“**ck the gatekeepers,” said Richard Hoffman, Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. He was one of four memoirists present on June 12 at Trident Booksellers and Café who have written about trauma. Melanie Brooks, Alysia Abbott and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich also shared their writing experiences as part of the event “Writing Hard Stories: Memoirists in Conversation,” presented with GrubStreet.
After cussing the gatekeepers out—those who aim to dictate what should be voiced in memoir—Hoffman went on to describe them. “Gatekeepers have a fear of unwelcome information…they put boundaries on art. They’re censors. We need to hear people’s voices.”
Hoffman has experienced gatekeeping first hand. Editors, he said, tried to remove an episode of child sexual assault from a draft of his 1995 memoir, an episode that, he said, was the book’s linchpin.
Hoffman’s candor made me glad I braved a sweltering Monday night for the event, centered around Brooks’ 2017 book: Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma. I felt ready to storm the gates of the New Yorker, where Jia Tolentino had recently written the article, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over” (and I haven’t even finished my memoir).
For her book, Brooks interviewed memoirists to investigate how they survived the inevitable psychological turmoil of writing their “hard stories,” and to gain insight and encouragement while writing her memoir. The memoirists she included tell stories about the death of a partner, parent or child; about violence and shunning; and about the process of writing, and attest to the healing power of putting words to experience, she said.
Her memoir, which, she says, is almost complete, explores the devastating impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. In the thorny throes of writing my hard story, I’ve dog eared dozens of pages of her book, so I can return to the passages for a moral boost when I feel discouraged.
“The memoirist must awaken an issue in the larger community,” observed Hoffman. In his case, it caused the arrest of the coach who raped him and at least 400 other boys. “It was never about me. It was about a crime in the community,” said Hoffman. As a result of writing his book, Hoffman now belongs to, as he described it, “a global network of people breaking through the barrier of shame.”
Abbott spoke about writing her 2014 memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. “AIDS didn’t just happen to me. It was much larger,” she said. “That helped me to write it.”
Marzano-Lesnevich revealed that she didn’t want to be held back by her emotional responses, so she learned to have empathy for her “little girl self,” she said. Her memoir The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, debuted in May. In it, she writes in part about the impact of having been molested.
The larger issues raised by Abbott’s book resonate through The Recollectors, “a storytelling site and community for the many children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS,” which Abbott and author Whitney Joiner co-founded. The discovery of this online community, Brooks commented, was how she first learned of Abbott and her story.
I reluctantly went back out into the heat feeling buoyed by the community, grateful for the writers’ insights and looking forward to digging into Hoffman’s Half the House—the only book of the four that I have yet to read.