Guest blogger, Kelle Groom
I’m a writer of both poetry and memoir – three collections of poems and a recently completed memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, forthcoming from The Free Press. But in early 2002, when I began to think of writing a memoir, I’d only published a handful of poems and one piece of short fiction. The story I wanted to tell in the memoir began in 1981, and I had kept journals from just before that time, through the mid 1990s. In my first attempt at memoir, I simply cobbled the journals together into one massive manuscript. But I felt emotionally swamped by it, by the quality of the writing. A friend of mine, a poet, told me that I would have to write the memoir. I hadn’t written it yet. I would have to start at the beginning.
The idea of writing the memoir from the beginning seemed overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine how to structure so large a narrative. The journals had been easy – the dates organized it. Once I’d decided to put the journals aside as actual writing – using them instead as research – it took me another three years, until 2006, to finally sit down and begin to write the memoir. What helped me to get going was something that I’d heard Connie May Fowler say about the process of writing her first novel. She said she hadn’t known how to do it, so she just wrote it like one long poem.
I knew what she meant. Of course I’d taken fiction workshops, and I realized there would be more to it than that. But to think of the work as a poem was a relief. I could do that. Writing my memoir like a poem is what thrilled me about this book. Poetry tells me what I don’t know, surprises me. That first memoir attempt of cobbled journals swamped me because it felt like a reduction of my story – a collection of anecdotes. Writing it like a poem kept taking me somewhere new.
There was no point in writing what I already knew. Reiterating the facts. I want to write to find out what I don’t know. In Grace Paley’s story, “A Conversation with My Father,” a woman writer, the narrator, is asked by her father to “write a simple story.” The narrator says, “‘Yes, why not? That’s possible.’ I want to please him, though I don’t remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: ‘There was a woman.…’, followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
In my memoir, the girl I write about is my younger self, and to try to see her more clearly, I imagined her as a character. Using the tools of poetry in writing memoir helped me to open up the story, to make room for the possibility of hope. I’m drawn to the compressed language and potential for speed in poetry, the way it can break everything open and move between worlds – the unseen and visible, material and spiritual. But I also love the spaciousness of prose, the conversational ease, and ability to move through time. I wanted both.
It was exciting to experiment in memoir with techniques that I used in writing poems as well as those for writing fiction. In one instance, in 2008, I was in a month-long residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on the manuscript. While there, I’d begun reading a beautiful novel, Mason’s Retreat, by Christopher Tilghman who was also in residence. One night, at dinner, I asked him how he came to write the amazing opening scene that takes place on the French liner, Normandie, in 1936. He told me how intently he’d studied a photograph of the ship to write about it. (Years later, I was surprised and pleased to find that when I went back to this novel to see the photo of the ship which I was sure preceded the chapter, it wasn’t there. I had been so taken in by the description of the scene, in memory it became an actual photograph.) I’d imagined that he’d just sat down and somehow this extraordinary writing about place had appeared. It seemed part of the inaccessible magic of being a fiction writer. But when Chris talked to me about his process, the work of studying the photo, it opened up a door. I could try it. I’d brought photographs with me to VCCA, of places I hadn’t been that I wanted to write about. And so I went back to my studio, my photos tacked to a wall-sized bulletin board. I took one photo down. I looked and looked until what had seemed like something nondescript and inaccessible opened up.
That exercise continued to help me beyond trying to find a way into the world of actual photographs. Each night when I’d sit down to write, and I’d begin a scene, I’d go into it like a photograph. Through this process, what had appeared flat and opaque – a shut door – would open, and I could go down into it. Once there, in each moment, I paid attention in the way that I pay attention in writing a poem. I looked and let my subconscious do its work to meet me there, to help show me what I don’t know and take me somewhere new.
Kelle Groom’s memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl is forthcoming from The Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2011. Groom’s poetry collections are Five Kingdoms (Anhinga Press, 2010), Luckily (Anhinga 2006) winner of a Florida Book Award, and Underwater City (University Press of Florida, 2004). Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Poetry among other magazines, and is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2010.
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