Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones sports the gold medallion boasting of its National Book Award. Two years later, Ward is back in the literary spotlight with her memoir Men We Reaped, a raw portrayal of her life growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the deaths of five young men she knew.
The memoir begins and ends with the passing of Ward’s younger brother, Joshua. Using an experimental plot structure, she tells the story forward from her birth and backward from the death of the fifth unfortunate young man, Roger. Both storylines meet in the final chapter, intersecting at the moment of Joshua’s death.
Ward, a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan and an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama, found out the hard way that writing memoir is a very different experience from creating fiction, and that it is something she’ll never attempt again. Memoirists and novelists alike will find something of value in Ward’s thoughts on her latest work.
What do you think were the main challenges you faced transitioning from fiction to memoir?
Memoir is challenging because it’s difficult to try to make yourself into a character. That was something that I never had to do before. Writing memoir was difficult for me too because you’re dealing with the truth, you’re dealing with events that are factual. I felt like my job as a memoirist, as a writer of creative nonfiction, was to tell the truth, but then every page I was trying to figure out how much of the truth do I tell? Because I was dealing with real people and every time I made a choice to tell something that I knew would probably make someone uncomfortable, I had to ask myself whether the story was served by that fact. Whether it would be a more powerful story if I shared whatever I was afraid to share.
There’s a freedom to fiction, which isn’t necessarily the case with creative nonfiction, where I was really bound to an outline, where I knew there were certain things that I wanted to say and certain events that I had to write about, so there was less of a surprise there. I found that most of the time, the surprise that I encountered with creative nonfiction was in the personal revelations that I had. I’d be looking back on my past self or someone else in the past and I’d come to a different understanding as to why they did what they did or why I did what I did or what I was thinking.
Writing memoir is much more difficult for me than fiction. It was so difficult that I never want to do it again. It’s true. I never want to do this again.
But you’re glad you did it?
I am. I’m glad because I think that this story is worth sharing. And I hope when readers encounter the book that they will respond to it emotionally, and they’ll take something from it that will hopefully make them see the larger world in a different way.
Did you ever ask someone for permission to include something in the book?
I sort of asked my sisters’ permission, in respect to different things that we did in the past. My youngest sister, she’s a teacher now, so I was nervous if there could be repercussions for some of the things that I was revealing in the book. Mainly, I just asked my sisters. But in the sections where I’m writing about the young men, my friends and my brother, I worked from what I had seen and what I had experienced with them mostly. I got some background information from their families, but the bulk of that just came from the things that we did together.
Your book has a very interesting structure. Why did you choose that approach?
This book is based on an essay that I wrote while I was at the University of Michigan in a creative nonfiction class I took with Tom Lynch. When I sat down to write that essay – I wrote it all in one night over like five hours – that was the structure. So when I figured out that I wanted to tell this story about my brother and my cousin and my friends dying and using my life as context to try to understand why that happened, that’s the way the story came to me. Intuitively, that’s how it came. When I was writing the book, I knew that I would be making the reader do a lot of work, and I knew that in some way the structure might fail. I tried to think of a different way to tell the story, but I just couldn’t do it. It felt physically wrong to tell it in a different order. I had to end with my brother, and so when I sent the manuscript to my editor after doing a couple different rounds of revision, the first thing that I said was, I know that the structure is rough and it might not work. Please help me make it work, and she did.
What kind of response did you get from your classmates who read the original essay?
It was pretty heavy. One reason that there was a really positive response to it, why people were emotionally affected by it, was because this was going on while I was at Michigan and no one knew. No one except my roommate knew, and she actually wasn’t in that class. I think that it sort of surprised them.
Did they buy into the structure?
They bought it. I remember that one of my classmates said: It makes sense that you would end with your brother because that’s the heart of your loss. Once he said it, I realized that was the logical reason for doing what I had done, but when I made the decision, it wasn’t a logical decision. It was a very emotional one.
In the prologue, you wrote that between 2000 and 2004, five young black men you knew died violently in seemingly unrelated circumstances. Why choose to lay out so explicitly what would happen in the rest of the book?
Originally that wasn’t in any of the earlier drafts. That was another thing that my editor suggested that I do so the structure would work. She said that I needed to prepare the readers, tell them that those losses would occur so they’re oriented from the very beginning, so they know that each of these chapters is about a young man who died. She also said to let the reader know that because this is my story and my community’s story and my brother’s story that I have to tell it this way and then to walk the readers through exactly what I was going to do. It was a really smart move, but it wasn’t my smart move, I can’t take credit for it. It’s all my editor.
Do you have any advice for writers attempting to write memoirs and encountering some painful memories along the way?
Therapy helps. And know in advance that it will be painful and that you will break in some ways when you are writing the memoir, and you’ll be surprised at the ways you will break. You hear about bones having to be re-broken and reset so they can heal in healthier ways, and that’s the way I think about what the memoir did to me. It broke me in certain ways, but hopefully the end result is I’ll heal a little cleaner. I’ll still have scars, of course, because you can’t erase what happened, but I’m hoping that they will be a little cleaner.
What has the overall reaction been from your family, friends and community back in Mississippi?
The majority of it has been really positive. But because it’s about real life and because I’m revealing very personal things about myself, about my family, about the young men that died, that’s problematic for some people. My mom, she’s had a really hard time with it, and I think that she would rather that I hadn’t written the book. But I had to tell the story because I believe in it. Because I’m afraid that if I don’t, if we don’t begin to talk about and acknowledge these things that we like to hide and that we’re ashamed of, then that means that all of this is just going to keep happening over and over again. And I don’t want to lose my nephew. I don’t want to lose any more young people the way that I did during those years.
In your fiction works, do you use a structured outline like in this memoir?
For me, it’s more a creative, go-with-the-flow thing. With both of the novels that I’ve written, I know at the beginning who the main characters are, sort of vaguely, and then I have an idea of where they’ll end up at the very end of the book. So with Salvage the Bones, I knew Esch was a girl who grew up in a world full of men, and I knew that Skeetah was her brother and that he was sort of crazy, and I knew that he had a very devoted pit bull named China, and I knew that those characters would face a huge, horrible hurricane at the end of the book. But that’s pretty much all I knew when I began writing Salvage the Bones. For me, part of the fun is just when the characters begin to surprise you and things happen that you didn’t think would happen. That’s part of what I love so much about fiction.
How do you think your writing style changed between fiction and memoir?
I think I had less fun with language in the memoir than in Salvage the Bones. I’m attempting to write new fiction now, and I realize what a huge difference there is between my fiction voice and my memoir voice. There’s something freeing about my style when I write fiction. And maybe part of that is because I was writing in first person in these attempts at a beginning of a new novel, so maybe there’s something freeing to me by inhabiting another voice. Versus the memoir, that’s just all me. That feels heavier and more confining.
So far your writing has remained fairly close to your upbringing and your personal experience. Do you think you’re going to keep writing those sorts of stories, or is there something else that inspires you?
The next novel that I want to write is set in the South again, right in the same place. I feel like there’s still more stories for me to find there, but I do have to admit that my secret desire, which I guess is not going to be a secret after I tell you, is to write some gorgeous, long, outrageous YA fantasy book, like the His Dark Materials series. I love that series, and I would love sometime in my career to be able to do something like that. And I think part of the reason why is because I loved to read so much when I was a little kid and I feel like, I know that all writers say this, but reading really saved my life when I was a kid. It allowed me to move outside the world that I was growing up in, and that was precious to me, so I would like to be able to give another kid that gift.
Do you think teaching is something that you’ll stick with?
Yeah, I think so. I like teaching because I like talking about creative writing. I also enjoy encountering different students and reading their work and seeing what they’re working on. Because it’s easy for me to get stagnant. And I think that when I’m teaching, I’m encountering these kids who are new to creative writing and who try different weird things because they haven’t been taught that there’s a specific way they should be coming to writing or that there are all these rules, so they don’t follow them and they break them. I like encountering their way of seeing the world and their way of writing about things. It keeps me on my toes.
Megan Kaplon is an editorial assistant at The Writer magazine.