Best-selling memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club, Cherry) spent seven years writing Lit and threw away 2,000 pages in the process of revision. She wanted to write it with all the art of a novel and not just “report the events.” She succeeded, both commercially and with her work as an artist. In a recent interview she calls memoir “an outsider’s art” and says, “It’s like little weird, crazy people carving the Lord’s Prayer in a grain of rice.”
That’s what I’ve been trying to write for the past four years. And of course I want it to sound like Karr . . . or Anne Lamott or Haven Kimmel or Joan Didion! Francine Prose says Karr “alternates high lyricism with a raunchy cowboy noir.” Okay, I didn’t grow up in Texas so there won’t be any “cowboy noir” in my writing, but I’d love to combine a degree of lyricism with some gritty Southern spirituality.
Four years before I discovered Karr’s memoirs, I fell in love with Cassandra King’s autobiographical novel, The Sunday Wife. I met Cassandra at the Southern Festival of Books in Memphis in October of 2006 and she encouraged me to write a novel. I penned “The Sweet Carolines” in the next two months and sent it to a freelance editor. Her suggestions for reconstructing the novel were so massive that I just put it in a box on a shelf. It so narrowly disguised the true story that was begging to be told that I stifled the characters, not allowing them to take on a life of their own. My agenda suffocated them.
So I turned my pen to creative nonfiction, studying with the “Godfather” of CNF, Lee Gutkind, and also Dinty Moore, and honing the craft at numerous conferences and workshops. Monthly critique sessions with a writing group helped, and I began to send out personal essays for publication. Eight of those have found homes in various journals and magazines, including “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project’s 2007 Literary Awards. A ninth essay—“Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns”—will be included in an anthology on Southern women and spirituality coming out later this year from the University of Alabama Press. (This will be the second anthology edited by Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed.)
But the memoir is stuck in the birth canal. I outlined it once and drafted sixteen chapters before I hit an emotional wall. So I started over with a different title and approach, but only made it to chapter four before hitting that same wall. It’s not so much that the painful parts of my life are too difficult to write about. It’s more that the people who caused the pain left others in their wake who might be hurt by what I’m writing. As a survivor of incest and sexual abuse, my purpose in writing isn’t therapeutic, it’s art. It’s a story wanting to be told and there are people waiting to hear it. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t write.
A few weeks ago I participated in a one-day writing workshop led by Margaret Love-Denman as part of the Oxford Conference for the Book in Oxford, Mississippi. In my one-on-one critique session with Margaret, we talked about the chapters of my memoir-in-progress. But we also talked about the art and craft of the novel. And then I came home and read her book, Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process, in which she and Barbara Shoup interview twenty successful novelists (including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Larry Brown, Richard Ford and Dorothy Allison). They also include a meaty introduction and a few writing exercises in the front of the book. What a treasure.
I took the book with me to the beach last week and devoured it. On my last day, I had a revelation. I’m leaving the memoir behind for now. I’m still going to draw on memories from my own life, but instead of retelling an entire story, I’m going to try something Love-Denman and Shoup suggest in their book:
“To reshape real experiences for fiction, you may combine memories, break them up to use bits and pieces throughout the novel, or take one small kernel of memory and spin it into a completely imagined world.”
I’m going to write a novel. Wow. Seeing that in print is kind of like hearing yourself tell someone, out loud, that you’re going on a diet. Somehow you feel accountable. So there it is—on March 31, 2010, I’m beginning my fourth book. My second novel (two were memoirs). And maybe, just maybe, it will carry that kernel of memory into a world of imagination and brave characters and a plot that works. Taking a cue from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I’m thinking about weaving the fictionalized lives of two real women—one from fifth century Egypt and one contemporary Southerner—into a mystical tale of survival, spiritual healing and redemption. The fifth century Egyptian is an Orthodox saint known as Mary of Egypt. One of her two Feast Days is tomorrow, April 1, so as I begin this work I will pray, "Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for me." (This detail from an icon I painted shows Saint Mary of Egpyt. She is also commemorated on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.)
I can’t wait to get started. I’ll keep you posted on the ups and downs. I’ve got my mojo on, but it’s always exciting in the beginning, isn’t it? Like a first kiss. Thanks for reading!
Susan Cushman lives in Memphis with her husband and her 20-year-old cat, Oreo. She has three grown adopted “kids,” an eight-month-old granddaughter (and another on the way) and thirteen Godchildren. A convert to the Orthodox faith, Susan paints Byzantine-style icons with egg tempera and teaches iconography workshops. Her essays have been published in First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal, skirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Her blog is Pen and Palette.