In 2006, I started grad school at The New School for Social Research with a 1,201-word memoir, assigned in a course, which I wrote by borrowing my sisters’ memories. I left with a 21,000-word MA thesis that summed up the research and memory hunting I did in the program. I called it “Chalk Drawings.” Much, but not all, of the writing was what I now know as creative nonfiction. The Creative Nonfiction Foundation defines the genre as “true stories well told.” My MA thesis was a true story fairly well told for stretches. I’d learned by then that I wanted to be a writer and not, in fact, an education policy professional. I wanted to be a writer who could consistently pen true stories well told. So I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts to learn how.
Two years later, I left VCFA with a 47,000-word MFA thesis that I called “Phantom Childhood.” It included some of the original thesis, plus more research and more memory hunting.
Then I did a one-year post-grad, which ended with a 66,000-word manuscript broken into three sections. It was again titled “Chalk Drawings,” subtitled “An Unmemoir.” That was Summer 2011.
By February 2018, when I sent the now-50,000-word manuscript to Bucknell University Press, who would go on to publish it, my memory material had been through 11.5 years of shaping, dismantling, reconstruction, revision, and relentless editing. It was still in three sections. And it had a new title: The Memory Sessions.
A month ago, I returned to VCFA for my final book tour stop of the fall. Same campus, same snow, same beloved friend/MFA classmate Caitlin Leffel, but oh so different circumstances. Caitlin is now faculty with VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing Program, and she invited me to speak with her current students. The topic: Transforming the MFA Thesis into a Published Book.
I had a lot to say!
And so, for over two hours, I said a lot, answering Caitlin’s incisive questions and those from her students, asking them questions in return, and trying to tell (well) the true story of how, and for how long, one borrowed memoir grew into The Memory Sessions.
By the end of my visit, I had lost my voice and would not regain full use for some eight days. A small and fitting price to pay for what was, to me, a very big deal.