If memoir is sculpture, where writers must strip away the unnecessary to find the shape of the story, then it is my memory that wields the knife. Memory chooses certain scenes and impressions. Memory snips and stores fragments and shadows. Memory does not follow the rules of chronology or of rational cause and effect. Memory puts any old thing next to another for its own reasons and may preserve for example, the dance of a courageous vole in perfect detail, while jettisoning a crucial conversation with a friend who is now gone. Try as I might to recall that moment with my friend, memory carved it away, leaving only shavings on the floor, which I crushed into ever smaller pieces as I paced back and forth, studying what I had left to work with.chop! chop! read more!
The other night I was waiting for my daughter to finish a class. The father of a classmate sat beside me and we chatted about this and that. “How’s work?” I asked, and he began to tell me that he’d been driving his bus one morning when a man ran onto the road and jumped into his path.
“His face stuck to the window,” this dad said. “He was looking straight at me until he started to slide down and onto the road. The counsellor told me it wasn’t my fault. She asked if I wanted to see a video of what had happened. ‘Why would I want to see a video of what happened?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t I see it every night when I go to bed?’”chop! chop! read more!
Consider the phrase, “We’re not out of the woods yet” meaning “we are still in danger.” This phrase can refer to innumerable types of danger. A doctor may say to the loved ones of a sick patient: “She’s not out of the woods yet;” or in the middle of a trial that seems to be going well the lawyer may say to his client, “We’re not out of the woods yet;” in a traffic jam that seems to be moving again, a driver may say to a passenger, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The insinuation is that those involved are thinking about being out of the woods—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimpse of something safer, better, or in their control—but it is not yet certain that they will reach that light; there is still a chance that the threat—the woods—will overcome.chop! chop! read more!
“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try.chop! chop! read more!
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer?
There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to?
Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn’t be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn’t be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself.chop! chop! read more!
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.chop! chop! read more!
Anna March and I never crossed paths, but she and Seth Fischer did. According to the Los Angeles Times, March, who apparently posed as a writing mentor, organized eleven workshops during 2016 and 2017, including one slated for Positano, Italy. Fischer signed up and bought a cheap ticket to Italy, but two days before the program’s start, March canceled it—an apparently frequent move. Fischer and some others traveled to Italy anyway, since his ticket was nonrefundable and he figured he already had a place to stay. Wrong. Says the Times, “They learned when they arrived that no rooms had been booked for the workshop at the advertised hotel.”chop! chop! read more!
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension.chop! chop! read more!
I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide.
Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I’ve misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic?chop! chop! read more!
Was there a noticeable difference in the way I structured my writing? Did I have a particularly feminine way of tapping the keys of my ancient word processor? When my very loud printer zig-zagged along could it tell the prose churning out was written by a woman? The stacks of perforated pages, waiting to be carefully separated and submitted, did they have the indelible pinkish watermark of ‘girl’ stamped upon them?chop! chop! read more!
Anyone who has written and submitted anything—poems, stories, essays, books—knows that immediate acceptance is extremely rare. When that happens, we celebrate and try not to let it spoil us. Much more often, we receive negative feedback in the form of outright rejection, advice, and/or an invitation to revise and resubmit (an option much more common in the academic world than in the poetry and fiction publishing scene).chop! chop! read more!
The blackout was a revelation. It happened at around eight PM, in Trinidad, Cuba, on one of those moonless tropical nights that fall so suddenly you barely notice the dusk. This was several years ago—before the loosening of travel regulations that occurred under President Obama—and the number of American tourists remained small. In common with many others who’ve dedicated their lives to the dream of producing enduring literature, I’ve had to make my living by other means. I was a Spanish major in college, and through a series of happy accidents I ended up developing a parallel career as an educational travel guide with specific expertise in Cuba. Before the resumption of diplomatic relations, organized cultural travel programs provided a highly sought after legal method for Americans to travel to the country, and my knowledge base was much in demand. At the time of the occurrence described in this essay, I was traveling to the country with cultural tourism groups at least half a dozen times a year.chop! chop! read more!
Pat answers are the comfort of some other disciplines. We who write and teach creative nonfiction don’t get that luxury. Ours is more like: philosophy, but with consequences. No one’s life is riding, as far as they know, on math, yet in writing classrooms and around workshop tables students may approach us like hotline workers, hands out for the right word, the final word, the bottom line, the prophecy, the truth of their life stories, and thus, their lives.chop! chop! read more!
Playing in my Dollhouse has been important to my writing. The scenes, photos and videos I make match the imagery of the color Polaroid photographs of the 60s. I have a deep affinity for the babies, in particular. Staging a scene mimics the feeling of writing the first draft of an essay, achieving a mythic freedom on the page where my voice is alive and unconcerned with self-editing. I remember playing this way as a child, immersed in my fantasy world, and utterly happy. Children are metaphor makers and their language is play.chop! chop! read more!
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.chop! chop! read more!
I began as a fiction writer, naturally drawing from my childhood as my mother had told it to me, working hard to bring her stories to life through scene, dialogue, and sensory detail, pacing them as mysteries. The memoir that many of these fictionalized stories eventually became is better, I think, because I didn’t start out writing memoir, trying to “remember.”chop! chop! read more!
I. Towards a New Empathy
A couple of years ago, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose debated in The New York Times about whether or not it’s ethical to use your children as literary fodder. They discussed the demerits of transforming real life into words on a page in a pair of pieces titled “Is It O.K. to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material,” and the conclusion seems to be this: that real people get stuck on the page, often one-dimensionally, trapped like mosquitoes in amber.
I know a few real people I’d love to trap. For all of its hardships, writing’s appealing in no small part because it allows one to pin down an idea like a butterfly in a shadowbox, to memorialize whatever or whoever you find worth remembering, in whatever state you might remember them. That prick you knew it high school gets his comeuppance, even if it’s only to an audience of several Facebook friends or readers of a literary magazine.
Tempting as it is to play God (albeit a fairly unimportant one, bound to the MLA Handbook), it was memoirist and poet Mary Karr who instilled in me an appropriate fear and reverence. In a piece for The Fix, she said, “Everybody I ever wrote about, including David [Foster Wallace], I talked with in advance and said, ‘This is what I wanna do.’… I wasn’t going to use his name, then after he died, I’d talked to him before he did it and included him enough that I was gonna give him a pseudonym—which he said he didn’t care about…” I puzzled over this in the back office of the bookstore where I was supposed to be doing other things. What do we owe the subjects of our work, especially those without masks? I’d always found Mary Karr brave for the way she broached her subjects, receiving the permission of her wild and alcoholic mother (with whom she’s reestablished a relationship).chop! chop! read more!
THE MAN ON THE COUCH AND THE MAN WHO SPEAKS POEMS by J.G. McClure I pay a therapist an hourly rate to listen to my feelings. I pay literary journals reading fees to read about my feelings. My therapist says she’s struck by two parallel versions of me: the Man on the Couch who seems pathologically unable to feel, and the Man Who Speaks the Poems who feels all too deeply. She wonders which is real, or are they both? One of me finds a parallel in art to go with this question from life. In his classic short piece “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges talks about two versions of himself, whom I’ll call Borges the Famous Author (who wins awards and has deep thoughts) and Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee (who reads with befuddlement about the exploits of Borges the Famous Author). Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee enjoys … chop! chop! read more!
THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY
by Jen Karetnick
I’m a poet and fiction writer by vocation and a journalist by trade. The first two I learned in school, ultimately ending with two MFA degrees, one in each genre. Journalism I was taught on the job, trained by several editors. But seven years ago, when the economy crashed and the future of print journalism was a serious concern, I took a job in a charter school for the arts, charged with creating and teaching a program for grades 6-12 that included poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction.
For poetry and fiction, I had few worries, but for personal essays and memoir, I had to expand my repertoire. That’s when I began to watch the television show Judge Judy, and found that everything I needed to know about writing and teaching creative non-fiction was an oft-repeated truism that came directly from the Honorable Judith Sheindlin’s lips.
I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. At first, I started to watch the show because it was on when I got home from school. I was so exhausted from my unexpected new career path that I immediately took to my bed, unable to do anything else but gaze in stupefaction at the television.
I settled on Judge Judy because she belittled her litigants so much more than I yelled at my students that she made me feel better. Plus, those who appeared before her were so ill-equipped to deal with the world that it gave me hope for those who came to my classroom each day, even the ones who clearly would never become writers. Or ones who asked me what country we lived in when I taught them how to write self-addressed stamped envelopes. Or who thought they could only use apps like email or Dropbox from their own computers because their parents had set it up for them to open automatically.chop! chop! read more!