Posts Tagged ‘life writing’

“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

“When we announce [our experiences] through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.”

~ Lee Martin


leemartinYou used alphabetically ordered subtitles in the short memoir “Heart Sounds.” Why did you decide on that structure?

The stroke was an overwhelming experience for me, and it caused me to have to gather a large amount of information so I could better understand what had happened, why, and what to do next. I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t want to think about what goes on inside the human body, but the stroke required me to be informed. I needed the control that the form gave me in order to be able to rationally address the issues before me. I wanted to keep a narrative arc moving through the sections, but I wanted those sections as a way of sorting through all the facts. The added bonus for me was that the form also provided a nice entryway into the past. At the time I was working on this piece, I was also teaching the Dinty Moore essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers.” Dinty’s essay is in the abecedarian form, a form I’d never tried, so I thought I’d give it a shot to see if it might be a good fit for this material.

It was sometimes a challenge to come up with a word for each letter. I tried not to force anything. I wanted words that would move the essay along and would invite me to peel back another layer and see more completely.


Did you keep a journal after you recovered from your stroke and then flesh the story out from there? How much time should one let pass before writing about something so life changing?

For a couple of weeks after my stroke, I didn’t write anything. Then I began to write about it on my blog. From there, I started the essay “Heart Sounds.” I kept no journal. The time between a life-changing event and the writing about it varies for each person and each experience.


We have talked in Allyson’s class a bit about writing to heal. Did writing help you better cope with the experience of your stroke?

After my stroke my biggest challenge was emotional and psychological. Writing about the stroke became essential to my returning to a place of well-being. When we write about our experiences, we can’t ignore them. When we announce them through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.


You state in “Heart Sounds,” “I know that what we say is who we are, even those unspoken words that echo just beneath the sounds of the ones that we allow ourselves.” If you could remove the anger anaesthetizing your father and your mother’s practicality and preparedness, what words do you think they would use to explain who they are?

My father might say he was “wounded.” He might say he was “lonely.” He might say he was “sorry.” My mother might say she was “grateful.” She might say she was “lucky.” She might say she was “scared.”


What have you done throughout your career to improve your writing? And what has been most effective for you: classes, reading, writing groups?

I’ve always found that teaching is great for my writing because when I teach a particular piece, I have to figure out what the writer did to make it work, and I have to be able to articulate that to my students. I also have to be able to think about what might change in piece to make it even more successful. In other words, I have to do what writers do all the time as they develop their craft; I have to know how something works and how it doesn’t. I look at writing as a life-long apprenticeship, one in which we’re constantly taking apart what we read so we can see what we can steal for our own work. I advise students to read a good deal, not just primary texts, but also what writers are saying about the craft. Never read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners? You must. And that’s only one of a number of books that writers should read. But we can’t forget to live, too. Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone to expand our understanding of human behaviour. Travel is great for this, as is getting involved with activities that might seem foreign to us. The world is marvellously varied. The more corners of it we visit, the more we have to draw on in our writing. We should also immerse ourselves in the writing community through whatever means is available to us: writing groups, readings series, writing conferences, online manuscript exchanges — whatever we can do to keep ourselves involved in the “family” that writing creates.


You co-edited Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. Do you still have a mentor, and how has that process changed as you’ve grown as a writer?

My mentors are still the teachers I had even though most of them are gone now. I still hear their voices, their pieces of advice. I know what they wouldn’t let me get away from. They’re never far from me when I’m writing. My mentors are also all the writers I’ve read, for the very same reasons.


What do you believe are the most important characteristics of a compelling memoir?

You have to have a narrative that will hold your reader’s attention, but also a reflective voice that can make meaning from the storyline.


And what are three of your favourite memoirs?

I hate to have to choose just three, but, if I must . . . (ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably have three other ones!).

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington


Based on your experience in publishing, do you feel it’s difficult for an unpublished writer to interest a publisher in a book of essays?

In general, essay collections are hard sells. In fact, you may have noted that Such a Life was published as part of the American Lives series at the University of Nebraska Press — in other words, published as a memoir, even though it is, as you’ve seen, a collection of discrete essays. Many publishers don’t like the word essay because they think it’s off-putting to readers, calling up bad memories of the essays that one had to write and read in English classes.

None of this means, by the way, that someone shouldn’t write essays or try to publish a collection of them. Good work always finds a home. We should do the work we’re called to do and then let other people figure out what to name it.


For more about Lee Martin and his work, visit his website.


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Sunday, October 26th, 2014

“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 1)

“I believe that memoir isn’t an exact record of experience but instead an artful arrangement of truth that creates a specific experience for readers.”

~ Lee Martin


Author Lee MartinLEE MARTIN is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection The Least You Need to Know. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and a past winner of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. Visit his website.


I welcomed Lee as guest author to the spring session of my online course Memories into Story: Life Writing (University of Toronto, SCS). What follows is an edited version of  my students’ interview with him. Prior to the interview, they read the following short memoirs:

“All the Fathers That Night” (Such a Life)

“Heart Sounds” (River Teeth)

“Never Thirteen” (Such a Life)

Thank you, Lee, for such thoughtful and insightful responses to these questions about memoir writing and the writing life.


How long were you writing before you got published? And what were your challenges along the way?

I guess I’ve written all my life, but I never took a creative writing class until I was an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University. That’s where I started to dream about one day entering an MFA program. I got my undergraduate degree in 1978 and stuck around another year to earn an MA. I worked for three years after that, and I kept writing and sending things out to journals with no luck. Then in 1982, I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. That marked the start of my serious study of the craft of writing. I didn’t publish anything until 1987. I needed all those years to read the things I needed to read, to keep practising my craft, and to live enough life to know its complications and its mysteries. In other words, I needed time to have something to shape and to know how to shape it.

My biggest challenge along the way was to keep going. I got very dejected and threatened to stop writing a number of times. I never did. I’m stubborn that way, and that’s a good quality for a writer to have. Thicken your skin and keep studying and practising your craft.


At what point did you develop confidence in your authorial voice?

I read a collection of short stories called Rock Springs by Richard Ford, and in them I heard a voice very similar to the voices of my native small-town Midwest. I’d been writing stories set in other places because I thought no one would be interested in those small towns. Ford’s voice unlocked something for me, and I wrote the stories in my collection The Least You Need to Know. It was the first time I felt that I’d successfully blended voice and material. It was the first time I’d felt the power of my natural voice, and it’s paid off for me in both my fiction and my nonfiction.


What is your daily process as a professional writer?

A typical day begins with a run. Physical exercise gets me focused. Then, after breakfast, I sit down to write. I usually pick up in the middle of something I’m drafting. I try to end one day’s writing session in the midst of a scene, so it will be easier to continue the next day. I used to write everything longhand, but I’ve given in to the computer these days, and I have to confess I sometimes use social media as a distraction. I’ve noticed, though, that sometimes the distraction allows my subconscious to work on a particular problem I’m facing in the writing and to come to a solution. Looking away from the writing, in other words, sometimes allows clearer thinking. Just don’t forget to come back from the distraction. I try to write for at least two hours a day during the school year and longer during the summer months. Little by little, each day, I push a piece of writing along.


Allyson taught us how to kick-start our memories by using several different methods, freewriting, observing/note-taking, clustering, sketching a map, creating a list, journalling, etc. Have you used any of these methods or others to help craft a story? Or do you simply sit down with an idea and begin writing?

I’m a big believer in freewriting, clustering, list-making, etc., as ways to bring material to the page or to deepen it once it’s there. That said, I don’t believe I used any of these techniques when I wrote the three pieces that you read. With those, I just found a place to start and then I opened myself to the powers of narrative and free-association. I never begin with ideas. In fact, I don’t believe in ideas in general in essays, which is to say, I trust the specific things from memory or from the world around me in the present time to become both conveyors and containers of the ideas that lift up from a particular essay.


Do you create outlines?

No, I never make an outline. Instead, I make myself curious and I write to satisfy that curiosity.


Which type of memoir do you find more effective: one in which the author tells the story as though reliving the past? Or, one in which the author reflects on the past from the age they are now? Or a combination of the two?

For me, the most effective memoirists move back and forth between the perspective of the younger self and that of the older one. The first dramatizes the experience; the second makes meaning from it.


In the memoirs we read, you tend to focus on a single topic, the kiss, the stroke, etc. I enjoyed this and the way you kept wandering from the topic and then coming back to it. Do you have any suggestions for crafting such an essay?

I usually start with something very specific from memory or from the world around me at the present time, and then I see what else that specific thing might invite into the piece. If an essay works by letting us eavesdrop on the writer’s mind at work, we have to be open to what may seem like digressions. Those digressions, though, should ultimately lead us somewhere. I don’t like to know where I’m going or why I’m writing about these two things or these three things (or four, or five, etc.). I like the writing to show me. I see it as my job to figure out as the writing is underway what the connection is between the various elements of the essay. I usually know what that is when I’m nearing the end, and I write a line that contains them all, a line that resonates with me — surprises me, even. If I don’t get to that line, I at least get to an understanding of why the piece contains the elements that it does. Then I can revise the essay and usually find that final resonant line. You might start a piece with a particular memory and then ask yourself why that memory is important. You might also say to yourself, “When I remember ‘X,’ I also remember this, this, and this.” Let your mind associate. It will usually call up the elements that are demanding your attention. Your job is to write your way to connection.


“The barber works with wood” — the opening line of “All Those Fathers That Night” — is an effective hook for the reader. Did you start with this, then develop the story, or the other way around?

Yes, I started with that line and then just saw where it might lead me. I started with the memory of how my hometown barber was also a woodworker, and I wrote that first line. The other thing that stood out about him for me was the fact that he had all those daughters. So without knowing exactly where I was going, I was off on an examination of fathers and their children, but I got there by just paying attention to the details of the woodworking. The things of our worlds will often take us to the material we’re meant to write in a less direct, but more effective, way than if we tried to go at that material head-on. If I start by writing about a barber who works with wood, the stakes for me are much less intimidating than if I start by writing about my own complicated feelings about fatherhood. Using a small detail from the world around me, or from my memory, frees me to let language take me where I’m meant to go.


Your father, and your strained relationship, plays prominently in  your stories. Such an important relationship — is it difficult to write about it?

I first wrote about my relationship with my father in the guise of fiction in my first book, a collection of stories called The Least You Need to Know. I waited until both of my parents were gone to write about the family in nonfiction. I was ready to face that material head-on, but, yes, it’s still sometimes uncomfortable. I tell my students, though, that when you find yourself at an uncomfortable place in what you’re writing, that’s a sign that you’re delving into the important stuff. We have to be brave at those points. We have to bear down. We have to make ourselves keep looking, keep living in that uncomfortable memory, etc. knowing that we’re safe because of time and distance, knowing that there’s a wiser, more confident version of the person we once were who is telling us it’s all right, stay in the moment, I’ll help you make meaning from it.


Do you struggle with an over-the-shoulder critic when writing about your parents?

There is no room in the writing space for any kind of over-the-shoulder critic. If you’re worried about what someone might think of what you say, you won’t say it, and something important will be lost forever. My only filter when I write nonfiction is my adult self. In other words, my experiences as a child pass through the perspective I offer as an adult.


Do you find it easier to express feelings through your child’s voice?

I’m not sure that my child’s voice ever leaves me. I hope it blends with my adult voice to make a more textured sound.


As you write about negative life events, do you gain release from those memories?

I wrote a blog post recently about how writing my first memoir, From Our House, allowed me to release a good deal of the anger that I’d carried with me too long as the result of growing up in a house with a violent father. So, yes, I do believe that we write about our lives to gain some measure of control of them. When we dramatize the moments from our lives, we can’t ignore them. We announce them to the world in some form or other, and, if we’re open to the art of empathy, we can gain a good deal of understanding about ourselves and others. We make art from our lives in order to understand them better.


How do you feel about manipulating time or location in memoir? Or about making up dialogue or collapsing two scenes into one? How much of this can one get away with before it crosses the line from memoir to fiction?

You’ll find two schools of thought on the manipulation of time, of course. Some will say that we have to be faithful to chronology; others believe we can telescope time. I fall into the latter camp. I sometimes move a scene around in chronology for the sake of the narrative arc. I do this because I believe that memoir isn’t an exact record of experience but instead an artful arrangement of truth that creates a specific experience for readers.

I’ve never changed the location of an event to make it more dramatic. Drama in memoir comes most often from what’s at war inside the memoirist as he or she puts the scene on the page and then steps back to reflect on it, so the setting of a particular event shouldn’t be the sole provider of tension, but the trigger for it. If we can’t make that happen by keeping the event in its factual location, we won’t be able to make it happen in a fictional setting.

Although I believe that we can modify dialogue and combine events into one, I also believe that we know when we’ve crossed the line from memoir to fiction, and that usually happens when we realize that we’ve altered things for a self-serving purpose, whether that be revenge or self-preservation, instead of for the purpose of truth-seeing.


What tips could you share for writing dialogue in memoir?

I’m not a memoirist who believes in staying faithful to exactly what someone said at a specific time. In other words, I craft my dialogue to make it more interesting. Does that mean I make things up? Not really. It means I know my people so well that I can grab onto the things they did say and also the way they might have said things they really didn’t. All of that said, though, I caution against having someone say something completely out of character for them. You can do that in fiction, but not in memoir.


In “Never Thirteen,” you switch between past and present tense very naturally. What advice could you offer on how to do this?

I establish the dominant tense (present) in the opening, and I stay true to it. Even though I’m writing about something from my past, my first kiss, I choose to write about it in the present tense to better capture what it felt like to be thirteen. I believe I pretty much stay in that tense until the end when the memory of the Peeping Tom enters and I have to render it in the past tense. Notice, though, that I’m always finding ways to blend that with what’s going on for me, the thirteen-year-old, in the present tense. If you read closely, you’ll also be able to pick out the adult perspective in that present tense: “I can never fully know the accommodations they had to make after my father lost his hands, but I can remember their murmurs behind closed doors — the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves, as soothing as the rill of a brook hidden in a deep woods, a private code between them — and know that all the while I thought them impotent and numb they were making love each day right before my eyes, and I was too blind to see it; I was too busy being young.” We have to remember that tense is a way to make clear perspective and personae. There are many selves at work in a memoir, and the management of tense is often a way to allow those selves to engage in conversation.


“Never Thirteen” is filled with juxtapositions: the affection from Beth and the whippings from your father, the contrast between your father’s angry exterior and his actual vulnerability. Did you set out to identify contrasting ideas and work them into the story?

For some time, I’ve been challenging myself to see the opposites in any given situation. I do this as a way of investigating the complexities and contradictions of human behavior. So, yes, I was aware of the juxtapositions, particularly those of the sweetness of first love and the brutality in my father’s story, Richard Speck, the Peeping Tom, etc.


“Heart Sounds” and “All Those Fathers That Night” each have different but effective structures. How do you come up with a structure that you know will suit a particular piece?

I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Maybe on some instinctual level I know that I have a story to tell, and I know that the story alone will let me explore something I need to explore. At other times, I sense that the place where I start won’t be enough to carry the essay, so I start to experiment with forms that will allow more into the piece. I never really think about form and content until I have a first draft. Then I know better what I’ve come to the page to say.

Read Part 2 here.

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Mother, Chef, NYC Restaurateur, Author: Interview with busy memoirist Gabrielle Hamilton (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a 2-part interview.

Gabrielle Hamilton. (Photo:

Gabrielle Hamilton. (Photo: Christopher Hirsheimer)


GABRIELLE HAMILTON is the chef/owner of PRUNE, which she opened in New York City’s East Village in October 1999. PRUNE has been recognized in all major press, both nationally and internationally, and is regularly cited in the top 100 lists of all major food magazines. Gabrielle has made numerous television appearances including segments with Martha Stewart, Mark Bittman, and Mike Colameco and most notably was the victor in her Iron Chef America battle against Bobby Flay on The Food Network in 2008. Gabrielle has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Food & Wine and had the eight-week Chef’s Column in The New York Times. Her work has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2011. Gabrielle was also nominated for Best Chef NYC in 2009 and 2010 by the James Beard Foundation and in 2011 won the category. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which has been published in six languages and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Writing and Literature in 2012. She lives in Manhattan with her two sons.

My students and I welcomed Gabrielle as guest author for a session of my online course Memories into Story: Life Writing (University of Toronto, SCS). What follows is an edited version of the class’s collaborative interview about her memoir and the writing life.


“This has remained with me forever, the necessity of a varied rhythm to the sentences on a page, long strokes interpolated with short jabs, the power and energy of rat-a-tat-tat sentences and the leisure of long, fluid ones, and when and how to use each.”


We remember life in “scenes” — like beads on a necklace. But we often have difficulty seeing the narrative arc in our own lives, especially when events are recent. Did you face this difficulty in writing Blood, Bones & Butter? What’s the remedy — besides waiting twenty years to discern that arc?

I found the very act of writing it all down helped me tremendously not only in organizing the narrative arc of my book but in understanding the narrative arc of my own life. Those “scenes” add up to something. And I think it’s possible to determine what they add up to, depending on how you choose to string them. I was stunned regularly at the realization that I could have written this book, could have organized this arc, could even have understood my own life, really, in at least six different ways. You don’t put every bead on the necklace. And you decide if you want an eighteen-incher or a choker or a knee-length flapper string — all necklaces, all with beads — all needing very different structures depending on what you decide.

The rules I gave myself for this particular telling of the story were that it had to have food throughout — because I’d been given a book contract for the fact of my being a chef, and for whatever reasons, chefs and food are a hot topic these days. And people could only appear in the pages inasmuch as they pertained to the food being written about. Many people who appear in my book disappear as soon as their “scene” is dispensed with.

I found it helpful, at certain points, to do that physical thing where you print out and colour-code the scenes according to their themes and hang them up on the walls and study the pattern and arrhythmia of their trajectory around the room of your apartment. Does it make sense that a dark blue scene is making its appearance all the way over here in the section of bright red scenes? It certainly may. Or it may not, but you are prodded to discover the answers by the simple visual cue of colour. Equally, it was helpful to notice a saturation of certain colours and to notice the scarcity of others. Then you have to discover what there is to discover — both technically and in the emotional arc — about that excess or that scarcity of certain scenes. What is it you are avoiding, or what is it that you are just so damned comfortable repeating yourself about? I found this illuminating both in life and in the structuring of the memoir.

I agree mostly that what is near and recent is the most difficult to see well, understand, and consequently to structure. There are times when it’s crystal clear, though, too. When I was writing BBB, it was proving very difficult for me to end the book — and I am aware that the ending is not that satisfying in that it leaves many questions — because I still did not know at that time what the full meaning of my marriage was and I certainly did not know what the outcome of my marriage would be. I lacked the rear-view mirror perspective and it shows in the writing as a weakness, I acknowledge. But you do your absolute best and bring whatever truth you do know to the job in front of you.


You have the ability to describe settings rich in detail. I’m sure you are a naturally observant person, but I’m wondering how you cultivated those skills over the years. For example, in “The Lamb Roast” did you have to go back and ask your siblings for their recollections of the time and places you are writing about? Were some of them “re-imagined” — taking literary licence but in keeping with the emotional truth of your memories?

I asked my siblings for their recollections, I looked at photographs, I kept journals even as a kid, I went back to my hometown frequently and retraced many footsteps, and I “crafted” the story with all the appropriate tools for the job. As you so rightly point out, it is a memoir, which takes literary licence — not a piece of journalism. After the book was published I learned that Gunther from the Ringling Brothers circus was a tiger tamer not a lion tamer! Even the copy editor missed that!


Which course — or professor — from your MFA experience most influenced your writing and why? Or were there other influences?

Prune (Photo: Chris Hirsheimer)

Prune (Photo: Christopher Hirsheimer)

The MFA program was not at all about that for me. I kind of just hung out and got some rest in the writing program there. It was more of a sabbatical from my intense work life than an influence on my writing, and an especially restful one because I was working in this particular industry, which someone once described perfectly by observing: it’s the only job in which you work hard all day long to get ready to work hard all night long. The MFA program was a luxurious opportunity to get back to reading — you read a great deal in grad school — and reading is the only way to good writing, that I’ve ever experienced, at any rate.My writing was most significantly influenced much earlier on — in high school — by Peter Brodie, the English Lit and Latin teacher I had for three or four years straight, who had us — at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old — reading all kinds of shit that should have been out of our grasp: Shakespeare, Boswell, Johnson, Chaucer, Brontë, Austen, Durrell, Maugham, even the Bible sometimes for its lively storytelling and also its sentence structure. That man loved the emphasis of a sentence that started with the word And. And he delighted in pointing out that all grammarians everywhere argue against it. It’s possible his most cherished book of all time was The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, which is now one of my favourites, too, for its mightily intelligent, rational, and succinct wit. Johnson was just exceptionally quotable.

Brodie pulled the books apart, line by line, showing us how some of the best sentences were: All cow; no bull. Or, conversely, how clever and masterfully oblique some could be. He showed us the energy of an active sentence — subject–verb–object. The deadliness of a passive sentence — adverb–adjective–adjective–adjective–intransitive — zzzzz. He made us read our writing aloud to discover where it was cluttered or clunky or improperly punctuated. If you yourself were literally tripping over it in certain places, or losing your place, or your energy, or your point, the reader certainly was also. He collected our own copies of each assigned book each week and if we hadn’t torn that book up with pencil notes in the margins, underlinings, and question marks next to unknown vocabulary words he lowered our grade. He railed against the use of a $20 word when there was a lovely, efficient, and sturdy word right in front of you that would get the job done better. But he was hardly against big words, beautiful words, onomatopoeic words; indeed, he was passionate about words. He was not suggesting ever that we shouldn’t know deeply the meanings of the $20 words and have them in our grasp, but he just insisted that they be used correctly and not sloppily, like most of us at sixteen years old were apt to do in an attempt to inflate our papers or to make ourselves sound more intelligent or to make our sentences seem more “arty” — he couldn’t tolerate it.

Brodie LOVED a healthy, virile, two-word sentence perfectly placed at the end of a series of long, compound ones. And he laughed out loud for actual minutes in the classroom, delighted when he came upon a good one. This has remained with me forever, the necessity of a varied rhythm to the sentences on a page, long strokes interpolated with short jabs, the power and energy of rat-a-tat-tat sentences and the leisure of long, fluid ones, and when and how to use each.

I want to emphasize that he was not our writing teacher; we wrote a great deal in his classes of course and he shepherded our papers into their best versions, with rigorous standards, but he was teaching literature classes. Guiding us to good reading. And examining what made the work we were reading so successful, enduring, eternal, and canonized. Needless to say he was adamantly — and articulately — not a proponent of opening up the canon to nontraditional voices! He felt that everything, absolutely everything important about the human condition that needed to be said had already been said best by the Greeks, or at least in the one hundred greatest books of western civilization, and that their wisdoms spoke to universal humankind. I wonder what he would make of the impeccable Junot Diaz? He made us use a Roget’s Thesaurus and The Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and most influential of all, from him I learned to use an Oxford English Dictionary, which at the time was seventeen volumes long and has since grown to twenty volumes. I still own — have lugged with me from state to state, apartment to apartment, decade to decade — the same abridged two-volume edition with the magnifying glass that I bought in high school and I use it almost daily. Even my nine-year-old, fourth-grader son is now hooked on the thing. I think everyone should have one.


When you write something as magnificent and gutsy and as close to the bone (sorry) as Blood, Bones & Butter, how do you cope with critical reviews?

There is not a single thing anyone could have said about my work that could possibly have been more self-savaging than what I had already said to myself hundreds and thousands of times during the writing. I am a real monster, a viciously unkind reader of my own work. It’s paralyzing. And I am not proud of it. What I have figured out to do for the time being is to attend to the content of my own vituperative lashings, to go back to the writing and see what I can do to address the harsh criticisms, and to make the writing answer to the assaults being levelled at it. By the time the book hit the market I had already taken myself down as brutally as one can, and I had diligently brought my bloodied self back to the pages and answered all of the imagined criticisms to the utter best of my abilities; I did not phone in a single sentence of this manuscript. That does not mean the work is not flawed, that the book is not weak in spots; but the worst — and truest — thing a reviewer could have said is that I just don’t have the talent, and I had already grappled with the limits of my talent and acknowledged them to myself. And the worst things a general reader could have said — that I am sometimes ugly, stupid, boring, self-aggrandizing, falsely modest, cruel, contradictory, sexually complicated, ambivalent, angry, injured, and narrow, I had already acknowledged to myself, but also I somehow understood that that is what it actually is to be a fully emancipated human — which I couldn’t imagine being hurt by if someone wanted to criticize me for it.


You have an amazing way with words and I found many of your descriptions brought me right into your story, often laughing. Are there some aspects of writing that flow easily for you and others that you have a harder time with? How do you overcome this?

The initial throw-up onto the page is easy. The disciplined edit, rewrite, edit, rip, stitch back together is the doozy. See my earlier answer about self-savaging and then facing the savagery diligently until you can reasonably stand up for the work.


What was your biggest challenge in writing your memoir?

The biggest challenge was admitting I was writing a memoir, which galled me so terribly in the beginning because I have been taught, like everyone who’s ever taken an English class in their life or read the New York Review of Books, that memoir is what women write, that memoir is confessional, that memoir is soft and silly, that memoir is where lesser writers air old gripes and settle scores, and that real literature is only a novel, written by a man or a woman pretending to be a man. Once I admitted to myself that I was not as good as I wished I was, that I was not as manly and as literary as I would have liked to be — once I had that frank and painful conversation with myself about the extent of my current talents — I got on with it and wrote the best memoir I could, making it as “literate” and novel-like as I was able by facing those harsh put-downs of the genre itself and answering to them.


You write passionately about people in your life. Were the earlier relationships easier to write about because of the distance in time or the more current ones because they may be more fresh?

I think people and relationships are the hardest thing to write about — ancient or fresh. It’s imperative to try to understand what you are observing: what is that person doing? And why is he doing it? Which is important to know and understand about yourself, too, in relation to your subjects when you are trying to write about them. What am I doing writing about these people and why am I doing it in this way?


While reading excerpts of your memoir, I felt like I was being let in on secret family conflicts. In writing openly about family members, do you want the reader to take sides? I would be afraid of my inner demon escaping. I would want to expose how horrid others had been to poor me! Is that a temptation? Were your earlier drafts harsher or gentler than the final manuscript?

While I am often struck by the truly obscene unkindness of what people allow themselves to say and do to each other within the privacy of their intimacies — between husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers — I, like you, have been raised with exactly the same understanding of the sacredness of safeguarding that privacy. Do not let the inner demon escape! And I, like you, have been raised with exactly the same attitudes about who you would have to be to even let yourself describe, let alone reveal, the despicable and demeaning shit we say and do to each other within that special privacy of marriage and family, which, if I understand your tone correctly amounts to: you are a self-pitying, overdramatic pussy who can only muster in your puny imagination a simplistic two-dimensional narrative of “look how horrid others have been to poor me!”

So no, I was not tempted to let anyone in on the secrets, to break the sacrosanct rules of the privacy of intimacy, or to allow myself to be such a self-pitying pussy with such a puny imagination about the reciprocal complexity of humans and relationships, because I fully understand how transgressive and unattractive that would be. Not to mention what a boring read it would make. What’s on the page, in BBB, is the stuff that we all agreed was up for grabs, available for public consumption, and that was fully vetted beforehand by everybody who appears in the book — my mom, dad, siblings, husband, Italian family, employees, grad school colleagues, etc. I was asked to not include a few things from the original drafts and I happily obliged.


Once upon a time I owned a restaurant, and your stories about your days there rang true down to my nerve-racked bones. I felt a pace in the writing about those days that was different, wonderfully so, fast, and frenetic, and then as your relationship developed and your family life expanded the flow of the writing changed. If I’m even right, was this intentional on your part?

I hope everything I said above about my teacher Peter Brodie in high school answers this question! Yes. Every single word was intentional, the lengths of sentences were intentional, the varying fluidity, lyricism, and wordiness of sentences was used on purpose as was the employment of staccato, terse, and muscular sentences. Different tools for different jobs. Still, I am aware of how much of a beginner I am! Someday I want to hold the reins of that team of horses with impeccable slack-tense form.


I am amazed at how you have so successfully managed not only to own and operate a successful restaurant in a competitive market but to do so while raising children … AND write, again successfully. How do you arrange the time for yourself to focus on writing?

Brunch guests at Prune (Photo: Christopher Hirsheimer)

Brunch guests at Prune (Photo: Christopher Hirsheimer)

It was a particularly gruesome period, and we all got hurt — my restaurant, my kids, and not least of all myself. I wrote while standing on the line in my apron between dinner pushes — often with a Sharpie on a piece of torn brown butcher paper that we use to set the tables in the dining room. I wrote while nursing in the middle of the night, with a sleeping infant on either side of me and an Itty Bitty Book Light clamped to my notebook. I did not sleep more than four hours a night for some four years, and sometimes not all of those hours were consecutive. Needless to say, I was ragged, shrill, and profoundly out of whack. I would never have done it that way if I’d known a different path. But each thing in front of me was non-negotiable: my children, my restaurant, and my book contract. I had already been given the money! I believe this insane scenario describes the lives of a billion women, rich and poor, across cultures — we just have so much non-negotiable shit to do and we just do it, somehow. I will say, though, that I personally have never figured out how to make writing a non-negotiable practice if it isn’t attached to a contract and a deadline.


What  particular challenges are inherent in food writing?

I notice a couple of challenges in writing about food and they both have to do with improperly estimating its density. Sometimes the poor little category ends up being a place where writers with big ambitions try to load up their little story about lasagne with this giant freight of meaning, and they load up that poor lasagne pan with so much more than it can possibly convey. Or conversely, food writing as a category — because of its hyphenation and because of food feeling like a universally accessible topic (we all eat!) — is not treated with as much rigour and care as it deserves, but it is still writing after all. Food writing is challenging to get “just right” in terms of gravitas, and is generally overtaxed or underestimated.


Read Part 2.


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Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Quotes on Memory & Memoir: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” (plus writing exercises)

Why be normalFrom Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson:

“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. Mrs. Winterson [the author’s adoptive mother] objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken. Mrs. Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.

Do you remember the story of Philomel who is raped and then has her tongue ripped out by the rapist so that she can never tell? I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words. I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”

Your Pages …

1. Jot down the titles of books or poems you’ve read that allowed you to “get your language back through the language of others.”

2. Who is your “Mrs. Winterson”? (Or perhaps you have several, living or not, real or not.) How will you write what you are compelled to, despite what you perceive to be another’s desire for you to remain silent? Write a never-to-be-sent letter to that person, expressing your feelings.

3. What “silence” would you want readers to hear, and understand, in one of the many stories of your life? Write that story now.


Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Seven Treasures, part 15: guest post by Catherine Graham

CATHERINE GRAHAM is the author of four critically acclaimed poetry collections: The Watch, and the poetry trilogy Pupa, The Red Element, and Winterkill. Her work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Descant Magazine, Poetry Ireland Review, The New Quarterly, Joyland, Literary Review of Canada, and The Fiddlehead. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Lancaster University (U.K.) and in addition to mentoring privately she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the Haliburton School of the Arts. Catherine was judge for the 2012 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest and will mentor the winners. Her next collection will appear in fall 2013 with Wolsak & Wynn. Visit

Seven Treasures from my life:

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Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Seven Treasures, part 12: guest post by Meghan Latta

You’ll find links to previous guest posts in this series here.

MEGHAN LATTA studied art at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she pursues writing and illustration in her spare time.

My treasures:


I buy interview clothes and wear them all day as I walk across Dublin, the cobbles of Temple Bar slowing my step. After dropping off resumés and wandering the streets looking for Help Wanted signs, I sit in coffee shops for hours. I sit and draw faces over and over, thinking about love and distance.

I go to the gallery and think about being deliberate, about choosing one thing over all others, committed enough that the bare bulbs above your head don’t matter. I see the artist’s studio meticulously reconstructed and glassed off like a zoo habitat. An exotic animal.

As I walk back to the flat, the rain starts suddenly, and then all the air is grey with it and everyone moves faster on the sidewalks, or crowds under overhangs, looking, turning, hands in pockets.

From my window later I watch the birds wheeling and wheeling over the city rooftops. The window mostly looks out at a wall and the low cigarette-and water-filled rooftop of another flat. Then I lie in bed and look through the small gap in the curtains hoping to see anything else. I would like the flowers (the tiny red roses and green leaves) to leak from my shirt and cover the land.

The shirt finally becomes unwearable many months later; in a hotel bathroom in France I hear it rip for the second time. I take it off, and hover over the garbage holding it, looking at the rose pattern that was a strange kind of comfort in the cold and colourlessness of Dublin.

I don’t keep much; on this trip especially I have gotten good at throwing things to the wind. I tear the fabric more, separating off a small square that I pack away in the bottom of my bag.


I have many sweaters to ward off the constant cold of Ireland. One of them I wear because it reflects my mood. The rearing red animals. In a row, mouths open, front legs flailing. Roaring on the deep blue wool background. A heart is like a cricket trapped in a sweater (I’ve said this before).

I talk to friends on Skype and they keep asking, “Why don’t you just leave?” And I explain again about my stolen passport, my wish to find a job, in spite of the warning of the border guard when I entered this country — less a warning than a puzzled laugh — “You want work … here?”

In the meantime I have chewed all my fingernails off.

He was reading Margaret Atwood in one of the coffee shops I spent far too much time in, and later, while we were walking, he asked me what I would do to the Millennium Spire — that needle to the sky in the middle of Dublin. I said, “Put a giant disco ball on the tip and shine a laser at it.”

I told myself, I will not pull on the threads of your sweater. I will not tie you to me.

The cowardly lion stutters, C-c-courage.

I was only going to draw his mouth, and the rest of the face followed. The lines have their own logic. To draw someone is to follow the curve of their lips and the angle of their nose, and this closeness is a dangerous thing. If you draw them you are doomed. You are doomed anyway. If you have no photographs, you find proxies.

I want to tell him about Canada: the jesus ducks, the ice coating the inside of the bus window, the way flax looks like a sky. The blithe white butterflies, the exorcism in falling rain in her backyard, the deer twitching in the twilight fields, their tails a bright flag. His sweater reveals the thinness of his arms; we could be a white-on-white painting.

The red of my hair out-brights my shirt. I feel a flashpoint, the animals on my sweater too loud.


I hold up the eye, a pendant without a chain.

Dublin seems like a bad dream, the wasted nights spent unrestful, running many miles to nowhere in sleep, and now, sitting on a terrace, the ocean just there, everything made of the same pale stone. The green light of the beer bottle spills across the page.

The only real souvenir I buy is from Malta, in a shop at the end of a line of white stone leading from the seaside temples to the Blue Grotto. The Grotto is a cleft in the Maltese shore where the beating water has formed an underwater cave, and the tourists go there now in boats and stare up at a cathedral of hollowed stone. Disappearing into blue. The myth of paradise.

There are saints by all the doors. My shadow lies over the ocean and the worn stone pier. Spirit eyes stare from the ships in the harbour, vivid against the water. If I had a god, I would find it here; if I had a lover, I would take him to this place; if I had an army, we would rest here and let our horses drink.


I am like a scarf loosed on the wind. Oporto, Portugal. Finally I have found the warm sun. Walking the surf’s edge, my feet in the cold water, I feel the sun burning my chest, the wind tangling my hair. I smell the saltfish and burning sugar, gaze out at blue on blue, then down at my own white flesh on the sand, thinking of the white-on-white painting we never made.

The nuns blown onto the shore like seabirds. The old men playing cards with stones to weigh them down. My feet follow the tide line, in and out of the water, stepping over jellyfish fragments. The eye around my neck stares out at the ocean, as it is meant to, its eyelids ridged with diamonds; it knows not to blink. The ocean stares back and cannot blink either.

I take one white stone from the beach and put it in my pocket.


In a restaurant in Florence, Italy, the cook and I watch Mr. Bean on the television. He looks up often from the pasta carbonara he is preparing to watch. The comedy needs no words, and the cook and I have very few words between us.

A man behind me, maybe the owner, asks me if I am English, which I take to mean English speaking, and I say, “Yes, how did you know?”

“Your shoes, they are very English.”

I laugh and say I bought them in Ireland, so yes, they are “English,” and how well he knows shoes.


Ireland is still cold and wet when I return after four and a half months travelling. Though it is not true that there are no trees in Dublin — as someone once told me — their leaves are small and faint.

Once again clouds hang over the city. I collect my suitcase, stored at the home of a distant friend of a friend, and take the bus back from a neighbourhood filled with children, big brick houses and stained glass. As I look back, the god rays are shooting out over the top of the cloud. In the distance, veiled and almost erased, are the two small-breasted mountains. Beside the road the sandpipers peck and bob along the tide flats.

I don’t have many clothes here, I tossed most of them along the way, and so I buy a light seasonal cardigan. I like the stripes; they are coloured like America, blue and white shot through with bands of red.

I have written him an email saying I am only in town for a few days and then I am returning to Canada. I walk into the restaurant of a fancy hotel downtown and he walks in too, and he could not see my face because of the umbrella pulled down so low against the torrents of rain, but he says that in the lobby he recognized my shoes.

We sit together wrapped in my coat that smells of fire. He says something about finding a loose thread on my cardigan and pulling until it was gone. Sometimes things do happen this way, from the page to his mouth.


The Dublin terminal looks like science fiction. The tiles shiny and sparkling, the shoes of the guards as they pass just as polished, moving black. He makes a few jokes so I won’t cry, and we sit shoulder to shoulder, waiting.

I run the gauntlet, buy chocolate bars we don’t have in Canada from the vending machines, drop my passport and don’t notice until a stranger hands it to me, and then stare out the airport window at the field of roads leading to no place, hearing my own accent for what feels like the first time out of the mouths of others.

When I make myself look back at the gate, he is gone, and a nun’s head glares at me over a low wall.

I get on a plane.


I can’t tell how much time has passed, now that I am moving back through it from the future, following the sun circuit over the earth. In the plane the electronic map shows us where we are, and how cold the air is.



Note from Allyson: Meghan is my niece and also the artist who created the painting from which I chose the detail in my website banner — of a little girl in a garden. The little girl is me, and Meghan’s painting is of a photograph she liked that was taken years ago in the backyard of my childhood home. Hanging now in my dining room, her painting is one of my treasures.

Next in the series: watch for author Diane Schoemperlen’s “Seven Treasures.”


Thursday, August 9th, 2012