Body to Page: An Interview with Nomi Isak

"When I ran or swam or danced, I was in my body; when I did school work or told stories (and later as a book editor and writer), I was in my head. I was taught to keep them separate. The result was a profound body-mind split, something I now recognize as prevalent in our Western culture."

Read my interview with writing coach & award-winning editor Nomi Isak. She'll be bringing her "From the Body to the Page" workshop to Santa Barbara in early 2017.

Morning Pages & Hiding Places: A Personal Story

I was recently asked during a podcast interview to "share an embarrassing moment, or vulnerable story about myself, and what I learned from it." Here's what I wrote, more as a note to myself, in response.

Dear Nathan, 

Here's something. It's not embarrassing, but it’s certainly personal.

For years—and by that I mean decades—I was wounded by my father's absence in my life.

As I've written about before, my dad was a child Holocaust survivor, and both my grandparents on that side were killed during WWII. My father, who was 4 when the war broke out, survived because he was hidden – given a false identity – as a Catholic child. This was in Warsaw, Poland. He was raised by his nanny, a woman who also helped to arrange hiding places for several other people in the family.
 
Growing up I'd heard pieces of the story, but I didn’t really identify my dad as a Holocaust survivor. Back in the 1980s the emphasis was much more on people who’d lived through concentration camps, and those like my dad were still quite young, busy raising families, and not really speaking out about their experiences.
 
But there was a lot going on in the privacy of their lives that seriously impacted 'hidden children' like him. For one thing, because he was orphaned so early on, my dad had a lot of trouble understanding the role that a parent is supposed to play in his child's life. He was a sweet, sensitive, courtly man, but he tended to hide out a good deal. Among other things he had a serious case of deprivation mentality, a fragile ego, and a complicated relationship to money.
 
All these things conspired to create distance between us. I wanted—I hungered—for his attention.  My parents split up in 1985, the same fall I moved to the U.S. for college, and after that we’d often go years without seeing each other. Not surprisingly, I ended up seeking that attention in friendships with older men. Sometimes these guys were incredible narcissists, which got very confusing there for awhile.
 
I’m telling you this story because I had a realization, maybe a year ago, that something had shifted for me. I was simply no longer feeling stuck around my dad. There are several reasons for it, I suppose, but the biggest is that I've been in 12-step recovery and therapy for a few years, and so have had ample time to deal with the legacy of a toxic childhood with two damaged parents.
 
How does journaling play into this?

Well, for years and years I tried to tell the story about my father and I in all sorts of ways. For example, after my dad passed away in 2004, I thought I’d publish a book all about the year I spent mourning him (the Jewish ritual of saying "kaddish" for one's parent). Except I didn’t spend a year saying kaddish, and I gave up that particular project after  a couple dozen entries.

Next I went to Poland – twice. I spent time with his nanny, Genia, who was in her 90s by this point. Both visits were profound experiences. Still, when I tried writing about these trips in essays, the writing felt stiff, formal, impersonal.
 
Intuitively, I understood that I was hiding in my own life in ways that reflected and amplified the hiding my father had continued doing in his post-war life. For one thing, as a result of childhood bullying, I’ve always been terrified of criticism, which has a way of shutting me down. So there was always this terrible tension between my love for personal essay and memoir, and the fact that I was scared to reveal myself, to let people see who I was, what I was about.

For years, there was really only one place where I felt free to really say what I wanted to say. And that, of course, was in my journal.
 
Or, at least, my version of of a journal. I’d discovered the practice of “morning pages” through Julia Cameron’s The Artist's Way, starting in the late 1990s I worked on these most days. I did that for years, and I’m still convinced that some of my best writing is hidden in these massive big black binders I keep on a bookshelf in my house.

 
With morning pages, you set a timer for a set amount of time—usually only 10 or 15 minutes. Or, you give yourself a set amount of pages—2 or 3, something like that. You don't lift your pen until the time (or page) is up. Keep going. That's the key.
 
In those morning pages, especially in the first years of writing, I focused a lot on my family, especially on what I could now see was the legacy of the my dad's wartime history, but also on the experiences of growing up as an outsider in a very conventional town during the early 1980s. All the themes I'm still obsessed with--history, monsters, weird teenage hobbies, fathers & sons, childhood abuse--first rolled into view in these pages. It's not too much to say they taught me to see who I really was.

Even today, I find doing this exercise in the morning really helps me bypass whatever strong internal censors have come up. When I'm down on a particular piece of writing, I can open up one of those morning pages binders and see the writer I want to be--passionate, irreverent, articulate, but rarely timid.

With that voice in my head I can move forward.

Other People’s Secrets: An Interview with Kerry Cohen

For memoirists, no challenge feels quite as fraught as publishing work that touches on the lives of others. Successful memoirists appear to write honestly about friends, family members, spouses, lovers, others—but how do they do it, exactly?

 Gimme some truth: Kerry Cohen explores writing about others in our memoirs.

Gimme some truth: Kerry Cohen explores writing about others in our memoirs.

Where’s the line between my story and that of family members I may choose to write about? Do I have a right to ‘other people’s secrets’—to use Patricia Hampl’s famous formulation? When should that stop me from publishing?

These are just of the questions explored in Kerry Cohen’s  terrific and thought-provoking book, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity(Writer’s Digest Books). A longtime fan of her memoir Loose Girl, I used the excuse of Kerry’s new book to ask lots of questions about how and why our writing has the potential to set other people off—and when we have the right to ignore that.

Kerry is also psychotherapist and the author of two other books Dirty Little Secrets and Seeing Ezra.

The topic of how to navigate the pitfalls of disclosure in publishing memoirs has been covered before. There’s not only Patricia Hampl’s excellent essay, but also resources like Sari Botton’s “Writers Braver Than Me” interview series at The Rumpus, or Slate’s Memoir Week roundup. Why a book-length treatment?

Because it continued to be the number one question for most of the people who came to see me read or for the people I taught. It was the thing they were most curious about, surely because they were most curious about it for themselves.

You named a couple of works, but they aren’t as accessible as needed. What I wanted to do is what so many people would love to have the opportunity to do, which is to sit in a room and listen to a whole bunch of memoirists answer that question as they did.

There’s such a range of responses in your book—everything from those by authors like Alison Bechdel, who acknowledges that “there’s something inherently hostile” in writing about others, to Sue William Silverman, who says it isn’t the task of the memoirist to worry about protecting others. “I firmly believe in my right to tell my own narrative, which is exactly what I did,” writes Silverman.

Yeah, it’s quite a range.

Were you expecting that when you began the book?

I didn’t know what to expect when I started. Part of why I wrote this is because I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed in my introduction: is the art more important than the feelings of people I care about?

I’ve always felt like, well, yes it is, because the art is not for me. It’s not some narcissistic act. It’s about being human, about all of us connecting as humans and feeling seen. Memoir does such a positive thing for its reader, so it did feel more important. Also, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I think that’s the main thing I got out of doing this book. If you’re not trying to hurt anyone – and you work your best to not hurt anyone, but to also tell your truth – then that’s really the answer.

What rules do you think memoirists should follow in terms of showing their work? Should you show your memoir to people involved in manuscript form? Wait for galleys or an advanced reader’s copy?

One of the things I learned in writing the book is that there are no hard and fast rules. I do think there’s a basic rule in this case, which is that it’s really not a good idea to show anybody that you’re writing about in the book until it’s done. At least done in draft form.

I mean, memoir is a story of your memories, not the other person’s. So it’s important to get it down the way you remember it. Then, if you decide to share it with people who had a different experience, then they can argue or grapple with how they’re portrayed. Or maybe make a few changes.

In my case, it’s a little different. Not to sound conceited, but I’m an experienced memoirist, so I really feel solid when I’m writing. (That said, every memoir is a completely new challenge, especially around form. But that’s a whole separate issue).

Here’s a case where I broke my own rule. My husband is a writer, so I share a lot of my work with him the way I would in a writer’s group. We share writing a lot as we’re working. In my current memoir I did share a chapter about him that’s potentially incriminating, and he told me that he didn’t like it. It made him feel really awkward that other people would be reading about this thing. Also, my agent told me the section had too much about our relationship and not enough about what the memoir’s about.

In the end, I took out almost all of that material, and it’s better because of that. Now it’s much more about me in relationship to the thing I’m writing about.

I want to ask you a bit about the format of your book. You’ve interspersed your own reflections with many, many quotes and over 20 stand-alone short essays by other writers on their experiences. There are even assignments/questions you give out. How did you arrive at this format?

Well, like any book one writes, or any creative process, I learned along the way. I sold it on proposal. All I had at that point were chapters based on the different types of people one might write about (i.e. “Writing about Family” or “Writing about Children”) and that I was going to interview as many memoirists as I could.

I didn’t know that I was going to have a chapter on ‘what memoir is’ (“Are You Ready to Write a Memoir?”). That didn’t really work in the original chapter, and then I realized it should be expanded upon because it’s a really important question when writing about other people.

Some of it was that I had some back and forth with my editor at Writer’s Digest. Some of it we just brainstormed together. I came up with this idea of having other memoirists write actual essays. My hope had been that the book wouldn’t all be in my voice by having various interviews. Then I thought, what if we have a whole bunch of specific stories? That’s how I came up with the idea for the essays. Same thing with the exercises.

I liked those writing exercises! Have you heard back from anyone else who’s tried them?

I used the book in one of my MFA classes at The Red Earth Low Residency program in Oklahoma City. It was amazing what came of it. I had everyone do the first exercise in the entire book. (See Below). Then I gave them a second exercise, which was to find the chapter in the book that spoke to the kind of memoir they’re writing and pick an exercise from that chapter.

The most meaningful example—I don’t want to say too much because it was private and [this student] may write a book about it. But this one student picked an exercise from the “Writing About Spouses, Friends, and Exes” chapter.

He wrote a scene about a woman who he had been in love with 17 years earlier and who had died of leukemia. He was in love with her while she was dying. After she died he met his wife and got married. He wrote about the first time they had sex—actually just the part where they got back to his apartment and they both knew what was going to happen. She tells him, “We don’t need birth control because the chemo kills everything.” It was incredible—so good. I mean, everyone was crying. He wound up with this amazing scene.

#          #          #

Kerry Cohen Exercises

  1. Why do you want to write a memoir? Include your personal, interpersonal, and any larger societal motivations for your writing.
  2. Write down your top concerns about your memoir. What are you fears? How might you and others benefit from your memoir?
  3. Make a list of memories and events that you think are vital to your story. What makes each of these memories and events important to you and your narrative?
  4. What aspects of your story do you think would resonate with others? Is there a larger social dialogue or universal experience that your memoir would be a part of?

—from Chapter 1, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Cohen.

Four ways memoirists create tension in experimental memoir

This is a guest post of mine that appeared on Brevity Magazine's blog today:

Recently, I found myself re-reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, a fabulous memoir-in-fragments about marriage and motherhood. And once again, I’m struck by a contradiction at the heart of the book:

How does the author create such narrative drive, such a fully realized portrait of a life, in a memoir whose form would appear to undercutthese achievements?

Even if you don’t know Abigail Thomas’s memoir, it’s likely — especially if you’ve gotten an MFA in the past – you’ve heard it name-check. It’s one of those more experimental books, like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which make the rounds in CNF courses. You know, the ones advisers push on you during conferences. The ones your classmates urge you to read in their manuscript margin notes.

The book is comprised of dozens of short sections—some four or five pages, others as brief as a single sentence. And while characters and motifs reoccur, each vignette is self-contained, so that at first glance the book looks more like a collection of prose poems. A disjointed one at that, with jumbled chronology, so there’s often years, sometimes decades, between sections.

Then there’s the narrator herself, frequently switching between past and present tense, or between first- and third-person.

With all that lack of connective tissue, all that shifting of tenses and point-of-view, you’d expect the narrative flow to be constantly disrupted.

Quite the opposite, though. Both times I’ve picked it up, the experience of reading Safekeeping has been the same: the gaps fall away, much the same way as clacks on a speeding train smooth themselves out.

How does Thomas accomplish this?

In at least four ways:

1. Tight thematic control. As students of the genre are often reminded, the secret to a good memoir is some kind of focus—a subject, theme, or era, for example. Here, the narrator is squarely focused on the subject of grief. In a terrific essay called “Getting Started,” Thomas recounts how the book’s experimental form grew out an intense period of reflection:

 When I began writing Safekeeping, which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir, I had no idea in hell what I was doing, all I knew was I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up.

 The power of that grief is what pulls things together, giving the book its emotional stake, its sense of urgency.

2. A strong narrative persona. Married for the first time at 18, remarried at 27—Abigail Thomas’s life was full of wrong turns. She’s got a lot of living under her belt. Yet the narrator here keeps things light and crisp, avoiding the trap of becoming overly self-judgmental. Instead, here the persona is vulnerable, startlingly honest, unsentimental, wry, and above all, entertaining.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes how great memoirs feature a “truth-telling” narrator. We trust the voices of writers like George Orwell or J. R. Ackerley or Annie Dillard because they seem so honest and self-aware. Thomas’s is one of these.

3. Effective use of reflection. By nature, I fall more on the side of meditative essays than memoir. I don’t think in terms of scenes, at least not initially, but I can cogitate endlessly. It used to get my essays all tied up in knots. One thing that’s helped is to understand that reflection is more effective when it arises directly from action in scenes. As in this example, toward the beginning of Safekeeping:

…She looks at her watch. Two-thirty in the morning. She is tired, but nothing is wasted, she uses it to remember the old days. Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master. She looks out her window, uptown, at the water towers, at the squares of light in other windows. Where a man she hadn’t met back then, a man she was about to meet, a man whom she would love and hate and love again, a man with whom she would spend the next thirty years, give or take, has died. Died. It seems impossible. She can almost see his windows from her window. She can almost hear his voice. Anything might happen. She doesn’t want to go to bed.

Apart from some breathtaking lines (“Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master”), notice how Thomas weaves reflection in and out of specific moments. It’s nearly seamless.

4. Strong endings. Thomas uses the short section or vignette as the basic building-block of her book. But like chapters or scenes in a more conventional memoir, each of these builds toward some epiphany, some moment of resolution. This propels the reader forward. Here’s one example, titled “Something Overheard,” in its entirety:

It was at a party in what was to become SoHo, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn’t catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, ‘Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security.” Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. What was so funny? What did it mean?

Now I get it.

Notice how that long sentence at the beginning pushes forward, not just setting the scene but filling in telling details, growing more specific as it tumbles along. That, along with the repetition in the final sentences, sets us up for the narrator’s epiphany.

Thomas is also a master at conveying the multiplicity of time. Phrases like “…where a man she hadn’t met yet” and “what was to become Soho” create a bumping, vertiginous, cinematic rush. Even as we’re pinned to the here and now, memory reaches across many other moments in time.

*          *          *

Thematic control, a truth-telling persona, the effective use of reflection, strong endings. These elements are the building blocks of good memoir writing. Haven’t I been studying and reading about each of these for years? In countless workshops?

I just didn’t get it while I was reading Safekeeping the first time. I mean, I noticed some of these, but I was much more transfixed by the book’s unusual form.

Now I get it.

42 Things Every Honest College Prof Should Tell You

This morning I came across a terrific conceit -- the "Shadow Syllabus" -- by writer Sonya Huber. It's everything she wants to tell her students on the first day of class -- to break the awkwardnesses, to inspire authenticity, to have your students see you as a real person. 

Here are the first five:

  1. I’ll tell you exactly how to get an A, but you’ll have a hard time hearing me. 
  2. I could hardly hear my own professors when I was in college over the din and roar of my own fear.
  3. Those who aim for A’s don’t get as many A’s as those who abandon the quest for A’s and seek knowledge or at least curiosity. 
  4. I had bookmarked a citation for that fact, and now I can’t find it anywhere. 
  5. The only way to seek knowledge is to open your hands and let your opinions drop, but that requires even more fear.

Read the rest of Huber's Shadow Syllabus!