The Struggle in Writing Memoir

For me, writing memoir is both reflection and exploration. I usually have some event in mind when I begin a piece, but writing about my own experiences can take me in awkward and often painful directions. The question I avoid when writing memoir is why I do it in the first place.
Writing memoir explores personal experiences, which you intend to put on display for other people. If you didn’t intend other people to read it, then you’d be writing a journal. Setting aside this element of public display, the question remains: what in your experience has in it something valuable for other people? This is where I often bog down.
As I struggle through a piece of memoir, I sometimes hear myself ask, why would anyone care? Such a question only results in paralysis. So I avoid it—for the most part. I do think, however, that the sharing of experience is not only a fundamental human quality, it’s a psychological necessity.
Have you ever heard the story of the man who never shared? He collected experiences, one after another, gobbling them down like cake and never sharing them with anyone. Well, he grew so full of his own experiences that one day he simply burst—popped like a balloon. His neighbours found tatty bits of his experiences lying all over, but they were so shredded and jumbled that no one could ever make any sense of them. So they swept up the bits and just forgot about him and went on with their lives.
That’s not really a story, but it does illustrate my point. To be human is to share one’s life. The risk lies in the sharing and how the sharing will be received.
Earlier this year, I had a piece accepted by Ponder Review, which appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of the magazine. The piece is called “My Father Walking,” a short memoir I wrote about my dad, who died in 2005. I’ve written several pieces on my dad, the first of which, “On Smoking,” appeared in Hippocampus Magazine in August, 2017. Here’s an excerpt from “My Father Walking.” I hope you find in it something that resonates with your own life.

“My Father Walking”
William Thompson, 2018

My father is the only moving thing on the street. It’s a day in early fall—the grass a faded green, the maples a golden yellow and already dropping leaves on this October afternoon. My father walks with a determined stride, as though he is unconsciously wanting to get away from something, or needing to get somewhere. I want to hold him there in that push-me-pull-me present, the world rolling beneath his feet as he walks.
It’s the jacket—the forest-green jacket he wears that fixes him in both my child’s eye and mind’s eye. I’m standing in front of the house and watching him walk. He is carrying a case of beer in his left hand. The weight of the case throws off his gait, just enough to emphasize that determined stride. He seems painfully visible to the world, but I’m the only one who watches.
It’s either an early Friday evening or late Saturday afternoon. Remembering it, I can’t be sure either way. But my father only went to the liquor store on those days—usually on Fridays, the end of his workweek, the beginning of the two days of the week he was free of his job, with just his wife and kids to populate and trouble his landscape with arguments, chores, and noise—always noise.

Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

A Love Letter to the Rejected Writer

Dear Writer:

You’ve had another story rejected. You’ve lost track of how many times you’ve submitted this particular piece, and you’re wondering if you should bother doing it again. I’ve asked myself the same question a hundred times.
Submitting to literary journals is a disheartening process. You spend time in your room, at your kitchen table, or in coffee shops—writing, writing, writing—then you wind up your courage and fire off your submission to a journal. Days, weeks, then months pass. You try to keep yourself from obsessively checking the status of your submission online. Finally, you get an email. It’s a rejection. Then you rage, cry, or just get depressed. And you do it all over again.
The writing process is difficult enough, but the submission process comes with its own constellation of negative spirals and rabbit-holes. If you are like me, you use Submittable for most submissions to literary journals. I love Submittable. It keeps my submissions in order, and I can download a list of everything I submitted and to where. As of this month, I’ve made more than a hundred submissions since January of 2016. I haven’t submitted a hundred separate stories or essays—that would be crazy. Neither have I published a hundred pieces since I started using Submittable. However, I’ve submitted individual pieces as many as ten times to different journals.
This last September, Penmen Review, which comes out of Southern New Hampshire University, published “My sister Maddie,” a piece I wrote nearly a decade ago. Before Penmen Review picked up the story, it had been rejected by nine other journals. Often, it’s a question of the fit between the story and a particular issue or journal. Editors tell me this repeatedly. It still doesn’t help with processing a stream of rejections, especially when that piece has cost you more time and emotional energy than you give to many of your relationships.
As a rule, the rejections that find me—usually at awkward moments on the bus or in the mall—are form letters that say the same thing.

Dear William Thompson:

Thank you for submitting to our journal. We receive many submissions for each issue, but unfortunately we can’t publish everything…

I understand the point of the form letter. Editors don’t have time to comment on individual submissions. However, now and then I will get a comment from an editor that is thoughtful, encouraging, or offers a snippet of helpful feedback. I’m always grateful for such comments.

“This is quite well written, with strong atmospheric details.”
“The story is very powerful, relating the protagonist’s situation to his mother’s is very impactful. I suggest giving the protagonist a name and more description. It will make the story more visceral.”
“I found parts of this fascinating, but all the pieces didn’t fit together in a way that felt unified to me.”

Feedback is always good. You don’t have to like it; it just needs to make you think about your work from someone else’s point of view. Difficult, I realize. And rejections always carry a particular sting, no matter how many you’ve received.
I remind myself regularly that submitting as part of my work as a writer—in the way that writing this blog is part of that same work. Researching journals that might be a good fit for a particular story or essay takes time. I also try to read something a journal has published before I submit, which isn’t always possible, depending on whether or not the journal has sample pieces available on their website. I set a goal—say, eight or ten submissions a month. I keep a folder of pieces that are in circulation, and I work on pieces I can add to the circulation folder. I happen to be good at compartmentalizing my life—not such a fabulous quality in some ways, but it makes this particular process easier.
Rejection doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that no one likes it, or that you should give up any thoughts of being a writer and take a job somewhere that never reminds you of your love for the written word. Rejection means you are out there—for good or ill. No one can reject something you’ve written if you don’t submit it. And no one can accept it either. Writing is a process, but so is submitting. And both require you to put a little iron in your soul, first for the sake of finishing that story you have to write, then getting it out into the world.

Yours in Fellowship,
Bill