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 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: Imagining Conception

Newborn baby. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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.

The poem below was originally published in Paper Nautilus.

Perfection is what we have to deal with

I see them coming together beside the palmetto thicket at the river,

my father hurrying from the sugar refinery, and my mother

from anywhere but school, tripping over Virginia creeper,

but keeping to the path, knowing what she wants,

although her word for it — love — won’t come close

to describing the brambles setting barbs on her shins,

her caught breath, her matted hair, the sweat between their skins,

the moss that chokes her when he turns away,

the brief secret of her belly swelling,

the not again, for heaven’s sakes hissing of teachers and neighbors,

her move to a distant cousin’s home where the taste

of sweet tea turns bitter on her tongue, or how she pushes me

out of her body with all her tiny might, right into this world

of loss, this universe of no mistakes.

Poetry Seeks the Unknown

Photo of my mother, Theresa Christie, as a teenager. circa 1956.
I never met my mother.

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.