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Jessica Handler Memoir – How to Write “The Tough Stuff”

By Mary Yuhas


Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013.)

Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post, More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 and 2012 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.


LitVote: What inspired you to write your books, Invisible Sisters and Braving the Fire?

Jessica: The question that we are all so often asked –   “do you have any brothers or sisters?” – was for a long time a very hard one for me to answer. Yes, I do, and they have both died.  I miss them. I wanted to write about our family and our lives, and to celebrate who we were and who we could have been, and to help myself understand who I have become in the aftermath of my sisters’ deaths. That’s what led to “Invisible Sisters.”

When I was growing up and looking for books to help me recognize my own experience – memoirs, how to books, anything that a writer had created that was in some way like my story – there were very few. Later, when I wrote the book, I realized that so many people want to write about their lives after loss but there’s no guide for how to write about “the tough stuff.” That takes some special care and skills.

Teaching writing workshops about crafting memoir after loss is what led me to write Braving the Fire.

LitVote: Your younger sister, Sarah, was born with a fatal congenital illness. When you were eight, you learned your younger sister, Susie, had leukemia. A year later, your family began to unravel. Today, survive and thrive is key in your message. How did you develop those skills and how can others learn them from you?

Jessica Handler photoJessica: I started keeping journals when I was nine years old. I still write in journals to keep an account of what’s going on in my life, what I’m thinking, doing. Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and I’m sure that’s what I was and still am doing. I was writing to tell myself the story of myself. I didn’t write about loss directly when I was a kid. I wrote about substitute teachers who never seemed to leave, or who I had a crush on. Now I write grocery lists and observations about my day or how I can manage to get to yoga class more than once in a particular week.  Writing has taught me to honor the quotidian elements of who I’ve become in the aftermath of my losses, as well as looking clearly at who what and who I’ve lost. In doing that, I’m fulfilling what my family intended in their best moments, which is to celebrate who I am, what I can do, and to try to engage in a little tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world.” I can’t fix the world, but I can help myself and the people I reach through the skills I have, which is love of words and story.

LitVote: Do you recommend journaling to those who are grieving?

Jessica: I do recommend keeping a journal if you’re a person who does so anyway, or has always thought you might want to. Any form of art or self-expression that suits you is a good idea. Keeping a journal is an act of writing that allows you to communicate only between you and yourself – no one else has to read it, and what you write on those pages (digital or analogue) is your work in its rawest state.

Be comfortable knowing that if you do keep a journal, what you write there doesn’t have to turn into a published work. You can scream, cry, curse, spill coffee in your journal. It’s just for you.

LitVote: Is it common for memoir authors to eventually weave their journals into a story?

Jessica: I can’t speak for all memoirists, but I think if an author keeps journals and is working on a memoir or an essay, he or she will find that those journals can be an excellent resource. I want to emphasize that what I write – and what I’m sure others write – in their journals doesn’t usually translate directly into a finished narrative. Reading my old journals allows me to remember what my “voice” – my character, my self – was like at a particular time in life. What was on my mind, who my friends were, what music I was listening to… the ephemera of life that we sometimes forget. Journals are great for details, especially if you’re like me and keep artifacts like ticket stubs or greeting cards.  A journal, especially from a difficult time in life, is also a portal into some pretty strong emotions. Revisiting those emotions can be difficult, so a writer should go easy on him or herself and know what’s too hard to revisit at a particular time. An emotion is not a story. Writing about a strong emotion requires distance. I can’t give you an answer about how much time has to pass before someone’s ready to write about a subject, because that’s different for everyone. I can tell you, though, that distance allows the writer to do more than simply re-state what happened. Distance lets the writer ruminate on the “why” of what happened, and how he or she has responded to it over time. A memoir is also the story of how the author understands the change caused by the traumatic event, and his or her story of that change.

LitVote: Memoir has to be truthful so, what is creative nonfiction?

Jessica: Memoir absolutely has to be truthful. The “creative” part of non-fiction comes in with the author’s skill and freedom, not to make things up, but to craft his or her story with an eye toward plot, scenes, style, expression of character (and in this case, character means real people), and other techniques that make fiction so readable. Ask yourself what serves the story? How do you work with pacing, style, suspense, and language? What can you focus on if you don’t have a fact at hand? These are some of the tools that creative nonfiction writers work with. Memoir, by the way, is one of several subsets of the genre called creative nonfiction, which also includes literary essays and narrative journalism – that first person, immersive journalism you find in works by Susan Orlean, or Katharine Boo, or, going back in history, John Hersey and Joseph Mitchell. That’s my professor-voice for a moment.

LitVote: For those wanting to write memoir but can’t decide where to start, what is the first step?

Jessica: Start at any place in your story that you feel comfortable. Write out of order. Write what you think will be the last scene first, if you like. Write whatever comes to mind, and be sure to use detail. On my website, I have a writing prompt that goes “Write a page about your reasons for wanting to write the true story of your grief. You might want to start by giving yourself a prompt such as, “how am I different since ____.”

Braving the Fire offers writing prompts like these at the end of each chapter.

LitVote: What is the most common mistake first-time authors make when writing about loss?

Jessica: One common mistake is to try to write about the whole thing in one sweeping gesture. Loss is huge, and shape-shifting, and life-changing.

Write about the smallest details, the good and the bad.

Write about things you might not think will matter to the big story, like the way your mother twisted her ring on her finger when she was worried, or the way your husband’s out of tune singing made you laugh. These are the details that convey your world to your reader.

LitVote: You teach online and in workshops that are held all over the country. Is there a single most important element you teach about writing memoir in your classes?

Jessica: For me, the most important thing I teach is a way for each workshop student to find a way “in” to his or her story, no matter if it’s through dialogue, or plot, or character, or imagery. When a student leaves one of my workshops, I want him or her to be confident about what they’re writing, and to know that they can write it well.

LitVote: On a very different note, how did you find your literary agent?  

Jessica: I’m represented by Sorche Fairbank of Fairbank Literary Agency. I’d submitted Invisible Sisters to her without knowing her personally, so I guess you could say she picked the book from the slush pile, and I am so glad she did. Finding the right literary agent for your work can involve meeting agents at writing conferences and pitching agents by mail or email. Do your homework first, for your sake and the agent’s. Find out who represents work that’s similar to yours in tone and topic. Be familiar with the agent’s list. Take a look at books like Chuck Sambuchino’s “Guide to Literary Agents” and learn who represents writers you admire. Read the acknowledgements page of books you love, too. Authors almost always thank their agents.

Make sure that when you do pitch an agent, you can summarize your work effectively – there’s an exercise in Braving the Fire designed to help authors do just that.

And know that when you do connect with a literary agent, that person is just one factor in your book’s trajectory. Your agent, and ultimately your publisher, will turn to you to make that book a success.

LitVote: What’s next?

I’m delighted to have essays in two anthologies: “Full Grown People’s Greatest Hits, Vol I” and in “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women”, which will be out this spring. I’m working on another book that’s not a memoir, but it’s about a real person – a teenage girl in the late 19th century who agreed to lie to better her family, and how she finds her way to the truth.


Author Mary Yuhas, is the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scrib

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