Desiree Magney–Writing from the Heart, Shaping it into Art: How Memoir Evolves into Prose

 

LPR’s publisher, Desiree Magney, offers some insight on writing narrative and memoir.

Little Patuxent Review is always searching for captivating true stories. But having a great story to tell is just the first step to writing a compelling memoir or personal narrative. What makes a memoir stand out? What gives it appeal? What makes it relatable to a larger audience? How does a good story become a work of art?

Elements such as a narrative arc, character development, dialogue, incorporating sensory detail, scene writing, and musing all contribute to making a good story a work of art, just like in fiction. But in memoir writing, the narrator is you, and the story to tell, uniquely your own. And in telling the story, a good narrator shows the reader how events created a conflict, a change, a transformative moment. We see the narrator grapple and muse and come away with some kind of reckoning of the situation. And even though the reader may never have experienced circumstances like the writer has gone through, the reader can relate to it at some level. The reader is on a journey with the narrator and sees the bigger picture.

The relevance to the reader may occur in myriad ways. For example, there may be a commonality in circumstance. In, “White Shoulders,” a story I published about my mother’s lifelong favorite scent and her decline and passing, readers may be able to relate to the link between scent and memory, to the illness or death of a dear one, or to a daughter’s guilt as she sees her mother slip away. In circumstances where a reader may not be able to relate to the specific story, there may be a larger relevance or lesson to learn. For example, perhaps not many readers of “Taking Flight,” a story I wrote and published about my daughter’s decision to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan, soon after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, could relate to those precise circumstances. But anyone with a child can relate to the struggle of parents to let go of their young adult children, especially when fear for the child’s safety feels overwhelming.

Desiree Magney, LPR Publisher

Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story says, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events…What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

In a class I teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I delve into more of the elements that make a story engaging to a reader. My other favorite books on craft are: The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers by Laura Oliver; Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz; Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg; and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Our editors are looking for stories that are true, well written with all the elements mentioned above, and that connect, as memoirist Cheryl Strayed says, “to the greater, grander truth.” Send us your story.

Desirée Magney is a former practicing attorney who writes narrative nonfiction and poetry. Her nonfiction has been published in bioStories, Bethesda Magazine, The Delmarva Review, The Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine (Washington Voices column), and The Writer’s Center – Art Begins with a Story. Her poetry has been published in Jellyfish Whispers and was included in the Best of Anthology, Storm Cycle, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press. She is the publisher of Little Patuxent Review and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Advertisements

Contributor Post – “Kathy”

The following was written by Little Patuxent Review Co-Publisher, Desirée Magney.

I was sitting at my breakfast room table a few months ago, talking on the speakerphone with our editor, Steven Leyva about LPR’s upcoming “Prison” themed issue. As the new co-publisher, I was furiously taking notes about the publication schedule. Our conversation then switched from the minute details of producing the issue to the prison theme itself.  We spoke of the body as a prison and the artist, Lania D’Agostino, whose work represents those confronting issues of gender identity. But another type of bodily imprisonment immediately came to my mind and the pencil I was using to take notes froze in my hand as an image of my eldest sister Kathy flashed before me.

About two years ago, my sister, Debby, and I signed a sheet at the front desk of our sister, Kathy’s new assisted living apartment and began the walk towards her room. The odor hit me first – a faint hint of urine covered with a thick blanket of Lysol’s Crisp Linen scent.  But it was as nice as these places can be and I had seen a number of them over the past few years.  The carpet was forcefully bright and cheery – forest green to hide the stains but with red, pink, and white flowers to soften the look.  I glanced up and on the wall to my left was a framed print, an exact replica of the one at my mother’s assisted living apartment building in Washington, D.C., where I had been her caregiver.

I hadn’t expected to be in a place like this again so soon.  Our mother had passed away from Parkinson’s disease and Vascular Dementia in mid-March 2014.  All my sisters and I joined together for the funeral in Pennsylvania, where we grew up.  During those few days back in Camp Hill, it struck me once again how different we all were. Kathy with her dark hair, once olive-skinned, now pale but meticulous about her vitamins, herbal supplements, healthy eating, conspiracy theories, and Mormon religion.  Linda, with her light brown hair and eyes to match, pinned like a sorority girl with a four-inch Catholic cross fastened to her long, loose, nun-like dresses.  Debby, blond like me but blue eyed against my green ones, both of us lapsed Catholics and of no religious denomination but accepting of our sisters’ rights to believe in whatever religion or politics they chose, so long as we didn’t have to discuss them.

It was mid-October of that same year, when Debby and I met up outside Atlanta to visit Kathy.  Around the time of Mom’ s funeral, Kathy had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and was wearing a soft splint on her right forearm.  The weakness wasn’t improving and when a friend commented to her how painful it must be for her to work all day on a computer, she responded she had no pain.

“Then you can’t have carpal tunnel syndrome,” her friend replied.  “It’s very painful.”

Kathy sought a second medical opinion. By then she had started to experience weakness in her left hand and arm as well.  After tests to eliminate a brain tumor and something called Stiff Man’s Syndrome the doctor told her the news.

“You have ALS.”

ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. If you Google it, you will find it is often described as “the cruelest disease.”  Over time, you lose your capacity to do everything, including swallowing and breathing, while your mind remains fully engaged and aware. Following a diagnosis, the life expectancy of an ALS patient is typically three-to-five years.  In Kathy’s case the disease was progressing at a speed the specialists at the ALS Center at Emory Hospital in Atlanta had never seen. The only positive thing I could think of was that she had access to the best ALS doctors in the world. They could walk her through the progression and make practical recommendations along the way. But there is no cure.

Continue reading

Celebrating 10 Years in Print

This past Sunday, Little Patuxent Review celebrated 10 years of publication by hosting a reading at The Writer’s Center. Thank you to The Writer’s Center and everyone who attended and made the event a success.

Readers included Steven Leyva who introduced each speaker, but also read a selection of his own work, several poems and a selection of an early manuscript. Steven Leyva is also the co-creator of Kick Assonance, and his work has been published in the Light Ekiphrasis, Welter, and The Cobalt Review. Currently, he is the head Editor at Little Patuxent Review.

Emily Rich, who has written for r.kv.r.y, the Delmarva Review, and The Pinch, read a non-fiction selection from her piece “Retrieving my Belongings,” currently only available in the Delmarva Review. Her work has appeared in the 2014 and 2015 Best American Essays and she is the current Non-Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review and an editor for the Delmarva Review.

Also reading was new Fiction Editor, Lisa Lynn Biggar, and Desirée Magney, board member of Little Patuxent Review. Both read longer selections of their work. Lisa Lynn Biggar’s work has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Main Street Rag, Bluestem Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Kentucky Review , and Newfound, and she currently teaches English at Chesapeake College. Desirée Magney is a former attorney and writes poetry and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in bioStoriesBethesda Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Jellyfish Whispers, among others.

Joseph Ross closed the event with a reading with various poems, including “If Mamie Till was the Mother of God,” winner of the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize.

We hope to see you all again for Little Patuxent Review’s 11th anniversary.

My Writer’s Center

Desirée Magney

Desirée Magney

On August 1, the Little Patuxent Review (LPR) will be showcasing some of its many talented contributors at The Writer’s Center (TWC) in Bethesda, Maryland. In addition to readings by authors featured in our Summer Issue, LPR editors will discuss the submission and selection process.

writers centerI am particularly excited about this event, not only because I serve on the board of LPR but also because TWC is such an important part of my writing life. I’ve been a member and supporter of TWC for many years, so I am pleased to see LPR expand its presence into Montgomery County via this home of the literary arts.

What transpires day after day in this unimposing, two-story building in Bethesda is remarkable. Workshops are taught in every genre, literary events are held, open mics welcome all writers, writing groups meet, plays are performed, and for the past 25 years it has been the home of Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest poetry journal. But on a personal level, TWC helped form me as a writer and continues to do so.

I’ve always been a reader even though we had scant books in our home growing up. The only bookcase in my parents’ house had three short shelves. It sat under my bedroom window. The matching red bindings of Poe, Shakespeare, and Wilde sat above the green spines of an encyclopedia set someone sold door-to-door. And then, there were the blonde Nancy Drews and the exquisitely illustrated The Fairy Tale Book. I mined them in search of their golden nuggets. As a child, each offered a taste of something different, a world I could escape to behind my bedroom door. I watched spring arrive in the corner of the garden of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. I stood in the snow with Vania as the stag in Silvershod, struck his hoof creating gems whose colors tumbled into the night. And I rode with Nancy in her roadster to solve her latest mystery. I became a reader but I wasn’t yet a writer. Yet, even as a child I admired each writer’s ability to draw me in. It wasn’t until well into adulthood, taking classes at TWC, when I felt a writing life was possible for me.

About eight years ago, I signed up for my first workshop, “Creative Writing.” I learned to stop during the course of my day and take in whatever was happening around me with all of my senses. This use of sensory detail is something I try to incorporate to make my personal narratives and poetry come alive. I’ve taken many memoir, poetry, fiction, and travel writing classes. I’ve joined writing groups with fellow students. In a sense, TWC workshops became my personal MFA program. I was given the honor of a “Best in Workshop” reading and published a number of personal narratives in various magazines, and slowly began to feel I was part of the writing community – that I was indeed a writer. My personal essay “The Horn of Freedom”  was published in  The Writer’s Center Winter 2015 publication.

Whenever I walk through the door at TWC, I know I am entering a safe place to share myself and my writing. I’m entering a community of writers who are generous with their time to one another and who are supportive with their praise, critiques, and knowledge.

A perfect day is getting lost in my writing, looking up at the clock, thinking a few minutes have passed, only to discover it has been hours. It took me years to discover this new me and I don’t think it would have happened without the support of TWC and its writing community. So, I will enjoy this August 1st event, watching the confluence of the journal of which I am so proud and the place that is such an integral part of my writing life. Won’t you join me?

Online Editor’s Note: Join Little Patuxent Review editors Laura Shovan, Emily Rich, and Steve Levya, and writers published in LPR as The Writer’s Center celebrates publication of LPR’s Summer issue. The reading will be followed by a reception. 

Readers include Joseph Ross, George Guida, Rachel Eisler, Katy Day, Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, Adam Schwartz, and Paul Carlson.