Writing the Personal Essay

Hey folks, another quick digression here (and bonus Saturday post!). I didn’t want anyone to miss a great opportunity. Creative Nonfiction‘s online classes are about to get a great boost, when Matt Randal O’Wain teaches an upcoming section of “Writing the Personal Essay.” Matt is a visiting faculty member with my MFA program this semester, which means I got to study with him at this recent residency, and I was really pleased to get to know him. He’s a great guy, personable and thoughtful and considerate and we share some interests; more importantly for these purposes, he’s also a well-read, thoughtful, insightful teacher. Register here! This Monday is your last day to get discounted registration for this course, and I have a coupon code to share with you to get an additional $50 off! I’m not sure I should post that here, but drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com and I will get you the code asap.

If you have any questions about CNF’s courses, or about Matt, also drop me a line or comment here and I’d be glad to share what I can.

Thanks for reading. Back to your weekend.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.


Rating: 6 sea monsters.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

This craft book has things in common with both Family Trouble and Fearless Confessions. Like the former, it addresses in part the difficulties in writing about real people, especially those we love. Like the latter, it takes a certain rah-rah tone, encouraging aspiring writers to go for it, you can do it, and don’t be bothered by all those nasty critics disparaging the genre that is memoir. I don’t mean to condescend, and I appreciate the support that Silverman and Kephart offer. It is a tiny bit peppier in tone than my personal preference would call for. But it’s valid support that I need and appreciate, and it’s backed up by both writing chops (publications) and a secure knowledge of craft.

So this is not a *perfect* book, for me, but a very good one. I really enjoyed Kephart’s boiling-over enthusiasm for the genre, and I’m inspired by her apparently wild success as (in her own words) an “entirely unschooled” writer. I love her annotated appendix of memoirs to read, categorized by subject (grief, childhood, “unwell,” “mothers, fathers, children,” and more): there are so many such lists out there, but I eat them up every time, looking out for the title that I’ve never encountered before (and there were several here!), for the different perspective. Kephart does a good job, introducing this appendix, of pointing out the subjectivity of such lists, the value a book may hold for one reader/writer and not for another, and the value in a book a reader doesn’t love.* Then she goes ahead and lists–with some discussion/description, which is great. Here, the title I picked up on was Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris. I went ahead and ordered myself a copy on Biblio.

In the body of the book, Kephart offers discussions of what memoir is and what it is not (not revenge, not tone-deaf, not therapy, but rather making the “me” work for “us,” making one’s story universal). A number of short chapters offer prompts, or reminders to include weather, place, food, and sensory detail. Final thoughts on how to turn scraps of writing into a book; and exhortations to always work from and toward empathy, to not make stuff up. I appreciate that one of the central pillars of memoir writing, for Kephart, is the idea of making a story speak to the human condition. That my story is not interesting because of its particular, but becomes interesting when I make the unique universal, make the personal stand in for shared experience, draw conclusions, find meaning. (See Gornick’s The Situation and the Story–though it’s not my favorite articulation of this idea, Kephart appreciates it.)

There is much to love here, especially for hesitant writers new to memoir, or those without the benefit of an MFA program–though I am in a program I love and still found lots to appreciate!


Rating: 7 porcelain dogs.

*I am totally tickled when she writes, “You will blog about my inevitable injustice,” when I the reader find my favorite memoir left off her list. Here I am, blogging! But she listed several I love, by Kimmel, Bechdel, and Bragg; Dillard, Williams, Offutt; titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, Lamott; and Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which I am anxious to get to. Sometimes she chose my second-favorite title by a given author. But I am certainly not here to blog about any injustices, no.

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family ed. by Joy Castro

Family Trouble is a delightful collection about the challenges of writing nonfiction about family. I loved the wide range here: of experiences related by these established (published) writers; of the advice they have to offer; and in the writers, themselves, who are of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, sexualities, gender expressions, and life experiences. Editor Castro contributes a pure-gold introduction, which incorporates quotations and references to all her contributors but also manages to offer her own perspective. I was on page 7–yes, in the introduction–when I found my first epiphany.

Essays are sorted into sections by outlook or strategy: “Drawing Lines,” “The Right to Speak,” “Filling the Silence,” “Conversations of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with Karen Salyer McElmurry). Others I knew by reputation: Susan Olding, Susan Ito, Sandra Scofield, Lorraine M. L√≥pez, and more. I did have favorites, sure, but I emphasize, I most appreciated the interplay, the sum of parts: these diverse voices and perspectives playing off each other. The anecdotes from experiences are valuable (and often entertaining or humorous, although there is much pain here, too). The writing is lovely. It’s a hell of a collection.

Here are a few of my most treasured lessons.

“Good writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on the page, and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” Writing The Truth Book, I truly was on a genuine voyage of discovery, and these two driving questions* helped shape the memoir, guiding my choices about what to disclose and what to omit. If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of those questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.

From Castro’s introduction; and she mentions the *two driving questions earlier in the paragraph, but I submit that they don’t even matter here, for the purpose of the lesson she offers. I’ll try and recapture it: the memoirist must be driven to tell a story in pursuit of discovery or of answering a question or questions. The issue of whether to include certain material (which, I’ve said elsewhere, is a central issue in crafting memoir) then becomes simply an issue of whether it pursues the main question(s), the desired discovery. …This assumes that we know why we’re writing, and I don’t, always. Sometimes I just want to write a thing, without knowing what the burning issue is. So this becomes a multipart problem: figuring out why a story needs writing (what’s the burning question?), and then mindfully allowing that question to sort what needs inclusion and what does not.

This seems, now that I’ve thought it out, plenty obvious. But I had to get there, and Castro helped.

I also really appreciated the concept that the idea of family stories exists on a spectrum, with the immediately, intimately personal (individual) on one end, and a global human community on the other. From Aaron Raz Link:

A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story. Before I became a writer, I was a historian working in public museums. As a result, I see that family assembles our individual stories together to become the fabric we call culture and history. This process gives each of us some sense of belonging to a larger world.

Richard Hoffman’s first memoir helped put the man who raped him in childhood away in prison, and therefore offers a particularly stark example of personal or family stories having larger ramifications. He contributes to the same idea:

The trouble with the view put forth in dozens of books about family “dysfunction,” some of them interesting and helpful, is that it tries to understand the family without its community, without its culture and class, without its history and the relation of that history to–well, History.

Somehow, I feel like this relates back to some comments I made near the end of this post, about interdisciplinarity. Seeing the connections feels like some of the most important learning we can do, ever.

I loved that some essays took different forms, like Susan Olding’s contribution, “Mama’s Voices,” with its stop/play/fast-forward organization, involving tape recordings. I appreciated the far-reaching context and concerns of Faith Adiele’s “Writing the Black Family Home.” And I enjoyed and marveled at Ariel Gore’s “The Part I Can’t Tell You,” in which she does tell us. Or does she?

Much to be admired, and probably of interest to a fan of memoir as well as a hopeful writer of same.


Rating: 8 mournful duets about two people who never should have broken up.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Strong words, but I’m going to say it: I think this is the most enjoyable craft book I have read. Strunk & White and Stephen King are very good but McPhee wins it.

Eight essays about writing, previously published in The New Yorker and only one of them previously collected (“but to a far greater extent [it] belongs here”). McPhee is funny, self-deprecating, practical, and wise. He tells stories! I love the anecdotes, such as the one that begins “Frame of Reference,” and makes the point that a reference must always be chosen with an audience in mind. (Greta Garbo will not be meaningful to kids born after 2000; Britney Spears will not be meaningful to my grandmother.) He gives good, down-to-earth writing advice, unsurprising, as this skill has been honed by decades of teaching experience. McPhee’s students populate these essays, too, some of them bumbling and some of them accomplished, and all of them treated gently. He relates tales of interviews that went easily (Woody Allen) and less easily (Jackie Gleason). The tone, McPhee’s writing voice, is exceptionable. I find him just quintessentially likeable. He is funny, humble, and instantly recognizable.

“Progression” is about linkages, and fits nicely with the following essay, “Structure,” on that topic. “Editors & Publisher” is something of a series of profiles of those McPhee has worked with, with some advice and wisdom about how the work works. “Elicitation” is about interviews (those great stories), both anecdote and how-to. “Frame of Reference,” with all its details from life and history and McPhee’s writing and reading, was one of the most enjoyable essays for me. “Checkpoints” is about fact-checkers, again with such an engaging proportion of fascinating story and practicality. “Draft No. 4” is about the writing process and the writing life: how drafting works, and how to hopefully retain sanity. “Omission” is about brevity, and cutting, and allows McPhee to finish both this essay and the book with a humorous line spoken by General Eisenhower: this is a writer who knows how to pick a quotation and let it stand.

McPhee gave me some things to ponder: his astonishing method of finding a structure first and them a subject to fit it; his method of note-taking and outlining; his drafting. And I will cherish forever one-liners like, “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line” (not about homicide at all, but about “greening,” a topic after my own heart). I will keep this book handy for both its solid advice and its entertainment value. I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know; and I can’t wait to read more McPhee.


Rating: 9 mustaches.

more on Silverman’s Fearless Confessions

I’ve been asked by a reader to elucidate some points in my review of Fearless Confessions. I apologize for being less than clear. Y’all keep on asking your questions so I can do the communicating I want to do, improve my practice, and not frustrate my readers!

These are the lines in question as they appeared:

I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

And the question read,

Who is doing the highlighting – an aspiring writer reading an established author? For understanding the craft in that writer’s style? And is ‘erasing the parts’ advice for that aspiring writer to edit a draft down to the desired essence?

Okay, I’ll try again. The highlighting is metaphoric, not literal, although the metaphor gets a little involved when we talk about the different color highlighters. The idea is this: let’s say I’ve been a competitive cyclist; been married and divorced; and worked in several male-dominated industries, with associated challenges. Let’s say I also studied library science in graduate school. If I’m writing a memoir about my divorce, I don’t necessarily need to weigh down or confuse the reader with all the other stuff. If we imagine my life story as one big, exhaustive text (that no one wants to read), and I’m crafting a memoir from it, I’m going to highlight the stuff that meets the needs of the book I have in mind to write. I’m going to highlight all the parts about marriage and divorce, obviously. And maybe some parts of riding bikes or working around men will also get highlighted, because they are relevant to the narrative about my divorce. But I don’t necessarily need the library science. When I get around to writing a memoir about my experience as a woman in the world, I’ll use the male-dominated industries stuff, and some of the bike racing (from when I raced against men), and maybe some of the library science (a female-dominated profession, with different issues) and some of the divorce. If we imagine my full and exhaustive life story as one big text, I’m using different color highlighters to go through and select the content that belongs in different memoirs. That’s the metaphor at play.

The erasure concept is related. If my life is a big, exhaustive text, and I’m writing an artful memoir of it, I’m not going to include every pair of shoes I ever wore, every friend I made and lost from pre-K on, every meal I can remember eating, every time anyone hurt my feelings. We all know that kind of exhaustive life story is… exhausting. Nobody wants to read that, although many a late-night drunk has offered it to many a bartender. As Silverman wrote it, the fiction writer gets to build a story out of her imagination. But a memoirist has to craft one by erasure, by taking out all the unnecessary details and bullshit of a life, until she is left with a beautifully crafted story.

How’d I do?

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman

Edit: see follow-up post here.


Sue William Silverman is an established memoirist with Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction (among other books, including poetry). This is the first of hers I’ve read, though.

Her title is intended as an answer to accusations that memoirs during the “memoir craze” of recent decades, and particularly those by women or other marginalized demographics that she refers to as the “other,” are confessional-in-a-bad-way, or sensational, or oversharing, or navel-gazing. With this title, Silverman reclaims the term and redefines it. Confessions are good, are therapeutic and cathartic, and lead to healing for the confessor and opportunities for fellow sufferers to begin their own healings. It’s a positive sentiment, although in this telling it occasionally carries a bit more touchy-feeliness than I might like.

I love the balance Silverman strikes between general philosophies of writing and nuts-and-bolts strategies. Each chapter concludes with a series of writing prompts or exercises. The craft books I’ve read for school (now in my third semester) have been successful reads, for me, at a lower rate than the rest of my reading. I don’t know if I’m pickier about craft books, just tend to like them less as a category, or am having trouble selecting the right ones. But my complaints often center on this balance issue: a writer holding forth about Writing (capital W) because he likes the sound of his writing, versus the practical how-to. I was pleased, early in Fearless Confessions, at the balance, which feels just right to this Goldilocks.

There is, though, a touch more cheerleading and rah-rah than I might like, just a hint of a tone that could be patronizing. Silverman has a tendency to wrap up chapters or concepts with “now go forth and do it, you’ll be great!” statements. Some of this is because there is an emphasis on trauma writing, Silverman’s own experience and (arguably) her specialty: the uncovering of a source of shame (incest, sexual abuse, sex addiction) which becomes an empowering and healing experience, and an aid to others. It makes sense to me that writers dealing with these kinds of issues deserve and need a certain amount of cheerleading. But I think Silverman has a lot to offer those of us who are doing different work, less revealing-of-trauma, and her tone came off just a touch strong for me, personally, and perhaps for other writers like me.

It also sometimes felt a bit more beginner than I needed, like in the first appendix, a discussion of the subgenres of creative nonfiction, which I found a little stark in its delineations–although a good primer it would be. Other appendices include a reading list (long, and by subject–I’ll be returning to that), and a handful of craft essays and examples of creative nonfiction essays. These were valuable inclusions that broadened the book and diluted Silverman’s peppy teacher’s tone.

I hear myself waffling as I write this review, and I guess that ambivalence is the story of my reading experience: great content, but often delivered in a way I found just slightly frustrating. And there was great content! I was really excited by Silverman’s concepts of highlighting, with different color highlighters, different plot elements or characters in a memoirist’s story to serve different plots. Or her idea of erasing the parts that don’t serve whichever story is being told: where a fiction writer builds plot, a nonfictionist sculpts one by erasure. These metaphors worked really well for me, and are perhaps the best expressions I have read of concepts I’ve been trying to articulate and wrap myself around.

I think I came to this one at a little the wrong time, and it would have suited me earlier in my studies. I’m glad I read it, but I found myself sometimes a tad impatient with the tone. I think I’ll be returning to this book, and going back to the writing prompts and exercises Silverman offers. I do recommend Fearless Confessions, just with a little patience, if indeed your tastes tend to follow mine, or if your background in creative nonfiction is already established. Or, to put it another way: an excellent introduction to writers new to memoir.


Rating: 7 pairs of red shoes.
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