This week, I Am Yours (Amberjack Publishing, 2019), Reema Zaman‘s dazzling debut memoir, launches into the world, and we couldn’t be more excited! With unwavering courage and lyrical precision, Reema offers readers her story of unshackling her voice from the binds of patriarchy, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and anorexia as a companion through trauma and an antidote to loneliness. Her book embodies the truism: to speak is a revolution, and in this unprecedented time when all voices must be heard, Reema’s is one leading the charge.
I recently sat down with Reema to hear about her memoir (and life) journey and what this lead-up to the release of I Am Yours has been like. I invite you to watch our author chat below, read the interview that follows, and then head over to the Ms. Q&A: How Reema Zaman Found Healing in Her Own Story at Ms. Magazine to learn more about her and her beautiful writing.
Melanie Brooks: In I Am Yours, you write out of your own personal trauma from growing up in a culture infused with misogyny, experiencing sexual assault and emotional abuse, and living with an eating disorder. I’ve heard you speak to other writers about the importance of “writing from the scar, not the wound.” Before you began committing words to the page for this book, had you achieved any kind of reckoning with these experiences that gave you clarity on how you wanted to write about them?
Reema Zaman: Yes, because before I started writing the book, I had written all of these essays just for my own integration and clarification of self. I spent such a long period of time not speaking my own words, so this outpour was the first time my inner child was being allowed to speak without the threat of physical danger. When you are in the weeds and you are writing your way out of the weeds, you’re writing your way out of the wound. I could tell that these essays were quintessential to the making of me and to the making of a larger project that perhaps would be a book one day. But I did all of this analysis and getting to the heart of things first. For example, what was my anorexia? Where did it come from? I realized that for me, it was a side effect of being raised as a girl in this world. So when I sat down to write I Am Yours, I had already come to this place of deep understanding of what my disease had been and the roots of that disease. The question now was, how do I talk about this? How do I explain this to people? That became the exercise: I wanted to find language that was so precise and help people say, “So that’s what it is.” I think finding clarity of something is 90% of being able to heal and release it.
MB: You are trained as an actress and you are also a talented artist—some of your stunning drawings are woven into the pages of I Am Yours. How did this creative background make itself felt in the writing of your memoir?
RZ: I had all of this acting training where the first two things we’re taught are: 1. Story above ego, and 2. Audience always knows. We’re taught to respect the emotional intelligence of the audience and trust that they know what is happening without needing it explained to them. I Am Yours is a long book, but it’s also very sparsely written. In acting, it’s also all about creating urgency. Everything is done in the present tense—the audience is watching the scene happen as it happens. So for me, it made sense from the very beginning to set my book in the present tense as an effective way for the audience to literally be there with me while I was going through it. That urgency helped me find the accurate language, where my job was to just paint what was happening. I’ve also been really fortunate, in a sense, that the characters and the experiences that have come into my life have been so vivid and enormous. The dialogue sections happened verbatim, and then my acting background lets me know what feels authentic.
I attached to art at the same time I attached to anorexia—age fifteen—because both of them help you to create beauty out of the wreckage, clarity from chaos. There had been so much trauma and chaos in my life that my brain attached to anorexia because this disease is all about precision and intention. I realized I had to figure out how to meet those needs of precision and deliberate action in a way that was not killing me. I had to replace it with a new set of habits. I developed this really precise drawing style and then I began creating this really precise language.
MB: In our Q&A for Ms. Magazine, you tell me: “The biggest goal and purpose of this book is to provide medicine.” I know your words have already been a balm to other women who have experienced trauma and a call to action for them to lift their voices with yours. What do you hope men will take from your book?
RZ: I wanted to write a book as an agent for empathy—where you start to experience that person’s life through their body and voice. I want men to be looking and feeling these experiences through my eyes. My entire life, as I’ve stood in front of the different men in my life while they’ve done the things they’ve done, I’ve thought, If you only knew the pain that was coursing through my body, I think you would not be doing what you are doing. The most effective attempt I can make of that is to write a book that guides men through what it is to live life in the body of a woman through these experiences. That’s why raw emotion and vivid language are such huge parts of what this book is. I wanted to create that cinematic exploration of a woman’s life—specifically for men. A lot of women are able to access the experiences so quickly because they have a memory that connects to my memory, but most men reading my book don’t have a parallel experience. My job was to paint it in the most evocative, 4D effect as possible so it becomes like virtual reality for them. If this doesn’t ignite someone’s empathy, they are lost.
MB: In the past year, you have exploded onto the literary scene as a noteworthy writer and sought-after speaker. Your work has been widely published, and you’ve gained a global following in anticipation of your book’s release because of the undeniable power of your voice. Did you imagine this level of success?
RZ: I say this with complete, unaffected humility. The greatest surprise has been me—the presence of my intelligence. My degrees in college were theater and women’s studies. I began my career as an actress and model where my identity was based on sex appeal. I had never written personal essays, or thought of myself as a writer. It never occurred to any of us that I had any talent. I stepped into this voice only four years ago. Had you met me in my twenties, you’d say, “Oh, what a sweet little girl.” My voice was literally an entire octave higher, my energy was like that of a glass bird. Writing this book was an unpeeling of who I’ve always been. The first draft came out in such a flow that I wasn’t conscious of it and I wasn’t reading it while writing it. It was only when I was creating the second draft and doing a read-through and going through the process as an editor versus the author that I was able to objectively view this manuscript. That was the first time in my life that I started filling with a deep sense of genuine self-appreciation and self-respect because I started recognizing there was something there. I had a voice. The transformation was a revelation. And maybe as women, our transformation is the revelation. To peel back, to unlearn everything that was taught to us so that we can reveal ourselves to be the mighty women warriors we actually are.
MB: Thank you so much for sharing these pieces of your writing journey, Reema. I’m holding my breath along with so many other grateful readers in anticipation of what comes next!
To celebrate the release of I Am Yours into the world, the women of Moving Forewords read the poem “I Am Woman” by Reema Zaman from the book’s opening pages.
I wrote I Am Yours as a love letter of comfort and strength for survivors of trauma of any kind, and as a call to action to our allies, an invitation for their empathy, so that we may join together to heal and evolve as a human family. I wrote I Am Yours to provide the words of love and solidarity I wish others had known to give me when I was bullied as a brown kid in school, when I was battling anorexia as a teenager, when I was stalked by a predator at age 18, when I immigrated to the States by myself, when I was raped at 23 or going through an abusive marriage at 26. I wrote I Am Yours so that years from now, my daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters will not have to weep over the same wounds that made my mother and I cry. I wrote I Am Yours because every time I publish or speak a word, another human being hears that their story matters. That they too deserve love, kindness. and respect. That they too, you too, me too, we too, we are all vital voices in a connective, collective roar.
I created Love Letter Mondays for the identical reasons. I Am Yours is a book-length offering of love. Love Letter Mondays are written with the same voice and intentions. After Trump was elected and the #MeToo movement came into our lives, in early 2018, I began feeling that it was necessary to create a soft space for us all to rest our hearts, remember our power, and rejuvenate our energy before a long week. I knew I Am Yours was going to be published in early 2019 but the call for love and the call to love requires immediate action. Thus, in spring 2018, Love Letter Mondays was born. The weekly series has created an astonishing online community of kindred souls. We are proof that radical vulnerability and authenticity are empowering and invigorating. In a world full of corrupt politics, systemic wounds, and growing disconnection, I wanted to create something pure yet fiery and audacious. A riotous roar of love. It appears that these love letters are a balm and a community that so many of us have been craving. I’m daily humbled by the depth of connection and conversation the letters have brought to life. We are love in motion.
I’m moving out of my apartment. I’ve whittled down my belongings to a few boxes of books and two suitcases of clothes, and am donating the rest to the Veterans Center and to Raphael House (a home for women who have survived intimate partner violence.) I’m storing my books and clothes at my parents’ place and will go off into the world to travel with I Am Yours. I did the exact same thing five years ago: I kept a few things, gave most things to those who needed them, and moved from New York to Oregon with the firm resolve to write and publish one specific book. Many friends have asked me if I’m anxious about releasing I Am Yours into the world. The sincere truth is No, not at all. I’m so excited and at peace. The book has given me so much. It helped heal my anorexia and mended the gashes of the past. It brought a new depth of closeness into my family. It introduced me to the power of my voice. The book is complete; it no longer needs me, and I no longer need it. It now belongs to the world, free to travel to whomever needs it next.
I love moving and the growth that moving brings. I’ve learned that my voice and my body are my home. As long as I have my voice, I can feel the earth beneath me, the sky above me.
What or where or who is your home? Is there anything you no longer need and are ready to release into the world? I love that every creation of art is a gift made for oneself and for others. Dear one, what creation are you presently navigating? Perhaps the gift you are bringing to life isn’t a specific book or film or play but rather, the masterpiece is your Self. Which is, after all, ultimately the case, forever and beyond.
Thank you for being such a gift.
Writing a memoir deepened my compassion for others. Sure, growing up, I had been taught compassion by my parents. But writing memoir introduced me to a whole new authenticity of compassion. Writing memoir involves deep introspection and interrogation, and like any practice that exercises those muscles, it makes you look at an experience from all points of view, including the views and backstories of the characters who once hurt you. Be it through abandonment. Negligence. Betrayal. Physical, sexual, or emotional violence. I expected to feel anger while revisiting those chapters and characters of my life. And I did feel anger. But the most prominent and lasting emotion was empathy. Compassion. And sympathy.
All of us were born as children. Innocent and full of trust in the world. Then, it is through nonchalant or deliberate wounds that our faith is fractured. We become the love or the pain that is taught to us. In this there lives an invitation and potential for empathy, compassion, forgiveness toward life and those who wound. In this there exists proof that every human is but a sum of choices, made unto us, made by ourselves, and therefore, we all hold the power and possibility to heal, change, grow, and evolve. We can choose love.
Your heart — like you — is mighty, brave, and profound.
As featured in The New York Times, Reema Zaman is an award-winning author, speaker, and actress, and the 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Writer of Color Fellow. Born in Bangladesh, raised in Thailand, and presently residing in Oregon, she holds a double BA in Gender Studies and Theater from Skidmore College. Her wildly acclaimed memoir I Am Yours will be released February 5, 2019. Beloved by all communities, all ages, all genders, I Am Yours has already been adopted into the curriculum for several high schools through an Innovation Grant from the Oregon Department of Eduction.
I Am Yours is the story of Reema’s unwavering fight to protect and free her voice from the harsh winds, and hands, of life. Beginning in Bangladesh, moving into Thailand, then New York, and finally, Oregon, I Am Yours is an iconic, definitive book on the female, the human, condition. In impossibly gorgeous prose that is at once beautiful and biting, poetic and political, haunting and healing, Reema’s personal narrative acts as an uncannily perfect backdrop to ask and answer our most pressing universal questions: Why do we wound each other and ourselves? Why do we oppress and overpower when, beneath pigment, all flesh are the same color? And, in this rapidly changing world, what is authentic integrity, kindness, and equality, and how do we put them into practice, amidst genders, amidst family, amidst one another?
Above all, what is, and where is, home? In I Am Yours, these queries are explored, traveling between the streets of Dhaka, slums of Bangkok, and glittery film sets of New York City, in a singular voice that is radically vulnerable, loving, and powerful.
“The internet goes dark when children reach ten or twelve,” she explained. It’s not considered fair to write about the struggles of our children, particularly their negative behavior. The workshop leader directed us to read an essay written by a woman whose teenaged son stole her jewelry. A man in the class was livid.
“How dare she put such things in writing about her child?” he demanded. I came to the writer’s defense—this woman was writing her truth in a heartbreaking way that was relevant to me personally as a mother. The essay was wrought with this woman’s agony. It wasn’t an attempt to shame the child. And yet, the man argued, we only see the mother’s side. The son has no voice. He found it appalling.
Two years later, they were ready to move forward with Only Mama. By then the book had gone through several major revisions. A friend read it and said Only Mama didn’t reflect the hardship of being a single parent—it made it seem like a fun and upbeat jaunt. I kept revising.
Girlish came out, and readers commented on the honesty of the book and what it meant to them. People talked about the beauty of the writing. I realized that writing Only Mama as a fun, shallow, humorous book wasn’t honest, as my friend pointed out, and more than that, it felt like a betrayal to my readers. I had already bared my soul in Girlish. I couldn’t be coy, say, “that’s too personal”, gloss over the hard stuff, and get away with it.
I didn’t want my kids to read the whole book yet—I wrote about my divorce from their father and my subsequent dating. At 10 and 13, neither of my kids are old enough to read about their mother’s sex life–if they ever will be. Before I sent my final revision to my editor, I offered my eldest child the chance to read the chapters about him and his brother and gave him the right to veto anything that bothered him. He had read some of my blogs online and decided that he didn’t want to read more than that. He was supportive of my writing and not unduly concerned.
I kept revising and deepening the work. In the end, Only Mama was less funny than it started
Finally, my editor had
My eldest—now in high school—was excited and curious. We looked at some chapters together. He was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to see I had dropped the F-bomb more than once. He is against swearing by anyone and everyone. I reminded him the book wasn’t written for children.
He asked to read the chicken casserole chapter—one of our favorite stories about his brother successfully carrying out an 18-hour hunger strike. I agreed—I didn’t recall anything objectionable in it. He read the first few paragraphs and burst into tears. My heart tore into half a dozen bloody, jagged pieces.
The offending sentence read, “Big Pants is sometimes well-behaved because he is good by nature and sometimes well-behaved just to make his brother look bad.”
He wanted me to change it to clarify that this was only my opinion of his motivation—not the absolute truth. I had already hit send and my editor had forwarded it to the printer as her last piece of business before leaving for the holidays.
The rest of the family sat down to eat, but my son and I sat side by side on the couch in my mother’s living room. We talked about the difference between the person and the page and the person in real life. We discussed how the intended audience of the book—single mothers—would know I did not speak for him and his motives, only my interpretation. We talked about how much love I had written into the book that I was sure would shine through. I reminded him that we have different last names, and I never use even his first name in the book. No one would find the book if they googled him.
I kept talking. I told him for the first time that my parents weren’t happy about Girlish coming out. We had barely spoken for several months. Yet, here we were celebrating the holidays together. We had lived through the experience.
I told him that that chapter was actually about one of my biggest failures as a mother—I had tried to
“I guess it’s like that Dragon Force album,” he said. “It’s a really happy album, except for that one song. If that was all you listened to, you’d get the wrong idea of the band.”
“Right,” I agreed, and said something along the lines of, “the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.”
I was honest with him about my sales figures for my first book, and the unlikelihood that Only Mama would become a NY Times
Eventually, we joined the family at the dinner table.
The next day my son asked, “Do you feel better about the book, Mama?”
“I only do if you do,” I answered. But I didn’t. Anxiety had moved
Writing memoir is hard on a family. So why do we risk it?
…raising children has been the single most important thing in my life. Not writing about it seemed to nullify its significance. Children matter, and parenting matters, and mothers are still women with needs of their own.
Writing about mothering is for me an act of feminism as much as it is
I wrote this book to give hope to newly single parents. I wanted people to see themselves on the page and know that they could not only survive but thrive after divorce. I have to trust that in the end, my children will agree it was worth it. As much anxiety and
They say: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I am living proof of that statement.
My life has mirrored a journey through a magical wardrobe into Narnia, where I got lost in winter garments, accidentally stumbled upon a yellow brick road into Oz, got distracted by a witty rabbit and followed him down a chasm into Wonderland. Along the way, I’ve met wizards and mad hatters. I’ve explored shadowed lands and faced mystical questions about power and energy. And while that may sound like the stuff of a really fascinating and unique memoir, that’s precisely where I am stuck. My story is all true. And it’s much stranger than fiction.
I jokingly tell friends that my life is so surreal, I need to “reinvent genre” to write my memoir. But maybe this is not such a joke? Am I actually staring smack at a perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative? And if so, how am I supposed to write my memoir without feeling impossibly overwhelmed and daunted by this seemingly insurmountable goal? It’s one thing to write my story (and deal with all those inherent anxieties and doubts), but it takes a whole other enchanted wand to create a genre that may not even exist.
In general, I am vulnerable and raw in my writing. I’m unashamed to shine a spotlight on my heart. I’ve attempted to get this memoir out of my swirling mind, and into a few short essays and outlines. But I find the essays lack a higher purpose when I’m too focused on plot points or dialogue. And yet, the details of circumstances matter.
I’ve asked myself: “How do my stories either define or blur my place in this world? How can I claim my own hero’s journey? And what have I learned about safety, trust, power, energy, love, and connection?” But, I worry that such an approach will evolve into a motivational self-help handbook. That is the very opposite of my goal, and the antithesis of my identity. I’m far more Joseph Campbell than I am Louise Hay.
Lisa, how do I hone MY very unique and authentic memoir, with all the existential magic and epic wonder it deserves, without falling too far into fantasy folklore or too off-track into inspirational guru guide?
Alice in Wonderland
You’re right, the truth is always stranger than fiction. One of the reasons we’re drawn to memoir is our desire to derive meaning from experiences we don’t fully understand. This is especially true when these experiences contain fantastical elements or a colorful cast of characters. You begin your letter, Alice, with questions of reinventing the genre, asking whether writing your life story is the perfect opportunity to play with craft, form, and narrative. Experimentation can foster growth for writers if it helps generate pages, but to think about re-inventing the genre is to put too much pressure on yourself and your book. It’s likely to squash your creative process as you think not just of writing a book but THE BOOK. That’s like asking the Cheshire Cat for directions.
The very first activity I give my memoir students is to create an intention for their books—one that has nothing to do with publishing or success. I ask them to consider how they may act or behave differently or believe something new as a result of writing their story. There are few guarantees in this competitive publishing market, but the one thing I can promise all writers is that the process will change them. My advice to you is the same: consider how you wish to transform as a result of writing this manuscript, then let your book work on you.
When I think of Alice in Wonderland and how it relates to the memoir writing process, I think not so much of the characters, which are all interesting, but of the way Alice shrinks and grows over the course of her adventure. On her hunt for the white rabbit, she encounters a bottle on a table labeled “Drink Me”. In real life, drinking from mystery bottles is about as safe as being a sex-crazed teenager in a horror flick investigating the noise coming from the basement. No good comes from it. But for Alice, drinking the potion helped her shrink enough to fit through the small door in front of her and continue her journey.
My invitation to you is this: brew yourself a cup of tea, close your eyes, and commit to writing your story. Then drink up. Let your metaphorical potion narrow your focus to the work at hand. Jot down a few key scenes that reveal what happened. Make them as vivid as you can. Leave behind fears of believability or the need for labels. Simply immerse yourself in the stories you’ve always told, and your hidden stories will
Memoirists make two contracts with the reader: the story must be true, and the quest must lead to some form of insight or transformation. It’s not just about what happened but why it’s important. Mary Roach Smith, author of Another Name for Madness says memoir is about something and you are its illustrator. She has a handy formula for helping writers hone their messages: it’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in Z. For example, it’s about finding your voice, as illustrated by your experience of not being believed as a sexual assault survivor, to be told in a book-length memoir. In other words, the events in your life are merely the backdrop for the topic at the heart of your story. The something is what you’re after.
The drafting process is about sense-making and finding the universal truths inside your specific circumstances, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. That specificity is the reason we’re willing to follow Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail even when it may seem impossible that she carried an eighty-pound pack across a thousand miles, or that Tara Westover or Mary Karr could achieve academic success and stability after their impoverished, chaotic upbringings, or that Sarah Manguso could run a 5k after being paralyzed by Guillaume Barre Syndrome.
If you’re not sure what your story is about (healing, recovering your power, finding your voice), write what happened one scene at a time. Once you have a collection of episodes, ask yourself what they have in common. Determine your X, Y, and Z using Marion Roach Smith’s formula. If your X is unclear, or you’re feeling blocked, you may not have enough distance from the events to examine their meaning. Continue drafting or write something else and try again later.
Once you know what the work is about, write like a motherfucker. Draft as bad and as fast as you can. Open your heart to the process. Write with the belief that your story is worthwhile and that it will change you. If you draft without expectations, your book will tell you what it wants to be.
Later in her adventure, Alice finds the white rabbit. Inside his home, she eats a cake that causes her to grow. In a similar vein, once you have arrived at a solid working draft, you’ll be ready to expand your perspective. Write down one-sentence summaries for each scene on a series of index cards, then spread them across a table. Give yourself an aerial view of your work and examine your narrative arc. Perhaps, like Justin Torres’s autobiographical novel We the Animals, your manuscript begs for some magical realism. Maybe the story needs a unique structure like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index or Sara Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s possible some poetry or episodes of speculative fiction could be in order. Suppose there are blank spots in your memory. Like Sharon Harrigan in Playing with Dynamite, you may need to imagine scenes to address the gaps in your story. If your manuscript could benefit from a rich metaphorical landscape, Reema Zaman’s memoir I Am Yours comes out in February of 2019. Take a deep dive into her exquisite sentences. Read as many genre-bending memoirs as you can. One of these books may inspire you to create something altogether new.
The stories of our lives are precious. Give yourself time to process unexpressed feelings, delve into what’s behind the stories you’ve always told, and create meaningful reflections. In preparing my response, I spoke with Joan Wickersham about her creative process. It took Joan eleven years to write The Suicide Index. Her story began as a work of fiction and slowly turned into a memoir. It wasn’t until year nine that she figured out the right structure.
Draft by draft, you will reveal the truth masked by the wardrobes, mad hatters, and wizards in your life. By taking a critical look at your stories, you will transform challenging life experiences into art. Your job is not to judge the story or to worry about how the world will receive it. Your job is simply to write it to the best of your ability and accept that only you can tell your story, whether the format is inventive or traditional.
Let this quote by Martha Graham be your mantra as you follow your own white rabbit:
“There is a vitality, a life force,
Have patience with the process and keep your channel open. The rest will work itself out.
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
It’s been a long time coming, but with this
To kick things off, we interviewed Melanie Brooks. Melanie is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She is also at work on her own memoir, All The Things I Couldn’t Say. Melanie’s writing is a gorgeous testament to this truth: Getting vulnerable on the page is both our greatest challenge and strongest virtue. If you are looking to get courageous this year with your writing, or if you are an avid reader of this growing and ever-evolving genre, we invite you to watch the author chat, read the interview below for a deeper
Dana Mich: In your book Writing Hard Stories, you end with this beautiful passage: “If we’re writers, coming to terms is exactly what we do. We find language to unravel the complexities of what happened, and we re-stitch those complexities into narratives that can become meaningful to others. And those are the narratives that have the potential to give others the courage to find their own.” I love the idea that putting words to our life experiences helps us achieve a certain kind of inner reckoning. What has this been like for you in your own writing?
Melanie Brooks: Writing helps me make sense of my life and the world I live in. Joan Didion has this wonderful quote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking. What I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I find her words to be absolutely true in my own writing practice. When I commit words to the page, give them form and contour, peel back the layers of emerging narratives, I’m embarking on a rigorous and intentional act of self-reflection. I’m asking, Who am I? and How have I gotten here? As a memoirist, though, my journey doesn’t stop there. My inner reckoning has to be accompanied by the understanding that it’s not just about me. By writing through my stories, I’m engaging in an act of community. I’m seeking language that bridges my experiences with those of others, and I’m hoping that my words will open space for their words.
DM: You have a memoir in progress about your father’s secret illness and the decade-plus long silence you endured. (I love the working title, by the way: All The Things I Couldn’t Say.) At what moment in your life did you realize you wanted to write your story? Was there any particular catalyst?
MB: For ten years, my family carried the secret of my father’s HIV infection silently and alone. After his death to AIDS-related complications, I spent almost twenty more years carrying the immense pain of that loss in the same way. It buried itself deep in my bones. For a long time, I tiptoed around my story and did everything I could to avoid the razor-sharp grief that lined its edges. The last thing I wanted to do was get any closer. But this story had a different agenda than mine. It pushed back against my resistance and wouldn’t leave me alone. That ache in my bones got worse. Look at me, it said, over and over. Eventually, I knew that I needed to listen. So, in 2013, I enrolled in an MFA program and decided to start writing.
DM: When you first sat down to write, did you think the act of putting words to your memories might transform you in some way? If so, how? And when you finished–did you achieve the outcome you anticipated or did you encounter surprises along the way?
MB: I’d carried this story so close for so long that when I first sat down to write, I had one main goal: to get rid of it and its crushing weight once and for all. To purge it from my system, leave it somewhere on the road behind me, and get on with my life. I could never have imagined that the process of writing about it would eventually lead me to understand that my story is an integral part of my life that I not only can’t, but don’t want, to let go. I had to write my way toward that understanding. I had to write through fear and heartache and vulnerability, give myself over to the material completely and take a deep dive into painful memories I’d never really examined before. I had to linger there long enough to unearth the authentic story those moments held. A story I didn’t know existed until I finally arrived at it.
DM: Once in a blue moon, writers experience these magical moments when they tap into subconscious terrain and write something revelatory. Did you have any of these moments in the writing of either of your books?
MB: There were many moments like this in writing All the Things I Couldn’t Say because so much of that experience dwelled in my subconscious. The nature of living with a secret is learning how to keep things shiny on the outside and hiding the turmoil on the inside. I became really good at distancing myself from the grief-stricken, confused, and terrified girl I actually was. Pretending to be someone else became a way of life that I taught myself to believe. So, digging into that subconscious terrain forced me to look really closely at that girl and reevaluate who she was. I had to recast the story I’d told myself about her until then. That rigorous and intentional act of self-reflection I talked about earlier showed me a lot of things about myself and my story that I hadn’t been willing to see before, and it’s those things that have filled the pages of my book.
Every conversation that I had with the writers in Writing Hard Stories was revelatory for me. They all shed light on so many pieces of the memoir writing process that I needed illuminated to move forward in writing my own hard story. The magical moment in writing that book was when I recognized how different a writer I’d become by the end of that experience of interviewing memoirists than the one I’d been when I began. Their collective wisdom and encouragement cultivated my confidence and demonstrated so clearly the role that community plays in the lives of writers. The companionship and support of fellow travelers is so vital for us on this journey.
DM: Is there anything that scares you about the prospect of having your life story out in the world? What words of advice do you give your students in dealing with these kinds of fears?
MB: To be honest, everything about having my life story out in the world scares me! It’s a vulnerable prospect to think that my most intimate thoughts and experiences are going to be open to other people’s scrutiny and judgment. I have a pathological fear of people thinking badly of me – whether it’s people I know or not – so, that’s definitely a factor. Even more, I fear people will think badly of my writing. I’ve devoted so much time and care to crafting what I hope are beautiful sentences on the page for readers to value and connect with. What if they don’t? The list of doubts is endless.
The gift of spending so much time talking to other memoirists who’ve gone before me is the understanding that everyone feels this way to some degree. Their advice is what I’ve internalized for myself and what I pass on to my students. You can’t control what other people do with your story once it’s out there. You can hope that people will look after your words, but they are going to take from them what they take from them. You can only do your best with the best of intentions.
DM: Thank you so much for your insight and your time, Melanie. I’m elated to have you with us for this journey, and I can’t wait for the author interviews you’ll be conducting as you take this exciting endeavor from here!
Photo credit: HALDANE MARTIN on Visualhunt