How I Turned Essays Into Memoir

April 21, 2020 § 20 Comments

By Sandell Morse

I started with a name given to me by poet Marilyn Kallet. Jean Hirsch was a nine-year-old resistance courier during the Second World War, a time that interested me. The boy lived in Auvillar, France, a village where I’d been awarded a writing residency. My maiden name is Hirsch, and with those matching names, I felt an instantaneous connection to this child’s history. During my residency, I would research and write essays about him and his family. As I dug deeper, I began to uncover Auvillar’s secret history of both resistance and collaboration.

The web of the boy’s story spread to Paris, Toulouse, Montauban, and Beaulieu sur Dordogne. For six years, I returned to France every fall. I followed leads. I interviewed a ninety-two-year-old woman who had been a caretaker in a secret house that protected Jewish refugee children. I read widely. I wrote about myself, a woman in my seventies, traveling solo, searching, and researching. I wove my story into these French stories, and I published my essays in ASCENT, Ploughshares, Solstice, Fourth Genre, and others.

Why not gather them into a collection?

But how? I signed up for a seminar, “Finding Your Book.” The instructor was a literary agent. What could be better? She suggested I begin each essay or chapter with an italicized paragraph that would stitch the collection together. “Of course, you’ll need to transform some of these essays,” she said.

A good student, I followed her advice. If my collection had been a dress, it would have been sewn by a five-year-old, large stitches, small stitches, sleeves long and short, hem uneven. But in the process, I had unspooled more of my own story—narrative glue.

Virginia Woolf wrote about rods. She described those rods as an underlying pattern. I thought of a shadow story under each of my French stories. Where was Woolf’s text, A Room of One’s Own, A Writer’s Diary? I lifted each down from my book shelf and scanned for markings. Now, Moments of Being. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf writes: “… one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool.”

Woolf’s “cotton wool” is daily life, the living we don’t remember, taking out the trash, cooking dinner, washing clothes. A pattern is drawn under that cotton wool. I felt that pattern in my manuscript and in myself. I was a persona, writing from a certain time and place. I was also a person who had been shaped by memory and thought, salient images and knowledge. All of my writing, each word in that manuscript, had formed in relation to an invisible pattern. A trip to an open market brought back images of my childhood, when I shopped with Mama, my grandmother, an immigrant from a place she called Russ-Poland. We all lived together, my mother, my father and me, in Mama’s and Papa’s yellow stucco house in Morristown, New Jersey. Mama and I would pull my red wagon up Early Street and into town where we’d shop at the vegetable store, the chicken store, and the bakery. Every step, every breath in France became research. At home in Maine, I wrote and I rewrote. I pulled my own story from background to foreground. I filled in gaps. I tore the manuscript apart and rearranged chapters and scenes. I followed my intuition: This feels right. Not this, at least, not here.

I dove deeper. I turned to Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story. I wrote a quote on a sticky note and attached it to the edge of my desk: “It’s the depth of inquiry that guides the personal narrative from essay into memoir.” I thought of Adrienne Rich, and I reread “Diving into the Wreck.” A different subject but a similar emotional truth. I was going down, “Rung after rung and still/ the oxygen immerses me/ the blue light/ the clear atoms/ of human air.” Like the protagonist in the poem, I was searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.”

At my computer, I remembered an evening in Paris. I had made my way to a tiny bistro in the Marais. Inside, wooden tables sat on trestles, reminding me of my grandmother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine. As I struggled to find space for my knees under the table, an image rose, my grandmother’s black lace up shoe, her foot pressing down on the treadle. Again, the past swam under the clear surface of the present. My grandmother spoke with a Yiddish accent. My father taught me to be ashamed of that accent. He denied my Eastern-European roots. “We’re German-Jewish,” he said.

Remembering that evening I swam deeper into questions and doubts about my own story of growing up Jewish in America and deeper into the stories of Jews in Vichy France who believed they were French, only to find themselves herded into boxcars heading east to the camps. Often, I’d chosen to hide my Jewish identity and pass. Yet, had I been a toddler living in Paris during Nazi Occupation, most likely, I would not have survived.

My book of essays became a double journey: an exploration of my Jewish identity and an historical and imaginative rendering of the stories of my travels and research. I needed an ending. I found it in the middle of my manuscript, a transformative moment. I moved it to the end. Voilá, a finished memoir. Nearly nine years will have passed from first essay to publication.

Transformation takes time.


Sandell Morse’s nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays series and published in ASCENT, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Solstice, among others. Her memoir, The Spiral Shell, A French Village Reveals it Secrets of Jewish Resistance in World War II is now out from Schaffner Press. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @sandellmorse.

The Heart of a Story: Writing Toward Voice

March 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Photo of a white woman with long dark-blonde hair, wearing salmon tank top and statement necklace. She is smiling broadly.By Marilyn Bousquin


Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about an adolescent girl with anorexia. Lo and behold, my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)

Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. He said, “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been conditioned to silence her truth. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”

I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.



Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and voice. I also studied voice as intrinsic to female conditioning. I learned it’s not uncommon for an adolescent girl to internalize shame as her body develops, and that such shame can silence her voice.

My studies on women and voice led me to Gail Collins-Ranadive’s course Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.”

In Gail’s writing circle, I tapped into something within me that felt larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.

Do any of you hear a voice?



Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and began to lead women’s writing circles.

One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.”

Yes, oh, yes.



During a writing prompt in Kate Hopper’s course Motherhood & Words, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page. Uh-oh. There’s a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.

Kate said, “I want to hear more.” Then she said: “When you’re ready to write it.”



Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction. But guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to write that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.

Instead, I wrote stories that skirted the red medical book even as, unbeknownst to me, I wrote my way toward it.

I wrote my way toward my voice.



I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?

I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and experience as a writer and teacher to understand that, yes, everyone has a voice, and part of a writing teacher’s role is to create a safe space for that voice to emerge. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety,” Julia Cameron says.

Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.



Every turn in my writing journey readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.

The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.

Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.



Know this: A voice for any given story emerges from the subject at the heart of that story. If shame shrouds a story’s subject so, too, its voice may hover beneath shame. A memoirist whose subject has been silenced by shame must write past shame to the voice at the heart of her story.



What’s your red-medical-book story?

I want to hear it. When you’re ready.


Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to claim their voice and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her own memoir stories appear in River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow her on Facebook.


March 3, 2020 § 4 Comments

Faded vintage photo of jukeboxSome days it’s easy, up with the sun, shower and go. Latte, mini-quiche, table by the window, headphones in—

Bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away

—Linkin Park blotting out the buzz of the coffee shop, focus view on the Word doc, 5 pages of re-typing, 5 pages of edits, 5 pages new, and bam! it’s done. Some days it’s harder, I needed the sleep, I needed to correct someone on the internet, the first line of “Bleed It Out” a phantom sound in my ears while Twitter or a phone game sucked me into the quicksand of my bed.

Four o’clock.

Really? It took you until four o’clock to leave the house? What the hell kind of lazy overprivileged white-lady shit is this?

Surf the internet another hour, no really, I’m working. I’m ‘reading for writing,’ that’s what my timekeeper app says. Call a friend, sort it out, headset in, it’s time.

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away

The playlist ticks off the pages. Fifteen minutes to Goldfrapp. Thirty to Katy Perry. Some days I make it all the way down to The Decemberists at the two-hour mark, on a really good day, Philip Glass at almost three. But it’s always the second song that drives the need to start, is driven by the need to start (the first song is the get-your-pages-sorted, prop-them-on-a-book, did-you-wash-your-hands time, three minutes and thirty-one seconds of countdown, T-minus creativity).

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away—

The coffee shop closes early. Or there’s a cutely named singer-songwriter couple with guitars and too much amp. Or dudes in suits whose business is not important enough to take to the office, but important enough for everyone to hear. Or I’m visiting and my mother comes home, the sound of the automatic garage door like a starting pistol, sending me to my room in a mad rush, minus earbuds, minus power cord, on edge until the back door opens and I can call out, “Welcome home I love you I can’t talk I’m writing,” and slam my own door like the sullen teen I was, I am still.

I do not know what I would do with children. Abuse them, probably. Not with the wire hanger or the cigarette, but with coldness and silence and preoccupation, that’s a lovely crayon drawing, now shut up, dear God, shut up, I’m writing!

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away—

This is the glass box of selfishness, of being useless to the world on the (monumentally arrogant!) excuse that I will make something that matters, I will write better, I will write something worth solitude and exclusion.

I will.

—Yeah here we go for the hundredth time, hand grenade pins in every line—

I will.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You

February 18, 2020 § 17 Comments

Selfie of a black woman with shoulder-length braids and a big smile against a background of greeneryBy Ramona M. Payne

My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with whatever other people decided was best. No point in arguing; she was a child. Even as an adult, some people thought they could treat her as if she were a child. And as a Black woman growing up in the forties and fifties, the best interests of other people did not always align with what was best for her.

Many times, I listened to her stories about one person or another who had underestimated her. She would chuckle, amused by their need to tell a grown woman about what she could and could not accomplish.

“That’s alright,” she said, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” She didn’t have to say it to them—it was enough that she knew what she was capable of achieving. Her determination to take control of her own life defined who my mother was to me. She was not going to waste time convincing others, begging for understanding, asking permission, or most importantly, giving them an entire backstory or explanation to obtain their consent.

I can show you better than I can tell you. It was simple advice—pay attention to what you see me doing, because I am not wasting words on you.

I remember my first writers’ workshop, many years ago in Virginia. I knew my piece required some work and I braced myself for constructive feedback. After a decade in corporate jobs, my business writing with its memos, annual plans, and recommendations required that I get to the point, and quickly. The life and color had been sucked out of my earlier writing and replaced with numbers and case studies.

That week, I sat in the room with other writers, some already years into writing careers, others like me, trying to make the shift from business to writing. There were elements of my piece the group liked—the story, description, and the main character. But my voice was not always consistent, and my story lacked any real conflict. I had not established a clear sense of what these characters wanted.

We sat in the windowless room, several women, all Black except for one, and two white men, one of whom led the workshop. We discussed the importance of telling our stories and using writing as a way to share them. The instructor, an award-winning novelist and literary journalist, dismissed the idea that everyone had a story.

A young emerging writer, who has gone on to a distinguished career in both print and digital media, disagreed. “I think everyone has a story to tell.”

The instructor arched a bushy white brow and peered through his glasses, perhaps considering his audience. “Well maybe everyone has a story, but I’m not sure everyone needs to write it.”

Thanks to my mother, I had not arrived to my late thirties assuming that everyone who sat at the head of a conference table was infallible, so I filed away the remark, but largely ignored that bit of advice.

But one writing tip proved useful. The workshop included an adage new to me at the time, but I have heard it in classes and read the advice in writing craft books many times since. Show don’t tell. Don’t spend time rehashing facts; instead, engage the reader’s emotion and imagination by inviting them to use their senses—feel what’s happening, hear it, see it. Exposition and summary are not enough. Regardless of how lovely the description or likable the characters, my writing had to make a reader feel or think something, and know something was at stake.

These days the advice has shifted somewhat, from show don’t tell to show and tell. Nonfiction both maps out the story and background for the reader, and uses reflection and the retrospective voice to share what I have made out of what happened. Nonfiction writers dig deeper than the facts as we see them; we try to discern what it has all meant.

Which is what my mother had done all along. She could have sat you down, given you the entire backstory, complete with a rationale for why she was going to take a certain action. She could have told you not only the expected outcome, but how she got there.

But she was wise enough to know that excess dialogue doesn’t always lead to better understanding. On the surface, it sounds more direct, but it pushes out room for discovery or letting you make your own conclusions. I take my mother’s advice with me when I sit down to work—I can show you better than I can tell you—and try to share a world and characters who reveal who they are.


Ramona M. Payne’s writing appears in essay collections and magazines. She completed the Creative Writing program at The University of Chicago Graham School, has a liberal arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from Duke University. She supports local theatre, practices Pilates, and leads her expressive writing workshop, Write.Pause.Reflect. Follow her on Twitter @RamonaPayne1 or Instagram @writepausereflect.

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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