"Sweaters, acrylic blankets, T-shirts, and dirty socks covered the floral couch. Cobalt glasses with scarlet lipstick prints, overflowing ashtrays bowls of rocks and a deck of playing cards were strewn over the glass coffee table ... Against one wall stood a large icon case with glass doors. Seven feet high, the walnut cabinet displayed swarthy-faced tribal masks with fat lips and dour expressions, crimson and sea-foam beads, a multitude of silver crucifixes, packets of powders and seeds, wax altar candles in red, yellow, and white, and a large portrait of a brown-faced Christ."
That's an intricate passage from Felicia C. Sullivan's new memoir, The Sky Isn't Visible from Here. Sullivan took a traumatic, crucial moment from her childhood and turned it into a spooky bit of family history.
Today, this Columbia University MFA graduate and Pushcart Prize nominee explains how she built that episode into a vivid scene. Sullivan is our special guest this week, discussing the fine art of memoir in my deceptively simple feature, Five Easy Questions.
In the spirit of Jack Nicholson’s mad piano player, I run a weekly set of quality conversations with writing pioneers—delivering some practical, unexpected advice about web writing.
One of my favorite scenes in your memoir is the time you spend with Lydia and Ursla (on page 90-91 especially). Your descriptions of action and attention to detail in that scene is really admirable. Could you walk me through, on a practical level, how you built the intricate details in that scene? How did you turn that memory into vivid prose, following your "line-by-line" writing style?
That's a terrific question! I am very much a line-writer, which makes the writing process incredibly slow, and sometimes painful for me, as I find that I'm constantly tinkering with words, and finding inventive ways to use (or bastardize) them in order to depict a particular scene or breathe life into a limp character. Continue reading...
I'll jot down hundreds of words - no matter how outlandish or fantastical - that might (or might not) find their way into the story.
Often times, I'll write to music and the lyrics will evoke images, which I'll attempt, tirelessly, to transform into prose. The process is very tactile. It involves me visualizing and then writing long-hand. Yet, sometimes I'm blocked and this process goes to pot and I find myself clicking pens, and ultimately fondling the television remote.
I always carry a small journal because words/images/lines of dialogue or narrative will suddenly emerge and I know I'd torture myself if I didn't have the opportunity to commit them to paper.