Nods from the Universe: Interviews

Jeniah Johnson on Memoir

Long-listed for the First Pages Prize and short-listed for the Sandra Carpenter Prize, Jeniah Johnson’s creative nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in The Write Launch, Colectivo Tabú, River Teeth: Beautiful Things, Hunger Mountain, and other publications. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Vermont where she’s working on a memoir.


Jocelyn Winn: Writing memoir requires you to commit yourself to the long haul. How did you know your story had the meat to sustain a book-length work?

Jeniah Johnson: Oh, I knew I had meat alright. It’s finding the right cut and trimming the fat that’s taking forever. I think most people, especially those of a certain age, have enough life experience to write a memoir. Good writing is always interesting. 

JW: How is writing a memoir different from or similar to crafting shorter-form essays?

JJ: Very different. I love how nimble one can be with an essay. Sometimes, I start with an image. Sometimes it’s an emotion that gets me going—how I felt when I got a certain phone call, for example, or witnessed a particular event, and how that feeling ties into my role as a mother, daughter, wife, or friend. My biggest challenge with the book is sustaining an idea or identity for the long haul. I’ve been told my memoir has “too many pearls and not enough string.”

JW: Because you’re in it for the duration, do you have any daily rituals or practices to set yourself up for productivity or protection as you mine the past? How do you sustain that practice day in and day out?

JJ: I lack self-discipline and hate sitting still. This is why my online writing group has been indispensable. Not only do we keep each other accountable, we support one another during those dark times (in life as well as with our writing). I have my own space with a desk I use only for writing. I keep a yoga mat nearby for when I spontaneously hop out of my chair. Instead of leaving the room, I’ll do a quick flow. When my writing room, which happens to double as a guest room, is occupied by visitors, I suffer from separation anxiety and can’t wait to get back to it like a lover, or a good book.

JW: CNF narratives must carry all the elements of story. Seeing your characters are real people, how do you make them come alive/believable/trustworthy on the page when you can’t make up attributes or events?

JJ: I don’t have an issue making my characters believable because I know them so well—their hopes and hells and the little quirks which bring them to life on the page. When it comes to me as protagonist, however, I doubt I am so well rendered. I am reading a memoir similar to my own, Don’t call Me Home by Alexandra Auder. I like how Auder’s little girl protagonist has certain ticks such as thumb sucking, thereby reminding the reader that this “wise beyond her years” narrator is a mere child.

JW: Micro essay as memoir is having a day. Love it or hate it? (I’m reading Maggie Smith’s new memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, for instance.)

JJ: I hadn’t heard of this book, but now can’t wait to read it. I love experimental memoirs and all forms of poetic prose. Poems tend to crack the shell of our intellect to get to the part that nourishes. I have found that imagistic memoirs do the same. 

JW: You have a knack for crafting fragments that remain lyrical and serve a purpose, that don’t feel choppy or disjointed. Do you like sustaining that voice/syntax over long works or is that something you utilize consciously or unconsciously only in shorter forms?

JJ: Thank you for the compliment. And the insight. I think you might have hit on my biggest challenge with writing long-form. I intuitively write lyrically and then my overthinking brain tells me that this is not a sustainable form for a book.

JW: Many authors at first decide to fictionalize their own narratives but often find it doesn’t do it justice. Did you ever debate writing your story in another genre or form?

JJ: ALL THE TIME! I can’t wait to try something new, but this yet to be completed book needs to be nonfiction. The truth is simply too strange. As to form, I spend about a third of my time writing from the gut, and about two-thirds questioning my structure.

JW: How do you account for dialogue over the course of the book, which begs the question, how do you account for gaps in memory or exactness? I’m thinking of Mary Karr’s advice to admit to the absences on the page, to the reader.

JJ: I love dialogue; there’s no better way to build character. It’s also great for humor. I don’t worry about exact words or details. Do readers analyze exactness, or is it one of our excuses we come up with not to write? One of the great wisdoms I learned from the amazing Sue William Silverman: It’s the emotional truth that matters. As to the Mary Karr technique, it can be effective in building the reader’s trust, but it’s tricky. She does a good job of speaking directly to the reader, or leaping ahead in time, but I’ve been advised to avoid “breaking the dream.” I plan to include a disclaimer at the beginning explaining that some characters and events are conflated.

JW: You’re not alone in having sustained the work of your memoir for years. Is that intentional, to put it away and return to it? What insights have you gained each time you reopen that drawer to collect the manuscript?

JJ: Whenever I beat myself up for taking ten years to write a memoir, I have to remind myself of two things. 1. I had a lot to mentally process. Professional therapy might have sped things up a bit, but I find talk therapy uncomfortable. 2. While I’ve always been a big reader, and was an English major in college, I had little experience with creative writing. After three years of attempting a memoir, I realized I needed to learn how to write first, so I enrolled in an MFA program. I learned a lot, made like-minded friends, and gained confidence in my creativity, but in the end, the experience didn’t produce a book. I spent the next few years trying to rescue my creative thesis when I should have scrapped my student work and started fresh. It was a little like trying to renovate a house that’s beyond repair.

JW: What other advice would you give writers just embarking on or in the trenches of their WIP memoirs?

JJ: Based on my own struggles trying to make a cohesive whole out of 300 pages of disparate and experimental pieces, my advice is: Sit down to write a ten-page story on a lived experience. Start at the beginning and work straight through to the end. (You can reorganize later.) Don’t reread, don’t edit. If you can’t help yourself, at least be kind, and sparing. Put it away for a number of weeks. With the next draft add pages, not by going further but by digging deeper. Once you feel grounded in your story (maybe it’s a hundred pages by now) send it to a trusted reader. Ask them to give general thoughts on a separate sheet. Tracked changes are useful with later edits but can be distracting in the early stages, especially when “voice” is still tenuous. As to getting out of the trenches after a long battle, a workshop, class, writing coach, or editor can help. I admire writers with the guts to start the query process only a few drafts in. (Which, by the way, can force your hand in terms of being finished.) Deadlines are everything.

JW: What is something you wished you had known that would have, in hindsight, helped you along the long haul?

JJ: As described above, I wish I’d put all my practice vignettes and essays aside, opened to a blank document, and written a short, messy draft with a beginning, middle, and end before my intellect and my ego took over causing me to question the importance of my story, and my talent as a writer. Next go round 😉

Memoir book recommendations: Too many to count! I cut my teeth on: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Lesser known but seminal for me: Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston and Daughter of the Queen of Sheba by Jacki Lyden, as well as the graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon and What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo took my breath away. Technically not memoir but might as well be: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong broke my heart.

Thanks Jeniah!

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