Crafting Memoir and “Doing Grief”: An Interview with Melanie Bishop

This week’s guest writer, Melanie Bishop, was one of my first writing teachers at Prescott College, a small liberal arts and environmental school in Arizona. Here’s what I remember about my writing classes with Melanie: There would be ten, maybe twelve of us sitting around a table, a common manuscript in hand, intently discussing craft. We were just as engaged in that room as the members of any graduate seminar I’ve taken since. These were our manuscripts we pored over, and often, we held daring literature in our hands. That semester, we wrote about losing our parents, about being abused, about abortion, parenthood, and the calloused hands of our blue-collar fathers. We wrote about the way a horse dies and the burden of burying its body. We wandered through our childhood houses, recalled the yards or parking lots or basements or patches of forest where we lost our virginity, punched our boyfriends, found our dead brothers, or realized that everything was going to be okay. We got lost in dark caves and relished the sunlight when we finally climbed out, blinking at the brightness of the southwestern blue sky (I remember that one particularly well; it was mine).

Twelve years later, some of the names of my classmates have faded from my mind, but I still remember our stories. Those stories have stuck with me. Inside that classroom at our small, weird school in the mountains, we were no longer students but people finding our footing as writers. Sure, it got heavy sometimes. I remember Melanie prefaced our very first workshop in her memoir class with a disclaimer: She was not a therapist; she was not trained to navigate other people’s psychological turmoil; yet, she understood that writing out the hard stuff can send us to dark places. She also told us that writing out the hard stuff can help lighten the burden, and she helped us take these outpourings and shape them into art. She taught me how to attain emotional honesty without being maudlin or confessional or overblown. In Melanie’s classroom, we didn’t just absorb information and learn about craft–we changed. She did what the best of teachers do: She gave us the space and autonomy to realize our own goals. Many of us are still writing.

socalledAnd so, it’s with great pleasure that I’m able to give back a little of what I was given many years ago in that classroom. Melanie has guided so much student writing out into the world, and so it’s no small satisfaction to be able to bring Melanie’s writing to Vela readers, to provide a space for her story. I recently got back in touch with Melanie after learning of the release this January of her young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life—the first novel of the Tate McCoy series. That exchange led to our featuring Melanie’s essay, “In the Form of Birds” on Vela this week. In this piece, Melanie recounts her two very different experiences with grief after the death of each of her parents. “It’s not done with me, this gnawing pain, this savage regret, this missing the mother I love,” she writes at the end of her essay. “But there is evidence that it can lift or transform.”

Loss and grief are also the subjects of Melanie’s upcoming book-length memoir, Some Glad Morning. She’s also currently marketing a short-story cycle called Home for Wayward Girls, which has been a finalist for five awards over the past four years. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published widely in literary journals, including Glimmer TrainGeorgetown Review, and Greensboro Review. She taught at Prescott College for twenty-two years and now leads community writing classes, hosts writing retreats at Vagabond’s House Inn in Carmel, California and Boulders in Santa Cruz, and runs a freelance editing business called Lexi Services. For more details on these, see Melanie’s website.

In the midst of all her ongoing projects, Melanie was gracious enough to sit down and answer some of my questions on the relationship between writing and grief, the craft of memoir, and her upcoming projects. In her responses, you’ll find not just Melanie the writer, but Melanie the teacher, too.

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“In the Form of Birds” is a piece examining the two very different experiences you had mourning each of your parent’s deaths. Considering your mother didn’t die until ten years after your father did, what was your experience like writing this piece? Was it an essay that you began after your father died and then picked up again when your mother died, too? Or were these experiences of mourning something you could only make sense of together, and therefore much later?

This essay began as an assignment from a friend and colleague, Tom Fleischner, for an anthology he was editing on human attentiveness to the natural world. He wanted to hear from all different people, not just naturalists, about how paying attention to nature informed their lives, and different aspects of those lives. He and I are close friends so he knew I was significantly altered by the death of my father; he also knew I spent a lot of time outdoors and that as a writer, I pay close attention to what I observe. He invited me to write an essay on how time and attention in the natural world had informed my grieving process. I started three different essays, one about a horned lizard in my backyard who I observed giving birth to fifteen babies, another about incidents between myself and birds, and a third one where I combined both of these subjects into one essay. None of the drafts worked. Tom and I sent them back and forth and he offered editorial guidance, but a few weeks into it, I just realized I wasn’t sure enough of what I was saying and I was trying to wedge my essay idea into fitting well within his book. It wasn’t working and I withdrew my essay from consideration. (That book is a wonderful book, by the way, and has an assortment of lay people writing about how attending to the natural world alters their daily experience. The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner.) I put those drafts away and really didn’t pull them out again for a few years, until six months or so after my mother died, that morning I witnessed the hawk eating the Mourning Dove. I felt then I had something to tie things together—the bird love, the role birds played in my grieving process after my father died, the death of my mother, and the savage way of the world—things prey upon each other—sustenance for the hawk was, for the dove, cessation of existence. Not fair, but how logical it all seemed when viewed from a natural history perspective. It allowed me to pull out a bit from the close-up focus of my own loss, and see loss, death, sadness and grief as necessary parts of the big picture.

It’s great for writers when these things happen. You can be just befuddled by a piece—an essay or story or memoir—and then something happens in your life and it gives you the key to get back into the essay or story and make it work. I often tell my students when they are struggling with a piece, to put it away for a while and just wait. Many of these students are working on memoirs and I tell them at some point you will be home, visiting, and something will happen and it’ll be exactly the incident you need. By rendering that incident in scene, analyzing it and interpreting it, you will discover a graceful way out of this memoir. I once shelved a short story for five years. It was a story that had a lot of potential, but it was flat, only working on one level. Years later, when doing an exercise with my Intro Fiction students—the Sensory Memory exercise—I wrote about sneaking out of the house at age 14, when my best friend Mary would spend the night. I suddenly realized that she was what was missing from that story. Once I wove her into the story, it operated on a whole new level—had layers and richness and irony. As soon as I knew that was what the story needed, writing the final draft was easy and it got published the first place I sent it out—Glimmer Train. That story, “Sisterhood,” is part of the short story cycle, Home for Wayward Girls. We get so impatient sometimes to figure stuff out, to finish our works-in-progress, but often it’s better to put something aside, be patient, and wait till life offers up an incident or a character or a situation, that is precisely what the story or essay needs. Periods of gestation vary greatly from piece to piece. This essay, from start to finish, was maybe six years in gestation; “Sisterhood” took five years to finally be born.

What is the connection between writing and grief for you? In “In the Form of Birds” you discuss how after your mother’s death, your inspiration to write dried up. But once you sort of became unfrozen, how did writing help you to make sense of what happened?

Writing, while it’s never easy, always helps me make sense of whatever I’m writing about. Even when writing fiction, if it’s based at all on my life, I learn something from shaping it into a story. I wouldn’t say necessarily that my inspiration to write dried up after my mother died; everything came to a halt for me. It was the beginning of fall semester, 2008, and she died on a Friday afternoon and I only got to take one day off—Monday. Then I was back at it, full force, in a teaching job that saw me putting in 60 hour weeks on a regular basis. This too was so different from when my father had died. He died in late May. I had the entire summer off and I intentionally steeped myself in grief. I went with whatever I was feeling on a daily basis. I didn’t have to show up for a job or anything else. I read a dozen books on death and dying and bereavement. I wanted to do grief well and I think I did. Then a year later I had a sabbatical and spent the whole year off writing the first half of Some Glad Morning, a memoir about my father’s death. Six years after that, another sabbatical and I wrote the second half. So I spent a great deal of time processing that loss, tending to it. But when my mother died, I had a 3-day weekend to be with myself and my utter astonishment that she was gone entirely without warning. Going back to work so quickly was wrong and unnatural, but I had classes to teach and committee meetings to attend and we’d just come back from our summer off; there wasn’t really any flexibility to take time and do grief as well as I had the first time. I was forced to store it, in a closet, like we do clothes for a distant season. When I did have time that next summer, I was even worse-equipped to deal with it, if that is possible, than I was the day it happened. And the longer that box stayed closed on that shelf, the more I dreaded opening it up. I’ve made tiny bits of progress, this essay being one piece of that, and the grief is certainly less raw than it was the first year, but I’ve still not unpacked the box. So much easier to store it. So tidy. I have notes for a piece about my mother and I imagine when I sit down to really write that, I’ll end up grappling with the contents of that box. And I can’t say I look forward to it.

In your essay you write, “Doing grief once does not prepare one for doing grief the next time.” This reminds me so much of John McPhee’s suggestion about writing that, “Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.” I’m curious to know if your experiences with grief translate to your experiences with writing—especially considering you’ve written both novels and a book-length memoir. Does writing a book of fiction teach you how to write a memoir and vice versa, or is it a completely new experience each time?

I could not agree more with the McPhee quote. I think every writer can relate to that Square One psychological nausea. Just because you’ve done it before is no guarantee you can do it again. I remember Sue Miller, in a long ago interview in Mississippi Review, said something about how after she finishes a book and while the book is out there selling and doing well, she takes to the bathtub for about a month, certain she’s written her last worthwhile word. She is plagued by self-doubt. And this is an author whose books are bestsellers; she fears she will not be able to do it again. Comparing this to the experience of grief, I don’t know; I can’t help thinking I would so much rather deal with the agony of writing something new, filling up with self-doubt, waiting months or years for something to be good, finished, ready for a reader, than I would deal with grief again. I don’t want to lose that big again. I don’t know how many times I could endure losses of that magnitude. But I know that’s not really the question you’re asking. I think we learn something from each story, essay, book, we write, and it all adds to our cumulative experience with writing, but I don’t think one book teaches us to write the next one. It’s most definitely a new experience each time, and a potentially treacherous one.

In your young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, your protagonist Tate McCoy grapples with the loss of her mother, who has been murdered. In a sense, she also struggles with the loss of her father, who is standing trial as the prime murder suspect. Did your own experiences with grief inform how you wrote Tate’s character, or is that book entirely an experience of fiction for you?

Great question and honestly one I never pondered before you just asked it. First, yes, the book is entirely invented, entirely fiction for me. But I’m trying to figure out why my experience with grief didn’t really come into play when I was inventing Tate and her experience of grief. And I think it has to do with the age at which the loss occurs. I lost my dad when I was 41 and my mother when I was 51. Tate loses her mom a few months before her 16th birthday. My impetus for writing this young adult novel was, in part, a fascination I have with adolescent psychology. I am interested in the self-absorption that comes with adolescence and the elasticity in the adolescent brain. A good example of this appears in a wonderful short story by Daniel Lyons, “The First Snow.” The story is told from the teenage boy’s perspective, whose father has just been arrested for his involvement in a gay male orgy out in the woods. The bust is all over the local newspaper the next day. Huge. The father, a very sweet character, and totally harmless, is immediately fired from his job as a teacher at the high school. The mom moves out and takes the younger of her two children with her. The narrator of the story stays with his dad. On the night that this news detonates this family, the narrator wonders if he will have to go to school tomorrow. He wonders if they will have Thanksgiving. This is what I mean by self-absorption. This boy’s mother has just learned that her husband and the father of her children is gay, and has had a long-term affair with a male lover. The father has lost his job. Hate messages are piling up on the family’s answering machine. And the son wonders if this is a big enough deal to warrant staying home from school. If my mom moves out, who’s cooking Thanksgiving dinner? It’s classic, gorgeous, wonderful teenage thinking and Lyons nails it in this story. You should read it if you haven’t.

When a teenager loses a parent, her psychology is not matured to the point that she will experience this the same way a 40 or 50 year old will, which is not to make light of how she will experience it, but just to say it’s very different. My grief did not inform Tate’s grief, because I’ve not been through loss at that age, and can’t say I understand it. What intrigues me about it is the way the adolescent can in one moment, be devastated by the loss of the mom, and in the next moment, be intrigued by a cute boy in her class, and in another moment, be perhaps as devastated by that boy’s lack of attention to her, as she is by her mother’s murder. On the topography of the girl’s life, the boy thing and the mom thing might be equal in elevation: twin peaks of disappointment. Later in life, the boy thing will be miniscule, if she even remembers him at all, and the mom loss will still be on that topo map as a huge mountain of loss, even higher and bigger for the time that has passed. But in the teenage moment, they can seem equal.  I’ve often said, when asked what I was exploring in this novel, that I was intrigued to write about a girl who’s dealing with true tragedy, against the backdrop of the more typical highs and lows of adolescence. I find that fascinating. And it’s why I look forward to following Tate through Book Two and Book Three of the series.

In a recent email exchange, you wrote that you “think it’s the memoir writer’s obligation… to populate the landscape.” Meaning, it’s the writer’s obligation to add detail that will evoke a sense of the scene, details that will truthfully communicate the place to the reader although those details may not have actually happened at that exact time or in that exact way. You wrote: “I’ve had students who are afraid to name a meal their mom served at dinner, and so they only say they sat down to dinner with the family. I’m like, pick something, anything. Lasagna. Meat loaf. As long as it’s a conceivable meal in this household, from this mom. Etc. Build a real world out of all the truth you know.”

I think that’s a really interesting perspective, and it’s one that I was often warned against in my MFA program. Nonfiction writers seem to have varying ideas about what “truth” is and how to communicate it. I was wondering if you would be willing to expand a little more on what you tell your students about storytelling, truth, and invention.

I think it boils down to the difference between nonfiction and creative nonfiction. In straight nonfiction—journalism and reportage—you have to be able to verify all your facts, quotes and sources. You can’t recreate dialogue. Creative nonfiction allows the writer to utilize skills from writing fiction and poetry in order to make an essay or memoir more scenic, more sensory, more detailed, more literary, but most importantly, even more true. In memoir class we talk about striving for emotional truth. We paint a picture, as true as we can get it, and that often means having to invent some details. We would never invent the emotion at the core of the memoir, or say we lived in Boston when we lived in Georgia, or say we had two siblings when we had six. You don’t lie about the facts. But when it comes time to paint a scene of your family around the dinner table, YES, give them a specific meal and make it a certain season and create some weather outside their windows. To not do so would be irresponsible, not to mention boring. Some student work I’ve seen straddles the fence. For example: I don’t know if it was a Monday or a Tuesday when x happened. Or, I can’t remember if my dad was driving the Honda or the Toyota, the red car or the silver, the night my parents had the big fight. The not knowing, the not remembering isn’t interesting, and isn’t relevant UNLESS the piece is about amnesia or having a selective memory where one parent is concerned, or a tendency to rewrite history. But if the memoir is about the night your parents had a huge, marriage-changing fight, just plop the family down in one of the cars it could’ve been and go from there. Make the inside of that car, yourself in the backseat, real and tangible and true. Who cares if it ends up having been the other car? What difference would that make? Or the night you cut your brother down from the basement rafters—if the day of the week matters to the story, just pick a day. Be as accurate as you can and always aim for emotional truth, but do your job as a writer and build the world you are representing for the readers. I would never make things up for no good reason. Like in the famous case of the memoir by James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), which was later revealed to have been fictionalized in substantial ways. Why in the world would someone make up something that huge? Ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with making such things up. But when you do that, it’s called fiction.

In the scene you and I were talking about, from a piece of mine called “Friday Night in America,” you questioned whether I’d invented the teenage lovers hanging out by the dumpster by the Laundromat and the Planned Parenthood. It’s curious to me that other details I’d included to make that scene real weren’t details you questioned. For example, the fact that there were moths congregating by the light on the character’s porch. I can’t guarantee there were moths, just like I can’t guarantee there was a teenage couple standing there by the dumpster that exact same night. But I’d seen teenagers doing their laundry there across from where I lived, and I’d seen them leave the clothes in the dryer to go outside and have a smoke, or have an argument or make out. In my mind, it was/is entirely true to put them in that scene that night. They’re not key characters; they do not bring any particular action to the piece, they don’t appear again and they are never named. They are there as setting, as world-building, as sensory detail, and they are just as true as moths flying into a light.

But the best thing I’ve ever seen written about this is an essay called “Lying in the Land of Memoir” by Kathleen Finneran. I frequently include her memoir, The Tender Land, on the reading list for my class, but I always use “Lying in the Land of Memoir” as one of my supplementary readings. No one has said it better than she does in that piece. I highly recommend it.

So, you’ve just published a young adult novel. You are revising a memoir and marketing a short story cycle. What else is on the horizon for you writing wise?

I have so many things I would like to be working on. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many projects in early stages of development as I do now. Right now I’m writing Book Two of the Tate McCoy series, and I’m starting to think that when I’m finished, I should go ahead and write Book Three while I’m in the groove with Tate’s voice. Aside from that I have stories and essays I want to write, and even a book about mid-life marriage. I have ideas for a collection of four novellas, two of which I’ve already written, two of which are just a bunch of notes. One of the two still unwritten is the aforementioned piece about my mother and while I’m imagining it as a novella, it could easily end up a memoir. I think when I engage with that piece, I will finally face my unresolved grief, head on. If I do my job as a writer, and populate that story with details as true as I can conjure, it will mean taking the box out of storage, seeing what’s inside it, feeling and facing that loss.


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