Tag Archives: Writing from memory

An Interview with Will Boast

27 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue was called "hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year" by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue was called “hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year” by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.

In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?

Will Boast

I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.

Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.

Michael Noll

The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?

Will Boast

I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.

Michael Noll

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.

One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?

Will Boast

That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.

But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.

Michael Noll

At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?

Will Boast

Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.

August 2015

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

How to Write about Remembering

30 Jul
Matt Bell's novel

Matt Bell’s novel was published by Soho Press and has been called, by the New York Times, “a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergency from some kind of personal hell.”

A novel that’s getting some well-deserved attention is Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. If you’re not yet familiar with it, the synopsis will give you some sense of this novel’s ambition:

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

Think about that phrase: the labyrinth of memory. Many novels—and certainly memoirs—feature narrators telling stories from memory. But what if the novel seeks to represent the act of remembering? It’s not an easy task. In a way, storytelling and memory are incompatible. Fiction moves forward while memory tends to return endlessly to an image or moment. So, it takes a gifted writer to reconcile the two.

Matt Bell is one of those writers. Find out how he writes about remembering in this excerpt from his novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

Every paragraph from the excerpt begins with the same four words: And in this room. The effect is powerful and clear. The passage is drilling down into a room, into and through moments, details, revelations that might otherwise have been forgotten.

The first two encounters with memory may seem familiar: “The love letters we wrote to each other” and “the moment of our first lovemaking.” But then comes the third encounter:

“And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.”

As the passage develops, the phrase “And in this room” continues to be repeated, leaving the narrator no choice to not only confront the darkest memories from his marriage but see them from every angle. He (and through him, the reader) begins to see fully a life that was lived in the rush of real time and initially recalled only in snapshots. That is the beauty of a strategy of repetition: And in this room. The character or narrator can’t leave until all has been revealed or confronted.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s encounter a memory without looking away. (This exercise works for both fiction and nonfiction.)

  1. Choose a powerful memory to write about (yours or the character/narrator’s). It could be something funny or sad, happy or tragic. The best memories often cannot be easily labeled; that is why we remember deaths and births. They’re some of the few times that we, as adults, will encounter something that is wholly and completely outside of our experience.
  2. Let’s borrow from Matt Bell and use the phrase “And in this room.” If the memory takes place outside, substitute the appropriate noun for room.
  3. Write a series of paragraphs that begin with “And in this room.” You’ll write about the obvious things, of course, but don’t stop there. Keep going. Exhaust your memory; excavate the contents. Discover things that you thought you’d forgotten or that the character never realized she knew. Focus on objects in the room and their role in the memory. Think about relationships that define the room and the objects that were picked up or leaned against or sat on by the people in that relationship.
  4. Once you’ve written about a moment, try to remember the moment that occurred immediately before or afterward. You can worry about arranging and rearranging the details later. For now, let your mind surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

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