1966

Recognizing the Power of Memoir: A Discussion of Craft and Content with Sarah Hepola

Sitting in a red, cushioned chair in a crowded auditorium, I recognized the story being read aloud as a better-written version of my own early college years. There was the added flair of 90s grunge and a dark humor I’ve never managed to achieve in my own writing, but as Sarah Hepola read excerpts from her New York Times Bestseller, Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, I felt a connection with the work as a drinker, a woman, and a writer. The experience reminded me of the struggles and rewards of writing within the genre of creative nonfiction as a memoirist.

A couple of weeks ago, the 1966 staff had the pleasure of attending a Q & A with and a lecture by creative nonfiction author Sarah Hepola. Sarah Hepola is best known for Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to Forget, but her writing has also appeared as essays in the New York Times, Salon, The New Republic, and several other magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Trinity University hosted the two events, starting with a personal Q &A in a borrowed classroom filled with current and prospective writers, journalists, and publishers. Our conversation immediately turned to questions of craft. Creative nonfiction presents particular challenges unique to the genre. Most prominent in my mind are the worries of what people will think of you and how your family and friends will react, especially if they appear in your work. Sarah Hepola shared the ways she coped with these issues. Unexpectedly, she cited the advent of the comment section in how she learned to cope with negative reactions to her work and to herself. She explained that internet comments made it hard for her to maintain the idea that everyone would think her writing was great, and she learned to develop a sense of detachment from the negative comments. Hepola also explained that she allows those people in her pieces to preview the portions in which they appear; this practice allows her to address some of their concerns and give them some warning.

Later that night a large crowd filed into Laurie Auditorium to see Hepola lecture. She focused on the content of her book, and in between readings she explained blackouts, the importance of drinking responsibly, and the issues surrounding consent. With each topic I remembered my own experience with these difficult issues, recalling that the second CNF piece I wrote was on my own desire for alcoholic blackouts. Our stories diverge in our reasons for drinking, in our feelings toward our blackouts, and our recovery, but in her story I felt a validation of my own. Hepola shared that after her book, women and men thanked her for sharing her story, often a story similar to their own. This is the power of memoir: in telling your story, you validate other people’s struggles. In telling your story, you can become an advocate and a critic. In Sarah Hepola’s words, when it comes to creative nonfiction “the rewards outweigh the challenges.”

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Ileana Sherry works with students of many ages to improve their skills in writing and reading in addition to her work as Managing Editor and Senior Reader for 1966. Her mission is to excite the same passion she feels for writing, reading, and literature in her students. She believes in order to be a great English teacher you must strive to write every day. As a writer, Ileana works in creative nonfiction, writing memoir. She takes inspiration from great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and Mary Karr.