Caitlin McGill, Guest Blogger

Michael Steinberg

Bio Note

Michael Steinberg is the founding editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
Steinberg has written, co-written and edited five books and a stage play. In addition, his essays and memoirs have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies.
In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. And, the Association of American University Presses listed it in “Books Selected for School Libraries.”
Other titles include, Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan—a finalist for the 2000 Forward Magazine Independent Press Anthology of the Year and the 2000 Great Lakes Book Sellers Award; and an anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/​on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Robert Root, now in its sixth edition.

He has also been a guest writer and teacher at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences, including the Prague Summer Writing Program, the Paris Writers’ Conference, The Kachemak Bay/​Alaska Writers’ Conference, the Geneva Writers’ Conference, and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, among several others.
Currently, he's writer-in-residence at the Solstice/​Pine Manor low-residency MFA program.


RECOMMENDED CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOK PRIZES

Literary Journals

Solstice Creative Nonfiction Prize Solstice.

Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize Fourth Genre.

Missouri Review Editor's Prize Missouri Review.

New Letters, Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize New Letters.

Crab Orchard Review John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize Crab Orchard.

"Talking Writing", a fine online journal for writers is running a contest prize for fiction and nonfiction. For more information, go to Talking Writing.

BOOKS

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize River Teeth.

Breadloaf/​Bakeless Contest Breadloaf.

AWP Award Series AWP.

MIKE'S SELECTED CRAFT ESSAYS AND INTERVIEWS

CRAFT ESSAYS

"The Person to Whom Things Happened. Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives". Prime Number Journal . Prime Number.

"Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir's Hybrid Personality". Solstice Lit Mag. Solstice.

"Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays". From: Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 5:1, Spring, 2001. Fourth Genre.

"The Multiple Selves Within: Crafting Narrative Personae in Literary Memoir". TriQuarterly.

INTERVIEWS:

Association of Writers and Writing Programs AWP.

Fourth Genre Journal Vol. 12, No. 2/​Fall 2010. Scroll down to the end of AWP Interview. Fourth Genre.



Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

April 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note

This month’s guest is Caitlin McGilll, a very fine writer who teaches at Emerson in Boston.

In the beginning of her piece, Caitlins writes, “For me, being an essayist is central to being a teacher." She goes on to say, ”perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay."

In the body of the essay then, Caitlin talks about how the qualities of the personal essay--particularly exploration, discovery, unexpected surprises, and taking risks--inform her approach to teaching.

Cailin’s piece should interest all of us who teach and write personal essays.

# 69 I Teach, Therefore I Essay by Caitlin McGill

(This piece is adapted from my 2017 essay, originally published in Inside Higher Ed)

“Believe it or not,” I said to my very first undergraduate students, “I write essays, too—you know, because I want to, because…well…it’s fun.” I interlaced my sweaty fingers and gazed out at a swarm of furrowed brows.

After a year or two of teaching first-year writing and arguing that students can write essays “for fun,” too, I realized I don’t only enjoy the essay form; I depend on it—in and out of the classroom. For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic a few years ago, I hadn’t fully embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or personal essays to revise. I put it off. After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized I needed to begin as I do all of my work: I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now; I needed to essay—to try, to test out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of my self-inflicted pressure disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing those thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieved much of the pressure of stepping on stage before students. I realized I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into a course, but I don’t need to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end; with a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do with the written word.

*

If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in the classroom. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.

*

Now, instead of teaching first-year courses I mostly teach creative writing workshops and literature seminars; I rarely need to convince students of the essay’s merit. But my desire to mimic the essay’s endeavors in the classroom remains unchanged.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and—whether I’m working with twenty-five first-year pharmacy students or three middle-aged writers wrestling homelessness—that’s what I want to happen in the classroom: I want to elicit free and open discussion; I want to create a space to test ideas, to care and be conscientious of others but to also allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation, knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but that we can start to unravel our ideas together.

My most exciting teaching moments are often unplanned, unexpected gifts my students and I discover together after meandering down uncertain paths. Moments of unrehearsed discovery that keep us coming back for more.

*

These early realizations helped me shed many of my new-teacher anxieties and fears. I became more certain of my ability to shape and expand writers who, when I first started teaching, were often less than a decade younger than me. I began to enter the classroom with several ideas of where I wanted the session to go, hoping my students had done the necessary work to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion, but once conversation began, I allowed us to wind up somewhere new, somewhere I couldn’t have planned for.

Perhaps, I began to think, perhaps we should view the class period itself as an essay.

*

"The story of an essay or a memoir is really the story of thinking, of your own consciousness," art critic and essayist Daniel Raeburn writes in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Which requires you, as narrator, to be self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Not completely self-absorbed. You’re walking a tricky balance beam … You have to be confident in your telling of what happened, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts, if that makes sense. They’re what propel personal narratives."

*

How better to describe the essaying instructor’s responsibility in the classroom? The flexible self-awareness and humble conviction that invites students’ unique voices and interpretations?

Self-conscious, but not too self-conscious. Confident in your telling, but not too confident about what it means. You have to have confidence in your own doubts…

*

Now, I don’t only allow but also hope that classes essay into darkness, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this might not always work. Some classes yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s okay. (I have to keep telling myself it is.) My own essays frequently find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable; but usually that means I’ll stumble onto a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track or happen upon a new one. We teachers and essayists are not perfect.

Doesn’t our form demand such imperfection?

*

Each time I taught first-year writing, I began with a cliché: I discussed the etymology of the word “essay.” I knew this was far from novel if not taboo, and that many other instructors were making this move, too, but it felt absolutely necessary then. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I told my students one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I told them the part that’s often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written; sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I told them this is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I was reminding myself, too.

Now that I rarely have to lay such persuasive groundwork, my most difficult task isn’t beckoning young writers to the genre but instead constantly facing the reality of the genre’s answerless pursuit. How to disseminate advanced techniques without guaranteeing their efficacy? How to tell writers that their devoted time and energy usually doesn’t lead to publication and success? That, more often than not, it leads to rejection and disappointment?

Perhaps most importantly: how to acknowledge this reality while continuing to encourage and inspire?

I can’t guarantee a writer much. But I can and do argue that as long as we possess the extraordinary privilege to write freely, and safely, we can and must continue to essay.

And so I am met again with the essay’s intoxicating irony: the thrilling act of trying on ideas and pursuing unanswerable questions is the very act that often fails and frustrates and disappoints. But now I find myself thinking: doesn’t such failure and disappointment reflect the realities of which we write—and the genre in which we write? Doesn’t that mean, then, that when essaying fails or reveals failure, the pursuit is also necessarily a success?

*

Despite how I might wish every one of my workshop students would fight their fears of failure and brave the lifelong pursuit of writing and publishing, I don’t expect they all will. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity they sustain beyond our course. That, whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they’ll wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover.

“Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself, and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them. Embrace failure as if it’s the goal.”



Caitlin McGill is a St. Botolph Emerging Artist Award winner and Bread Loaf Writers' conference scholarship recipient. She was also the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award. Her essays and flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Consequence, Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse, Vox, War, Literature, & the Arts, and several other magazines. She teaches at Emerson College and is a creative writing workshop facilitator for Writers Without Margins, a non-profit organization intended to expand access to literary arts for everyone, including those marginalized, stigmatized, or isolated by the challenges of addiction recovery, disability, trauma, sickness, injury, poverty, and mental illness. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her family's hidden past, intergenerational trauma, inherited survival mechanisms, immigration, race, class, addiction, and the cost of ignoring our histories. One essay from her book was named a Notable in The Best American Essays 2016. For more information, follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlindmcgill or visit her website
Caitlin McGill

Blog # 68 In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom by Patricia Ann McNair

March 16, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

*If you’re looking for a fine conference in creative nonfiction, join the community of nonfiction writers in Ashland, Ohio June 1-3, 2018, for a weekend of manuscript consultations, seminars, and readings, all focused on the craft of creative nonfiction. The conference will emphasize essay, memoir, literary journalism, and building the kind of relationships that sustain writers throughout the writing process, from early draft all the way through to book promotion.
http://www.riverteethjournal.com/conference

Featured Guest Speakers: Andre Dubus 111 and Angela Morales
Presenters: Steve Harvey, Jill Christman, Joe Mackall, Dan Lehman, Kate Hopper, Robert Root, Sonya Huber, Michael Downs, Ana Matia Spagna, Richard Hoffman, Tom Larson, and Michael Steinberg

For more information contact riverteeth@ashland.edu
or cbrown@ashland.edu

Note:

This month’s guest is Patty McNair, a first-rate fiction writer/essayist who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

Her essay is entitled “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.”

Most of us know that some of our richest writing emerges when we can retreat from our daily activities and responsibilities and find some quiet time and a quiet place to write.

Patty claims that she found both while she was a writer-in-residence at a small arts academy in northern Michigan, After having lived in Chicago for most of her adult life, Patty writes, “in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting.”

In the body of her essay, Patty writes in vivid specifics about how during the three months of her residency, she found “a velvet quiet,” born both of an “inward silence” and “internal listening,” and a feeling of “deep distraction"…by which she means a quiet place where she can listen to “my thoughts, my memories, my questions, my stories…”

For anyone who’s ever yearned for what Virginia Woolf calls “A Room of One’s Own, “Patty McNair’s “In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom.” is an essay you’ll have no trouble relating to.

MJS


In Praise of Silence, Loneliness, and Boredom
By Patricia Ann McNair

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

-Pablo Neruda, “Keeping Quiet”

They gave me a tiny cabin in the woods. Living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. No TV. Spotty internet over a dial-up connection, long distance. I am a Chicago girl who was invited to be Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, a remarkable high school with boarding and day students from all over the world, students with jaw-dropping talents. Music, theatre, art, filmmaking, dance. Writing. Autumn into winter, short, dark days in Northern Michigan. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Silence, really.

I was a little terrified.

My regular Chicago life is two trips a day on the CTA, chatter and noise all around me, sirens and engines and other people’s television sets on too loud in the building next to me—our windows less than a foot from one another—an apartment that is never dark because the streetlights from outside stream in through the blinds and the curtains. Cars drive up and down the street in front of my building all day and night, a huge dog in the apartment above me barks when his people aren’t home, and barks even more when his people are. Our place is underneath the flight pattern for jets coming into O’Hare from over the lake.

I didn’t know silence. I didn’t even know quiet very well. But soon enough, in my cozy rooms with wood-paneled walls and orange shag carpet that held the sand tracked in from beneath the trees, in this space that smelled like summer camp, smelled of forests and bug spray, I got over my fear of silence, of disconnecting. After just a few days, I felt myself yearning toward the velvet quiet.

Then, a week after I arrived and on the first day of classes at Interlochen, September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was attacked.

Talk about noise.

When I walked through the lanes on campus and under the trees behind the cabins and dorms, I could see the blue flicker of television in the students’ common lounges; I could hear phones ringing from inside the buildings; I could see through their windows, people huddled together talking furiously and sadly. I could hear, I swear, that strange mechanical sound of internet connections made over phone lines, the small bong and screech of them.

Back in my own cabin, though, without a television, with limited internet access, I could hear nothing. I could turn it all off. I did have a radio, and I will be forever grateful to Interlochen Public Radio for its news, for its level-headed reporting. It kept me updated on what I needed to know, when I felt I needed to know it. But when I turned off the radio, like I did for most hours of every day, the silence that filled my cabin allowed me to pay close attention to the story unfolding, to the humanness of it, to the emotional pull of our country’s narrative as it developed over those weeks, those months. In the quiet I could, in fact, listen deep.

I seldom went out then except to teach, to grab a few provisions, to run by myself near the lakes and the wetlands. I never have been more lonely than I was during that time. More immersed in silence, more deeply distracted by my own thoughts, more prone to wallowing in my own self-imposed disconnection and boredom.

I also never have written more than I did during those five months.

I was drawn to “an inward silence,” as Terry Tempest Williams calls it: “a howling silence that brings us to our knees and our desk each day.” Quiet and stillness lead me to the page, like Terry Tempest Williams also said, “Silence is where we locate our voice.”

We know this about silence, I think, and yet, we continue to allow ourselves to be taken out of the silence we crave, the silence we need. The silence our work needs. We compose on a computer because we tell ourselves we type faster than we can hand write—as though this were a good thing, writing faster. And the clack of the keys disturbs the silence in a way no whispering scratch of a pen on paper can. We keep the internet in the palm of our hand now so we can look things up whenever we need to, or at least tell ourselves that (I need to, I need to) as we let go of a sentence in progress because our phones have buzzed, or we really, really must see right this instant if we got a response to that email or how many people liked the photo of our cat we posted on Facebook this morning.

Even now, as I write this, I find myself shallowly distracted, caught up in the daily noise of my regular city life. I want to check my email, to make a list of the things I should do today. I stop to listen to the bus on the street outside, its recording that calls out the route number and the intersection; was that my phone that just dinged? I want to see what the orange man in the white house tweeted this morning, I want to watch the news. I fight the pull of technology and 24-hour information, the lure of laundry and dishes, of student papers and of that lovely hunk of Australian cheddar cheese in the fridge. I am easily, shallowly distracted.

Still, despite my bad habits, I am a fan of distraction. Not the kind I just spoke of, that behavior that keeps us skimming on the surface of things like humming birds, dipping and flitting, dipping and flitting. The distraction I yearn for, the kind I advocate for is something else. Deep distraction, born of quiet. That is what I want.

What I mean: I used to be a runner. For various reasons that include a new titanium hip, I no longer run. Instead, I use one of those tedious machines at the gym. When I used to run, and now when I use the machine, I never put on headphones or listen to music. I listen, instead, to the meanderings of my mind. I listen until (Terry Tempest Williams again) “in silence the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin.” I listen deep and allow (invite?) myself to be deeply distracted by the memories and questions and stories I carry with me always.

Like this: outside the window of the gym where I sweat, teenagers pass by on their way to school. There is a group of girls and a group of boys, and in between the two groups there is a couple, a boy and a girl, hands in one another’s back pockets. When I was in junior high, I remember seeing that gesture for the first time. At the shopping center where I’d go to the Woolworth’s to play with white, pink-nosed mice in their cages, I saw my next-door neighbor with a boy (she was sixteen) and he slid his hand into the back pocket of her jeans. That seemed so intimate and grown up to me, I yearned for that sort of closeness with a boy. What is it about those ages, 13, 16, that make us so eager to be older? My brothers were all older than me, and getting into various sorts of trouble. Roger ran away with the carnival. Don would cut class some Fridays and have parties at our house while our folks were at work. Allen was unhappy and sometimes filled with such an acute sense of otherness that he first attempted suicide when he was just 18. Was this, our bad behavior (I ditched school a lot in high school, too, I took a lot of drugs, even though I was in the drama club and the National Honor Society) connected to the fact that my father died when I was just 15, Roger 17, Don and Allen brand new adults? Maybe, I don’t know. Perhaps. Let me write about that a bit. Let me see what I can figure out.

That is how it works for me.

I think of this…

That reminds me of this…

That makes me think of that…

And that reminds me of this…

And this, finally, moves my pen towards that.

If I had been on my machine with earbuds filling my head with Morning Edition or MSNBC or Fleetwood Mac or “This American Life,” I would not have been able to hear the progression of these deep, internal distractions.

You try:

Turn off the noise.

Think of something you saw this morning or yesterday or this week or sometime recently. Let yourself see the thing, the moment, the interaction, in your mind. Recreate the image.

What does it remind you of? Think about it for a minute. Tell it to yourself in your head. Speak it through. Now what does that remind you of?

And that makes you think of…what?

Don’t write, not just yet. Look. Listen. Tell.

And when the pull of the words, the images, the moments is too strong to resist, when they lead you to the page, follow them. Write. Write. Write. (more…)

Blog # 67 Permission and Disclosure: Handling Revelation in Writing by Randy Albers

February 13, 2018

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

This month’s guest is Randy Albers, a writer and teacher supreme. For many years, Randy was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago where, along with workshops in fiction, he established a substantial number of classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, long before the genre became recognized as a form of literature.

Randy’s essay is about an issue we’ve all encountered; that is, what can and what can't students in our creative nonfiction classes write about. And how can teachers "create an environment where students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice."
MJS


*PERMISSION and DISCLOSURE; HANDLING REVELATION in WRITING
by Randy Albers

Some years ago, when I was the Chair of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College in Chicago, we taught the core fiction and nonfiction classes using the Story Workshop approach originated by former chair, John Schultz.It was an approach meant to create a safe space for experimentation.

This process-rather than product-based approach focused on the development of image and voice. And so it used activities and exercises to establish the widest possible permission for voice and subject matter. It is not enough to tell students to feel free to write about anything, to take risks, to use their liveliest, freest voice, to break whatever rules they might feel compelled to break. In fact, with some students, telling them these things will only make their struggles worse. Instead, teachers have to create an environment in which students can find freedom to choose their material and find their most authentic voice. And teachers also must recognize that the movement past the self-censoring impulse toward authentic freedom does not happen overnight, that students may move through many stages—just as we ourselves may have done. Sometimes, it calls for a Zen-like patience.

A student in one of my creative nonfiction Prose Forms workshops, Marianne, was having trouble early in the semester finding her material. She was one of those students who had learned to play things very safe, a good, dutiful student who did everything that was asked, and who seemed more focused on getting things right than discovering anything new. The first part of this course focused on what we term Personally Observed instances, scenes that may be from a student’s own past memories, something observed directly, or something told to them. Marianne wrote about work, and in truth, work, especially worst jobs, are excellent fodder for essays. But the instances seemed to be going nowhere, and she herself seemed only moderately connected to the material. Her voice was flat, the seeing was not sharp, and she didn’t seem to have an idea of where she wanted to go with that material.

Then, three or four weeks into the term, she read a journal entry about her father who had raised the children alone following the death of her mother. The writing showed more life, and I asked her if she was going to go on with that material. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I just needed a journal entry to read for class.” “Well,” I said, “you might think about going back to it.”

We moved on to Researched Instances in which students were to pick a subject to explore through extensive reading. Marianne termed hers the “death instances,” focusing on what happens to families when a parent dies. When, after a week or so, she wanted to move off of this topic, I asked why, and she told me that she didn’t want to have any of these instances read in class because she was afraid that students might not understand, might think that she was just feeling sorry for herself. I told her that the writing had been getting better, and if she were fearful of revealing too much, she might try some in a fictional third-person, or try writing a series of letters to various family members. I also told her that if she wasn’t ready to delve into this material, that was fine. “But do come back to it,” I encouraged gently.

When she handed in her next instances, I saw that she had indeed decided to stick with this subject and try out my suggestions. She made some headway in what she called a fictional scene, but the real breakthroughs happened in letters. One went to her sister, where she described their mother’s funeral. A second went to her mother, in which she got to her sadness about her death. But the third was the one that revealed more life than at any point so far. Addressed to her father, it started with a flash of anger at him for not being there for her after her mother died and went on to recount scenes where she had needed him but he was nowhere in sight.

A few weeks later, in her first draft of the main essay assignment, she pushed the questioning of her father further, along with some of the results of his absence—feelings of abandonment, occasional acting-out, and so on. After the in-class reading of the draft, the other students asked some questions about her family, as well as about the writing, and I asked a few, too, about her relationship with her father. I didn’t force her to answer on the spot, just wanted her to think about them in a way that might point to her rewrite.

When she turned in the next draft near the end of the semester, I was stunned. The semester’s writing that had started with work instances, then moved to her parenting instances, then to death instances, was now focused almost entirely on father-daughter relationships, and ended with a vivid, straightforward telling of her father often coming into her room at night after her mother’s death, crawling under the covers next to her, and forcing himself on her. She would, she said, feel herself float out of her body, glide upward, and hover close to the ceiling, watching her father’s gropings as if it were happening to someone else. (A not uncommon occurrence, as therapists will tell you.)

Marianne’s movement through the semester, a step forward, a step back, two steps forward, and so on, until she took that daring leap at the end, taught me perhaps better than any other example how important it is for students to test their own limits and move toward overcoming self-censoring impulses at their own speed in order to find permission for meaningful, authentic content and telling.

At any point in the process, if I had discouraged that movement, or had given a message, consciously or unconsciously, that such material shouldn’t be told, or if I had allowed the rest of the students to indicate, in any way, that revealing death or father-abuse stories to the world was not permissible, that they were not fit subjects for essays, might offend, might hurt someone else who had been in a similar situation, or simply might have been told too many times already, Marianne would have quickly retreated down the rabbit hole where she had so often hidden. Instead, she left the class with a newfound confidence in her ability to render difficult material in a way that avoided the maudlin, the clichéd, or the sensationalistic. I have been prouder of very few students.

When I recounted this story during a question-and-answer session at AWP, a very fine poet announced that she never permitted rape stories in her classes because there might be someone who had been raped and they would be rendered uncomfortable, perhaps silenced. While I understand that fear, the focus on the work rather than the person in class helped Marianne get an important story told that would have been banned in this poet’s class.

Marianne existed at one end of the permission spectrum, fighting her own fear of revelation. At the other extreme, we see many students who, suddenly aware that they have received a permission never given to them previously, settle for writing such material in a self-consciously (even proudly) confessional tone—or who simply play for the material’s shock effect on the audience, focusing on graphic details in order to get a reaction without really interrogating the experience or without identifying the elements of good writing that would add depth, lift the language, exhibit the teller’s reflective capabilities. They decide to push the limits as far as possible. You get lots of sex, blood, gore, guts, and veins in the teeth. They mistake attention from the titillated audience as a sign of real value. And as much as the Mariannes, who tiptoe toward touchy material as if walking through a minefield, these students who think to win over their audience with a shock and awe assault have their own issues to deal with in getting to quality writing. And their process may be even more challenging for the teacher to deal with.

Another student, Jim, was writing instances from his childhood, most of which were focused on things like blowing up mailboxes with M-80s. He had been getting away with audience titillation in previous classes, but one day, after reading his work in class and hearing it evoke the usual round of laughter from the audience, I dropped an M-80 of my own. Sensing that there was perhaps something more to this story, instead of joining in the laughter, I asked him simply, “So why do you think you were blowing things up?” He thought for a long moment, brushed his long, shaggy hair out of his eyes, and said, “I was hyperactive.” “Lots of kids appear hyperactive,” I said. “No,” he said. “I mean, I was diagnosed hyperactive. My mother didn’t know what to do with me.” He paused, his customary grin gone, his voice low and full, “She gave me Ritalin every morning. For years.” He seemed on the verge of an important discovery. The rest of the class was watching the interchange silently. Finally, I asked, “And did it do any good? Do you think you needed it?” “No,” he said quietly. “It made life worse.” For the next few weeks, he wrote more memories of struggling in school and at home, and did research on hyperactivity and Ritalin therapy. His essay, which he entitled “I’m No Angel,” moved from the humorous mailbox explosions and other pranks to serious, even powerful moments of reflection on the confusion and stigma he had to deal with during his younger years.

Just as with Marianne, Jim’s process reflected a number of stages. Hers had been a movement toward overcoming self-censorship. His had been a movement in the other direction, from shock, bombast, toward something more meaningful, displaying honest self-examination and thought, something that was not simply an outpouring but rather carried a wider application for his audience. When I had asked him who his audience was, he said that it was anyone with an interest in the subject but especially those who might have gone through similar experiences and were left wanting in some way, feeling that something was wrong with them, that they were always on the outside and seeking acceptance.

The teacher who privileges only one kind of writing, whether it’s the very careful or the very shocking, the dialect-bound or the high style, the humorous or the vein-opening, is sending a message that narrows permission for all and that plays into the hands of those students who would level the class—that is, bring the group to the lowest common denominator, which is to say, their own. There’s a good deal of pressure on the teacher here, above all to resist this leveling. The instructor conveys by everything she or he does and everything she or he does not do that permission is more than something simply to give lip service to. It takes attentiveness in every minute of the class to the nonverbal as well as verbal messages.

Graeme Harper has argued, rightly I think, that our attention must be on the process more than the product in the classroom. Writers have to write their way to truth, and it often takes a long time. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Forster wrote, a line that Bellow borrowed. We need to help students learn to say it all or they won’t be able to get to what they really think or know. Whether it’s truthful or not doesn’t much matter to me along the way. In fact, as I mentioned, in my Story Workshop class, I have them doing fictional instances along with personally observed or experienced instances, both in order to explore the cross-pollination of fictional techniques in nonfiction that makes nonfiction worth reading and to give them an out if anyone asks them if it’s true. I’d rather have them writing the material than shying away from it because it’s too close to the bone, and this gives them space to experiment.

Let me close with a story that I have always found illustrative and which I sometimes tell my students.

Some years ago, I invited the great Chicago writer, Harry Mark Petrakis, to come to Columbia. He read a short story about a young boy and his Greek Orthodox priest that took place in Chicago’s Greektown. Following that, he read an essay about growing up in the same neighborhood. After the reading, a student asked a question, “Mr. Petrakis, you read what you said was a short story and then what you called an essay. But I didn’t hear any difference between the two. Can you tell us what makes one fiction and one nonfiction?” Harry smiled and allowed as how, for him, the border between fiction and nonfiction was very blurry. “Let me explain,” he went on. “One day, many years ago, I was walking down State Street and went past a Woolworth’s. In front on the sidewalk, they had put a scale—one of those where you’d put in a penny and you’d get a fortune along with your weight. As I passed, I saw a guy standing on it—huge, well over 300 pounds. He was bending to read his weight, and what got me was that he was holding an ice cream cone. It struck me as humorous. I passed on by, but the image stuck with me.

“Later that night, I’m at home with my family, having dinner, and I start telling them about the guy I saw on the scales. But at the crucial moment, as I recounted how I approached, instead of saying that I just passed by and went on my way to the train, I told them, ‘And then, just as I got there, the large man straightened, spotted me, and turned to extend the cone in my direction. “Here,” he said. “Would you mind holding this?”’

“Now, was that true? Did it really happen? No. But it made a better story.”

I have students who say to me, “I am not sure whether my work is fiction or nonfiction. I am using a lot of material from my own experience, but I can’t remember every conversation, and sometimes, when I am focusing on getting it all right, it sounds like bad journalism.” I often tell them, “Just write it. Try some as fiction and some as what you would call nonfiction. And if anyone asks you whether it’s true, you are free to lie. I’ll help you decide later, when you get ready to publish it, whether the contract is going to read ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction,’ and how you might have to revise. The main thing right now is just to tell the story— as well as you can.”

And isn’t that what we are all about as writers—finding the best, most promising material for story and telling it as well as we can?

Bio Note:
Randall Albers, Professor and Chair Emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, headed the graduate and undergraduate writing programs of the Fiction Writing Department for 18 years. He founded the Story Week Festival of Writers, received the college’s Teaching Excellence Award, initiated exchange programs with Bath Spa University, and co-founded the International Creative Research Partnership with Bath Spa and the University of Technology, Sydney. Selected fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, Writing in Education, Brevity, F Magazine, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck, and Creative Writing and Education. A Story Workshop® Master Teacher, he has presented at AWP, NAWE, and numerous other conferences on the teaching of creative writing.

*Permission and Disclosure originated as a panel presentation at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Blog# 66 "Tip to Memoir Writers: Avoid Lena Dunham Syndrome" by Martha Nichols

January 8, 2018

Tags: Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

*This essay was originally published as "What Journalists Can Teach Memoir Writers" in Talking Writing (Holiday 2014 issue).

Note:

This month’s guest is Martha Nichols, founding editor of Talking Writing, one of the finest Internet journals on/about writing, the craft of writing, and the larger human issues that writers discover through their work.

The subject of Martha’s essay, the use of the “I” both in first-person journalism and memoir, is a matter of great importance and interest to myself as well as to other memoirists and teachers. “ I don’t believe,” Martha writes, “that a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is what makes it ring true,”

But unlike many aspiring memoirists whose use of the “I” is “unexamined,” Martha also maintains that “First- person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the I. “

Using a controversial passage from Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl as an example, Martha’s larger point is that the personal is not “a sufficient explanation for why readers should care.” She goes on to say that “I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of someone’s head.”

And while this might not necessarily apply to memoirists that do consciously create wise, intelligent, and reflective narrators, we can all agree that Martha’s point of view is an important reminder that “telling a personal story” is certainly not enough.

MJS

"TIP TO MEMOIR WRITERS: AVOID LENA DUNHAM SYNDROME" By Martha Nichols

I’ve always been an impatient reader. Way back in seventh grade, I searched the La Vista Junior High School library shelves with one goal in mind: a first-person narrator.

I loved stories told by the characters themselves. I relied on them to take me away from the strip malls of Hayward, California. In the early 1970s, I decked myself in orange tie-dyed pants. I wore granny glasses, parting my hair in the middle, a dead ringer for John Lennon. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I picked up, say, The White Mountains. But I know I found John Christopher’s science fiction series in that library. I remember sunlight streaming through utilitarian windows, turning pages, hitting the first-person jackpot: The clockman had visited us the week before, and I had been permitted for a time to look on while he cleaned and oiled the Watch....

As a teenager, I would have said “I” stories were easier reads. Decades later, the adult-me, the magazine writer and editor, says first-person stories feel more real.

I’ve never lost my love of first-person narrators, but the difference now is that I’m hooked by first-person journalism. This semester, I’m even teaching a journalism course with that title, using Joan Didion’s The White Album as one of the main texts. Her personal reportage of the ‘60s and ‘70s has greatly influenced my own attitude toward nonfiction: I don't believe a third-person POV is inherently more objective, and the bias of a first-person account is often what makes it ring true.

“I had better tell you where I am, and why,” Didion says at the start of her essay “In the Islands.” Within the first paragraph, she reveals she’s in Honolulu with her husband and three-year-old daughter, waiting for news of a possible tidal wave. Then:


"We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for a divorce. I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind."


These days, first-person journalism like this is not new. Columns, advice articles, and personal essays by everyone from Didion and Hunter S. Thompson to M.F.K Fisher and John McPhee have long appeared in magazines and newspapers. But with the rise of blogging and the Web, use of the “I” voice is now changing the traditionally omniscient stance of many journalistic features.

Bravo—except there's also a downside to the trend of talking about everything that's ever happened to you ever. Such "aimless revelation," in Didion's tart words, gives personal preoccupations the same weight as universal problems.

First-person journalists acknowledge their biases up front, identifying who’s behind the “I.” More important, though, they link their own stories to larger themes. Didion’s “In the Islands” moves from her personal situation to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s privileged history to the Punchbowl—a U.S. military cemetery on Oahu, where she observed graves being dug for American soldiers killed in Vietnam.

First-person journalism helps restrain the pull of TMI when narrating your own life, and it’s my antidote to much of what goes on in creative nonfiction classes. I’m tired of the hothouse quality of many memoirs, especially those in which writers imply "if I remember it this way, it must be true." At worst, revealing private experiences in a public forum invites a nasty kind of voyeurism.

Exhibit A: Lena Dunham. Early this November, right-wing commentators accused the star of HBO’s Girls of sexually “abusing” her baby sister, based on scenes from Dunham’s 2014 essay collection Not That Kind of Girl. In one passage, written from the perspective of her seven-year-old self, Dunham describes her childish curiosity about female anatomy getting “the best of me”:


"Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist, and when I saw what was inside I shrieked."

It turns out that baby Grace had stuck some pebbles inside herself.

In another scene, Dunham claims she often bribed her little sister for “her time and affection.” Innocent as this is, the offhand comic tone of the following passage is what got Dunham into trouble. She riffs about what she would give Grace:


"Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just ‘relax on me.’ Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying."


The sex-abuse story went viral, picked up by People, ABC News, and other mainstream outlets. Online sites funded by conservative think tanks trumpeted the headlines as if they were a matter of fact, not opinion. After a series of angry tweets—I told a story about being a weird 7 year old. I bet you have some too, old men, that I'd rather not hear—Dunham has ended up apologizing for those parts of the book.

At this point, she has supporters and detractors of every political stripe. The problem is, Dunham is a celebrity, and her essays often feel like information dumps meant to massage her image. She’s a satirical exaggerator and admits to altering some facts. That’s a common practice by memoirists and humorists such as David Sedaris. Yet, the controversy over her essays is not about fact checking, but her point of view.

A wiser first-person voice would have avoided “sexual predator,” a loaded term for many readers. (Never mind that opening her sister’s vagina strains credulity.) That voice might have pondered what Grace thinks about having her body described like this. Dunham’s sister has supported her account of what happened, but in a New York Times Magazine profile earlier this fall, Grace is quoted as saying “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”

Dunham is often lauded (or trounced on) for examining every detail of her existence. In fact, little in Not That Kind of Girl examines why the details matter. I'm not offended by lines like "I've always known there was something wrong with my uterus," but they don't open new emotional vistas, either. When personal essays lack what Phillip Lopate calls the “intelligent narrator," the candor becomes eye-glazing—the aimless revelation of a media star known for her exhibitionism.

The value of a first-person journalism perspective, then, has as much to do with a writing approach as the final product. If you think your job is to talk about more than yourself, then the whole process—from conceptualizing the idea to doing research to interpreting what you discover—becomes richer, deeper, and more self-critical.

Consider Mary Beard. Almost fifteen years ago in the London Review of Books, the British classics professor recounted being raped as a young woman. In that piece, titled “Diary,” she minces no words: “In September 1978, on a night train from Milan, I was forced to have sex with an architect.” More to the point of first-person journalism, she goes on to connect this anecdote to a larger theme:


"What I am trying to highlight is the crucial importance, both culturally and personally, of rape-narratives. For rape is always a (contested) story, as well as an event; and it is in the telling of rape-as-story, in its different versions, its shifting nuances, that cultures have always debated most intensely some of the unfathomable conflicts of sexual relations and sexual identity."


Beard is colorful and outspoken, but she’s a gray-haired academic. Dunham is a hipster celebrity in her twenties, and she isn’t writing for the intellectual elite (even if the New Yorker publishes her on occasion). Yet, Dunham is writing for other young feminists, and that’s where her use of “I” seems so unexamined. She and other writers of her generation assume the act of writing it all down provides catharsis and a new kind of openness—that telling a personal story is enough.

Feminist though I am, I don’t believe the personal is inevitably political. Nor is it a sufficient explanation for why readers should care. I want interpretation, critical thinking, and a bigger view of the world than the interior of somebody’s head. Journalists, for all their flaws, are trained to provide the who-what-where-when specifics of their observations. In a first-person feature, they make clear who the “I” is and why “I” is telling the story. And they approach information sources with necessary skepticism, whether it’s a politician, Mother Teresa, or themselves.

The most powerful essay in Not That Kind of Girl is the one where Dunham admits, “I’m an unreliable narrator.” In that essay (“Barry”), she focuses on a date-rape incident in college, and the fact that she has struggled with remembering or explaining what happened feels authentic:


"I’ve told the story to myself in different variations—there are a few versions of it rattling around in my memory, even though the nature of events is that they only happen once and in one way. The day after, every detail was crisp (or as crisp as anything can be when the act was committed in a haze of warm beer, Xanax bits, and poorly administered cocaine)."


Here, Dunham is a first-person narrator I believe in. Like Beard, she details the ways she constructed and revised her rape story, and the toll this has taken on her.

That’s why I have faith in first-person journalism. I see its potential to illuminate complex issues amid the digital swamp of aimless revelation we're now awash in. All writers’ observations are influenced by their identities and circumstances. When the “I’ voice really conveys who an author is, it’s not just another piece of banal content circulating around the Web. It’s been given meaning by somebody. (more…)

BLOG # 65 Writing About Others by Annette Gendler

December 11, 2017

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

This month’s guest is Annette Gendler, author of the memoir Jumping Over Shadows.

In July, August, and September, I posted three pieces on/about the pro’s and con’s of using real names in our memoirs. One was by Mimi Schwartz, another was mine, and the third was by Richard Hoffman. Each of us took a somewhat different approach to the issue.

The response to all three was quite lively, intense, and diverse. And so I thought I’d add Annette Gendler’s piece--still another voice and point of view--to the mix.

MJS


WRITING ABOUT OTHERS, by Annette Gendler

Writing about real people is probably the number one issue writers of personal stories, whether memoir, personal essay or newspaper column, worry about. Frank McCourt, for example, was not able to write his brilliant memoir Angela’s Ashes until his mother had passed away. He knew he would have to write about her affair with her cousin, and he knew he couldn’t write about that as long as she was alive.

Waiting until those you want to write about are dead is one option, but if you don’t want to wait that long, how do you navigate the treacherous waters of writing about others, especially if they are family? First of all, you should write first, and worry later. Why? Because you can never predict how people will react. For example, when Joe Mackall, author of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland gave the manuscript to his wife to read, he worried how she would react to his portrayal of her. Instead, she got upset at his statement that living in his boyhood neighborhood was the last time he had felt complete. Had he never felt complete living with her? He hadn’t seen that one coming. Nor did I when I shared an essay I had won a prize for with my mother who got upset because she wasn’t in it. No amount of writerly explanation helped.

This brings me to my next point: Keep in mind that most people love being written about. It’s the same phenomenon as receiving your child’s school newsletter: You immediately scan it to see if your child is featured. If not, you lose interest. The first question my children ask, whenever they hear I’ve published something, is “Am I in it?” All of us want to be acknowledged, want to be recognized, want to know that we matter, and being written about is a great affirmation of our relevance.

Often, reactions are indicative of the relationship you have with the person you are writing about. A solid relationship won’t fall apart because of your writing; in fact, your writing might deepen your understanding of each other. On the other hand, a relationship that was rocky before you wrote about that person might blow apart. Mark Doty’s father reportedly didn’t speak to him again after he sent him the manuscript of his memoir Firebird. Sadly, even though their relationship had been precarious up until then, they had just gone through a rapprochement that Firebird apparently destroyed (see Doty’s article in The Writer’s Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2005). So ask yourself: What are you willing to risk?

“People’s lives are more important than my words,” says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Teresa Jordan, author of Riding the White Horse Home: A Western Family Album, warns: “Writers are users. We use the stories around us. I feel that carries a huge responsibility.” How then does a writer honor this responsibility?

Fictionalizing a true story is not necessarily a way to avoid this responsibility. In an interview with The Writer’s Chronicle (Summer 2005) Susan Cheever, daughter of John Cheever, relates the following:


“My father wrote the story called ‘The Hartleys’ in which a little girl – who's obviously me – goes on a family ski trip – which is in every detail the ski trip we took. The little girl gets killed in the ski tow. That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he'd written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has some obligation to tell what really happened. […] So, in my family, being fictionalized has been ten million times more painful. That's why, when a student says to me, ‘If I did this as fiction it wouldn't hurt the people so much,’ I say to them, ‘You are wrong. It will hurt them more. Because you as a fiction writer have more power.’”


If you feel you’re treading on thin ice, ask yourself, “Which decision is more life enhancing?” Be selective. Telling all or not telling anything is not the only option. Often the way you shape a story allows you to leave out complicated stuff. For example, by focusing on small moments between her dying son and herself, a student of mine has been able to write her memoir as a series of essays that don’t get bogged down by the larger family story.

When writing about others, the main challenge is to see and portray real people as multi-faceted characters. This can be especially hard if you are writing about a family member who, after all, has a defined role in your life. That person is your father, your mother, your brother. But who is she/he apart from that? What challenges was she/he facing? What motivated him or her? The process of flipping your point-of-view to see a family member as a character in a story can be one of the most rewarding and illuminating by-products of writing memoir. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that we all have our own perspective and can only tell our version of the truth. As Michael Steinberg, author of Still Pitching, once explained to his mother, “I’m writing about my grandfather, not your father.”

As you write about others, don’t show your work to those involved until you have arrived at a final version you can stand behind. If you showed your father a draft and later deleted a passage he really liked, he’d be disappointed. Likewise, it’s not worth possibly upsetting someone with something you’re not sure you’re going to put out there. Share your work only when you as the writer have arrived at your version of the story. Offer to make changes, but reserve the right to tell your story.

Writing is also a collaborative effort, and family members can be great fact checkers. At the very least, they need to know that they are being written about and ideally they need to be comfortable with your portrayal of them. You can, of course, change names to shield their identity, but chances are they will recognize themselves, so always take the high road and involve everyone who’s involved in signing off on the manuscript.
In the end, however, it’s your story and you can’t satisfy everyone. But you can make sure to be satisfied yourself. So at least be behind your own work 100 percent.
________________________________________________________
This essay first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, October 3, 2013

Bio:

Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the memoir of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust. She served as the 2014-15 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. Her writing and photography regularly appear in Tablet, the Forward, Kveller, the Washington Independent Review of Books and Bella Grace Magazine. She has been teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago since 2006
annettegendler.com

Blog # 64 INTERVIEW WITH MELANIE BROOKS

November 11, 2017

Tags: Craft of Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

MS Note:

This month’s post (#64) is an interview with Melanie Brooks, author of Writing Hard Stories. The interview (conducted by Donna Talarico) originally appeared in the fine literary journal Hippocampus (HM)
hippocampus magazine

In Writing Hard Stories, Melanie interviewed 18 writers who, as she says in her Introduction, “…have difficult, but necessary and important, stories to tell…{Each}one has something to teach emerging writers, established writers, teachers of writing, memoir readers, or those who have faced or are facing difficult experiences.”

She goes on to say, “The knowledge that we are not alone in the inevitable challenges that emerge when we venture to shape hard life into beautiful art is perhaps the strongest mooring a writer can find …{as well as for} those who cannot tell their stories or who have simply been moved by the stories these gifted writers have told them.”

Melanie concludes by saying that the book is also meant “…for those who cannot tell their stories or who have simply been moved by the stories these gifted writers have told them.”

Readers of this interview, then--particularly those who aspire to write their own books--will also learn how Melanie’s manuscript evolved from a required, stand-alone essay into a book length work.

Blog # 64 INTERVIEW WITH MELANIE BROOKS

HM While a student in the Stonecoast MFA program, Melanie Brooks set out to write a memoir—a story that, once pen was put to paper, stirred up emotions, emotions she hadn’t realized would still be so painful. For help getting through the writing process while reliving these memories, she turned to memoirs about trauma--and then, later, to asking those writers how they make it through their own writing process. What was meant to be an MFA paper turned into Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memorists Who Shaped Art from Trauma.

HM: How did you select the writers—were they people you’ve read in the past?

MB: I was reading a lot of memoirists for my (MFA) program… the original idea for this was not an idea for a book, it was just, “I really wish I could talk to these people.” The writers I initially contacted were writers whose books I had just finished reading...I started to read more memoirs by writers of color and memoirs from people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But I didn’t want to add a writer just because it was a well-known author; I wanted to read and love that writer’s book and for the book to have spoken to me and to my own experience of trauma in some way. I was grateful for the opportunity to interview eight more amazing memoirists once the book was under contract.

HM: You already answered one of my other questions in the meantime. I was going to ask when you knew you had a book--so it was during your MFA program, and with the encouragement of your mentor.

MB: Yeah, this third-semester project was supposed to be a 30-page paper—a critical analysis paper—and I started writing these profiles, and each one was about 10 to 12 pages, and I just kept writing and thought, ‘these are chapters….I was really fortunate to have a mentor [Suzanne Strempek Shea], who instead of getting bogged down by the number of pages, she was just really excited about them. She was the champion of this project—from the very beginning.

HM: So, as you were doing this, both through the time while you were in the MFA program and then during the additional interviews, what kinds of things did you ask them about?

MB: I detail this in the introduction of the book—and it’s really as much a narrative journey of my doing this as it is talking to these writers. When I started writing my own memoir, my creative thesis, I was really caught off guard by the psychological toll—I did not think that revisiting these memories that were 20 years old, that I’ve lived with and carried with me would feel as terrifying and painful—and [that I’d be] reliving the experience. I was really caught off guard with that. And nobody was talking about that. Nobody was talking to anybody about that.

How did Mark Doty write about the death of a spouse? How did Marianne Leone write about her dead son? How was she able to do these things? I started reading interviews [with these writers], but nobody was asking them those questions. They were asking about craft and writer’s-process-type questions. Nobody was asking the questions I really wanted to know. My biggest question was, “How did you survive this process?” and “How will I survive it?” So all of the questions I asked were very focused on the emotional toll, the coping process, what did it feel like at this stage, what did it feel like at the end, and, selfishly, to have as many people as I could tell me that I would feel better by having done this.

HM: That’s great. A lot of these people you were maybe meeting for the first time, and you were asking tough questions. And maybe why they weren’t asked these types of questions before is because it seemed too invasive. So, what did you do to build rapport to get those people to open up to you? Because there really is a difference in interviewing people: some people just ask the surface questions, but you dug deep. What happened during your process to get ready for that?

MB: I first sent a query email, and I very much personalized them and I made sure I didn’t approach them until I had read their book. In my email, I was very honest about where I was in my process—I just kind of laid it all out there, like ‘I’m a disaster… I’m having a really hard time, and here’s what reading your book has done for me and what I’d like to talk to you about.’

I thought maybe one or two of the writers would write back to me, but every single one of them wrote back saying they’d love to talk to me and thank you for approaching me and talking to me about what my book meant to you. And so that initial query set up that this wasn’t just going to be a surface conversation. I was very intentional in asking such specific questions about their story.

What was so interesting is that there was a moment in probably every interview where one of the writers said to me, ‘you know, I never thought of that before.’ Or, no one has ever asked me that question before. And I think for them, in a sense, there was something to be able to talk about that part of their story that they hadn’t talked about before that was sort of refreshing for them. I felt that by the end of each one of them, I felt I had gotten incredibly close to these writers—they’d shared such intimate details about their process and their stories.

HM: What a great, rewarding experience for your own writing and also to share with other people –but also personally, for you, to have this.

MB: I should add that they knew I was coming to them hoping to leave with something for myself and my own process. I felt very taken care of by them as well in the interviews, that they were just as interested in my story and how I was doing.

HM: What surprised during this process? Did anything unexpected happen in any of the interviews—or within yourself?

MB: I think I was surprised by just how much information the writers shared with me. I was surprised by how detailed their answers to my questions were. I was surprised by the fact that I had expected to sit with them for an hour, hour-and-a-half, but ended up having three-hour afternoons with people. I was surprised by their generosity—looking back I shouldn’t be because I think they were so generous to us with their books. But, you know, you never know. I was surprised by how encouraging it was to really hear from them. Every one of them was like, ‘you CAN do this.’ We will be supporting you. I was surprised that we did get to some very intimate moments and conversations where there were tears or moments of silence.

HM: I think silence is so important. Sometimes we’re just so – talking back and forth – but to just sit back and reflect. What a great moment to share.

MB: Yeah, I was saying how I walked dogs with Mark Doty—my interview with him is excerpted the [winter 2017] issue of Creative Nonfiction. There was a moment where we were talking and I couldn’t speak, and he was kind of off in his mind, looking—and it was just a beautiful setting in a dog park—so there were just some really lovely moments.

MB: They {the writers Melanie interviewed} gave me a sense of mooring; they steadied me in my process. And that’s exactly what I needed, which is exactly why I felt like I couldn’t keep it all to myself.

HM: Yeah! Well, I’m glad you didn’t. This is going to be helpful to so many people, and it has been. I read a few of the other reviews that have been out – and they say your book has such impact.

MB: I hope so. If somebody else can start their process a little less terrified than I was because of this book, then that will make me feel great.

HM: Going along with that, who do you hope reads this book. I mean, I know it could be for anybody who writes creative nonfiction, but who is your target?

MB: I do hope that emerging writers will read it. And writers who have stories to tell but feel like they can’t tell them in some way or who have had some kind of obstacle—I hope they’ll read it. I hope that established writers who still have those kinds of stories to tell would benefit from the wisdom of other peers in the process. I also really think that people who are just struggling will benefit from reading about other people’s journeys. I definitely wrote this for writers, but I hope that people who aren’t writers, who feel like they need to know they’re not alone in their struggles, would read this and find some companionship.

HM: Writing through trauma isn’t necessarily something that I think is talked about a lot… Are there any other resources out there that you turned to? Obviously, there weren’t very many because that’s how this book came about…

MB: The very first seed of an idea for me was when I attended my first AWP, in Boston in 2013; I sat in on a panel called “Writing Past the End.” Kim Stafford was the moderator, and [all the panelists] had written books about a sibling who had either killed themselves or died in some kind of traumatic way, and they were really talking about that kind of emotional journey of writing about that kind of grief. Kim had written a book about his brother Brett, and he had also written an essay after he wrote the book about when he got the galley, and it was called “How a Book Can Set You Free.” So the theme of that panel… I mention this in my introduction—I had asked Kim a question at that panel and totally blew it, and so I wanted a redo—but he talked about giving shape to our traumas, giving shape to our grief. So, for me, it was listening to people talking about that and looking around and realizing that so many of us are needing that.

But [it was] also feeling that tension in the memoir world of people being very careful to designate their memoir as a literary memoir because they don’t want to be clumped into this group of just everybody writing for therapy. And I really try to challenge that notion, that writing is a therapeutic thing—and that there’s nothing wrong with it being that, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I think there needs to be more resources for writers who are writing about really difficult topics.

I do think that we in the writing community need to talk more about trauma writing and how to care of writers as they write through that trauma. I went to a really excellent workshop last year at PEN New England—about writing about trauma. They had psychologists there, they had writing instructors there, they had people who teach writing in high-risk communities. It was a really interesting setting to be a part of. There is a need for this. People want this.

HM: So, your story—your memoir, your creative thesis--is still a hard story, even though you’ve been through all this and have all this new-found knowledge. Do you feel that it’s easier to now?

MB: I feel a lot more equipped to tell it. In the process of writing Writing Hard Stories I finished my MFA—and my creative thesis is about three-quarters of my memoir. It feels close to the end. I was not anywhere near that when I began interviewing these writers. Just sitting with them—with someone who has written this really heartbreaking story and seeing that they were still breathing…. That, for me, was such an encouragement… I never thought I’d get to a place where I’d have my story contained in some way that felt right.

HM: That’s reassuring. You had a difficult story to tell. You went through this process. But now someone can pick up your book and go through the same journey with you…

MB: That’s really important to me. [She explains that there was some debate, early on, about whether she should be a character in the book.] That was a non-negotiable for me. As much as the book is about these writers and their stories, it really was about my narrative of talking to them to, and I really didn’t want to lose that.

HM: One thing another review of your book mentioned was how you wrote that sharing stories can help each other survive. And I see that two ways. One, with your book, you can help people writing about trauma survive their own writing process. But then, ultimately, when those writers’ own stories, perhaps, come out, they’re helping their own readers survive. So it’s almost like this Russian-nesting-doll of survival.

MB: It is, it is. I was thinking to myself as this book was taking shape: These writers, their stories gave me something… and there was some comfort in that connection and understanding. And then when I talked with them, there was a connection. Then I realized that as I started to talk about this book with other people, that there’s a connection for them [with learning about the processes behind the memoirs they’ve read], and then there’s a connection with my journey…

HM: It’s all reinforcing that, ‘hey, we’re gonna be OK.’

MB: There’s that quote about why we endeavor to write a poem, or write a book, or write a symphony… It’s because we want there to be some kind of shared interaction with other people.

HM: Interacting with people—that’s the idea behind Melanie’s book. Writers sharing the stories behind their stories with one writer, who then shares those stories, and her own, with others. Conversations that can heal and inspire, a conversation that’s perhaps just getting started.

What’s next for Melanie? In our interview, she told me that over the next six months she hopes to finish the proposal for her memoir—and finish the memoir itself. To learn more about Melanie Brooks, including finding out about upcoming events, visit her website. Melanie Brooks

The Hippocampus interview ends here.

MS It’s been eight months since the book was published, And as way of expanding the interview, I asked Melanie if she’d talk about some of the more interesting, maybe even unexpected responses, she’s received from readers.

Here’s her response:

MB: So many of the notes I’ve received from readers express that Writing Hard Stories is the book they’ve been looking for to encourage them in their own writing processes. That’s the response I’d hoped for because the words of these writers resonated with me at that same level, and I really wanted to spread their hard-earned wisdom (and I wanted more readers to know about their stunning books). In the many opportunities I’ve had to talk about the book since its publication, I’ve recognized just how much of a hunger there is for this kind of dialogue about the risk and vulnerability inherent in memoir. Both during the Q&A portion of talks or afterwards, people have opened up to me about their own hard stories and their struggles to bring them to the page, often exposing the raw emotions that accompany those struggles. I realize that by embarking on this journey, I’ve opened space for them to share their challenges. My favorite response so far, though, came from an author I met by chance at a literary festival in Newburyport, Massachusetts in April. She’d been to a conference a few weeks beforehand and happened to buy my book from one of the vendors there. She’d read the introduction and opening chapters that day. The next afternoon, she was sitting in a conference session and a woman stood up to ask a question and began to cry as she described some of the difficulties she was facing in her work. Afterwards, the woman who’d bought my book pulled it out of her bag and handed it to the woman in the audience. “I think you need this more than I do, today,” she said. I was profoundly moved by this beautiful story because it so perfectly embodies the reach I want the message in this book to have.

Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She’s the author of WRITING HARD STORIES: CELEBRATED MEMOIRISTS WHO SHAPED ART FROM TRAUMA (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Literary Hub, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.

Blog # 63. Who Reads Us? by Nicole Walker

October 10, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Note:

I heard Nicole's talk a few years ago at AWP. Halfway through, I was thinking about how little we really know about who our audiences are. And as Nicole says, knowing who our audience is can be a tricky business--something that all writers and writing teachers have to think about. Those that read this blog then, stand to learn something useful from Nicole's wisdom and insights on this somewhat thorny matter.

MJS

Who Reads Us? by Nicole Walker

When I first started teaching composition, we had been given some training that told us to remind the students of audience. When I went to college, writing lessons were more trial by fire—the Humanities capital H would make you write four good papers a semester. “Org” which stood, I think for organization and “awk” which stood for awkward were the primary pedagogical notes. But in university land, I was supposed to explain how to make essays less awkward and more organized. I was supposed to drill into students the importance of an audience. In some ways, this was easier in business writing than in composition. In business writing, there were imaginary customers—people who might be interested in the student’s resume or in brochures about wastewater. In composition, as in Humanities, the teacher was the primary audience and what did anyone know about the teacher? Did they like to read papers about marijuana legalization? Did they smoke marijuana? Had they read forty-seven hundred papers about the legalization of marijuana and, even if they had been for it once, the quality of the affirmative papers made them change their positions? In Humanities classes at Reed, philosophy profs, lit profs, history profs, even science profs held sections of small classes. If I was writing a paper about the Iliad for my conference leader, a psych prof, should I bring in Freud or Jung?

The audience idea was tricky too even when I began writing essays in MFA school. Am I writing to an editor of a literary magazine? To my professors? I think, at least at first, I was writing to my MFA colleagues, which is pretty much how MFA written lit gets read and published. We like each other and thus we read each other and the lit mags are read by grad students and published by grad students and that, for the most part, seems to be a good, socialist economy. I like to write for that hyper-literary crowd. When I allude to Kathy Acker, I’m so happy that someone in the world knows what I’m talking about.

But in 2005, I started a blog and, it was sort of geared to the same people—my friends in Salt Lake with whom I’d gone to grad school. Some of them had started a blog. We were essentially blogging to each other. But then, I moved away from Salt Lake and away from my mom and sisters. The blog turned to a different audience that included some non-grad school bloggers and my mom and sisters. Maybe my husband’s mom too. I updated about the job and the job market but also my daughter and the newness of Michigan. Moving was a good way to jar me out of my regular expectations for audience. Orienting my reader, be it my sister or my friend Lynn, to Michigan required good skill at paying attention to small details—the way the birds were different and snow removal was different and the way it stayed light until almost 11:00 p.m. at solstice because of how far north we were and the fact we were at the western edge of the eastern time zone. The weird left turns called “Michigan lefts" that were mainly Utah U-turns.

I tried to adapt a blog post for an essay and found that it didn’t work very well. The blog was more conversational. It didn’t have that extra layer of significance that one gets from an essay published in Triquarterly or Black Warrior Review. It was a time thing, primarily. I imagined people on the internet read fast. They don’t need the underlying significance of Michiganian climate systems and how that relates to deprivation. No. Blog readers seemed to want to know if my daughter Zoe was still eating onions and if the snow would ever melt. I could answer them fast and maybe put up a picture of Zoe eating an onion and the five feet of snow in the front of the house.

“A leisurely amount of time” is a hallmark of literary magazines and click speed click is the hallmark for the internet which is how my friend Rebecca Campbell and I decided to put the 7 Rings project for the Huffington Post. This project was built for speed.

On the first day, someone posted/sent us an image. Then we sent that image to a writer. The writer responded and the very next day, we posted that response. Then, rinse repeat with the writer’s work being sent to a painter. We kept it up for almost fifty days and although we were worn out, Rebecca and I found new audiences in both our painter friends, our writer friends, and our Huffington Post friends. That was in 2010 and we’re still building on that project. Jenny Colville began Prompt Press right after we finished. Kimberly Brooks wants to help us publish the Rings in book borm. Michael Steinberg emailed me the other day to remind me how much fun he thought the rings were. Maybe wide but shallow is the hallmark of the world wide web.

This was a friendly place, connecting more of us, with great speed. Or so I thought until March 7, 2015 when the Arizona governor cut funding to higher ed by 90 million dollars. The cut to my small university was 17 million alone. I started writing letters on my blog—the same blog with the baby who ate onions and the Michigan snow. I wrote a letter a day. I wrote about onions. I wrote about garbage. I wrote about snow all as a way to take whatever angle I could to see if I could penetrate the fortress of hands-over-ears politicians who believe that less education is better for the world. I could make whatever metaphors I wanted. No one was reading. Or, so I thought until the Capital Times came up from Phoenix to interview me about the letters, shocked and surprised I’d written 52 letters with no response from the governor. By the time I’d written 60 letters, the local weekly had picked up the blog as a column and even though the essays are drenched in metaphor and maybe even a Kathy Acker allusion or two, the people who are reading these are primarily not my MFA grad friends although a couple of them do read them which is good because they are my audience and so is the weekly reader and so one day, I hope, is the governor who reads the letter about pennies and thinks, you know, I think we could spare an extra penny on the dollar to get people to go to the university and to write essays for composition and for business writing so they can keep writing until they get to AWP and into the Huffington post and into Flag Live so they can see who their audience is and thank them.

NICOLE WALKER’s is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.





Blog # 62. “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs by Michael Steinberg

August 28, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

August 28, 2017

Blog #62 “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs

Michael Steinberg

Note: The last two essays, # 60, and 61, “I Didn’t Ask to be in Your Memoir,” by Richard Hoffman and “ What’s in a Name, Really,” by Mimi Schwartz were converted AWP (Washington DC) panel talks about how and why memoirists decide to use and/or change real names in their works. Both Richard and Mimi had very specific ethical and moral reasons/rationales that guided their decisions. My piece, # 62, is also from that same panel. I must admit though, that my own reasons for including and/or changing names are not quite as consistent or certain as are Richard’s or Mimi’s. But, like them, I believe that this is an important concern, one that all mindful memoirists must wrestle with.

MJS

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Often after reading from a memoir, I’ll get audience questions like: when you’re writing about personal relationships, especially about family members, how do you decide whether to use real or made up names? And do you ever create composite characters?

In response to similar questions, here are some of author Maggie Nelson’s thoughts.


"It’s important that you say everything you need to say first. All the concerns about who’s going to feel affected can come a very far distance down the line when you’ve actually decided what your book is going to contain. Often you need to write out all kinds of crazy stuff so that at the end you’ve got it out of your system. If I didn’t burn through that, then I wouldn’t know what was next, what was underneath."


Good advice, as I learned years ago when I was struggling with that issue in my first memoir, Still Pitching.

My original intent was to write about the various roles that baseball had played (no pun intended) in my development as a teacher and writer. And so, during the early stages I included everything I could recall. The rough draft naturally was a sprawling mess; and it covered far too much time--several decades, in fact.

It was only many drafts later that I discovered the memoir I finally ended up writing. The book, to my initial surprise, covered some ten years of my childhood/ adolescence. And it didn’t turn out to be about writing or teaching.

The narrative, for the most part, focused on a turbulent relationship between myself, the young narrator, and a hard-ass, punitive, high school baseball coach--a Jew, who, for a time, I thought might have been an anti-Semite.

It was a coming-of-age memoir, something, that I never imagined I’d write. Because, in my early fifties--when I began to work on it--I’d already convinced myself that I wanted to write an “adult” memoir.

As it turned out though, all those rough drafts—the major cuts and revisions--led to the realization that this coming-of-age narrative was the memoir I needed to write, not the one I thought I’d wanted to write. Just as Maggie Nelson had suggested, if I didn’t burn through all of that material, I’m sure I wouldn’t have discovered what was “underneath.” Because it was only after I’d written everything out, that I found the memoir’s narrative center and time frame, what Nelson refers to as “the moment of reckoning when you know what you want to do.”

That's when I knew it was time to decide which names to keep, which to change, and which to turn into composite characters. These were, of course, the names of all the people who didn’t ask to be in my book.

Still I postponed that decision until just after I’d signed a contract. Until then, I left all the real names in because they helped me to visualize specific encounters and to recall singular characteristics and specific details--some of which, I thought, I might need to make use of in the memoir.

It was only after I realized that the book would be published (and that some people in it might actually read it), did I seriously start to think about which names I’d keep and which ones I’d change.

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Though I didn’t make any of those decisions for frivolous reasons, even today I can’t claim that my reasons for including and/or changing names were the result of a firm rationale or even a consciously ethical or moral purpose.

Here then, are a few selected scenarios that illustrate how those decisions came about.

Like a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, the narrative had to include the young narrator’s relationships with those people that had a deep and lasting influence on him--both positive and negative. That is: specific family members, teachers, coaches, his closest friends, a few adolescent girlfriends; and, as it turned out, some classmates he had an active dislike for.

Choosing to keep in the real names of family members was easy. I’d written nothing accusatory or negative about them. In fact, I credit my grandfather (my mother’s father) as being a powerful, positive, influence throughout my childhood/adolescence. I also kept the names of those teachers who I thought had inspired me to keep writing. And I didn’t change the names of my closest childhood/adolescent friends.

I did, however, make-up names for a few teen-age girls who appeared in a couple of pretty awkward sex scenes. And I changed the name of an arrogant, adversarial, high school teammate--a rival who deliberately harassed and subverted me for the years when we both pitched for the high school team. He was an irritating, sometimes maddening obstacle; but I changed his name because, on the off chance that he might ever read or hear about the book, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much he got under my skin.

Many years later, at a high school reunion, someone I’d also disliked intensely as a kid
--and whose name I changed—made it a point to track me down. And in an angry, accusatory tone, he asked me why I’d hated him so much.

In the book I’d made it clear that back then, I’d resented him for ignoring me and for deliberately excluding me (or so I believed at the time) from the pickup basketball games he hosted at his backyard court. But now, some thirty-five years later, my reasons for disliking him seemed petty and insignificant. So I figured I’d take the high ground. I told him that he was a composite character (not true), one of three neighborhood guys who had backyard basketball courts, and who all thought I wasn’t good enough to play. I could tell right away that he didn’t buy my explanation. Nor did he feel any less anger toward me. Before I'd even finished my explanation, he made up a phony excuse and just pivoted and walked away. But, damn it, he’d asked me hadn’t he? And I think I let him off pretty easily, don’t you?

Why then, you might be wondering, didn’t I change the name of my perverse, mean-spirited, high school coach? It’s true; Coach Kerchman, a Jew himself, had pushed me harder than the other Jewish players. I can still recall how painful and small his public humiliations made me feel.

Sill, I remain ambivalent about him. Was he deliberately punishing me? Or, was he raising the bar, trying in his strangely cruel way to help an insecure kid become a more a more confident, competitive pitcher?

Another reason I didn’t change his name is because everyone at the high school knew (and feared) him. Whatever name I might have made up, they’d have recognized him anyway.

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If my own reasons for changing/not changing names had no real consistency or moral purpose, neither then did most of the responses I received from readers--especially those readers that knew the coach.

When the book came out, they were split when it came to my portrayal of him. What I’d originally (and naively) expected was a version of: “What a jackass, what a mean -spirited bastard. Why did you let him intimidate and humiliate you ?”

And yes, several who’d once played for him and/or knew him by reputation, did indeed respond that way. But what surprised me was that the majority who knew Kerchman saw him as a coach who’d used a “tough love” approach to motivate an average athlete to get the most out of his limited abilities.

A more unexpected surprise though, was coach Kerchman’s own response. In a letter to the local newspaper, he wrote


"I am writing this letter to let all of Rockaway know that I have bought Mike Steinberg's book, 'Still Pitching.' I have also introduced this book to my children Karen and Barbara, both students at Far Rockaway High School. They loved the book and Mike did a great job."


Well, I thought at the time, maybe it was a good thing to keep his real name in, right?

And few paragraphs later, he added


"In his book, {Mike} placed me in Europe freeing some of the Jewish people at Auschwitz. I served in China/Burma/India (CBI) flying the hump (the Himalayas) as all aerial engineers."


Touché. Still the same old coach. And I deserved it too. Lazy fact checking on my part.

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A final note: When a reader of Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner’s blog, Cocktails With Bill and Dave, raised the question of using real or made up names in his memoir, Bill or Dave--I’m not certain which--wrote,


"I find that people loved the stuff I was most afraid to say about them, and took offense at the most minor, surprising things. ‘Love how you handled my indecent exposure trial, but I’d never wear a pink shirt to court.’ "

So, so, true. Because in his letter, Kerchman also wrote,

"….. my name is spelled Kerchman, not Kirschman, If Steinberg was in one of my World History classes, I showed them a map of the Baltic Sea, with the Kerch Strait, Kerch Peninsula and the city of Kerch. My father came from there as an eight year old with his uncle, and at Ellis Island they gave him the name Kerchman. He had no other identification."


Just for the record, in the book I spelled his name correctly, “Kerchman.” So you can draw your own conclusions about that one.

And finally, as I also discovered at the high school reunion, the people I encountered who were most disappointed, most upset, were those that I’d left out of the book. And they made certain to let me know it too. Big time.

So, go figure?




Blog # 61, What's In a Name, Really? Guest Blogger, Mimi Schwartz

July 20, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Introductory Note

This month's guest blogger is (once again) Mimi Schwartz. Like Richard Hoffman's June/July post, Mimi's essay, "What's in a Name, Really" is adapted from the same March, 2017 AWP conference panel. Readers might want to take a look at both pieces.

Though Mimi offers a somewhat different point of view, her essay deals with a similar issue: how and why memoirists and personal essayists decide whether to use real or made-up names in their work.

Interested readers might want also want to read Mimi's personal essay/memoir, "Lesson From a Last Day"." The piece, about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, raises very specific questions about the use of real and/or made-up names. Here's the link. Pangyrus.

"Lesson From a Last Day" also appears in her forthcoming collection When History is Personal. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

MJS


# 61, What’s in a Name, Really? by Mimi Schwartz

A man I know, let’s call him Harry, told me recently what others have said over the years: “I’m worried about you being a writer. I’ll end up in your book!” I laughed. His intuition was good. That morning, in fact, I began writing about a being a widow and he, a.k.a. Harry, appeared in paragraph two. “Don’t worry! I haven’t lost a friend yet!” I assured him—and, mostly, that’s true, because I often avoid real names and change identifying details as needed. I once changed my sister Ruth, always litigious, to Cousin Dora in my book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the first time I mentioned Dora, I added this footnote:


"To protect the privacy of friends and relatives I’ve changed names and some locations, but the rest is true, as I see it."


Ruth called me when the book came out, delighted that “I got our family just right.” She was certain that Cousin Dora was really Cousin Anne; I did not correct her.

Most of my readers, I’ve found, don’t care about real names as long as I signal name changes--either with “Let’s call him (or her) XX ” Or with a footnote or with initials. I did get one indignant phone call from my friend, J.L. after she read my essay about having lunch with a close friend Anna, who announces her divorce. “I’ve known you for thirty years,” J.L. said, “and you never once mentioned any friend named Anna!”

“You’re Anna!” I said, “At least part of you.” This was the 1970s when marriages were breaking up left and right. I’d had almost the same conversation with three friends that year, so I combined them for privacy’s sake—and said so in a footnote. “That story was less about Anna and more about me and my marriage.” I said, “ And besides I figured otherwise I’d have no friends left to talk to.” She laughed, saw the light—and we made a date for lunch.

When I write about my immediate family, I use real names because, in memoir, they are my story—and identifiably so. Therefore, I ask those involved to read what I wrote before publication, giving up some editorial power for family peace with those I want to keep in my life. My daughter Julie has corrected her dress size. My late husband Stu once requested that I cut a sentence about his eating Corn Flakes at midnight with a not-to-be-named syrup. All doable requests; in part, because they are reasonable people; in part, because I hear Annie Dillard’s warning in my head as I write: “While literature is an art, it’s not a martial art.” That plus one other rule of thumb has served me well over the years: that whenever I needed to call my husband an idiot, I let him call me a moron, usually through dialogue. Fair is fair.

In Katharine Graham’s Personal History, the rich and powerful sit at her dining room table, people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Buffet—all named. We read her book, even fifteen years later, to have a seat at that table, an inside scoop on what these public leaders thought and said off the record.

Memoirs about the infamous should also use real names. In Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, for example, he names the coach, Tom Feifel, who sexually abused him and other boys on Feifel’s soccer team in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The memoir broke the silence of shame; the boys, as grown men, stepped forward, and Feifel went to jail. His real name mattered to bear witness, to expose—and also, as Richard has pointed out to me, to protect the reputations of the other coaches in Allentown at that time.

But using names should not be the default, I realized when one of my students read an essay in class about her gay roommate-- who had not come out. I started to encourage students to ask themselves: Why use a name when it is harmful and there is no good reason? I urged them to change a name and identifying details as needed, and if that undercuts the story’s authenticity, they should share the draft and get permission. Or switch to fiction which creates a “what if” world that let’s you say: “That’s not you. I made it up!”

My friend, a former journalist for The Washington Post, told me he would never invent names or disguise identifying details. He was writing a book about his Amish neighbors at the same time that I was writing a book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, about Christians and Jews in my father’s German village before, during and after Nazi times. I had decided to rename the village and the people, and he argued against that. “Truth is truth,” he said. ”Names matter.”

“But if there were no great betrayals and no heroics, why not preserve privacy?” I countered, especially when people, often strangers, trust you. That was my concern, and in my book’s introduction, I said this:

“I realized that my subjects, who were in their seventies or older, kept thinking my book was only about the facts: the who, what, when, where and how of their lives. What they didn’t realize, no matter how often I explained, is that I wanted their personalities to come alive on the page so that readers would meet them and discover as I did: who they were in their memories, who they are now, and how they struggled between those old and new selves.”

Closer to his publication date, my journalist friend had second thoughts. He realized that he might cause trouble for his neighbors in the Amish community and decided to give them anonymity. The book is Plain Secrets; the author is Joe Mackall—and I checked with him before using his name. He read the draft, made two small corrections, and said fine, adding that he also changed all the horses’ names “because everyone knew everyone’s horses.”

I didn’t need Joe’s name for this anecdote. ‘My journalist friend’ would have sufficed for me, so I left the decision to Joe. I don’t always do that. If I need that name to tell my story, I do so. I decide case-by-case each time I write.

I wonder how journalists, and their editors, go through this struggle, especially when quoting everyday people who live in dangerous neighborhoods like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. First and last names are often given (I assume they are real); and even if only the first name is used, some identifying detail is often added: he works in a bakery, she teaches school. Sometimes there is a photo. Why put these people at risk? They are not heads of state; they wield no power; their quotes add local opinion and flavor, but do not shape events.

Take the Afghani resident who was quoted in the New York Times about life under the lawless local militias after the American troops pulled out:


“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimulmah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. - “After U.S. Exit, Rough Justice of Afghan Militias”-March 17, 2015.


It was a front-page news story. What if someone in this militia has a cousin in the U.S. who sends him this article, translated? I would have been content with a quotation from an Abdul or even from “a veteran farmer,” or “a grim-faced student.” I didn’t need the full name to trust what he said, especially when there was no consequence for others. His remarks could hurt no one except himself.

I called a friend, John Timpane, Features Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check on the criteria for journalists using real names. Do they worry about people like Abdul Ahad?


“It’s a moral dilemma,” John said, “but we can’t be seen as protecting folks. Our policy is to use real names at all times with a rare humanitarian exception. Otherwise newspapers would lose credibility. If we protect one, why not all?”


Besides, as John pointed out, journalists don’t know these people. Maybe Abdul is a good guy, maybe not. “We don’t know someone’s backstory, and we have a deadline in two hours.” That, I realized, is a big difference between journalists and those of us writing memoir, essays, and narrative nonfiction. We do have time to retrieve and assess the backstory.

The other big difference is that memoir and personal essay focus less on the moment and more on the universality of people and events: to recreate rather than to report, blame or accuse. That’s why in my Pangyrus essay “Lessons from a Last Day” (see link below), I didn’t name the hospital where my husband died, identifying it only as “a small New England hospital south of a big one 30 miles to the north.” (Pangyrus) -
Lessons from a Last Day

There were legal concerns, but more important, I felt that naming one hospital would have cleared the others: “That’s X, but we are Y,” other hospitals could say.

My friend, aka Harry, told me recently that the movie “Whiplash,” is based on the band teacher at the high school my kids attended. The writer, Damien Chazelle, played the drums in the band class and the teacher did have a reputation for being severe and tough; but he was not the sadist in the movie. Chazelle calls his script fiction, making no claim that the real story happened that way. But if the real teacher was as mean and terrifying as portrayed, then I say call it nonfiction, and yes, name him.

It matters, not like the name of my friend—who may be Harry, Bernie or Rob.

Bio:

Mimi Schwartz’s books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times - Echoes of My Father’s German Village, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). A longer version of this essay appears in Schwartz’s forthcoming book of essays, When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, Spring 2018) that explores the way memoir—i.e. 25 key moments of her life—reveals the history, politics, and culture of the world she lives in.

Blog # 60 “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t by Richard Hoffman

June 19, 2017

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Composing Process, Writer's Block

Blog # 60

Introductory Note:

This month's guest is Richard Hoffman, one of our finest, most versatile writers of poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.

Richard’s craft essay “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, is adapted from a panel talk he gave at the recent AWP conference in DC.

This is an issue, we all know, that both aspiring and practicing memoirists, as well as teachers of memoir, continually wrestle with. Each panelist from “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, talked about how, when, and why they decided to use real and/or made-up names in their memoirs. Together, they offered a variety of ethical and writerly reasons and approaches to this issue. In the upcoming months then, I'll post a few more essays adapted from that panel.

Below is Richard Hoffman's thoughtful, honest, take.

MJS

Richard Hoffman,“I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t

In 1995 I published a book I had been working on for nearly two decades, the memoir Half the House. After much consideration, which I will describe in a moment, I chose to begin that book not with the usual disclaimer one finds in the front of novels, but with what might be called a reclaimer, since it was my purpose to reclaim all manner of lost things, among them the right to be the protagonist of my own story. It spells out the kind of not-fiction it is and sets forth the rules I followed.


“This is not a work of fiction. It contains no composite characters, no invented scenes. I have, in most instances, altered the names of persons outside my family. In one instance, on principle, I have not.”


Now I believe that in a memoir, memory is largely imagination in service to the facts as far as they can be known, so what does it mean to place a real toad in an imaginary garden, to borrow an arresting emblem from Marianne Moore?

Well — and some of you know this — the man I named in that book, a youth sports coach named Tom Feifel, was a serial child rapist who, largely because of the book, was brought to trial, convicted, and some months later, murdered in prison. It was determined that he had had over 400 victims during his long career in my sports-obsessed hometown.

But here’s the thing: I had never intended to use his real name, not during all the years of working on that book. I was not writing for some cathartic or vengeful purpose; in fact, the book, set in an industrial town in Pennsylvania, is about my boyhood in a Catholic blue-collar family with two of my brothers afflicted with a deadly form of Muscular Dystrophy; the account of the sexual assault takes up five pages of the book.

Five pages. It wasn’t important in some sensational way, it was important because it is a secret feature of that kind of boyhood. But as the book moved toward publication, certain ethical questions arose, and they weren’t the ones you might expect.

Right before I turned in the book, I reinserted the coach’s real name; again, with no incendiary motive, but with a growing sense from my few readers, my agent, my editor, of how explosive such an accusation might be. And it occurred to me that there were many, many men volunteering their time with kids, mentoring boys growing up in a pretty brutal place, and I didn’t want to start a witch-hunt, didn’t want to cast a pall of suspicion on the lot of them. Besides, he was simply undeserving of protection, and I determined that I did not owe him silence, did not have to keep his secret. I also came to understand that it was not him I was protecting: I wanted to hide in the realm of art, I wanted to say it, but say it in a way that would not leak out of the book and into the real world, into my real life. I was scared. Every time I thought about it unmediated by some kind of literary aura, I felt 10 years old again. And so, “the reclaimer.”

Ah, but then came the lawyers, the publisher’s lawyers. About a month before publication, I received a letter from Harcourt Brace’s attorneys with a list of names of certain persons mentioned in the memoir from whom I would have to get releases. They included my father, my brother Joe, my aunt — and coach Feifel.

I left for Pennsylvania with the releases in hand. I made them up—three options and a place for a signature:

o “I have read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I have been given the opportunity to read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have declined. Nevertheless, I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I do not consent to the use of my name or other identifying characteristics in Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House.”


My brother had read an earlier draft of the manuscript and was helpful in setting me straight about a few dates and other details I’d gotten wrong. He checked the first box and signed. My father and my aunt didn’t want to read it and checked the second box. Both of them read the book after its publication. I was not going to be able to ask the coach, Tom Feifel, to sign such a document, no way, no how, even if he was alive. I knew, however, that he had been arrested twice before for molesting young boys, so I went to the local newspaper looking for records, hoping that would satisfy the publisher’s lawyers. There was a file with his name on it, but whatever had been in there had been removed. I resigned myself to looking for records at the public library the next day, and if I failed, the courthouse.

When I got back to the house, my father handed me a piece of paper with a couple of phone numbers on it. Both were men he knew who had coached with Feifel. “Why don’t you try calling these guys and see what they know?”

The first call was all I needed. I was able to get the year of one of Feifel’s prior arrests, along with the name of the arresting officer. I called him as well. Although retired, he remembered the case well. Both men were angry that Feifel had been sentenced to probation and were willing to put their recollections in writing. The retired officer agreed to send me a copy of the police report.

It was enough to allow the book to go forward, as long as I was willing to amend the contract to indemnify Harcourt Brace, which I did.

And so, this question is not a simple one — it turns out that there are multiple stakeholders if you will; there’s of course you the author, there’s the person you have drawn as a character, that person’s family and loved ones, the real-world community you are both a part of, the record, the public record, and others whom you don’t yet know, like the 400 boys and men who came forward after the arrest, like the literally thousands of men on 5 continents I have spoken to since the book’s publication who told me the book helped heal them of shame and encouraged them to speak up.


So I am suggesting to you NOT that I was so big and brave, I’m suggesting that what happened contains a lesson and that lesson is this: most of our concern about naming names, a concern which we couch in ethical terms, is rationalization and the result of a shaming injunction, a sneering gaslighting, that serves to protect people who do not deserve protection: why make hoods for nightriders? Why pixelate the faces of hatred? Naming atrocities and the people who commit them is the beginning of justice.

*
In the second memoir (and there will soon be another to complete the trilogy) Love & Fury, I explored the story of my current family, including my wife and grown children and then infant grandson, all of whom are represented undisguised.

This offered a different set of issues, and I chose to adhere to a hard line between writing and publishing. In fact, if there’s any advice I have to give, it is to keep those two processes as separate as possible. I wrote with little concern for how my wife, and my kids, would react; at least I tried to. What made that possible was the deal I had struck with all of them, that when I was finished — not while I was writing — I would allow them to read and respond and that I would take their concerns to heart. I did not promise them veto power.

These are people I love and who love me, so I felt on pretty solid ground, even writing about dark moments, failures, mistakes. At the eleventh hour, my family became my collaborators, arguing their differing versions of events, wondering if I might just shift the emphasis a bit in one of the scenes, if I could just choose a different adjective here and perhaps include a mitigating circumstance they felt I’d omitted. It was not easy conversation, but it was built on trust, and in fact the process strengthened that trust. By the time the book was published the conversation was all about who would play who in the movie!

So, it’s a question of tact relative to your own continuing friendships, alliances, and family relationships, tact and trust, and in fact this respect for how the people in the story see themselves, makes for a more emotionally truthful book. What’s more, most people, in my experience, object to things they construe as assaults on their vanity, things that make them wince or smart, and not, surprisingly, to their failures so long as those failures are part of a story that honors their struggle.

To portray someone trying to do right, to stay afloat, to ride out the storm, grants that person dignity, agency, character. People want their struggles to be seen. People want to be visible, and not only in studio portraits with a row of fake books and a flag in the background, they want to be visible and appreciated for their struggle. They want to be respected: look at that word’s entymology! They want to be seen, given a second look, appreciated.


RICHARD HOFFMAN is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: A Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College

signature-reads.com/2014/06/rebreaking-the-bone-of-ones-life-story-richard-hoffman-on-love-fury

assayjournal.com/confronting-our-fears--richard-hoffman

mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm?post=948001

masspoetry.org/richardhoffman

solsticelitmag.org/content/richard-hoffman-interview

solsticelitmag.org/interview-with-richard-hoffman

masspoetry.org/pwwp/#pwwphoffman

masspoetry.org/stateofpoetry/#sophoffman

richardhoffman.org/category/interviews

ourmaninboston.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/a-man-for-all-seasons-richard-hoffman

olsticelitmag.org/five-questions-for-richard-hoffman-on-memory-race-and-family

BOOKS

Memoir
“My favorite book of the year. An astonishing look at the pains of growing up.”
--Dan Smith, WVTF Virginia, Public Radio
Collection/Anthology
“Wherever readers look, they’ll find a different essay, a different voice, a different Michigan.”
-- Crab Orchard Review
Anthology of/on Creative Nonfiction
“Offers the most thorough and teachable introduction available to this exciting genre.”
--John Boe, Editor, Writing on the Edge
Stage Play
"An evening of energy, hot music, laughs and sheer entertainment." Lansing State Journal
Teaching/Writing
"Root and Steinberg will be on the shelf near my desk that holds the most important books about the teaching of writing." -Donald Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing and Write to Learn
Literary Journal
"Fourth Genre is the Paris Review of nonfiction journals." Newpages.com
Writing/Teaching Text
The Writer’s Way is the best book I’ve found yet for teaching first quarter Freshmen their first English writing sequence….” Dr. Sheila Coghill, Moorhead State University.

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