Meet Our Memoirists: Athena Dixon

Meet Our Memoirists: Athena Dixon

In April, I met Athena Dixon in person when she traveled to Massachusetts from her home in Philadelphia to present at the Muse and the Marketplace, a three-day literary conference sponsored by the Boston-based writing center, Grub Street. I drove into the city from my home in New Hampshire, and Athena and I spent a couple of hours chatting about our lives and our writing over dinner at a bustling Asian restaurant. Athena’s natural warmth and charisma made for easy conversation. I left feeling like I’d spent the evening with a long-time friend.

Athena is an incredibly hard working and versatile writer. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, No God in This Room, (Argus House Press, 2017).  She is the Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she unveiled in 2012. Her work has appeared in both print and online publications, and she’s twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, her powerful essay, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” appeared in the debut issue of Gay Magazine, a new magazine from acclaimed author Roxane Gay with a mission to offer “some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web.” It’s clear that Athena’s dedication to her craft and incomparable work ethic are clearing a path for her voice to be impactful to readers in a particularly meaningful way. I asked Athena to share some of her experiences navigating the literary world and the wisdom she’s gathering in the process. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her and her brilliant writing.

 

Melanie Brooks: You are a busy woman! Your literary life is dynamic and multi-faceted. You write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; edit Linden Avenue Literary Journal; speak regularly at conferences; and co-host a podcast for New Books in Poetry. You also work full time. How do you maintain your sanity through it all? What advice can you offer other writers who are struggling with work/life balance?

Athena Dixon: It can be a struggle. I always feel as if I have something vying for my attention. I do my best to allow myself downtime without feeling guilty about it. A friend of mine once told me that sometimes you need to input instead of output. So, when I am being “lazy” and not working on one of my projects I try to remind myself that whatever I am partaking in can possibly be included in something I will write later on.

I will say that I’ve really had to force myself to use Google Calendar to keep track of things because I’m still learning to say no and until I do so I need to be organized!

I’d say to approach your writing with both passion and logic. Yes, we all want to do what we love, but real life requires money. If that means you have to devise a schedule or a routine after your day job then you have to. That doesn’t mean you aren’t passionate, it means you have a job. Also, make dedicated time each year to attend workshops or conferences if you can. It doesn’t have to be one of the large ones. It can be anything from a local community college meet-up to an online course. Also, write when you can! There is no cookie cutter writer’s life. If you squeeze in lines during lunch break? Good! If you write an hour before bed? Great! If you know all you have is Sunday to craft? Then do it. There is no rule that says you have to write every day or like anyone else. Your journey is yours alone.

MB: Tell us about the memoir you are working on. What prompted you to begin that particular writing journey, and how is the process different from the other writing projects you’ve undertaken?

AD: My current memoir project is a collection of essays tentatively titled Reader Insert. It touches upon only a portion of my life, mainly the last eight or so years, but also reaches back to my childhood to give a foundation of how I came to be both accepting and disillusioned with my love life or lack thereof. I’d wanted to write a full life memoir, but I found my joy and interest in writing the essays that comprise the collection were the pieces that were pithier, more urgent, and raw. I took those kernels and reshaped the book.

My main inspiration has really been wanting to write for care burdened black girls, quiet girls, those who sometimes feel invisible or unheard. I had this nagging issue when I first began working on the original manuscript over two years ago that no one wanted to read such a thing. Thankfully, I’ve had a few friends tell me that my work is very much needed because there are people out there just like me who need a voice.

This is really the first full prose project I’ve undertaken. I’ve written quite a few standalone essays and even quite a bit of fan fiction, but this is the first time I’ve had to really think about how a collection of prose should be ordered, about through lines, and arc progressions. I’ve really been forced to be honest with myself and remove things in order to best serve the larger project and to organize by what makes sense versus what I love.

MB: In a recent blog post for Moving Forewords, “Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome,” you acknowledge the voices of doubt and fear that many writers wrestle with. Instead of pushing us to ignore those voices, you encourage us to “take stock of what [they’re] saying” because they might be trying to tell us something important about our work. Has taking this approach to self-doubt benefited your writing process? In what ways?

AD: It really has benefited me greatly. Instead of spending my energy on what can sometimes be false positivity, I can expend that same energy on trying to get to the root of what I’m feeling. Of course, there are days when those doubts and fears are really just doubts and fears. They aren’t rational. However, there are those times when they are trying to tell me something. I know when I haven’t fully prepared for an event or a task and I know that can sometimes manifest in me feeling as if I don’t belong. If I can acknowledge that, then I can better prepare myself for future situations that I know will spurn self-doubt.

Because I know my tendency to feel like an outsider or a fraud, I’m forced to really concentrate on making sure I’m prepared. I try to prep for events well in advance. I try to cover all my bases to avoid missteps. I concentrate on making sure the work I present to the world is the best I can possibly make it so it lessens my feelings of inadequacy. Doing each of these things has really helped me buckle down and hone my voice.

MB: In your writing and in your work at Linden Avenue Literary Journal, you strive to give voice to underrepresented writers. Why is this mission particularly important to you and what do you hope your voice can add to the conversation surrounding lack of inclusion in the writing industry?

AD: I remember feeling as if I was at a disadvantage when I entered writing and creative spaces in an academic setting. And this continued when I started submitting my work for publication. There is always an underlying current of expectation, the assumption that everyone has read the same books, attended the same programs, or know the same people. It puts writers from marginalized groups of any kind at a disadvantage because many times editorial boards do not reflect us as a readership or a world. And this spills over into the experiences and lenses through which they review and accept work.

When I started Linden Avenue, I wanted to make sure the playing field was level. It was my hope that by having black women at the head of the journal, we would be able to have a wider scope of experiences to allow the best work we came across to be published. These publications are not based on who someone knows, where they are from, or what their publication background may be.

In the end, I hope that I can contribute a safe and stable space for marginalized writers, one that doesn’t expect them to trade on trauma or carry the world in order to tell their stories. One in which they aren’t a token or regulated to special issues.

MB: We were excited to hear that you will be attending the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City next week. What are you looking forward to the most? How will this experience help to fuel your creative life?  

AD: I’m really looking forward to hearing from women who have blazed their own trails while still being fully present in other aspects of their lives. Sometimes creatives are forced into a “do what you love” narrative that does not take into account the other parts of our lives that need nurturing.

I think attending will really help me continue to be confident in the idea that everyone’s path is their own and it’s what you make of presented opportunities that can really push you forward. And, of course, being among so many successful and talented women is only going to make me work harder to be able to share my talents with the world.

MB: Thank you for this glimpse into your writing life, Athena! I’ve no doubt that your talents will continue to find space in the world, and I’m bursting with anticipation for all that’s ahead for you!

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

Lisa,

I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.

I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?

 

Signed,

Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream

 

…..

Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream, 

Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.

The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hell happened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.

I could offer the standard fare about taking classes, joining writing groups, finding beta readers, and working with professional editors, but I sense you’ve already done these things. You’re looking for something deeper.

Here’s your first question: What kind of book are you writing? (One that works on you or through you?)

Once you’ve identified the type of memoir you’re writing, envision your success. Create a collage of your narrative arc. Then create another one that reveals how you will have changed as a result of completing this project. Clip pictures from magazines or print them off the web. Get out the scissors and glue. Let your unconscious guide you as you pictorially imagine the comfortable resting place for your story. In the world of images, you may discover something that’s been evading you.

If you still feel stuck, pause. Sometimes we wander in the dark forest and feeling tricked by illusions because the ego mind is trying to defend a deeply held core belief or a traumatic experience. Fearing the examination will destroy us, the ego creates detours and impasses. If you already know this is happening, proceed with caution. Remind yourself of this book’s purpose: to change you, not the world. This work shouldn’t be rushed.

Counseling can sometimes help writers navigate these dark forests and create a safe space for an honest exploration of secrets and hard lessons. While traditional talk therapy is very useful, some writers benefit from sand tray therapy. Sand tray is an intensive form of projection therapy that bypasses the ego’s defenses. In sand tray, you arrange a series of objects in a sandbox while talking about your story. To the untrained eye, it looks like play. But in sand tray, blocks are revealed. Unexpressed emotions or needs rise to the surface so they can be attended to. By manipulating the items in the sand tray, you not only develop a new understanding of the story you’ve always told, but you can also change it at the brain level.

I’ve experienced sand tray therapy and have been trained as a practitioner. It’s a powerful healing modality. You’ll feel your feels and come away with realizations. But be forewarned. Sand tray is not for everyone. Consider it a possible source of inner guidance, but only follow this path if it speaks to you. Forcing yourself to confront things before you’re ready or for the wrong reasons (like getting published) is never helpful.

Sometimes the best thing to do when your draft is lost in the woods is to let it go. I’m not suggesting you give up on your manuscript, just that you may need more time away from it than you think. Distance may lead to new insights. Or, something may happen in your life that changes your memoir’s trajectory. While you’re waiting, write something new. Using the knowledge you’ve earned from this challenging process could be very satisfying. It could also lead to insights in this manuscript.

Dinty Moore writes about the benefits of letting go in his book The Mindful Writer. He spent four years drafting 360,000 words toward a book with unresolvable problems. When his agent finally told him to let it go, he was devastated. But within hours of releasing the manuscript he felt free. This freedom allowed him to write the book he’s most proud of.

Letting go is an act of faith. Anytime faith is involved, fear arises. Writers worry that letting go of a manuscript is a failure or that they’ll never write again. We misconstrue the work manuscripts do on us with something that must be published. We forget that personal transformation is the real miracle of memoir and that sometimes this is enough.

But you’ll tell me, I’m writing to get published.

And I’ve worked so hard.

Letting go is an act of courage. It’s living into the belief that your best work is in front of you, not behind you. It’s believing that nothing has been wasted. Anything you’ve learned over the past ten years will make your new projects even better. If this book is meant to be published, you’ll return to this manuscript. When you do, it will not only work on you but through you. At that time, a clear path out of the forest will appear.

You are a courageous writer, Lost. I have faith your wandering days will soon be behind you.

 

Warmly,

Lisa Ellison

 

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

Meet Our Memoirists: Lara Lillibridge

Meet Our Memoirists: Lara Lillibridge

I’m thrilled to share that this week, Lara Lillibridge‘s second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent—From Divorce and Dating to Cooking and Crafting, All While Raising the Kids and Maintaining Your Own Sanity (Sort Of)

(Skyhorse, 2019) has hit bookshelves everywhere! This oh-so-real and laugh-out-loud funny book about Lillibridge’s experiences single-parenting her two young boys, “Big Pants” and “Tiny Pants” resonates not just with single mothers, but with anyone who has faced the ups and downs of parenting. Lillibridge’s voice is an engaging mix of sarcasm, self-deprecation, dry wit, and unchecked honesty that makes her a refreshingly relatable and authentic narrator.

 

I first met Lara when we both read as part of a debut authors’ panel at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in August of 2017. Lara’s first memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, was to be released the following spring. This achingly moving story of trying to navigate the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, layers of dysfunction in her childhood home was chosen as a 2018 finalist for both the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards and American Book Fest’s Best Book Awards. I recently talked with Lara about her two memoirs and her journey to bring them into the world. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her amazing work.  

 

Melanie Brooks: This week, your second memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama, launches onto the scene. What has the pre-publication preparation (say that 3 times fast!) been like for you this time around? Is there particular insight that you gained from the publication of your first memoir that has influenced the way you are approaching the process now?

Lara Lillibridge: Patience! The first time around I’d stress out or lose hope every time I had a delay. This time around, I knew that delays are inevitable and that release dates are really just target dates at the beginning. I worked with the same editor for both books, so I was way more relaxed. I knew what sort of edits she’d likely make, and I trusted her judgement on all aspects of the book. I also knew what to expect in terms of publicity and to manage my expectations.

 

MB: In Girlish you courageously tackle many complex and often painful issues that defined your childhood and adolescence. For memoirists, this kind of personal exposure can be a pretty vulnerable place to live. Do you feel the same kind of vulnerability as you send Mama, Mama, Only Mama off to readers?

LL: I guess it’s different. Girlish I was awake nights with terror. I lost a bunch of weight from the stress of it. Only Mama is a different kind of fear, but not as terrifying, for several reasons. First, it’s lighter by design. Second, I was in a happier place in my life, and third, I know that I’ll live through whatever happens. The unknown is terrifying, but after going through it once and living, it is definitely easier the second time around. But with Only Mama I worry about how my kids will view it if they ever read it, that people will judge me for admitting to being such a flighty person, that I might seem like a bad mother. And of course with Girlish I worried about the risk of writing in 3rd person—if I had the chops to pull it off. With Only Mama I worry that it’s not literary and that readers of Girlish will be disappointed. 

 

MB: Humor is a prominent feature in both of your memoirs, and I found myself laughing out loud so many times when I was reading them. Is the use of humor a conscious decision for you? Do you think there’s a so-called “right” balance of levity and seriousness when it comes to writing memoir?

LL: It’s weird—with Girlish I wasn’t trying to be intentionally funny—any funny moments are a result of my personality, and I think I am a naturally funny person. I did, however, look at the overall balance of the book and added in lighter chapters to keep it from being too dark.

Mama, Mama, Only Mama was the opposite. When I started the blog, I wanted it to be humorous, so I sort of trained my eye to look for funny moments or how a story could be told in an amusing way. I put the book together during the wait between when Girlish was signed and when it came out, and writing it was a much needed respite from the heaviness of Girlish. 

One of my first beta readers, also a single mother, commented that it was too light and fluffy, and didn’t have any substance. I chewed on that for a long while, and realized that she was right. The first draft was funny, but it wasn’t honest. After Girlish came out, I realized I couldn’t be completely bare in book one and flippant in book two—it was a betrayal of the readers. So then I went back and wrote in some of the darkness of those years. I called my word doc of this revision “Only Mama—More Honest and Beautiful.”  I think I made it around 35% darker, but also, I hope, more meaningful.

 

MB: You have made some distinctive choices in terms of the style and structure of each of your memoirs. Though Girlish is about you and your family, you’ve diverged from the traditional first person approach and refer to yourself as “Girl” throughout the story. Mama, Mama, Only Mama weaves lists of advice, posts from your “mommy blog,” and actual useable recipes into the overall narrative in a really effective and creative way. Did the writing take these forms initially or did you land on these narrative choices later in the process?    

LL: With Girlish the change from first to third POV happened somewhere around the second draft. I wasn’t able to find the distance I needed in first person. For me, I discovered in grad school that “weirding it up” always helped my writing—when I give myself permission to write any way I want and throw out the rules, I come up with my best work.

In Mama, Mama, Only Mama the structure was sort of given to me—I was at HippoCamp, and an editor from Skyhorse Publishing did a presentation about thinking outside the book. She was specifically seeking books that taught you things, or that incorporated photography or visual elements. I decided then and there to include survival of the fittest type recipes in Only Mama. What’s funny is that this was before Skyhorse signed Girlish, so although I wrote it with them in mind, I didn’t have any idea at that time if they’d actually want it. Luckily, they did, and they were the perfect publisher for it. I love how they made the recipes look as if they are printed on a different paper, and how the blogs are formatted as if you are reading them on your phone. My beloved editor also found all the images used in the book. I wanted it to feel as if you are reading my diary, with torn out recipes and blogs tucked between the pages, and Skyhorse took my vision and ran with it.

 

MB: One question that many memoirists grapple with (myself included) is what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to writing about our children. I know that this has been an ongoing challenge for you, particularly in the second memoir that journeys through the ups and downs of single-motherhood. You write at the end of Mama, Mama, Only Mama, “This fall, I have agonized over the ethics of writing about my kids as they become more adult-like…” Can you talk more about that struggle? What would you say to other memoirists facing the same concerns?

LL: When I started my blog in 2013 I knew the Internet lives forever, and that someday my kids might eventually find and read everything I wrote about them. I tried my hardest never to take the cheap laugh of making fun of my kid—something I see parents do all the time. I think other parents understand that under the laughter is deep love for these little creatures, but the little creatures themselves may not see the humor in it until they are grown. As Mama, Mama, Only Mama went through its final revisions, my kids were very much involved in it. They’d suggest recipes or stories to include in the book. They knew I was writing about our family, and my oldest occasionally read my blogs online. I found myself telling my kids, “don’t worry, I won’t write about this,” on more than one occasion. That was when I made the decision to stop writing about them for now. I didn’t want them to grow up looking over their shoulder, afraid that I would share their most embarrassing moments on the internet. I want them to trust me with their secrets.

At this point I have asked them not to read either of my memoirs, as I wrote them for adults. There’s a lot of content in both books that isn’t appropriate for children. I did offer my eldest the chance to read the chapters that he appeared in before I submitted the final version to my editor, but at the time he decided not to—he said that he trusted me and didn’t want me to change things based on his opinion when the book was written for adults. Now that both my kids are older I worry that they may regret that I have two memoirs out there, but we have spoken extensively on why I think the books are important—how books can reach out across the country and maybe, if they’re done well, help someone else feel less alone.  

 

MB: You’ve published two books in two years. Is there another one on the horizon? How do you keep the creative momentum going? 

LL: Publishing memoir is terrifying and anxiety ridden for me. The way I cope is by working on something completely different while I’m in the pre-publication stage. I started writing Only Mama while I was pitching Girlish. Once that was solid, I started writing Dragon Brothers, a middle grade novel written for my kids. Every night I’d read that day’s chapter and they’d tell me when the character’s voices were off, and if they fell asleep while I was reading I knew the action had lagged. Now I’m pitching Dragon Brothers and working on a couple of new projects. Writing is my happy thing, and I’m lucky to be able to devote a lot of time to it.

 

MB: Thank you so much for letting us peer into your process, Lara! I’m so excited for you as Only Mama settles into the hands of readers, and I’m looking forward to hearing more news of the latest book you are writing!        

Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome

Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome

Michael. Christopher. John. Jamal. Ethan. Oliver. Jack.

My friend, Angie, tells me to name it. She tells me to give this doubt a name and tell it to shut the fuck up. She is much bolder than I can ever hope to be, but each time she calls there is a reminder and a questioning about what name I’ve chosen for it. Impostor Syndrome. She says it is a man and suggests the name Derek. I haven’t been able to whittle down a list of my own. I know I do not want to name him after an ex nor do I want to pick a moniker I actually like. I don’t want to be kind to this voice. I want to be able to cuss and spit at it when it gets too loud to ignore.

It seems fitting that Impostor Syndrome was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the year I was born. This syndrome tells us that we are frauds, that what we have accomplished is simply the result of luck. Imposter Syndrome cripples me. That devil on my shoulder leans in really closely and says to give up. It perches just in the corner of my vision and says I’m too old to try. That I don’t have a large enough network for anyone to care. It tells me that I’m not as talented as I think I am. It chatters and chatters until sometimes I give up.

I was small talking at a party in Boston when it hit me most recently. Gripping a glass of champagne and Chambord, I was worrying about how my body was draped in my seat. I was fretting about whether someone would ask me a question about a book I’ve never read or ask if I knew someone whose name rang nary a bell. I was asking myself how I ended up in the affluent Back Bay neighborhood still coming down from the high of presenting in front of a room full of people. No matter how many times scenes such as this have occurred, there is always the specter at the edge of my social self that is waiting to swoop in and expose me as a fraud. Each of these times, before I could fully allow myself to live in the moment of what was happening to me, I was already sharpening the reasons I shouldn’t be there, why these experiences shouldn’t be true.

I’m not very sure how to push that voice back to the recesses of my mind. There are days I can mute it, culling it to a corner far enough away that I can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Those are the days I submit, the days I write until my back aches from sitting, and the days I shuffle the pages of my book back and forth until the picture becomes clear. I try to hold onto them through depression that makes it hard to function and anxiety that makes me a bit nauseous when I have to step out of my shell and network. That doubt makes me convinced people can hear the shaking of my voice and notice just how often I avert my eyes.

At Grub Street’s Muse and The Marketplace conference this year, Patrice Gopo and Grace Talusan gave a talk on envy. I sat in the back row because my energy was waning. It was the last day and I was struggling to tuck in the green edges of my jealousy and fear. So much talk of agents and manuscripts and cover design issues and I felt like I was drowning. I felt like at any point someone was going to peek into the room, beckon me with a finger and strip the presenter lanyard from my neck. I thought they’d say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Dixon. There’s been a mistake.” It didn’t happen and if I’m being honest with myself, I’m fairly convinced it will never occur.

Even if almost 70% of people experience Imposter Syndrome in their lifetimes, in the midst of it everything seems lonely and echoing. You are convinced that somehow everything before you is a lie or at best a half-truth. You begin to believe that someone has done you a favor, that you are a charity case, that maybe the person meant to be there had a similar name. Each of these things does your talents and accomplishments a disservice. Nothing in this syndrome gives you room to understand that there are reasons you have walked through these doors. It partners with anxiety and perfectionism and will not let you speak up or out. It is cruel and it is very real.

This doubt, heaped upon our shoulders internally and externally, rears its head in all walks of life. It is not exclusive to writers nor any other profession. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that traps you in an echo chamber of voices telling you what you’re doing is wrong and why you don’t belong. And we must acknowledge just how social media exacerbates this, watching the highlight reels of others’ lives on repeat and wondering when it will be our turn.

So how do we learn to live with, or maybe even conquer, that voice rattling around in our heads? We take stock of what it’s saying. We can never be afraid to admit that sometimes that voice may actually be relaying something that we need to pay attention to. That perhaps a portion of it may stem from some very real lack of preparation or fear. I don’t want to sell you any false hope here.

Maybe we should listen to Derek. He could be telling us that maybe we didn’t put as much effort as we should have into the project or just maybe we skimmed that chapter instead of reading it for meaning and that’s the reason we are afraid to approach a discussion about its significance. What Derek should not compel us to do is make his voice the only one we hear.

Derek, or any manifestation of him, should only be a shout in the distance that sometimes reminds us that outside perspective is needed. What is more important is our voices, the ones that brought us exactly to the place we currently doubt or fear. Our voices should be the ones of reason even if they are trembling. Even if they are weak. We should tell Derek to close his mouth and listen. We should make him listen by any means we can. By listing what we are unsure of, why we feel this way, and how we can overcome what seems to be standing in our paths.

Maybe acknowledging Derek is the first step in dismantling a larger issue. Is what he is saying repetitious? Does he seem to be a broken record telling us over and over something we’ve yet to heed? As writers we know where patterns appear. We know through lines. We know when a shift in perspective is needed. So, we acknowledge it and seek out where this voice needs editing. Perhaps it will shrink into a small parcel of words we can easily swallow and forget ever existed or perhaps we take the boom of Derek’s voice and distill it down into a few lines we can carry a bit easier. Do whatever it takes, just don’t allow him to take your voice. Don’t allow him to make you leave the page or leave the room. Derek wasn’t invited there, if anything he is simply riding your coattails because he can’t stand on his own.

 

Athena Dixon. Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she launched in 2012. Athena‘s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), and a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018).  Additionally, she has presented at AWP (Boston 2013) and HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018). She is the author of No God In This Room, a poetry chapbook , published by Argus House Press. Her work also appears in The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books). She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in So To Speak Literary Journal, Narratively, Great Lakes Review, The Grief Diaries, Compose Journal, and elsewhere. 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?

Sincerely,

There But Not There Too

 

…..

 

Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

Grief complicates the writing process, especially if the wound is fresh or the loss was traumatic. Not only do we have to navigate painful feelings surrounding the loss, but we also have to contend with brain fog and memories that go through a different encoding process.

Most experiences transit from short-term memory to verbal, long-term storage areas of the brain in an orderly fashion mediated by the hippocampus. When trauma occurs, stress hormones rush memories to nonverbal limbic centers of the brain, which is why we experience them so viscerally. Because trauma sends some parts of the brain into overdrive, other parts shut down or dissociate to mediate the pain. This is why traumatic memories are frequently choppy and disjointed. Hence the writing challenges described in your letter.

There But Not There, the following paragraphs contain strategies for further memory retrieval, but before you proceed, consider whether a deeper dive is beneficial. One of the hallmarks of trauma is the loss of choice. While I firmly believe in the healing power of writing about painful events, I also believe we must empower ourselves as writers. At every crossroads ask: Is this detail important? For example, does it matter whether a conversation occurred in the living room or kitchen? If it doesn’t, write something like, “We could’ve been standing in the kitchen or dining room.” If it matters, determine how much emotional effort the retrieval will require and how you’ll take care of yourself as you mine the gap between your memories and your memoir.

Revisiting traumatic memories can amp up the nervous system or take us out of our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent self-care practice that strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that calms you down). Mindfulness can return your focus to the body and the visceral details you’re looking for while also helping you gauge whether activities are productive or distressing. If you haven’t already done so, begin a mindfulness practice.

Early in the writing process, I recommend writers record their memories without input from others to ensure their stories are truly their own. You’re past that. Ask safe co-conspirators who love you, celebrate your work, and ideally don’t play a major role in your book to share what they remember about you and your behavior during that grief-laden period of your book. Ask them what your face looked like, how you sat, or what you did when asked difficult questions. If they have pictures of you from that time period, ask to see them.

It’s likely you’ve already researched your story’s key events. Now research items on the edge of that experience. Check the weather, the number-one song on the radio, or the number-one book on the NYTimes bestseller list. Touch the book, listen to the song, and if possible, re-experience that weather to see what you might have done on such a day. Read the newspaper for the days in question. Seeing what the world viewed as newsworthy may trigger additional memories. Even if it doesn’t, you may find yourself touching certain parts of your body or feeling a specific kind of pain. Record your results. Also, pay attention to body sensations and visceral experiences when writing, revising, or reading your work out loud. These visceral sensations are muscle memory in action.

If it feels emotionally safe to do so (remember the power of choices), walk or drive the same routes you would’ve taken or follow your old routine. Hold the newspaper containing your son’s obituary. Because you have a clear sense of your thoughts and feelings, focus on how your posture changes, how tightly you grip the newspaper, what happens to your jaw. Attend to any aches and pains. If you have any chronic illnesses or injuries, notice whether symptoms flare. This could be stored trauma revealing itself.

Debra Gwartney capitalizes on physical experiences in her memoir Live Through This. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts: “I turn back to press my fingers against a rib that tends to devil ache at moments like this. It’s a pain that reminds me, again, how sometimes the past simply refuses to be finished.”

Where does your body devil ache?

What pains remind you that your grief is unfinished?

Answering these questions and completing these exercises may be useful, but don’t let them become torture. Part of the truth you may need to tell is that not only is your dear and precious child lost, but some of your memories are lost too. Because memoir is a story of memory and memory is always fallible, admitting to lost memories, hedging about the details, or speculating to create a sense of narrative cohesion is perfectly acceptable, provided what you’re doing is clear. Check out these examples.

In Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, she writes this about the time her mother almost killed her. “I don’t remember talking. I must eventually have told Dr. Boudreaux there weren’t any marks on me. There weren’t. It took a long time to figure that out for certain, even longer to drive my memory from that single place in time out toward the rest of my life.”

In Caged Eyes, Lynn Hall’s brave memoir about surviving a sexual assault as an Air Force cadet, she writes about dissociating during a rape. “I left myself again . . . I have no memory of what happened next. I didn’t hear if he said anything else to me, and I didn’t feel where his fingers made contact with my skin.”

                             

Lara Lillibridge does something similar in Girlish, her memoir about growing up in a bipolar home. When talking about possible sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, she writes “There was that time in the bathtub with Dad that got a little weird, when he asked Girl, ‘Where’s the penis?’ And maybe let her poke it. Maybe not. She wasn’t clear on what exactly happened, just that she felt squirmy inside and dirty and bad when she thought about that day.”

Write some speculative scenes to free yourself from the constraints of absolute fact so you can discover your story’s truth. Begin with one of the following phrases “I don’t remember,” “I don’t want to remember,” or “It could’ve happened like this.” See where the writing takes you. While you may not remember everything, have confidence that you will retrieve the details that lend universality to your work.

No matter how you proceed, be gentle with yourself as you continue this journey. As someone who’s also experienced a traumatic loss, I salute the work you’ve done and cheer you on as you complete your book.

 

Warmly,

Lisa Ellison

Have a memoir question of your own? Contribute to the Heart Speak column.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.

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