Writing Memoir: Essay by Essay

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash
Should you begin writing a memoir as a book-length story, or essay by essay?

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 RumpusNarratively, 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.

Write on.

Poetry on Adolescence

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

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 adviceKeep 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.

Quarry

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.

Poetry: The Triggering Town

The cover of Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town
Have you ever felt left out of a conversation?

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 poetryHugo’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.

Black Walnut

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.

Poetry in Form: Prose Poems

Fungi circling a tree. Photo by Michele Sharpe
Pure-of-mind formalists might argue that the prose poem is not written in form at all, and some poets and critics have argued that prose poems aren’t poems — they are prose.

Controversy continues to rage on, but the two most authoritative American sources for information on poetry provide similar definitions

The Poetry Foundation defines the prose poem as:

A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See Amy Lowell’s “Bath,” “Metals Metals” by Russell Edson, “Information” by David Ignatow, and Harryette Mullen’s “[Kills bugs dead.]”

The Academy of American Poets defines the prose poem as:

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 concīsThe “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.

Poetry on Environment

Butterfly on blossom. Photo by Stephen Mulkey.

Like many baby boomers, I recall a time when an unusually warm spring day was something to relish, not cause for anxiety about climate change.

My spouse, scientist Stephen Mulkey, is fond of saying, “Weather and climate are not the same thing,” but it’s natural for folks to experience weather as a harbinger of good or bad fortune, or of the changes to come.

The rainbow, the stormclouds, the hurricane, the cloudless sky, the tornado — all these have an emotional resonance for us. Because climate change is so centered on prediction, we can’t help but tie weather and climate together.

The industrial revolution sparked an interest in preserving the natural environment, an interest that continues today. One poem specifically in response to the industrial revolution is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who saw miracles in Nature and his God’s hand in all of those miracles.

Today, there are a number of magazines centered on environmental concerns that publish poetry. These include OrionTerrain, and Ecotone, to name a few.

The day the American government vowed to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change published a new issue (28.2), which includes my poem, Gift Horse. I admit to being influenced by that science dude I’m married to!

Gift Horse

Mid-century, an early spring meant
taking off our shirts between the dunes in April
,
desperate as we were to air our skin out
after months cocooned in wool. 
Even the sand
felt good, scratching our backs. 
We crossed our arms
behind our heads and watched the mare’s-tail clouds
brush the blue from the sky
. Those stretches
of mild weather out of season — 
such gifts,
we never thought to check their teeth.

Poetry in Form: Sapphics

“A woman walking in the sea in a white dress, as the water reflects the Rarotonga sunset” by Luke Marshall on Unsplash

Sapphics, as you might guess, are named for the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The form follows a strict metrical pattern that does not come naturally to me. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan once said at a reading. “I am a slave to rhyme.” Well, I am a slave to the iamb, and the Sapphic meter seems weird.

But it seemed like the perfect form for a particular poem.

Sapphics are written in four-line stanzas. The contemporary Sapphic metrical pattern for poets who write in English sounds like this:

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da da DUM da

In contrast, the more common iambic pattern goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

Why did I choose to write in an ancient Greek Sapphic form? It started with undergoing interferon treatment for hepatitis C. (Coincidentally the word “hepatitis” comes from the Greek.) The treatment gave me many nasty side effects, but the scariest one was that it wiped out the poetry part of my brain for a year.

Happily, a breakthrough came when I visited The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. This museum, in the lavish former home of the circus magnate, has a Renaissance-style sculpture garden with a number of colossal statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

But the colossal that struck me like a thunderbolt was a replica of the Rape of Proserpina (a/k/a Persephone) by the Italian sculptor Bernini. It depicts Pluto (a/k/a Hades), the god of the underworld, abducting the virgin Proserpina.

Looking up at the colossal statue, I was astonished to see that a paper wasp had made a nest in Proserpina’s crotch. A metaphor occurred to me — the first that had popped into my head in a year. But more amazingly, when I got home and started researching wasps, I learned that their Latin name is hymenoptera — after “hymen,” the tissue that is broken when a woman loses her virginity.

What a gift that was. The poem was originally published in the online journal Per Contra.

The Wasp Garden

A Sapphic verse on a copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini at the
Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

“Rape of Proserpine,” the colossus’s sign reads,
“Stone Variant,” on the theme “young girl some
God of Hell abducted became a queen.” Her
Rape is looming, yet

Here, she’s held aloft, as if ready to fly, with
Pluto’s arms her launch. See where haughty paper
Wasps, the Hymenoptera, built their nesting
Site between her not-

Yet-queen-thighs, a fortress of humming rapture,
Stingers sharpened, ready to shield them both from
Brutal injuries and regrets, to put an
End to myths like these.

Poetry with Narrative

A motorcycle parked in an alleyway. Photo by Michael Wade on Unsplash

Narrative poetry has been around for millenia. It’s a poem that tells a story. The opposite of narrative poetry is lyrical poetry, which tells about a moment, a feeling.

In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.

But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.

You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.

Ladies Night

Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip

It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next.
 The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece
so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.

Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground.
The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light.
 The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? 
This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.

Poetry: How to Read the Words

“Positive bright white neon white sign on dark background, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

 

 

First, relax.

Speak the poem out loud.

Pay attention to the words.

All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.

During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?) conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses. They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.

But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.

Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.

But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations. Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.

It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]

Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:

  • This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
  • This is a poem about an abusive father

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.

Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.

Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.

In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.

Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good. Complexity. Poetry can sing about that to us. All we have to do is pay attention to the words.

Poetry on Weather

“A hurricane or storm over Yemen” by NASA on Unsplash

Like most people in 21st century America, I’ve lived through a good bit of weather: historic blizzards, historic heat waves, historic hurricanes, historic droughts, historic rains. One thing I’ve never experienced personally is a tornado, but I’m okay with that.

Weather has been a rich subject for poets across all boundaries. No matter our country, continent, time, or season, we all experience weather in very intimate ways. If we commute, the rain or snow can tangle up our days; if we garden, the sun and rain can feed us; if we take our leisure time outdoors, the weather can delight us — or make us miserable.

No matter how old and cranky I get, I remain a fan of the British Romantic poets. Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley is, I admit it, a little adolescent (“A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”), but it still thrills me.

Remember “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind? 
Neither you nor I. 
But when the trees bow down their heads, 
The wind is passing by.

More modern poems about weather include Snow by Naomi Shihab Nye and Flood by Eliza Griswold.

Not surprisingly, poems “about” weather, whether old or new, are often about something else, too. Poets are devious.

Here’s one of my poems “about” weather, in this case, Hurricane Matthew, which raked the Southeast coast of America in 2016. It was originally published in Tuck Magazine, and picked up by a reporter for a regional South Carolina magazine who wrote an article about it, including an audio recording of the poem.