Tag Archives: Memoir writing

An Interview with D Watkins

24 Jun
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, tells the story of his journey from drug dealer to writer.

D. Watkins is a columnist for Salon. His work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He holds a master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a college professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins has been the recipient of numerous awards including Ford’s Men of Courage and a BME Fellowship. Watkins is from and lives in East Baltimore. He is the author of The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

Originally published March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

An Interview with D Watkins

19 Mar
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essays about living and growing up in Baltimore have been widely published. His essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral, and, since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University.

To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here.

In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Victor Giannini

9 Jan
Vic G Bio Pic 07

Victor Giannini is the author of Scott Too, which has been compared to “the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick, and the magical realism of Jose Saramago” by novelist Kaylie Jones.

Victor Giannini is the author of the novella Scott Too and the forthcoming novel Counselor. His writing has appeared at Carrier Pigeon, The Southampton Review, Narratively, (a)Bonac, and Silverthought Press’ IPPY winning anthologies: Silverthought: Ignition and Thank You Death Robot. His art has been featured by various magazines, clothing companies, and skateboard shops.

In this interview, Giannini talks about finding the right frame for a story, the role of pain in writing a personal essay, and why not all facts are necessary to convey the truth.

To read “His Living Room’s a Jungle” and an exercise on using transitions to move through time, click here.

Michael Noll

“His Living Room’s a Jungle” tells a story that spans your entire lifetime and, really, reaches back before you were born. A story that like presents certain challenges, such as how do you, in terms of pure mechanics, move between and link events that occurred in very different time periods. What was your approach to this problem?

Victor Giannini

My first and only idea was this: My father is the center of the story, and I wanted to approach him through my subjective experience. This allowed me an honesty and self-deprecation that balanced out factual errors or emotional wounds.

So I needed to nail the mechanics before I fleshed out the narrative, and it took a few days of writing in my head to find the right flow, like a song with the verses and chorus in the correct places. Memory was the greatest advantage, because at their core, memories are stories. I could slip in and out of memory to find the thematic thread for this story, but that took a few revisions.

The biggest challenge was how to get to the end, which was already set from the moment I pitched the article. The end became the beginning, so it framed the story as a circular piece with nearly linear sequences broken up by flashes to ‘now’ as transitions. The storms and rain were key, and once I moved that idea up front, it allowed me to continue in a more or less linear fashion with the memories.

Handpicking the most dense and condensed memories, with appropriate transitions, became the final puzzle to solve. My memory is highly evocative, if not perfect, meaning I can remember a moment, relive it, even who I was and how I perceived life at the time.

It’s a funny map in my head…start with a scene that sets theme, jump to a scene establishing my narrative reliability (emotionally honest at best), and then, since I was the lens to see my father, jump to the earliest moment I could remember regarding his time in Vietnam, and then work my way back to the opening scene, revealing far more along the way. Throughout the many revisions, which were based on my editor’s questions and suggestions, the framing remained intact as I wrote, rewrote, rewrote, revised, and then cut, cut, cut, all the while keeping that vital key: the framing device, which I view as the frame of a house. When that is confidently set, then it came time to sit down and fill the rooms, so to speak.

Michael Noll

How did you find this framing device (you and your father watching a storm that happened recently, which reminds you of another storm that happened when you were thirteen years old and discovered something about your father)? On one hand, it works the way that our memories really do work, sliding back and forth between past and present. On the other hand, there were probably other intimate, in-scene moments that you could started with–including the scene that you remember when you learn that storms always bring your father vivid reminders of his time in Vietnam. How did you figure out which opening would work best?

Victor Giannini

From the start, I always knew I’d start “today”, me 30 years old and my father at 70.

The theme of rain and storms, making my father slip back in time, and my knowledge of that, gave me the structure I needed to leap back and forth in time as needed. It was an intuitive thing, one of those ideas that wake you up in the night and you just feel confident in it. That was my initial pitch to Narratively.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini, a relationship that is the subject of “His Living Room’s a Jungle”

Starting “today”, with the storms as a device to link memories across time to “today”, allowed me to hook the reader in with just a bit of mystery and drama, and then slip into that night of interaction and revelation, and back to “today’s storm”, where there is no overt interaction. Now the reader knew that the main subject, my father, would be seen from a lens that can be factually shaky, but emotionally true.

The transitions between these scenes, past to present, memory to now, back again, are the most vital technical aspect. They needed to work on three levels: Functional to the frame as a whole, factual regarding what needs to be known at that narrative moment, and most importantly, emotionally: the transitions making sense that I would take you from “here” to “today” without breaking the flow. If I couldn’t nail the transitions in a very natural way, one that engaged the reader to continue without becoming a road bump, it’d all fall apart. I began to think of them as the last sentence of each chapter. One that gives closure to the section, and a hook to the next.

The only way to figure those out was revision. Thankfully I had a great editor to look at three of the eight versions I wrote. It took constant revision, keeping the focus on my father while still going back into my own mind, finding the most honest way to weave our lives together in service to the main theme, while maintaining emotional honesty.

 Michael Noll

How long have you been thinking about this essay—either working on it or just thinking about how you’d approach it? It seems like a story you might have been shaping and thinking about for a long time, and I wonder what finally clicked and allowed you to write it.

Victor Giannini

What finally clicked … fear. And pain.

Pain for every “character” in the article became the shared theme in which to view every event: Myself as naïve, selfish, expressive, the aftermath for my father and my family … I knew that I was on the right path when I became afraid to publish it. When I became truly afraid, not for portraying myself as imperfect, but for my father, who I treasure deeply, I knew I’d nailed it. Becoming afraid to accidentally misrepresent us was when I knew this story NEEDED to be told, rather than just me wanting to impress people. I was terrified right up until publication. But it was the right kind of fear. It meant I was honest with my reader, myself … and my father.

Victor Giannini's novella, Scott, Too, "echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago."

Victor Giannini’s novella, Scott Too, from Silverthoght Press, “echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago.”

As for how long it took…ever since I started writing at 15, I knew someday some aspect of his story must be told. So this particular essay was written for Narratively, and the editor wanted a “veteran story” that was unlike any he’d seen before. Given the non-fiction genre (I write fiction primarily), the greatest challenge was not what to put in, but rather what content to cut out. So I forgot about word count, took off all the restraints, off and wrote a version that was three times as long.

That allowed me to cut, cut, move, revise, which I believe are the key aspects to writing. Well, at least for me. Just let it all out. Be human. Then become an author, go back and revise everything to embrace the narrative. So the initial idea was always there for over a decade, the structural one was immediate, something from my subconscious, and the task of writing actually writing it took over a month. Actually, the context of it being a public article with a set word count was a great constraint during the entire process, even though I initially broke that constraint. Thankfully, my editor provided helpful questions and comments which led me down the path of what to cut, and what tiny parts to put in that weren’t there.

Michael Noll

Your father is publishing a memoir that will, presumably, cover some of this same material. How did that affect your writing of this essay. You’re using your perspective on your father as the lens for understanding him, and sometimes when writers do this, they worry that the lens is too strong–that they’re, in fact, writing more about themselves than about the other person. Did you ever find yourself checking to see if your memories were accurate? Or did the fact that your father was writing his own story free you up to write yours?

Victor Giannini

Bit of a mixture. Knowing my father was writing his own memoir allowed me to leave many facts, many amazing stories, for him to tell. That memoir is his life, his story. That was a huge burden taken off my shoulders, so I could focus on a subjective view of a veteran rather than a historical view.

I allowed myself to write about myself because, in a way, as long as my thoughts were focused on him, he is the main character, and I remain the narrator. This article is still about him but from my perspective. His own writing fills in all of the things I merely list. In a way they compliment each other, so a massive amount of information about his time in Vietnam was “allowed” to be truncated for me. I knew he’d reveal it all, in his own words. At times I did feel I was writing more about myself, but I waited for the revision process, when I had a break and a clear set of eyes to steer my way back towards him. That often meant cutting any ponderings or flowery prose, however pleased I was, that were merely my reactions to my own memories. Then focus the lens back on him.

As for fact checking … I was afraid to do so until the very final draft. To find out what I was right or wrong about outside my experience would skew my memories and emotions. Much of what I learned from my mother was at the last minute. Things that aren’t in the article, regarding my half-brother, my mother, and so on. But it’d be dishonest to force them into the final draft.

My father knew of the project, but I never showed him it. I was afraid it would taint the embarrassing, brutal, honesty that I’d finally cut the piece down to. New information about the past didn’t enhance the narrative at all. It castrated it, because from my point of view…those things didn’t happen. Knowing my father is writing his own memoir absolutely freed me to write honestly, “right or wrong”. Looking back…I’d say that’s actually the most important aspect. I could never write this article, showing him as both a veteran and a man, without the real life assurance that he’d be showing himself through his own memoirs. A strange case of life impacting art, and art reflecting life. This was a true challenge to write, and I’m happy and grateful that I was given the chance.

January 2014

Michael NollMichael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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