Bernadette Murphy: X Games for Nerds

We sit at our little desks, maybe sipping a café au lait, staring at a screen.  Often, we peer out at a world we hold at arm’s length, maybe through bespectacled eyes, always the outsider, the observer, the one on the periphery. To passersby, we appear the portrait of calm and ease. We’re writers, the nerdiest of nerds, the opposite of the REI adventurer, the wimpiest of wimps.

Or maybe not.

Red Smith famously said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” I tend to agree with Smith and believe that the work of a writer, when done well, is as risky as any extreme sport I can name — and requires the same kind of bravery and courage that all perilous adventures do. Maybe even more so.

I read once Maureen Corrigan’s take on the female adventure story in her wonderful book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading.  In it, she argued that women’s stories have always seemed more placid than men’s, but that the docile exterior is simply an illusion. In women’s stories, even the most domestically focused, there is just as much at stake as with any testosterone-rich alpha-male drama. A Jane Austen heroine trying to decide whom to marry has as much on the line as a climber in a Jon Krakauer narrative on Mount Everest. If our heroine makes a wrong choice, the consequences may be as dire in the long run as a fatal error made by a mountaineer. It all comes down to the big questions of life and death. As writers, this is the territory we mine.

Oddly, though I’m a nerd through and through, I’ve found myself taking on more physical risks recently. In doing so, I’ve discovered a new kind of tolerance for risk in my writing life. I’m like Lance Armstrong building up strong lungs. The more I engage in activities that test my courage, my tenacity, both my emotional and physical strength, the more I build the parallel muscles that writing requires: Truth telling. Rawness. Vulnerability. The possibility of failure. Being willing to be unmasked as the imperfect human I am. Without these qualities, our writing takes us nowhere, has nothing to tell a reader about the human condition.

This truth came home to me when I wrote the initial essay that would eventually become my most recent book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life.  I had just left a 25-year marriage and my skin seemed as if it had been flayed in big sheets. My guts felt exposed, so that even the tiniest shift of wind hurt. I tried to write authentically about the experience, but found myself hiding behind trite metaphors and syrupy Hallmark sentiments. The more I attempted to remain safe by concealing my true self (and, I hoped, protecting my kids from my desperate feelings about the divorce), the more hackneyed my writing became.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Emily Rapp was on the cusp of losing her not-yet-three-year-old son Ronan to Tay-Sachs, a child I had held and cuddled and sang to. She wrote about her thundering grief and the day-to-day experience of nursing a child to his eventual death using a kind of incinerating truth I admired deeply and wanted to emulate.  (Check out her heart-stopping memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World.) If she could tell the truth amid such tender-at-the-bone circumstances, limn both the heart-stomping moments and the flashes of unheralded joy, what was stopping me?

I tried to follow her lead. When the first essay that displayed my conflicted, damaged self was published, I cowered. I was nauseated by what I had written, terrified of what people would think of me. I kept having a dream in which Emily was beheaded by the Taliban. She was executed for her honesty – it was that dangerous and that powerful. And if I continued in her path, what would become of me?

In the meantime, though, I’d started taking more risks in the physical realm. I learned to ride a motorcycle and took off on a 5,000-mile cross-country trek with a friend – another scaredy cat mom like me, who’d also recently been through a divorce. I went backpacking and hiking and ran marathons. I moved to French Polynesia for three months to find out who I was when I stopped being who I knew myself to be in Los Angeles. I learned to scuba dive, ski, open-ocean outrigger canoe, mountaineer, rock and ice climb – all in my 50s. And I discovered that I was stronger than I thought I was.

In finding that physical strength, I uncovered the seed of bad-ass-ed-ness that had long been buried in me. Over time, I stopped worrying about what people would think.  And I realized that my children didn’t need to be protected from the reality of my life, that actually, they were much hardier than I was and were teaching me about bravery and guts, more than I could ever teach them. As a result, I was finally able to write the book I had been wanting to.

Looking back, I believe my creative paralysis can be traced to an insidious lie: The idea that risk by definition is negative, a factor to be eliminated whenever possible. Risk infers the possibility that something bad or unwanted may happen. But risk, for writers, is imperative.

When I first started taking physical risks as a path to creative courage, my behavior appeared capricious and unpredictable. So I looked into the subject, craving assurance I wasn’t going off the deep end. Through interviews with neuoscientists, researchers, and psychologists, I learned that risk, the very element I’d attempted to isolate myself from, was the substance that was making me feel healthier emotionally, encouraging the wonders of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and building my self-confidence. I learned that by deliberately engaging new challenges, even challenges as simple as trying a different restaurant or gym routine, I was increasing my happiness as I strengthened my mental and physical health.

Yes, there are biological, gender, and cultural influences that incline some of us to be more enthusiastic about new experiences than others. Still, risk taking is part of our human DNA, and for some of us, downright central to who we are. According to researchers at Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven years to 10 years, and some of our most important parts are revamped even more rapidly. Whether it’s creating fresh lung cells, shedding skin, sprouting new hair, or making fresh brain connections, the human body is in a state of constant flux and change. So too, I venture, is the human psyche — but only with our cooperation.

By training myself to take small risks and building on them daily, I shifted my creative focus away from what scares me toward what makes me feel most alive. In doing so, I rediscovered my eagerness and curiosity, ultimately breaking out of the creative straightjacket I had constructed. Of course, not all risk is beneficial. Impulsive, emotionally driven risk often creates negative outcomes. But positive risk taking, undertaken with forethought and intention, has become fundamental for me.

I now approach life and writing with a new kind of zest and enthusiasm. I feel emotions more keenly than before, even the tender and piercing ones – which, I would argue, is some of the riskiest territory on the planet. Writing honestly is much scarier than skydiving, bungee jumping, and any other X Game challenge. So, in a way, writers are really extreme athletes in the world of letters. By grappling with risk in the most demanding realm of all – the world of the imagination — we prove to ourselves we’re powerful and fearless in the very best way.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, hardback May 2016, paperback May 2017).  She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction, including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is



Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully


Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)


Born in Prague in 1947, Helen Epstein grew up in the Czech community of New York City. She attended Hunter College High School, then studied at City College of New York for two years before transferring to and graduating from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1970. She became an instant published journalist during the summer of 1968 while a 20-year-old college student caught in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her personal account of the invasion was published in the Jerusalem Post, where she received her journalistic training while an undergraduate studying musicology and literature.

In 1971, she graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began to freelance for diverse publications including McCall’sVivaMs.Midstream, the National Jewish Monthly, the Soho Weekly News, and MORE: A Journalism Review, whose editors talked her into posing for a spoof on a typical advertisement of the time for Cosmopolitan magazine, shot by a Cosmo photographer.

Epstein went on to specialize in long-form journalism about classical musicians. Working for women’s magazines allowed her to interview pioneering women journalists. Over four decades, Epstein has continued to pursue her interest in cultural reporting. She currently reviews for the New England online arts magazine The Arts Fuse.

Q: THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA is an unflinching memoir that takes the reader into the author’s intimate life from early childhood to middle-age. You were the first journalist to write about inter-generational transmission of trauma back in 1977. Why did you decide to return to this subject?

A: I feel that book ideas choose me rather than the other way around. Most of my books, including this one, came out of my preoccupation with a subject that turned out to be relevant to many other people. Publishers were leery of Children of the Holocaust in the 1970s. Few thought that a book about the effect of the Holocaust on the offspring of survivors could be important. But in the four decades since it first appeared, not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me or email me how important it was to them — not only descendants of Holocaust survivors, but of American POW families, Nazi families, survivors of the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan genocides, children of alcoholics, mothers who were sexually abused, and therapists. Children has been translated into six languages and has never been out of print. I think Love and Trauma may be like that.

Q: After a distinguished career as a journalist, what made you write such a candid, revealing memoir?

A: Two assertions I came across by chance piqued my interest and made me decide to write personal testimony. The first, from Virginia Woolf in 1931: “Killing the angel in the house I think I solved. She died. But telling the truth about my own experience as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet…she still has many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome.” I found the second on the internet, a claim that no one in all of literature has ever forgotten and, subsequently, documented a “recovered memory” of trauma. I wanted to write a first-hand response to both statements. I see myself as a witness giving testimony.

Q: Where and how did you grow up?

A: I grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1950s and 60s. It was a very interesting place and time in which to grow up. All kinds of refugees lived there: refugees from Hitler, from Stalin, from Mao and Castro; Latin American immigrants; families of blacklisted American Communists. I attended P.S. 87 and Hunter High — both excellent public schools with extraordinary teachers. I had friends of various races and backgrounds and was for a very long time unaware of class. The Holocaust and emigration had scrambled social hierarchy. My father — whose family owned a factory in Czechoslovakia — worked in a garment factory. My mother was a dressmaker whose clients included Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy,” Edward Albee’s mother, and many wives of famous New Yorkers, including Ivana Trump. I knew people who were rich and poor, famous and obscure.

Q: What was the genesis of THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA?

A: I had moved out of the city for the first time in my life and was feeling disoriented. I heard the voice of my first love over the radio while driving down a still-unfamiliar street and decided to reconnect with him. We’d met at my piano teacher’s studio in 1963, when he was regarded as a brilliant and promising young musician. He was the son of blacklisted American Communists, while I was the daughter of anti-Communist Czech refugees. We had a complicated off and on relationship but, over 50 years, never lost touch. I asked him to help me excavate our adolescence — I initially called my memoir First Love — but, in addition to exploring our adolescence, I fell down a rabbit hole into my forgotten early childhood.

Q: How did you feel writing about such details of your sexual development as having an autoscopic experience when you had your first orgasm with him? Or how you learned to masturbate from an alternative newspaper in your journalism school library?

A: It was difficult. But “telling the truth about my own experience as a body” has become easier since Virginia Woolf’s time — largely due to feminism and because our American cultural context has become so much more open about sexuality. I found it harder to write about the persistent shame and uncertainty I felt about having been molested. It happened in another language — Czech. I was dogged by doubt. I had no proof. Everybody involved at the time was long dead. The molester was a family friend, a war hero, and called himself my adopted grandfather. He was also, for a long time, my mother’s lover. I wasn’t in touch with most of that when I began this memoir.

Q: Did you write composite characters or change anything?

A: I don’t write composite characters. I come out of a rigorous journalistic background: I went to Columbia J-school, was an NYU journalism professor for 12 years, and did most of my arts reporting for The New York Times. I believe that if you write nonfiction, you should stick to the facts as you know them. Otherwise, you should tell the reader what you’ve changed. In LOVE AND TRAUMA, I changed a few names and locations.

Q: Has writing the book allowed you to put the experience of being abused as a child behind you?

A: I don’t think people can put life-changing experiences “behind” them. If you are fortunate, you enjoy a stable loving relationship that allows you to look back at traumatic events and — with the help of witnesses — friends, psycho-therapists — understand what happened. I was very lucky. Very few people made it difficult for me to proceed. Most, including my former journalism students, as well as utter strangers, were helpful. I worked on this book for 15 years, and eight in psychotherapy. The major issue was getting straight and believing what I think actually happened. That was grueling. It’s a little scary to go public, but I think I’ve arrived at a place of calm.

THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA a timely memoir of abuse and psychotherapy


The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma: A Memoir 

By Helen Epstein

Plunkett Lake Press, Jan. 2018

250 pages, $16.95

If timing is everything, then the publication of the third volume in Helen Epstein’s multi-decade examination of the impact of the Holocaust on children of survivors is fortunate indeed. The past year has raised the specter of anti-Semitism and directed a bright light on sexual harassment and abuse, both of which are central to Epstein’s latest book.

Following up on Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Putnam, 1979) and the more personal Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History (Little, Brown, 1997), her latest work, The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, digs even more deeply into her own unusual upbringing and its lifelong effect on her. This time, rather than telling the stories of survivors and their families generally, or of her mother’s incredible life, Epstein has written a memoir of her own life, from her complex and unusual childhood in Manhattan to her career as a journalist. Through it all, the profound effects of her parents’ experiences hide in the crevices of her psyche like a latent disease waiting for the most opportune time to wreak havoc.

The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma is a combination of deeply researched investigative journalism (Epstein’s specialty), a classic tale of European immigrants embracing the American Dream, and a memoir of a post-WWII New York City childhood and a life haunted by phantoms that cannot be identified. Despite her professional success, Epstein experiences a formless anxiety that weakens the foundations of her life. In 1999, she begins work on a memoir about her sheltered adolescence, her unusual first love (her charismatic music tutor, Robbie), and the challenges of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors. She reconnects with Robbie, with whom she has maintained a lifelong but intermittent friendship, hoping he can help her remember events from their shared past. But before long, she begins to hear the ticking of a psycho-emotional bomb. When she is unable to locate it or determine how it came to be there, she decides to resume psychotherapy with the same therapist she worked with until 1980, Dr. M.

Her interactions with Robbie, who clearly has his own mental health issues, and her therapy sessions slowly help her to make sense of a suspicion that she was the victim of sexual abuse. The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma delves deeply into Epstein’s home life, the trauma suffered by her parents and their efforts to overcome their past and build a new life, and their unusual parenting style. Her parents, Franci and Kurt, were sophisticated and accomplished young people from Czechoslovakia broken by the Holocaust. They have their hands full trying to adapt to life in America and keeping the wolves of their memory at bay, and young Helen is raised as much by her nanny, an older survivor named Milena, and her husband, Ivan, who became close friends of her parents and seemed like grandparents to Helen.

Epstein’s investigation into her past in an effort to confirm or disprove her suspicions makes for a riveting read. Is her memory reliable? Or is it just her own trauma creating a false memory? It’s a mystery that we want her to solve as much as she does. Who could have abused her? And why? Epstein’s parents are fascinating characters who could not have been easy to live with. She vividly depicts post-war life among the immigrant community in the rough neighborhoods of the Upper West Side (long before it was a fashionable area). And the sections on her adolescence and college years in the 1960s and early 1970s capture well the challenges of coming of age at the time of social and political upheaval. She is very frank about her intimate friendship with the brilliant but difficult Robbie and the impact it had on her sexual and romantic identities. But to me the most compelling aspect of the book is its fly-on-the-wall look at a long-term psychotherapeutic relationship that she believes eventually saved her from madness borne of depression, anxiety, and the ghosts of her past.

The result is a gripping book that is equal parts memoir, cultural history, coming of age story, and exploration of her years of psychotherapy. Epstein weaves the multiple strands of her story into a spellbinding gut punch of a book. It reads more like a fictional page-turner than a serious memoir and journalistic investigation into Holocaust survivors, sexual abuse, and psychotherapy. This is a timely book that deserves a wide readership.

THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

I am re-posting my August 2014 review of Lacy Johnson’s THE OTHER SIDE in response to her moving Facebook posts about her experiences coping with Hurricane Harvey this week. Johnson lives in West Houston and teaches at the University of Houston, and her daily open letters have provided a detailed, eloquent, and very empathetic view of Houstonians’ struggles during and after one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the U.S. I encourage you to read her posts and then to buy and read her remarkable memoir.

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

Memoirist Alexis Paige: On Manuscript Re-entry, Narrative Nonfiction, and Re-visiting Craft Basics

alexis-paige-portraits-_-ben-deflorio-photography-img_8893  not-place-on-any-map-by-alexis-paige-1925417212

Photo: Ben DeFlorio Photography 

By Alexis Paige

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

For more years than I care to admit, I have been working on a memoir about my unlikely journey through the Texas criminal justice system, including a 60-day stint in the Harris County Jail, one of the largest and worst in the country, with a terrible record of inmate sexual assaults, in-custody deaths, and violations of health and sanitation standards. I say unlikely because I am white, educated, middle-class, and have good teeth. All these factors marked me as an oddity in the jail, but I was told by my pod-mates at some point weeks into my sentence that the combination of my whiteness and nice teeth in particular marked me as suspicious, possibly a narc. I started the memoir long before I knew what I was doing and became so mired by the labor that I began to write little scenes and vignettes for relief, to feel a sense of accomplishment. The vignettes became their own labor, for in them I found myself finally confronting the sexual assault I had buried like a drum of nuclear waste and stored in some Area 51 of my own consciousness. In sidestepping one book, I found myself writing another.

But now that this other book is about to be published, it’s time to re-enter the jail manuscript, and re-entry, unfortunately, is not at all like riding a bike, not a simple matter of picking up where I left off. I am different now than I was even 18 months ago when I set the book aside, which is to say that the memoir’s retrospective narrator is different, the vantage point altered. You become the writer you need to be to finish the book, my MFA mentor David Mura once said. I didn’t ask him what happens if you don’t become that writer. I’m not certain where this becoming has located me now in relation to my memoir project, but something palpable has shifted. In rereading the draft recently, much of it felt off—not the events of the story, nor, I don’t think, the structure, but some tonal nuance, some quality of insight. In the hopes of steeling myself for the task, I decided to go back to basics and to re-read two of my favorite creative nonfiction craft books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time in Memoir.

For the writer of narrative nonfiction and other storytellers, The Situation and the Story is a revelation. Every other sentence is something that needs to be written down, remembered, revisited, and made into a writer’s tattoo. So much clarity and insight and depth are distilled into this small volume. It is the clarity I especially admire; it has the quality of carefully brewed wisdom, and inspires the feeling that we are getting her best stuff.

In important ways, Gornick’s ideas about the different components of nonfiction narrative—the situation and the story—dovetail with Sven Birkerts’ ideas in The Art of Time in Memoir. Though he talks about time, and she largely about person or persona (the nonfiction narrator), both writers are engaged in a complex discussion of structure, or of what Gornick calls “organizing principle.” Both writers, I think, are interested in the way in which good nonfiction emerges from a place of contact, collision, force acting upon force. Whether concerned with persona or time, we must not render a flat self or a flat experience. The voice and the events must rise out of an important shaping force, a kind of texturizing pressure, a place of axis as a place of access.

One of Birkerts’ examples of the important friction that time provides is in an analysis of Annie Dillard’s lyrical memoir, An American Childhood. The explicated passage is a nighttime scene of sense and felt memory as narrated by Dillard’s child self from her childhood bedroom. Birkerts writes, “The author here enacts in compressed form [that it is compression seems important] what the memoirist more commonly works out on the macroscale, namely, the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the now” (37). It is this place of collision that he highlights again and again, the place (or time) where story meets the apprehension of story.

Gornick uses different terms, but I would suggest that she examines fundamentally the same phenomenon—how friction makes the magic of narrative nonfiction (principles, which of course, apply to all storytelling). “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void,” Gornick writes. “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, and experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts” (14). It seems that each is talking about this critical engagement—whether engagement with self or experience or time. Both writers assert a fundamental truth about writing, namely, that writing is art making, much like sculpture or painting; to locate narrative or self is to locate the right place/time/self of the story and the right place/time/self of the telling of that story. The right juncture, perhaps. This location must be one of moment and of movement—not in any traditional sense of drama—but in the mind of the memoirist. I suspect this location has changed for me now, and I need to locate some new juncture in my ever-becoming mind. The goal of the memoir, perhaps, is to find the wormhole from now to then; the problem, of course, is that the now is always moving.

What we remember has intrinsic force and value to us, but the force and value of the memory is driven by its active apprehension of that memory in the now of its rendering. My writing is never flatter than when memory is unearthed by way of a kind of forced dredging. Engagement might come in the form of a self in conflict or a time of conflict, but story can’t emerge from static experience or a static self. In re-entering my memoir, in particular the skin of the retrospective narrator who was cryogenically frozen in 2014, I have found that the fit is off. So how does a writer re-engage in order to make art? Confronting the narrative forces of time and persona, and re-calibrating my narrative persona to one of this writing moment, to this now, I hope, will make the difference. I need to start again, which is not to say that I need to start from scratch.

In the beginning of her book, Gornick takes the reader to a funeral, wherein eulogy after boring eulogy stretch on without texture or meaning—that is, until we come upon a story shared by a woman who spoke of the complexity of her relationship with the deceased. The difference between the stories that didn’t work and the one that rose in sharp relief from the others, the story that stayed with Gornick, was that the latter “had been composed” (4). It is not experience, even dramatic experience, that makes a great story, but a writer’s shaping that makes a story. On this point, I think that Birkerts and Gornick would agree that the shaping is the art making. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick says. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). If I use my own memoir as an example, I might say that the situation is this: middle-class white girl from the North gets in trouble with the law in Texas and confronts her alcohol problem in the process. But the story, the fulcrum of the experience, is the discovery or the recovery of identity amid failure. Wait, no, this was the story in some old version. Then, later, it was the story of confronting racial privilege. And now? It’s still all those things perhaps, but filtered through some newer, actively-grappling self-definition.

The situation or series of events can be anything, Gornick suggests, so long as it’s well made, so long as the situation is drawn through a compelling story. And a compelling story—emotional experience, the apprehension of experience—can be delivered only by a particular narrator, one who knows him- or herself at the time of the writing. First, the narrator must be reliable. Much is made of this reliability in nonfiction circles, but defining reliability is fraught. Do we mean a kind of competence, like a court reporter? Or do we mean something else, something akin to authenticity? Gornick suggests, by way of an example from Orwell, that a reliable narrator is one who inspires trust by admitting defect, wrestling with mixed feelings, and by rendering inner conflict. I have come to believe that this kind of narrator has tolerance for ambiguity and for his or her own unresolvedness—that trying to make sense of one’s mess is what makes the work interesting.

In response to Orwell’s reflection on the ugliness of imperialism, Gornick writes, “The man who speaks those sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in” (16). Gornick argues that the reliable narrator must implicate him or herself; it is by the act of self-implication that we come to know and trust the persona of the story.

Interestingly, she distinguishes the narrator’s persona from the writer him- or herself, much in the way we distinguish the speaker of a poem from the poet, but I find the use of the word persona paradoxical. Persona suggests a construct, something not real. Perhaps this paradox fuels some of the wonderful friction out of which stories are made. Of course, as a practical matter, the writer must construct a narrator, a persona, in order to win over the disinterested reader. The writer can’t be all of her selves; Gornick points out that our real selves, all of our selves accumulated, are just boring and whiny. We save these selves—all of them in their accumulated banality—for our dear, patient friends and family.

Gornick draws some other important connections between writerly concerns and personae. She writes about style and persona, about persona rising from a kind of stylized, yet authentic, self. As in the case of Orwell, she writes, “the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose” (17). That this something was genuine seems an important point to make.  The other concerns she has us consider in terms of creating a narrator include distance and subject. She suggests that her own lack of narrative distance sank her early drafts of a memoir about Egypt. She was too close; therefore, there was no movement, no arrival at clarity.

Finally, Gornick suggests the writer keep in mind the “disinterested reader” to avoid the trap of memoir as therapy, testament, or mere transcription (again, these are pitfalls Birkerts has observed). She writes, “the shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of ‘becoming’: undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self that Cather calls inviolable” (93). This movement toward clarity helps me to think about my own project because I realize that I have to re-enter the manuscript now and move toward a newer, fresher clarity so that the reader can experience “becoming” along with me. As Gornick points out, “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom” (91). The door to the wormhole has moved, even if only slightly, and I need to line up the portals once again in order to find the story. Re-entry, like everything else, is just a matter of time, work, and physics.

Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize and twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published on December 5, 2016. Paige teaches writing at colleges and universities throughout New England and writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. She can be found at

Author Lisa Lenzo on turning real life into stories: Is it fiction or nonfiction?

Lisa Lenzo beach  Strange Love

THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. Congratulations to Lori in Oscoda, Michigan!

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF STRANGE LOVE! Share Lisa Lenzo’s essay on Facebook or Twitter by using the links at the bottom of this post. Then leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Sunday, November 30.

Raised in Detroit, Lisa Lenzo now lives in southwestern Michigan, where she drives and dispatches for the local bus company and writes. Lenzo’s first story collection, Within the Lighted City, was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press. Lenzo’s second story collection, Strange Love, was published by Wayne State University Press through their Made in Michigan Writers Series in May of 2014.

Lenzo’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The Mississippi Review Prize Issue, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Italian-American Reader, Birth: A Literary Guide, Sacred Ground: Stories About Home, and Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. One of Lenzo’s stories won a Hemingway Days Festival Award and another was chosen for a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and read on NPR. She has recently finished a novel, Taking the Blue Star, which made the top twelve for the 2012 James Jones First Novel Award. “Strays,” one of the highlights of Strange Love, was the winner of the 2013 story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review.

Once I handed a story I’d written to my mom saying, “Don’t worry, Mom, this isn’t about our family.” I’d pared my four brothers down to just one. The family was still wealthy and white and living in the inner city of Detroit, but I’d turned my doctor father into a college professor. My mom gripped the manuscript I’d handed her and began reading it fast. She hadn’t gotten through a full page before she looked up at me and said, “If this isn’t our family, then what are our forsythia bushes doing in here?”

Of course, most readers don’t know the details of my background like my mother does. Yet I’ve had people who’ve just met me say they can tell that my stories are autobiographical.

A lot of writers narrow their eyes, stiffen their shoulders, and take this stance: “It’s fiction.” And then they don’t elaborate. They don’t say another word. But who is going to believe me if I claim, “That’s someone else’s double above-the-knee amputee brother who lost his legs in a cardboard box crusher, not mine?” I mean, there’s just not that many, if any, other brothers out there fitting that description. Sure, I could turn Kris into a paraplegic and put him in a car accident instead, but then I’d have to forfeit a lot of interesting details from real life, such as how a Vietnam vet who happened to be working at the job site saved Kris’s life by winding wires around Kris’s thighs and torquing them with sticks, and how, during the unsuccessful operations to save his legs, Kris’s body was transfused with twenty-two pints of blood. And if I turn Kris into a paraplegic in my fiction, leaving him with his legs intact yet non-functioning, I’d have to give up Kris wheeling down the street toward some kid who blurts out, “What happened to your legs?” and Kris leaning in to the boy’s ear and whispering, “Sharks.”

My new novel-in-stories, Strange Love, is as autobiographical as anything I’ve written. It’s about a mother and her daughter and their relationships with men and boys. Before it was accepted for publication, an editor of the press that wanted to acquire it called me up and said, “I have to ask you a question.”

“Go ahead,” I answered.

“Is it fiction or nonfiction?”

“It’s fiction,” I said. “It’s autobiographical, but it’s fiction.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”

A little later in our conversation, this editor, who is also a playwright, said, “What people really say is better than what you can make up.” We went on to agree, though, that it’s when your imagination riffs on real dialogue that magic happens. We start with odd and inimitable bits of what we say and hear, and then, like jazz musicians, we embellish and improvise, we reach for something higher. This is just as true of other aspects of realistic literature—certain settings, characters, and events are also better when they are transformed.

Yet it seems that readers are so thirsty for the truth that they like to believe that realistic fictional stories occurred just as they are written. When I’ve tried to show readers that I’ve made up more than they thought, when I’ve picked apart a story, telling a class or reading audience, this is true and this is not, they always seem a bit deflated when I’m finished. It’s as if I’ve dissected a living thing before their eyes to show them how it was put together, and sure, now they see how it was made, but the living thing they liked is dead.

My brother Anthony once said about a family scene in which I’d made up every bit of action and all but one sentence of dialogue, “I remember that.”

“You do not!” I protested. “I worked hard on that!”

Of course, it’s also hard work to write solely from the real; it’s both laborious and tricky to choose from among the thousands of possible actual details, to untangle them from the parts you don’t want to include, and to decide how best to arrange and frame them. Before I begin to write a particular piece, I ask myself, Should this be fiction or non-fiction? Do I want to have access to fiction’s greater freedom, or do I want to hold onto that extra weight and power a story manifests if it is strong enough un-re-imagined, because then the reader reads it thinking, This really happened. When I was eighteen, I took off to live in the woods with just my dog, and in the following weeks, three boys were murdered in two separate incidents less than a mile from my campsite. I decided to write that story just as it happened.

On the other hand, sometimes a greater truth can be revealed through fiction than by sticking to the facts. In a story from my first collection, set during the ’67 Detroit riots, a white father is arguing with two white policemen who have stopped a thirteen-year-old black boy who was simply walking down the street where the boy, modeled on a neighbor, and the man, based on my father, both live. In real life, all of the policemen who patrolled our neighborhood during that riot rode with their high-powered rifles sticking out the windows of their cars, but neither of these two cops, while I was watching from our front porch, aimed his rifle at our young black neighbor, which is how I wrote it in my story. Sure, I chose to write it like that partly because it gives the story greater tension. But I also wanted to honor a larger truth. By having the cop point his rifle at David’s back, I bring to life, for a brief moment, the forty-three people who died during those three days of police and National Guard occupation, most of whom were black boys and men who were shot while fleeing. By pointing to this fictional boy with the tip of a policeman’s rifle, I point to all the living boys and men who were gunned down.

My greatest struggle with writing about real people, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is that I am exposing, to varying degrees, people who might not want their lives exposed. I don’t have to worry about this too much with my daughter Cloey, who is something of an exhibitionist when it comes to appearing in my work. For years she said some version of these words to me: “You wrote one story about me when I was a baby. Then you wrote a couple more when I was a little kid. And then you stopped. When are you going to write another story about me?”

When she was in her early twenties, she said, “C’mon, Mom, when are you going to write about my teenage years?”

“When I’ve recovered from them,” I told her.

At the time, I was divorced and in the midst of writing stories about my dating life. I would come home from another strange and disappointing yet humorous date and think: “This is ridiculous. This is hilarious. I’ve got to write this down.” After I’d turned a bunch of journal entries into three stories about a divorced mother, I saw that several more stories would make a collection. I ended up with five long stories, which I showed to my writing group. They asked for “more Marly,” the character based on Cloey, who at that point appeared only in the mother’s stories and only briefly. So I cut the length of each of the mother’s five stories by half and gave Marly–and Cloey–four stories of her own.

I didn’t ask Cloey’s permission about what to include, so when she read the finished stories and told me she liked them, I was relieved. But what about the men in Strange Love? I wasn’t in touch with any of them anymore, and I didn’t want to look them up. Besides, I decided long ago that I have the right to write about my own life, and, of necessity, that pulls in the lives of others, since our lives overlap and intersect. I can’t write woman-meets-men stories without including the men. And the man on whom the title story is based had sat beside me on my couch one night while reading “his” story right after I first wrote it, and, rather than objecting, as I feared he would, he laughed a lot. I had included a lot of personal information about him, yet I hadn’t revealed any secrets.

There’s a whole storehouse in my brain of dark and fragile things various people have told me through the years that I’ve marked off limits and which I haven’t repeated in words, either spoken or written, and never will, without their consent. Still, I feel uneasy at times about the men I have included in my love stories without much camouflage or their permission. On the night I was told that Wayne State University Press was going to send me an advance contract for Strange Love, I went to sleep feeling troubled and sorry for these flawed yet decent men whom I would be, to an extent, exposing. But in the middle of the night I woke up with this thought in my head, spoken in the dialect of the neighborhood where I grew up: Motherfuckers should have known not to mess with a writer. Perhaps something to that effect should be printed on a T-shirt for me to wear, or else tattooed on my neck, just below my smile.

Sometimes the line gets blurred between my fiction and nonfiction, sometimes intentionally. I’ve entered pieces in nonfiction contests at times when there is actually a little fiction in the story. In other words, I’ve lied, although not in any big, James Frey sort of way. I did this with a piece called “Spin,” by setting all of the scenes in Detroit, when one scene actually happened in Chicago. It simply made more sense for the entire story, whether I labeled it fiction or nonfiction, to happen only in Detroit. Ironically, or maybe fittingly, this story is about truth and fiction, exaggeration and lying, the “spin” we put on what we tell, inadvertently and intentionally. (Before the fact police come knocking on my door, let me say that “Spin” is forthcoming, in the Detroit-themed issue of Transmissions, as fiction.)

Sometimes I want to throw my hands up and say, What does it matter what I call it or how I write it? But of course these questions and demarcations are important. Yet to what degree remains unclear, at least for me. So then how should I proceed?

I haven’t arrived at any resounding ethical or creative conclusions. I’ll likely be struggling with how to approach my fiction and nonfiction for the rest of my writing life. And each answer, like each story, novel, memoir or essay, will be individualized, unique. So I continue to stumble along with my pen flowing across the page and my fingers tapping on the keys, and then I try to reshape what I wrote into the truth as I know it. Sometimes the result is fiction; at other times, it’s nonfiction. Either way, I’m trying to say, in the best way I can, what I know and what I think is worth telling.