AWP2018: Sum of the Parts: Creating Cohesion from Fragmented Narratives

Panel Participants: Moderated by Lauren Kay Johnson, the panel consisted of Heather Bryant, Sonya Lea, Susanne Paola Antonetta, and Judith Hannan, who joined the panel when Matthew Komatsu was unable to attend the conference.

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How to put it all together?

Lauren Kay Johnson launched the discussion by describing her own wrestling with fragmentation. She’s writing a memoir about her military experience as well as her mother’s, which requires contextualizing the military and rural Afghanistan; incorporating letters to and from; and paying attention to chronology and tone. And then there’s memory, a “rather unreliable narrator.” How to put it all together?

Heather Bryant, who is writing a memoir about growing up with a transgender father, described a scene where her younger self was with her father in San Francisco at a talk given by Ursula Le Guin. She didn’t remember if he had transitioned or not at that point, and it wasn’t until she later saw a program for that event, which pinned down the date, that she knew for sure. In this case, research played a role. Sometimes, though, the writer may not want all the facts, and may want to let her memory and perceptions be the final word.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s memories always occur in fragments, due to multiple shock treatments received during adolescence. She’s been working on a memoir about this for twenty years and could request her medical records in order to find out more about her treatment, but she has resisted. “My body and mind are the witnesses,” she said. “I’m not going to get the records.” She talked about how authentic memory can get interrupted or challenged or deliberately written over by others; those records are part of the medical establishment’s story about her, but not her story.

When Judith Hannan wrote Motherhood Exaggerated about her daughter’s cancer treatments, she realized she needed to sort out her family history first. As she wrote, she put a series of critical events as happening during her college years, but later found out they had occurred over a 7-year period. She tried to write it the way it happened, but the story kept going back to its original shape She had experienced a bad episode of anxiety and depression in college, and it was as though her memory put everything into “the bad basket” of those years. She also had trouble remembering who was in the story at different points. When her editor asked if she had a husband, and she said she did, the editor then asked, “Well, where was he?” Hannan didn’t remember. And ultimately, she didn’t force it. “Pay attention to the things that you don’t remember,” she advises. “They tell their own story.”

Sonya Lea is the author of wondering who you are, a memoir about her husband’s cancer and a surgery that left him with no memory of their shared-life of more than two decades. Writing about the experience began as a journal about the loss of an identity in which the body remained. Five years later, she moved into fiction writing because “I couldn’t bond to the new person that was emerging in him and keep writing the memoir,” she said. “It was re-traumatizing me.” Eventually, though, the questions she was asking herself drove her back to the memoir: “What would he have become if I didn’t try to make him into the person he was? It was so startling that I picked up that emotion in the book and in life. What is selfhood? He didn’t have perceptions of his life events except the ones his family told him. I’m completely intrigued by this idea of narrativizing our lives – memory as excavation.”

On the role of imagination in their work: Is it ever okay to elaborate?

Lea: “I think we’re making stuff up all the time. I’m not trying to tell a story I didn’t live. But what does it mean to be present to absence in life? Or to express a fragmented grief? It keeps circling around. Pam Houston says it’s 82 percent fiction or nonfiction no matter what you write.”

Hannan: “It’s not necessarily what happened to you but your perception of what happened. If I don’t remember, I pay attention to what I don’t remember.”

What to keep in? What to leave out?

“We don’t want to write 1000-page book,” said Johnson. “We want to cut out the boring parts. How do you boil that down? When you’re incorporating different sources – what’s the risk of getting information from parents? What about research? Getting medical records or not? They can all complicate things, lead you one way or another.”

Antonetta: “I’m ‘research-y,’” she said. When she had information from the EPA for Body Toxic, she broke it down like poetry. “Maybe it’s fact; maybe it’s someone else’s version of poetry.”

Lea: “I have at least a dozen pages of medical notes at the back of my memoir.” They provide a kind of ballast for her lyrical work. Her husband had a rare cancer and what was an experimental surgery at the time. Putting all of that into the body of the memoir would have stopped a reader.

Bryant: “What you’re drawn to is what matters,” she said. She recalled a family box created by her mother, which contained letters and photos, that connected her to the time when her father was still known as David. “What do you feel pulled by – what drives you – the motor underneath the project. That’s what you include.”

Johnson: “Have trusted readers.” She wanted her story to appeal to a military audience but had to contextualize the story for others, so she had multiple readers with different perspectives read drafts.

Tips for dealing with fragmentation

Lea: “First write in collage style, then a linear story with reflections. Circle back around if memory is not solid. If you think you know things, break them down.”

Hannan: “Sometimes you have to sit. You may fear you’re not going to write it well. Break it down: What were you smelling? What were you seeing? Do all that first, then try to write the whole scene.”

Antonetta: “Just let the fragments be fragments.”

Bryant: “Try to get to a place that’s pre-verbal. Draw a map of a childhood home. Sketch it out. Try to access it in another way. Sometimes when we try to put it into words, we trip up. Or switch genres; write it as a poem. Or try it as fiction and see where you find the flow.”

Some texts that may help:

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir by Sarah Manguso


Sue Repko’s essays have appeared in Hazlitt, The Southeast Review, The Common, Hippocampus, The MacGuffin and elsewhere. Her work has been named notable in The Best American Essays 2016 and 2017. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.


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