You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.
Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.
Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.
Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.
All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.
By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.
Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.
But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.
The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.
Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.
At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.
If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.
Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:
What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
What monsters did you face?
What barriers did you overcome?
Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
What did home look like when you completed your journey?
Memoirists sometimes worry about being sued for libel or slander or defamation.
Here’s the good news: you can’t be sued for what you’ve written until you make your work public. You can’t be sued for writing you keep in your notebook or on your laptop. And writing and publishing are two very separate enterprises.
Don’t even think about being sued while writing and revising. Wipe those thoughts from your mind.
Remember that no one sees what you are writing until you take the next step: publication in print or other media, or in a public reading. And this step doesn’t happen by accident or by itself. It comes after the writing, sometimes long after.
So that’s the simple answer to how to write a memoir if you’re worried about being sued: by recognizing that writing and publishing are separate. You can write about love and terror and tenderness and violence. You can blame people, and write bad things about them. No one is seeing it while you’re writing it. Write your best. Don’t worry.
What makes a piece of writing likely to be the subject of a lawsuit for libel or slander or defamation? Wait a moment while I put my law school hat on.
Notice that all three require that the statement be false. If I call someone a murderer in an essay, and the person has been convicted of murder, it doesn’t matter how pissed off he is that I’ve written that about him. He is out of luck because I told the truth.
“Can be brought” is in italics because bringing a lawsuit is not easy to do. Most people want or need to hire lawyers for that. And, believe it or not, lawyers don’t take any case that comes their way; the case has to be both winnable and worth significant dollars, or the client has to pay up front.
Some jurisdictions also require that the false statement was made with an intent to cause harm. In all jurisdictions, harm as a result of the false statement is required for damages to be awarded.
“Harm” is usually monetary harm. Here’s an example: I lie and call Mr. X a thief in my memoir, and he loses his job because of it. As a result of my false statement, he suffered the harm of losing his paychecks, and maybe future paychecks if my memoir is so widely published and read that everyone believes it.
So let’s say I self-publish a memoir and sell 200 copies. In the memoir, I falsely state that my neighbor, Ms. X, poured kerosene on my vegetable garden. Ms. X works as a psychologist. She sues me for libel, claiming that my memoir has ruined her counseling practice.
But my memoir only sold 200 copies, and most of those copies were purchased in another state. Ms. X is not licensed to practice in the other state. The harm she suffered is minimal. The judge finds in her favor, awards her $100 in damages, and orders me to withdraw my memoir from further publication until I delete any references to Ms. X.
On the other hand, if I sold 10,000 copies in my home state and Ms. X owned a landscaping business that went out of business as a result of bad publicity from my book, then her damages would be higher. She might even be able to convince a lawyer to take her case.
And remember, lawyers don’t take on cases that aren’t worth money unless the clients want to pay them a substantial retainer based on a high hourly rate.
So don’t worry about being sued if you are telling the truth. Truth is an absolute defense to these sorts of cases.
Once you feel your memoir is finished, then think about these two questions:
Does your work have a whiny or bitter tone?
Have you told the truth?
Tone is not always evident to the writer. Double-check your tone by asking a friend or writing partner to read with an eye for whining and bitterness. Both tones will dilute — or even destroy — any wisdom or beauty or excitement or analysis you want to share. Also, the market for whiny and bitter writing is teensy-weensy.
If you want to pre-empt whining and bitterness, consider putting some distance (spatial or chronological) between yourself and the events of your story or poem. Distance coats a story with compassion, revealing how external events shape mistakes or even cruelties. Distance makes it possible to see the complexity of events. Distance is a ladder that lets you get down from a high horse or climb up from a slough of self-blame. It’s a lens that lets you see all the love you might have missed.
What about telling the truth? Like George Orwell, I believe in an objective truth when it it comes to facts. However, we all remember events in slightly different ways from others. Don’t worry if your memory doesn’t exactly jive with your sister’s about some event from your childhood. But if memories differ significantly, that might be interesting enough to include in your piece.
What about the kind of truth that doesn’t rely on facts, sometimes called emotional truth? If it’s not about facts, it’s not slanderous. Writers and critics disagree about the nature of emotional truth. For me as a reader, it happens when I’m so enveloped in the sensory details of a real or imagined character’s joys and sorrows, I empathize with the character. For me as a writer, it happens when I remember to invest my essays and poems with those sensory details, and with plenty of love.
Writers are always trying to get at truth. When we succeed, it’s magic. When we fail, it’s a lesson. And since writing demands learning, those failures are lessons we need.
Don’t let worrying about being sued get in your way while you’re writing. But once you’re ready to send your work out for publication, check your tone and your facts, and aim for truth.
So often, memoir includes writing about other people in our lives. How do we make those others come alive to readers?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that in writing memoir, we should try to see ourselves as characters who have strengths, weaknesses, motivations. And that’s true for writing about others in our lives, too.
But if you’re like me, not everyone you write about in your memoir is a person you have only good feelings toward. In fact, we might feel resentment, rage, disappointment or even hate toward certain people who appear in our stories.
In my experience, it’s difficult to write well while experiencing negative emotions.
Also, if we write our negative feelings into these unpleasant other characters, two unfortunate things can happen to the memoir:
We, the writers, begin to sound unpleasant at best, or full of resentment at worst, both of which will turn most readers off.
The unpleasant others come across as one-dimensional, which is boring, especially if they occupy more than a very minor role in the story.
One solution to this difficulty of writing about unpleasant, disappointing, or toxic people is simply this: do not write about them. Cut them out of your story, just as you may have wished to cut them out of your life. You have the power. It’s your story, and no one else’s.
Another solution is to get in touch with the love you feel or felt for the person. See that person in your mind’s eye and imagine your heart opening. See the person as he was as a child. See the person as she was when you loved her most. See the person as a fellow struggler against suffering and despair.
Human relationships are so very complicated, and it’s so very possible to feel both love and hate for one person, even at the same time. And that is never boring.
When I reunited with my birth family nearly thirty years ago, I found I had five brothers and a sister. My brothers all suffered from addiction, and if you know anything about addiction, you know that it’s a family disease. Everyone in the family suffers. My feelings for my brothers were a mix of love, frustration, and even rage, especially when their addictions damaged their children.
Are you feeling bored yet? If not yet, you would become bored soon if I kept on in this vein. And you wouldn’t see my brothers as individuals; they’d become stereotypes.
My youngest brother, David, was the most severely addicted one. Here’s a scene I wrote while trying to touch the love I felt for him, even while he was at his weakest. In the scene, my sister Belinda and I are visiting him in the nursing home he’d been sent to when he was thirty-eight years old.
David’s nursing home allowed patients to smoke in one common room, and in a chain link fenced yard, so we’d bring him cigarettes, too. There was no point in denying him anything he wanted as his life inched toward its certain end, although we didn’t know how quickly that end would come.
I can still see him now in the chain link yard where we went to escape the air conditioning that was too much for all three of us. Wrapped in a thick sweater, he sat beside me and Belinda in his wheelchair with a lit cigarette in one hand, while pawing at Belinda’s arm with his other hand, saying, “Give me a cigarette, Belinda.”
The only thing left besides his restless cravings was his love for his sisters, and his daughter Brandi, and the rest of the family. The diabetes, the heart disease, and the years of active addiction had whittled him hollow, from the inside out.
Other men and women like David inhabited the nursing home, people who should have been in the prime of their lives, but whose brains and muscles and bones and nervous systems had been decimated by chronic drug use and the violence that so often comes with it. I’d expected beds full of frail little old great-grandmas and great-grandpas.
But instead, there were vacant-eyed people in their thirties and forties prowling the hallways like zombies. The man who’d lost a leg to an infection caused when he’d tried too hard to open up a collapsed vein to shoot heroin. The woman whose head had been bashed in by a john when she was out tricking for money for crack. The semi-comatose overdose victims.
An orderly was stationed in the smoking room to prevent fights, and to stop the stronger patients from taking advantage of the weaker ones like David. Belinda worried constantly, and I did too, but this place had been the only one that would take our brother.
When Brandi met us there one day with her newborn daughter Paris, she passed her baby to her father without any wariness. David held his granddaughter, looking at us all with a new wonder in his eyes, stronger than what he greeted me and Belinda with each time we visited as if to say “You came for me, for me, for me.” He cradled the baby gently as his muscle memory resurrected itself and all the fatherly tenderness he’d showered on Brandi returned.
Something in his peripheral vision distracted him, and he reached toward Belinda with one hand while still protecting Paris with his other arm. “I want a grape soda from the machine, Belinda, a grape soda.”
Sugar, and alcohol, and pain pills, and crack cocaine. Love had been enough to relieve him of his cravings for months at a time in the past, to keep him focused on his daughter without falling prey to distractions. But now, love didn’t work for but a few minutes.
Memoir is story, it just happens to be a story that’s true. And one thing that’s easy to forget when writing memoir is that your readers want to get to know you. And to them, you’re a character.
Just as in real life, that getting-to-know you happens gradually, through what you wear, where you hang out, what you say, where you work, who your friends and family are.
In any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.
Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.
Currently, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s craft book Damn Fine Story. It’s stuffed with clear and practical advice for writing stories that sweep readers off their feet and glue them into the comfy chair, or bed, or where ever the reader prefers to read.
Wendig is primarily a novelist and screenplay writer. So far, I haven’t seen him mention memoir, but IMHO, advice about writing stories (and that’s his focus) apply to memoir as well as fiction. I anticipate quoting from him often in this series about writing memoir.
Anyways, here are some points he makes about character development:
Characters are their problems.For example, in my adoption reunion story, my problem is that I don’t know where I came from.
Characters face internal and external complications. We’re talking about conflicts. In my story, my internal resistance to dependence on others was further complicated by my birth family’s external expectation that I would depend on them for love.
Characters create a story by interrupting the baseline, the status quo.Every story begins with a static situation and goes from there. Even if the original static situation is chaotic, it’s still the baseline from which the story begins. No interruption in the baseline = no story.
The best characters end a story changed. And isn’t that what memoir is about? How we, the writers, have been changed by a particular series of events?
So how do you turn yourself into a character? One way is to imagine readers are meeting you for the first time. Show them a picture (in words) of the person you are at the beginning of your story, and use plenty of concrete, sensory details. Here’s a current paragraph from my memoir draft that tries to do that work:
To ease my anxiety at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was in silk. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a twelve-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The nineteenth-century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, and the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age nine.
The bold-faced words are, of course, those sensory details. The reader will know I’m a lawyer, I’m willing to take a long train ride, and as a twelve-year-old child, I was a bookworm and a drug user. But, I notice, there’s nothing in this paragraph that says what I look like.
Straight physical descriptions (I was short, plump, and had dark hair) can sound forced, or boring, or both. Some writers think that physical descriptions are unnecessary for main characters because readers like to visualize them on their own.
But if I tie a physical description of myself to an action or emotion, that might work. Let’s see.
Anxious at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d twisted a section of my dark brown hair around one finger until it formed a spiral curl. To distract myself, I spent much of the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Balancing a folder on my ample lap, I paged through it with my skinny little chicken fingers.
Better? Maybe so. Let me know if you feel so inclined. Here’s an example from a better writer, Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Housekeeping.
… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.
Notice how each characteristic is paired with a verb and given an action.
Ways other than action to describe yourself as a character are:
Let other characters describe you. “Her friend turned to me and said ‘Your sister says you’re bizarre, but your brother-in-law says you’re merely eccentric.’”
Describe objects near and dear to yourself. “I held my teddy bear, which I’d received on my first birthday.”
Why have so many memoirs of recovering from addiction been published in the last fifteen years? I’d say it’s because addiction and recovery are significant issues for many contemporary families. In other words, those memoirs are personal stories touching on a big-picture issue. As such, they become more relatable for people who are concerned about those issues.
People read memoirs to identify and clarify their own stories, as well as for the beauty of language, the pull of story, or the memorable characters. Touching on significant issues in the context of a personal story helps to alleviate any “me, me, me, it’s all about me!” in a memoir, and it also makes the personal more universal. Or, to quote the second-wave feminist movements, it shows us that the personal is political.
Currently, I’ve divided my memoir draft in three sections. The bigger issue in the first section of my memoir is family separation and reunification. In the second section, it’s addiction’s impact on families. I haven’t figured out what it is in the third section, which so far covers the deaths of many family members, DNA testing, what happens when kids who were in foster care have kids of their own, and mass incarceration in the American prison system, among other things.
Maybe that’s a heads up for me that I’m covering too much ground in that third section.
Or maybe if I choose one significant issue, that can become my organizing principle for the third section.
But because I’ve had editors tell me (sometimes) that I sound like a bossypants, I know there’s a danger for me in deliberately exploring a significant issue in a memoir.
The danger in tying your story to a bigger issue is that you might fall into didacticism, better known as being a bossypants.
And no one likes a bossypants. So let’s say I decide the third section of my memoir is connected to the issue of mass incarceration. It’s tempting for me to haul out my old lawyer identity to argue against mass incarceration using evidence like studies showing how expensive it is, or international comparison statistics.
But my memoir is a personal story, not an editorial. Instead of taking the easy way out by arguing the evidence against mass incarceration, I have to rely on the details of the story.
So let’s see — how am I doing? What are your thoughts about the prison I describe in this scene from an essay about visiting my niece BeeBee at a women’s prison in Florida? Am I being a bossypants?
It was no place like home, but it was a place for families. They sat on metal benches in the processing room, waiting for their loved ones, hoping the next face would be the one they’d longed to see. As if to extend the suspense, the guards released inmates one by one through a gate in a chain-link cage. My niece BeeBee strutted out in a yellow t-shirt and chinos, and I stood up to hug her.
Like every woman I’ve ever known who’s done time, BeeBee had put on weight. This is usually a good thing; most women who get sentenced to prison have worked their bodies to the bone for drugs. When our hug ended, she stepped back and bounced on the balls of her feet like an athlete. Her thighs were thick with muscle and her arms were round, but her waist was still trim. When she lived on the outside, she’d made a living selling drugs and dancing in strip clubs; in prison, she made her way by winning dance challenges, and by winning fights.
We walked outside to the visiting area in the prison yard. Concrete tables squatted under a roof for shelter from the rain or the hot sun, but we didn’t need protection that day. The sky was clear, and the air was warming, but I already felt locked in and ready to leave.
Across the yard, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a massive concrete block building was going up, a construction project that wasn’t visible from the road. BeeBee told me it would be an addition to this women’s prison, and it looked as if it would be ten times as big as the current facility. The grapefruit I had for breakfast congealed in my gut, rose up, and burned my throat, as if I already knew that once construction was completed on this monster, it would rank as the largest women’s prison in the entire country.
Then she started talking about the times when I used to rent a beach house on Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia, and our whole family stayed together for a week. In those years, my nieces and nephews — eleven of them — were all children, running wild on the sand, rampaging through the ice cream parlor, and tearing up the rental house. I’d sometimes get the middle-class heebie-jeebies when they were too loud in a restaurant, or too daredevil on a playground, but mostly I sat back and admired their untamed joy.
How about you? What bigger issues do you grapple with in your memoir, whether it’s written or planned or somewhere inbetween?
After my first memoir was published as a Kindle Single, I reflected a bit about how I wrote it. Originally, that memoir was about my time as a teenage runaway and abuse survivor plus my time as a trial attorney representing a woman who’d survived being shot in the head. First, it was chronological; later, it was braided, alternating between deep past and more recent past.
An Amazon editor saw an essay I’d published in Guernica about my birth family. She asked me if I had anything longer. I sent her the teenage runaway/shooting manuscript. She felt the teenage runaway story was more dramatic than the shot-in-the-head story. Go figure.
She encouraged me to send her a draft of only that story. So, of course, I did.
It had taken me about five years to write that memoir. While that manuscript moved through the editing and publication process, I started imagining a quicker process for writing a full-length memoir about reuniting with my very colorful family. Maybe, I thought, it would be faster to do it in two steps.
First, write individual essays, get them published, and second, slap them together into a book-length memoir. An added benefit of this method was getting pieces of the memoir out in the world right away. Agents and editors like to bet on known quantities — writers who’ve already been published — and I wanted this next memoir published, too.
I was successful with step one; a dozen of those essays have been published in venues including The Rumpus, Narratively, and Sycamore Review. The very first one to be published found a home three years ago on Medium in the original incarnation of Human Parts.
But uh-oh. Guess what? It’s been way harder than I thought it would be to mash those essays together into a coherent story. What’s missing is continuity, the glue that holds a story together. But more importantly, in writing those essays, I hadn’t even begun to think about stuff like narrative arc and character development and overarching themes in a book-length story.
If that sounds like a fiction writer’s talk, well, I admit it is. Great memoirs, those that grab a reader and won’t let go, are written like great fiction. IMHO, of course. They focus on story.
Call me a traditionalist: I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some wonderful essay collections, like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, that have more than a hint of memoir about them. But I could pick that book up, and put it down, and pick it up again months later.
For me, the most enjoyable reading experiences are the ones that immerse me in a different world with a conflict that begins on page one, gets complicated as I fly through the pages, and comes to a satisfying (or maybe shocking) conclusion near the end.
Now, I’ve got just over 75,000 words of that second memoir written, and I’ve taken a vow to complete the first draft of the whole shooting match by the end of this May. As part of that goal, I plan to blog here every day about some element of memoir craft — especially those elements I need to master.
For me, writing a memoir step by step, one essay at a time, may not have been the time-saver I hoped for. But for other writers, the process has worked quite well, and it might work for you.
We writers are all different, but all writers benefit from knowing their options.
If you’re interested in a thorough discussion of memoir development options and a detailed, diverse analyses of distinctions between essay and memoir and story, I recommend Colin Hosten’s article that includes interviews with some of the top writers and editors in the field.
Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.
As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of advice: Keep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.
Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.
Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.
For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.
That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.
On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss. They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff, cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia.
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.
Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared. The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.
I felt that way when I began an MFA in Creative Writing program in the 1990’s. I was at a loss as to why my fellow students kept mentioning “Hugo.” It was “Hugo this” and “Hugo that.” I broke down and asked one of the professors, “Why does everyone keep talking about Victor Hugo?”
If you’re a fan of 20th century poetry, you’re probably laughing at me (good-naturedly, of course).
The other students weren’t talking about Victor Hugo, the 19th century French author of Les Miserables. They were talking about Richard Hugo, a poet, teacher and literary theorist from the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of him.
I had a solid background in European literature, especially Romantic and Victorian poetry, but I knew very little about poets of the twentieth century, except for poets associated with feminism, like Plath and Sexton and Rich, and a few other New England poets. Richard Hugo had not been on my radar.
Soon, I was reading his book, The Triggering Town, a collection of essays and lectures on poetry. Hugo’s overarching thesis was that rather than “writing what you know,” poets should open themselves to the unknown via triggering subjects. His approach had a spiritual element to it, as represented in the following passage:
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
Sadly, I was never able to enter fully into conversations about R. Hugo. I found him difficult to comprehend, but I did understand about being moved to write by an encounter with the unfamiliar, and writing about the unfamiliar by imagining yourself into that unfamiliar space.
Where I stopped following Hugo’s logic, though, was in his suggestion that the poet’s relation to the triggering subject should weaken. I was committed to the opposite: immersion.
This probably had something to do with my intense admiration of persona poems, or dramatic monologues, in which the poet takes on the identity and voice of another. Examples include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and “The Kid” by Ai.
Years later, when I lived in Maine, a very old woman told me the story of a black walnut tree that grew in her front yard. I was enchanted by the tree, the story, the woman, and the way she represented an archetypal Maine figure: independent, resilient, crotchety. The woman and her story were the triggers for the following poem, originally published in my poetry collection Back East.
He offered us a thousand bucks
for all — the trunk and limbs and roots —
of our black walnut. It didn’t arch
above our roof as it does now.
He wouldn’t tell us why, or how
he’d haul it out, a monstrous job
if you consider how the roots
extend their feelers underground,
mirroring the walnut’s crown.
We told him no, and when he bent
to crack a fallen nut, we warned
him of the stain. He didn’t listen.
With a skull-sized rock, he split it open. His handprint, darker than the door-
yard mud in spring, still gripped the front
porch rail the year he came again.
We watched him through the window then. He lay his hands along the trunk
as if he thought himself a healer,
and we mistrusted him more. We couldn’t
ask why he wanted what we wouldn’t
sell. We don’t meet others halfway,
or go beyond the wall out there where some glacier gave up and left us rocks.
While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.
Labels seem to me to have a limited use. In my 30+ years of activity in the poetry community, I’ve seen the lines between poetry and prose continue to blur. In fact, some journals now expressly solicit work that defies easy labelling. They call it hybrid work.
As a recovering formalist and fuddy-duddy, I’m okay with saying that I doubted the prose poem once myself. But one day a subject and an image seemed just right for the prose poem (I admit it) form.
This baby below was originally published in the now-defunct but engaging magazine concīs. The “bastards” in the title doesn’t refer to nasty people. It refers to the original use of the word: people born out of wedlock, like me and many of my fellow/sister adoptees. For more on the adoptee rights movement, check out Bastard Nation.
Family Trees for Bastards
1. Dead so long, you can see right through them. The branches fell first, then the crown, then the bark sloughed off like snakeskin, and the cores collapsed, leaving suggestions of strong columns spun upward in helix fashion. Below the shifting leaf litter and sand, roots entwine with limestone. What’s left has put on the pocked and scored look of karst, but a tree remains a tree.
2. Dead, but still intact, this one has some juice for chalk-white fungi spiraling around its trunk. Shelves for tree frogs, pale question marks, frilled platters for dolls.
3. Still alive, this one ripped the floor with it. New name: windthrow. Had something loosed its anchorage and prepared it to let go? A hole opens in the canopy, saplings stuck in the pole stage wake. The earth that ripped with the tree, once part of a forest floor, now named a tip-up mound.
4. Pine cone. Alone on the floor, waiting for a fire to free its seeds. So it can start over.