospital for the ankle I’d broken rushing down the stairs. To say goodbye.
And so many stories more. I could do that—write them, fit them together, and call it done. But it wouldn’t be done, for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the story, his story, is about so much more than him. It’s about me, and it’s about his father, too. And Eric’s siblings. His friends. When you get right down to it, it’s about relationships; it touches everyone who came before him, everyone he knew, and all of us who remain. It extends even to the little ones, the nieces and nephews for whom, though they never knew him, Uncle Eric has become a mythical character. A beacon from the past.
More than that, writing memoir is larger than the stories we like to tell; it’s about the things that live within and between those bright moments. My own story is about love, optimism despite all the very good reasons to abandon hope, and the need to find a way to soldier on even when the light insists on hiding from the naked eye. But it’s about the dark, too, about the pain of watching my family crumble during a contentious divorce, of being the target of Eric’s anger when his life fell apart. Of opening the door to the policeman who’d come to tell me my son was gone.
Those vignettes I think of when crafting the scenes that made up Eric’s life are, I see now, stories of connection—and stories of leaving. The darkness between the luminescence, the negative space perception fools us into missing when we think we see the whole? Those were the moments that made the light seem to shine even more brightly. Once the radiance was gone from view, what had dwelled between the light became gradually clearer. From the minute he arrived, this boy, I was learning to let him go.
The lesson for writing (and for living) becomes clearer, too. We learn as much from the depths of a moonless night as we do from the thrill of the fireworks that light the sky.
Casey Mulligan Walsh is a retired speech-language pathologist and writer who lives with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. Her work has appeared in Adoptive Families Magazine, the Albany Times Union, on WAMC Public Radio, and at Modern Loss and the FH Foundation. She is currently at work on a memoir, The Full Catastrophe: A Love Story. Find her at caseymulliganwalsh.com.
February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments
Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?
Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.
But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.
Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:
When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.
Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.
My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”
Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…
Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”
Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?
In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.
Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?
Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?
It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.
It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”
As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.
December 5, 2019 § 13 Comments
The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”
“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.
“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.
When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.
For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.
“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.
The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.
I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.
I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”
Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.
At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.
At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.
At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”
Not a good idea.
I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.
In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.
To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.
Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.