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