Facts Create Feelings: World-Building in Memoir
February 16, 2023 § 11 Comments
Make readers cry for you, not with you.
By Allison K Williams
I always write down the notes. When it’s my turn for workshop feedback, no matter how much I disagree, no matter whether I put “Stupidhead said…” before a note that seems irrelevant, I write every single critique in my notebook. I learned this as an actor, when a director told me, “Write down all the notes, or you won’t remember the note, you’ll only remember how you felt when you got the note.” Examining my notebook a few days later, when my writerly feelings have faded, I’m able to dig into the actual notes and find their true usefulness.
I think that person is wrong…but two other people had problems with the same scene. What really needs revising?
“Consider writing this totally different scene I dreamed up for you.” No thank you, but I do need to show my dad in a different light. What about…
Writing memoir is a way of giving feedback to ourselves, on our journey and our character. How was that performance? Did the protagonist make us cry while we watched them fight for something better? Or did we experience page after page of unbroken misery, feeling sorry for them and wondering why they didn’t fix their life?
As writers, we are both performer and director. It’s very hard to genuinely critique our own work—our feelings are so tightly connected to the facts. But to improve our writing to a publishable level, we have to move past how we felt to what happened. Rather than merely unearthing our trauma and pain on the page, making it clear whose fault that all was, we must step back and show the context.
World-building isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction. Memoir also needs that creation of the larger surroundings. Our world-building is showing the reasons our villains acted the way they did, the cultural environment that made unequivocally bad behavior seem tolerable, and the good and normal times that kept us from leaving unpleasant relationships or situations. As writers, that means not beginning scenes with “My mother was about to hurt me again.” (OK, fine, we can skip ahead a few pages!) As people, that means showing the hope that kept us trying before we got out.
Show the reader the days you enjoyed hanging out with your abuser, and they’ll be shocked with you when the abuser shows another face. Loving actions from a parent lull the reader into thinking, Maybe this time will be different, just as you did.
As the writer, honestly portraying the good times also allows ourselves grace for not leaving the situation earlier, not standing up for ourselves. We can remember and show why we justified that other person’s actions or tolerated a terrible relationship. Humans are mammals, and mammals respond strongly to unpredictable rewards. Give a dolphin the treat every time, and the trick gets sloppier and sloppier. They’ll do the minimum. Random treats make mammals do their best and keep trying. Slot machines pay out just enough for gamblers to keep feeding in quarters. Your terrible boyfriend apologized just enough to keep you coming back. Your mom gave just enough love to keep you desperate to please her.
Show why the people who hurt you behaved as they did. Genuinely interrogate your antagonists’ history and beliefs, and give them credence on the page. What they were fighting, what they hoped for and lost. Your book will be better for watching the “bad guys” betray themselves even when they try to be good.
But pain and trauma stick out in our memories, much easier to access than the “reasonably OK” interludes. How do we get to the good times?
By noting the facts instead of our feelings.
Write down the negative events in all their awfulness…but in the next draft, move past what you felt. Move past how terrible the antagonist was. Write what happened. What you physically experienced—not just actions you took or that were taken against you, but what you smelled when you fought with your dad in the kitchen. The temperature of the diner, the slight greasiness of the table, the taste of the cheese fries when you said, “I want a divorce.” The music throbbing from someone else’s car at a stoplight when you realized you had to leave home.
Expanding outward beyond the emotional content of a scene, often through sensory writing exercises, helps us recall details that may have blurred into the general trauma of the experience. Sharing those sensory details on the page helps the reader feel the pain with us, rather than watching our pain and feeling pity. “Sucks that happened to you!” doesn’t help them understand your experience—or change their own life after sharing your journey.
Constant trauma on the page diminishes its own impact. The reader begins to disassociate from the writing, because they don’t want to be hurt, either. But watching the good parts of life, feeling cautiously optimistic with the narrator, builds tension. Watching your hope interrupted is far more powerful than trudging through a pit of despair. You don’t need the readers’ pity for your tears—make them cry for you instead.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing memoir…cautiously? Join her for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma & Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings Feb 27th with Jane Friedman. Find out more/register here.
Write What Scares You (Without Scaring Away Readers)
February 7, 2023 § 9 Comments
Writing for readers when your story is “too much.”
By Heather Sellers
“Too overwhelming.” “Too dark.” “Too much.” Early on, I received these comments on my writing from from teachers and from fellow students in workshop. My readers regularly asked me, “How did you even survive?” Survive? I was just living my life and writing about what happened. When I got these kinds of comments, I felt frustrated, hurt, and embarrassed, ashamed of my own life, and ashamed of failing to provide a gripping and meaningful reading experience.
It was concerning to think that material that I saw as dramatic and interesting was actually traumatizing and worrisome to others. I’m so worried about this girl, I can’t even keep reading, one fellow student said to me. The worst part was this: I was presenting the material from my life I thought people could handle. I kept, and still keep, the darkest parts completely private. Were these people, my readers and colleagues, just too sheltered? Were they clueless about how many of us live, the wide variety of circumstances a person can come from? Or, was I so damaged that I couldn’t even tell what was upsetting and what was not?
“The reader just needs a little bit,” my writing friends told me. They cautioned me that including everything that happened—the high level of abuse and range of violence, the constancy of poverty and neglect, the extraordinary circumstances that resulted in ongoing fear and terror—was far too difficult for a reader to process. Hold back, they urged. Less is more. I thought that’s what I was doing.
So I really struggled with their advice. I felt both monstrous (how actually had I survived all that?) and unseen (I needed to share my story in order to understand its meaning and significance). I resented my writing friends; their cautions often hurt me deeply. At the same time, I felt something was being communicated to me that I needed to pay attention to. I wanted to understand my own story, my own self, for sure. I wanted to come to terms with all that had happened. But I also write in order to create some kind of connection between people. I want my work to deepen our awareness of the human experience. I didn’t want to dump my tragedies onto readers. I didn’t need them to calm me, or comfort me, or feel sorry for me, or do anything for me at all. By writing my story, I wanted to shine light—as difficult as this might be—on the parts of human experience we all experience, no matter how different our backgrounds might be: the pain of not being loved back by someone you love; witnessing, as a child, a parent’s failure to be their best self; our inability to know ourselves and to know each other in a full way.
I teach writing for a living, and over the years, in attempting to help my students move from confession on the page, towards something that truly engaged and moved readers, I developed a set of craft tools designed to keep the reader close. I believe that we owe this to readers, to create for them an experience that is, no matter how difficult, in the end, transformative. In other words, I wanted my students and I to be able to write memoir that could go to the most difficult parts of life, but I wanted our stories to serve a purpose, to be valued, to truly matter. And not scare people away.
My three strategies for presenting intense material are 1) Beautiful Containers; 2) Yearning for Good; and 3) Brevity.
Beautiful Containers My mantra: the darker the material the more beautiful must be the container you hand over to the reader. In graduate school, I trained as a poet, and when I’m writing nonfiction, especially material that is potentially challenging for readers to encounter, I use poetic tools to provide a “hold” for the material. Anaphora, and other kinds of repetition (I’m thinking of Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”) give readers a place to rest. Powerful phrasing, fresh imagery, and a focus on tiny, beautiful moments allow your reader to stay with you.
Yearning For Good My early focus was on rendering extraordinary difficult events in my family—animal murder, kidnapping, domestic violence, psychotic break, suicide attempt—one after another. My early readers felt pummeled. I now believe keeping my eye on what people in my story want, what they are seeking, rather than focusing on all the horrible things happening to them, lets my reader connect with a force or an energy that moves us through the experience, to the other side. Losses along the way, to be sure. But the focus is on the power of something good.
Brevity (!) When I was told, early on, my work was too much I bristled with defensiveness. “But this all happened!” over time, I leaned into less is more. By choosing fresh moments we haven’t seen before, I found I could create a new kind of portrait of a deeply troubled family. I set a rule for myself: each piece could have two terrible things, but not four. Beth Ann Fennelly, Abigail Thomas, Claudia Rankine, and others who are working in micro memoir forms create memorable, evocative moments in just a few sentences.
Writing difficult material is incredibly challenging. But it’s what I’m most interested in as an artist. I am determined to write into the places the make me both curious and uncertain, and I want to keep my readers with me, and to offer up, if I can, something that matters to all of us, something stabilizing and relational and ultimately celebratory. That’s my quest.
Writing challenging material? Join Heather Sellers for Write What Scares You: Composing powerful essays, stories and poems that transform your reader, Wednesday Feb 8 at 2PM EST. Replay available for all registrants. More info/Register now.
Heather Sellers is the author of the award-winning memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which tells the story of living life with face blindness. Her essays appear in Best American Essays, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and many other magazines. Sellers teaches poetry, nonfiction, and pedagogy courses at the University of South Florida, where she is director of the undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs.
Experiencing Loss Changed How I Write
March 10, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Shayna Goodman
Just before the pandemic I experienced two major, simultaneous life ruptures: my partner left me for a mutual friend and my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Lewy Body Dementia. I moved out of our apartment, dropped the classes I was supposed to teach that semester, and several weeks later, left New York when the city went into lockdown. I am permanently changed by these intersecting traumas. Included in these changes are the ways I create and consume art.
I was 28 years old and smug when I started my MFA in memoir. One of my professors said that older students were often better writers because they had more life experience to draw on. I rejected this idea. I thought writing about one’s trauma and grief was not as “serious” or “literary” as the essays I was trying to write. I wanted to incorporate research and cultural criticism. In the same way so many men would rather say they are writing anything—a prose poem, a work of autofiction, an “autobiography”—than a memoir, I tried to separate myself from classmates as an “essayist.”
I didn’t want the stigma of trauma. I fancied myself the only “normal person” in a room full of traumatized people. While my older classmates were doing the brutal work of reconstructing memories of life-altering tragedies, I was intellectualizing the pain of my breakup with a boyfriend of three months. I wasn’t a bad writer; my pain was legitimate. The point is my professor was right: the essay might have been stronger if I had more life experience. While I thought I had done a good job of highlighting the universal lessons of my particular experience by inserting a political analysis of white femininity, I wasn’t able to find the vulnerability necessary to admit what was really driving my desire to write about this heartbreak. In some ways it is easier to write about gender as a construct than to ask the reader a question so potentially pathetic as “why did he leave me?” But that question was the true driving force of the narrative; acknowledging that might have made for a stronger draft. Meanwhile, my classmates had the necessary life experience to get to what my friend calls “the real” or what Mary Karr calls “emotional truth”—it’s the thing you’re writing around, which is hardest to admit.
Once, in a mixed genre workshop with British and American students, I submitted a draft of a personal essay and a British man confused it for fiction. “This is hilarious,” he said, “it must be satirical. The narrator is constantly referring to her trauma like a stereotype of an American.”
I felt embarrassed. In The Art of the Memoir, Mary Karr quotes Cezar A. Cruz: “Poetry should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I saw, with proud resignation, that I had crossed the line from comfortable to disturbed. Instagram therapist accounts have made us cringe at the overuse of “trauma.” But trauma has entered the zeitgeist because it is—especially at this moment—ubiquitous.
I believe the collective trauma of the COVID-19 lockdown has changed what we want from art. Is it a coincidence that a show like HBO’s Euphoria, so engaged with the topics of grief and trauma, has such wide appeal in this cultural moment? I’ve re-read essays I once loved, which now seem emotionally distant and cavalier. One was about the gentrification of Williamsburg and the author’s proclivity for dating men with addiction issues. When I re-read the essay in 2021, I kept thinking the author was writing around the thing that could have truly exposed her and allowed me to relate to the piece.
At the same time, I’m finding a higher tolerance for consuming art I once found unbearably disturbing. Before the pandemic, I tried to read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, in which she writes about losing her entire family in a tsunami in Sri Lanka. I remember removing the book from my bedroom because I could not tolerate the symbolic presence of such tragedy so close to where I slept. I didn’t want to know. Ironically, I dismissed this work as low-brow or unserious, precisely because it was very serious. But in the aftermath of my own losses, reading this memoir was a profound experience. Deraniyalga expertly creates order and beauty out of pain and chaos. I envied her ability to do this—and saw for the first time how difficult her work had been.
Perhaps this sounds trite but it’s true: when I was young, I didn’t realize how truly universal suffering is. I didn’t know that as we age, we all experience losses that send us desperately searching for solace and meaning. During the lockdown, I created lists of essays that not only comforted me but gave me new ideas about how to successfully write about loss and grief. I saw how these writers managed to convey their experiences without ever sounding overwrought; how they wrangled the messy material of overlapping heartbreaks into compelling narratives. I needed their work more than ever in that moment.
In her upcoming 6-week workshop at The Loft, Writing Through Loss in Creative Nonfiction, Shayna Goodman shares her reading list of essays on loss and grief, and together with participants will explore how these authors crafted their work and what we can learn from them.
Shayna Goodman’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Cut, Salon, Jewish Currents, the Takeout, and Grub Street Literary Magazine, among other places. Her work was nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA in memoir from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic studies and MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College.
Humor and Trauma, Bathtub Bacon, and Writing While Parenting
March 8, 2021 § 2 Comments
Heather Frese and Keema Waterfield release their debut books, a novel and a memoir, respectively, this spring. They met while commiserating over launching a book while parenting during a pandemic and bonded over the element of humor in both their debuts, and below, they interview one another about those experiences.
Keema’s synopsis of Heather’s book:
In The Baddest Girl on the Planet bad girl Evie Austin of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, is in a pickle. She’s made choices. Like marrying Stephen Oden and having a baby instead of finishing her first year of college. Like wondering if an affair in adulthood redeems the affair her parents suffered through during her childhood. And before that, letting a boy kiss her under the bleachers at school. But now “Easy Evie” has to figure out what to make of where those choices left her.
Heather’s synopsis of Keema’s book:
Inside Passage is a memoir about the flow of a family constantly on the move. The book opens with the narrator’s birth at a weed-fogged party attended by hippies and musicians, including at least one future stepfather. She was lucky to survive, and this applies to the whole of her childhood, spent traversing the watery passageways of Alaska and the tumult of poverty, abuse, divorce, and uprootedness. This coming-of-age memoir is a love letter to coastal Southeast Alaska, music, and the connection between family that binds even through the roughest of seas.
Heather: I loved Inside Passage. Bad stuff goes down, though. How did you decide to keep the tone humorous when talking about traumatic events?
Keema: This is a huge question that gets to the dark heart of comedy for me. *Spoiler* The first time I heard sarcasm was at gunpoint, at three years old. I’ve had a relentless fight-or-flight response to even the gentlest teasing since then. But I saw how jokes and laughter were a bonding experience for other kids and I pined to understand it. In my 20’s a boyfriend said, “You’re not funny and you make people uncomfortable when you try.” So, I studied it. I studied humor in literature, trying to find the meter. I watched comedy to learn the body language, even though most famous male comics still make me panic. I have a hard story, but I didn’t want to write a trauma memoir. I even tried to leave the trauma out, but then I didn’t make sense on the page. I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am. In the end, I decided to let my nature guide me. I figure if laughter is medicine, then the people who laugh with you when you hurt are an all-out cure.
Evie, your narrator, also goes through some stuff. A family that breaks apart in childhood, postpartum depression, some epically bad romantic choices. How did you decide to tell her story humorously?
Heather: The first thing that drew me to Evie’s voice was that it was so funny. I let her go off on tangents. Her marriage is falling apart but she’s scrubbing the shower and having this drawn-out interior monologue about soap scum. How do you clean it? You can’t use soap; that’ll just make more scum. I found as I went that the funny parts ended up carrying metaphorical weight. In the soap scum rant, she says something like, “How can something clean be dirty and something dirty be clean?” which played into the theme of a girl who gets a bad reputation. And then I used things like the sex lives of lobsters to explore Evie’s evolving feelings on romance. In a funeral scene Evie thinks that laughter and tears exist on the same continuum, which is something I believe, too.
You mention formally studying comedy. That’s fascinating because the funny parts in Inside Passage feel so natural. Was there a lot of wit in your family while growing up?
Keema: My sister and I were incredibly giddy, wild kids, but we were bookish. We rarely had a television and our social life outside of school was fairly non-existent. I had Tekla, and Tekla had me. We had our secret sister-language and no one else to practice jokes on but each other, so our humor grew up in a vacuum. Tekla was really little during our shared trauma and it didn’t scar her in the same way. She hasn’t struggled with humiliation and shame like me, so it was easier to naturally mature into her sense of humor as a social animal. I’m still more comfortable jotting down a humorous observation than trying to get the timing right in a face-to-face conversation with my rabbit heart thumping away at my brain.
I feel like Evie and I would’ve been bosom buddies. Just a couple of kids misinterpreting the world together. I really need to know: would she have been freaked out by a bunch of drunk hippies in a big wet field passing joints and instruments while their kids ran wild in the Alaskan wilderness?
Heather: Oh, I’m 100% sure she’d have been down for kindred spirit shenanigans and festivals. She’d have run around barefoot and muddy, scamming festival food all day.
Speaking of food, I need you to tell me about bathtub bacon. I heard you read my book with bathtub bacon involved.
Keema: All I can really disclose about the bathtub bacon is this: if your partner brings you bacon and a fresh cup of coffee while you’re reading in the tub to ease the lingering pain from a breast biopsy (benign!), it might be VERY GOOD for your partnership after a year of lockdown with toddlers.
You’re deep in book release with kids, too; what does pandemic parenting + writing look like for you?
Heather: I’m at pandemic pod school now, which gives me a speck of breathing room for writing. I’m typing while the two oldest are on Google class meets. One’s in orchestra, so it’s Ode to Joy over and over. The middle one is now coming over to tell me about Komodo dragons. Their drool is venomous. The little guy is sitting on a bin of bristle blocks saying, “I pooping!” I’m not entirely certain it’s pretend poop, but I’m not getting up to check. This is a productive morning. Same question for you!
Keema: I have a lot of selfies from the last five years of my kids nursing on my lap while I’m writing. Most days I login to my computer and write a sentence before I stop to make breakfast. While the kids eat, I write another sentence. Two if I’m lucky. Then I change a diaper, play dinosaurs, breakup a toddler fight, and set them up with a snack and an activity or a show while mentally revising the last two sentences. At lunch I delete both sentences. If I survive putting the little one down for nap, I might get a paragraph in. Repeat through bedtime.
I have a new project brewing, but the last five years have taught me something very important: I can’t do this again without childcare. People are so quick to ask about your next project before your current one is even in the world. Especially given our current challenges, how does that make you feel?
Heather: I’m a slow-ish, recursive writer with lots of fallow periods of not-writing, even without pandemic parenting, so I always feel slight panic when someone asks me what I’m working on next. I recently started this little scene that surprised me and had an engine, and when a story strikes like that, I try to turn on the TV for the kids, sit on the kitchen floor, ignore the dishes, and type.
Keema: Let’s talk craft for a second. Everyone says to avoid second person, and yet we’ve both done it.
Heather: I started using second person in my book as an experiment. I thought it would be fun to write the same character in both first and second person. I love second person, though. I guess it can get old, but I don’t want to be told not to do it.
Keema: I love it too! I love the way it puts me right in the shit with the narrator.
Heather: Yes, that’s it – I wanted readers in the shit with Evie. Once I started playing with second person, I knew I wanted more than one chapter in second and to experiment with form throughout. I also thought that, especially for the chapter where Evie is dealing with postpartum depression, as well as putting you in the shit, it lets Evie distance herself from…herself. Like instead of a straight narration, she’s outside narrating her life. Despite being a really heartbreaking chapter, I still wanted it to be funny. Poor Evie is so desperate she’s writing letters to Dear Abby, and that made me laugh.
One last goofy question: where do you imagine readers reading your book?
Keema: I like to imagine my readers in a camp chair somewhere with good starshine, maybe using it to shoo squirrels out of their soap stash every few pages (squirrels were always eating our soap and it totally baffled me). Or on the deck of a ferry, or a cruise ship, with the wind in their hair.
Heather: In my imagination, someone tosses the book in their beach bag. The slather in sunscreen and start reading, the waves crashing and the sun penetrating their skin until they get that relaxed, melty-boned feeling. But if someone’s reading in the bathroom while a toddler bangs on the door, I hope the book transports them to that beachy state of mind.
Heather Frese is the author of the novel The Baddest Girl on the Planet, winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She has published numerous short stories, essays, and the occasional poem, with work appearing in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @Heatherkfrese.
Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, releasing from Green Writers Press in April 2021. Waterfield was born in a trailer in Anchorage, Alaska the year John Lennon was shot, smallpox was officially eradicated, and the first Iran-Iraq War began. Her essays have appeared in Redivider and Pithead Chapel, among others, and her Brevity essay “You Will Find Me In The Starred Sky” was a Best American Essays notable. She lives with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instragram @keemasaurusrex.
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.
Tell, Don’t Show
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.
I Write #MeToo Stories Because Talking About Them Doesn’t Work
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.
A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir
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.
A Review of Joel Peckham’s Body Memory
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.