#AWP17 Conference Report — Penny Guisinger on “But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives”

awp#AWP17 Panel R156: But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives

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

Conference Report

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?

  1. 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.)
  2. Write beneath the stereotypes. Go beyond what’s “expected.”
  3. Write in a way that attacks those stereotypes if they appear in your story.
  4. (Also received a lot of nodding and knowing noises of agreement from those present.)
  5. 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. 

Contemporary Memoirs or Collections of Essays by Writers of Color: An Incomplete List — Collected by Steven Church

Steven Church has collected an incomplete list on this subject and posted it at his blog. He credits Facebook crowd sourcing and Sonya Huber, Barrie Jean Borich, and Dallas Crow with helping. Thank you, all.

This is a great resource, and I’m sure the list will grow as more people add names.

You can find the link to Steven Church’s list here.

In the Classroom: How Human Behavior Studies Aid the Memoirist by Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Human behavior studies have much to offer nonfiction writers. In my teaching, I work to aid fellow authors to write about themselves and others by presenting a believable picture of character. Together, we study human behavior to draw insights from such fields as psychology, psychiatry, education, sociology, and social work.

Dust off textbooks. Seek librarian recommendations. Search the Internet or use other popular sources at your disposal. These will lend accuracy and authenticity to your writing, in building character, specifying age, describing symptoms, observing dynamics, creating tension, and more. Why not use the art and science that has studied human behaviors? It may help resolve simple or complex decisions for the story teller.

Do you want to introduce the age of a four-year-old in a different way? Look at child development texts.

“How old are you?”

Johnny looked up to his grandmother, “Why?”

When she smiled, he raised four fingers and reported loudly, “four!” [1][2]

Perhaps a character in your story is addicted to a substance and is in recovery. There is a vast literature from which to draw.

The counselor was sympathetic but stern: “Stop using? That is only half the battle. You really need to create a new life, so that everything that brought you to your addiction does not catch up with you again.” [3][4]

How about a character in a psychotic state? Abnormal Psychology provides a description of relevant symptoms, treatment and more. For example, Delusions are fixed beliefs an individual holds even when reality contradicts them.

John spoke with authority, “Jesus told me. I speak in His name.” Then in anger he added, “I have to leave for home.”

“Have you spit out your Thorazine again?” responded the nurse. [5][6]

Here are a few summary points — manuscript and author benefits — of using human behavior studies in your writing.


  • A thorough understanding of what is being portrayed, informed by the historical or current knowledge of human behavior studies is crucial to good writing. It promotes clarity and detailed progression on the evolution of a character and the development of a scene.
  • Empathy for the human condition stems from a better understanding of the dynamics of a situation. Descriptions that show the author’s awareness, and Emotional I.Q. contribute to subtlety in writing and potentially greater insight for the reader.
  • A better understanding and empathy for a character may lead to epiphanies and insights that enrich the page. When captured, such epiphanies offer resolution and relief to the reader. That I consider an author’s psychological debt can be gracefully delivered.



  • At times, reliving a traumatic moment might trigger the author’s defenses. Self-examination deepens the layering in a story when we persist and examine what may be the underlying reaction.
  • In creative non-fiction, we can count on the author to address personal trauma as they build the story arc. In uncovering stressful memories some of the ways we as authors defend ourselves include forgetting, suppressing the detail, experiencing block, and even denial or inaccurate portrayal of the emotional truth. To spark what may need more interior search, description, insight, short of seeking therapy, may be adequately met via the study of human behavior. Readings can provide insights and provoke the author to better express what the page requires.
  • When family challenges the memoirist for his/her perceptions and point of view, the author may feel better prepared to make their case having built up the backup by credible literature.

It’s all about taking advantage of systematic observation and the latest information available, a necessary tool for the thoughtful painter of stories.


[1] For general reading, consult the following: Shaffer, David R., and Katherine Kipp. Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, 9th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth [Cengage Learning Series], 2013.

[2] Information on child development by age [from The Center for Parenting Education] can be found here: http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/child-development/child-development-by-age/#four

[3] For general information, see: Galanter, M.D. ed., Marc and Herbert D. Kleber, M.D. ed.; Kathleen T. Brady, M.D. Ph. D. ed.. Textbook Of Substance Abuse Treatment, 5th Ed. The American Psychiatric Publishing, 2015.

[4] For information on this specific example, see: Bestor, Sheri Mabry. Substance Abuse: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. Print. 76-81.

[5] For general information, see: Oltmanns, Thomas F., and Robert E. Emery. Abnormal Psychology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hal, 2012.

[6] For information on this specific example, see: Xavier, Amador, Ph. D. I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment. Peconic, New York: Vida Press, 2012. Print. 185-186.



Sophia Kouidou-Giles was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and resides in Seattle, WA. With a BA in psychology and an MSW in social work, she worked in child welfare for 34 years, publishing articles in professional Journals. “Transitions and Passages,” a poetry chapbook was awarded recognition in a juried competition. “Life on Egypt Street” a short story, is included in the Time Anthology; “Walking on Rhodes,” a poem, is published in Voices magazine. Member of AWP and PNWA, she is currently working on poetry and a memoir. Follow Sophia @kouidou and visit her on Facebook.

Assay@NFN15: “Writing the Difficult Other”

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 Sarah Tomlinson, Liz Prato, Sarah Einstein

Sarah Tomlinson: wrote memoir about her eccentric, mentally-ill father – everyone but him realized he was delusional – but her hope was that she had rendered him with enough compassion that people would understand her dad. She says that there was no abuse, but lies, neglect, and abandonment – and notes that people’s reaction was that there wasn’t enough abuse to matter so much

Liz Prato: had written a memoir about her dad’s and brother’s descent into addiction and mental illness, and their suicides within a year of each other, and thought she was done with them. Then, while clearing out father’s house, she found 2 things: a list of all the people he’d had sex with, including the name of her brother, and a list of definitions of words related to pedophilia. How to write about her father now? The father she knew was not a bad man, but molesters and rapists are bad men. How to make sense of this? She read Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” in which he says every evil has its good. She came to a place of compassion – not, “my father is a monster,” but “my father has a monster in him.”

Sarah Einstein: wrote a book about a relationship with a homeless, mentally ill man with whom she had a friendship. How to represent on the page his delusional reality and let it exist as a voice, as his own truth, and not in a way that makes a spectacle or gimmick of it? During a conversation where he’s convinced his sister has died, he mentions he molested her when they were young – this moment was the most tense moment of their relationship, and the book. Einstein wondered whether to omit it, and did for a while, but realized he had said it and it was his to say, and she needed to allow him to speak for himself.

[then turns to roundtable discussion, including audience]

LP: It’s too easy to write the “everyone pick up your pitchfork” piece – there are no pure villains or heroes.

SE: How can you capture moments of tenderness or genius – make these people as well-rounded and complex as possible so readers don’t reduce these people to what they think they already know about molesters/homeless/mentally ill/etc.

LP: example of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

SE: If the person is a sociopath, if there are very negative qualities (cruelty, lack of empathy, etc.), you don’t need to label the person – just put that behavior on the page and let the reader perceive that for themselves. But also ask, in what ways is the person bigger or more than their sociopathy or dysfunction, so we’re not focused on the pathology, but on the bad behavior and its effects on you and others.

ST: her background was in literary fiction and NF, but it was working in ghostwriting that helped her write difficult characters – usually, these were traumatic stories of drug abuse, violence, trauma, and it helped her to help them find the compassion/empathy/complexity, and this in turn helped her with her own memoir.

LP: autobiography is a research-checked factual account, but memoir is the story of what you remember – it might not be totally accurate, but do your best to get it right.

SE: The people who have harmed you have forfeited the right to fact-check you – the fact that they’ve harmed you will inform the reader that the harm has affected how you remember the events.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “The Essayist as Human”

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Kirk Wisland, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Steven Church

Kirk Wisland:  Blogging is satisfying because the immediacy of what is published most closely resembles who we are when we wrote what was published. Wisland is worried that the previous versions of documents from 1997 MS Word might no longer be available because of technological advances. Also, worried that in the desire to write more meaningfully can lead to a desire to seek out the traumatic experiences. Was secretly grateful for writing inspiration after a friend had passed away.  Questions whether it’s fair to write about the dead, because it’s easier than having the reactions from writing about the living. “Maybe it’s the maybe,” he said. By being an essayist, we inherently question ourselves thereby redefining ourselves.

Sarah Einstein: Einstein said she made a mistake. A piece she wrote for an anthology was republished in Salon, with a new headline. When she wrote the piece, it was for an intended audience of an anthology and not for a perhaps less literary crowd. While she received support (and at times inappropriate support), her husband received backlash at a time when there was a death in the family. While she doesn’t regret that she wrote the piece—she had her husband’s permission—she regrets that she published something that would turn out to be so painful to someone she loved. For her, the question about “essayist as human” means learning about your mistakes. Before, when she saw a published piece, she felt comfortable saying whether a person ought be writing or working in academia based on what they’ve written. “I feel like we’re at a moment that we’re we need to think about the essayists humanity.”

César Díaz: Memoirist’s challenge is to gain a reader’s trust , which turns out to be difficult based on the placement of the reimagined world. The memoirist actively manipulates past experiences but readers track at how the writer arrives that the truth in the memoir. How does the memoirist do this? Díaz especially felt that he had to uphold the truth after an MFA workshop likened his life story as a migrant farm-working child as “myth-making” and an elevated way of detaching from reality. He attempted to return to his memoir using only facts. In his research, he discovered that everything he knew was wrong. Finally, he adopted Ondaajte’s idea of the constructed self: that narrative through improvisation. Gornick sees the memoirist’s responsibility as shaping their experience any way so long as the intent remains genuine. This mindset has set him free.

Steven Church: The last couple of chapters of Church’s collection of essays, “Ultrasonic” deal with challenges he faces as a writer. The chapter he reads is called “It Begins with a Knock at the Door.” In the narrative, an elderly neighbor comes to his house asking for help to pull out her older boyfriend out of the bathtub where he fell. After pulling him out of the tub, he feels he clumsily relates to the man by showing off a scar on his leg from his twenties. The elderly man shows off a scar on his leg from surviving war. After feeling that this man’s story is worth more than perhaps writing about flatulence, he accepts that who he is as a writer. 


Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review. 

Assay@NFN15: “Rewriting Those We Love”

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Margot Singer, Lee Martin, Dinah Lenney, David McGlynn, Ann Peters

Margot Singer: This panel examines the balance of big subjects and the personal – when does the personal become too personal? Is it possible or fair to tell the truth? What will happen when you do? She cites the cautionary tale of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” in which his father won’t acknowledge him after the publication of Firebird.

Dinah Lenney: She cites the two opposite impulses of how to deal with this issue: “go tell the story, but tell it with love” versus “fuck ‘em.” She notes the usual things to consider: what are your motives in telling this story? anger/resentment/blame? are you trying to be the hero/victim? All you can do is get it as right as you can get it. But if you don’t wait until everyone’s dead to publish it, what are your rules? She notes that what ends up hurting or pissing off people often is not what you think they’re going to be hurt about, so you can’t always predict. But she says that if art legitimates cruelty, it isn’t worth it – art should strive to be kind – if it isn’t, it isn’t art.

David McGlynn: memoirists tend to write about families because they note that their family stories tend to trump their friends’, because they’ve had a front-row seat to dysfunction. Families so often are held together by silence and “forgetting.” Ask, is the blowback something I can handle? The consequences are rarely as catastrophic as we fear – even when people get pissed, they move on. There’s something inherently hostile and violent about writing about other people, but I will do it again. What matters the most is telling the truth, and a memoir is only good if it’s well-written.

Lee Martin: When you write about the family, you’re trying to make family members come alive again on the page – if you do it with resentment or nostalgia, both are untrue and a betrayal to the people we want to portray. The best path is to practice empathy, to make no more or no less of a person than they are, to try and understand a person from the inside. Strategies to increase empathy and therefore honesty (and thereby decrease betrayal):

  1. move the narrative camera somewhere outside the situation being portrayed.
  2. write about yourself in 3rd person to allow for some more detachment or objectivity.
  3. imagine the other person as a child to see how it changes your understanding of them.
  4. pose a question and speculate on the answers (phrases like “Maybe…,” “Perhaps…,” and “I like to imagine” are your friends here).

Do this writing activity: think of someone who hurt you (a small or a big betrayal) and write about it from your POV as the one who suffered. Then shift the camera using one of the strategies above to see how it changes your understanding of the event.

Ann Peters: Why is it that, when we write about family, they become flatter characters? She shares the experience of writing about her father, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architect and developer, whom she did not want to reduce to an easy dyad or cliché. But we’re often more generous with a literary text or memory than we are with a person in real life, so turning them into characters paradoxically allows them more latitude.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “It’s a Family Affair: The Exciting/Perilous Task of Writing About our Relations”

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Speakers: Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens, Honor Moore, Maggie Nelson and Hope Edelman

Lucas Mann, who wrote about his brother’s death from drug overdose (Lord Fear: a Memoir), read an essay that revealed an aspect of family memoir that then echoed through the presentations that followed. Writing family onto the page changes reality, changes relationships, becomes a kind of death itself. As Mann put it: “I don’t know if I remember my brother anymore. That’s a loss that I’ve only just begun to acknowledge. I think that the act of writing him, of making him, has become the memory.” In this way, writing about the truth subverts the truth itself.

Mieke Eerkens, the panel organizer, spent five years researching her family for a book and what she uncovered changed her perception of her parents. She could see her father’s workaholism as an extension of survival mechanisms he developed as a child in a men’s prison camp and this understanding let compassion replace a sense of personal neglect she had felt as a child. Eerkens also stressed the importance of fairness in exposing flaws, arguing that if she writes of her mother’s dumpster diving then she must equally expose her habit of recycling dental floss. “We must make ourselves vulnerable as well,” said Eerkens.

 Clarifying the divide between the situation and the subject creates space to tell difficult family stories. “The situation is not the story,” said Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir that exposes truths about her father’s sexuality that she had no knowledge of while growing up. To get to the story, she gave herself the task of imagining her life without this secret, to consider how the truth might have influenced her own choices.

All this altering of family relations begs the question if these stories need to be written. Books by Maggie Nelson, particularly Jane: a Murder, cross into territory that she admits force “a reckoning that maybe nobody needed to have.” Nelson shared that her partner describes the effect of such scrutiny (for the writing of The Argonauts) as that of “an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” So telling family stories carries with it great responsibility, sacrifice and impact.

 The last speaker, Hope Edelman, offered five practical steps for navigating the murky waters of family memoir. 1. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will feel shame for. 2. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will object to. 3. Be clear about your intentions. “Revenge is a powerful motivator of human behavior, but a lousy reason to write a memoir,” writes Edelman in her takeaway flyer. 4. You have more power than you realize, so you can be thoughtful about what you include and what you leave out. 5.You have less power than you think, because your publisher’s legal department has some as well.

Collectively the panel offered thoughtful insights on the challenges specific to writing family memoir. What resonated the most for me was the revelation that writing about loved ones can obscure your memories and relationships. The writing itself becomes part of the reality between you and your family. This is part of the genres horror and allure.


Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She has just completed a free verse cartoon memoir on childhood friendship cut short by murder. 

Where’s My Chum? Looking for Friendship Lit


Mardi Jo Link (www.mardijolink.com) is the author of the memoir, The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance, forthcoming in July from Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Her first memoir, Bootstrapper (Knopf) was named winner of the Bookseller’s Choice Award, the Housatonic Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Notable Book Award.  She lives in northern Michigan.

“Every great book ever published is about relationships.”

A grad school professor said that to me once, and her words came back to my ears in full audio last year when I was finalizing revisions on my own book. I’d spent a year working on a memoir about my seven best girlfriends, and for comps I’d started seeking out non-fiction about friendship.

Library shelves and bookstore tables soon proved the accuracy of my former professor’s words. In my field trips I found lots of new books about parent-child relationships (perhaps because it was almost Mother’s Day), about marital relationships and love, about work relationships, and even about our relationships with our pets. Dogs mostly, but cats have their fair share, too.

Books about human friendships were surprisingly few. And often the best ones were being described as not about friendship at all but about something else entirely. Continue reading

Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit”

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.10.06 AMControlling metaphors are often reserved for the realm of poetry, rarely in nonfiction do we speak of such things. It makes sense, too–after all, poetry is known for its density, its scarcity of words. But nonfiction, too, has its moments of controlling metaphor, moments where images take hold of writers, saying, “Use me!”

Debra Marquart, in her brief essay “Hochzeit”–which later appears in her memoir, The Horizontal World–employs an image, the accordion, which gives structure to this economic, finely wrought piece of prose.

Marquart’s German-from-Russia upbringing was marked by dancing, by wedding celebrations, by, as she says, “circles.” From the get-go, the reader knows where she is: she’s at a dance, and the room is swaying, pulsing: “I remember circles–the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt. A neighbor lady polkas by[.]” This opening establishes the form and function of the piece: saddle up, reader, you’re in for a swinging good time, and you might get a little dizzy from the dancing along the way.

Throughout the piece Marquart takes time to observe and document the dance: the Ray Schmidt Orchestra is playing, young women wear patent leather shoes, chiffon dresses, mothers’ lips are smeared red. We’re in Lawrence Welk country, and the party is just beginning.

Marquart presses the reader deeper into the psyche of the region, meditating on the odd instrument of keys and bellows, manuals and ranks: “[F]ather and son take turns playing the accordion, the bellowing wheeze of notes, the squeeze, the oom-paa-paa.” Not only can the reader see this, the squeezing of the accordion, but we can hear it, too, with Marquart’s precision of language: oom-paa-paa. We learn, too, that the accordion is the instrument in this part of the world, that the son is the “heir apparent to Lawrence Welk,” where Marquart definitely states, “This is polka country.” Not only does the accordion define the structure of this piece, the accordion defines the structure of this region.

We step back from this moment, from the sound of the music, and continue to swirl. We’re with the author–her childhood self–soaking in the wonder and dizzying effects of this evening dancing. “A man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa makes the round with a tray of shot glasses, spinning gold pools of wedding whiskey.” Don’t you just love the humor of that observation, a man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa? And the swirling continues: “three sips for everybody, no matter how small.” Libations help heighten the sensory detail of the rest of the essay.

And then we’re off again, returning to the dance where our narrator is lifted-up, but she’s not sure by whom. “An uncle, an older cousin?” And so she is trot around in circles, lifted in the air, as the accordion pulses; eventually the narrator returned to the old women at the tables. We know the setting is congenial, that we’re among friends, as the oom-paa-paa continues to flow across the dance floor.

The dancing continues. “The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine.” And now the focus shifts from the narrator to her parents, “the best dancers on the floor.” The scene mimics the pulse of the accordion: “The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline. Women swing by in the arms of their partners. High whoops and yips emit from their ample bosoms. They kick their big, heavy legs and throw back their bouffant.” This is when the metaphor is pressed deepest: We see the room mimic the accordion, we can picture the women, see the men holding tight. We are in the land of the controlling metaphor. Oom-paa-paa.

Before the scene ends we press deeper into the moment, focusing on Marquart’s parents: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room.” The accordion is not only the defining instrument of this region, it is, or so it seems, the vehicle for dancing in the Marquart family. The spinning continues.

In seven brief paragraphs Marquart weaves together the accordion, polka, and dancing like a finely made tapestry. We swirl and spin with her, listening to the bellowing and pulsing of the music as the Hochzeit, the wedding celebration carries on. In nonfiction, like in poetry, there are moments where the skill of a controlling metaphor increases the depth and clarity of scene, this, is seems, is something worth stealing from Marquart.

-Taylor Brorby is a contributing editor at Assay.


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