I’m in a memoir workshop right now and it’s been a revelation to realize how much I haven’t understood about what I experienced as an immigrant kid growing up in Milwaukee, and how those experiences, many of them still deep wells that I haven’t yet plumbed, continue to shape me. Or in your words, “the mysteries of childhood experience, the wonder of adult reflection, and how the two connect over a lifespan.”
When I began writing memoir, I worried that my stories would be too dated or unrelatable. Now I understand that it’s not when something took place that matters; it’s the imagination and sensibility that one can bring afterwards to what happened in childhood that can transform it into a story that can open your mind, and others as well. To my delight, the Barnhill Prize honors this kind of writing.
This post, “What to Leave Out” by Laurie Easter, is re-blogged from BREVITY’S Nonfiction Blog. Click here to read the full original post. Don’t miss the Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café” embedded in the interview.
Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.
Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.
It’s always exciting for us at Longridge Review to get publishing news from one of our essayists. Mike Chin’s short story collection, You Might Forget the Sky Was Ever Blue (Duck Lake Books, September 2019), is out this month. Do not miss Mike’s thoughts, ideas, and advice about his work and the writing life . . . and don’t forget to order his book!
Q: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blueis your first full-length short story collection. Congratulations! The book includes stories about a third grade teacher in Baltimore trying to make sense of the 2016 election campaign to students, a teenage sexual assault survivor making his way through a changed world, and a boy is raised to believe he’s Hulk Hogan’s little brother. Though fiction, they sound inspired by real life. Can you talk a bit about how the genres of fiction and creative nonfiction relate as well as diverge?
A: I’m a big believer that nothing in life happens in a vacuum. Everything affects everything else, and that very much includes the pop culture we ensconce ourselves in, which might include politics, music, movies, television, and even professional wrestling.
Rather than playing coy in a (likely as not futile) effort to make the stories timeless, a number of these stories lean into their surrounding culture from the real world to enrich the characters and setting. The first story in the collection, “Prophecy,” is very much set during the 2016 presidential election campaign and uses social media as a source of chronic tension throughout. The story “Brother” uses Hulk Hogan’s evolution as a public figure as a backdrop for understanding the protagonist’s place in life and worldview.
Q: Book promos say Sky includes experiments in form with a social conscience. What exactly does that mean?
A: Two stories in particular—“Prophecy” and “Better”—lean into collage style structures that jump around a lot. In the former, the story aims to gather a bit of what it was like to be an average citizen during an especially tumultuous moment in American history. Conversely, “Better” uses its snippets to span a lifetime, gathering snapshots across decades that the reader can piece together to understand the whole.
In regards to the social conscience of the book, some of the glue that binds this manuscript includes leaning into uncomfortable conversations around political leadership, sexual assault, how we society treats people from the LGBT community, and more. Rather than taking a ‘there are good people on all sides’ stance, the collection, or at least the characters from these stories, do take positions, and it’s up to the reader to decide whether or to what degree they agree—but at least (I hope) they’re thinking.
Q: Your essay forLongridge Review, The Bionic Elbow: On Fathers, Sons, and the American Dream, has elements in it I recognize in Sky; there may be more. I really love that essay, the way you braid in and out of seemingly disparate experiences like professional wrestling, fatherhood, emerging sexuality, parental expectations, death/loss –somehow you make it all connect. Do you have any special process for this kind of writing, do you plan to do it in advance or do you just write and weave it together as you go?
A: I’ve experimented with this style of writing (most directly influenced by Maggie Nelson) in a number of pieces—fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Typically, I’ve drafted pieces like this in a pretty linear fashion, truly letting my mind wander and make organic connections. I will admit that there’s a deceptively high level of revision typically required after that first draft, though, to buff out the pieces that really are more flights of fancy than essential to the text, and to make connections that feel clear enough to me more explicit for readers living outside my head.
Q: Do you have a favorite story in Sky? What is it and why?
A: While I’d probably call “Prophecy” my favorite for its structure, contemporary concerns, and bits and pieces borrowed from my own life, I’ve probably already spent too much interview space talking about that one. So, I’ll go to the next one down the line, the title story, “You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue.” It connects to the story that comes before it in the collection, “The End of the World,” which ends on a traumatic experience. “You Might Forget” picks up on the aftermath, which I feel is too often given short shrift in storytelling—the more administrative pieces of school officials sorting through a messy issue and how that intersects with someone’s personal experience. It’s a story that was largely born out of the years I spent as an administrator for an educational program, taking those less glamorous behind the scenes tasks and carving some art out of them.
I’m a prolific drafter and feel pretty adamant that, if I like a piece of writing, I’d rather see it out in the world somewhere than sitting dormant on my hard drive.
Q: You publish a lot of writing, with work either in or forthcoming in over 200 publications. What advice do you have for other writers about getting your work out there?
A: I’m a prolific drafter and feel pretty adamant that, if I like a piece of writing, I’d rather see it out in the world somewhere than sitting dormant on my hard drive. So, I make conscious effort to submit regularly and widely, not being afraid to shoot for the stars with the pieces I most believe in, or to take a chance on a less established venue with pieces I’m not as confident will connect with editors. I know some folks prefer to be more selective about where they publish, and I can respect that, but for those who may be more interested in publishing widely, I advocate for getting in listservs and social media groups that advertise calls for submissions you might not come across more organically. There’s such an advantage to placing work with venues that are actively seeking submissions (especially from less established writers) as opposed to only submitting to publications that already have overwhelming submission queues.
Q: What’s the best way for readers and writers to keep up with you and your work? (website, Twitter, etc.)
A: I’m active on Twitter and publicize most anything I publish there. I also try to keep my website up to date, and I update my blog at least twice most months.
It’s always exciting for us at Longridge Review to get publishing news from one of our essayists. Dorothy Rice’s memoir, Gray Is The New Black(Otis Books, Seismicity Editions, June 2019), is a memoir of ageism, sexism and self acceptance. It’s also a wonderful portrait of an intelligent, beautiful woman struggling to confront her past in order to have the present and future she wants and deserves. Read on for insight into her process!
Q: I find elements of your essay here, Prom and Other Fairy Tales, in your book. Your relationship to your sisters and your mother, feeling trapped by other people’s expectations, being conflicted about your role in the male desires around you. When you go into the past with your writing, what do you find the most difficult? And how do you deal with it?
A: I love writing about the past. Perhaps because these are stories I believe I know. Meaning I know what I remember as having happened and that’s where I start. But what I am always astonished by is how, in writing the scenes that I remember, that are born anew. When I take the time to go deep into memory, I find things I had forgotten or, even better, the past is revealed to me in new ways.
This is a simple truth and goal of memoir writing, of course. When we recount childhood experience as adults, we both remember how it felt as a child and now, years later, we are looking at that experience with very different, ideally more reflective, generous and perhaps even forgiving, eyes.
That is what I love about Longridge Review – your focus on essays that explore exactly this broadening, this expansion, complexity and different understanding that emerges when we re-examine early experience.
This is my wheelhouse, a place I could hang out in for days.
My mother, sadly, is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. If she were cogent, it’s quite likely I wouldn’t have written of her in many of the ways that I have, if at all (she was pretty prickly). As for my sisters, I share any writing that includes them before seeking publication. Over the years, it’s lead to interesting comparisons of our memories of the same event, colored by our differing personalities (I’m the Eeyoreof the three).
Q: You write a lot in this book about struggling to gain control over your weight throughout your life. Many people with a similar struggle say they only gained control over their body’s literal weight by dealing with the hidden weight of some kind of personal trauma. Was that true for you?
A: That was my hope and a main impetus for writing this book. I thought of 2017 as my year to fix whatever it was that ailed me and to write a book about the process. On the most simplistic level, I was dissatisfied with my appearance and my marriage and sick and tired of feeling that way. If not now, when? Edging up on 65, that was the mantra that urged me on.
It’s no surprise that diets and exercise proved no more effective in 2017 than in any prior year. I began digging for the roots of my body dissatisfaction issues and quickly stumbled into old trauma territory (rape at 15 and its lingering aftermath).
I still struggle with weight and body acceptance. Revisiting and reflecting on the trauma didn’t “cure” me. But it moved the dial and sharpened my focus. I hadn’t realized the extent to which I harbored shame, guilt and embarrassment over mistakes made in adolescence. Those uncomfortable feelings are closely aligned with how I’ve long felt about my body, sexuality, and desirability as a woman.
In other words, writing about it wasn’t a quick fix (I don’t believe there is such a thing), but I’m more conscious now. When I’m beating myself up, I can often stop the shame/eat/repeat cycle before its hooks are into me. I work at being kinder, gentler and more forgiving with myself, which I hope makes me the same with others.
Q: Anyone writing creative nonfiction has to grapple with the reactions of those we write about. Sometimes others even question the veracity of your memories. Have you had this happen, has anyone said, “That’s not the way it happened”?
A: If anything, it’s been illuminating rather than divisive. My sisters laugh when I recall a scene with dark and dreary overtones that for them was happy, or neutral.
I am often asked about the general veracity of memory. How am I comfortable recreating dialogue (which I love to do)? How on earth do I know what Dad said when I was six? There are some conversations I remember (or believe I remember) verbatim, but I don’t claim to have total recall. I go for the emotional truth and work from there. I also believe in “method writing” (akin to “method acting” where the actor really climbs inside the character’s skin). I create a little movie in my head, immerse myself in whatever the scene is, press “play” and start writing.
In all the essays I’ve written with family-member and other’s dialog, no one has yet complained, “I never said that.” I don’t believe it’s because they ever said exactly those words, but rather the writing captured enough of where they were coming from emotionally and what they intended to communicate or accomplish.
My parents found my memory for the details of every awful thing anyone ever did or said to me pretty irritating. To quote my dad,”Your mind is like the Roach Motel (a cockroach bait device that was featured in TV ads when I was a kid). Whatever makes it inside that head of yours, never comes out.”
Of course, these traits have proven useful as a writer, or perhaps they explain why I write. I have to get it all out of there somehow or my head might explode.
Q: You write a lot about what I would call the way things appear, the way things feel, and the way things are. That’s a lot of angles! Where do you think that comes from, those conflicts that you seem to always be trying to resolve?
A: That’s an interesting question! Thank you for that.
On one level, that’s what the book is about. How one’s thinking about self and others–the various perception lenses through which life’s experiences are filtered–impacts everything. Our appreciation and enjoyment of life. The ability to experience joy and gratitude. The ability to be in the moment, living life, rather than dissecting what it might have been, could or should have been, and wasn’t. The ability to accept love and affection, to believe in it.
Deciding to write this particular book post-60, I had a sense of if-not-now-when, both in terms of the writing itself, but also in tackling what I perceive to be my personal demons head on. I wanted to bring my own awareness to the mental contortions I put myself though on a daily basis and to, to the extent possible, make peace with myself, who I am and how I am.
The mind is a noisy place. Writing down some of what’s rattling around in there can bring a moment’s peace. It feels like tidying up, making some sense of a vexing or irksome memory.
Q: You write about writing itself. What was the most helpful piece of advice you received that influenced your writing process for this book?
A: Before beginning Gray Is The New Black, I had enrolled in a write-a-book-in-a-year class with NYT best-selling author Ellen Sussman. Both the structure of the class and the accountability provided by having deadlines and others to report to periodically were huge in terms of writing this book.
I really needed that.
As for specific advice, Ellen was great at several junctures. Within the first month of beginning the memoir, I tapped into the material about my high school trauma and how that experience colored all my future interactions with boys and men. Once I’d turned the spigot, I couldn’t stop the flow. I literally spewed words, something like 150,000 in a matter of six weeks or so. I worried it was all garbage and that I was on the wrong track. Ellen reassured me by saying something along the lines of, “Just keep going. Get it all down. This is the stage you should be in. The generative stage.”
Legitimizing what I was experiencing helped me a lot, as my tendency is to self-edit as I go. If I’d stopped to judge the value of recording these painful memories and impressions, I might have been mired down for months or years. Much of it got cut way back or eliminated during the various edits of the draft manuscript. But I needed the freedom to let it rip and not worry about form, shape, narrative thread or anything but the words that, after so many years, were finally finding their way out of me and onto the page.
by Essayist and Guest Blogger Heidi Davidson-Drexel
I was not officially a child when I was violated by my boss, a reality which further muddied the mess of emotions I felt about it. I used to struggle with what to call the experience. I was enough of a child at the time to feel molested, but couldn’t reconcile that term with my age. For awhile I referred to it as a controlling relationship- a title modification that allowed me to skim past essential details. But it wasn’t a relationship. It seemed there were no accurate descriptions, words or phrases that fit.
To write about it, I had to allow myself to peer into my inner state at the time it all happened. It wasn’t an easy place to go. But when I finally got up the courage, the overwhelming feeling I had was one of sympathy for my younger self. The internalized guilt and self-hatred had dissipated with the years and I could see the confused young person I was, grabbing onto anything she could find.
This feeling of understanding grew as I worked on it. The barrier between adolescence and adulthood is like a line of buoys separating the shallow end of the pool from the deep end. It’s flexible- easy to cross back and forth. In all of the outer ways, I was like an adult. I started working at 14 and was supporting myself while in college. I studied hard and did well in school. But emotionally, I was still splashing around in the shallows.
When I started out writing this piece, I thought if it as an explanation to some nameless person, some naïve reader who might not understand how such a thing could happen. I wanted to show how easy it is to lose the ground under your feet, how it could happen to anyone. By the time I finished the essay and reread it, it was clear. I had written it, not for some nameless bystander, but for my younger self. For the part of me that still didn’t understand what had gone wrong, and for the parts of me that still felt I had done something to cause it. I wrote this for the child I was, in the hopes that she can begin to move on.