Kim Adrian on Listening to What Our Nonfiction Is Trying to Tell Us
The Endless Difficulty of Marrying Form and Content
In 2002, I was an MFA student at the Bennington Writing Seminars, eager to finish a novel already underway. But halfway through the program, I discovered the narrative possibilities of nonfiction, and that changed everything for me. I dropped the novel and started working on a memoir, although at the time I had no idea it would take as long as it did to finish, nor that it would be structured in the curious way it is: in the form of a glossary.
I remember, in grad school, how freeing it felt to get away from fiction. I’ve always had a problem with plot, at least the way it’s often constructed in conventional American Realist fiction. This isn’t to say I dislike action, suspense, or the kaleidoscopic unfolding of interpersonal dynamics that’s often on display in big novels; but I only really go for these things as a reader when they’re over the top. It’s when fiction tries to achieve something that looks and feels like “real life” (while keeping one eye on the “rising action”) that my hackles go up. I just don’t like feeling manipulated. And I really don’t like to work in a way that feels manipulative, either, so writing fiction has always been a challenge for me.
Working in nonfiction was liberating because it helped me realize that there are countless ways to shape a piece of writing aside from plot. (An essay, for instance, can move according to the ideas it contains, the emotions it stirs, or the themes it wanders through.) Unshackled from plot, I began my memoir with great optimism. The first draft—a collage of descriptions of family photographs—went quickly. For a short, blissful period, I thought all I needed to do was describe a few dozen pictures, then arrange the descriptions in an artful way, and voila: a memoir.
But after working on the project for a year I found myself with a manuscript that was just as shapeless as it sounds. Although I’d crafted each description with great care, when they were strung together one after another they became something unbearable. Even I had trouble getting through the whole manuscript. It was clear that what I’d created was simply a staccato arrangement of photo descriptions. The work as a whole had no shape, no direction. I realized with dismay that the beautifully amorphous, experimental forms of nonfiction might not be so effortless after all.
I stuttered my way through a few more drafts of the book over the next several years, abandoning each by turn. At a certain point, I realized that part of the problem had to do with the fact that a major character—my maternal grandfather—was a black hole. I’ve always felt that my mother’s relationship to her father lies at the root of her mental illness, yet she rarely talks about him. Since I’d never met my grandfather and had no access to other sources of information about him, I was stuck.
One day I decided the only option I had was to write about everything I didn’t know about him. Though by that point he was long dead, I addressed him directly, asking question after question. Twenty pages later, I had an essay that, I was surprised to see, had a strong sustaining energy—some actual oomph. I called it “Questionnaire for My Grandfather,” and it was published by The Gettysburg Review. In general I received a lot of positive feedback on that essay, which was gratifying because in it I thought I’d finally caught a glimpse of how I might be able to move forward with my memoir.Energy in writing comes from a place that’s subtle and personal. I think of it as a kind of silence that refuses to be silent. The trick is to listen to it.
Writing that essay was a fantastic experience—an extended encounter with the elusive “flow state.” It felt just as the cliché puts it: as if the words had simply poured out of me and onto the page. Afterwards, I’d had to edit only lightly. Like every writer I know, I wanted to work like this more often—all the time.
My first thought was that I must have been able to access the flow state while writing “Questionnaire for My Grandfather” because of the rigid structure I’d chosen—the questionnaire. Maybe that rigidity had somehow channeled something? I started hunting around for a borrowed form I could use in my memoir, something that might sustain an entire book.
The search took a while, but eventually I landed on the idea of a glossary. Eureka! I thought. This is it—a form that speaks to the urge to organize what cannot be organized (mental illness); one that emphasizes the scattershot nature of memory; and, on top of all that, one that highlights the role of language in my relationship to my mother. I thought I’d finally hit pay dirt, and much as I had while writing that first draft—all those photo descriptions—I spent a very enthusiastic year writing glossary entries, confident that I was really, truly on my way to finishing this book.
Yet, in the end, when all the entries were pulled together, I saw that once again, I hadn’t made a forest at all, just another arrangement of trees. How could I keep making the same mistake?
At this point, I’d been working on drafts of what would eventually become my memoir—The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet—for about ten years. The process of writing it had become so painful that I’d actually started to worry there was something masochistic about what I was doing. I had a string of nightmares in which I found myself physically wedged on mountaintops—literally stuck between rocks and hard places. It was obvious something had to change; I just didn’t know what. I only knew that whatever I’d managed to do while writing “Questionnaire for My Grandfather,” I had to do again. And, clearly, whatever that thing was hadn’t been about structure.
I recalled the feeling I’d had while writing that essay: exhilaration, as if I’d been standing at the edge of a precipice. As I’d written those questions, I’d sensed I was touching something huge and amorphous and scary inside myself—a combination of curiosity and rage that had been inside me, stifled and ignored, for as long as I could remember. It was this that had given my words their sense of urgency and direction.
So I went back through every entry I’d written in my memoir, and I thought about why each one mattered to me. If it mattered. I started hunting for whatever living bits of experience still existed inside me from my childhood and early adulthood—and I worked to connect those bits to each entry, and weave them in. I realized that these living bits were bound up in vivid memories of details, sometimes very tiny details: the pale, nearly iridescent part in my sister’s hair; the cords in her neck when she screamed at our parents to stop fighting; the clear nylon stitching on my flowered bedspread.
Details like these were what had kept the story alive inside me my whole life, and as I began to get them down on the page, small as they were, my memoir started to change. The details began to build into something with force and direction—something that flowed.
We often talk about writing as a matter of marrying the right form to the right content. It’s a useful idea. Form, after all, gives shape and a sense of wholeness. But it’s not what gives a piece of writing its energy. Content, although clearly necessary, can’t do that either—not on its own. Energy comes from a place that’s more subtle and personal. I’ve found it in questions I couldn’t answer and in details I can’t forget. I think of it as a kind of silence that refuses to be silent. The trick is to listen to it.
This essay is based on a lecture delivered at the University of New Hampshire, Durham for the UNH Writers Series.