Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Guest Blogger Melanie Brooks on: Writing Your Story, and Crying if you Want (or Need) To

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.

You can connect with Melanie via Facebook, Twitter, and her website.


Nancy Dorman-Hickson said...

I read once "Coincidence is the language of angels." I wish I knew who said it because that line has come to play a part in my life frequently, such as today while reading your post. I'm writing memoir and this is exactly what I am feeling, even though my story isn't a traumatic story. Reactions to my story, however, have called into question why I'm doing this, what I hope for in completing it, whether I should quit, etc. And I have burst into tears in a writing class, even though I, too, am not a crier. This week, I got into a back-and-forth with a novelist friend who argued fiction is just as personal as memoir. I'm not sure my argument "won," but the discussion made me realize at a gut level how the two categories involve different levels of personal. In memoir, you're inviting people to judge not only your writing and your story, but you as a person. Think about reviews of memoir and you'll find most quickly segue into admiration, disgust, etc. for the author. It isn't as much about the story or plot line or language used or anything you'll find in a review of fiction; memoir is about the author. A novelist might (emphasis on "might") be judged -- I've heard Stephen King delight in the fact that some think he really is the demented characters he writes about -- but a memoirist is definitely (emphasis on "definitely") going to be evaluated on a personal level. I plan to order your book and thank you for having written it to help navigate these tricky psychological waters.

monmen said...

Melanie and Lisa, thank you for this post. I read it on my lunch break at work. I've discussed with students in my writing classes and can now recommend your book to them alongside my remarks. Like most of us, I have held down" dayjobs" while writing for most of my adult life. It's a bizarre experience for we memoirists. Each day I wake to an alarm and open the spigot and let my fully-embodied self flow forth for a while. Then the alarm goes off a second time. It tells me to crank the spigot shut. I have to do that in order to keep track of all the details, timelines, deadlines, and "to-do"s that come with my job. I get paid for being astonishingly organized. Many, many times I arrive at my office realizing the spigot isn't shut after all, but drip-drip-dripping. Other days, I suddenlty cannot hold back the flow and I have to take coffee breaks to "deal with my feelings". In a world that increasingly seems to require numbness in order to function, I feel utterly unacceptable in my rebellion to remain emotionally alive and still earn a paycheque. The publication of my book, What the Mouth Wants, is imminent and somehow I am still keeping everything in order. So yeah. I need to read your book.

Gail Hovey said...

Thanks for this post. I signed up for my MFA at Stonecoast to write my memoir about childhood sexual abuse and its long term consequences. I thought I could write it in two years. It is now seven and I am still working. Yes, there has been that unexpected emotion. Also, layers and more layers of meaning, of stripping finely honed defenses, a process that seemingly could go on forever. I want to finish this year. This writing is absolutely necessary for me but I also see what I have lost by giving it so much time, other things that need doing, that I want to do. I admire the writers you were able to interview and look forward very much to reading your book.

Janet said...

What a moving journey. I'm grateful that you explored it so deeply and are sharing your explorations in this book. I will order it and recommend it to others. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I think we cried together during our readings at Iota. You gave me the space, and the opportunity to do that. You know I will love your book. xo

Unknown said...

Nancy -
I'm so glad you could relate to these thoughts. And thank you for ordering my book! I think that the debate about nonfiction vs. fiction is not about the personal toll on the writer in the process of writing (because I do think it can be just as challenging), but it's about the response from the reader. With fiction there is a layer of protection between the writer and the reader, but in nonfiction we have no shield, so it feels like more exposure.
- Melanie

Unknown said...

Monica -
I really like your comparison to the spigot and how it's not always easy to turn it on and off. I always find that difficult when it comes to returning to life as "Mom" where my children need me to not be a basket case. Re-entry is never easy. I think that's why it is so vital to find some duration of time (retreats, conferences, etc.) where we have some space to just be in the throes of it all without a strict time limit. Congratulations on your book!
- Melanie

Unknown said...

Gail -
There's a significant amount of sacrifice in this writer's life, isn't there? I'm sending good thoughts your way that you are able to meet your goal of completing your memoir this year. Be kind to yourself, though, and try not to beat yourself up too much if you don't. The finish line is waiting. You will get there. (At least that's what every single one of the writers in this book said to me!)
- Melanie

Unknown said...

Janet -
Thank you so much for ordering and recommending! The journey was incredibly moving and, ultimately, life-changing.
- Melanie

Unknown said...

Ryder -
I think that the inconvenient crying is a whole lot less inconvenient when done in concert with a friend! I was so grateful for that time with you at IOTA. xxxx Melanie

Nancy Dorman-Hickson said...

I agree, Melanie, the issue is mainly between that of reader and writer after publication. However, I also have experienced "the personal toll on the writer in the process of writing" through responses and reactions of a critique group reading my work as I write it. I welcome the members' candor because I think it prepares me for reader reactions, should my book be published. Better to get a heads up on responses your writing might generate prior to publication! To me, that's another important function of pre-publication critique writing groups in addition to the editing and suggestions.

I look forward to reading your book.

Risa Nye said...

Melanie, I would love to read your book! Having written a memoir about a painful experience, I know how hard it is to put yourself back in that time and face all the emotions involved. And now, I'm thinking about what comes next. I'm grappling with the challenge of finding another subject to explore and I'm wondering if it's the right thing to do--it's a mother daughter issue that might feel good for me to write about, but may not interest anyone else. I'm worried that my point of view needs tempering--or does it? said...

I've been relying on Mary Karr's "The Art of Memoir" to get me through writing about my early career and the challenges we young women faced. (Journalism was Mad Men writ large.) Although I've been a non-fiction writer (and now editor)for my whole career, I found expertise in non-fiction does not necessarily carry over to memoir writing. Even tho my initial audience is my granddaughters and family (limiting my audience in my eyes makes it easier to get the words on paper), writing about one's own past and the people in it, is not like penning a snappy profile of a mayor or governor.
Long way of saying, thanks for your encouraging and helpful words.

Unknown said...

Hi Risa -
One of the writers in my book, Richard Hoffman, talks about the fact that writing and publishing are two different things and to be careful not to confuse them. Write what you need to, and don't worry about who is or isn't going to be interested in what you have to say. He says you have to keep the censor out of the room or the process gets halted. Things like tempering your point of view or determining the right audience - that stuff comes later. For now, tell your story.
- Melanie

Unknown said...

Penny -
Thank you! One of my authors, Suzanne Strempek Shea, was a journalist for fifteen years before she wrote her first memoir. She expands on what you say here and how different it felt for her to write about herself in such a personal way. I hope her words and the words of the other authors will help to encourage you!
- Melanie

Lisa Romeo said...

Gail, you are the recipient of the book from Melanie! Please send me your postal address (LisaRomeoWriter at gmail dot com) and Melanie will sign it and send it on to you.

Thanks everyone for reading and leaving such great comments/questions, and thanks to Melanie for her answers!