Writing the Pain: Memoirists on Trauma and Memory

February 27, 2017 § 104 Comments

Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects: zzzBO1,204,203,200_.jpg

MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?

BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.

MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma.  Would you agree with that?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.

zz-melanieMOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?

BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.

MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?

BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”

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Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.

 

Iota: Short Prose Conference

March 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

DSC_5904A note on the upcoming Iota Conference from Penny Guisinger and a reflection on the event from Sven Birkerts:

Iota: Short Prose Conference is a place that celebrates the small in a world often ruled by heft. Participants gather at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, near Maine’s easternmost tip, for a long weekend of writing, relaxing, and learning. We also do a lot of talking, mostly about books. This year’s conference is July 23 – 26. Applications are due by June 23, but apply by April 15 for an early-bird discount!

 The focus is on short works: essays, flash, fiction, micro-everythings, prose poetry. And the definition of “short” is up for grabs. If you can write it, or even get it started, in a morning, you can workshop it that very afternoon. This year’s faculty will be Brevity Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein and Richard Hoffman, and every participant will workshop with both of them. We’re thrilled to welcome them both!

This will be Iota’s third summer. The following is a reflection on the experience of teaching at Iota by Sven Birkerts, a faculty member from the conference’s first year:

I was invited to be an instructor at the very first staging of Iota, Short Prose Conference, which was held late in the summer of 2013 on Campobello Island off the northern coast of Maine. For once it was easy to tell people where I was headed: to the easternmost point of the continental United States. That struck an original note. As did the conference, start to finish.

Sven-for-Brevity

Sven Birkerts at Iota

I love the early days of things, the premieres, trial outings—love that improvisatory freedom of action before things crystallize, as they invariably do, into ‘this is how we do things.’ Small by design, it had the energy of first formations. Here were seventeen students and three faculty, gathering for the first time in a grand lodge. The first night we dispersed ourselves about the big room, the windows giving onto a prospect of tall pines and distant ocean. There were introductions, instructions, the usual business of first nights everywhere. But I also felt the almost immediate emergence of a distinct group spirit, which I can assure you is not the usual business. This had much to do with Conference Director Penny Guisinger and her associates at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, who between them had found exactly the right note. How to describe it? Expectant yet relaxed, exuding an improvisatory confidence. Which proved to be justified. Penny had brought together a diverse group of students and instructors who wanted nothing more than to talk about books and writing.

This came clear the next day as we dispersed to our various workshop locations, none without some view of pointed firs or distant water. The sizes were right, and—certainly in my case—the interactions were right away both lively and exploratory. Getting down to business, exchanging manuscripts, we knew that we were inventing much of the business as we went along. How like writing! The balance of activities was also smartly considered. Workshop time, writing time, down time, and in the evenings after dinner a wonderfully varied set of offerings: readings by instructors one night, students another, with musical guests bringing something original and briny into the mix.

Another of the day’s activities, one of the best,  was a late-morning to-and-fro in the big room—instructors informally conversing about various craft-related topics and then students joining in with their own thoughts, questions and war-stories. Again, that sense of converging intensities.

I know enough about these kinds of events to know that success is not guaranteed, that it depends on the coming together of innumerable factors—from personalities to organization to leadership. Planning takes you only so far and then the inner life of the thing asserts itself. Or–where things are too programmed, too this or too that– doesn’t. Here it did with great energy, humor and grace, and for this I thank the enthusiasm and fresh directorial instincts of Penny, who knew when to say “let’s try that again,” and “that was amazing!” and when to just break it all up and start laughing. Serious or antic, underneath it all we felt her literary devotion; we knew that this undertaking was the product of literary passion, not some market calculation. She was right there with us, arguing her views, reading her work, and making us feel like we were taking part in something really good. Which we were. The conference was engaged and purposeful, offering a craft-savvy jump-start to those who needed it and an invigorating tune-up for those whose engines were already running.

 If you want a long weekend to work on your short forms, join us!

(Oh, and there’s always lobster. And Peruvian chocolates. Just sayin’.)

For more information, contact Penny at: iota@cclc.me .

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Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book ReviewThe New RepublicEsquireThe Washington PostThe Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.

Where to Start Your Memoir: Richard Hoffman

May 26, 2011 § 7 Comments

Author Richard Hoffman was interviewed by Lisa Tener on her blog this week, including his wise and useful take on “What advice would you give someone who is just starting to write a memoir–where to start writing?

Wherever you can! Think of a spiderweb. You can hook that first thread anywhere it will hold. The important thing is to not think in linear terms at all when you’re writing. Write scenes. Write pages of reflection. Write what’s available to you to write today. Memory’s mercurial; if something offers itself to be explored, explore it while it’s “live”. If you shoo it away because you’re convinced that today you’re going to work on, say, Chapter 7, it might not come back! That’s my experience anyway.

Write modularly in the order that presents itself to you. You’re exploring, looking for clues, praying for happy accidents. Trying to uncover what was hidden (sometimes by the “official story” you’ve been telling yourself for years). A book is read from the upper left-hand corner of page one to the lower right-hand corner of the last page — but that is not how it is written! At least not in my experience. Composition happens only later, when you’ve turned over every rock and shaken every tree. The next stage, fashioning a story, a narrative, from the parts comes pretty late in the process.

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