AWP 2014: Write What You Are Desperate to Know

March 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoA guest blog on the panel, Ghost Lives: Writing and Teaching Memoir When the Subject is Missing, by Erin C. Arellano.

Saying that a subject is missing can mean different things to different people. That fact is well represented by the panelists, Christa Parravani, Brian Castner, Warren Etheredge and Sonya Lea. Their missing subjects range from an identical twin sister who died of a drug overdose, to a bomb technician who talks to his dead friend, Ricky, to a woman whose husband has lost his memory to a man who lost himself and now helps others find themselves.

This panel was organized by Sonya Lea, whose husband suffered a brain injury and lost his memory of their life before that event. She says they have rebuilt a life, but he will not regain the memory of the life before. Because she is writing a memoir about that experience, she wanted to gather together writers who wrote from the perspective of their subject being absent in some way.

Christa Parravani says she wrote Her in order to be able to spend time with the sister, Cara. The loss of her sister, as one can imagine was like losing a piece of herself. She likened it to the loss of a limb, calling it the phantom-twin syndrome. Before her drug overdose, Cara had been raped. Christa believed this to be a mitigating factor in her sister’s drug addiction and eventual death. Knowing she would be unable to do justice to the story of Cara’s rape, she found a manuscript of a memoir that Cara had been writing and alternating Cara’s voice with her own, she overcame that obstacle.

Brian Castner’s point-of-view, in his book, The Long Walk is a little crazy. He says he sees his dead friend Ricky – hears his voice. So there is a kind of ghostly quality to Ricky. Because of this, Castner decided not to put quotes around dialogue, since it was going on in his head, and he wasn’t sure how much he could trust what was actual or even what he remembered.

Warren Etheredge says that at one point in his life he felt he had lost himself – he even felt like he had never existed. Now he helps combat vets who suffer from PTSD. He spoke about the difference between facts and truth, and how the ultimate goal should be an emotional truth. He also had difficulty with the word ghost, stating that all of those people, even though they’re gone, are still very real – very present.

The best universal truths that came from this panel were:

  1. When honoring a person, don’t ignore the warts. Get specific to get at the truth.
  2. The actuality is that some memories are clean and some aren’t.
  3. Do not follow the old adage, write what you know. Instead, write what you’re desperate to know.

Erin C. Arellano, is pursuing her MA in English at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where she is completing her MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She received her MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska in 2008. Her essays have been published in Fine Lines and A Prairie Journal.

On Writing “First Bath”

September 25, 2012 § 6 Comments

Sonya Lea writes about the origins of “First Bath,” her essay in the current issue of Brevity.

I began to write our memoir from the notes I made when I lived with my husband in a cancer hospital for three weeks. He was being treated with an aggressive surgery and chemotherapy, which had caused an anoxic insult, a brain injury in which his mind emptied his memories. My piece in Brevity, “First Bath” came from those notes about the early sensual experiences with my husband’s body, and a self so altered that I called him the “new” man.

The time in the cancer hospital had been tumultuous. Patients screamed. Wives grabbed my arm to ask me why their husbands were struggling. Nurses assumed I was out of control rather than a woman surrendering to pure emotion. As I circumambulated the hospital hallways, I memorized other’s pain, and wondered what had happened to the husband who “died” in the ICU. When we returned home, I wrote as a way to make sense of the events, and to release the trauma of that time and place. For the first few years I wrote a piece each month. An image would come to mind – the pink bowl filled with soap and warm water – and the piece would emerge from the tender sensation surrounding the event. I wrote in fragments, in a collage style, images that came together like the piecework my Kentucky grandmothers made from scrap material they sewed together. Nothing had to fit together perfectly, but the word-quilt somehow found beauty in the relationship of one fragment to the other. Some pieces were longer, like the description of the bath. Others were only a few lines. I crafted the pieces using Priscilla Long’s fine practices in The Writer’s Portable Mentor. I shared them with my writing group, and began to receive feedback. I learned where I was still confused about what information was needed for readers to grapple with this complex story.

When I began to write about my husband’s constant forgetting – an outcome of the traumatic brain injury (TBI) – I felt the despair of losing him so fully that I realized I was at a terrible crossroad: I had to choose completing the memoir or bonding with my husband. I told my mentor and colleagues that I had to put aside the story and concentrate on rebuilding my relationship. They understood my choice. I began writing fiction.

Eight years after the surgery I had luckily fallen in love with the new man, and could return to the memoir. I was stunned to see that the story fragments mirrored the state of the TBI: The stop and start of forgetting, the randomness of what gets kept and lost, even the nature of what it is to attempt to identify by holding onto our narratives, (and to have that history/herstory dismantled.) This hadn’t been something that could be planned but was necessitated by the nature of the trauma itself.

“Memory is a servant, faithful not only to the believed past but also to the imagined future.” I write these words in my journal and then I spend years learning what they mean.

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