Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional

Continuing with the theme of memoir this week, Susan Cushman (pictured above) is today’s guest on NO RULES. Like Darrelyn Saloom, Susan was deeply impacted by the reading of Robert Goolrick at the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference.

Susan will be a new monthly guest blogger, so please offer her a warm welcome. You can also find Susan over at A Good Blog Is Hard to Find and Pen and Palette.

A couple of years ago, during a manuscript critique workshop I was attending in Oxford, Mississippi, workshop leader Scott Morris (Waiting for April, The Total View of Taftly) said something I will never forget:

A memoir must be artful and not just real. Yes, you’ve lived it—the abuse, the loss, the suffering—now you have to get up and above it, distance yourself, and spin a good yarn. You’ve got to create art from what you lived.

It’s not that he was being insensitive to the painful stories that were so courageously shared by the new writers at the workshop—he genuinely cared about what we had lived through. But he wasn’t there in the role of therapist. He was there to help us become better writers. “We write to reclaim a part of our life,” he said, “but it has to be about the art.”

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life, if that’s what you want to do. If you’re into public confession, you can get paid to air your dirty laundry on talk shows. If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead.

But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

My favorite memoirists have all done this well: Mary Karr has mined a rough childhood for three brilliantly written volumes: The Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit. Augusten Burroughs has carried his horrific story through nearly a half dozen books. Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch were anything but sappy confessionals. And Kim Michelle Richardson’s heartbreaking story of abuse at the hands of priests and nuns at the Catholic orphanage where she grew up—The Unbreakable Child—reads more like a novel than a revenge piece. (Although her attorney has certainly called Rome into account.)

In November I was down in Oxford (Mississippi) again—this time as co-director of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference—when I was treated to yet another unveiling of a memoir masterpiece.

I hadn’t even read his work yet when I introduced Robert Goolrick as one of the panelists for our afternoon session. He was going to be signing and reading from his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, later that evening at Off Square Books.

I had no idea what I was in for. I sat near the front so that I could take pictures for my blog, but I almost had to leave before it was over, for fear of disturbing the others who had come to hear him. You see, I was bawling during most of his reading. People were passing me tissues. A new acquaintance put her arm around me supportively.

Goolrick was raped by his father “just once” when he was a small boy and his father was drunk. His memoir describes, in the most powerful, dark, poetic prose I’ve ever read on the subject, the ongoing affects on the soul of the person who is violated in this way:?

If you don’t receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it, like an amputee who never stops missing his leg, like the ex-smoker who wants a cigarette after lunch fifteen years later.

It sounds trite. It’s true.?? You will look for it in objects that you buy without want. You will look for it in faces you do not desire. You will look for it in expensive hotel rooms, in the careful attentiveness of the men and women who change the sheets every day, who bring you pots of tea and thinly sliced lemon and treat you with false deference. …

You will look for it in shop girls and the kind of sad and splendid men who sell you clothing. You will look for it and you will never find it. You will not find a trace.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I was sexually abused. First, by my grandfather when I was a young girl. And later by others in my young adult life. And yes, I’ve spent many hours talking with therapists and priests and other victims of abuse, and no, I’m not okay. If Goolrick is right, I may never be okay.

And yet I found it darkly comforting, listening to him read these words that explain why he decided to tell his story:

I tell it because there is an ache in my heart for the imagined beauty of a life I haven’t had, from which I have been locked out, and it never goes away.

Writing his memoir didn’t heal Goolrick’s pain, but he certainly did “get up and above it” and what he wrote is art of the highest caliber.

My writing critique group will probably be the only people ever to read all eighteen chapters of the memoir I spent two years writing. Just as it was beginning to vaguely resemble art, I realized I wasn’t willing to go public with it, and so I abandoned it for fiction. Maybe there, in the writing of a novel, I can find “the imagined beauty of a life I haven’t had.”

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23 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional

  1. Bob Norton

    Thanks Susan and Nellie. Yes, that is helpful. To narrow it down just a little more, I would then say that negative attitudes, judgements and criticisms would constitute drama – hand wringing, why me attitudes, etc. The other side of that coin would be honesty – about feelings, thoughts, actions etc. It seems to me that honesty in any kind of writing is essential, and being honest in one’s writing steers you away from needless drama. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Susan Cushman

    Nellie: I am humbled by your kind words. And believe me, there’s been plenty of drama, but I work hard to keep it out of the writing. Which leads me to Bob’s comment…

    Bob: Having an agenda means carrying your drama (as Nellie pointed out) into your writing. It means using fiction as a platform on which to dump your issues. Sure, we carry our issues (and our drama) into our writing, but we have to GET UP AND ABOVE IT and CREATE ART. Does that help?

    Thanks to both of you for your comments

  3. Nellie

    Great post! You fill Jane’s shoes ably, which I wasn’t sure anyone could do! Thanks for being clear and modest and helpful. Oh, and free of drama! Some people who have been injured cherish their pathos and shine it up like new every day. It defines them, and maybe even makes them feel special. Part of writing a memoir is recognizing that a lot of people have wounds, and your story can unite everyone in a healing (or learning) process.

  4. Bob Norton

    Hi Susan. Thanks for the interesting and candid post. I will definitely be checking out Mr. Goolrick’s book.

    In your comment on CJ’s post, you mentioned that one should not have an "agenda" when writing fiction. I was wondering what exactly you meant by agenda, and where the line would be between writing from one’s own experiences and agenda.

    Thanks for your help, and I will be looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Bob Norton

  5. Dawn Herring

    You truly had me spellbound as you shared your experience at the author’s reading in connection with your past. Thanks for the courage you show in sharing parts of your life here. I look forward to more of your posts.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    @JournalChat on Twitter

  6. Susan Cushman

    CJ: I was a presenter at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, in 2009, where I met two amazing women who were both survivors of abuse and had gotten up and above it to write excellent memoirs: Connie May Fowler and Allison Hedge Coke. Here’s my blog post about the conference, with links to their work: http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/2009/09/obedient-imagination.html I’m not sure what "book group" you’re referring to, when you ask if you can join. If you mean my critique group, we actually live within an hour’s drive and meet, physically, for our critique sessions. (And we’ve been together for about three years.) Have you tried to find (or create) a group in your area? Especially one focusing on memoir, if that’s what you want to do? I’m focusing on fiction (and creative nonfiction) and leaving the memoir on the shelf for now. If you write fiction instead, just be sure that it doesn’t have an "agenda"…. it can’t be a stand-in for the memoir you never published. Tricky stuff, this. Good luck, and thanks for commenting.

  7. CJ Barbre

    I included being raped in my novel about the skibum life, had it professionally edited then threw it away. I included one of two abortions in a novel about the ’60s, had it professionally edited and was told by the editor that (to paraphrase)as a novel it was woefully lacking, but as a memoir it was good to go with very few changes. I’m paralyzed about what to do because I don’t want to own that guilt and pain. Now I’m trying to finish a memoir about losing custody (although I was found a fit and proper person to have custody) because it is my most painful life experience to this very day even though I think my story could benefit other mothers and perhaps a lot of children who have been through bitter custody disputes. And this is my third try. I already wrote it once in the third person and once as a screenplay in the 1980s(which actually had an agent interested but I chickened out).

    So, Susan, can you get me off the hook? Can I join your book group?

  8. Linn B Halton

    What a deeply moving article. Reminded me of something I read once ‘inside a little bit of me will always remain broken’, wish I could remember who it was. Getting the words down on paper is cathartic in its own way – regardless to whether it gets published or not. Children should be able to trust those around them and its a tragedy when this basic right is broken. Thank you for sharing, best wishes Linn.

  9. Susan Cushman

    Sidhartha: Interesting choice of words in your final sentence: "… not that his conclusions are ACCURATE but that he conveys the TRUTH of our feelings." A good memoir shares something important with a good novel–they both impart TRUTH, which trumps accuracy every time. I can’t remember verbatim a conversation I had with my mother when I was five, but I can remember–and convey to my readers–the substance of that conversation, and the affect it had on me, which is emotional, psychological, personal truth. Thanks for commenting… I followed your link to your blog which I hadn’t read before. Good stuff.

  10. Siddhartha Herdegen

    I was never abused so I can’t speak from understanding on the matter but I have experience much of life and have never found an instance where a polarized opinion was the most correct.

    To say the abused can fully recover and be completely healed of their wounds is at once immensely desirable and absurdly trite. To say they will never be able to experience love in its purest form is a dismal perspective which feels both emotionally heavy and tragically false. It can’t be.

    As with most things the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But to each person both extremes feel right at some point, and we want authors who acknowledge that extreme because it validates what we’re feeling. The beauty of Robert Goolrick’s writing is not that his conclusions are accurate, but that he conveys the truth of our feelings.

  11. Steven M Moore

    I know what you mean by not ready to go public with the memoir material. While I don’t have pathos in my life, I’ve had an unusual one from the POV of the average American. I’ve written down some of my adventures in South America and so forth (anything we write is good exercise in writing), but I’m hesitant to publish any of it. Instead, my life’s experiences define and provide background for my fiction. Maybe someday I’ll be less timid and let others peek into my private life–but not right now. Take care….

  12. Stacy S. Jensen

    Susan thanks for showing how memoirs can give a voice to people in similar situations. I’m going to put the quote from Scott Morris on my computer.

  13. Deborah Gray

    Whether or not you ever decide to publish memoir, your words have made such a difference to my view of my own. I wish I’d heard Robert Goolrich speak, but I’m glad I came across your own candid post. It makes a great case for "getting up above above it" and being able to present very difficult and very personal life experiences in a clear-eyed way. Kudos. I will look forward to more of your writing.

  14. Linda Joy Myers

    This is a wonderful post about the intersection between memoir writing and healing, which has been the subject of two of my books and the focus of my teaching for the last ten years. Believe it or not, this kind of reading and weeping is what is done weekly in my groups! And we are all better for it, as each time a piece of hidden truth or secret is revealed, it gives the others more of an opportunity and permission to dig deeper into the layers of their own story. I think that Sue William Silverman’s book Fearless Confessions is an important work for memoirists to read. She not only talks about how to peel away the truths of our experience and share our common humanity, but how to write artfully and well.
    In my last book The Power of Memoir–How to Write Your Healing Story we look into the psychological aspects of memoir writing and healing, which need to be understood and integrated on the way to writing a truly artful memoir. In the contests I judge, I can see/feel when the person is hiding or not revealing something that is at the heart of the story. They aren’t ready yet, or may not even know what they are hiding.
    And the bottom line is that we all have to decide how much we will reveal directly as "truth." Much great fiction has been written about truths just as deep, yet with boundaries in place.
    Thank you for this forum in which to look at confession and healing. I loved Goolrick’s book too.

  15. Susan Cushman

    Perry: I wasn’t actually making any effort in this piece to distinguish between autobiography and memoir, although that’s a good question. Traditionally, an autobiography is the story of the complete life of a person, often a famous person, written by the person himself. Whereas memoir can be about yourself, or about another person, and can be about only one period in the person’s life, or one event, or one theme. Here’s a good article that explores these differences: http://www.suite101.com/content/autobiography-vs-memoirwhats-the-difference-a149292. Tying your question into my post, whether one is writing autobiography or memoir, it’s still important that the writing be artful, and not just confessional. I hope this helps.

  16. Darrelyn Saloom

    Susan, I wish I’d been sitting nearby to put my arms around you during the reading. I glanced over at your tissue-covered face and was relieved I wasn’t the only one who lost it. No doubt, Goolrick’s words affected everyone in the room. And I believe by writing and reading his memoir publicly, there is hope he will find the "imagined beauty" he’s looked for since he was four.

    May the fiction you are working on help you to someday share your own story. It’s a long, hard road, but I’ve been lucky enough to enter your orbit of spunk and fire. You’ve got what it takes to do great things, and I believe you will succeed in doing it. I’d say this is a great start on that road to breaking out the memoir and turning it into art and, hopefully, healing.


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