Monday, December 08, 2008


A Writer Takes on Grad School and New York City… and Lives To Tell About It

Deonne Kahler


After multiple flip-flops, I’d finally decided to write a book-length memoir as my thesis project, the story of my childhood and its attendant issues – sexuality, disobedience, self-esteem, male-female relationships (girls and boys, girls and fathers, girls and men, wives and husbands) – all as an exploration about what it means to “grow up.”

I’m most comfortable writing nonfiction, so dammit, that’s what I was going to do. None of this making up imaginary people with imaginary lives for me, I was going to lay the true story naked on the page. Just the facts, ma’am.

Until this weekend. Don’t kill me, but I may write it as a novel after all. I realize I’m like a jittery bride on the eve of her wedding: Do I commit to this flesh and blood man, the bird in the hand, the known thing (the memoir)? Or do I ditch the poufy white dress and pursue my single life a little longer, not knowing what the future (plot) holds or what new characters might appear (in the novel)?

I met with a few writer friends on Saturday. I presented my memoir piece, a series of linked scenes from my childhood. The good news: everyone loved the writing. The bad news: it might be better served as fiction.

People like my memoir idea, the story of a difficult (to say the least) father-daughter relationship. That isn’t written about nearly as often as mothers-daughters or fathers-sons, so it has a unique angle. Okay. But since I don’t have anything more dramatic in my past than most law-abiding, non-addicted, non-celebrity, non-crazy (well, that’s up for debate), never raised by wolves or held captive by sadistic mimes people do, it might be hard to differentiate my memoir from other coming of age stories.

What I do have are interesting characters (my family and friends) and setting (suburban San Diego in the ‘70s and ‘80s), plus a good eye for detail and a willingness to be entirely honest about how embarrassing and painful it is to be human.

The obvious thing about memoir is both its beauty and its curse: It’s true. (In theory. I’m looking at you, James Frey et al.) The people I’m writing about are very much alive, and even though my mother has given me her blessing for this project, I can’t help but worry. I’m fine metaphorically stripping in public, but I don’t know that I’m comfortable forcing my mom to do it too.

So. The novel. Yesterday I wrote three paragraphs I’m pretty happy with. (Three paragraphs! I know! Makes you want to quit your job and become a full-time writer, doesn’t it? The progress is overwhelming.)

The only big questions for me are the major dramatic events, the crises that all good novels throw at you along the way. I have no idea what mine will be. I’m great on character development, setting, and detail, but plot is my weak point. And a novel needs a plot.

No matter. I’m going to use my life as the outline but push the characters and events further than they were in real life. I need to let go of my fear that “I’m not good at fiction,” because in reality I have the chops to tell my story either way – nonfiction or novel. But I reserve the right to flip back to memoir at any point in the future. Think of it as part of the prenup.

Deonne Kahler has been a freelance writer for seven years, and decided it was time to move to New York and get her MFA. And really, why not? Contact her at deonne [at] deonnekahler [dot] com, or check out her blog at

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