AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at www.namw.org to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

AWP 2012: Immerse Yourself

March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

By Kate Fox

F128  The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing / Robin Hemley, Melissa Pritchard, Joe Mackall, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Christopher Merrill

After the recent brouhaha over John D’Agata’s approach to creative nonfiction, I was amazed when not a word about it was mentioned in this session. Instead, Robin Hemley began by identifying earlier writers—Nellie Bly, James Agee, Barbara Ehrenreich and others—who have used themselves as a “conduit” for experiential, participatory writing. He then cited three types of immersion writing:

•  Immersion Journalism

•  Immersion Memoir

•  Immersion Travel Writing

though he was quick to state that these categories are meant to be useful, not binding; the boundaries among them are permeable.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who has written about “life in the Communist Block after the Marxist meltdown,”—specifically, Russia, Beijing, and Mexico—was the first to present. She spoke of encountering a bias in publishers toward memoir over direct reportage, and as a result, had to alter her work to introduce more of herself into the narrative to attract publishers. She then addressed the ethical landmines involved in writing creative nonfiction, specifically exploiting and/or profiting from someone else’s story. As a sort of antidote to these landmines, Griest holds to five tenets:

1.      Learn the language of the people you’re writing about. For her this meant intense study of Russian, Chinese, and Mexican, though she admits she still had to use interpreters to overcome the distance between the language she had learned and the colloquial/regional dialects.

2.      Live the life of the people you’re writing about. You must have intimate contact; you must live among them as they live.

3.     The “subjects” or people you are writing about are always right. This assumption grants the compassion and understanding you need to treat people with respect.      

4.   Share the work before it is published. You must give the people you’re writing about a chance to respond to the work.

5.      Writing these stories is a privilege, not ownership. You must be clear on who owns the story—they do.

Joe Mackall was next, and though I’ve known Joe since at least 2001, I didn’t realize he was so drop-dead funny. He talked about writing about the Shettlers, an Amish family, in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and said up front that his wife threatened, “If you screw up our friendship with these people, you are in deep trouble.” He also described being terrified of both Amish draft horses and riding in Amish buggies (“You people drive too damn fast around the Amish!” he declared to the audience). To Mackall, the “outsider” in his subtitle says it all: there was no way he could be anything other than an “infiltrator,” one who provides a window on what they allowed him to participate in, so that his role was more of a benevolent docent and a justifier of a misunderstood subculture. Mackall echoed Griest’s tenet of sharing the work with those being written about, though he was surprised at what the Stettlers took issue with. The things he worried about, they seemed to see as the provenance of the writer. But when he noted the shabby conditions of a brother-in-law’s barn, they asked for that part to be removed, and when he estimated a hog’s weight at 200 pounds, Samuel Stettler corrected him, saying it was closer to 300 pounds—and Mackall knew he was the better judge. According to Mackall, “Immersion is negotiation.”

Christopher Merrill gave perhaps the best—and most harrowing—example of true immersion, citing Christopher Hitchens’ willingness to undergo waterboarding to dispel the Bush Administration’s claim that it was not torture, but simply “extended interrogation.”

He then cited Elisabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” as the best template for the way active description should work—its tripartite structure of a faithful account of the details, then a reflection upon those details that finally allows the “true” meaning to emerge. As he explained, “Any moment, if you pay enough attention to it, will act as a hologram for meaning and truth.”

As another Brevity blogger bemoaned, I have overshot my 500-word limit, so I will conclude with two anecdotes I thought were quite resonant for different reasons. Griest underscored the “danger” of immersion writing by telling about a “blind date” she was supposed to have with a local in Mexico. He showed up drunk, after midnight, with several drunk friends in tow, inviting her to “come and party.” As she said, no one in her right mind would even consider going. But as a memoirist, she tended to think, “If I get out of this alive, this is going to be great!”

Then Melissa Pritchard spoke of walking through—I believe it was India’s—brothel district, where 12-15 years olds were on display and being sold for sex. And she thought she was “handling it all right” until she saw that some boys had a young brown bear on a leash and were torturing it to make it dance. In the middle of all of these children being sold, she cried at the dancing bear—though she realized later that it certainly wasn’t the only thing that made her cry.

Kate Fox is a writer/editor in Athens, OH

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