Panel Participants: Aliya Volz, Samuel Autman, Ming Holden, Barrie Jean Borich, and Lane Igoudin.
Description: Five accomplished authors combine tools of memoir—intimacy, vulnerability, memory—with research to look past the personal journey to bigger questions about the ethics of science and medicine, drug policy, illegal enterprise, religion, marriage, race, and gender. Our books may be listed as memoirs, but our obsessions are external. We’ll discuss the unique challenges and advantages of using a charismatic first-person narrator to propel investigative nonfiction. It’s memoir minus the “me.”
Moderator, Aliya Volz begins by explaining that she started this panel because she struggled with weaving research into her memoir, Home-Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco. She also felt that many people were writing hybrid work, integrating research into memoir. She introduces the other panelists: Samuel Autman, Ming Holden, Barrie Jean Borich, and Lane Igoudin. Each panelist discusses and then reads from a memoir or memoir-in-progress, illustrating different ways that they weave research into personal story.
Autman begins by explaining that he couldn’t get the “me” out of his story, even though he wanted to. He was concerned that personal work could be too navel-gazing. He was writing about being gay, black, and Pentecostal, and there were few representations of lives like his. He published several essays and saw that the through-line for a possible book, which he is working on now, is television. His current manuscript is called Our Eyes Were Watching Marcia, and in the chapter he read from, he analyzes representations of families on 60s television shows and compares and contrasts those representations to his own.
Ming Holden’s book, Refuge, follows a braided structure, weaving three different threads: one about a stalker, another about a “ghoster,” and a third about trauma research. She reads a passage that illustrates how she switches between a more personal thread about a burgeoning relationship and Freud’s theories on hysteria. She uses juxtaposition rather than transition. She emphasizes that the book is about trauma, so this fragmented structure works well for the subject matter.
Volz explains that she needed to write a heavily researched book because she was born halfway into the story she was telling. “It’s nontraditional as a memoir,” she says. Her reading begins with political arguments from the 70s about how to penalize drug-users and quotes politicians such as Jimmy Carter. She then quotes from an interview with her mother, wherein her mother explains what it was like to deal marijuana pot brownies in the Castro with baby Volz strapped to her chest. The audience laughs when Volz’s mom preferred the stroller; pot brownies were heavy.
Borich explains that all of her books begin with research. She’s written several, including Apocalypse Darling, My Lesbian Husband, and Body Geographic. She reads a lyrical passage in which she’s getting a tattoo.
Igoudin’s forthcoming book is Born in the Shadow of the Court: Two Dads, Two Babies, and the Trial that Made Them a Family. Igoudin explains that his is a story of a new type of family: He’s a Russian refugee, his male partner is African American, and they are a part of “the first wave of gay parenting in the early 2000s.” Igoudin reads a passage that begins with a personal experience of trying to adopt a child. When his partner asks the question, “What are we doing here?” Igoudin uses that question to transfer to a voice that has a wide, researched lens. With research, he contextualizes his personal story and explains what historical markers indeed led his partner and him to this moment.
After all panelists read, Volz asks, “What percentage of your book is memoir?”
Because Holden uses a braided form in Refuge, with two personal threads and one research thread, she estimates that her book is about 33% research. Borich guesses that My Lesbian Husband, about living in a long-term lesbian marriage, is 25% research. In her book, Body Geography, the research-to-personal-writing ratio was closer to 50/50.
Igoudin explains that memoir is at its core a personal story, but research helps a writer situate that story in a larger setting. He estimates that about 20-25% of his book is research about the public adoption system and the foster system. Igoudin admits that the judge at the center of his memoir is not portrayed in a positive light, but readers also learn that adoption judges each are responsible for one thousand cases. Research helped contextualize a character who, without it, might seem more callous. In other words, fact created depth.
Autman estimates about a third for his memoir. He says he was inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Aliya says that 80% of Home Baked is research, particularly because much of the story happened before she was born. She conducted “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews.” She then turned that material into close third person, often in her mom’s point of view. Her parents reread the work to see that she rendered their thoughts accurately.
Aliya explains that her book did not actually begin as a memoir but as an oral history. Originally she did not write herself onto the page at all because, like Autman, she had shame around “navel-gazing.” But people kept asking for more. It took her years to figure out how to weave personal story with research.
Aliya asks the panelists, “Why is it so difficult? Is it worth it? What are the ways you have come up with to navigate these forms?”
Borich loves researching! “What’s interesting to me?” she asks and then answers: “All of it. What’s interesting on the page? Very little.” She asks, “How do you move the research from dullness of fact to the life of literature?” Her answer is to allow imagination back in, to allow herself to have “a really flexible, almost fantastical imagination.” That approach opened up the research and gave it a different life.
Autman returns to his concern of navel-gazing as an explanation for including more research. “I was always worried about being narcissistic.” If he found it uninteresting to write, he said, it would be uninteresting to read. Television became his magical tool.
Aliya offers what she calls “tricks” for this kind of work. She found it immensely helpful to use phrases like, “I didn’t know at the time…” “I was too young to be aware of…” “They didn’t know this but….” These tactics enabled her to weave material into the story without the work becoming too expository. She also believes that sharing the research process with the reader is helpful, such as inviting them into the archive process. “Show the work,” she said.
Borich tells her students, “There really is no personal without everything that surrounds it.” She likes to use the word “We-moir” because “it encapsulates what memoir really is.” Memoirs investigate what happens to the person in their worlds. She feels this keenly as a queer writer, as she considers normativity and the social construct of it. But she believes this is true for everyone.
Holden agrees: “Every personal experience is a product of this historical and cultural moment.” She likes starting with this assumption and seeing how that changes the work.
Aliya says she wanted to make larger arguments about the penalties for marijuana use. But nobody wanted to pay attention to those arguments. As soon as she organized her ideas around a personal story—”I’m a baby in a stroller, and my mom’s selling marijuana brownies”—people paid attention to the story. She used herself as a vehicle to share her larger message.
Aliya asks, “Has anyone had difficulty or push-back in selling the work because of the hybridized nature?”
Igoudin says yes, he did get push-back. So, “I changed my tone. When I took out any direct critique and I just let the facts stand for themselves, people emerged more clearly as who they are.”
Autman mentions his friend, Ames Hawkins, who wrote These Are Love(d) Letters, a series of letters from her father who died from AIDS. She gave Autman the phrase, “the critical creative,” and he appreciates that term. University presses are grabbing these books by “critical creatives,” he argues. Borich agrees, praising indie publishers like Mad Creek, Firebrand Press, and Graywolf. Holden also has found indie presses more open to this hybrid memoir style compared to New York publishers.
Heather Kirn Lanier is an essayist, memoirist, and poet. She’s the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks, Heart-Shaped Bed in Hiroshima (Standing Rock, 2015), and The Story You Tell Yourself (Kent State U, 2012), winner of the Wick Poetry Open Chapbook Competition. Her memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, is forthcoming in the summer of 2020 from Penguin Press and Piatkus / Little, Brown UK.