In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.
Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.
This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.
My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.
Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.
But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.
Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.
Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.
This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.
Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”
A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.
Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.
I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.
One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.
I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.
The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.
Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.
Why shouldn’t we include photographs in memoirs? The only reason I can think of is that some (maybe many) publishers don’t want the hassle. Publishing images is more complex, more expensive than publishing text only. Unless, of course, you’re publishing on the internet.
That damn internet. It’s changing everything.
Some publishers are welcoming work that combines text and image. Some can be found in this list of cross-genre publishers curated by New Pages.
Here’s my attempt at a cross-genre piece combining photographs I took of trees with text about family trees.
Maybe it was me who doctored this photograph, trying to give it an heirloom appearance.
I see a “B” in this tree. Or maybe a “D,” or a sideways “A.”
Or a man, hanging face down with his arms extended, reaching for something on the ground.
Or a lizard with its tail curled up behind it. Or the predictable snake.
Or a tree, twisted by snow and ice, and the deaths of other trees, and by forces I cannot imagine, putting forth the predictable new growth in spring.
I leaned against trees, wrapped my arms around trees, swung from trees and hid in trees, and walked on limbs as if they were tightropes. I prayed to trees, I raged at trees. Far away, the half-brothers I now know cut trees down for very little pay.
In my private forest, which isn’t mine, but belongs to the town, I watch this tree, and the spiral of fungi around its trunk that curves around in question marks and other symbols. It might be my family tree: no hierarchy, no single ancestor, and certainly no single pattern.
This tree took the earth with it when it tipped over in a windthrow. It is the only tree in this quadrant that fell. Maybe another trauma, like heart rot fungus, affected its anchorage and prepared it to let go.The letting go starts a new creation story: a hole opens in the canopy, and sunlight pours down on the forest floor. Saplings stuck in the pole stage may wake up and start to grow gain.
New stories mean new names. The earth ripped up with the tree is now called a tip-up mound.
This tree has been dead for so long, you can see right through it in spots. How did that happen? I imagine the branches fell first, then the crown, and then the bark sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and then the core collapsed on itself. What’s left is a suggestion of the strong column it once was, a gesture toward how the column once spun upward in helix fashion.
What’s left of the tree has the pocked and scored look of the karst limestone under the ground around these parts. Maybe the tree has taken on some characteristics of the stone.
Even long dead, and even taking on other characteristics, the tree is still a tree.
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.
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.
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.
As an adoptee who never met her mother, it may be easier for me to imagine my conception than it is for others — because I have no predetermined story to go on.
But imagining conception of any kind can be a fertile beginning (pun intended) for a poem. Think, for example, of the poems that imagine the conception of the world, or of a piece of fabulous music, or a metaphorical conception, even poems that imagine the beginning of other poems.
Beginnings are powerful, whether they are the beginning of the day or the beginning of night, the beginning of a marriage, or the beginning of old age. But imagining the beginning of something you know well is, perhaps, even more powerful. Imagining such a beginning makes you the co-creator of the something.
Like many people adopted as infants in the the 20th century, the fact of my adoption was kept secret — from me, from the neighbors, from my teachers. When I was in my 30’s, I found my blood family, but my mother had already passed away.
Poetry is a map of the human heart, a useful tool if you don’t know where a heart came from, what it’s made of, or where it’s going. I map my mother’s heart in my imagination, looking for what she felt about me.
If we’d met, there’s no telling how our relationship may have been twisted by my feelings of abandonment, or her feelings of loss. Sometimes I’m full of regret that I didn’t search for her earlier.
Oher times I wonder if waiting until it was too late spared us both some pain.
The poem below, originally published in Crab Creek Review ( regular submissions open from September 15 through November 15!), is my attempt to imagine this unknown.