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Writing What Hurts

Writing What Hurts

Writing that Hurts

By Carissa Stevens, BGWS Student

     As a fiction writer, I have no qualms about putting my characters through the ringer. Death, heartbreak, illness, loss—these have all befallen my characters in different degrees of severity. Perhaps it is sadistic, but I relish the impact traumatic experiences can have on a story.

But, admittedly, when it comes to penning my own misfortunes, I clam up.

       During a prose workshop last Fall, I summoned the courage to write my story of miscarriage and infertility. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many memories and feelings that clouded my brain. But typing them into a Word document was emotionally painful and I often excluded the more excruciating experiences simply because I did not want to relive them. I also knew that sharing my story was something of a societal taboo. Miscarriage and infertility were topics that made people squirm, something shameful that should be secreted away, not shared with the world or even a workshop group. In the end, I completed my piece of creative nonfiction but felt it only scratched the surface of the story I desperately wanted to tell.

       This is why I was eager to attend Julie Marie Wade’s craft talk at this year’s Winter Residency. Her collection of memoir-in-essays, Small Fires, was a shining example of everything I wanted my own creative nonfiction to be: candid, unapologetic, and yes—at times—painful. Writing about her adolescence, Wade also discussed her share of taboos: her sometimes-stormy relationship with her mother, the discovery of her sexuality, and her discomfort with her pubescent body. The entire collection is made up of experiences that were both commonplace and dreadful, yet it was a written so beautifully and viscerally that I couldn’t put it down. I was eager to learn from such a gifted writer.

         Wade’s craft talk was entitled “The Beads and the String: Writing the Memoir of Linked and Stand-Alone Essays.” She explained that the art of writing memoir, particularly linked memoir essays for a collection, was similar in structure to a charm bracelet. The charms, or memoirs, may all be unique and somewhat unrelated to one another, yet the writer—the string—is the commonality that brings it all together. Those that have read Small Fires know that this is an astute analogy for Wade’s work. Her essays are profoundly different, yet come together to paint a unique coming-of-age tale.

         The portion of Wade’s talk I found especially valuable was her list of memoir-essay generation exercises.  One of these was an exercise called “One Word, Many Meanings.” She would take a word, or perhaps the root of a word, and explore how that single word wove throughout her experiences. Listening to Wade describe this exercise among others, I realized I could benefit from writing my creative nonfiction in this way. Instead of a rote retelling of my difficulties, these exercises would allow me to see my nonfiction from a different angle. This would give me enough distance to tackle the “hard stuff” and would create tighter, more impactful prose.

         In Small Fires, Julie Marie Wade makes this promise: “I will make a space for you—all of you—in this story that is also my life.” I, too, must make space for the losses and disappointments that are also my life. Like Wade, I must write what hurts.

Carissa Stevens lives in Berea, Kentucky. She is halfway through the MFA program and prefers to write short fiction. She has taught high school English for eight years.

Published on February 01, 2016

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