Content warning: the following contains mention of childhood sexual abuse.
Four days after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States, my newborn granddaughter sighed softly under my chin as I received an email offering publication of the book I had been writing most of my life, a memoir in fragments, “The Part That Burns.” Six days later, I listened to the announcement of a global emergency.
My book would be born in a time of sickness and death, fear and fury, isolation and collapse. Hardly what I had expected. As I say in the memoir, “Expectations can be slippery.”
Through its fragmented and elliptical form, my memoir explores brokenness to find wholeness and illuminates the painful effects of childhood sexual abuse. My stepfather molested me for six years starting when I was about four. He also was violent, and his abuse cast a long shadow. That shadow became especially deep when I became a mother myself.
Thankfully, the physical and emotional intensity of motherhood also offered an opportunity to heal through loving and caring for my children. I was able to slowly reclaim my body and become more wholly myself, while recognizing that some wounds never entirely disappear. “You can tear something apart,” my younger self says in the book, “and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way.”
Although I briefly tested a more linear, chronological structure for my book, I knew almost from the start that my story would work best in a fragmented form that mimicked the way trauma spirals through our lives. I already loved fragmented book structures long before I wrote my own. But during the pandemic I began seeing even more potential in fragments, particularly as they reflect the innately feminist act of finding the whole in the part.
From its inception, this pandemic exacerbated cracks in every system. I, like many writers, found it difficult to read, let alone write, under such circumstances. Art asks us to open ourselves to the unknown, self-revelation, and the risk of failure. How could I calm my nerves enough for that kind of vulnerability?
Once again, I found my answer in fragments. Maybe because fragments convey meaning differently — less directly — than longer chronological works with beginnings, middles, and ends. Fragments mirror something important about this collective shattering, which is that every piece of the whole is crucial.
Paradoxically — because fragments arrive at their meaning indirectly — they also require meticulous attention from both writers and readers. The poet Marie Howe said, “This might be the most difficult task for us in postmodern life: not to look away from what is actually happening. To look long enough so that we can look through it, like a window.”
Opening this window felt worth the risk of vulnerability. I found myself nourished by tiny works. These compact creations demanded unflinching observation of the inner and outer world. They demanded to be built one careful word at a time.
As the pandemic pushed my reading and writing into smaller containers, it also pushed my teaching in that direction. I imagined creating a writing space with gentle expectations — no advance reading, no pressure to produce. The result was a virtual writing workshop called “Writing in the Dark: Survival Strategies for Creating in Uncertain Times.”
Almost 150 writers have gathered in nine sessions, and the workshop continues in 2021. Participants have said they were able to write artfully about things they have never been able to write about before — a mother’s suicide, the death of a child. Ultimately, the capacity to change our quality of seeing is the most pressing call to action of our time.
For those interested in delving into wholeness through flash and fragments, here are some of the extraordinary writers I have been reading this year:
“Safekeeping,” by Abigail Thomas
This gorgeous memoir in fragments is a triumph of language and observation, an ode to forgiveness. I find this book more inspiring and comforting with every read.
“Sing to It and Collected Stories,” by Amy Hempl
Hempl is a genius of the flash form. Her powerful work, electric in its language and stunning in its capacity to spot universal truth in the minutest detail, falls somewhere between short story and poem.
“Solutions and Other Problems,” by Allie Brosh
Like countless others, I have waited years for this sequel to Brosh’s groundbreaking and hilarious memoir, “Hyperbole & a Half.” Brosh peels back the layers of her most painful experiences during her long hiatus while still making us laugh.
“Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler
This one is not technically a fragmented work, but Butler is one of the most prescient voices for our times, as her fiction foretells future directions for both the United States and humanity. Fiction also allowed Butler to imagine an alternative future for herself — a brighter and more expansive one — than what was expected. That is the kind of example we need now, and always.
Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, “The Part That Burns,” is available from Split/Lip Press. She teaches writing through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and through the independent writing program she founded, Elephant Rock. She is working on her first novel.