Editor’s Note: Sejal Shah’s panel report concludes our coverage of NonfictioNOW. Thank you, all, for your generous contributions, which made it possible for those unable to attend to take part. See you at AWP 2016!
Sandi Wisenberg (Moderator), Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, and Janice Gary
Panel description: Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of writing for survivors of traumas such as war, disasters, slavery, disease, rape, incest. Writing is generally agreed to be good for the mental health of the amateurs. When does nonfiction writing about trauma rise to the level of art? What makes some artful, and others, self-serving? The answers are subjective, but we will explore the questions and hazard some answers. Speaking as writers, readers, and editors, we will examine successful and unsuccessful creative nonfictions and tease out our reasons for making those judgments.
The title of Sandi Wisenberg’s piece is “Notes on Distance and Density.” In it, Wisenberg looks at Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” an essay (“The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Horse: a Triology”) by the writer Judy Ruiz; Wisenberg also mentions Toni Morrison’s writing about slave narratives “as a form of autobiography”—and says that within this genre, Frederick Douglass is able to convey an “exploration of inner life.”
Wisenberg asks, “What if, in describing your desperation on the page, you fought against revealing this desperation on the page?” Joan Didion “famously recorded the despair of her twenties in ‘Goodbye to All That,’ but “her distance contains her feelings of crisis.” Didion writes, “I was not yet then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way [beer can cut, gazpacho, crying, etc.] because “I still had all the afternoons in the world.” Wisenberg describes Didion’s iconic essay as an elegy for the single life and the time we all had then.” She notes, “The analysis makes the piece. Didion knows even her feeling of being unique is universal.”
Wisenberg also mentions writing letters (blue aerogrammes!) when she was in Paris at 20 (and “miserable as usual”) and later keeping a blog when she was diagnosed with breast cancer—and about both of these forms of writing (letter and blog) as places where there is both emotion and also opportunity for writing that is not only in the midst of the suffering; she suggests there is more of opportunity in the blog than in the aerogram, but does not dismiss the aerograms and what can be found there, as well.
Tom Larson began his talk, “My Trauma, My Deconstruction,” with a discussion of his memoir, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, in which he wanted to “chart the psychological and relational rapids of [his] three heart attacks, which struck between 2006 and 2011.” He discussed the transformative power of the trauma memoir. “I believed (and still do) in the transformative power of the trauma memoir.” He asks himself, “Why was I chosen? Perhaps once I write the story, I’ll have a better idea. Which, at best, can only be inconclusive. Trauma is that experience which should have killed us but didn’t.” Larson says his audience is less of those “who are from where I am now and more of those who lie with my pre-heart-attack self.” As examples, Larson brings up Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Leftovers, and describes them as “death-obsessed.” “We authors,” he explains, “often mistake making it through as proof of a cracked or purposeful design.”
Larson asks, “Where was my book when I needed to read it? If I wouldn’t have read me, why did I, why do I, expect others to follow suit?” Larson says, “I do know memoir as preventative medicine often does not work… our lives are slumbers, we see in retrospect.” Larson says he does not know why some “tragic/redemptive stories” work on readers and others don’t. He quotes Carl Jung, who said most people seek self-knowledge, but they fail because they start out too late and run out of time. Larson wants to think “the trauma memoir might be of assistance in this awakening.”
In her talk, “Flash Memories and Misery Memoirs,” Elizabeth Kadetsky spoke first about the stigma and popularity of what historian Ben Yagoda termed “the misery memoir.” She also discussed the more reputable tradition of memoir “as testimony—documents of a communal justice.” This category included ethnic American and African American autobiography and Holocaust memoirs—some of the most popular titles include Eli Wiesel’s Night and Malcolm X’s autobiography.
Kadetsky said that during the 1980s the “impetus to testify about one’s individual versus communal trauma began to win respect.” Kadetsky attributes this in part to the trauma studies movement. She mentioned Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s book, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Judith Herman’s essential Trauma and Recovery and the idea that in order to heal, the one who has undergone the trauma must speak and must be heard. Kadetsky uses the example of Eli Wiesel—in Night— who asks the question ‘How does one describe the indescribable?’ She said, “This question—how to describe the indescribable—is the task set forth for the writer who seeks to rise above the misery memoir.” She suggests that the answer lies perhaps in the actual definition of trauma, which has been medicalized as a syndrome in the DSM as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Kadetsky says that trauma is “experienced in an immediate way that bypasses the narrativizing constructs of the brain that give context and meaning to most experience.” She said that it seems some of the success of successful trauma memoirs may be owed to moments that “mimetically illustrate the experience” of PTSD by “using elements of writing craft such as…insistent images from the past, intrusive thoughts that disrupted chronology, and even a kind of deflection or avoidance.” As examples, Kadetsky lists Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Kadetsky notes that Didion successfully invokes the state of grief through repetition, fragments, and disconnected memories, artfully rendered.
In her own experience, Kadetsky has written three essays about an episode that led, in the six months after, to her mother’s death and her sister’s homelessness. Kadetsky said that she kept the question, “Why would your story matter to me?” in mind when writing and recreating her own experience.
Janice Gary’s presentation is titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt: On Trauma and Memoir.” Gary begins with these lines: “You work with what you are given,” from a Jane Hirschfield poem in Hirschfield’s collection titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt.” Gary addresses the sense we as writers might have (quoting an agent)—once there’s a great memoir in the field—there doesn’t need to be another one on the same topic written. Gary says, “As nonfiction writers, as writers of memoir, we work with the shapeless, clay-like material of our life. Given sugar, we write about sugar, given salt, we write about salt.” She made the point that “given trauma, we write about it- not because we think it is sensational material, [but] because we cannot not write about it.”
Gary points out that there is a “very high bar set for memoir—especially those dealing with trauma—and a lot of prejudice…. A writer has to be willing to face their own reluctance and societal pressure not to tell just to get it on the page.” Gary discussed her own memoir, Short Leash. She was afraid no one wanted to hear about her rape or read another memoir with a dog in it. But then Gary also read “beautiful memoirs about difficult lives” including Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face; Gregory Orr’s The Blessing; Richard Hoffman’s Half the House; Katherine Harrison’s The Kiss. Gary said, “In all of these books, it was the writing that held me in thrall, not the subject matter. These books and authors transformed life into art.” She cited Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: “The thing you’ve been writing is not a diary…contrary to the notion you have …you have chosen every single word, you’ve crafted each sentence.”
Gary said she has read many moving and beautiful memoirs. In one memoir she found to be not as successful, Margo Fraguso’s Tiger, Tiger, there was too much scene, scene, scene, and not enough reflection. “The what happened—trauma itself—is not what a memoir should be about.” Gary quoted John Updike who said, “Literature is the most subtle self-examination known to man.” The writer examining her life, attempting to “discover who they are in relation to what has happened to them—that’s what I look for in a memoir—trauma or no trauma. Writing about what is supposed to be kept silent is not only a literary, but also a political act.”
At the end of her remarks, Gary answered the panel’s question (asked in the panel’s title), “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read about It?” She said, “No, you don’t have to read it. Just don’t tell me not to write it.”
Q &A: Included Hope Edelman asking about reader response in the age of Internet criticism—the ability to reach us easily; cyber violence against female memoirists. One of the only kinds of bullying allowed now. Criticisms often posted online became personal attacks.
Sejal Shah’s writing has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. Her lyric essays and short stories have appeared in various places including Brevity, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, and The Margins—as well as being featured in The Huffington Post. She lives in Rochester, New York. www.sejal-shah.com.