Review: Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks

Review by Ashley Supinski

writing-hard-stories-coverMelanie Brooks set out to write her father’s story as part of her MFA thesis. However, every time she sat down at a computer, the blank page and blinking cursor questioned her: “Why are you writing this story?”

This struggle became the impetus of another project during her MFA program: interviewing 18 memoirists who wrote “hard stories” – stories filled with emotion, tragedy, death, and hard subjects. She wanted to find out how they “did it,” how they wrote about the hard stuff. The interviews became the published work, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memorists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, released by Beacon Press in February 2017.

Her written recollections of meetings with memoirists, such as Andre Dubus III, Richard Hoffman, and Monica Wood, read as if we are eavesdropping on their intimate conversations. Brooks describes scenery with a clarity and vividness that puts the reader at the table next to Brooks and her subject at a busy restaurant, right in the middle of a writer’s living room, or even, in the case of Kate Bornstein, on Bornstein’s bed with Brooks dressed in evening wear.

The first half of the book houses the stronger essays, though none of the essays are in chronological order, save for Kim Stafford’s, which is the final interview and final essay. After her introduction, Brooks includes her interview with Andre Dubus III. This is a solid starter essay, as Dubus makes strong points and gives advice to any writer of nonfiction. Of his advice, the most notable is his discussion of the word remember: “Remember means to put back together again.” Later, Michael Patrick MacDonald agrees with this, “What we remember and how we remember it really tells us how we became who we became.”

While this book was incepted through a fumbled encounter with Kim Stafford during his post-panel signing at AWP, Brooks’ weakest interview is the one she conducted with Stafford. Stafford, understandably busy with preparing for his father’s centennial celebration and teaching full-time, answered Brooks’ questions via email. Through no fault of her own, Brooks is unable to include the sensory details that make the other interviews so compelling and engaging, such as the sympathetic looks in their eyes or the reassuring lilt of their words. Stafford, unlike the other seventeen memoirists, isn’t brought to life by Brooks’ prose. Likewise, the advice he gives falls flat compared to the rest of the interviews.

Recurring themes run through the book, emphasized by nearly each of the eighteen interviewed writers. They include the advice to remember that writers are writing their stories, not their brother’s story, or their sister’s story; to write a memoir means to share your Emotional Truth, what you remember and believe to be true about the events that shaped you; and to keep writing, even when it gets hard, because, at the end, there’s a feeling of catharsis — a feeling that allows the writer to breathe and begin to move forward.

What works best about Writing Hard Stories is that Brooks doesn’t make it her story. Even though it started out as a journey for her to figure out how to write about her father’s battle with AIDS and untimely death, she is not at the forefront of the writing. Instead, she is simply the medium in which other memoirists get to talk about the writing process, not the story itself. This craft book is extremely relatable and a must-read for anyone who wants to write (or is writing) memoirs that deal with the “hard stuff.”

On a personal note, as a creative nonfiction writer, I found myself highlighting several passages, marking quotes to remember, and writing my own thoughts in the margins of the book. I will definitely return to this book as I begin my own memoir. More than that, I will use this as a valuable resource in creative writing classes that I teach.

When she’s not writing, Ashley Supinski teaches English at Northampton County Community College (Pa.), Penn State Lehigh Valley, and Southern New Hampshire University. She also works as a part-time librarian, focusing on young adult services. She has a M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University, where she studied with David Poyer and Lenore Hart.

Ashley lives in Pennsylvania with her family, where she graciously dog-and-chicken sits for her siblings. She writes book reviews for the blog, After the Last Page and is also the co-coordinator of YA Fest. 

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