Nashua writer Melanie Brooks’ Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma started with a personal memoir she was unable to write.
Brooks, who also teaches at Northeastern University, Merrimack College and Nashua Community College, had enrolled in the University of Southern Maine’s MFA program in 2013 seeking structure to write a family story she’d been carrying for years, about her father’s death from a secret AIDS infection that he’d acquired from contaminated blood during open heart surgery.
But when she finally went to write about it almost 20 years later, she couldn’t.
“I wasn’t ready for the emotional toll of going back, re-examining and, in many ways, reliving that time in my life. And I was not quite prepared for what was required of me to tell this memoir honestly,” Brooks said via phone.
Her first year in the MFA program, she attended a panel at an Association of Writers & Writing Programs workshop in Boston that featured Kim Stafford, who talked about his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, which is about losing his brother to suicide. He explained to the audience that the writing set him free, in a way — that his story transformed from a stone harnessed to his heart to a book in his hand.
“It really resonated with me in the sense that, that’s what I wanted from the experience of writing my memoir. But I didn’t have any real idea of how to get that,” Brooks said.
After the panel, she waited in line to ask him how he wrote the book, psychologically, but she misworded her question, and he mistook her meaning.
“He thought I was asking him about craft, which is one of the worst questions to ask a writer, because there is no more elusive question,” she said. “I went home from the conference that same day feeling, if only I had been able to ask the right question!”
But then, she thought, it wasn’t too late to get an answer. She could still email him and hope he might respond. Actually, she could do that with many memoirists whose work she admired.
So that’s what she did.
“I thought I would reach out to a bunch of them, and that maybe one or two would respond,” Brooks said.
To her surprise, the writers she contacted were more than willing to talk with her. She visited them at home and in public places, from restaurants to dog parks, and learned most battled the same uncertainty she did. Some tried to write their tales as fiction before realizing it wasn’t working. All were happy they put forth the effort.
“For all the authors, I asked how it felt to be finished, and they all talked about this sense of relief, freedom — this weight that came off their shoulders in some way,” she said.
Initially, she assumed these interviews were simply to help with writing her own story. But it seemed a shame to waste their thoughtful words and insight. She decided to use the stories for a critical analysis paper her third semester.
“But even after my first interview, I recognized I couldn’t turn the words of these writers into little sound bites,” she said.
Many authors said they’d never been asked about the psychological toll of writing a memoir. Her mentor felt she was writing a book, not a paper.
“I said, ‘This isn’t my book. I’ve got another book I’m writing.’ … It was probably at the end of that semester I realized that here I did have something I could turn into a book,” Brooks said. “When I graduated with my MFA, I had this project, and I had my creative thesis. I had two books in hand. The debate was which we should try to go with first.”
The winner was Writing Hard Stories, published Feb. 7 by Beacon Press. Each chapter profiles a memoirist she interviewed, including Andre Dubus III, Joan Wickersham, Mark Doty, Marianne Leone, Richard Hoffman, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Richard Blanco, Abigail Thomas, Sue Silverman, Kate Bornstein, Jerald Walker and Kyoko Mori, among others.
As for her own hard story, her agent has the proposal and she’s almost finished with the writing.
“I think what was guiding my paralysis around my memoir was a real sense of fear to expose my vulnerability. … But I wasn’t afraid after talking with these writers. They helped me move past this fear and move into understanding what I needed to say and how I needed to say it,” she said.