Dr. Kimberly Grey, an English Department visiting professor, began her craft talk last Thursday with a request that we refer to her as – Dr. Kimmy, or professor Kimmy, or simply Kimmy – because, “Dr. Grey is too close to Meredith Grey [from Grey’s Anatomy].” In this way, she introduced both herself and a central question of nonfiction writing – how do we translate our internal selves into words meant for audience consumption? Dr. Kimmy’s craft talk and her reading later in the evening centered on her newly published memoir, A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing, about her childhood in a household that was “often dysfunctional.” Recognizing the difficult nature of her subject matter, Dr. Kimmy took the time to discuss the various literary techniques she utilized to “talk about hard things without losing integrity.”
Dr. Kimmy described these literary techniques as “shields” and emphasized that, in the context of published nonfiction, integrity concerns the act of writing candidly about things that scare the author and the avoidance of legal repercussions such as an accusation of libel.
The first shield Dr. Kimmy discussed was the prioritization of emotional truth (“small-t truth”) over factual, or “capital T,” Truth. In memoir writing, there is an understanding that any given story can have many tellings because we are always writing and rewriting our own memories. The goal of a memoir is to explore how things are remembered rather than the hard-and-fast details of the memories themselves. Dr. Kimmy followed this doctrine to great effect in her book, focusing on an internal and subjective understanding of events in her life to both avoid the legal repercussions of discussing her mother’s actions and to more effectively – and truthfully – explore muddled, painful childhood experiences.
The second and arguably most important of Dr. Kimmy’s shields was intellectualizing, the process of “thinking pain instead of feeling it.” Dr. Kimmy also described it as “mothering the mind.” By intellectualizing her experiences, she was able to move from the position of subject to scholar, from the narrator to the storyteller. In essence, she said, “my mother” became “the mother.” Dr. Kimmy was able to turn her mother into an idea, an archetype that could be examined and dissected in a way that is difficult to accomplish with real people. In doing so, she also shifted the focus from her mother’s actions onto the workings of her own mind, thus moving the piece away from a simple airing of grievances while also – as the process states – creating some distance between her and the pain she felt.
Finally, Dr. Kimmy explained that she often combines poetic and prosaic forms in her writing, producing new “hybrid” forms. In many cases, these new forms allow for a greater degree of obfuscation without compromising the veracity of a work. Think, for example, about how songs and poems often give us far less context and many fewer concrete details than prose essays.
At this point in her Craft Talk, Dr. Kimmy handed out stapled packets of paper to explain the working of these hybrid forms. The first page showed a visualization of “Jay Lemke’s Theory of Meaning Multiplication”: above, an equation which read, “[apple] + [banana] = [apple and banana].” Fairly straightforward. The second equation read, “[apple] x [banana] = [?].” Dr. Kimmy referred to this second equation to explain that poetry and nonfiction prose, her two genres of specialization, could be combined in an infinite number of ways to express meaning. The second page of the packet showed a “MISSING!” poster, which Dr. Kimmy had used as a template to write a hybrid poem/essay about losing contact with her mother.
She read this poem/essay in full. Here is a particularly moving excerpt:
If Found: Keep her. Maybe she can be your mother. She cannot return to me. She was never mine. Once, on a chilly spring morning, I sat on a swing in the backyard and pumped my legs so hard I thought I could fly. And did, briefly, until I hit the frozen ground, breaking my tailbone. I called out to her the way any child would-mama mama- but she did not come. Instead, her voice carried itself from the kitchen across the backyard. “Get up, get up now” she yelled. I laid in the mud, sprawled like a starfish for an hour, unsure if I would walk again. My mother never came. I learned that my walking, my moving away would, in many ways, delight her. Bad child gone. Gone so far away.
After the short reading Dr. Kimmy asked students to flip to the next page, a blank version of the MISSING! template. Students spent the next few minutes writing their own hybrid pieces, and then the craft talk concluded with a bit of arson.
Yes, arson. Dr. Kimmy handed each student a small tissue-paper-like square she called “wish paper.” In the spirit of the craft talk’s themes, attendees wrote down something they were either terrified or embarrassed to talk about, or didn’t know how to talk about at all. Students then took their papers full of confessions outside the Writers House and burned them one at a time. It was beautiful, watching the smoke rise into the cold night, and it made for a fitting end to a workshop concerned with the process of confronting difficult — and often terrible — things through nonfiction, and the catharsis of bringing those difficult things into the light.
Sophomore Nora/Francis Williams is a contributing writer. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org.