Heather Sellers on Memoir Writing

Author Heather Sellers spoke to us about memoir writing and about her new memoir, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, which explores the impact on her life of her family relationships and of face blindness, a neurological condition which prevents her from recognizing people by their faces.

Heather Sellers is also the author of three poetry collections, as well as a short story collection, Georgia Under Water; a children's book, Spike and Cubby's Ice cream Island Adventure; and several books on the craft of writing: The Practice of Creative WritingChapter after Chapter, and Page After Page. Heather Sellers teaches creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

A Conversation with Heather Sellers

Q: Could you talk about some of the artistic choices you made when writing your memoir You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know -- for instance, decisions about how to frame your story, where to begin and end it, which details to leave out and which ones to include?

A: First, I wrote out the whole story of growing up with my mother, an amazingly complex, beautiful, darkly troubled woman. I was trying to find a shape for that story, which was proving impossible. I just couldn’t figure out what the story was. In fact, I was working on that project -- writing about my childhood -- when I came into the face blind diagnosis. The diagnosis forced me to look at myself and everything in my life differently. Suddenly, the mother story clicked into place, and I had my structure -- I knew I would have to tell both the story of growing up with my mom and coming to terms with face blindness side by side. The two stories have nothing to do with each other and everything to do with each other. My agents helped me enormously when it came time to cut. I’m a maximalist. I write big. I write long. I hate to leave anything out. And I like to make jokes and decorate the narrative with all these little moves that amuse me. Lots of cutting. Two hundred pages, cut. And lots of work to get the two stories, the double telling, to mesh properly. My agent Michele made a kind of super-spreadsheet to organize it all!

I always knew my ending sentence. It was mostly a matter of working backwards, twice, from that point. I knew the two stories would converge, and I knew I was writing a mystery story. It was very difficult, painstaking work. I learned an enormous amount from my agents. And it is hard to teach this structural work to students -- very hard. It’s almost something you have to do, yourself, on your own, many many times before you can figure out what it is you do not know!

Q: Could you offer some advice for beginning memoirists on how to write about memories which may not be as sharp or detailed as they would like and which may contain gaps or inconsistencies? What was your process for recreating scenes from your past in your own memoir?

A: Writing is what makes the memories come back. The memories you carry around with you aren’t usually that interesting. But they’re good for starting. I draw each scene before I write it. It’s just a quick sketch, but it’s crucial -- the drawing is my sensory story board. When I run out of gas, I go back to my quick sketch and look closer.

I always wrote as a kid, I wonder if that didn’t help me record details in my brain. I have never had this concern and it’s hard for me to relate to. I wonder if it isn’t fear, and not poor memory? Interesting to pursue it as fear, this “gaps and inconsistencies” thing.

If you are just starting to write memoir, and you are worried about gaps, I would say this: use your eyes. Don’t think. You can’t “try” to remember. You remember (a phone number, the author’s name) when you stop trying. The goal isn’t to force memory. You need to have a daily writing practice, and method for getting into a trance state that allows your visual memory to roam back over the events of your life. It’s something that improves with practice. Gaps aren’t really a problem. You just skip on ahead to the next interesting thing you see. And “I don’t remember anything else from the rest of that summer” is a kind of nice dramatic way to end a chapter.

Essentially, you need to just go fearlessly write everything down. And stop thinking about it. And stop talking about it. And trust that what is important will come to the surface.

Q: What kind of emotional distance from the subject matter do you think is necessary for effective memoir writing? Could you offer some advice for beginning memoirists on how to obtain the right kind of distance in their memoir writing?

A: It’s a weird thing. You have to be completely in it and completely out of it, both at once. You can’t dump all this unprocessed scary stuff on the reader. Art-making -- literature -- is the process of making a beautiful container to hold what can’t be contained. You take the raw emotions, and the darker they are, the more beautiful the container must be. I’m not sure if it’s a question of distance versus closeness -- because you need both, a kind of double-vision, so you can be who you were then on the page, but held and guided by who you are now. It’s absolutely a question of insight. Do you have insights -- hard won, valuable, useful insights that other people might find applicable in their own lives? I think if you work on the insight piece, the close-far thing takes care of itself.

How? Write every day. I write many, many, many drafts of everything I write and it takes enormous amounts of time. Read widely and reading challenging texts. Read the books writers have turned to for centuries. For me, that’s sacred texts, philosophy. For another writer, reading will center on something altogether different. Try to find out what is knowable -- that’s the path to “emotional distance.” You don’t want to shut down anything. You want to illuminate everything!

Q: One issue that can be difficult in memoir writing is how to avoid hurting or invading the privacy of other people who were involved in the events the memoirist is describing. Could you offer some advice on how to deal with this dilemma in memoir writing?

A: There’s no dilemma. You will hurt people you love. If you write, you will hurt people.

But this is the case whether you mean to or not, and whether you write or not! You will hurt people. It’s true for the novelist, poet, journalist —- all writers —- not just for the memoirist.

I do not want to hurt anyone. Ever. So, it’s essential, for me, that my intentions are very honest and very clear. How do we love, in any family, flawed people? That is the essential question at the heart of my memoir. If someone is writing to take revenge, or embarrass or punish someone —- it’s not going to be a very good book. It’s immoral, and it’s bad writing. I hope my intentions —- my care and love for my family —- show through, on every page. I hope my book is, as I intended, a love letter to my mom.

Q: In addition to your memoir, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, you've written several books on writing. Your book Chapter after Chapter addresses issues of discipline and focus for writers. Could you talk about why these issues are so important for writers and what writers can do to improve their discipline?

A: In order to grow as a writer, you have to throw a lot of time at it! Many of my students get discouraged and give up way, way, way too early! For most of us, it takes years —- years —- of practice to achieve a kind of basic fluency. It’s like music or sport in this way —- you have to learn techniques, you have to show up for daily practice, you have to have high tolerance for your mistakes and the ability to learn from your mistakes —- they are your guide. Not to be dreaded, hidden. Mistakes are learning.

What can writers do to improve their discipline? Well, I’m not sure. Know yourself. I think if you want to change some part of your life, you have to figure out how you change, what it takes for you. Treats, rewards and snacks? (Whenever I finish a chapter, I am allowed to go down to one of my favorite boutiques and buy a skirt or a pair of jeans. When I finish a book, I win a Free Trip! I have to pay for it, but really, it’s worth it!)

Here’s the thing. Most writers want to write. They can’t not write. They’re always chomping at the bit to get back there, to the desk. The problem is this: when you get to the desk you will be faced with a ton of fear. It’s like there’s an Eject Button in your chair. You want more than anything to be there, but you can’t stay in the chair! Next thing you know, you’re doing laundry!

So you have to figure yourself out. Eric Maisel’s work really helped me a lot, as did extensive work with an excellent, creative psychologist. And, bonus points: the insights you gain as your study yourself will be beneficial for you in so many other ways.

Q: What is a piece of advice you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out as a writer?

That it is a wonderful privilege and luxury to put words on paper. That to have readers is a great, great gift. That every single person’s story matters, a lot.

When I first started, I was you know four or five or six years old and of course I wish someone had said, “You can be a writer.” But I don’t know. It’s good, too, to have, for a writer, something hard to push against.

And I really believe you get the advice you need when you need it!

Click here to watch a video interview of Heather Sellers on the Penguin Group website. 

Interview on Memoir Writing - Next Steps

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