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

#39 On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about "the Tough Stuff" by Jessica Handler

Note: This month’s guest is Jessica Handler. I’m pleased and delighted to have her work appear on this blog. I first met Jessica in 2005, when she was in my Writers in Paradise memoir workshop in St. Petersberg, Florida. Jessica, along with Tracy Crow, and Margaret MacGuiness, had just gotten their MFA from Queens College. And they were so well informed about literary memoir that it was like having three co-teachers in the room. When the workshop ended, it was clear to me that any or perhaps all three would go on to write first-rate literary books.

Jessica’s sensitive and perceptive memoir, Invisible Sisters, was published four years later, in 2009. The narrative is about how, following the death of her two sisters, the writer came to terms with her grief. It's a powerful literary memoir. Jessica hasn't stopped there. She has continued, with great energy and deep commitment, to write, teach, and lecture. Fittingly, her craft essay, “On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs About ‘the Tough Stuff'"--is adapted from her recent book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins/Griffin, 2013.)

I believe that Jessica’s thoughts, opinions, and perceptions will provide additional guidance on/about the various strategies and approaches that memoirists utilize in order to create literary work out of their deepest sufferings and losses. It’s a subject that informs Meredith Hall’s piece (blog # 38). And because this is a matter I’ve also written about (see blog # 34 and 35), I decided that this was a good time to run Jessica's piece.

MJS

On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about “the Tough Stuff.”
By Jessica Handler

A few years ago, I was talking to friend at a party about the ending he had just written for his film. His protagonist, a little boy, meets his masked hero at last, but he’s sorely disappointed. The hero isn’t the idol he had convinced himself he would find, and after working for almost the entire plot to have his troublesome nerdiness redeemed by proximity to his hero, the little boy is at a loss.

“So that’s not really the end,” the screenwriter said.

“Yes,” I said to the screenwriter. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” he agreed.

And together we said, “yes, and…”.

We were getting at a truth that’s common to all good writing; that the ending isn’t the moment when the author runs out of writing steam. A satisfying ending begins with that moment of “yes, and” in the plot. In my friend’s screenplay, the ending isn’t that the boy finds his hero, but that the boy begins to change on his own as a result of his efforts to meet his hero. For a memoirist, the ending has something to do with how she or has changed and moved forward in life?

The ‘yes and’ for my memoir, Invisible Sisters, is that, yes my sisters died and I learned to find my voice without them. For a writer, the idea of ‘yes, and’ marks the place on in the story where the renewal for the protagonist – the author- starts to become clear.

Another way to phrase this could be “yes, but,” although I prefer “and.”
“And” has a more positive, forward-moving feeling; not a contradiction, but a continuation. The very existence of a memoir proves that the author survived to tell the tale. A well-made ending is a new beginning; in a memoir about loss, it’s that place on the page when author, and later, reader, is satisfied that the protagonist telling the story can make it from here. A good ending fulfills an implicit promise made in the beginning, whether it’s to tell how the survival occurred, or how the author has grown as a result of the loss.

But no writer or reader wants a sparkling, disingenuous ending that wipes the slate clean of that life-changing sorrow. A generic story with the emotional authority of a smiley-face sticker would not only be false, but a grave injustice to the true story.

A well-written, honest ending is resonant, echoing in the reader’s heart and mind. Because the reader has invested herself in the story and the author, she wants to know that the character’s story will go on. The character and the reader both move forward in their lives. Not everything in an honestly told story can be solved happily, but a satisfactory ending hints at a new beginning for at least one of the characters, namely, the writer.

The reader has come to know the incident of loss. As she comes to the end of the memoir, she wants to know that as changed as the characters are, the world keeps turning, and the protagonist or his family has made it, for better or worse, past the immediate hazard of their trials.

This is adapted from Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins/Griffin, 2013.)

Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009, University of Georgia Press, 2015) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. www.jessicahandler.com










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