Description: When we’re writing about hot button topics such as sexual assault, domestic abuse, and poverty, there are often expectations about how the story should go. These common archetypes can be deeply held not just by general readers and publishing’s gatekeepers, but also by our inner selves. The writers on this panel share strategies for sorting out how society thinks we ought to have responded to trauma from how we actually did, and when and how to resist the pressure to conform to an expected line.
Panelists: Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz
Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives followed some Hollywood-esque formula? If life’s events lined up in a chronological order that made a clean narrative arc; if it was clear who the good guys are and the bad; if people engaged in consistent and predictable behaviors; if we knew enough not to open that basement door and shakily descend into the darkness below? Wouldn’t that be especially nice for us memoir writers? Not only would the writing be easier, but marketing plans would practically implement themselves, and we would all retire early after selling the movie rights.
This is a nice fantasy, but it’s not what happens. It’s not how life happens. And it’s not how great memoir happens either.
The five panelists participating in But That’s Now How It Was at AWP 2017 shared stories of living, writing, and publishing stories that stubbornly did not follow the formula. Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz each authored memoirs that captured their lived realities, which are more complicated (and harder to sell) than other, more predictable plot tropes. Panelists shared stories of being people first, writers second, and marketable commodities third, all in the face of pressure to prioritize differently.
Each author’s experiences in the writing and publishing of their book was different, yet also alarmingly the same. Zolbrod’s book, The Telling, tells the story of being the victim of child sexual abuse. She was asked (or told) to recast it as more of a recovery book to make the marketing easier. She resisted pressure to depict this part of her life as a “Gothic horror story” because “life is more nuanced than that.”
Anderson’s book, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, about the “unraveling of a violent marriage in post-Katrina Louisiana,” similarly pushed back against publishing categories. She thinks of her book as a love story; one that is funny, beautiful, and about a family. “The story was all of these things,” she said. She ended up turning down a potentially lucrative publishing contract in favor of one that allowed her to tell the story as she experienced it: with nuance and depth.
Laurie Cannady was admonished by a visiting lecturer in her MFA program for having a life that fit “every possible stereotype of a black girl growing up where you grew up.” Further, she was informed that her abuser’s choice to abuse both children and adults was something that just didn’t happen. “What I heard was that my story didn’t exist.” Her book, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, says otherwise.
Lynn Hall’s experience of publishing Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience was similar. On the road to publication she was asked to leave out the fact that she was sexually abused as a child. “This is a story of repeat victimization,” said Hall. “The book has three perps. People didn’t like that.” She has also had interviewers chop up her sentences and put them together in ways that make it sound like she blames the Air Force Academy far more than she does. “Markets like good and evil.”
Wendy Ortiz found that choosing a small press was one way around these pressures. Her book, Excavation, is about childhood sexual abuse she experienced as a teenager. But her teen self, refusing to be a trope, thought she was having a love affair, and did not see herself as a victim. That’s the story Ortiz wanted to tell: one with complications and honesty. She did not use the words victim or perpetrator, and larger publishing houses had a hard time with the idea that something we all know is terrible could be, in fact, not that kind of terrible. “I’m not supposed to be ambivalent about this,” said Ortiz. “But I treasure ambivalence.”
Because women’s experiences of violence have become politicized narratives, each of these writers had to navigate conversations with an entire industry that exists to make money first and art second. And while smaller presses can have more latitude, offering shelter, the messages also come from agents, workshop leaders, family members, friends, and the psyches of the writers themselves. Anderson talked very specifically about the internal pushback she created against her own story and the need to address it before she could even write the book.
There’s certainly no single way to get around the problem, but Cannady offered five very specific pieces of advice to anyone at any point in the journey who hears anything that sounds like, “You don’t get to have that story” from any other person. Ready?
- Fuck ‘em. (This was especially appreciated by the audience, and truly – in the heart of this Assay guest blogger – set an important standard for dropping of the F-bomb at this year’s AWP.)
- Write beneath the stereotypes. Go beyond what’s “expected.”
- Write in a way that attacks those stereotypes if they appear in your story.
- (Also received a lot of nodding and knowing noises of agreement from those present.)
- Let go of shame. Shut out the voices telling you not to share. Accept questions, but don’t accept berating. (She gave the audience permission to resort to use of mace or hand-to-hand combat, as necessary. We all fucking wrote that down.) (See?)
In her introductory remarks, Zolbrod posed questions that came up for her across the eight years in which she prepared for and wrote the book. They were questions that, it seemed, everyone on the panel had to face at some point during the process. There’s the struggle with the ugliness of associating oneself with one particular life event and its associated labels and connotations. There are questions about who might launch an attack as a result of the story being told. There’s the fear of being called a liar. Further, there’s fear of what happens if the story is not told. What if writers everywhere caved to the pressure and were either silenced or forced into those Hollywood-esque narratives? What if all our recorded stories actually followed that easy-to-follow narrative arc?
Maybe that’s not such a nice fantasy after all.
Suggested Reading List:
Every title by every one of these panelists. Every. Title.
Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the Founding Artistic Director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.