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Books As Permission Slips
It’s been a busy time here. I recently recorded the audiobook for You Could Make This Place Beautiful, and the range of emotions I felt while reading the book aloud in the studio, hour after hour, caught me off guard. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that narrating my memoir would be, well, a lot? I mean, c’mon, of course it was going to be a lot. Stay tuned for more on that in a future post.
As I prepare to launch this book in April, I’m thinking a lot about all of the other books that made it possible for this memoir to exist. So today I want to talk about books as permission slips. And not only books, but anything you read that shows you new possibilities and lends you courage to experiment.
I tell my MFA students this: The risks you’re taking in your work now aren’t just for you. You’re writing permission slips for the writers who come after you, writers who’ll see in your work new things to try—with form, with content—that they might not have considered before.
When I was working on You Could Make This Place Beautiful, and even before I began writing it in earnest, I read a wide variety of memoirs and essay collections. The genre I tend to read most often is (surprise!) poetry, but as I wrapped my head around this project and what it might look and feel like, I immersed myself in prose. As a poet, I’d been writing primarily along the left side of the page, so it was time to get comfortable with the righthand margin. So much page to explore! A vast frontier!
In all seriousness, it was a challenge for me, leaving my comfort zone and committing to a long, extended form. I’m a whittler as a poet; my poems tend to shrink as I revise, not grow. So as I thought about how to sustain and structure the book, I looked to poets’ memoirs as models. I wanted to see how other writers whose “home genre” was poetry contended with so much real estate.
The other big challenge was one of perspective and point of view—and, let’s face it, vulnerability. In poems, we have a speaker who is not to be mistaken for the poet. Even if I write, “I walked my dog” in a poem, the reader is not to assume that the “I” is me, Maggie Smith, the poet, or even that the dog is Phoebe, my incredibly cute and incredibly lazy Boston terrier. No, there’s at least some artistic distance between speaker and poet, even when we know that the experiences and details are semi-autobiographical.
In memoir, though, I’m writing as myself. These things all happened to me, Maggie Smith, the author. Yes, there are stylistic choices we can make to create distance, and I use some of them in the book. (I’ll unpack this idea, and talk a little more about these choices, in a future post.) But, importantly, there is no speaker-of-the-poem to stand behind, even if that “coverage” is barely there—a transparent silhouette, a human form cut from tracing paper. It’s not much, but it’s something.
So, as a poet venturing into memoir territory, I needed models to explore possibilities in both form and content. Who else was writing difficult personal stories about marriage and divorce, grief and loss, and the demands of being an artist-mother? And how were they managing it? I needed to see women’s grief, anger, hope, self-compassion, and power on the page, and I needed to see how all of this might be embodied in book form. What structures were available to me? What kinds of telling? What were the possibilities?
In short, I needed permission slips. And I found them!
This list isn’t exhaustive, but here are twenty (plus) books, alphabetical by author, that served as permission slips for me as I worked on You Could Make This Place Beautiful. Enormous gratitude to these writers.
Motherland by Elissa Altman
Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black
The Tiger and the Cage by Emma Bolden
The Crying Book by Heather Christle
The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
This Story Will Change by Elizabeth Crane
Aftermath by Rachel Cusk
Girlhood and Body Work by Melissa Febos
Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello
But You Seemed So Happy by Kimberly Harrington
Make It Scream, Make It Burn by Leslie Jamison
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Two Kinds of Decay and Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso
Bomb Shelter by Mary Laura Philpott
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra
Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg
Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Gina Frangello and Kelly Sundberg, among others, lent me courage as I considered which stories I wanted to tell. They helped me step out from behind the tissue-paper silhouette of the speaker and stand in my own power. Lidia Yuknavitch and Carmen Maria Machado, among others, lent me courage as I considered how to tell those stories. They showed that I could innovate, push the envelope, and trust myself.
Each of these writers, and each of these books, made it possible for me to do my own work. They gave me permission. I imagine these wildly talented women hacking their way through a thick forest, cutting away tangled vines, clearing a path for themselves and their work. When I found those paths already cleared, I didn’t have to machete so much on my own journey. What a gift.
I invite you to consider:
What books have been permission slips for you so far?
What permission slips do you need for the work you want to do next? What kinds of models would be useful, in form and in content?
What permission(s) do you think your writing might give to others? Think about what you’re trying, testing out, even stumbling through: How could these experiments inspire someone else to try new things in their own work?
Love and solidarity in the trying—