100 memoirs project #10: Goodbye, Sweet Girl, by Kelly Sundberg


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CW: brief mentions of domestic violence

Kelly Sundberg’s Goodbye, Sweet Girl is the memoir I’ve been both waiting and dreading to read.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence (or any kind of abuse), and especially if you aren’t silent about what you’ve endured, chances are you have at some point felt like your survivor status is consuming your entire identity. That it defines you now. That everything is about the abuse. Maybe you’ve been told, you sure talk about it a lot or why don’t you try focusing on the future instead of the past? Maybe you’ve been attacked, accused of being addicted to drama, to attention, to sympathy, to being a victim. Maybe you’ve internalized some of those accusations and, on your bad days, considered that they could be true. Maybe even on good days, you think, I’m so sick of being a survivor, then realize with an even more sick and sinking feeling that the alternative is to have not survived at all.

See, we didn’t choose any of this. Remember that. These identities were beaten or screamed into our skin and bones and synapses. We’re all doing our best to recover, in our own ways.

Speaking about them, writing about them, is a release valve for some of us.

For some of us, un-silencing is how we move from victim to survivor. Continue reading


Year four of a new self, day xx of a new life


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June 15 roses

I might be blogging exclusively about memoir lately, which I’m good with, but I can’t let a June 15 go by without personal commentary, without taking stock, without holding myself and, as always on this day, buying myself flowers (also my favorite kombucha was on sale so I bought that, too).

Four years ago today, I took my life back. Or did I choose to come back to life? Or did I choose a new life and leave an old one behind? Did I die?

I touched on this conundrum in last year’s June 15 post, when I decided to call it a birthday instead of an anniversary, “a rebirthday, because despite this ongoing healing process, I still feel—I am, I was—ripped into two halves: me before domestic violence and me after.” (Quoting myself is ew but it’s my bday, I’ll do what I want.)

I read the previous three years’ June 15 posts before writing this one, but I didn’t have to do that to know that here I am, a long way out from hell, and I don’t feel that heat anymore. I feel only my own fire, forging a new life. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #9: Whip Smart, by Melissa Febos


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febosPeople are going to pick up and want to buy Whip Smart because it sounds salacious, gratuitous, sexy. I picked it up because I thought, holy shit, how brave to admit this. I will learn something about how to write the stuff that most scares me to share about myself (spoiler: I’m not a dominatrix).

I was right and wrong. Febos is brave, and makes brave admissions—but not only in the way you think. Her entire tenure as a dominatrix was marked by her attempts at distancing herself from this work she did to put herself through college.

Whip Smart is an addiction narrative. And the addiction isn’t kink or sexual power trips, but every drug you can think of, most notably a serious heroin addiction.

What’s different about this particular addiction narrative is how well the narrator hid, while creating even more elements of her life to hide, all while hiding nothing from the reader. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #8: Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot


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Mailhot.jpgI’m behind, because life, but I’m reading!

I’m actually bumping a memoir I read two months ago to write this post because the book’s so good that I’ve been talking about it and now someone wants to borrow it. Must write this post before I lend the book away for who knows how long!

I recently visited Midtown Scholar, an acclaimed indie bookstore in Harrisburg, PA. It’s shameful that this was my first time—I, a native central Pennsylvanian—stepping foot into this space, but hey, now I’ve been there. And I’ll be going back.

In a 2010 Publisher’s Weekly review, Alison Morris described Midtown Scholar as “a cavernous space filled with some 100,000+ second-hand, out-of-print, and scholarly (…) books” that combines with an enormous warehouse inventory to make “the largest used book collection between New York City and Chicago.” The store also houses a coffee shop and its owners regularly host readings, workshops, and author events. It’s basically Disneyland for writers and readers.

I walked in, ordered a mocha and a chocolate peanut butter brownie, and immediately found a memoir to curl up with for the afternoon—one that had been on my Amazon nonfiction wish list for some time.

Roxane Gay calls Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries a “memoir in essays,” among other things. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #7: Love and Trouble, by Claire Dederer


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dedererI haven’t done a memoir post in a bit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading memoir.

I’ve been reading a lot, actually. Since I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ two books, I’ve completed my fifth re-read of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (someday I will be courageous enough to write a post about what Lidia’s memoir means to me). Based on her recommendation, I then bought and blazed through Whip Smart, by Melissa Febos (another forthcoming post), almost immediately after I finished Dederer. I’m reading essays by Hanif Abdurraqib and poems by Danez Smith and Greek mythology by Robert Graves. I’m reading Carl Jung. I’m reading tarot and headlines.

There is so much to take in, so much to keep us up at night, that I might as well stay up late reading instead of worrying. Most days, this works out.

I worried a lot while reading Dederer. Love and Trouble comes with a subtitle: “A Midlife Reckoning.” At first I thought, I’m not going to relate to this. Silly me. I am almost 37. I’m unafraid of being 37, but it should be noted that while I am approaching what we think of as middle age, I don’t feel like I am. I am often mistaken for a college student on the campus where I work. I still get carded more often than not. I climb mountains and blast the same music I blasted 20 years ago—and I dress like it’s 20 years ago, too. I don’t feel 37.  Take that for what it’s worth to you, even hate me for it, if you will.

For so many women, being hated is nothing new. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #6: The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates


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coatesTa-Nehisi Coates is a writer I’ve followed for some time but who I am thoroughly intimidated to write about. He is superlatively intelligent when it comes to the violent racism of American history, a history I am glimpsing and uncovering more and more every day. I will never, can never, know a fraction of what Coates knows, but I swear I will read everything he writes from now on.

The Beautiful Struggle is a beautiful book. (Shit, see? I can barely write this.) Continue reading

100 memoirs project #5: The Telling, by Zoe Zolbrod


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CW: molestation, incest, child abuse, domestic violence

About a month ago, I took a vacation day from work, checked into a hotel for seven hours, and wrote 6,000 words of truth that I’ve never told anyone before. At least, not in so many words.

I had just started reading Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling, and it was clearly affecting me. I have some stuff to tell. This entire undertaking of reading 100 memoirs is about informing how I will tell it.

But the telling itself is important. It is power reclaimed, transformation, revolution. It is survival. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #4: Rise, by Cara Brookins


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Rise cover


CW: Domestic violence

In my few and precious windows of down time, when I’m not reading memoir, I’m watching HGTV.

Tiny House Hunters. Fixer Upper. Property Brothers. Love It or List It. I love me some Love It or List It.

I’m saving for a house, see, and I know I won’t be buying a turn-key, move-in ready, ultra-modern sanctuary. There’s gonna be demo. Mudding. Sanding. Scraping. Replacing. Upgrading.

This TV viewing is research. If I’m having a bad day, I turn it into a drinking game: one sip of red wine every time someone says “open concept,” asks for a large kitchen island, or muses “this space has a lot of potential.” Two sips for every mention of shiplap or subway tile. Three sips if they find asbestos or want a wall blown out but can’t understand that it’s load-bearing and they’ll need to pay out the ass to install a steel beam.

I first heard about Cara Brookins’ memoir Rise from TV, in fact. In January, Brookins was on The Today Show after her book was released, filmed in her 3,500-square-foot labor of love.

The amazing thing to me is that she did the grueling, round-the-clock, self-directed work of building a house based solely on watching youTube videos and then pulled off writing a great book about it. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #3: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, by Jennifer Steil


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Steil coverI have the pleasure of working with five amazing women through the Center for Creative Writing, which I now direct, and one of them is prose writer and journalist Jennifer Steil. I’ve had her memoir The Woman Who Fell from the Sky on my bedside table for a while now and committed to reading it when I arranged for Jennifer to give a reading at the college where I work.

See, Jennifer was planning to fly in to attend a retreat I was hosting for all my Center teachers. But she currently lives in London and, well…Is there anything else you want me to do, if I’m already making the trip? she asked me when the retreat was in its planning stages.

Writers need work. I knew her memoir was about editing a newspaper in a war-torn country, so she and I collaborated on a pitch to have her read and talk about peacebuilding through art, peace efforts in Yemen, and her experiences witnessing peace and conflict as a Westerner in a Muslim city in 2006, for which she would earn an honorarium from my department at the college (peace studies).

Jennifer flew in last week in the middle of a Stacia hurricane. Continue reading

100 memoirs project #2: Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, by Alice Anderson


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anderson coverCW: Domestic violence, rape

Alice Anderson’s Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away nearly undid me.

One thing I’m learning about memoir is that the good ones are supposed to do that. They are so real, they cut like a butcher knife on the throat and chest…

When I got to the passage in Anderson’s book about her then-husband’s most brutal assault, and her sweet small boy toddled onto the page and my consciousness to take that knife away, how could I not see my own son’s face over my ex’s shoulder when ______?

No really, I’m asking. How?

(I’m a little frustrated with myself for being still so vulnerable to these stories that simultaneously and quite literally saved me, continue to save me. I’m working on it.)

I heard Anderson speak on a memoir panel at this year’s AWP conference. I took lots of notes, but what I most remember is what she said about expected narratives: Could she take her story of abuse and “make it a love story?”

Well damn if she didn’t. Continue reading