The Takeaway: If you’ve ever struggled to write about difficult periods of your life, Melanie Brooks’ “Writing Hard Stories” can provide guidance, solace and inspiration. The book features interviews with well-known authors who have published at least one memoir, and digs just as deeply into their emotional process as it does their writing process.
While conflict, defeat and struggle make for powerful stories, in nonfiction as well as fiction, they can be damned hard to live through, much less capture on the page later. But many of today’s most successful memoirists have tales of loss, grief, destruction and/or betrayal woven into their narrative, and with good reason — these are all universal human experiences, and readers often find them compelling and relatable.
The subtitle of Melanie Brooks’s fresh new interview anthology “Writing Hard Stories” is “Celebrated memoirists who shaped art from trauma,” and she is not minimizing the degree of difficulty her authors have faced. Abigail Thomas’s husband was permanently disabled by a severe brain injury after he was hit by a car. Kyoko Mori’s mother committed suicide when she was 12, and she spent the next six years being abused and isolated by her father and stepmother. Michael Patrick MacDonald endured the death of three of his siblings (several under suspicious circumstances) in his South Boston neighborhood. And so on.
Why these authors chose to tackle such difficult topics is a frequent thread in the interviews; in many cases, the authors described their choice to write about their trauma as the only way to put down the heavy weight of memory.
One of the things I particularly liked about “Writing Hard Stories” was how Brooks, who is a writing instructor at Northeastern University, Merrimack College, and Nashua Community College, was able to weave her own “hard story” into the book in a graceful, non-intrusive manner. Her father quietly dealt with HIV/AIDS for a decade before his death in 1995. Brooks began interviewing authors for this book as a way of figuring out how she would write her own memoir about her life with her father’s secret. Because the discussions inform her own writing journey, her chapters relating each interview also contain well-chosen details about the setting, bringing her encounters with her authors to life and banishing any hint of pedagogical dryness.
I also appreciated that Brooks chose several authors who wrote their memoirs in a nonlinear manner. Thomas wrote both of her memoirs, “Safekeeping” and “A Three Dog Life,” in fragments, ranging in length from a few words to a few pages. Joan Wickersham wrote her memoir, “The Suicide Index,” about coping with her father’s choice to end his own life, in the style of a book index. These interviews reveal why the authors diverged from a more traditional way of storytelling, and may give readers new ideas for conveying their own hard stories in formats that are the most natural to the narrative they have to tell.
Overall, those who are contemplating writing about a difficult period in their lives, or who may be considering telling those stories with the help of a personal historian, could definitely benefit from reading “Writing Hard Stories.” The book provides encouragement about why telling your tough tales could be a healing/positive/cathartic experience, and it also provides enough discussion of the “how-to” of memoir writing to provide some pointers on how to make your book or story happen.