I am super excited to introduce the Chick Litz’s very first GUEST BLOGGER, Jill Christman. Most of us chickz had Jill as a professor for our advanced creative nonfiction class, and that, ladies and gents, is where Chicklitz was born. That semester was such a learning experience for me, and I grew immensely, not only as a writer, but as a person. I think it was a mixture of the inherent personal nature of the class and the support I found in these girls, but most of all I know it was Jill’s warmth and genuine interest in my success as a student, a writer, and a woman. Jill taught me things like how to properly use a semicolon (I was a mess; you should have seen it.) and that I wasn’t crazy for literally becoming crazy while writing nonfiction pieces. She taught me the importance of telling my story, the importance of telling it clearly, and the importance of writing memoir in general– “so that we might move forward.”
I know I speak for all the chickz when I say that we couldn’t have a more fitting person as our first guest blogger. Jill’s post today is a summarized version of her panel presentation from AWP. She was unable to attend the conference, but her essay was delivered by Kate Hopper. We hope you enjoy her writing as much as we do. Jill, thanks for being great.
Flinging the Ink Pot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir
My name is Jill Christman and I’m a serial memoirist. Worse, I’m irresistibly drawn to all the subjects I’m told have been written and are done. My first book contains a whole chapter on my dying grandmother, for heavensakes. Am I redeemed by the compelling detail that I killed her with a grilled cheese sandwich? I don’t know. I’m going to kick this off by introducing myself and starting this inquiry where many good stories begin: at the beginning. My first memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002. Recent essays have been published in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Literary Mama, Mississippi Review, River Teeth, and many other journals and anthologies. I teach—creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University.
So. If indeed there are off-limit subjects in memoir, where are these messages coming from? Are they real, or am I paranoid? Is my feeling that I shouldn’t write about breastfeeding or co-sleeping, prenatal testing or miscarriages, first-words or pediatricians a proscription I arrive at honestly, through actual facts and flesh-and-blood opponents, or is my sense of these specific-subject prohibitions simply a more elaborate and obsessively considered version of the question that dogs most of us who sit down at a writing desk with the intention of using our own lives as material: Why would anybody care?
Of course, the way to quell this nagging is to peruse our bookshelves. Look at all the lives we have cared about, and more, look at the questions that have arisen from these lives that have enlarged and enriched our own sense of what it is to be human in this complicated world. That’s why we care. Good writing in memoir, it turns out, is like good writing anywhere: make it good. Make it about something. Rich or poor, violent or peaceful, happy or sad, domestic or international: on the page—as H.L. Mencken said—we don’t get credit for our lives.
The conclusion of my post has revealed itself too soon, I fear—perhaps I left fiction because I have a ludicrous sense of plot. It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s how you write it. We know this, right? And then there’s also: Turn off the naysayers and the critics—the ones in the pages of The Times or the ones launching tantrums from your own brain. As our title suggests, we need to return to the sage counsel of Virginia Woolf in her oft-anthologized speech, “Professions for Women.” Woolf gives us instruction on how to dispatch the impediments to our creativity, here embodied in the skirt-rustling, whispering, infuriatingly pure Angel in the House who “made as if to guide [her] pen”:
. . . whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the ink pot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.
Indeed. Here is the end of the story: write what you need to write. Fling that inkpot. If you don’t care, no one else will either. The end. (I tell my students this same thing, oh, about twenty times each semester, so why doesn’t the message sink in for me?)
Okay, here is the actual beginning:
For six years, I had been working on a big memoir; essentially, the book spans all of my life on the way and into early motherhood, but the specific timeframe runs from my first pregnancy through the 6-month milestone of my second child’s life. (Henry’s three now. It’s taking me awhile to wrap things up. Turns out life and can move faster than writing.) In conversations with my understandably worn-down agent, she generally supports my efforts, but steers me away from writing “a mother book,” with vague references to this idea that “mother books” have glutted the marketplace and there’s no room for another just like the rest—although, in her defense, I have never heard her utter the odious term momoir. Even so, I come away from these conversations thinking my subject is a bad one. I come away hearing myself say reactive things like—“Well, yes, the material of the book includes pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, but the true subject of the book is fear; essentially, I use the lens of early motherhood to examine fear.” This framing seems to make it more okay. It’s not that I would actually presume anyone to be interested in the intimate details of this sea-change experience during which I traded one life for another entirely, this experience that collapsed every moment I have ever known, before or since, like Nabokov’s meticulously folded magic carpet. Of course not. Why would they be? I’m not really writing about motherhood, I say. It’s that I want to write about fear. And who’s not afraid? Look around. Scary.
Now. This is true. I am writing about fear—everything from bats and tarantulas (ick) to amnios and anaphylactic episodes and the confusing way in which our technologies have outstripped our capacities to understand what we learn from them. But why do I feel shamed into saying it that way? With the “lens” and the “framing” and the “real subject”—this protective, intellectual distancing, always on the defensive, as if I’m afraid to say Yes, dammit, I’m going to spend a chapter writing about prenatal testing, the testing done on my gravid body with needles and wands, because being told your baby has only half a heart is a terrifying, air-sucking, heart-crushing moment that deserves careful attention. But wait, why do I have to go right to the Big Thing? Why can’t I explore, while I’m at it, the fact that my first child would nap nowhere but in my arms? Why not?
What is it with memoir? Why is it that narrow marketing categories used by publishers, reviewers, and booksellers lead the industry to lump and dismiss entire categories of human experience? Memoirists shouldn’t talk about abuse, especially sexual abuse, or addiction (seriously, aren’t we better yet?), or sexuality (unless, you know, it’s really sexy); off limits, also, is any kind of dying grandparent (anybody we might expect to die), children (too cute, too precociously wise, too altogether plentiful), or parenting of any stripe. This last scorned category spawned the flagrantly derivative sub-genre monikers “Momoir” and “Dad Lit”.
Maybe we can risk frowned upon subjects if we do something special? For example, if we want to write about a run-of-the-mill death, our account should be hilarious, or if we want to write about fatherhood, we’d better actually write what it was to be a boy—a subject that never seems to grow old. (What other subjects don’t show wear? Food and fishing are good examples, as are rock ‘n roll, sports, and war. And that’s a good thing, but really, is organic arugula really more enduring than motherhood?)
In my intro-to-this-intro, I revealed the forbidden dying grandmother chapter in my first memoir. And, recently, yes, with motherhood, I am flirting with subjects that are too domestic, too intimate, maybe just plain boring.
Flirting? No, not really. I am Assistant Chair of my department, I teach in a low-res program, I have two children, a husband, and we’re trying for a dog. Flirting? I am too tired to flirt, but here we all are piled in the family bed together nonetheless. Something needs to happen, I chide myself. And be funny. Be funnier, you self-obsessed, solipsistic, navel-gazing…
Writing this now, I recognize the memoir-doubt I feel now is diametrical to the doubt I felt before. Now I struggle to avoid the market’s diminishment of my domestic subjects—pregnancy and motherhood—and yet when I was writing my first memoir, Darkroom, I faced an opposite dilemma. Back then, I was charged with too much drama, the examination of my “litany of horrors” life. The messages I received during the writing of my first memoir I can point to:
Who do you think you are, Frank Zappa’s daughter? (the first comment in the only workshop I dared present autobiographical material)
Could it have really been all that bad? (the note from the first agent who asked to read the manuscript)
It was the late nineties, and not only did I write sexual abuse, first love, sudden death of first love, a drunken uncle (for this subject, I was supported—so clearly not narcissistic to write the alcoholic, marijuana-growing uncle’s descent into a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence in the federal pen—and yet now I realize: the most fully male part of my story, a cross between Wild Bill Hickok and Robin Hood), eating disorders, antidepressants, six therapists. . . Sensitive that it felt like too much—and always aware that mine were not the only hard stories, certainly not the hardest, and it’s not a contest anyway (ask the person on your right or left: then listen)—I wrote away from all of those subjects as diligently as I could, but there it was: these were the stories of my life, I was trying to make sense of them and I had a question.
I couldn’t not write them.
So I did. I landed hard-flung inkpots on forehead after forehead—mostly my own—and I wrote what I needed to write. I encourage you to do the same—and beautifully.
At last fall’s NonfictionNOW conference, Alison Bechdel gave the best talk on memoir and process I have ever heard (or seen). I will leave you with Bechdel’s affirmation. “The journey into the self,” she said, “is first and foremost a journey out of the self.”
Mmmmhmmm. If you do it right—and I trust you will.