I’d only known James for about ten years at the time we met up in Boston, having reunited with my mother’s family when I was 34 years old. She had died the previous year, which left a hole in my heart that the wind still blows through. But I’ve been incredibly blessed to have had five brothers, a sister, and many nieces, nephews, cousins, two aunts and an uncle, all kind and loving people. Because of who they are, they’ve always been very supportive of my writing, too.
I’m so grateful to them, to NYT Editor Roberta Zeff, and to all the kind people who’ve taken the time to post comments on the piece.
Right in time for #NAAM2019, my review of memoirs by adoptees Nicole Chung, Karen Pickell, and Lori Jakiela appear in the current issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Each memoir is lyrical and insightful, and each presents a distinct experience of being adopted.
Hippocampus Magazine, by the way, publishes terrific nonfiction stories. If you are a writer of nonfiction looking to publish a piece, check them out!
From the review:
“With its built-in interrogation of what it means to belong to a family, adoption offers a rich context for memoir. Quests to locate mysterious origins provide deeply archetypal narrative arcs for adoption stories, too, and the specialized dialect of adoption invites stories that consider the impact of language on life.”
Click here for the full review — and check out these excellent memoirs!
I don’t know who my father was — and maybe that’s why I got so riled up about a recent news story about “fertility doctors” scamming their patients who were trying to get pregnant by substituting their own sperm for donor sperm.
Try this timed writing exercise: First, make a list of the insults used only against women. Then, make a list of the insults used only against men. Compare your lists.
You’ll see that most derogatory terms for women have to do with promiscuity and most derogatory terms for men have to do with homosexuality.
I used this excercise back in the twentieth century when teaching college writing to women in a re-entry program. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how language both creates and reflects cultural values. It’s very easy [surprise!] to come up with a long list of insults that get slung against women, but not so easy to write a list of insults slung only against men, especially if you don’t use slurs against specifically gay men. . . .
Thank you, Twitter! Last year, I saw a tweet asking “What are crackers?” and, as someone who can claim the title, I replied. Later, this poem came around, and it got published in B O D Y Literature on April 1. 2019, the first day of National Poetry Month: https://bodyliterature.com/2019/04/01/michele-sharpe/
Crackers, most simply, are people from Florida, or people whose ancestors have been in Florida for generations. That would be me. But language is rarely simple.
“Cracker” can be a slur hurled against working class white (or white-ish) people.
Some might say that “cracker” is the Florida version of “white trash” or “trailer trash.”
Some might say that a cracker is any white rural Southerner.
Some students of language say “cracker” comes from Middle English or Gaelic “craic,” meaning boaster, braggart, loud talker.
Some historians say the first Florida crackers were landless cowboy types in the 1700’s and 1800’s who herded cattle in the Florida backcountry using whips (the crack of the whip) and dogs.
The term has been used to denigrate loudmouth people since Shakespeare’s time. Yes, I learned this and other things about the etymology of cracker from Wikipedia.
Timeis the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.
Summaries compress timeto deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.
Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.
For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.
Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.
Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.
I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.
I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.
When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.
She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.
Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.
Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.
Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.
Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.
Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.
My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.
Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.
A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.
If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?
I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.
Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.
If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.
I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.
Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.
This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.
If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.
If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.
Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.
I have to choose an endpoint, and maybe I should choose based on the memorableness of the end-point. So here goes with examples of how I might use image, action, and dialogue to conclude my memoir draft. Coming up with these examples may prove helpful, but right now they are just making me more indecisive.
My first instinct is to end on an image. In one scene from the middle of my current draft, I’m on the Tybee Island beach at night and the ocean has turned phosphorescent. My aunt starts telling the little kids that it’s magic fairies in the water, but my uncle starts explaining bioluminescence to them. When his wife objects, he says “They make their own damn light. Isn’t that magic enough?” I’d love to return to that image.
Writers are such vultures, by the way. Another reason I can’t decide is that events keep happening that make me think “This would be a great ending to my memoir!”
I have a very big family, and someone is always saying or doing something that relates to my themes of finding identity and figuring out what makes a family stick together.
Maybe dialogue would work. Like when I was with my nephew and two of my nieces just before Christmas. They had a playful argument about “whose story was best,” of the ones I’d written about each of them: Alan Michael, Theresa, and BeeBee.
The joking conversation they had touched me deeply. I’m very lucky that my family supports my writing unconditionally, even when they know I’m in vulture mode, thinking about how I can use something they’re saying or doing in a poem or essay. I could end the memoir with their dialogue about their stories!
Or maybe an action is how the memoir should end. I recently published a short piece with Shondaland about searching for an Elvis tapestry that belonged to the mother I never met. If I use that action — the searching — I might be able to slap that already-written-essay onto the end of of the 80,000+ words I’ve written so far. So tempting!
What are your thoughts — are stories best when all their loose ends are tied up? Or do you like some ambiguity at the end? What are some of the best endings you’ve read or written?
Don’t you love it when you can’t stop reading because you must find out what happens?
Mysteries are propelled by this sort of suspense, of course, and in a great mystery (I recommend Tana French!), the suspense is expressed in more than just plot. It’s also expressed in character arcs.
A sense of mystery and suspense can also propel a memoir. In memoirs about surviving an illness, for example, the mystery to be solved can be the cause of the illness, or the efficacy of a cure. Often, the memoir’s central character also unravels an emotional or spiritual mystery.
I’m very invested in making my current memoir project readable, so I’m trying to be conscious of how I handle mystery and suspense. Although I’m sticking to the facts, of course, it’s up to me how I arrange those facts, and if and when I reveal the solution to the mysteries. But writing toward suspense has been challenging for me, partly because I’m inclined to put all my cards on the table at once. But to create suspense, we have to dole out information piece by piece.
Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.
Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.
Making readers worry about characters? This might be another reason why it’s been so difficult for me to exploit the suspense related to me-as-character in my own story: I don’t like people to worry about me, maybe because it feels intrusive, or maybe (more likely) because it calls my competence and strength into question.
My memoir is about reuniting with my birth family, and one mystery is my father’s identity. My mother passed away before I could meet her, and she’d kept my existence to herself for the most part.
But clues popped up here and there as I got to know my family. The first story I heard was from an aunt who liked . . . to tell stories. She made up a very happy relationship for my teenage mother with a man she modeled after one of her favorite television actors.
But of course, I don’t tell the story that way — I let my aunt speak in dialogue, I let other family members have their say, I question the story, and ultimately I do my own research using the name my aunt gave me. All of this information is paced out over a number of chapters. Pacing is the key to giving readers the pleasure of discovery.
Later in the memoir, I come back to the daddy’s identity mystery when relating my experience with DNA testing. Again, the information is spaced out in order to make the mystery and the discovery more interesting for the reader.
In real life — and memoir is about real life — not all mysteries are solved, and those that are solved often turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now that I think of it, though, that’s often the case for mysteries in fiction. Maybe the line between real life and stories is even thinner than I thought.