- Title: Writing Hard Stories - Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma
- Author: Melanie Brooks
- Publisher: Beacon Press
- Pub date: 2/7/17
Here’s a disclaimer: I rarely read nonfiction and when I do it’s probably not a memoir.
Sure, I have a handful of David Sedaris books that I enjoyed. I loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I read both Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation in high school and my angst-ridden and misunderstood self identified with Susanna and Elizabeth. And the list more or less ends there. I am a fiction reader. Yes, sometimes flesh & blood people accomplish extraordinary feats worth recounting, but I think part of what draws me to fiction is knowing that when the world isn’t kind or just or even fun, there are endless fictional somewheres waiting for me offering a better life. I can never fall out the back of a wardrobe into a snowy wood surrounded by anthropomorphic animals, at the same time, I can. I can go there again and again without getting up from the couch. Tell me that’s not the closest thing we have to magic in this world. Since I have to live in the real world every day, reading more about that real world just isn’t my idea of a good time.
In short, I had very low expectations for this book, but as I found myself in possession of an advance reader copy, I decided to give it a whirl.
And I liked it.
In Writing Hard Stories, Melanie Brooks interviews well-known memoirists to get an answer to a question that is plaguing her own in-progress memoir: how the hell do you get through writing about these god awful traumatic experiences? This is not a book about craft, though inevitably elements of writing process pop up in these discussions. What she is really trying to get at is an answer to why authors write about the most painful things that have happened to them, and how they get through reliving it each time they sit down to write.
I appreciated how much the general attitude towards memoir was discussed, and even how frequently these writers said something to the effect of, I never thought I would write a memoir, I tried to express it in fiction for years and it came across as empty, memoir was the vehicle this story chose and was meant to be told in. It was moments like these that I had insight into the craft of writing. I also found it fascinating that so many apprehensions were expressed by these authors, like their concern that people will read their work and think they are complaining, or capitalizing on a terrible event.
I think was so intrigued by these insights because, and now I’m being painfully honest, I’m the asshole they were worried about. Part of what turns me off from certain memoirs isn’t just an aversion to reading someone’s real-life horror but also not wanting to deal with someone else’s sob story that they’re churning out for a quick buck. What really came across as I found myself wandering into the story of these stories, as it were, was an earnest and altruistic desire to share their trauma so that others would have somewhere to turn when they experienced something similar. Many of these writers state that they sought out books about their traumatic experiences and only found silence, so they felt compelled to break that silence. In the same way that I seek solace in fictional stories that thematically match my troubles, others want to hear that real life voice saying, “Here are the awful things I’ve been feeling during or after this experience. And also the good. And the confusion and convolution of all these emotions swirling around. And it fucking sucks. But it’s okay. All of it is okay.” If we are to trust the often mis-attributed quote and believe that “we read to know we’re not alone” (C.S. Lewis didn’t say this, it’s just in a movie about him) then there should be all kinds of voices out there telling all kinds of stories about all kinds of experiences so that everyone has a place to turn whether they’re grieving or celebrating.
I did feel that at some points the chapters became formulaic: description of showing up to the interview, the author is so nice and welcoming, tells their story, and then Brooks interjects with a revelation that relates to her own struggle with her work-in-progress memoir. I only felt this way occasionally, and not enough to put the book down. I had to shrug and accept that, in all likelihood, this is just how the interviews went down.
I will say that I am quite interested in reading all of the authors that Brooks interviews in the book, and look forward to seeing her finally finished memoir out in the world (and reading it for myself!). I will always enjoy reading fiction – experiencing really great world-building or poetics of language – more than nonfiction, but I am also hitting a point in my life where I want to hear what other people have to say in their own voice, not through the construct of fiction. This ended up being a great primer for (and inadvertent defender of) the genre of memoir, and I now have a few more titles to add to my TBR...