Besides social media connections, and having graduated from the same MFA program, Melanie Brooks and I share a love of reading memoirs that must have cost their authors an emotional toll—those she covers in her forthcoming book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma. [We're giving away a copy, too!]
Melanie works as a freelance writer and teaches at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts, and at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire, where she lives with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, Recollectors, Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Melanie's also working on an almost-completed memoir that explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.
Please welcome Melanie Brooks.
The questions were simple: “What are you writing about and what form is it taking?” So, why was I finding it harder and harder to breathe as the seminar leader meandered her way toward me? As she solicited responses from the other students in the crowded room, why was there a sudden tightness in my chest? It wasn’t as if I didn’t know the answers.
I’d started my MFA at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Creative Writing Program with a clear purpose—space and time to finally write into a complex family story I’d carried for over twenty years, a story I recognized was big enough to be a book. But when the leader’s kind gaze finally fell on me, the words caught in my throat. I mumbled something about writing about my dead dad, then a strangled sob hijacked anything else I might say, and a deluge of tears broke through my reserve. I was sitting at the wall-end of a cramped row, with no possibility of discreet escape. For the remainder of the ninety-minute seminar, I struggled to stop my nose from dripping without the benefit of a tissue, and I bit my lip until I tasted blood, to muffle the hiccupping sobs that fought to surface.
Nothing in the introductory materials the program coordinators sent out in the months leading up to that first MFA residency had readied me for this horrifying public moment of absolute composure meltdown. No neon labels were affixed to the pages of the orientation handbook broadcasting: WARNING: Writing about vulnerable material can leave you feeling rawly vulnerable. Be prepared to cry. A lot. At inconvenient times.
So when the inconvenient crying first erupted during that seminar, I thought something was wrong with me. And when it happened again while my workshop group discussed my manuscript, I felt the need to make excuses to put everyone else at ease. “I cry all the time,” I said, even though I don’t. “Just call me The Crier from here on out,” I joked, sidelining my emotions.
The truth was that, during the residency, and in the following months when I sat in front of my computer, mired in the very real anguish of trying to shape my painful memories into words, I felt alone. So alone, I almost quit.
I needed to find someone to tell me what I was feeling was okay. Normal. Expected, even. If someone could tell me those things, then maybe I could marshal up enough courage to keep going.
In what began as a very personal (and totally selfish) quest, I went looking for that someone to guide me back to my laptop, someone to tell me those things I needed to hear about my pain and loneliness and fear. I wrote to authors I admired—those whose memoirs did not shy away from any of the tough stuff— and told them how much I was struggling. I asked them if I could sit down with them and talk about the psychological journeys they had to go on to write their books.
What I found when I reached out was more than someone. I found eighteen someones. Eighteen acclaimed writers—including Andre Dubus III, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Abigail Thomas, and Richard Blanco— who all responded to my query and welcomed the opportunity to answer my questions and offer some hard-earned wisdom. Writers who’d been as terrified as I was when they began their memoirs. Who’d written into their own hard stories and made it through. Eighteen writers who’d all experienced, at some point during their processes, the inconvenient crying.
The intimate stories these brilliant and generous memoirists told me about their own struggles to find words for painful and traumatic experiences, their misgivings along the way, their moments of wanting to quit, and their ultimate relief that they did not quit, all encouraged me to keep writing and gave me the steadying I needed.
Instead of keeping these conversations to myself, I wrote Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma (forthcoming from Beacon Press on February 7). Each chapter is an in-depth narrative profile of my discussion with one of these authors. I share the circumstances of our meetings – from walking dogs with Mark Doty in the Hamptons; lunch with Marianne Leone and her husband, Oscar winner Chris Cooper at their home on Massachusetts’ South Shore; sipping a cup of tea while sprawled across Kate Bornstein’s bed in her New York City apartment - and the amazing insights I gain.
Since my questions are less about craft and more about survival, I tap into some areas of these authors’ processes that they’ve never shared before. I reflect on how each of these exchanges moved me away from the place where my memories were burying me and toward a completed memoir. I was motivated to turn these experiences into Writing Hard Stories by a realization that others facing the daunting journey to write into their long-carried stories, writers who also felt isolated by their particular circumstances, needed those stories and that steadying, too.
Maybe if I’d had the gift of these conversations sooner, before I started my MFA even, I might not have been so thrown by the emotions that surfaced when writing about my experiences, and when, more often than not, doing so felt like reliving those traumatic experiences. On that day of the streaming tears and hiccupping sobs, when all I wanted to do was hightail it out of that seminar room, I might, instead, have been able to turn to the person sitting next to me, shrug my shoulders, and simply say, “You know, this is what they told me would probably happen.”
Note from Lisa: Melanie would like to send one blog reader a signed copy of Writing Hard Stories. Simply ask her a question here in the comments (and she'll stop by and answer), and you'll be entered. (U.S. postal address is required.) Post your comment by Sunday, Feb. 12.