I have a confession: when I found out that my publisher, Beacon Press, would be publishing a book about “writing hard stories” on the same day that my memoir dropped, I was dubious. I was worried because I didn’t think there’d be any way for a single book to elucidate the complicated feelings of putting trauma on the page and then out into the world. I was worried that the book would only reinforce the old narratives about memoir without adding any nuance. I immediately emailed my editor and asked for an advanced copy…good news, friends: I was totally and completely wrong. I quickly found myself underlining and “uh-huh’ing” and saying “yes” (out loud! to no one!) throughout the text. I’m thankful Brooks wrote this book and honored to share a publisher and pub day with her.
In her attempt to write a memoir about living with the secret of her father’s HIV disease after he was infected by tainted blood in 1985 and the grief following his death in 1995, Melanie Brooks was left with some painful questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Would she manage it? Brooks sought guidance from the memoirists who most moved her—including Andre Dubus III, Joan Wickersham, Mark Doty, Marianne Leone, Richard Hoffman, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Richard Blanco, Abigail Thomas, Sue Silverman, Kate Bornstein, Jerald Walker, and Kyoko Mori—to answer these questions. The result of this quest? WRITING HARD STORIES: CELEBRATED MEMOIRISTS WHO SHAPED ART FROM TRAUMA. This book encourages all writers as they work through their challenging stories. It features some of the country’s most admired writers discussing their treks through dark memories and breakthrough moments, and it demonstrates the healing power of putting words to experience.
One of my favorite quotes from WRITING HARD STORIES is when Brooks recounts the accomplished memoirist Sue William Silverman saying, “‘The important thing, and what you have to keep your eye on, is the fact that you can write a book that touches people…Can you ask for more as a writer?'”
Welcome to the Debutante Ball, Melanie Brooks!
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I always planned to be a nurse when I grew up. My father was a general and thoracic surgeon, my mother an intensive care nurse, and I just assumed I’d follow the healthcare path. It was the unspoken trajectory in my family. Helping people was my goal, and I was convinced that being in the medical field was the only way to do it – I was even accepted to nursing school. And then in my final year of high school, I had a semester where I took all sciences and math (Calculus nearly did me in – ugh.) and one English class. That English class saved my life by preserving my sanity, and I realized that words made a lot more sense to me than numbers. I made the difficult decision to adjust my course and chose to major in English, instead. Writing has taught me that helping isn’t always just about taking care of people’s physical needs. Language has its own transformative power, and I’ve come to understand that the gift of shared experience, shared stories, can sometimes be the best medicine we have to offer.
Who is one of your favorite (fictional or non-fictional) characters?
My all-time favorite book character is Anne Shirley from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved ANNE OF GREEN GABLES series. Like many, I encountered Anne when I was a little girl, soon after I learned to read, and because I lived in the Canadian Maritimes, the landscape of her life felt comfortably familiar. I can literally quote sections of the books by heart because I’ve read them so many times. I never grow tired of them. Anne’s whimsy and optimism, despite circumstances that weren’t always easy, made her a steadfast companion, and when my life felt less-than-optimistic, I immersed myself in her story to escape my own, even for a little while. About eight years ago, Montgomery’s granddaughter published an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail that revealed, in an effort to dispel some of the stigma often associated with mental health concerns, Montgomery’s death in 1942 was a suicide. I’ve often wondered whether the light she wrote into Anne was Montgomery’s effort to escape her own darkness. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with a multitude of other dear book characters, but none has ever been the same kind of friend – or kindred spirit – that Anne has always been for me.
Share something that’s always guaranteed to make you laugh.
Dog shaming – you know those photos owners post of their guilty-looking dogs wearing signs around their necks describing their various misdeeds? I have a four-year-old yellow Lab named Wally, and he (like most Labs) will eat anything – most recently, a party-sized bag of peanut M&Ms, bag included, that resulted in a $600 emergency vet visit and a whole lot of discomfort on his part. So, I particularly love, and relate to, the ones where the dogs have eaten something that is not food. I recently saw a photo with a very guilty Husky and the note: “I ate the baby Jesus off our Christmas nativity scene…Not looking forward to the ‘Second Coming,’ literally or figuratively.”
Do you have any phobias?
My phobias are actually what I call “unfounded fears” (unfounded because nothing in my own experience should make me fear them). The first is brain surgery. The idea of someone poking at anyone’s operations center and the fragility of that poking is terrifying to me. The second is farm machinery accidents – the kind where some big piece of equipment that has very large and very sharp blades gets tangled with someone’s limbs. I think it might be because I have a very vivid, photographic imagination, and the pictures I create in my head when I hear those kinds of stories are particularly gruesome and particularly horrifying.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. We all need it. In the afterword of WRITING HARD STORIES, I contend that “[t]he worst story we can tell ourselves is that we are all alone.” For anyone aspiring to embark on this writing life, don’t make this your story. The best advice I can give is to encourage you to intentionally find trusted companions to walk alongside you as you venture into the territory of finding words for your truths. Find people who really get what it is that you are doing. Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction, the journey can feel daunting and lonely. It’s inevitable that at some point, difficult emotions will surface. In those moments – moments that can shut down the creative process – you need good friends who are willing to listen to your fears and doubts, condone your Netflix binge-watching or endless surfing on social media, support your efforts to turn chocolate and french fries into food groups, and then, after an appropriate length of time, eventually encourage you to return to your notebook or laptop and get back to the work you (and they) know you have to do.
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) March 4, 2017
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Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in New Hampshire, with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She grew up in the Canadian Maritimes, and her love for coastal water and rugged spaces are rooted in that background. She writes on subjects ranging from grief, trauma, and illness, to parenting blunders and reactions to current events. Her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, The Huffington Post, Solstice Literary Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, The Recollectors, Modern Loss and elsewhere.
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