When Memory Fails the Memoirist

When Memory Fails the Memoirist

Posted Posted in Blog

By Wren Bellavance-Grace

I remember coming out to my family. Mostly because it didn’t go well.

In hindsight, Christmas night may not have been the best timing. When I was done speaking, my mother stood and left the room in silence. My sister, who was about 18 at the time, followed. I found my mother sitting on the blue recliner in the dark of her bedroom with my sister curled up on her lap. I left the next day. We remained estranged until my mother’s early death less than 10 years later.

Today, my sister and I have tentatively begun piecing together a relationship.

Recently I broached the question of what she remembered about that Christmas night. “Honestly?” she said, “I have no memory of you coming out at all.”

She has no memory of that Christmas. She insists she was not there when I came out to our mother, just that I left the next morning and that our mother cried inexplicably for three days. She tells me that she did not learn about my coming out until she was in her mid-twenties, working at a bank, when someone sent an anonymous fax of a newspaper article featuring me and my then bride-to-be.

Did that Christmas debacle even happen? How could my memory be so clear, and my sister have no memory of it at all? It’s hard to reconcile such radically disparate stories.

What is my obligation as a memoirist, writing this story when my memory fails, or is at least, well, complicated?

There are fervent conversations about the boundaries of creative nonfiction and opinions on when it crosses the line into fiction, a story based on a true story. I don’t think it is a single solid border so much as a transitional space, a Deliteralized Zone of sorts. To me memoir—and creative nonfiction more broadly—is not about narrow devotion to verifiably accurate details (the keyword here being narrow). If I remember a yellow sweater but later discover a photo that shows it was blue, I don’t feel the need to issue either retraction or apology unless the sweater color is in some way significant to the story. My devotion—my obligation—is to the story first and secondarily to the facts. Memoir is about making meaning and connecting my small story to a human narrative much larger than my own.

Memoirist Rigoberto González wrote in his essay, Memory Lessons, “It is how I turn anecdote into meaning and story into significance.”

Anecdote into meaning; story into significance. This is the high calling of our narrative tradition. I will write more about my coming out, whether or not it happened the way I remember it. My sister and I have divergent memories. They are how we made meaning for ourselves.

Writing about our truths in all their messiness is what imbues good memoirs with greater significance, the kind that turns mere anecdote into meaning.


About the Writer:
Wren (Karen) Bellavance-Grace is a writer based in western Massachusetts who daydreams about turning her house into a home for foster kids about to age out of care. She serves as Congregational Consultant for the New England Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association, providing support for small congregations and congregational collaborations. Karen received her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University. Her nonfiction essay, If, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

The Tao of Why

The Tao of Why

Posted Posted in Blog

By Kim MacQueen

When I first began my Buddhist study, the zendo was like a foreign country.

Everything was either sage or beige. We weren’t supposed to look anybody in the eye. Someone beat a drum steadily as we walked around in circles, clad head-to-toe in brown robes, our hands folded in front of us (left on top, always). We women had to wear our hair back in ponytails and we weren’t supposed to wear nail polish or lipstick. No lipstick! I had a hard time with the no-lipstick thing.

At the zendo, they have tea but there’s no caffeine in it (what is the point of that?). Bells rang at strange intervals as we bowed in front of figurines of Buddha and Kannon, the goddess of compassion, who appeared to have a pineapple-shaped head growing out of her real head. I think it has something to do with all that compassion needing extra space in her body.

But all that was nothing next to the chanting.

The chanting was just damned weird. We knelt on the floor of the zendo, hands in prayer position, looking up at the Kannon figurine, when somebody handed me a little booklet with chants in it. Oh no, I thought, here is the part where I have to chant.

It was dirge-like and monotone, like the spookiest-sounding of Gregorian chants, totally anti-Western. I kept imagining Rose, my 15 year-old, who already thinks I’m ridiculous, happening by and seeing me and being mortified, even though she didn’t know where I was and doesn’t drive and doesn’t know where the zendo is.

The thing is, I wanted all of that weirdness. I wanted to be in the zendo because I wanted badly to know why the Kannon figurine is so important to the practice, why I couldn’t look anybody in the eye, why somebody kept beating the drum around the corner where I couldn’t see them. I eventually learned the answers to all those things, but it was a crazy time there for awhile.  

I couldn’t articulate it at the time, why I felt drawn to the zendo three times a week. I just knew that I was jonesing for knowledge, the more arcane the better. I loved being a secret student of something most people I know aren’t even interested in. All the better if the topic is one in which new students get almost zero answers in the beginning about what the hell is going on. Only once you jump in the pool is anybody going to tell you how to swim. I jumped in, because I don’t want to be that person standing on the edge, afraid to jump, while my teachers say things like come on, the water’s fine. Just make sure to disrobe completely before you jump in. Here, put on this brown thing. Also why are you wearing lipstick?

Two years later, I enrolled in a month-long Wine 101 course at my local wine shop, where I sat with other newbies and lowered my whole face into a Zalto industry-standard wineglass that probably costs more than I make in a week. We swirled the wine and inhaled the aromas and tasted and then, after a minute, spit most of it out. It took me weeks to really understand why we swirled the glass before smelling it and why we smelled the wine before drinking it, though I caught on pretty fast about why we spit. Then I studied for and passed the Introductory Course offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers this past January. Why? I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Maybe because there’s so much why to wine that it has some of the same barriers of entry as Zen. My wine teachers show me how to pour just a splash of wine into a glass, swirl the glass on the table, then sniff at least twice before actually drinking anything. I’m supposed to then announce, so that everybody around me can hear, what I’m smelling. Sometimes it’s apple or butter or raspberry. Occasionally it’s something weird like wasabi. One time the wine smelled like mouse pee. We threw that one away.

This is all not half as weird as chanting, by the way, but I’m just speaking for myself here. When we’re all swirling and nobody’s drinking yet because we all want to save that first taste of the wine for the first taste of the cheese, when we’re just talking and nerding out together, that’s when I’m happy. That’s when the jones is satisfied. One night after Wine 101, I was at home on the couch watching Somm TV and Rose walked into the room, rolled her eyes and wordlessly stomped back out. That’s when I knew I was really onto something.


About the Writer:
Kim MacQueen is the Managing Editor & Faculty Advisor at the Champlain College Center for Publishing. She writes, teaches, and makes magazines and books in Burlington, VT. Kim is the author of the novels Out, Out: A Novel of Women and Apes and People Who Hate America.

Hurry Up, Chicken Pot Pie

Posted Posted in Blog

By L’Tanya Durante

Please hurry!

My mouth waters, my belly growls as I wait for you. I know you won’t disappoint. My spoon gently sliding in a crevice, through the crunchy outer layer that protects your most vulnerable inner spaces. Your thick, chicken-infused pudding squishing between my teeth and gums. Saltiness playing tag with your sweetness. Your tender, flaky soft crust, a scaffolding for chicken, green peas and carrots, milk and butter. . .and memories. 

I remember those times when a whiff of you called the family to the dinner table. A mother who served you in three bowls. A father who kicked off his mortar-encrusted boots before eating. A daughter who sat between them, enveloped in protection and love, who said, “If anything ever happens to either of you, I’ll jump off a building.” You patiently listened to our laughter, our stories, and our fears.

But that was then. Now, I shiver from a life I no longer recognize. 

Hurry up, chicken pot pie. Wrap me like a soft fleece blanket. Remind me of what used to be. Fill me with childhood memories. 

Bare feet wiggling by the fire. 

A black-light poster of a panda whose eyes shone light green in the dark. 

The sound of a needle, fuzzy and crackling as it glides across vinyl. 

A mother. A father. 

Home.


About the Writer:
Over the course of a life that included a marriage that didn’t reflect her values, jobs that didn’t resonate with her interests, and providing care for growing children and an aging adult, L’Tanya Durante thought her voice had disappeared. It hasn’t. L’Tanya writes creative nonfiction and loves reading and writing flash nonfiction. Several of her “Tiny Truths” have been published in Creative Nonfiction Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @writeordiegirl.

The Hell of Book Proposal Writing

Posted Posted in Blog

By Anne Pinkerton

Writing is hard. Writing about loss is hard. Writing about family is hard. Writing about the truth of your own psychic pain is hard. I found it even harder figuring out how to package and commodify all that writing.

I thought it should have been easier for me. For nearly two decades, I’ve worked in marketing communications, so I’m experienced at writing to promote other people along with their businesses and offerings. Awareness building, calls to action, and selling are my bread and butter. Except when it comes to myself.

After years of doubting whether my story was even worthy of committing to paper, much less of actual value to anyone else, my MFA classmates and professors, followed by readers of my short publications, bolstered my confidence with lots of positive feedback. As focus groups of sorts, they were encouraging. So, when my thesis-turned-manuscript was close to a full draft, I realized how much I wanted to be able to put a real book out into the world.

The manuscript focuses on my beloved brother’s sudden death and my search for answers about how he died, who he was, and how I would live without him—sad, personal, and vulnerable stuff. Twelve years older than me, David was a successful radiologist, elite athlete, and generous, funny, handsome, loveable guy. Growing up, he had changed my diapers, taught me how to ride a bike, and made up hilarious stories to put me to bed. He seemed infinitely kind and heroically strong. Yet, during a solo hiking excursion, David made an unknown mistake and simply fell.

I illustrate the difficult and messy process of working through my grief alone, with family, with my husband, with my friends, with David’s friends, in a bereavement group, in therapy, and by researching and reading obsessively. I confess to not knowing David as well as I’d imagined. I pour my pain out onto the page.

Now, in order to sell the book, I had to sell it. I had to hold it unemotionally at arm’s length, scrutinize and summarize it, compare it to other works, and argue why it deserved not just to be read, but represented and sold. It felt as if I was exploiting myself. I was equal parts terrified and bored stiff by the idea of writing a book proposal—a necessary step toward publication—so over and over, for months and months, I put it off.

Thankfully, through my MFA, I’d made a connection with the brilliant and generous author Suzanne Strempek Shea, who offered a workshop on the process of book proposals and submissions, as if in perfect response to my near-paralyzing dread. A gifted teacher and widely published author, Suzanne is the best cheerleader any writer could want, and she’s great at pushing people to do their best, so I signed up.

Suzanne patiently walked me through how to condense a sixty-thousand-word tale into a ten-page overview, to brag about myself in my biography, to research comparative titles by best-selling authors and somehow, how to put my name in the same document as theirs. My proposal now includes loose comparisons to both Joan Didion and Jon Krakauer, and I’m almost at peace with it.

Sharing examples of several real proposals that sold books, Suzanne threw open the curtain, revealing all kinds of surprising tricks that she encouraged me to employ, including the use of pop culture examples to support the belief that, once published, my book would have an audience. Thanks to her, I now mention successful adventure films, podcasts about grief, and online platforms dealing with loss and outdoor sports, things I never would have considered without her guidance.

And—understanding the changing market as she does—Suzanne ensured that I thoroughly expressed my willingness to hustle for my own sales by describing the numerous websites, social media channels, email lists, literary events, bookstores, and more that I would use to spread the word, along with the op-eds I would write, colleges I would contact, and organizations I would partner with. Even though I had to pretend my future book was already in the hands of a book group who wanted me to appear for a gathering via Skype, I learned to play along. 

Trudging through the chapter summaries section illuminated where there were holes in my story that needed plugging and areas that needed rearranging. That exercise led me to another revision of the manuscript, an exhausting, but vital, chore.

Though I doubt it was exactly her intention, I started to see my project reaching fruition by going through the process, week by week. Through the workshops, not only did the marketing document—the proposal itself—take shape, but, so too did my belief that I could actually land a book deal someday.

I’m finally pitching literary agents now. It’s scary and humbling work, but I have all the proper weapons in my arsenal: a query letter, a proposal, sample chapters, and a full manuscript that I can piece together and pull apart as needed, not to mention a fake-it-til-you-make-it confidence. It’s still hard to think about the story of losing my big brother as a product I want to sell, so I try to focus on how my book could make someone else feel better after suffering a loss. Promoting comfort is something I can work with.


About the Writer:
Anne Pinkerton studied poetry as an undergrad at Hampshire College and received her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Bay Path University. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Ars Medica, and Modern Loss, among others. Her blog is truescrawl.com.

Icicles

Posted Posted in Blog

By Rita Ciresi

My first icicles came out of a box marked Brite Star.  My sisters and I draped the crinkly silver tinsel over the branches of our artificial Christmas tree, all the while singing, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, thy leaves are so unchanging.”

Later in December, real icicles hung from the gutters, shiny crystals against the cold blue Connecticut sky.  We snapped the icicles off the porch overhang, cradled them between our wet woolen mittens, and sucked them like Popsicles. 

I grew up and moved to places where winter always was described as “brutal.” Glistening tree branches bent under the weight of frozen water.  Houses were coated like cupcakes in icy frosting. 

I no longer snapped the ice off overhangs and raised it to my mouth as if it were a delicious summer treat.  Instead, I cursed the ice as I slipped and slid down the treacherous driveway to pour boiling water down the side of my car, because the doors were frozen shut once again. 

Now I live in Florida and the only ice I deal with comes in bags stuffed in my freezer as preparation for another hurricane.  When the power thunks off during a storm, the bags become yet another soggy, sloppy mess I have to mop up. 

At Christmastime, I walk through our neighborhood at nine o’clock at night— when it’s still close to 90 degrees—to see the holiday decorations.  I ooh and ah at the icicle lights our neighbors have hung from their roofs and eaves.  I’ve moved to the Sunshine State to get away from snow and ice—so why do I still long for the brilliant white of my childhood winters?


About the Writer:
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and four award-winning story collections, Female Education, Second Wife, Sometimes I Dream in Italian, and Mother Rocket. She is a professor of English at the University of South Florida, a faculty mentor for the Bay Path MFA program, and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review. Her website is www.ritaciresi.com.

MFA in Creative Nonfiction

Posted Posted in Blog, MFA, News

Discover Your Story

Bay Path’s no-residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing is designed to help aspiring writers turn their personal story into publishable prose. Created for women and men at all stages of their writing careers, the program allows students to study online with faculty mentors in a way that bends to the shape of their lives.

Our award-winning MFA faculty are accomplished memoirists, journalists, food and travel writers, editors, and publishers with a wealth of real-world expertise. Work with a New York Times bestselling memoirist on the memoir you’ve always wanted to write. Discover your inner journalist with renowned magazine editors and newspaper columnists. Write about the life of the spirit with a recent winner of the Best American Spiritual Writing Award. Explore the world of travel and food writing with an author of numerous travel books. Learn the art of writing family histories with a literary anthology editor.

OUR MFA IN CREATIVE NONFICTION WRITING HAS:
• SPECIALIZED TRAINING WITH TRACKS AVAILABLE IN PUBLISHING AND TEACHING
• WORKSHOPS WITH SMALL PEER GROUPS FOR INTENSIVE WRITING PRACTICE, FEEDBACK, AND SUPPORT
• A SUMMER CREATIVE WRITING SEMINAR OPTION IN IRELAND

To visit our full program page, click here.