Posts Tagged how to write a grief memoir
‘Let the narrative bend where it wants to’ – memoirist Joseph Lezza @lezzdoothis
Posted by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris in How to write a book on February 21, 2023
Joseph Lezza’s first published book is a grief memoir, surrounding the death of his father from pancreatic cancer and the years that followed. It began as an MFA assignment to write a lyric essay, and once he’d finished he found he needed to write another and another, until he had a whole book, full of unexpected turns, resolutions and reconciliations – I’m Never Fine: Scenes And Spasms on Loss.
Why that title?
It was a happy accident. In the years after my father’s passing, my best friend and I shared hundreds of phone conversations in which she, the eternal optimist, would talk me down from some fit or frenzy. One day she said ‘You’ll be fine’. I blurted out ‘I’m never fine!’
I got to thinking about that word, fine. Victims of grief and loss are often quick to adopt it when talking to others because it’s easier than explaining how we’re really feeling to people who, despite their best intentions, cannot begin to understand. We grow tired of the uncomfortable nods and pitiful shrugs, so we tell friends and loved ones that we’re ‘fine’, because, really, we want to change the subject.
Underneath all these ‘fines’, though, are a thousand emotions from manic to depressed, enraged to despondent. ‘Fine’ becomes the rug under which they’re all swept. But we further isolate ourselves and calcify these emotions that need to be dealt with.
I’m not advocating that people openly discuss something they’re not ready to, but I hope that by refusing to be ‘fine’ in this book, I might show someone how to feel less alone. And others might pay more attention to the folks in their lives who seem to be throwing it around too generously.
How did you come to write it?
I wrote the first piece in grad school while taking a course on the lyric essay. Up until that point, I was a neophyte when it came to writing about my own life. But I was exposed to Maggie Nelson, John D’Agata, Joan Didion, and Lia Purpura; writers who found astounding ways to bend poetic and journalistic and fictive elements to create nonfictional work that read as something completely other. When it came time for a lyric essay of my own, I decided to write about this period of my life.
As my program stretched on, I began to notice that a great deal of what I was writing was informed by that window of my life. I had to write my way through it before I could write anything else.
How did you get perspective – and breathing space – to write the book?
I was about six years past my father’s death, which provided enough of a distance to re-examine events from a vantage that wasn’t clouded by acute trauma.
With each re-examination, I was able to make peace with someone or something I’d been hanging on to for years. It was a communion of sorts, between me and the page; one in which I could finish conversations, uncover answers to questions, and experience a sort of therapy.
With memoir, we often don’t know how deep to go until a reader or editor asks us to.
I’m not sure digging deeper was ever the issue as much as directness. One thing you learn early in any writing programme is never to enter a piece with a particular message for the reader. That stifles the story because, each time the narrative bends in another direction, you course-correct and prevent the piece from becoming what it’s meant to be.
What was the hardest event to write?
One thing we tend to do, while grieving, is judge. We judge others for how they act and things they say that are largely in reaction to the trauma we’re sharing in. When their reaction doesn’t mirror our own, or strikes us as inappropriate or ignorant or even negligent, we’re very good at character assassination. I am and was incredibly guilty of this.
I swore in this book that I wouldn’t make a villain of anyone. While it’s important for accuracy to document my feelings and emotions as I experienced them, this could not be purely an exercise in telling tales out of school. So, every time I would approach a moment where I could rake someone across the coals, I detailed my initial observations, then attempted to empathise, or discern some rationale or motivation. This allowed me to catch things I’d never noticed in the moment, to reframe events from the POV of someone else who’d been there, someone I’d perhaps judged too hardly because I was too busy suffering from main character syndrome.
And I took as strong a hand with myself as I took with anyone else. Grief is good at tearing down the firewall between us and our irrational impulses. We walk willingly into embarrassing and dangerous places. So to leave out my own mistakes and misdeeds and portray myself as a happy warrior would be a fabrication and disservice to a reader who may be looking for validation. So I put it all in. All the difficult, dirty, damning things. As punishing as they may have been to revisit and write, if I can help someone feel less alone, I will have done something worthwhile.
How did you get a blurb line from Russell T Davies? (Wow!)
I came to know of Russell, like most gays, through Queer as Folk. The US version lived during the entirety of my high school and early college years, the years where content and pop culture is massively impactful because it’s a window into a wider world.
At that time, there wasn’t much LGBTQ content in the mainstream, at least content that wasn’t sanitized. By contrast, QAF was provocative and alternative and confronted a lot of issues that I believe helped a lot of young queer people feel seen. In the years since I came to appreciate Russell for the creative genius he is, in works like It’s a Sin and A Very English Scandal. He’s a writer and creative that I greatly admire.
While I wish I could say we are friends, but he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. That anonymity made me brave. I sent a message that I never expected to be answered; but was met with sincerity, openness and unfathomable generosity. Russell turned out to be just as superlative a person as he is an artist.
So much of the book creation process involves taking long shots and submitting yourself for consideration…and often rejection. I often have to remind myself that that endorsement actually happened.
What else do you write?
I have published a mix of essays, fiction, and poetry. I’m Never Fine is my first full-length book, but my work has appeared in Santa Fe Writers Project, Variant Literature, Still, Occulum Journal, West Trade Review and presses like Messy Misfits Club and Unfortunately. Seven pieces from the book have seen individual publication.
It never gets any less astounding when a press, which has likely never heard of you and has zero stake in your success, gives time and resources to amplify your art. I try to do whatever I can to support them in kind.
In the outside world you’re also a marketer. Marketer of what?
Integrated marketing – we develop ways to embed brands into TV programmes.
It’s an interesting world because consumers are getting smarter. We can smell an ad a mile away and tune it out. But if we’re watching something that fits authentically in the worlds we escape to, we’re more likely to pay attention and engage.
What other jobs have you done, from major to minor?
Growing up I did everything from run games at the local amusement park to renting chairs and inner tubes at the beach to managing an ice cream and candy store. Most of my years in college I spent waiting tables at brunch places and Italian restaurants. My first job post-college was an internship at Walt Disney World where I was a skipper on the World Famous Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom. I also worked as a game driver on Kilimanjaro Safaris, a concierge at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and a guest relations host at the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks.
How did they shape you?
I learned to adapt and communicate with folks from diverse walks of life. I made friends, met antagonists, fell in love a bunch, got my heart broken a bunch more. All of the people and places, the nicks and dings, the hills the valleys, the vistas, the shadows; they made me who I am. I don’t think you can write successfully from a place of safety. You’ve gotta have fun and maybe get beaten up a bit. But that’s okay. Just fill your pen with ink from the bruises.
How did you end up as a writer?
I am an only child and spent a good deal of time entertaining myself. I built worlds and told stories with toys and action figures. I memorised my favourite books word for word before I could even read them. When my TV shows were done for the day, I’d construct new narrative offshoots and build myself in as an original character.
Was anyone else in your family creative?
Both my parents. My mother made dresses from a the moment she could thread a needle. She cultivates beautiful gardens that are always in bloom. She reads, she crafts, she bakes, she knits.
My father was very creative. While he found himself in a ‘sensible’ career to provide for his family, he found countless ways to express himself. He was a master craftsman and a fantastic wood worker. With him, I built rocket kits and model cars. We’d make pine box roadsters for the yearly cub scout derby. In the holidays, we’d clear out the furniture, lay down green carpet and train tracks, and turn the living room into a snowy winter hamlet with working trolleys, locomotives, and cable cars, trees, skating rinks, burger stands, theatres, hotels, and hundreds of residents. Each year he’d add a new building, a recreation of his father’s barber shop or a toy store with shelves of miniature gifts. His creativity was boundless.
What did you gain from the MFA?
Countless things. Exposure to books and professors and students, each with their own unique perspective. I was forced to write outside my comfort zone and in various genres, from which I learned practices and tactics. I learned to workshop, to see feedback not as a criticism but a way to make my work better.
Just as importantly, I learned to give feedback and help fellow writers build up their own work. Because it was an online program, I shared classes with students from the US, South America, Asia, Europe and elsewhere. I shared classes with writers of all ages, all of whom brought invaluable life experience to the discussion. Most of all, I gained a clearer idea of who I am as a writer.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m outlining another collection. But before I begin in earnest, I plan to abscond to a cabin in the woods, touch some trees, get my boots dirty, and turn my brain off.
Some quick-fire questions:
What five books would you save if your house was on fire?
The White Album, Joan Didion
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
Call Me By Your Name, Andre Aciman
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
What scares you?
Growing up, I was timid. Yet I was fascinated by the things that scared me. I think my father’s passing taught me about unrealized potential and how little control we have over our time on earth. We plan things. We put them off for a better day. But that better day might not come.
You can use that as an impulse to seize the moments when you’re in them, to take a leap. When I wanted to travel somewhere but didn’t have a partner who shared an interest in that location, I went myself. I threw myself in the middle of strange places and strange people and made my way. I’ve grabbed every opportunity to do that since.
After college, when I decided to move to a different state, because it was scary and exciting. I remember that drive down the east coast on I-95, increasingly nervous and thrilled with each state I passed because it was just me, my car and whatever I could fit into the tiny backseat hurtling toward an absolute mystery.
.Find Joseph on his website, Twitter @lezzdoothis and Facebook. Find I’m Never Fine here.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.