Then You Have to Write About It

Melanie Brooks develops the setting for her investigation of writing hard stories within the first paragraph by introducing the reader to the politics of genre within the literary world and her deepest insecurities about writing creative nonfiction. In her case, her fellow student’s off-hand joke or prediction that she will write about her father and then cry (Brooks 1) hit on her deepest insecurities surrounding the story of her father’s illness and death. As an MFA student leaving my first residency and creative nonfiction workshop experience, I too, felt incredible discomfort with the emotion, of my fellow writers’ work and did not feel capable of discussing the craft without acknowledging the difficulty of the content.

Just as Brooks struggled with the “discomfort with the very real emotion that underlies writing about sensitive subject matter” (1) in the MFA setting, I struggled with my literal commitment to the practical.  After years of writing persuasive lobbying documents, research papers and advocacy content, I am afraid I don’t have a proverbial lyrical bone in my body. Much like Melanie, who was slow to admit that the content and emotional reasons for her writing might matter more or at least as much to her than the craft, I find myself slow to admit that I might be more interested in telling important stories to the widest audience I can then in telling the most beautifully crafted story to an audience of fellow literary connoisseurs.

Writing Hard Stories aims to show us how accomplished writers of all genres turned personal and family trauma into art in the format of memoir and survived. The diversity of writers, experiences and their range of ability in different genres works to accomplish Brooks’ goal but in doing so she also takes on big issues, such as the author’s contract with the subjects and the truth, in which craft and content intertwine in the fluid .genre of creative nonfiction.

Brooks’ memoir reveals a family secret. Those of us from cultures that value silence, privacy and a certain public image can relate to the difficulty in breaking the family code. Her father lived with HIV in secret for ten years before his death, and regardless of the status of that knowledge now, Melanie lived under the terms of that contract of silence for many years. That is no small thing to step outside of even with the distance of time and age. This theme of contracts with the subjects of a story was central to Brooks’s interviews. It emerged as both a question of craft and the emotion of relationships.

While Andre Dubus III navigated the writing of Townie by creating his own contract for writing about his siblings, others, like Michael Patrick MacDonald, faced a different opponent: an Irish-American culture of silence and a specific Southie code of silence. Dubus decided that he would only write about his family when it overlapped directly with his own experience, and this approach freed him up to write honestly about this childhood (16-17). There was no strategy or approach that could satisfy MacDonald’s insular childhood community depicted in his chronicle of loss, crime, violence, drugs and poverty. In writing All Souls he could not avoid the trauma of his neighborhood and tell his own story, so he had to essentially smash the only contract he knew. Indeed, he tells Brooks that the code of silence was so impenetrable that he had to learn language because he couldn’t find the words he needed to write the story (34). This is a common theme throughout the book: writing a memoir involves inventing the language you want to or can use to tell your story and survive the experience as a healthy (ish) person. MacDonald looked to activists in other Boston neighborhoods who were talking about the issues to process his own story. Others looked to fiction, editors, advocates, genres and artifacts to find the words they needed to tell their story within a contract of their own design.

Abigail Thomas, author of Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life and A Three Dog Life, believes a ruthlessness in writing is required for the genre. She urges Brooks to put the narrative ahead of concerns about other points of view (96). She cautions writers to question their own motives for including specific scenes to ensure revenge or hurt is not the goal. The common theme amongst all the memoirists is that once they accepted they were writing their own story and for what purpose, they could operate with a sense of ethical certainty about which characters, topics and scenes needed to be included despite concerns about the reaction of readers or family.

Suzanne Strempek Shea talks to Brooks about writing with the self-consciousness that comes from being a “good girl” and living up to an image of what is expected of you as a person and writer. Strempek Shea wrote her memoir Songs from a Lead Lined Room while undergoing radiation for breast cancer. The writing was initially a comforting ritual that helped her cope with the daily ravages of radiation.  One might hope that chronicling your own personal and individual illness might make you exempt from the worry about reader reactions, but Strempek Shea still worried about how her story would be perceived. She, like her peers, concludes that writing about her own experience connected her to others regardless of her anxieties. Her now-resolute advice helps Brooks, and me, put aside the wrangling for certainty, importance or relevance in our stories and accept that everyone has good and bad experiences in life and a writer’s natural reaction is to write – “You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it” (89).

Like the other poets profiled in the book, Mark Doty and Richard Hoffman, Richard Blanco describes stumbling into prose memoir writing through poetry and essays. In Blanco’s memoir, The Prince of Los Cucuyo’s: A Miami Childhood, he wrote Miami as a character and confesses that his portrayal of the city was an unanticipated worry (178-179). It is anticipated worry for me when writing about Ireland. Being an immigrant made me hyper aware of how outsiders’ personal stories and experiences can be misinterpreted as ill-informed criticism. In working for governmental organizations, particularly local ones in small communities, you must be cautious about your public commentary on regulations, policies and politicians. In most cases you sign a communication policy, so you are aware that “speaking out of turn” could jeopardize your career or even cost you your job. I am no longer under the terms of any contract and so must develop my own in relation to my story, which, because of my past jobs, will overlap at times with other public officials or with public policy. How do I take my experience of Ireland and connect it to bigger social and cultural issues in Ireland regarding women, motherhood and mental health without stepping on other people’s stories, particularly as an outsider?

Blanco conducted lots of additional research to ensure specific details are correct, but he also approached the memoir as a poet and kept the same contract with his readers and himself: emotional truth (179). Each writer had to negotiate their relationship or contract with people and places, but also between different perceptions of truth. Again, Brooks takes on a larger issue in the creative nonfiction world by straying outside the craft tricks to cope with writing hard stories and talking to the writers as complete people about the impact this work had on their lives. Each writer describes a commitment to truth within the context of his or her own contracts or tools, but they differ. There is a continuum of fact that each writer slides along within the bounds of fact and truth. For advocacy reasons, writers including Marianne Leone and Edwidge Danticat seem to have a more evangelical zeal for the facts around the story. I can relate more to this in my own writing. I feel crippled by the responsibility of writing other people’s hard stories and have yet to decide how I can be creative without weakening their and my own credibility with decision-makers and yet, ironically, I don’t feel like my own personal story is worthy of a book.

Joan Wickersham, like many of the other memoirists, seemed to share my conflict and could not commit to a write an entire book about herself to start. She, and others, wrote around it: short stories, essays, poems. Wickersham’s describes how she arrived at the index style as a structure that could pull together the at-times chaotic writing about her father’s suicide, which in turn reflected the chaos of both the topic and the experience of suicide. Brooks uses her own obvious insight about trauma and art to link all the writers’ craft choices, such as Wickersham’s index structure, to both the emotions and skills required to write a compelling memoir.

I thank Brooks for insisting that the craft and the subject of these writers’ memoirs could not and so should not be treated as separate entities and wedge the practical concerns of writers into the literary conversation. Her head-on approach deals with the most essentials issues frightening me, as well as her, as new creative nonfiction writers. Before reading Writing Hard Stories, these issues felt like obstacles –  or perhaps border walls – that might keep me out I felt alone in workshops as faculty and students worshiped lyrical essays and poetry I suspected I will never write. The struggle to create a lyrical and layered piece of writing is revered, but the struggle to balance the emotional and concrete logistics and burdens of writing about real people, lives and feelings felt like a philistine concern until I read this collection.  Brooks has started a long-overdue conversation in the genre that will help both new and experienced writers create their own strategies for coping with the challenge of writing the truth.

Brooks, Melanie. Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists who Shaped Art from Trauma, Beacon Press, Boston, 2017.