Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?
For as long as I can remember, story has been the tether that keeps me grounded in my world. I grew up with three brothers. As the only girl, I was just a little bit on the outside. Separate. We were a family of readers, and I learned to read early. I soon discovered that the land of books opened a space where I could connect to other girls like me. Find some sisters of my own. Actually belong. So, I read. A lot. I was drawn to series like Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and The Chronicles of Narnia that let me latch on to beloved characters and follow their lives beyond the borders of a single book. I went through a horse phase during my preteen years and read anything about horses I could get my hands on. I attached to particular authors – Beverly Cleary, Road Dahl, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan — and consumed everything they’d written. When I wasn’t reading, I was often imagining stories of my own. Intricate scenarios unfolded in my mind and built the platform for my play. Sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own, I became the fictional characters I loved so much, acting out their lives, continuing from where the books left off, developing my own sequels to their stories. I’d lay out the groundwork for a scene — details of setting, backstory, conflict, character, even wardrobe – before doing anything else. Without ever actually putting pencil to paper, I was learning to write. And without knowing how vital it would be down the road, all of this early reading was teaching me the comfort and companionship of words. I was a good writer in high school, but I never considered it as a career. I came from a family of medical professionals, so that path was on my radar. It wasn’t until college, when I took a creative nonfiction writing class — a class that offered me my first real exposure to the transformative power of giving words to experience – that I recognized writing was something I wanted to do. It took me twenty more years, though, to commit to it as a career.
What is the most rewarding part of being a writer? The most frustrating?
The most rewarding part is recognizing that the stories of my experiences have the power to connect to others, that they aren’t just about me. When a reader says, “Yes, me too!” I feel like maybe I’ve helped someone feel a little bit less alone, and that makes the risk of exposure that comes with the territory of writing nonfiction feel a little bit easier to bear.
What’s most frustrating is the ongoing self-doubt that lives inside me no matter how many stories I write, how many pieces I publish. I still feel like an imposter. I still sit in front of that blank computer screen wondering what makes me think that my words matter, that my experiences are so unique that they should end up on the page. It’s the battle I fight all the time.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming release?
WRITING HARD STORIES: CELEBRATED MEMOIRISTS WHO SHAPED ART FROM TRAUMA (to be published with Beacon Press on February 7, 2017) profiles my conversations with eighteen memoirists, 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. I wanted to hear from them about the psychological journey of diving into their darkest of memories and what it felt like to put words to those experiences. These conversations are intended to encourage all writers as they work through their challenging stories. They also provide readers with intimate glimpses into the lives of the authors they love.
What inspired it?
When I began my MFA in creative nonfiction in January of 2013, I decided to start writing about a family story that I’d held very close for almost twenty years – living with the secret of my father’s HIV infection when, in 1985, he received tainted blood during open heart surgery. For the ten years before his death in 1995, I lived a hard silence that has had a lasting impact. Stepping into that experience was much more difficult than I’d anticipated. I was caught off guard by the emotional toll it took on me and often found myself paralyzed by it all. It led me to ask some painful questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Would I be able to manage it? I decided to seek the guidance of other memoirists who’d done the hard work of shaping their hard experiences into memoirs in hopes of finding the courage to write my own.
You’re sitting on the Truth and Lies: Telling Our Stories in Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction panel at this year’s conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?
The challenge for most memoirists is portraying our experiences as authentically as we can. Often, that forces us to walk a delicate line between what might be considered “factual” and what we consider the truth of our own stories. And sometimes those things feel contradictory. The questions we have to ask are: How do we capture the truth of our experiences and the legitimacy of our own memories without distorting the facts to the point where we are lying about what happened? And what actually constitutes a lie? For me, writing about experiences from my childhood has necessitated that I fill in some of the blurred edges that surround my memories. I’ve recreated dialogue that feels true to the events, but may not necessarily be the exact words spoken. I’ve described settings the way I remember them, but there’s no guarantee that I’ve gotten all of the details factually correct. But I’m confident that I’ve captured the emotional essence of the experiences. My hope is that our panel opens up a discussion with our audience about how to navigate those tricky areas of recreating the past as honestly as we can.
What are you working on now?
I am completing my memoir, A COMPLICATED GRIEF (working title), that explores how the ten years of keeping the secret of my father’s illness and the specter of disaster that inevitably loomed ahead defined my life. The complicated nature of his disease and the grief of his death have had an indelible impact on me. Writing my memoir is an attempt to understand that impact. My sense of self, my worldview, my faith, and my family are among the threads that weave this story together. I am in the process of completing the proposal for this book in hopes of putting it in the hands of my agent in the next month.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Writing is hard work. It challenges us to enter uncomfortable territory and face ourselves and our experiences honestly. Though the writing part tends to be solitary, dealing with the emotions it stirs up need not be. The more support we have from other writers along the way, the more we enter into dialogue about the writing journey with others who are traveling the same road, the less daunting the process becomes.
For more information, visit Melanie’s website. Her photo: Helen Peppe Photography.