Must Hard Stories Be So Hard?

By N. West Moss

July 1, 2017

Must Hard Stories Be So Hard?

Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma

Melanie Brooks

Midway into the first semester of her MFA, Melanie Brooks finds herself struggling to begin a memoir about her father, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, who was infected with HIV while undergoing open-heart surgery in 1985. Her father chose to keep his illness a secret thinking he would die within months. The fact that he lived for ten years and kept this information from others meant that, as Brooks put it, “the secret of his disease and the specter of catastrophe” defined her life. “Unearthing the ongoing grief of losing my dad to AIDS in 1995,” she writes, “has been agonizing. And terrifying. And, more often than not, paralyzing.”

She decides to query published memoirists and pose the question, “How did any of these writers survive” composing their memoirs. She thought that like her, they had “also been traumatized in the process of writing their stories.” Brooks meets up with eighteen well-known authors to find out “how they survived their own feelings of fear and doubt and sadness.” Her hope is that, “their answers would convince me to keep going.” She wants to tell her father’s story. “But my fear of really examining that grief,” she writes, was standing in her way.

She is not interested in literary technique, despite knowing such is unique to each writer. She “didn’t want to know the elements of style and language and tone” they used. Instead, she writes that she is “selfishly hoping to learn about how they’d also been traumatized in the process of writing their stories, how they’d spent a lot of time crying, how they’d been paralyzed over the keyboard, how they’d had to find a good therapist.” She feels that no one is asking authors these questions, so she decides to write to them herself and “describe what it was like as they began venturing into the dangerous territory of their hard stories.”

For Brooks, each of the eighteen chapters is part interview, part profile, and part self-examination. I find the collection both enlightening and uncomfortable.

Brooks gains access to wonderful authors—from Edwidge Danticat’s superb writing on her family’s immigrant experience to Abigail Thomas’ short, poetic, gem-like memoirs. The interviews with Andres Dubus III, Mark Doty, Michael Patrick MacDonald and Kyoko Mori struck particular chords with me. These were rich enough that I kept a pen handy, underlining such pithy comments as this from Abigail Thomas. She is describing what surprised her most about writing and sharing her stories: “How much easier it is to look at what you’re hiding from than to keep it in the basement. It’s much scarier, has much more power in the dark than brought up to the light.”

The problem for me, however, comes with Brooks’ argument that writing memoir from trauma is a kind of re-traumatization. Even the title, Writing Hard Stories, presupposes that the memoir is somehow different from—and harder than—a non-traumatic story, a claim Brooks doesn’t adequately substantiate. Certainly, there are pitfalls particular to all memoir writing, including the fact that one is telling stories that involve real people who may not wish to be implicated in those stories. But, as I read, I kept thinking that so much narrative, even fiction, comes from dramatizing the author’s worst fears or most intense experiences.

Brooks fails to delineate the benefits of such drama, of confronting fears, on the writer herself. The problem of protecting others is often balanced and overcome by the author’s self-discovery of trauma’s meaning. One simple meaning is that writing a memoir is a personal compulsion. The world is not forcing us, or even asking us to tell our stories. We are telling them because we must.

As Abigail Thomas says she writes memoir because “You are not going to survive it if you don’t do it. You know you have this place you need to go. If you don’t go there, it will rule you forever.” She concedes that, “It’s scarier not to do it than to do it,” and it’s this kind of insistence by author after author that puts Brooks’ premise to the test. The authors tell Brooks that while writing their books may be challenging, it is ultimately healing to shape these stories and to share them. While Brooks reports sharing’s benefits, she seldom reflects on whether this was true of her own process—as she said she would.

Richard Hoffman, the author of a classic trauma memoir about childhood sexual abuse, Half the House, tells Brooks that he “didn’t find the writing process to be all heartache, defiance, and despair.” In the end, he says, “I had taken the thing that was the deepest, darkest, foulest thing that was a part of me and turned it into art.” This signals the redemptive nature of the trauma tale. Such advice would seem to personally encourage Brooks. At the end of the Hoffman chapter, for instance, she writes, “Then Hoffman puts both hands squarely on my shoulders and meets my eyes . . .. He . . . gives me a gentle push. ‘Consider this your nudge forward, Melanie.’”

But her tentativeness about her own writing—which strikes me as a perfectly natural state for a student at the beginning of an MFA—is the problem throughout. I think Brooks is asking the wrong questions. Her scope is limited by her fears. Instead of asking, “How did you power through?” or “Why did you tell this story?” (which in fairness she does ask from time to time), the overarching tone of the book is Brooks pressing authors to encourage her for her project, giving the collection a kind of neediness.

This reminded me of the lines from Sally Fields’ Academy Award acceptance speech: “You like me! You really, really like me!” If Brooks had been able to move to the side slightly, we could have had even more insight into Hoffman’s—and others’—minds. As she goes to interview the legendary Edwidge Danticat, Brooks is thinking of herself as “a new and unknown writer working on her first book.” Her neediness shines when she feels “like an imposter,” fanning the air with a sense of either false humility or deep insecurity.

The interview format is problematic. I imagine that Brooks was working on creating an arc of sorts for these interviews (itself, a nice idea) and perhaps that’s why she molds these writers to her own search for bravery in telling her story. To that end, the narrative works. The downside, however, is that she has to include a lot of context-setting for each interview, telling us what they’re wearing, their dogs’ names, what they chose to eat, the weather that day, and so on.

Eventually, I skimmed the first three or four pages of each interview to get to the author’s thoughts on writing. Those thoughts are worthwhile, and the book soars when we hear them speak about their own work. The best parts occur when writers delve into how they settled on the forms for their books, how long it took to get enough narrative distance to tell their stories well (for some it took more than a decade), and what they got out of writing and then publishing their memoirs. That Brooks avoids questions about process is too bad, because she gets some incredible nuggets of gold about these writers’ processes. They seemed to want to go there, and as a reader, I was glad that they did.

Brooks’ heart is in the right place. In 2013, age forty-nine, I completed my MFA, and I remember how difficult the workshop experience was. There was plenty of eye-rolling over my work from classmates. It’s hard to be a beginner and simultaneously share your most personal and stuttering attempts with other beginners, anxious to become writers themselves. There can be a feeling of blood in the water in MFA workshops. Brooks’ lack of confidence, though, is exceptional; she comes across too loud to make the reader settle in and trust her as a knowing or wise narrator.

As Brooks writes in her afterword, “The worst story that we can tell ourselves is that we are alone,” and this broadening sense of community is what makes her book worthwhile. These authors she interviews have much to teach, and despite the fact that Brooks doesn’t exactly get the answers she is looking for, the writers she interviews provide lasting pearls of wisdom.



Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma edited by Melanie Brooks 
Beacon Press
$16.00 paperback | Buy Now!


About the Reviewer:
West Moss has had her work published in The New York Times, Salon, The Saturday Evening Post, Brevity, and McSweeney’s. Her first collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, is out from Leapfrog Press. Photo by: Mahmoud Sami. 
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