Issue_40  August 2019

"Perhaps we'll summon our characters from the fog of love." — Beth Kephart

We build our memoirs out of truths. We build them, equally, out of characters and scenes, dialogue and details, the slow and the fast, the concentrated and the dispersed. We build them, then we break them down, peel the pages back, find out who we were, who we might still be, who the people of our lives have become after we’ve narrowed them to language. Then, if we are writing right, we start again.

Because memoirs are peopled things and because people are, in real life, ungraspable as minnows, we have to think as hard about the ways in which we develop the others in our memoirs as we think about developing (and displaying) ourselves. Are the others there, in our books, simply to advance the scenes? Are they there as political or personal foils? Are they being used to prove a point, to self-congratulate, to strike a mood, to manipulate the reader into drawing a particular conclusion? Are they there to demonstrate the writer’s generosity, or her lacerating wit? Does the writer’s compassion for the others in her book soften her storytelling—or sharpen it?

Jayson Greene, in Once More We Saw Stars, develops his characters as a means of further illuminating himself in this heartbreaking memoir about the sudden death of the couple’s toddler daughter. Greene’s wife, Stacy, for example, serves as an essential foil; in describing her, Greene reveals, by way of opposition, himself. 

For example:

I am grieving around my apartment like a man from an Old World painting—wailing, ripped garments, balled fists—but Stacy’s trauma is not as readily evident. Like any born empath, she considers her own feelings to be the third or fourth most interesting thing in the room. Her emotions, as a result, are private, wordless things, more sound and sensation than conscious thought. They escape her strict surveillance only in jagged bursts, under cover of convenient distractions: her outsized consternation at a plate of runny eggs, a malfunctioning dryer, a late bus. 

And again:

"It feels like I’m closeted and trying to figure out if someone I’m talking to is gay,” Stacy observes of the furtive effort to find community. While I grapple with anger, Stacy has grappled with loneliness: Where are the others? Stacy’s world-map coordinates consist entirely of trustworthy people, nodes of conversation, repositories of wisdom, sources of support. She seeks out and builds these social networks effortlessly, like a spider spins silk.

There are memoirists who can, with a bare minimum of lines, evoke a father or son, a mother or daughter, the weight of unsaid history. In The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them, author Dean Kuipers establishes the others in his book as one might establish landscape—with multi-tonal sensitivity, the quantifiably tactile, and the suggestively superimposed. The author is technically in the scene, but he keeps himself to the left of the page. His purpose is to let us come to know a brother as a man unto himself: 

Joe only sleeps one night out of every four or so, a circadian scar: a constant reminder of troubles that started long before we got this deer camp a quarter century ago. He’s a big man, six foot one and running about 220, barrel-chested and banged up. One knee doesn’t work and his back was broke once, and when he’s not obsessively changing toilets in the apartments he owns, he’s likely to be fly-fishing or sitting out here on the porch. He chews ice out of a big dirty Slurpee cup held together with duct tape. He has turned the fridge into an ice farm and superintends five trays of ice there in various states of ripeness and is constantly getting expensive dental work done.

Finally (though there’s never really a finally, just an encroaching word count), I like to think about what Gary Shteyngart did as he developed the character of his father in the memoir, Little Failure. Here, the author’s father is a source of humor and terrible irony, plot advancement and scene. But he is also presented as proof that, while the truth must govern memoir, imagination must govern empathy. The author has just arrived in the world. A bond is being forged. Shteyngart deduces his father in this passage—he deduces magically. He is a vessel, a wish, and a prayer—a character summoned from the fog of love.

Fathers are not allowed into the Otto Birthing House, but for the ten days we are separated my father is struck by the sharp (if not terribly unique) feeling that he is no longer alone in the world and that he needs to be next to me. In my first years on earth he will express these feelings, let’s call them love, with great skill and single-mindedness. The other aspects of his life, a generally uninspiring career engineering large telescopes at the famous LOMO photography factory, his dashed dreams of becoming a professional opera singer, will fall away as he tries to fix the broken child in his arms.  

Characters as foils. Characters as landscapes. Characters summoned from the fog of love. I could go on and on. The important thing is this: Discover what your characters mean to your story, and you’ll discover something new about what they mean to you.

Forest Avenue Press, coming October 1, 2019
A conversation with Jackie Shannon Hollis

This Particular Happiness: a childless love story is a book about subverted expectations—the future a girl imagines for herself and the life the little girl grows up to live. It’s about wanting something desperately, then learning to explore—intelligently—just how that want began. A natural caretaker, an expert babysitter, Jackie Shannon Hollis had always thought she’d be raising children of her own, always thought that she’d be there, among family and friends, easing a baby into dreams. But life isn’t what we plan, life is what we live, and when Hollis marries a man who loves her and the life he has (just the two of them) with her, there will be no persuading him to change his mind. 

Is this compromise? Is this grace? Is this something more?

Building her story through short bursts of memory and longer interludes, relying on theme to carry her through and not chronology, Hollis wrestles with disappointment and self-doubt, not to mention love and self-empowerment. She takes us on her journey, the zig and the zag and the truth of it. Cheryl Strayed has called This Particular Happiness “gloriously wise.” Sheila Hamilton has called it a “must read.” Zoe Zolbrod found herself “riveted.” And me? I had the chance to interview Hollis myself, which was its own particular pleasure.  

During the days when I was reading this propulsive and compelling memoir, I’d glance again and again at the jacket, and each time I did I’d have a different idea about what that word “love” in the subtitle might have meant to you, and what you hope it might mean to readers. And so here I am, asking.

My publisher and editor, Laura Stanfill, and I had many conversations about the subtitle. I worried that “love story” might be too precious, what my uncle Jack used to call, “too much of the muchness.” And yet love story is what we kept circling back to, in the same way that my story circles back to love in its many forms. Mother and daughter, sisters, friends, aunt and child, husband and wife. The love of place and home and history. This Particular Happiness is very much about love and the big, messy, complicated ways of it. 

I hope readers will see that the “love story” I refer to expands beyond the traditional romantic idea of that phrase, and that this book is an exploration of the hard work of love in all the forms. I hope it will spark reflections on their own ways of loving.

For me, love is about identity. Not just in our romantic and/or primary relationships, but in all relationships. We meet ourselves through loving and being loved, if we are willing to look into the mirror that others holds up for us. Every moment brings the opportunity to engage, to shift and bend at times, to stand firm at times, to stay through the hard conversations, to know when to leave. We will be disappointed and disappoint. No matter what, we will see ourselves reflected and hopefully we can also learn to love the reflection.

The braid of this book fascinates me. You weave between the sometimes distant present and the near past, the almost now and the far away. You are, intermittently, the girl who grew up around others for whom motherhood was the presumptive future, the young woman who very much wants a child of her own, the wife trying to have a child with a first husband, the wife negotiating parenthood and not-parenthood with a second husband, and the woman grateful for the life she has. Some of these chapters were previously published in magazines. Can you talk about how the structure of the final product came about?

I wrote the essays that were originally published elsewhere long before I began this project. They were explorations of single experiences. A moment of anger with my father about his drinking. A sexual assault. A piece about early sexuality. When I began working on This Particular Happiness, I saw how these pieces fit in the bigger story. What a delight!  

I turned 60 last year. Each year I see more clearly how deeply entwined my present life is with memories of the life I’ve already lived. Sometimes I feel a memory as though I am that younger self, and sometimes I go back to a memory with my adult eyes and see something new. Unless we are calcified in the way we experience the world, our understanding of what happened and what it meant shifts with time. Our adult eye at 55 or 41 are different than they were at 32. Each age offers a new perspective on past events. By looking and looking again, we get to keep growing. I wanted my memoir to move between all these viewpoints of time as a reflection of how memory works in me. But that was easier said than done.  

I owe the braided structure of This Particular Happiness to Rachel Sussman. Rachel is an extraordinary and generous agent. Originally the book was a straightforward chronology with a framing incident that led backward in time, met in the middle and moved forward. It didn’t do justice to this idea about the entwining of memory and the shifting meaning we place on events. Over the course of a year, Rachel read multiple drafts of my manuscript. She proposed this structure. Her suggestions excited me. But I was also afraid. If I broke the chronology would the whole thing fall apart? Would it make sense when I put it together in a new way? How would I handle transitions in time so the reader didn’t get lost and the transitions didn’t seem false? It helped me to remember that, as a reader, an author teaches me early on how her book will work. I begin to trust the author and feel the satisfaction of figuring out where I am in time or place and that is another delight in the reading experience. And so I decided to trust the reader. With each revision I learned and grew in my craft. I am so grateful to Rachel for her guidance. 

You clearly gave much thought to the pacing not just of plot but of epiphany. Can you speak to some of that?

When Laura offered a publishing contract to me, it was on the condition that I was willing to make edits, many of which had to do with pacing. So even after all the editing I had already done, I cut more to keep the pace tight and not cover territory already established. This meant letting go of scenes that I felt an emotional attachment to but were repetitive in the point they were making. Hard but necessary cuts. 

For the most part, the early chapters in This Particular Happiness are very short. These brief flashes help show the way small yet profound experiences are etched in me. As the book progresses, some scenes are more detailed and closer in, especially in moments of trauma or anger or loss, to show the intensity of these memories. By the time Bill arrives more fully in the book (he is there throughout, but his introduction as the man I want to spend my life with comes later in the book), the scenes are longer, more detailed. This reflects my own experience at that time. I was going more slowly and being more conscious in my decisions. This space also helps the reader get to know Bill and the early genesis of our relationship because, leading up to this, there is the wondering, “Why did she stay when he didn’t want what she wanted? Why did he stay?” I wanted these later chapters to answer this.

Maybe is a potent word throughout your text. Might you reflect for a moment on why maybe is an imperative, throughout the writing of memoir?

Maybe is a question that, for me, is not only an imperative in memoir but an imperative in life. Memoir is about memory and memories are faulty. Even seconds after an event we have filtered it through our unique context and layered on meaning that helps us understand the event. And, as I mentioned above, time changes our perception. So maybe may be the most used two-syllable word in the book. 

In This Particular Happiness, ‘maybe’ serves several purposes (I hope you don’t mind a list): 

  • To ask the question of what someone else’s experience was that I cannot know for certain, and to show me putting my story on that person. 
  • To explore what my own motivations might have been at a given time but that I don’t know for sure:  maybe I did it because of this, or that. This is the trying to understand who I was then, and what I understand now. 
  • To challenge the idea of direct cause and effect. Because I find it virtually impossible to say, “this led to that” when it comes to so many things. 
  • To express the possible things happening in a given moment. I seem to live my life in the gray. Which isn’t to say the events in my memoir didn’t all happen. They did. But my feelings about them, my interpretations, these are my maybe. 
  • And finally in more concrete terms, maybe is used to say, I don’t know exactly when or how old or what color, as in “I was 6 or 8."

You mention Dawn Raffel in your acknowledgments and the community of writers that sustained you as you worked on this book. You also mention Laura Stanfill, your publisher and editor and the great advocate for literature through Forest Avenue Press. What are two of the most important things others have taught you in this writing journey?

Since you mention Dawn and Laura, I will what they’ve taught me. Dawn is an excellent and generous human and I admire her writing. I hired her as an editor when I had a solid draft. She continued to be supportive of this book even after our contract was complete. Dawn is one, among many, who have taught me the important balance between dedication to our own work, and also lifting up others in our writing community. 

I hit magic when I became a Forest Avenue author with Laura Stanfill. She really works with her authors to learn who they are and what they want their publishing experience to be. I was recently telling her my worries about getting the writerly and pre-launch things done amidst doing the other things of my live—helping my brother through his hip surgery and babysitting my nephew Santiago, preparing for a visit from our Swiss friends, getting enough time with my husband, and taking care of my own love of a nap now and then. Laura said this: “But it feels important to live our lives and be our genuine selves, because the work comes out of that and is sustained by that. We are sustained by those experiences. Not by reviews or deadlines.” I find this very reassuring.


Last month we shared this image—one of several Juncture partner William Sulit has been creating and posting @ws_studioarts—and asked our readers how the image intersected with a scene from their own lives. We loved what we heard back and will be sharing entries here over time. Today we share these words, from Nancy Rasmussen.

Can I bottle the days in our Colorado basement family room when both boys were under 10? Nah, but I can still remember them to soothe me to sleep, to tease out a smile during a sour time. With above-ground windows and a red and green plaid (really) indoor/outdoor carpet, it was a three-in-one room. Peter’s parents’ discarded game table and four chairs beckoned us for games (Yahtzee mostly) and 500-piece puzzles. Twirly, puffy red “leather” chairs sat (or twirled) in front of the TV (hence the carpet colors).  And the wide-open back space was covered with Legos, Matchbox cars, toys of all sorts and gave Kevin and Ben free reign…no need to clean up or put anything away. Life was uncomplicated, life was family.

Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays has found a most dare-I-say-perfect? home with the very editor Jackie Shannon Hollis describes so exquisitely above—Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press. When I sat down to share that news here, I thought I might tell the story of how Laura and I came to know each other several years ago, or how, since Laura and I met in Washington, DC, in June, we have not stopped talking, or how every single time I get an email from Laura, I feel exhilaratingly appreciated and seen. Also how Laura herself is a tremendous writer, a woman of a thousand apparent gifts. I thought I might say all that, but I’m going to save the extension of those words for another day, closer to publication, after I have (if this ever happens) somehow absorbed the magnitude of this gift. For now, I share these words from Laura herself. Laura is primarily a publisher of literary fiction. She reviews memoir by invitation only.

This new essay, in Catapult magazine, is about three collisions and the long afterward—a mother-daughter story, a forgiveness story. It is an integral component in Wife | Daughter | Self. 

We are anticipating the August 13 release of our first picture book from Penny Candy Books, Trini’s Big Leap, co-authored by Alexander de Wit, CEO of Little Gym International. The book recently received a wonderful Library Journal review. To see the (adorable) trailer and to preorder, go here. 

Character Development: a three-day Juncture Workshop Memoir intensive will be held in Wayne, PA. Let us know of your interest here.

It’s not just the narrating “I” who must come to vibrant life in memoir; it’s every other character who enters into the tale. In this three-day workshop, participants will learn the art of character development by reading master memoirists during morning sessions and responding to guided prompts. During afternoon workshops, participants will receive group critiques of up to 1500 words of essays or memoirs in progress. Sessions will run from 10 AM to 4 PM Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Dates: 09.19.19 – 09.21.19
Price $675.00
Limit: 12 people

Roots: a five-day intensive workshop in Frenchtown, NJ, will focus on singular moments and universal themes and be held from October 20 through October 25. For more information,
please write to us here.
JUNCTURE NOTES is a labor of love. If you find this content helpful, please consider donating through PayPal to help us continue to offer the kind of in-depth reading, interviewing, and reporting that has come to define us.

Photography by William Sulit, Juncture partner

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 24 books, including six memoirs, Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, the 2013 winner of a Books for a Better Life Award. A frequent speaker, panelist, and workshop leader, Beth also teaches memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, where she won the 2015/16 Beltran Family Teaching Award. Wild Blues, a novel built out of some of the stuff of Beth's life, was released in June. Strike the Empty: notes for readers, writers, and teachers of memoir is out now.

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