When I received my copy of Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks (forthcoming from Beacon Press, February 2017), I envisioned myself curled up in my comfortable armchair with coffee, settling in for a good long read. That was not to be—partly due to demands of a busy holiday season and introducing a new kitten to our family but mainly due the nature of Brooks’ book itself. It is not the sort of work that one can rush through, so I found myself reading one of her eighteen “interviews” per day, savouring the insights I gleaned and pondering how I could apply their lessons to my own writing.
Although she grew up in New Brunswick, Brooks now lives in New England. It was while she was working on her MFA in creative nonfiction and planning the writing of a memoir based on her father’s death from AIDS contracted from tainted blood that she began to look into the works of memoirists who inspired her. She then got in touch with the writers directly to ask the questions that she was asking herself: What does it take to write an honest memoir? How can memoirists present the details of a painful past honestly and at the same time respect the privacy of friends and family? Those conversations became Writing Hard Stories.
Each of Brooks’ interviews has many gems to offer, and it would be impossible to detail them all here. Writers such as Andre Dubus III, Kyoko Mori and Edwidge Danticat tell Brooks how what they thought would be an essay or even a novel—a work only tangentially connected to events in their own lives—ended up as a memoir, even though, as Dubus says, “I didn’t want to write a memoir. … I didn’t want to.” That avoidance of memoir arose both from a reluctance to revisit a painful past and from a fear of offending family. Both worries, Brooks’ chosen mentors teach her, are minimized with the realization that memoir can help find a rightful place for pain. Further, memoir writing involves presenting one’s own memories, not be the memories of others, who have the right to their own versions of history. Many of the memoirists in Writing Hard Stories, in fact, found that they were encouraged by the very family members they had feared hurting.
Another lesson involves the form that the memoir can take. I’d always thought of memoir as assuming a traditional chronological structure. However, we learn that Joan Wickersham arranged her memoir The Suicide Index in the form of an index, each entry presenting the suicide of her father from a particular point of view: act of, anger about, finding some humor in, and so on. In When We Were the Kennedys, Monica Wood pairs the sudden death of her father in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Jessica Handler, in Invisible Sisters, uses family artifacts to begin each chapter of her memoir about the death of her two sisters.
In some sense, all writers are memoirists. We turn what we have lived through into poetry or prose and although the final work may seem distant from its source, the seeds are there from the beginning. How could it be otherwise? I had been troubled by recurring themes in my own writing but after reading Writing Hard Stories, I have begun a more direct, though still difficult, grappling with the hard stories of my past. I thank Melanie Brooks for the liberating read, one which I am sure will inspire many other writers.