December 11, 2018 § 17 Comments
In early September, I decided to go to a coffee shop to begin writing the last few pages of a memoir. Walking out the door, I was seized by the uneasy feeling I should stay at home. It was a beautiful day, so I worked on the porch. Dog-walking neighbors waved, birds sang in a tree nearby, and yet I felt even more apprehensive. I retreated to the house and burst into tears. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked one of our cats, who watched me from a safe distance.
Then it hit me. I was working on the ending.
In Unum Magazine, Reema Zaman writes:
As artists, we want to speak from the scar, not the wound, from self-possession as opposed to raw pain. The audience can feel the difference. …When an artist creates or performs from pain and inexperience, you feel their pain and inexperience and nothing else. In contrast — and this is the power and magical potential of great art — when you read or watch an artist perform from a place of self-anchored strength, as the audience, you feel invigorated with newfound clarity, wisdom, and inspiration.
I’d started writing after devastating personal loss and worked steadily for years while wracked with grief. Yet I still hadn’t formed the scar tissue necessary to write about the traumatic event that occasioned the memoir.
Eight years ago, my son Ethan and I were frolicking in the surf of Lake Michigan when we were swept into a maelstrom. The waves crashed over our heads from both directions as the bottom dropped out from beneath our feet. Holding Ethan by his swim-shirt, I swam frantically upward toward the bright summer sun. It was hopeless. My arms and legs gave out. A peaceful feeling overtook me when I looked at Ethan floating lifelessly below me, his arms suspended at his sides and his hair glistening in the rays of light penetrating the water all around us. I knew we were going to die together. A thought popped into my head: I won’t be able to tell his story.
Pulled to shore, my hands and feet blue from oxygen deprivation, I began my new life, my “after” life, without skin, in searing pain every waking moment. Friends, family, neighbors, even strangers did all they could for us. All their kind attention could not close the wound. Taking care of my wife Janet and our daughter Penelope became my sole focus, much as caring for Ethan had been when he was born with multiple internal organ defects ten years before. But now I was never fully present.
I came to accept that my anguished longing for Ethan was a permanent disability, that I would never be fully connected to people or life again. But playing Barbie on the floor with Penelope and her friends one day, fighting back tears, I remembered my last conscious thought underwater. I had to tell his story.
As individual memories coalesced into chapters and the story of our relationship took shape, I began to hear his voice again and his throaty laugh, to feel him pressed up next to me, and to imagine him playing with Penelope and his friends. Writing the memoir put us together in an eternal present. He was very much alive for me while I wrote, and this kept me alive.
But the ending.
I tried various dodges, first a neo-Greek tragedy, then an epilogue, prompting smiles and nodding heads from intimates but frowns and head-scratching among beta readers. One finally told me with admirable candor, “People will want to know what really happened.”
I re-read, realizing I’d channeled my son too much while writing. The draft did not reflect enough of my own dubious character.
A childhood bout with encephalitis left me with extreme nervous energy, wild mood swings, and a flash temper. Managing Ethan’s care prevented me from getting the exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction I needed to stay on an even keel. I paced like a caged animal in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, lonely, bored and ready to explode.
But Ethan’s cheerful demeanor under the worst of circumstances taught me to live in the moment. He had an instinctive ability to draw out the best in people. One evening, waiting outside the gym before basketball practice, I was busy giving the hairy eyeball to a kid who had been terribly mean to him. Ethan turned to him and suggested they practice passing. The kid looked as surprised as I was. It wasn’t that Ethan wanted to be his friend—he just wanted to make that moment together the best it could be. And it was, because Ethan was willing to give that kid an opportunity to be better.
I became a different person under my son’s tutelage: less anxious, more patient, more loving. More like him, but not entirely nor all at once. Clearly some revisions to the memoir were needed.
I added some salt to the original chapters and wrote two more, then pitched the memoir at the Chicago Writer’s Workshop. Momentarily forgetting my inability to bring it to a close, I told several interested agents it would be completed this fall.
Writing about that last, terrible day forced me to reexperience it and accept his death. It was debilitating at first. The few words that appear here took over two weeks to complete. But each line I wrote closed the wound a little bit more. After three months, I have formed enough scar tissue to tell his full story.
After all, people will want to know what really happened.
Jeffrey Seitzer is currently a student at the Story Studio in Chicago, where he also teaches at Roosevelt University and lives with his family. Author of a number of scholarly books and essays, his recent work in creative nonfiction has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, Pulse Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @urbancornhusker.
November 6, 2018 § 18 Comments
CW: Sexual assault, non-graphic
It sounds a little callous to say I heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-wrenching testimony in front of the Senate committee and the nation, and immediately thought about my writing. But I related to her testimony, and put myself in her emotions—not that my experience was identical, but that my details are also fuzzy.
My memories of similar incidents compel me to write. Yet I don’t remember every detail—only those part of the trauma of the memory.
We all know “show, don’t tell.” Avoid summary, the Writing Clinic advises, because “a story will engage the reader if it is dramatised in a scene, like a film, in real time with action and dialogue.” But I find it unnatural to write in scene.
I remember the horror and fear I felt, I remember careening off the door frame as I tried to bolt from the room. I remember that the faucet was running. I remember vomiting.
What I don’t remember is how I got to the location. I don’t remember the color of the curtains or the smell of the room. I don’t remember if I climbed stairs. I do remember stumbling from the room, but nothing after that.
To write that incident, does lots of extra detail about the entire scene matter? If the details are incomplete, do I write that perhaps it was this way or maybe I arrived at this time? Will readers understand my story better if I write more in scene?
Writing trauma—whether sexual assaults, drunken incidents, or deaths of loved ones can lose impact when written with too many details, especially if our memories are fuzzy. So how do we write about powerful emotional moments where the color of the curtains didn’t matter, without the words seeming like summaries?
Reading memoirs, I find myself skipping over what I consider unimportant extra information. I am fascinated by the event itself. What happened, how or why it happened, the fact that the writer often does not know why. How the writer felt, in the moment and after, and how the event changed the writer’s life.
Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony confirmed my belief that my traumatic events can only be written starkly, without frills.
The questions asked of her at the hearing seemed ridiculous to me, because they didn’t matter to her story. Those details would only be remembered if they directly impacted the trauma.
But in writing memoir, do details which I consider superfluous add body and shape to my story? Do they immerse the reader in the moment? Would those facts about which I’m at best unclear, or have little or no memory of, help someone not familiar with, or who doesn’t have a similar story, understand my experience better? To wish to read it? To feel compelled to read it?
In her memoir Girlish, Lara Lillibridge writes beautiful descriptions from her little girl self:
Stepmother was all creamy skin over thick body meat. She was a mountain of a woman, soft, but not snuggly like her mother. There was something stiff under her softness, the way she kept her spine straight, or how she turned her face away when Girl went to kiss her, so Girl only got her cheek, not her lips. But this time, she was all tears and love and this weird, inexplicable shame. Girl did not know what to do with this emotion-leaking parent. It was like Stepmother had been switched by aliens. Girl didn’t know how close the sadness and the rage lived inside Stepmother, or how they both flowed from the same place. Most days, she only saw the rage.
Lillibridge’s words set the scene and make her story stand out in 3D.
But for me, what’s working is to write simply, rather than the way other people do. To focus on accurately describing how I felt, and the few details I do recall, rather than feeling obligated to fill in cinematic detail. While my voice may seem too stark or stripped of description for some readers, others with whom I have shared my work have said my writing hits them in the gut.
As writers, if we embed our story with the emotions we feel and can express fully, we will be successful. Even if we choose to write out of scene, it will not be merely a summary, but instead a powerful flash of connection.
Barbara Harvey-Knowles is a teacher and writer who is obsessed with languages and lives in a rural county north of New York City. Her blog, www.saneteachers.com, has been featured by WordPress in their Freshly Pressed and Discover selections.
September 6, 2018 § 10 Comments
When asked what my memoir-in-progress is about, I sometimes say, “I’m writing about the year I was raped as a teenager.”
It’s a great way to shut down a conversation.
My description is almost always met with awkward silences, lost eye contact, mumbled “I’m sorry’s.” Then I change the subject so they don’t up and leave.
I’m frustrated by this reaction—about 1 in 6 women will be raped, which means 1 in 6 women that you know. My experience isn’t particularly unusual, and recently, reading and writing about it isn’t that unusual, either. It seems that when it comes to talking about writing about it, though, we’re not quite there yet.
At times I don’t mind the awkward responses—in fact, they serve a purpose. It’s healthy to make people face what I have experienced, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. But overall, I find fielding their discomfort exhausting. And there’s only so big an impact that a sentence-long conversation can make.
But being a writer is not only part of who I am, it’s also my job. I like talking about writing, but even if I didn’t, it’s not something I could easily avoid.
Eventually I figured out a workaround: when somebody asks, “What’s your book about?”, I usually mention only its secondary plot.
“I got sick with the plague bacteria while traveling around the world at age 18,” I say. “It’s a pretty weird story.” They nod, enthusiastic, eager, to hear more. They take what I say at face value, satisfied that’s a meaty enough topic for a book-length project, that there’s no second story lurking beneath.
Though this strategy works, I wish I didn’t have to rely on it. I wish I could bring up rape, and writing about rape, in everyday conversations—without ending those conversations. I wish that I didn’t have to hide this central aspect of my identity as a writer in order to fit into social situations. I wish I could talk about the subject of my book as easily as I’ve noticed many other writers talk about theirs.
Recently, there has been an outpouring of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction about sexual violence and rape culture. Authors are incorporating their experiences of violence and harassment into their work—not only including it, but even centering it. These issues come up in writing conference panels and workshops and book reviews. We are talking more—but not enough, and the conversations don’t yet come easily.
Paradoxically, I think the only way to solve this issue is to keep telling my story. For now, that mostly means sharing my story via writing—an option I find far less emotionally draining than facing conversations in person. I’m writing these stories in my memoir, in my personal essays, in my reported articles. But I don’t want to stop having spoken conversations about what my writing is really about—not completely.
What I want is for the responses to improve. I want all of us no matter how difficult it is, to engage with the difficult subject of turning sexual violence into art. Not knowing what to say is not a good enough excuse not to say anything at all—there is always a better alternative than shying away from the conversation. I want the subject I’m writing about to be treated like other books’ subjects: with curiosity, respect, and interest. I want writing and talking about rape to be normalized, because if there’s one thing that feeds rape culture, that allows violence like what I experienced to continue, it’s silence.
So when in doubt, listen. Ask me to tell you more about my book. I hate the initial, awkward moment of telling—I hate not knowing what response I’ll have to handle, I hate the emotional labor involved in “cleaning up” after these conversations—but like many writers, I love to talk about my work: its craft and career challenges and triumphs. And I want the conversation to be about the artistic process of writing about trauma, not about the trauma itself.
As the #MeToo movement grows, as we become more accustomed to hearing stories of violence and harassment, I hope I can answer the question, “what’s your book about?” honestly, without ending the conversation. But until we reach the point where #MeToo stories are more easily accepted in day-to-day conversation—or perhaps, in order to reach that point—I plan to continue writing mine. I hope you’ll join me, whether by listening, asking questions—or writing yours.
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague bacteria, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution—all while traveling alone as a teenager. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Longreads, The Lily, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Entropy, and elsewhere.
August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Jennifer Ochstein
At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.
While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.
On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.
Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:
When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?
Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.
Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”
Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:
Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.
It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.
It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”
Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.
Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.
December 19, 2016 § 1 Comment
By Kelly Sundberg
“Without the emotional connection to pain, pain is still experienced, but not as pain.”
— Joel Peckham, Body Memory
How do I explain what Body Memory, Joel Peckham’s most recent collection of essays, is doing? Do I say that this book is an exploration of the ramifications of physical pain? Do I say that this is not a book about conquering pain, but about learning to live with it? Do I say that this book is about physical pain’s connection to emotional pain? Do I say that this book is about summer camp? Swimming? Football? Locker room talk? Parenting? Marriage? Grief? Toxic masculinity?
Body Memory is one of the more complicated books that I have read in recent memory—both in structure and in content—but the complication pays off in nuanced examinations of pain, grief, and masculinity. Peckham is a widely published essayist and poet with publications in esteemed magazines such as The Southern Review and The Sun, in addition to another collection of essays, along with multiple books of poetry, so at the line level, this book is crafted with a poet’s precision, but what strikes me most is the ambition behind the thematic elements.
This book is not a typical collection of essays. In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish where one essay ends and the next begins. I could almost call this a memoir-in-essays, but that wouldn’t be a correct description either. Perhaps the best description of what’s happening on the pages here is meditations. Indeed, I am tempted to make connections to Marcus Aurelius. This collection is even divided into five sections: Flight / Swimming / Phys-Ed / The Shattering / Body Memory, and each section is a meditation on a different aspect of Peckham’s lived experience.
Understanding this book does not require a familiarity with Peckham’s story—particularly because that story is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book—but in 2004, Peckham was involved in an accident in Jordan (where he and his wife, Susan Atefat-Peckham were living on Fulbright Fellowships). The accident took the lives of Susan and their son Cyrus, and Peckham sustained traumatic injuries that left him with chronic physical pain.
Peckham’s description of physical pain is mixed with grief, and the narrative voice is tinged with regret, but he skillfully avoids simplifying these difficult subjects. He admits that his marriage was troubled at the time of his wife’s death. He also admits that, in some ways, the physical pain was a relief because it distracted him from his grief at the loss of his wife and son, such as when he writes, “My family was in another world, but pain, pain was a near thing. Real. Mine. I was half in love with it. It framed me, gave me purpose.” Indeed, there is an element of this book that feels like a love letter to pain, and maybe that element stems directly from physical pain’s connection to Peckham’s own grief.
I am not a survivor of chronic pain; I have been fortunate to have spent most of my life in good health. Still, as a trauma survivor, I was startled by how familiar so much of this prose feels. He writes, “Normalcy, when understood as some sort of cultural norm, is almost always destructive. Not only does it delegitimize experiences and people who exist outside the norm and label much of what we don’t understand as deviant, it also sets up a standard profile that no one quite fits. The only useful concept of normal is an individual one. If you can find your normal and can live within it, that’s recovery.” This sentiment about normalcy is echoed later in his section, Phys-Ed, where he ruminates on masculinity.
The son of a coach and a former football player, Peckham grew up surrounded by masculine norms, and he struggled to both fit within those norms and resist them at the same time. It’s the complicated trap of gender roles, and as he finally summarizes:
“We talk about these things too, trying to find a balance between being honest with ourselves about want and need and desire while trying at the same time to avoid perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Articulating masculinity and femininity is hard, though, without falling into the most banal generalities about essential characteristics of men and women—characteristics that often don’t hold up under scrutiny.”
As a feminist writer and reader, I am relieved by Peckham’s interrogation of masculinity, but, at first, that section felt a bit off from the rest of the text—less descriptive than the other sections and more ruminative.
Still, Peckham manages to tie all of his themes together in the final section where the reader finally understands that Peckham’s experience of bodily pain is tied to his experience of performative masculinity. “We want [pain sufferers] to get better or at least to stop complaining about it,” he writes. “Sometimes we want both. We value toughness and become quickly disgusted by the weak.”
Perhaps, ultimately, that is what this book is about—performing toughness in the face of suffering. It’s the kind of performance that resonates with a broad audience. Readers of Body Memory need not be living with chronic pain, need not have lost a loved one, and need not even be all that interested in masculinity. The ideal reader of this book will be someone who has suffered, and who understands the words, “There is no exemption from trouble for any of us. But that’s not the greatest fear. Death is not the greatest fear. Neither is loss. Living is.”
Kelly Sundberg‘s essays have been published in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and other literary magazines. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the Best American series. Her memoir is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2018.