I first met Beverly Donofrio at Wilkes University, where I was studying my MFA and she was a faculty member. It was a cold January night, and I was nestled into a newly covered theatre chair with about a hundred other students from the Wilkes Program. The faculty readings were about to start, and those of us who were new to the program had no idea what to expect. When they announced Bev’s name, I think I half expected Drew Barrymore to walk out onto the stage. I had just watched Riding in Cars with Boys only weeks earlier and, despite having read the book first, the image of a brown-haired Barrymore with a Brooklyn accent still resonated in my subconscious. Instead, a slim, tall woman with a very full wig, a funky hat and a glittery dress walked out onto the stage.
Those of us who know Bev, know she pulls no punches. And to hear her read is no different. She walked out into that auditorium, placed her pages on the podium and poured her guts out. She read one of the most brutally honest slices of memoir I had ever heard. She read about being raped, about surviving, about finding spirituality and about moving forward when the light in her life was all but snuffed out. And she read all of this without flinching. She was graceful and gritty all at the same time. As a woman, I applauded her strength. As a writer, I was in awe of her gift.
I was lucky enough to study with Bev for the last two years, as she has guided me and mentored me while writing my memoir. I’ve often said that if I could bottle what she has taught me and sell it, I would be rich. Bev is hard at work on a third memoir, but was kind enough to talk with me for a bit about craft and honesty, and how memoir has evolved through the years.
Bev: Back in 1988, when it was still possible to do such a thing, I sold Riding in Cars with Boys on the basis of two memoir pieces I’d published in the Village Voice and a five-page proposal. When my agent sent these out we both thought I was proposing a novel. I met my editor, for the first time, at a restaurant. He poured wine. I said, “Novel,” and he said, “Novel? I didn’t buy a novel, I bought a memoir.” He went on to explain that people would be more interested in the story of a “bad girl” who gets pregnant in high school if it were true, and much easier to publicize. I hadn’t made anything up yet, and in fact was having a hard time fictionalizing because the thing that compelled me to write the story was that it was my story and it was true. Re-conceptualizing it as a memoir was an easy adjustment to make—actually, it was a relief. And I did get on Good Morning America.
Amye: What is your writing process like?
Bev: I get up, make coffee, read something spiritual, meditate, do Yoga, then write. Some days I skip the Yoga, some days I go for an early morning walk. All of the disciplines are in some way in service to the writing. To get me centered, able to focus, less stressed. I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth.
Amye: When did you start writing, and when did you know it was your passion?
Bev: In the seventh grade my English teacher made us write every week. Sometimes she gave us subjects or prompts and other times she let us loose. I loved writing those pieces, was often praised and most fun of all: I got to read what I wrote aloud. My first love at the time was acting. I only developed a passion for reading literature once I got pregnant at 17. Literature opened up the world and gave me a life, if only vicariously. Although I was always writing, I never became passionate about it until I was in college, and I didn’t get to go until I was 24.
I think [memoir has] become more and more artful; it’s constantly stretching its boundaries, morphing into new structures, blurring the lines between genres. – Beverly Donofrio
Amye: When you first came on the scene with Riding in Cars with Boys, memoir was a relatively small field. What are your thoughts on how the genre has changed over the years?
Bev: I think it’s become more and more artful; it’s constantly stretching its boundaries, morphing into new structures, blurring the lines between genres. I used to think of memoir as the novelization of one’s life. But I don’t think that anymore; the form expands and bends and, although it’s about telling the truth in a narrative form, there’s much free associating and poetry, reportage, essayistic writing, history outside of one’s own that can be woven, or plopped or jack-hammered in.
Amye: What do you think of writers like James Frey, who was discovered to have invented much of his memoir? How important is absolute truth in memoir?
Bev: I think James Frey should be shot. And his editor imprisoned or at least fined. I read that book and knew within fifty pages it was fiction. I do not believe his editor didn’t know that too. I think he should be made to give every penny he earned to Pen International or some worthy writers organization for making us all so embarrassed at how easy it is to lie and have it be perceived as true—and for shamelessly portraying himself in his book as such a macho. Please. On the other hand, like all shit storms, it has its positive side. It’s forced a discussion about what one can legitimately do in a memoir. Although one tries to tell the truth, in order to make a story readable, one must choose what is told and what omitted, enforce a structure, a story arc, impose meaning on raw life. One compresses time and recreates scenes from memory, and whole swaths of dialogue. At least I do. I may remember a key line or two but for the rest of it, I ask myself, “What did I and everyone else there probably say?” Once I begin writing, I believe that what I wrote is very likely what I now remember. I realize this may be delusional but I don’t tell out and out lies, and I don’t make scenes up from whole cloth, and I try really hard not to make myself into someone better or worse than I am and not to make others different from how I truly see them. But, as we know, vision, perception, memory are all selective whether we want them to be or not.
Amye: If you could give upcoming memoirists one piece of advice, what would it be?
Bev: The same advice I’d give to any prose writer: do Yoga, elasticize your body to save it from the ravages of sitting on your ass, neck craned, wrists angled, fingers moving repetitively—for a good percentage of your waking life. And I’d tell them, take notes, and avoid whining at all costs. And: simplify your life, because writing requires focus, and it pays chicken feed.
Amye: What is one memoir you think everyone needs to read?
Bev: That’s not possible to answer. I do have my favorites—Safe Keeping by Abigail Thomas, Boys of my Youth by JoAnn Beard, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick—come most immediately to mind, but there are many others, and now I feel as though I’ve slighted them. How about I tell you the most recently published memoir that I loved and think everyone should read: Kelle Groome’s I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. Kelle’s a poet and poets are wonderful memoirists.
Amye: What can we look forward to in your next memoir?
Bev: A damned good story, I hope. And a damned good dose of God that’s, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “Like shining from shook foil.”
Beverly Donofrio is the author of two memoirs: Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking for Mary. Beverly is an award–winning radio documentarian and essayist and can be heard on such programs as All Things Considered. Her personal essays have appeared in national newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Allure, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, The Village Voice, O, Marie Claire, and Spirituality & Health. She has also written an award winning children’s book, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. Astonished, her third memoir, will be published by Viking/Penguin in 2013.