Assay@NFN15: Hydra-headed Memoirs and Well-connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-length, NonFiction Thing

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Steven Church, Steven Harvey, Sonya Huber, Joe Mackall, Tarn Wilson

Panel description: Your group of essays seems to hum the melody of a memoir. Or your memoir has grown hydra-headed and branched off into essays. Or everyone around you says that whatever you’ve written is the opposite of what sells these days in nonfiction and that you should uncouple or re-link. Do you accept the challenge of locating your narrative through-line,or do you polish your prose pieces as free-standing essays in a collection? Most importantly, what happens to our books when we turn them from essays into memoirs and then sometimes back into essays? Our panelists—all memoir/essay flip-floppers—will essayistically refuse to give you a pat answer for this dilemma, but we will offer in-depth thoughts about craft-based considerations and implications for shaping books of literary nonfiction.

The jet lag has loosened its grip on me, so I sit to write this blog post, and it hits me: I’m blogging the session at which Steven Church did the cupcake thing. Could I have chosen better? Could my responsibility be greater? I cower and tremble. Then begin.

I went to the session “Hydra-headed Memoirs and Well-connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-length, NonFiction Thing” for two reasons: (1) I have such a project in progress; and (2) I’m a sucker for the overuse-of-hyphens. (My commitment to writing this blog post could serve as a third reason, but then we’re into a chicken-egg conundrum, and it’s not that important.)

Sonya Huber smartly opened the panel by introducing her merry band of memoir-essay-flip-floppers (see?), all of whom live in the space between these two distinct forms that are really not that distinct at all. She shared that each of her three books started their lives as narrative essays – stand-alone chunks that she broke apart into more chunks, then stuck back together. The technical term for this process is, according to Huber, “a fucking nightmare.” (Industry insiders will have no problem recognizing the terminology.) She often wondered if, during this process of chunking then unchunking then rechunking portions of narrative and story if she was making smoothies instead of literature. Ultimately, she concluded, when trying to determine if your piece should be a memoir or an essay, you should determine if it’s the voice is asking a question (essay) or if it wants a full exploration of the story (memoir).

Tarn Wilson opened with a similar thought: the essay is the exploration of a question, which may include a story and a memoir is the opposite. (Read it again, backwards. You’ll see it.) She shared seven important lessons. (1) Don’t be in a hurry. The first draft is not a book yet. (The importance of this cannot be overstated. Seriously.) (2) Find some boundaries. Often the whole story is too big, so focus on a portion and build walls around it. Utilize time, geography, or elements of the story itself. (3) Notice your strategies for avoiding discomfort. (4) Pay attention to your readers. (5) Voice can lead you to form and form can grow from intention. (That’s so smart that I don’t even understand it, but I totally believe her.) (6) (I missed number six. Sorry. Jet lag.) (7) Begin at the beginning. Don’t be in a hurry. (See? VERY IMPORTANT.)

Steven Harvey went right for the jugular. “Most reasons we give for turning essay into memoir are awful. The popularity of the form is a bad reason, but the worst reason is that the essay is a good one.” He said that a good essay has the right to just be a good essay and that it’s the wrong question to ask, “Why not turn it into a book?” However, he doesn’t live by this and talked about turning his essay The Book of Knowledge into the book The Book of Knowledge and Wonder. The moral of the story was this: if you’re going to turn your essay into a book, you have to stay true to the spirit of the essay. Don’t just add material. Dig deeper and find something new to say. (If he said more than this, I apologize. He had the nicest, most soothing voice, and I was so sleepy and jet-lagged. I just wanted to cuddle up with his voice and a blankey. More about that soon.)

Joe Mackall’s message seemed to be this: being a grandparent is way more fun than writing either essays OR memoir. Also this: don’t think too hard about what the thing is. Just write what you need to write. If you think about it too much, “bad things happen” such as watching squirrels for hours at a time or thinking “unpretty thoughts.” The worst idea is to publish something too soon, such as an excerpt from a book-in-progress. The act of publishing cements the work someplace where you might not mean for it to be. If you’re stuck in your writing process, try free-writing. (Sometimes, he confessed, we have to do the things we tell our students to do. Maybe it was the jet lag talking?) Finally, he said again, if you must write, then write what you need to write, but seriously: we would all be better off under our blankeys with Strawberry Shortcake stickers on our faces.

And then Steven Church laid down an extended metaphor that will surely be used and referred to and remembered forever. Essays are cupcakes. Memoirs are cakes. He helpfully ordered and numbered these thoughts (like a little lyric essay). I’ll try to recreate it here, but will fail. None of the following is in quotation marks, though much of it is quoted directly. (I don’t know when I was quoting and when I was filling in, trying to keep up. Also – jet lag. Apologies to Steven.) (1) Learn to bake cupcakes from scratch. Make little cakes with the same structure as a big cake. Develop a critical appreciation of cupcakeness. (2) Share your small, perfect cupcakes. Subject them to the opinions of others. (3) Decide that, due to the relative success of your cupcakes, you’d like to bake a whole cake that a lot of people could eat. If that’s too scary, make more cupcakes. (4) Wake up early. Stay up late. Obsess over your cupcakes. Arrange them. Juxtaposition them. Swap frosting between them. Teach others to make them. (5) Wait and wait to work on your cake while you study your cupcakes. Give up. (6) Take all your cupcakes and mush them into a pile of cake and frosting. Mold them into a cake. Pretend they are like clay. You will get sticky. And it won’t work. (7) Wash your hands. Repeat.

In conclusion, this is what I heard: STORIES ARE FOOD. (Oh, wait. That was somebody else.) Negotiating the land between essays and memoirs requires us to think of food – we’re making smoothies. We’re making baked goods of various sizes. We’re slicing and dicing and binding things together with corn starch and thematic similarities. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t publish too soon. Maybe don’t publish at all. Don’t listen to your own bad reasons for doing stupid things. Maybe writing is just like jet lag – it makes you want your blankey.


Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. Visit her website at

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