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.
November 12, 2019 § 18 Comments
1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.
2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.
3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.
4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.
5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.
6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke. Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.
8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.
9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).
10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.
Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.
September 10, 2019 § 9 Comments
Anne Lamott’s maxim is some of the most-quoted writing advice in the memoirist world. Followed closely by: Write the book first, worry about hurt feelings later.
That doesn’t stop us from worrying our way through the first—or even final—draft.
If I write about my mom hitting me, can she sue me?
If I tell that secret, will anyone talk to me at the family reunion?
My sister told me I better not write anything about her…what if I change her name?
Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action.
We can’t control how our loved (or unloved!) ones will react. We can only be as truthful as we can, allowing ourselves the distance to write from analysis as well as from emotion, showing why other people behaved as they did, as best we can tell from hindsight. It’s our choice to brace for anger from a parent or sibling, or practice verbal judo with a smooth, “I can see how the story would be different from your perspective. Let me know when you write about it.”
What if they threaten to sue? In the USA, you can sue anyone for any damn reason you want. Even if you signed a release, even a big scary release with ACCEPT ALL RISKS FOR INJURY AND/OR DEATH on it. In most American jurisdictions, no-one can sign away their right to sue. Releases provide evidence that a suit is baseless, because the signer accepted responsibility, but they don’t stop anyone from filing paperwork and demanding their day in court.
So why aren’t alcoholic parents and pedophilic religious leaders stampeding into court to bankrupt and destroy the fragile writers telling their own stories?
It’s expensive and time-consuming to pursue a civil case, and they aren’t easy to win without a phalanx of top-notch attorneys laying out extensive documentation of the kind most non-memoirists rarely preserve. Unless the suit is against an insurance company with the potential for a huge payout (as in medical malpractice, accident and wrongful-death cases), lawyers rarely take civil cases without an up-front retainer.
Say your poorly-behaving former spouse has five figures to spare and a sense of vengeance strong enough to waste every dime. First, they must lawyer-shop until they hear, “Sure, you’re not crazy at all and I’d love to take on a hard-to-prove case against someone with no money.” The lawyer must then find a judge who doesn’t laugh them out of court and agrees to consider your spouse’s hurt feelings.
If the suit actually makes it to court, the person you wrote about must prove three things:
- You lied
- You lied on purpose to hurt them
- Your story hurt them in terms of hard cash or public reputation
- The truth is always a defense against libel. Police reports. Affidavits from your friends. Photos or videos. Your convincing presence on the witness stand.
- If you accidentally didn’t tell the truth, that’s still not actionable. A plaintiff has to prove you lied on purpose or were very careless, not just that you were mistaken or have a different opinion. Memoir is inherently our opinion; it’s also worth adding caveats like “As I remember it…” or “what it felt like was…”
- Damages are meted out based on actual, provable harm. By portraying people’s behavior in interpersonal relations rather than their ability to do their job, you are unlikely to damage their finances or their reputation enough for a judge to believe they need redress. You can say your doctor cheated at golf; criticizing his medical ability could do him financial harm and he’s likely to have records to prove it.
Our final protection against being sued?
Most of us aren’t worth suing. We don’t have enough assets for a long-shot winner to take. In most jurisdictions, a lawsuit can’t take your homestead. Your homeowner’s insurance is unlikely to cover libel, so your angry relative won’t be suing them. Generally, if you have enough money to be worth suing, you can already afford your own excellent lawyer to tell you all this. If you don’t have that kind of cash, it’s almost never worth the time and money for the plaintiff or their attorney.
I am not a lawyer. This is emotional, rather than legal, advice. But emotional fallout from a published memoir is far more likely than legal action. Instead of fearing a suit, spend that time being as honest as you can on the page, letting other people’s actions show who they are and being clear about what you remember and what’s a best-guess. Read Tara Westover’s Educated to see how she honors competing stories while insisting on her own truth.
Threatening to sue is easy. Actually suing—winning—and collecting damages is pretty darn hard. Be fair, be kind, write the best book you can that tells your own true story. If someone threatens to sue, smile gently. Tell them, “I can see you feel really passionate about getting your story out there. I hope you write a book.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her travel-adventure postcards at TinyLetter.
June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments
I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?
Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.
I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.
After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.
I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.
Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.
I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”
I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”
A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.
“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”
Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.
My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.
We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.
I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.
It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.
But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.
When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.
We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.
We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.
Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.
April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments
Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.
If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.
That time has come.
Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!
April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.
As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.
- Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
- Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
- Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
- Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
- Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
- Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
- Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
- Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
- Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
- Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
- Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
- Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
- Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
- Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge
There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.
Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 21, 2019 § 13 Comments
In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.
It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.
Feedback on my manuscript was slow and contrary. The most frequent comment I received was a discouraging, “meh.” I muddled through a second draft based on their single-chapter reviews and tried to address their every whim. My energy flagged as I forced myself to find a pleasing narrative arc. A year into revisions I quit. The draft exists on my hard drive, but that’s it. From a commercial perspective, the project is a total failure. Unfinished. Definitely unpolished. Probably not even that good. For a while (okay, maybe a few years), I lamented my inability to finish the book. Sure, other projects had stalled, but this one had taken up years of my life and all it’s done is collect virtual dust.
Thirteen years later, I’m grateful to that failed project. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to write a book. Those devastating “mehs” became the fuel I used to find my voice. Along the way, I realized writing fiction shielded me from the true stories I was afraid to tell—the ones that came more naturally if I gave myself permission to write them.
In 2015, I attempted a second book—this time a memoir about how I believed carrying my belongings across a divided highway at seventeen would save me from the people who had loved and hurt me most. As I sat at my writing desk, I was terrified by what I might discover—or feel—but I never worried about whether I would finish. That 250-page failed killer-clown manuscript proved I could break the first-draft barrier. It also taught me about the second-draft blues, and the importance of choosing critique partners who understand long-form writing and finding beta readers who will read your entire manuscript. Most importantly, I learned I could let a project go and write again.
My second book has gone through eight full revisions. When agents praised my writing but said my narrative arc needed work, I sought editorial advice on the entire manuscript. While I waited, I recorded the lessons I’d learned about how to heal, how to write about trauma, and how to persevere. I also started a new memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. I just completed the revised first draft and sent it to editors at a conference.
It might be The One.
Or it could be just another lesson.
What I know for certain is that I couldn’t have written this manuscript without writing my first memoir exactly as I had. Not one word was wasted, even if the narrative arc needs adjustment.
Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one. As Abby Wambach said in her 2018 commencement speech for Barnard College, “failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on.” Each draft teaches us something about finding our voice, the power of perseverance, and how to peel back the layers of meaning in our work. Our job is to pause, celebrate our efforts, and find those valuable lessons, having faith that each failure brings us closer to success.
In a few weeks, I’ll receive feedback on my latest manuscript, brush a few books and papers off my desk (or maybe not) and begin the long slog of revision. As I do, I’ll enlist a kinder, gentler version of my killer clown (think less Pennywise, more whimsy) to remind myself that the process is all that matters. Failure just signals our projects can ascend to higher levels.
Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Guardian, and The Rumpus, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.
February 21, 2019 § 10 Comments
- I give you, a non-writer, exclusive, insider access to the writer’s mind, free of charge. On our shared family iPhone calendar, I add ideas for essays daily. For example, today I typed: “IndiAn map crossword.” I may not remember what it means, but the joy of writing is in its mystery.
- I ghostwrite responses to your annual employment review. The bullet points I craft about your achievements are concise and—I’ll say it—artisanal. I incorporate action verbs, cure your passive voice and take your boss all the way to the denouement of your heroic work ethic, which concludes in a raise. (Your annual review has been shortlisted for a Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The $12,000 in winnings will come in handy—submission fees aren’t getting any cheaper.)
- I turn our parent/teacher meetings with Ms. Rivera into elegant craft discussions. When she criticizes our third-grade daughter’s penmanship, she loves it when I ask, “Have you heard of a story arc?”
- At tax time, when I’m especially conscious of all the money J.K. Rowling makes, and that I do not (yet) make, I keep you grounded by reminding you that yes, J.K. Rowling is worth $900 million and has a mansion in Tasmania, but YA is not my genre.
- When you tell me about your ideas, I listen, and give you honest and constructive feedback. Like, “Don’t quit your day job.” (Please don’t.)
- I call the exterminator and provide excellent sensory descriptions of whatever creature has been scratching at that place in the wall behind our headboard. An ordinary person might report, “I think it’s a squirrel.” As a writer, I tell pest control: “So the thing scratching in that wall? It sounds bigger than a mouse but smaller than a horse. I fear it is dining on our electrical wires as if they are fettuccine.” I doubt a non-writer could bring to life the gnashing of tiny incisors in such vivid detail. By the time I’m done describing the invader, the pest control guy thinks he smells an electrical fire.
- I meet you at the door enthusiastically. Since I rarely leave the house except for bus-stop runs with our daughter, my hunger for human contact may come across as more alarming than our mystery vermin. Also, I may not always hear you arrive because I suddenly got a great idea for an essay and I’m living inside a paragraph, trying to front-load my sentences because my teacher, Alex, taught me, “the end is where sentences go to die.”
- I correct our family’s grammar, spelling and usage. It’s called an apostrophe. It’s not a curly decoration. Please use it. I’m always there to erase your mistakes, like a human “delete” key. When your aphasic tendencies flare, and you call dessert “tiramoosu,” I remind you gently, “It’s ‘tiramisu.’” I call these “teaching moments,” not “grounds for divorce,” as you do.
- I deal with the gas-powered furnace when our collapsing aluminum chimney liner blocks the vent and practically asphyxiates us and we have to turn off the furnace during a cold snap. I get the chimney sweep to come the same day as the HVAC guy, so while one examines the collapsed liner, the other can clean out our savings account.
- I offer you a mirror. I can write intensely personal things about you that you couldn’t have imagined me sharing with another human being, let alone an audience of thousands of online viewers. Don’t worry: by the time it’s published years from now, your friends and family will probably be significantly visually impaired.
I ask for nothing in return for my eternal devotion and love. Well, maybe don’t retire just yet. Perhaps wait until my literary memoir about mice or Modern Love essay about correcting your grammar goes viral. After all, we need to pay the exterminator and the HVAC and chimney guys. I’m sure going viral won’t take long. Perhaps a month. Or 24 of them.
Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recently attended a live performance of “Modern Love: The Podcast” and was disappointed that Daniel Jones didn’t ask audience members for essays. She has written 4,537 drafts of her latest essay and considers this progress. You can find her @kpnwriter and kristenscarousel.com.
January 31, 2019 § 2 Comments
I often tell people in the throes of a break-up, “Every relationship we’re in teaches us a little more about who to be in the relationship we’re meant to be in later.” It’s a little convoluted, but it comforts me to believe that, to think that the awful things my first husband and I did to each other helped us learn how to be honest and kind to our current spouses. But it’s hard to look ahead from within the moment of trauma, to try to process or analyze what’s happening to us in a larger sense.
Writing memoir often requires distance. Many writers have both given and received the advice, “Take some time, allow yourself to step back. Don’t write from the heat of the moment.” It’s usually very good advice. We are far more able to present our actions, and the actions of others, without judgement, allowing the reader to decide whose side they want to be on, with some time away from the events themselves.
In initially trying to get what was happening to me down on the page, I was writing from the center of trauma. There’s that moment in my book when I quote from Bessel van der Kolk’s—I don’t have the quote exactly right, but it’s something like, “It’s the nature of trauma that doesn’t allow a story to be told.” It’s the reason why people who are in a traumatic state repeat themselves, and need to keep telling the same story over and over again. But that does not make for good literature—although I want to interject and say that I do think there is one literary form in which you can write directly out of trauma, and it’s poetry.
At first, this process didn’t seem to work for a memoir. She’d taken two months away from the manuscript, and when she came back to it:
I took myself to a local café where I like to read, and I started reread and my heart just completely sank. It had some passages that worked, but as a whole, it simply was not the book I wanted to write. And I was in despair. I went home and told my husband, I know that this is productive despair, I would tell any writer telling me this story that it is productive, and that this is going to end up being a good thing, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like despair with a capital D.
What helped Shapiro was considering Joan Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking.
In my memory of the book, she was writing from the center of her husband’s death. But when I started rereading it, I realized she actually found a place that is slightly removed from, that was outside the sphere of direct shock and trauma. She was writing from that spot, which allowed her to move back into the immediacy but also away from it in a way that allowed her to tell a story.
Shapiro’s work ended up mirroring that process, finding a way to tell what happened to her with a sense of immediacy, but without herself (as writer or as narrator) actually living within that moment of trauma as she wrote.
As memoirists, the ability to summon up the immediacy of our trauma without being sucked into it as we write is valuable. It’s difficult to walk that edge of telling what happened vividly enough for the reader to be in the moment of happening, while maintaining enough remove to use our writing craft and sense of structure, but that edge is what divides memoir from therapy, what makes a story powerful and life-changing for the reader as well as the writer.
Shapiro’s discussion of her process is illuminating; read the whole interview here.