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Staying with the Difficult

Lucy Grealy

At a reading by Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and the Memoirist, this Fall in Minneapolis I asked a question about Lucy Grealy's book Autobiography of a Face. Larson said he thought Grealy had failed in an important way at the end of Autobiography of a Face in that she backed away from the struggle she experienced and delivered an happily-ever-after ending.

The novelist Ann Patchett, who went to college and graduate school with Lucy Grealy wrote a memoir about their friendship entitled Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. In Truth and Beauty, Patchett does not make the same mistake as Grealy. She ends the memoir at the saddest point of the book, in great grief.

Patchett reminds me that it's not necessary to gloss over the difficult in the end of a memoir. Patchett is no less a subject in her own memoir for being honest about the emotional pain she feels.

The Reader

"This text is a pure pleasure to read as it confounds our understanding of autobiography, revealing the fundamental dependency of the one who might narrate his or her own life on the 'you' to whom he or she turns in order to become a narratable subject." - Judith Butler on Relating Narratives: Storytelling and selfhood by Adriana Cavarero

Butler is talking about the importance of the reader to the one who tells their story. Cavarero has a beautiful story in Relating Narratives on this premise; Emilia and Amalia are friends in an adult education course.

Amalia writes her own story, Emilia reads it and weeps. Emilia doesn't have the "gift of being able to express things well," and tells her story constantly but with no catharsis. Amalia says Emilia "needed to tell about her life...but she wasn't able to connect any of it up, and so she let herself go."

Ultimately Amalia writes Emilia's story and Emilia carries it everywhere with her. Cavarero says that "There is the weeping in the listening/reading of a story, and there is the same emotion in the recognition of one's own life-story narrated by another."

Let's discuss: Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? Are you more like Amalia or Emilia?

How to Suppress Any Writing

Cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing

"She didn't write it. But if it's clear she did the deed... She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women.) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. It's sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own "masculine side.") She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...) She wrote it BUT..." - Joanna Russ

I'm going to let this quote stand mostly on its own but wanted to say I think all of these intellectual contortions apply to writing and art by people with disabilities.

Enter the contest to win free feedback on your writing.

5 Strategies to Begin to Write about Mental Illness


I've expanded my thoughts about how to begin writing about mental illness into a $20 download. The download includes audio of me talking about ways to begin writing about mental illness and a pdf workbook to tie it together. This is a great resource if you're at the beginning stages of writing about mental illness or wish to brush up on the basics.

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Imagining Your Reader

Critique Giveaway

I'm giving away a free critique to a reader who comments on Monday's post.

On to Imagining Your Reader

The late, great Carol Bly wrote in Beyond the Writers' Workshop that one needed to write for an audience of 100,000. Not one million, but one hundred thousand. This is still a large number, but less overwhelming than writing for everyone and their sister.

Still it's helpful to imagine this audience of one hundred thousand into one. Think about this one person who is standing in for the rest of your audience. What are they like? Why have they picked up your writing? What attracts them about it? What about this person leaves you proud that they are your reader? What does your reader look like? What other books has your reader read later?

What do you think now that you've imagined your reader? How does writing feel more concrete?

Comforting Who?

Win a Free Manuscript Consult!

Last week I gave away a free copy of The Bell Jar. This week I'm giving away a free manuscript consultation. Here are the rules.

  1. I'll look at up to 25 pages of your writing.
  2. I'll provide a written critique and a half hour conversation about your work via computer-to-computer Skype.
  3. This will be a contest rather than a random giveaway.
  4. Criteria entries will be judged on are:
    • Does the work relate to writing about mental illness in some way?
    • Is this writer someone I think I can be of assistance to? Remember I'm primarily a creative nonfiction writer.
  5. To enter please leave a comment on this post stating why you would like a critique and why you think I may be helpful to you.
  6. Please also leave your email address in your comment. Your address may be disguised like this jane.doe(at)company.(com) or in some other similar manner.
  7. I will announce the winner next Monday February 1, 2010 at noon central time.

On to Comforting Who?

I've been thinking about this well-known quote:

It's the job of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

and thinking that many writers focus on afflicting the comfortable at the expense of work that comforts the afflicted. So, I'm a believer in figuring out how to write work that comforts the afflicted.

But then I went looking for the origins of the quotations and found out the context is very different than the comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable imperative our culture has taken it as.

Here's the original written by Finley Peter Dunne in context:

"Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th'ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward."

In context this quote does not place a sacred charge in writer's hands to go comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In fact it seems to be implying something quite the opposite. Dr. Ink on Poynter Online seems to agree with this, saying:

In Doc's immodest opinion, journalists should never use the phrase again to justify their actions, unless they want old Mr. Dooley to roll over in his grave.

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