#AWP17 F203. Looking Outward: Avoiding the Conventional Memoir
Description: All too often, memoir falls into a familiar, conventional pattern of confession and redemption. But how do you tell a personal story when life doesn’t conform to that shape? And how can a writer with a variety of interests incorporate those subjects into a personal narrative? Three Graywolf Press nonfiction authors discuss their approaches to writing about life—and subjects as disparate as infertility, nature, friendship, science, grief, and art—in personal and intimate detail.
Panelists: Steve Woodward, Paul Lisicky, Belle Boggs, Angela Palm
Moderated by Steve Woodward, associate editor at Graywolf Press, three award-winning authors—Belle Boggs (author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood), Angela Palm (author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here), and Paul Lisicky (author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship)—took turns reading excerpts from their books to illustrate their craft and address the moderator’s questions. Their work could be called memoir but also fits into other forms uniquely suitable to their individual stories.
Themes that emerged highlight how the authors trusted and followed the demands of their narrative rather than the expectations of form. That approach did not lead them to the traditional, redemptive outcomes of memoirs. They were more interested in interrogating their topic, engaging with questions as they arose, and maintaining some polarity. They considered this approach more natural to life. Palm sought to explore violence, Boggs focused on infertility, while Lisicky told of his experience of losing an old friend to cancer.
Each pushed back on the traditional expectations of memoir by integrating outward events and influences of their environment into their stories. Boggs utilized her experience of seeking fertility treatments, the natural world, and science. Living in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, she has access to scientists and has benefited by observing their ability to explain complicated and challenging concepts, creating figurative language to explain their work. She wanted to write in a way that pushes against ideas that are stereotypical on topics like infertility. She intentionally used stories of other people. Her aim was to maintain some suspense and complexity, showing that infertility was not the end-all in her life. Childless people lead journeys that have other aspects to them and the author did not want to alienate the reader who was still on that journey.
Palm used her experience of rural Indiana, poverty, farm deprivation, and moneyed people to explore violence. Her research included farmland economics, the historical context, and welfare, and she used mapping to knit together her story in a fluid way. The author viewed the world around her as a collage, knowing that no experience happens in a void. She borrowed techniques and repurposed tools to build character and create dialogue.
Lisicky, trained as a musician, worked with poetic sensibilities. He was guided by the dimensionality of harmony, chord, and dynamics, and as he wrote he noticed repeats, harmonic patterns, and observable sounds in his manuscript. The author disclosed that he never thought of this book as memoir. As he was near publication, his editor suggested using the word as part of the subtitle. Maybe that is the reason he was not confined by the form. As for structure, he strove for tension in telling a year-long story while remaining attentive to feelings of the moment. He trusted that “the book had more to tell than the author knew.” In writing it, he sought to find some comfort for himself and his readers.
This group of authors pushes past memoir in their own unique ways. They enrich their manuscripts by bringing other subjects in and giving them space in well-blended narratives. As the moderator summed up: the force comes from the circumstances of each author’s life, contextualized by their outer world of experience rather than form.
Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Thessaloniki, Greece, resides in the USA. She has published her work in “Persimmon Tree,” “Voices,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry collection published in a chapbook. She is currently working on a memoir.