September 15, 2022 § 2 Comments
In a Craft Essay featured in our in our newest issue, Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson.
Here is a sample prompt:
Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.
Read Jill’s full essay in the new issue for the full discussion and numerous additional prompts: Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative
April 4, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Mary Hannah Terzino
The summer before I turned four, I truly believed I could fly if only I tried hard enough. It was my greatest – and most secret– desire. My launching pad was the steps near my bedroom door that led downstairs. I would stand on the top step with my arms out, quivering, waiting for a sign that I could release my feet to float and fly down the stairs. I scrunched my eyes together to better concentrate, made my arms and legs rigid, lifted up on my toes, felt the longing in every muscle, but never experienced the woosh of lightness I’d need to fly. I knew I would fall unless I could summon that special woosh. Any time I could stand on the top step without a brother or mother or father nearby, I’d give it a shot. I believed fervently that I could fly, and equally fervently, that I hadn’t yet flown because I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
That memory of fervent conviction returned to me recently when our writing group mentor challenged my writing sisters and me to freewrite things we deeply believe, urging us to begin broadly, then narrow the list to the essentials. Once we’d captured them, a further question arose: How are these beliefs reflected in our writing, even if (especially if) we’ve never spelled them out in our work? What consistent beliefs seem to thread through what we’ve created over the years?
At first, I thought this a foolish exercise. It felt wildly attenuated from revisions I’m straining to complete on a difficult piece I’m determined not to turn into a memoir. But as I turned dutifully to the exercise, the old choral chestnut “I Believe” an ear-worm in my brain (“I believe for every drop of rain that falls/A flower grows….”), interesting things happened on the page.
I summoned thirteen beliefs, eliminating or combining them down to five. Once I winnowed to this number, I began to see common belief threads in the prose I’ve been writing over the past six years. I began to see them, too, in my current revision, making it a subsurface memoir no matter what other rewriting I do: For every drop of rain that falls, a memoir grows. And I encourage other writers to take twenty minutes or half an hour to scribble about beliefs. Here are mine, to encourage your rumination. No doubt yours are entirely different, and that’s a wonderful thing, and a key reason why people and their writing are endlessly variable.
- I deeply believe that trying isn’t enough. The alchemy of chance, which one could also call magic, is nearly always involved in accomplishment. Nevertheless, trying has other benefits: creating purpose, building character, teaching patience, encouraging discipline, enhancing storytelling. Trying has defined my life.
- I deeply believe that people are formed by their losses, and that the most interesting people are those who understand their losses and are trying to resurrect themselves from loss – even when trying isn’t enough.
- I deeply believe that happiness is usually fleeting; that insight is a longer-lasting, more rewarding experience; that aspiring to live an interesting life is, in the end, more achievable and worthwhile than aspiring to live a happy one.
- I deeply believe in the importance of seeing both the Big Picture and the little details. Sometimes the Big Picture is God, and we are the little details, but this belief applies in all kinds of contexts.
- I deeply believe in the remarkable power of humor, the fizz of humor in the middle of quiet darkness, the jig of humor in the midst of a dirge, the way humor substitutes for flying down the stairs when the chuckle lines up just right.
Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose.
February 26, 2015 § 4 Comments
Paul Zakrzewski interviews Kerry Cohen:
For memoirists, no challenge feels quite as fraught as publishing work that touches on the lives of others. Successful memoirists appear to write honestly about friends, family members, spouses, lovers, others—but how do they do it, exactly?
Where’s the line between my story and that of family members I may choose to write about? Do I have a right to ‘other people’s secrets’—to use Patricia Hampl’s famous formulation? When should that stop me from publishing?
These are just of the questions explored in Kerry Cohen’s terrific and thought-provoking book, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity (Writer’s Digest Books). A longtime fan of her memoir Loose Girl, I used the excuse of Kerry’s new book to ask lots of questions about how and why our writing has the potential to set other people off—and when we have the right to ignore that.
Kerry is also psychotherapist and the author of two other books Dirty Little Secrets and Seeing Ezra.
The topic of how to navigate the pitfalls of disclosure in publishing memoirs has been covered before. There’s not only Patricia Hampl’s excellent essay, but also resources like Sari Botton’s “Writers Braver Than Me” interview series at The Rumpus, or Slate’s Memoir Week roundup. Why a book-length treatment?
Because it continued to be the number one question for most of the people who came to see me read or for the people I taught. It was the thing they were most curious about, surely because they were most curious about it for themselves.
You named a couple of works, but they aren’t as accessible as needed. What I wanted to do is what so many people would love to have the opportunity to do, which is to sit in a room and listen to a whole bunch of memoirists answer that question as they did.
There’s such a range of responses in your book—everything from those by authors like Alison Bechdel, who acknowledges that “there’s something inherently hostile” in writing about others, to Sue William Silverman, who says it isn’t the task of the memoirist to worry about protecting others. “I firmly believe in my right to tell my own narrative, which is exactly what I did,” writes Silverman.
Yeah, it’s quite a range.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started. Part of why I wrote this is because I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed in my introduction: is the art more important than the feelings of people I care about?
I’ve always felt like, well, yes it is, because the art is not for me. It’s not some narcissistic act. It’s about being human, about all of us connecting as humans and feeling seen. Memoir does such a positive thing for its reader, so it did feel more important. Also, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I think that’s the main thing I got out of doing this book. If you’re not trying to hurt anyone – and you work your best to not hurt anyone, but to also tell your truth – then that’s really the answer.
What rules do you think memoirists should follow in terms of showing their work? Should you show your memoir to people involved in manuscript form? Wait for galleys or an advanced reader’s copy?
One of the things I learned in writing the book is that there are no hard and fast rules. I do think there’s a basic rule in this case, which is that it’s really not a good idea to show anybody that you’re writing about in the book until it’s done. At least done in draft form.
I mean, memoir is a story of your memories, not the other person’s. So it’s important to get it down the way you remember it. Then, if you decide to share it with people who had a different experience, then they can argue or grapple with how they’re portrayed. Or maybe make a few changes.
In my case, it’s a little different. Not to sound conceited, but I’m an experienced memoirist, so I really feel solid when I’m writing. (That said, every memoir is a completely new challenge, especially around form. But that’s a whole separate issue).
Here’s a case where I broke my own rule. My husband is a writer, so I share a lot of my work with him the way I would in a writer’s group. We share writing a lot as we’re working. In my current memoir I did share a chapter about him that’s potentially incriminating, and he told me that he didn’t like it. It made him feel really awkward that other people would be reading about this thing. Also, my agent told me the section had too much about our relationship and not enough about what the memoir’s about.
In the end, I took out almost all of that material, and it’s better because of that. Now it’s much more about me in relationship to the thing I’m writing about.
I want to ask you a bit about the format of your book. You’ve interspersed your own reflections with many, many quotes and over 20 stand-alone short essays by other writers on their experiences. There are even assignments/questions you give out. How did you arrive at this format?
Well, like any book one writes, or any creative process, I learned along the way. I sold it on proposal. All I had at that point were chapters based on the different types of people one might write about (i.e. “Writing about Family” or “Writing about Children”) and that I was going to interview as many memoirists as I could.
I didn’t know that I was going to have a chapter on ‘what memoir is’ (“Are You Ready to Write a Memoir?”). That didn’t really work in the original chapter, and then I realized it should be expanded upon because it’s a really important question when writing about other people.
Some of it was that I had some back and forth with my editor at Writer’s Digest. Some of it we just brainstormed together. I came up with this idea of having other memoirists write actual essays. My hope had been that the book wouldn’t all be in my voice by having various interviews. Then I thought, what if we have a whole bunch of specific stories? That’s how I came up with the idea for the essays. Same thing with the exercises.
I liked those writing exercises! Have you heard back from anyone else who’s tried them?
I used the book in one of my MFA classes at The Red Earth Low Residency program in Oklahoma City. It was amazing what came of it. I had everyone do the first exercise in the entire book. (See Below). Then I gave them a second exercise, which was to find the chapter in the book that spoke to the kind of memoir they’re writing and pick an exercise from that chapter.
The most meaningful example—I don’t want to say too much because it was private and [this student] may write a book about it. But this one student picked an exercise from the “Writing About Spouses, Friends, and Exes” chapter.
He wrote a scene about a woman who he had been in love with 17 years earlier and who had died of leukemia. He was in love with her while she was dying. After she died he met his wife and got married. He wrote about the first time they had sex—actually just the part where they got back to his apartment and they both knew what was going to happen. She tells him, “We don’t need birth control because the chemo kills everything.” It was incredible—so good. I mean, everyone was crying. He wound up with this amazing scene.
# # #
Kerry Cohen Exercises
- Why do you want to write a memoir? Include your personal, interpersonal, and any larger societal motivations for your writing.
- Write down your top concerns about your memoir. What are you fears? How might you and others benefit from your memoir?
- Make a list of memories and events that you think are vital to your story. What makes each of these memories and events important to you and your narrative?
- What aspects of your story do you think would resonate with others? Is there a larger social dialogue or universal experience that your memoir would be a part of?
—from Chapter 1, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Cohen.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.pzak.info.