Melanie Brooks, Guest Interview

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

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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.

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River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize River Teeth.

Breadloaf/​Bakeless Contest Breadloaf.

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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

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.

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