AWP2018: The Enhanced Memoir: When It Happened to Me Isn’t Enough

Panel Participants: Kim Brooks, Lucas Mann, Deanna Fei, Kiki Petrosino

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: This panel will look at the rise of the enhanced or hybrid memoir, the writer who merges a personal narrative with social commentary, cultural criticism, or reportage. As more writers arrive at the memoir after working in other forms, the genre has become less defined by traditional narrative, and more marked by the writer’s willingness to borrow from the novelist’s, essayist’s, or journalist’s toolbox. The panel will focus on the form’s rewards, challenges, and shifting boundaries.

During “The Enhanced Memoir” panel discussion, four authors talked about their experience writing memoir and poetry that utilized personal story, research, and reportage. After introducing themselves and their work, Kim Brooks asked questions to keep the conversation moving.

Kim Brooks was arrested when she left her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into a store. Her memoir Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear began as a story about what happened and the legal ramifications of her actions. First written as an essay for Salon, Brooks felt her personal narrative wasn’t significant enough so she began doing research and interviewing sociologists, psychologists, other parents and parent rights advocates. The resulting book was a balance between reporting, research, and storytelling.

For Lucas Mann, the entry point to writing is always research first. He believes his story is in service to what he is researching in his books where cultural examinations and memoir intersect. Mann is the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, and Lord Fear.

Kiki Petrosino was raised in Virginia but now works in Kentucky which was once a part of Virginia. She began thinking about her relationship to Thomas Jefferson when she realized she had lived most of her life in states impacted by his leadership and vision. Then, Petrosino wrote essays for Ploughshares about a close reading of Jefferson’s texts and how his language relates to the language of a poet of color living in America today.

Fei said that writers sometimes say the subject chooses them but she believes that sometimes the form chooses the writer. As a fiction writer with some admitted snobbery toward memoir, she didn’t expect to write creative nonfiction. However, her second child was born in what was termed a catastrophic birth. Paralyzed by the shame of the experience, she began reading memoir as a way of coping with the trauma. Then, the CEO of her husband’s employer made public comments blaming benefit cuts on the expense of her daughter’s birth. The experience made her ask questions about how much a human life is worth and what we value. For Fei, research was a result of asking what her readers needed to know. That question also helped define the arc of the book.

Can we write about the self in the act of research?

Mann said he began to write about Class A baseball but then found that the narrative worked better if it included him as a reporter in the act of learning. For another project about his older brother’s heroin overdose, he needed to interview people who knew his brother better than he did. In the end, going through the experience of seeking understanding was a more compelling story.

Petrosino believes it’s freeing to write with the exploratory eye vs. the authorizing eye. In conducting research, she was frustrated looking at census records knowing the information was incomplete. But she could write about the missing names and which names match up to stories.

Fei said that one of the challenges in writing about herself as she researched was in navigating the voice. “I started to sound like a Sex and the City episode that begins with ‘I started to wonder,’ so I had to find the right way to use my voice.” Ultimately, Fei said, wanting to understand drives the narrative.

Mann followed up by saying that wanting to know more is what he admires when reading so he tries to do the same in his work.

How do we offer readers something that isn’t nihilistic and depressing but also isn’t a pat on the back?

Brooks posed the question to the panel after explaining that some commercial memoir come from a privileged perspective—I had difficulty, I worked through it, now I’m better. “Those memoirs depress me,” Brooks said.

Fei concurred with Brooks. She said that when she was struggling with her daughter’s health problems, the clichés of hope and faith that people offered in support left her feeling guiltier because she wondered why she couldn’t just “get behind it.” In contrast, Fei said, we do a service by sharing true stories with others who need to see that there is something other than clichés.

Mann said he needs to write into the story whether it’s the dark part or the happy part, while examining the complexity of that.

For Petrosino “There isn’t a poem that can redeem the losses my ancestors faced.” The poet went on to say that she can’t require of herself that she tell any particular narrative.

Brooks added that when there’s no hope of minimizing a great suffering, you look into the void anyway.

Fei explained that it was important to tell the raw story of what happened. While the doctors and nurses that saved her daughter are her “forever heroes,” she had to also write the scenes when a doctor comes into the room to bluntly deliver news that sent her spinning.

Sheree Winslow received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.A. from Vassar College. She’s published journalism in the Orange County Register. Her essays on the intersection between leadership and aunt-hood appear on Born in Montana, Winslow is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. She lives in Southern California where she’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her body and struggle with food addiction.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

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