Anne Kaier’s poetry and nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals and publications such as Philadelphia Poets, The Gettysburg Review, Apiary, Paradigm, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. In a 2012 interview, her poetry was called, “seductively rhythmic and precise,” and Philadelphia Stories asked her how she remains successful and how she strives for truth in nonfiction writing.
As writers, we sometimes overuse our words. How do you keep your vocabulary fresh and new?
A very interesting question. I ‘d love to hear what you do! I find that when I am completely absorbed and feel very passionately about my subject, words often come directly. These are the best. However, most of the time, I find myself hung over my keyboard, searching and searching, knocking my head. I also write many drafts, especially of essays, so on the first few drafts, I’m usually more concerned with the structure of the piece and less with individual word choice. In later drafts, I go back and back, trying to find strong verbs and descriptions will startle the reader. Perhaps since I’m also a poet, I also pay attention to the rhythms, even the meter, of sentences, using anapests if I want to hurry a sentence up or iambs if I want to give a concluding sentence a sense of resolution. I guess it’s also true that I read a lot, so I am always on the outlook for words that can be pilfered.
Do you find that writing you do in the heat of the moment is your most successful writing, or do you write in a process and revisit old writing over time, until it is finished?
I may have partly answered this above. These days, I’m mostly writing fairly long essays. They involve research into primary sources and come out to be at least 5,000 words, so a fair amount of thought and early drafts go into figuring out the structure. I sometimes try out various possibilities. For example, I may write one draft in the present tense, perhaps just to get my mind and senses closer to the scene I’m describing. Then I may decide to put the whole thing into the past–for greater credibility. Sometimes, I may decide to write an essay as a fairly simple straightforward narrative. Or I may decide to try it as a lyric essay, done in non-linear ways. So all of this gets in the way of writing in the heat of the moment. I will sometimes use paragraphs written earlier, in the heat of the moment, but mostly the work their way in to a final version that is, in fact, the 8th or 9th full draft.
What would you say to a writer who believes her life story is not “interesting” or “worthwhile” enough to tell?
Oh, Lord. Even the most exciting life stories can be made deadly dull with bad writing. Good writing, writing that is clear and sensuous and well-constructed, brings the reader into the life you are describing. One of the main reasons people read memoir, I think, is to feel they are not alone in the world, to feel that other people have lived lives that are as ordinary and as complicated and difficult and exhilarating as their own. So even the most ordinary life, well-told, can be mesmerizing.
What is the most difficult part about nonfiction or memoir writing?
Reliving the past. Going back to the person you were or might have been and trying to make that person vivid to a reader. You have to characterize yourself, as if you were a fiction writing creating a character. So you have to try to look at yourself fairly objectively, which can be utterly embarrassing and difficult. For an essay I wrote a few years ago, I had to reread letters I have written home from England when I was a student there. Oh God, they made me cringe! They were so fey and affected. All memoirists have to confront less than splendid versions of themselves, too. I also find that in this market, readers can be very judgmental–expecting a character to go through almost formulaic stages of hard times and bad deeds and salvation at the end. The salvation or reformation at the end bit drives me crazy. I hate pat endings. I also try hard to tell the truth about myself and my feelings–as clearly as I can discern them.
In an interview with, columnist Nicolette Milholin, you said that a poet struggling to find his or her own voice should, “Just try to be honest. Try to tell the truth.” Have you ever written something and had a family member or friend disagree completely? What does personal perspective mean in terms of writing memoir or poetry?
Another excellent question. All memoir is a story we tell ourselves about the past. There simply is no such thing as objective truth. All you can do is try to be as honest as your memory allows you to be, check the facts whenever possible and don’t make anything important up out of whole cloth. My family sometimes remembers events differently than I do. I don’t concern myself much with that unless the family member has hard core evidence to support their version. However, I go out of my way to try to check facts. I’m currently writing an essay set in Paris about getting some medicine for my skin condition that helped me very greatly when I first went there to take it. [The meds were not available at that time in the US]. I’ve done research in the Penn Medical School library, going through old medical journals by hand in the stacks in order to learn more about how my medicine was understood and used in the early 1980s, when I first took it. I also spent a few days reading French medical journals at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Philly, for the same purpose. My French is just good enough to get the gist of things. Then I have to sit down with a dictionary –and ultimately ask a good friend who really reads French to help me. But I want to recreate as much as possible the reality of the times I’m writing about.
This answer strayed away from the family question. Although I write about my family of origin–my parents and brother– we are Irish Catholics and don’t talk easily about the past. My brother, who is a very sweet man and admits he doesn’t have a good memory, still has sometimes remembered incidents in ways that are different from my memories. If he can substantiate his memory with facts, I accept the differences. I always look into them. But if it’s just a question of a differing recollection, I use my own version, and don’t worry about the differences. For example, I wrote a piece about visiting the Grand Canyon when my twin bro and I were 10. I remembered a drive through the desert in a car and set an important scene in the car. When I talked to my brother, Ed remembered that we had taken a train from Albuquerque to the Canyon, but he hadn’t kept train tickets or any hard evidence. If he had, I would have felt compelled to rewrite the scene. I checked to make sure you could rent a car in New Mexico in those days. You could. So I left the scene in the car and didn’t worry about it. After all, a memoir is, fundamentally, a story we tell ourselves about the past–not to mention the fact that I had already written the scene in the car, it was a good scene and I didn’t want to rewrite it if I didn’t have to…
Anne Kaier will be teaching “Tell Your Story: Memoir” at the weekend Rosemont Writers Retreat on June 24-28.