Literary memoir brings the truth of your story and the beauty of language together to craft memories into literature. Author, poet, and writing instructor, Judith Barrington has devoted her life to perfecting this art form.
Judith’s book, Lifesaving: A Memoir, won the 2001 Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is also the author of the bestselling text: Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, as well as three collections of poetry, most recently, Horse and the Human Soul. She was recently announced as the winner of the inaugural Robin Becker Chapbook Contest for her collection of poems, Lost Lands, which will be published in October. She is a faculty member of the University of Alaska at Anchorage’s MFA Program, and she teaches for The Poetry School in Britain and Spain.
WOW! was fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Judith just after she returned from teaching in Alaska.
1.Judith, I’m so excited to introduce you to our readers! You wear so many creative hats that it’s quite inspiring, so I’ll just start at the beginning. How, when, and why did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I grew up in England, where I was lucky to have an education that involved a lot of writing—mostly essays, many of which would come back to me with red lines through whole pages, or “this is rubbish” written at the bottom. In retrospect, those were good lessons! I wrote poetry in secret as a teenager, and later, in my twenties, when I was an active feminist in London, I joined a women writers’ group. We published a small anthology of our own work.
The decision to become a writer was a gradual one, rather than one made at a specific moment. I remember when I first wrote “writer” under “occupation” on my passport—that was a big moment. But, when I came to the U.S. in 1976, and ended up staying here, I made a big step toward putting writing at the center of my life, rather than on the fringes. I patched together a freelance writing life, poetry of course, but also writing for a newsletter and doing op-ed pieces for the paper and later syndicating them. I learned how to work to deadlines and how to be affable with an editor. It was all useful.
2.How did you become interested in memoir specifically, as opposed to fiction?
I’ve never regarded fiction as something I could do, although I love to read it. I moved into memoir from poetry (and I’ve noticed that the two go together for quite a number of writers). I sometimes say it was because my poems got longer and longer and I still had more to say, but I don’t think that’s really it. I love the genre of literary memoir and I think, like poetry, it relies on lovely language and many techniques associated with poetry to convey the deeper layers of its story. In a way, I saw memoir as a rhythmic alternative to poetry—something that could effectively use the music of the sentence and paragraph somewhat as poetry uses the music of line and stanza.
3.Your how-to book, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art is used as a teaching text across the U.S., and in Europe and Australia. It was originally published in 1997, and is now in its second edition. Which came first: teaching memoir writing, or the book about how to write memoir?
Teaching memoir. I had been teaching it, in addition to teaching poetry, for several years when I realized that I had thought out which issues I believed the new memoirist must face, and that there was no book addressing those issues. So, I decided to write down what I was teaching, in the mistaken belief that it wouldn’t be a big task! Actually, of course, it was writing a book, and therefore it took time and revision and compiling and more revision...
“I love the genre of literary memoir…it relies on lovely language and many techniques associated with poetry…”
4.You wrote your own memoir, Lifesaving: A Memoir, about a tragedy that occurred in your life when you were 19. Its publication came after your teaching and publishing a book about memoir writing. Was it a work in progress during that time?
Yes, when I started Writing the Memoir, I actually thought I had finished Lifesaving and was looking for a publisher. But, in the process of writing about memoir, I re-thought some things about Lifesaving, in particular, the ending. But, having written most of my own memoir allowed me to draw on that experience while writing the textbook.
5.During the process of writing Lifesaving: A Memoir, it must have been difficult to re-live your experience of losing your parents in such a tragic and unexpected way. How did you work through those emotions on the page?
I didn’t work through the emotions on the page; I worked through them before I started to write the book. It took years for me to be ready. I don’t believe that writing in any genre is a substitute for therapy (or deep thought or journaling or however you deal with life’s blows)—even though you may get new insights into your experience in the process of writing the memoir.
6.Memoir is such a delicate craft—a balance between the personal and the universal. What do you consider to be the most essential elements of a well-written memoir?
Honesty, enough distance from the story to craft it as literature, beautiful and rhythmic use of language, a likeable narrative voice.
7.What preliminary steps would you suggest a writer take before she begins to write a memoir?
First of all, I think she must read lots and lots of good narrative prose, which is the best way to acquire ease with storytelling. Then, she must regularly practice writing, particularly the things she is less good at: if she finds dialogue difficult, write pages of it in a journal; if she skips description, go outside and describe the sidewalk. In other words, become an apprentice of language and acquire all the craft she will need to do justice to her own story.
Equally important, I think, is to have enough distance from the emotions of the event to consider the literary merits of what you put on the page, and to revise for the purposes of creating the best possible book, even if it means leaving out things that are important to you personally. If you are still too involved in the experience, you may inadvertently demand things of your reader: things like sympathy or indignation or revenge. Readers don’t want to be co-opted onto “your side” if it’s a story with sides. They don’t want you to manipulate them, or try to get from them what you haven’t gotten from people in real life.
You need to be ready to give your allegiance only to the best possible telling of the story when you start to write a memoir. No secret agendas!
“Readers are sympathetic to a memoirist who is searching for the truth, but they hate a memoirist who deliberately deceives them.”
This is a “memory-jog” exercise—a way to remember what might not easily come to mind. Choose a house you have lived in and know well. Draw a plan of one floor, showing rooms, doors, windows, pieces of furniture, etc. If possible, ask someone else to mark an “X” in one room (or close your eyes and do it yourself). Write a description of that room, paying attention to all five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). Part two of the exercise may follow naturally: tell a story about something that happened in that room.
9.In a memoir based on memories of an incident(s) that occurred in decades past, where do you feel the writer’s responsibility lies: with the truth of the facts or with her perception/feelings about what occurred?
I think that memoir is “the story of your memory.” This makes what we know about memory itself quite important. As I said in a recent lecture, "We tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. But science has now shown that we do not record our experiences the way a camera records them.
Our memories work differently. We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”
This is science speaking. But what it means to us is that everyone may remember an event differently from everyone else—as most of us in families have found out. Police know it too, from interviewing witnesses to an accident.
I think then, given that memory is changeable over time, a memoirist’s obligation is to be honest with the reader. Honesty is not necessarily the same as factual truth, verified objectively. Honesty requires you to tell the reader what you remember, tell the reader when you are speculating about how it might have been, and be upfront with the reader when you simply can not know, but have always imagined it was this way or that way…
Readers are sympathetic to a memoirist who is searching for the truth, but they hate a memoirist who deliberately deceives them.
10.In your book, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, you quoted Virginia Woolf. She wrote about an incestuous relationship with her half brother in “22 Hyde Park Gate,” and then commented in her diary: “What possessed me to lay bare my soul!” It definitely takes great courage to reveal such personal stories. What advice can you offer a writer who is struggling with the decision of whether or not to expose intimate details, participation in social taboos, or previous illegal activities?
I like to remember my friend, the excellent writer, Evelyn White, who often asks students the question: “Why are you inviting the reader here?” Why would you struggle to expose difficult material and invite a reader to share it? Well, I think you must believe that you can make art out of it—that you can make a story, together with the essay-like aspect of memoir, which is retrospection.
A memoir is a piece of writing that blends a story with the author’s process of making sense of that story. If you are driven to make this kind of art out of a difficult personal story, go for it! But if you just need attention or want to write it “to feel better,” better stick to your journal and forget about going public.
11.In Chapter 11, you discuss the challenge memoirists face when confronted by non-writers who question their worthiness to write a memoir when they are neither famous nor infamous. How would you recommend a memoirist respond with confidence and “own” their title? And how do memoirists who write several memoirs about their lives combat the perception that they are narcissistic?
I believe that really good memoirist can make a good memoir out of more or less any life. You only have the life you have, so it’s no good weighing that up against the life of someone who’s been in prison or climbed Everest.
Writers who have written several well-liked memoirs are perceived as good storytellers, not narcissistic, self-obsessed people. I think there are two reasons (maybe more) why a memoirist would be perceived as narcissistic: one, that they really are self-obsessed (nothing to be done there); or two, that their writing skills are not up to the task of creating a likeable persona.
The character who is the hero of your story both is and is not you; she is a literary character you create for the purpose of the memoir. This is an essential component of a good memoir. Another craft tip to combat the appearance of narcissism is to master a wide array of sentence structures, so as to avoid using that little “I” hundreds of times on one page.
“A memoir is a piece of writing that blends a story with the author’s process of making sense of that story.”
12.For our aspiring memoirists, what memoirs currently in print do you recommend they read as exceptional examples of the genre?
Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education and Virgin Time; Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood; Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man; Vivan Gornick’s Fierce Attachments;
Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being; Naomi Shihab Nye’s Never in a Hurry; Marjorie Sandor’s The Night Gardener: The Search for Home.
13.You have a workshop, “Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art” coming up September 20 & 21 at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon. What are some of the things your students can look forward to learning in the two-day session?
I will try to balance nuts-and-bolts craft issues with some of the large questions that worry memoirists. We’ll address how to move from narration into retrospection, how to wear the hat of the storyteller as well as the one who muses on the story; and how to search for “the story under the story” as the late Grace Paley called it—to reach down deep to find the true heart of the experience you want to write. Maybe we’ll also address the difficult question of how to move around in time in a memoir, when we are adults writing from “now” and also as our younger selves, acting out the story. We’ll do some writing exercises and read some excerpts from other writers that serve as examples for some of these issues.
14.In addition to your teaching, you are also the President and Co-founder of Soapstone, a writing retreat for women. How did you come up with the idea for this wonderful project?
My partner, Ruth, and I used to run a summer writing workshop for women called The Flight the Mind. It existed for seventeen years and was very popular, but we ended it because it was a huge job and I was worried I’d never write again! But, when we later found the property that is Soapstone (23 acres of forest on a salmon-spawning creek in Oregon’s coastal range), we knew it would be the perfect place for writers to go on retreat and work. It was a smaller project than Flight, and after many years of fundraising, construction, and planning, a large community of women working together, achieved the goal, and it now operates as a writing retreat for two women writers at a time.
“…the basic need to persevere, organize your submission schedule, and learn not to be deflated by rejection, hasn’t changed at all.”
15.I know you just returned home from teaching memoir writing as an associate faculty member in their summer MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. And you’ve taught as far away as Australia, Greece, Spain, and the UK. Do these wonderful travel experiences and diverse locations make their way into your poetry?
Yes, they do, but not always directly, and often long after the travel. In my recent chapbook, Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea, for example, I wrote the poem called “Jonah Mid-Air” while in Spain two years ago. I was sitting on a balcony looking out at a very rough Mediterranean Sea, and thinking about the Biblical character Jonah, when I wrote my own version of his story in the poem.
I’ve taught in Spain for the past three years in the spring, and the landscape around the Old Olive Press, where my classes are held, is just beginning to appear in my poetry.
As for Greece, I was teaching a class there in 2001, when 9/11 happened, so it was an extraordinary experience. The people of the village reached out, baked us pies, asked if our families were safe, and held a Mass for us, all of which was comforting, since it was somewhat frightening to be stranded there, with no planes flying back to the U.S. and no easy communication. The goodwill we encountered was amazingly human, and was not unlike the goodwill that poured out to Americans from many parts of the world at that moment. But, the human sympathy and friendship was, of course, later squandered by our government. And, so although I’ve only been to Greece once, there are indelible images in my mind associated with that time, and some of those images have emerged in poems.
16.It’s a well-known fact in the writing community that it’s extremely difficult to become a published poet. How would you suggest unpublished poets reach out to the poetry audience?
There are so many small journals. Persistence often pays off. Start with regional publications, or those that specialize in something you do. More and more there are good online journals too, which take far less time to try, and cost nothing in paper and postage. Even though things have progressed, the basic need to persevere, organize your submission schedule, and learn not to be deflated by rejection, hasn’t changed at all. You won’t find a publisher for a collection of poems unless a good proportion of them have first appeared in magazines.
17.I have to admit that I don’t think I have a poetic bone in my entire body. After my nightmare experiences of poem scansion and analysis in college, poetry feels so out-of-reach—finding the deeper symbolism behind the images, the restrictiveness of its rules for rhyme and meter, proper language cadence and the economy of words... I would be afraid I was doing it all wrong. Do you have any advice for poetry-phobes?
Well, the things you describe are modes of literary criticism that rose to prominence for a period of time and nearly caused many deaths from boredom. I doubt you are really a poetry-phobe, but merely a New Criticism-phobe. Scansion is not a necessary skill for a poetry reader (though if you must dabble in it, read Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, which, believe it or not, makes the structuring of poetry fun).
The rules for various traditional forms (in which I do sometimes like to write) don’t have to be named, or even apparent, to the reader. They’re supposed to enhance the impact of the poem. And, if you want to write a poem, you don’t have to think about any of those things—just write it! Most poets certainly don’t think consciously about using symbols; it’s the critics and teachers who discover them later.
I once taught a poetry class for published prose writers who considered themselves poetry-phobes. They were an unusually neurotic bunch, but there was no denying that they had a good way with words. They simply had to discover that it was really fun—a kind of playfulness, in fact.
It’s hard to classify my poetry as one type. As I said, I sometimes write in a received form like villanelles. One of my favorites of my poems is in a form called “Rimas Dissolutas,” where the last word of each line rhymes with the last word in the equivalent line of the other stanzas.
Now, I suppose, you’ve fainted with horror—but bear with me. If, say, they’re all six-line stanzas, the rhyme scheme is: a,b,c,d,e,f and then in subsequent stanzas: a,b,c,d,e,f. Thus the rhymes are very far apart, and when reading the poem, you might never even notice them, especially as I use “slant rhyme” which is not exact or very noticeable. So why bother? Well, I think such things work in a subliminal way on the reader, especially if she reads the poem aloud. By the way, the poem I’m talking about is “Rimas Dissolutas at Chacala Beach” in Horses and the Human Soul. But, I hasten to reassure you that I often write free verse too.
I think my earlier books were very much inspired by moving from England to the U.S., transitioning to a new landscape and culture, and figuring out where my roots might be. In History and Geography, there’s a poem about that called “Countries.”
Other preoccupations have emerged in more than one book, particularly as I wrote about my history as a lesbian. I have several poems written in the third person, in the persona of “The Dyke with No Name,” who is, of course, me. In Horses, there are two: “The Dyke with No Name Thinks about God” and “The Dyke with No Name Thinks about Landscape.” It has been a device that works well for me, and she continues to appear from time to time.
Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea is a chapbook of ocean poems. My parents drowned at sea, which leads some people to think that’s why I’m so focused on the ocean, particularly the poem called “Souls Under Water.” But even before that tragedy happened, I was very much an ocean-lover.
19.What’s next for you? A new teaching adventure? A new book or poetry collection? If so, I know our readers would love to hear about it.
Well, having just joined the faculty of Alaska’s low-residency MFA program, and having just been in Anchorage for the first 12-day residency, feels like a big adventure. There were moose on the campus, amazing tough women with stories of what is still a wild place, and a whole new culture to absorb. So, that will unfold interestingly, I’m sure.
I’ll also be on the program for The Nature of Words, a writing conference in beautiful Bend, Oregon, in November.
Meanwhile, I’m working on a second memoir, with a goal of finishing it this year. And, I have another poetry chapbook (winner of the Robin Becker Award) coming out in October.
Readers can go to my website at https://www.judithbarrington.com to check on my future activities. I also note on there what I’ve recently read, and other happenings.
20.If you could give one final bit of advice, inspiration, or encouragement to an aspiring poet or memoirist, what would it be?
Do it only because you love the process of writing and you love reading. Do it only if you’re less happy when you don’t write than when you do.
Judith, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your insight about memoir and poetry writing! I know our readers will be inspired to explore these forms of personal writing.
Annette Fix is the Senior Editor for WOW! Women On Writing, an author, and spoken-word storyteller living in Laguna Niguel, California with her Danish Prince Charming, her aspiring photographer son, and two rescued dogs. You can read Annette’s Paper Trail blog at www.annettefix.com and find out about Annette’s memoir on the book website, www.thebreak-updiet.com. Read break-up and dating stories and share your own at her new story forum: www.mybreakupstory.com.