Panelists: Jo Scott-Coe, Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Richard Hoffman, and Meredith Hall (presented by Renee D’Aoust)
In a fairy tale, straw may be spun into gold by magic. Alas, in real life, writers rarely have an enchanted pen that turns painful experiences into art. A willingness to dig deep, confront fear, wrestle with truth, and be patient with the process are difficult steps the writer must take. But the struggle to transform experience into art can yield precious rewards: discovery of a deeper story, an elevated meaning, and even, perhaps, redemption from suffering. These are the themes addressed by this panel.
All speakers cautioned that there is a chasm between creating art and simply blurting out narrative – which may feel therapeutic for the writer, but can come across as a “competition of suffering.” Moreover, just telling what happened neither heals nor removes the writer’s pain.
Fortunately, the panelists served as wise guides, generously sharing techniques and advice that have helped them through the process of writing about deeply painful issues or working with students who are doing so.
Speaking first, Michael Steinberg noted that the most powerful work can come from staring down our most terrifying ghosts and difficult moments. But he said that, “writing about a life is different from living one.” By crafting a narrative, the writer gets an opportunity to reflect on, speculate about, and interpret his experience. The writer must serve the subject by bringing a wiser self to the story, he advised.
Renee D’Aoust described two techniques she developed to be able to write about her brother’s suicide – first emphasizing the importance of giving oneself “germination time” before taking pen to paper. “Parallel writing” is a process of building one’s writing muscles by writing about a trauma that is less personal and close before tackling the more difficult one. “Grievances and grace” is a method D’Aoust used to transform thoughtless and hurtful comments. (Horrifying example – “You’ll have a much closer relationship with your brother, now that he’s dead.”) She said, “The simple act of investigating why I cannot let go of a certain statement…has been a way for me to sort out my thinking…so I can find my story.”
Richard Hoffman noted that we have a strange idea that finding the truth is simple. Not so, he said: “The truth is what you arrive at after painstaking investigation.” Calling memoir a “terrifying struggle with shame and the silence it engenders,” Hoffman said its purpose is to illumine the life of the reader, not the writer.
Jo Scott-Coe addressed the need for writing teachers to create a safe environment for students to explore difficult subject matter. Often workshop students (perhaps feeling empathy for the writer) focus on the content more than the structure of the writing, which can be re-traumatizing for the writer. She suggested that one way to “excavate meaning” is to focus on “non-I” points of view: writing about contextual material in tandem to the personal story.
Meredith Hall’s remarks were presented by Renee D’Aoust, who did an exceptional job of channeling Hall. She focused on the idea of the artist as a guide who must be one step ahead of the reader, delving into the difficult questions needed to gain insight: a process that can take years. Hall suggested using filmmaking techniques to make a story from our past. By constructing a story from scenes, as a filmmaker would, we let the story be the focus, not the writer. She suggested that writers dare to “hush the explainer and summarizer” and thereby help the reader to become present with the story, not distracted by the writer.
As Hoffman said, good writing is not asking for pity; rather, it challenges the reader to work to change life situations that lead to injustice in the first place. I left the session with my mind aswirl in ideas to help me approach stories I have yet to tell, with the supportive echo of D’Aoust’s parting line: “I can see the way” guiding me on.
Enid Kassner is completing her MA in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University.