‘The elliptical, evolving nature of memory: Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir The Part that Burns

I love this book an am grateful it is in the world. — Dorothy Allison

Simply beautiful … precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid. — Joyce Carol Oates

You can tear a thing apart and tape it back together, and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way. In her fiercely beautiful memoir, Ouellette recollects fragments of her life and arranges them elliptically in order to see each piece as torn and whole, as something more than itself. Caught between the dramatic landscapes of Lake Superior and Casper Mountain, between her stepfather’s groping and her mother’s erratic behavior, Ouellette lives for the day she can become a mother herself, and create her own sheltering family. What she does not know is how the visceral reality of birth and motherhood will pull her back into the body she long ago abandoned, revealing new layers of pain and desire, and forcing her to choose between her idealistic vision of perfect marriage and motherhood and the birthright of her own flesh, unruly and alive. This is a story about the tenacity of family roots, the formidable undertow of trauma, and the rebellious and persistent yearning of human beings for love from each other.

Here’s an interview with Jeannine about her new collection.

How is your memoir different from other motherhood memoirs or abuse-survivor memoirs?

What an insightful question! I think perhaps the most unique element of my memoir is the focus on the elliptical, evolving nature of memory, as well as the epigenetic nature of trauma, especially as examined through the mother-daughter lens. While abuse certainly underlies the narrative, the deep heart of the story, for me, is hope. It’s not a bright, flashy kind of hope, a loud cheer of hope, but, rather, a quiet and tender but resilient sort of hope that represents what is possible when we accept our wounded places, listen to them, and — in the best of all worlds — love those hurt parts of ourselves, hold them close, and give them voice. There is a beautiful poem by Pesha Gertler called “The Healing Time,” and in that poem, Gertler says of our wounds, our scars, the “hieroglyphs of pain” carved into our skin, our bones, that she lifts them …

“one by one / close to my heart /and I say holy, holy.” In a sense, my memoir is about much more than abuse or motherhood or both: it is about the luminous and even holy power of story in defining our lives.

How do you know when you’ve lived enough life, or made sense enough of your life, to write a memoir?

That’s a tough one! For me, it took a very, very long time. The inciting incidents in my book took place almost fifty years ago — my stepfather was a pedophile and he began abusing me when I was three or four. I am fifty-two now. Most of the rest of the book takes place well in the past, also — about three decades ago, during my early years of motherhood. That’s when those old wounds, as Pesha Gertler says, came throbbing back and I had to make hard choices about revering my own body, allowing myself to truly live in that body, and, as a result, putting that body first in regard to what I did and did not want to feel, especially within my marriage. This is all by way of saying, it took me a long time to write this story, mainly because it was very important to me to find a way to transform terribly painful material into a story that could be, even if necessarily still painful, also beautiful. When I was younger, I wasn’t able to do that. The trauma of the abuse was too fresh, and too dark. What landed on the page, whenever I tried to write the story back then, was not transformed enough to be any kind of gift to the world. Later on, after many years of writing and studying writing, I was introduced to some techniques that made it finally possible to approach this material from what I like to call the “side door.” I used a variety of writing constraints to break into the material, which made all the difference. Constraints are essentially limits or rules you give yourself when writing, similar to writing prompts, but more restrictive. For example, in the first essay in the book, “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” the dogs were the constraint. That essay was originally much shorter and more focused on the dogs, and that focus allowed me to get closer to those painful experiences in my childhood without coming at them head on right from the start. That’s just one example — I used various constraints, some much more restrictive than others, throughout the writing process to help me find my way into these stories. I learned these methods while studying in person with wonderful poet and writing teacher named Paul Matthews, whose creative writing sourcebook, Sing Me the Creation, is one of the most strange and marvelous books on creative writing I’ve ever encountered. His workshop was magical and without it, this book would almost certainly not exist.

Many authors have compared ‘raising’ a book to raising a baby or child. As someone who’s done both, do you think the comparison is valid?

In some ways, yes, but, for me, there are key differences. I do adhere to the belief that with writing, much as with children, we have only limited control over the process. When I teach writing, I say that there is the story we want to write, and the story that wants to be written, and our job is to be open enough to navigate the tension between them. I think that is not dissimilar to raising children, in that we have influence as parents, of course, but we know from decades of nature-nurture debate that our influence only goes so far. Genetics, the outside world, and our children’s own desires will also play key roles in who our children become. For me, that’s about where the similarities between writing and parenting end, though. I mean, with a book, if the writing is too difficult or if you aren’t happy with how it is turning out, you can decide to set it in a drawer for a few weeks, months, or years — or forever if you like. You cannot do that with children. You must show up for them even when you are exhausted, afraid, or unsure. You must persist with your best effort, no matter whether you like, in that moment, who your child is becoming. Also, your grown children will continue to need you. Sometimes even more than they did when they were babies. The risks and complexities of navigating adulthood are in many ways more dangerous than any part of raising a healthy infant. This is why motherhood is both deeply and gloriously transformative, in the best imaginable ways, while also being inevitably painful.

Other critics have talked about the elliptical structure of your book, where memories don’t quite stay in the past. Was that a conscious choice? What were you hoping to convey about our pasts?

At one point in the book the narrator says, “It takes so long to become anything. Especially yourself.” And I believe that — that we are always in this process of becoming. We are human beings, and being is a verb, not a noun. We’re evolving always, or, at least, we should be. Sometimes that means letting go of old ideas of who we are. Sometimes it means circling back to experiences we thought were behind us, but really are not, because, as Einstein tells us, past, present, and future are just an illusion. Everything is now. Which is hard on the one hand, because it means nothing is every truly “behind us.” There’s no such thing. We’re always carrying our former selves and former experiences within us. But the idea that everything is now is wonderful, too, because it means we have chance after chance to reorganize our understanding of our experiences and of who we are, and who we want to be. For me, that’s a crucial part of what cellular memory and epigenetics are all about. I find it wonderfully hopeful.

Why did you write this as a collection of essays rather than a single book?

It was very complicated trying to find the right structure for this book. In reality, many of the pieces in the book were originally written as stand-alone essays and stories, several of which were published between 2015 and 2020. It was around 2016 that I realized that these essays and stories were adding up to something — were “talking to each other” and trying to become a book. At that point, I started taking them apart, sort of surgically dividing each essay into smaller fragments and then arranging all of those fragments contiguously in a more or less chronological order. That version of the book became my creative thesis for my MFA. After graduation in 2017, I spent some time reconsidering the manuscript, and I actually did one complete rewrite and expansion that resulted in what was essentially an autobiographical novel. I think the main reason I did that was because I had worked with Dorothy Allison at Tin House in 2016. She is one of my top literary heroes, and that’s how she built her first book, Bastard Out of Carolina — by stitching together stories. So I did that major rewrite over the course of 2018, a year that included two month-long artist residencies, one at Brush Creek in Wyoming and one at Millay Colony in New York. That process was clarifying in so many ways, and I learned so much about myself, my story, and the book I was trying to write. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the outcome, but I decided to fly it up the flagpole, so to speak, by entering the manuscript into the Autumn House first novel contest in 2019. It did not win, but it was chosen as a finalist, and I was encouraged enough to look again at the manuscript and try one more time to see if perhaps the bones of its best structure were, in the end, already there in the pieces I had written as stand-alone essays. At that point, I was finally able to see the elliptical structure and the way it so aptly represented the nature of life, the way trauma and healing seesaw and spiral as we evolve, heal, and, if we are fortunate, become our whole selves over time. From there, everything fell into place. I reworked all of the individual pieces to make them work in book form, and I wrote some new ones that felt crucial to the narrative arc. And my daughter and I co-wrote the second to last essay, Bent, which I think casts a sweeter light on the entire book while at the same time acknowledging that trauma does in fact live in our bodies forever. Writing that piece with my daughter Lillie was one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had as a writer or a mother, and it was made only more wonderful because it was my daughter’s idea. I love Lillie’s voice in that essay, and the lustrous way it reverberates.

Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir The Part That Burns is available here from Split Lip Press.

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Blogger, writer, publicist, and literary aficionado with insatiable curiosity.