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A Writer’s Journal

Of Autumn, Publishing, and Choral Memoirs

With author and memoirist Dani Shapiro at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron, Ohio, Oct. 9, 2019.

 

 

An excerpt of an essay written for my newsletter, "A Word from Marci," on October 27, 2019.

 

Have the trees changed color where you are, or do you live in a land of palm trees and sea breezes? Here in Ohio, the foliage has been ablaze for several weeks. Soon the trees’ gold and red flames—one by one, hundreds by hundreds, then myriad by myriad—will be extinguished, their dark branches left vulnerable and exposed by the gusting.

 

This is a good season in which to publish a book, I think. While autumn generally is equated with the end of life, I like the idea that I'm going against the grain—bringing something new into the world that did not exist before, giving birth in an otherwise dying season.

 

And yet … publishing can leave a writer feeling, well, slightly vulnerable and exposed. Will people find the book? Will they read the book? Will they like and appreciate the book? Will they share the book?

 

It was in that frame of mind that I drove with my husband to Akron earlier this month to attend a lecture by Dani Shapiro, one of my writing teachers. It was a comfort to be in the presence of this remarkable artist—the success of her newest memoir, Inheritance, has surpassed anything she has done in her unquestionably successful career. I'm deeply happy for her, proud to know her and call her a friend, and grateful for all that she has taught me.

I met Dani when I enrolled in her memoir-writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown five years ago. She taught me so much, as did her excellent book about writing called, aptly, Still Writing. I took so many notes from that book and from her class, rewrote them in the small commonplace book that I purchased upon my return home—a purchase inspired by a practice of Dani’s—and I remain in touch with my classmates through the Facebook group “Women Still Writing,” continuing to learn from them, too.

 

I recently found this quote, which I must have jotted down in Dani's workshop and rewrote in my commonplace book, shown above with Dani's book: “Autobiography is not about story. Memoir is about story. But you must choose the window you're going to look through.”


A Choral Memoir

No one was more surprised than I that the window I peered through for my first nonfiction book ended up being the city of Elyria at midcentury. My plan was to write a more personal childhood memoir—and although there are many elements of my childhood in this book, the window that chose me is far larger than that of my living room on East Fifteenth Street. I say the window chose me because all of this feels provident and unexpected and perfectly natural. My vantage point was a window opened to a specific time and set in a specific place, but my field of vision contained multitudes. Because of my research and interviews, Looking Back at Elyria became a city's memoir, and a memoir of everyone with whom I spoke. In another context I told someone I thought of the book as a “multi-voiced memoir,” but I have since heard another description, in another context, that I find more poetic: a "choral memoir." (Wish I'd written that down in my commonplace book so I could provide attribution for the phrase.)

So this is how I view my book now: as a choral memoir, and many members of the chorus will be with me to celebrate its arrival on Friday, November 8.

I have invited people whom I interviewed, and who are still living in Northeast Ohio, to join my family and me at a private reception at the Lorain County History Center. There will be other, more public events (I've added more to my calendar), but this one, my “book launch” is my way of giving back to those who shared their stories and photographs with me, who let me guide them back in time to remember.

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