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Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  193 ratings  ·  57 reviews
Acclaimed memoirists describe the process of writing their most painful memories
In her attempt to write a memoir about her father s death from a secret AIDS infection in 1985, Melanie Brooks was left with some painful questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Would she manage it? Brooks sought guidance f
Paperback, 224 pages
Published February 7th 2017 by Beacon Press
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Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“It’s that shared knowledge that somehow helps us to survive.”

This sentence, spoken by poet and memoirist Richard Blanco towards the end of Melanie Brooks’ book about writing memoirs, in some ways sums up the message many of the writers Brooks interviews convey. Memoirs of difficult lives, or difficult parts of lives, help the writers both clarify their experiences for themselves and connect with others. Reading memoirs helps us as human beings to clarify our own “hard stories” and know that we
catherine ♡
Actual Rating: 3.5

I actually really liked this when I started it. It was eye-opening, and as a writer myself, I thought that the advice I learned was so important. It talked about allowing yourself to feel, and coming to terms with the truth - both for yourself and for everyone around you.

This book was insightful, but as I read on I felt like it started to become repetitive: every chapter was essentially saying the same thing. I feel like if I had a deeper understanding of each of the interviewe
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Feb 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: writing, memoir
It isn't hard to write a book about people who wrote hard stories. You just have to travel a bit and interview the authors. "Was it hard to write hard stories?" you ask them all. "Yes, it was hard," they all say. And that is your book. And that is this book.
Aug 24, 2017 added it
Shelves: memoir, writing, essays
In this collection of interviews with writers who have written memoirs about trauma or loss, author Melanie Brooks attempts to better understand her own struggles with writing about her father's death from AIDS. Each chapter highlights an interview with a single author, and includes not only details about the business of writing hard stories but also personal details. (I was particularly interested in the pets of the writers whose homes she was invited into!) Authors address not only why they ne ...more
Sam Sattler
Nov 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a literary genre, the memoir has seldom received the respect that it deserves. It has not helped, of course, that several memoirists in the relatively recent past have been exposed for deliberately falsifying parts of their stories to make them sensational enough to earn publication and/or higher sales numbers than would have otherwise been the case. That memoirs are sometimes referred to by the easily misconstrued term of "creative nonfiction" may also be part of the respect problem that mem ...more
Dec 10, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
“Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma” offers information gleaned from eighteen authors. Melanie Brooks conceived the concept for the boo when she became increasingly compelled to write a memoir of a difficult time in her life. She wondered how memoirists experienced the writing itself. How did they withstand reliving heart-breaking events while writing about them? She brought that curiosity to a series of interviews. Each interview comprises a chapter in the bo ...more
Jul 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Bravo! This book does so many things: it invites us to spend time with authors whose works we've admired, it gives us an inside look at their processes, and it engages with some of the most difficult questions that memoirists face when confronting difficult material. I recommend it to everyone who writes, and really, anyone who reads, memoir.
bianca guerrero
Nov 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I think this book changed my life — it might be too soon to tell, but it certainly feels like it did. I read it at the right time — during a super reflective period of my life, right when I had started going back to therapy, and after my creative side had come out to play for the year. It pushed me to write about possibly the hardest experience I’ve ever had. It helped me realized how deeply I had buried the lede in a story I wrote months ago and gave some tips as to how to dig what I really wan ...more
Andrea Blythe
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
"The worst story we can tell ourselves is that we are alone."

Melanie Brooks is trying to write a memoir about her father, who died of HIV due to an infected blood transfusion. Finding it difficult to approach a subject that was so personal and so painful, she began to seek out the wisdom of memoirists who had written about their own painful stories and shared them with the world. These interviews comprise the heart of this book, which unveils the process of juggling hard memories with the craft
May 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
As a writer and someone who works with adults to tell their stories I found this to be one of the most helpful and educational books on writing I've read. A student forwarded me the Brevity interview. I promptly requested the library acquire the book, and then like everyone else I've told had to go purchase it myself. At my local bookstore the owner had already heard I was on my way, and then just asked, "How many people do you think you'll be sending?" I've been practically evangelical about th ...more
Pamela Barrett
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
So you want to write that story—yes that story; the one you’ve carried inside for so long; the one true story about love, loss, grief, and the moment that changed your life. You’ve tried to put pen to paper and stopped. It hurt too much, your family wouldn’t understand, and you don’t want to cause anyone pain or embarrassment: there are so many reasons not to write it, but the memory won’t go away and you know you need to write about it to set it free. Author Melanie Brooks understands those fee ...more
Gayle Pritchard
Oct 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I had the pleasure of listening to a reading by the author at Hippocamp 2017, and was moved to purchase her book. I am so glad I did! It’s an inspiration and a series of letters if encouragement all in one place. Melanie’s writing is beautiful, her questions derp, and her method of weaving her own process into the interviews is intriguing and interesting. She takes us on her journey, and we all learn on the way.
Nanako Mizushima
Oct 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This 200 page paperback book will have a permanent home on my small bookshelf. In addition to introducing me to wonderful memoirs, this book is packed with useful advice from eighteen great writers -- including Andre Dubus III, Kyoko Mori and Richard Blanco. Each of the eighteen chapters is based on an interview with one writer. I'm sure I'll reread parts of this book as I shape my own story. Just when I felt discouraged after thinking about my book for so many years, scribbling many mediocre sh ...more
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
In this book, Melanie Brooks shares what she has learned from prominent memoirists who had painful stories to tell. She begins by explaining that she is trying to write a memoir about her father, who became infected with HIV from a blood transfusion during surgery in the mid-80s. He died 10 years later and Melanie has carried the pain of her loss ever since.

In order to get a better understanding of how writers are capable of writing their stories of personal pain and loss, Melanie interviews 18
Danni Green
Jul 19, 2019 rated it liked it
This book wasn't quite what I was expecting. I thought it would be a collection of writings about writing hard stories from the people who wrote them, whereas it turned out to be a collection of post-interview reflections where the interviewees are all memoirists but the stories are all written by the author of the book. It seemed like an odd way to handle the purported topic of this book, to tell 18 other people's stories about how they told their stories. It was actually confusing each time I ...more
Sep 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was not the book I was expecting. It was on display at the library, and there could have been a sign pointing to it, "Here! This one is definitely for you." I have been curious about the idea of what it feels like emotionally to write a trauma memoir. Trauma memoir seems to be my genre of choice -- I am drawn to understanding how people survive hardship, process, and cope with what happens in their lives. The book definitely gave me plenty of leads on what to read next, and there were poets ...more
Aimee Barnes Pestano
Apr 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a compelling compilation on the often manic, gut-wrenching process of writing a memoir anchored in the experience of trauma, and explores the myriad ethical dilemmas that authors come up against in writing about the other people involved in their stories. A few takeaways (*spoiler alert*):
1) Most of the memoirs covered in this book took years and years to write due to the emotional toll, various false starts, and the complexities of gathering all the information they needed;
2) Few writer
Aug 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Melanie Brooks' family kept the secret of her father's illness for ten years until he died in 1995 of AIDS, the result of contaminated blood during a surgical transfusion. He was a celebrated general and thoracic surgeon in Canada; in 1985, when he was first diagnosed, the misinformation and panic surrounding AIDS drove the family to secrecy to protect his reputation. Wanting to tell this story, struggling with all its challenges, Brooks set out to interview a number of memoirists who have writt ...more
Sarah Parke
Mar 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma is the kind of impulse buy destined to become a classic, touchstone text for writers of all kinds. Some have called it a “meta-memoir” because Brooks’s exploration of the challenges of writing her memoir are deftly woven throughout her interviews with some of the most influential memoirists of the past fifty years, tying together many different experiences and perspectives with a reassuring narrative thread. ...more
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
In "Writing Hard Stories..." Melanie Brooks, a writing student working on her own memoir, shares with us her research into writing hard stories, research done by interviewing a number of authors of memoir depicting their own heartbreaks, losses, and experiences which had shaped their lives. Most commonly asked question to each author is, "How did you do it?", how were they able to go through the painful process of re-living their trauma as they were getting it down in print; then, having exposed ...more
D.G. Kaye
Apr 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I read this book about Brook’s journey to seek out and learn about some esteemed memoir writers to learn about their journeys to writing memoir. Brooks was seeking the essence of how they go about writing their stories, what are the hurdles for them – the most difficult parts, how they feel their work will be received, and will their stories connect with readers and possibly help readers with their own similar journeys in their lives. As a memoir writer myself, I was absorbed into all the storie ...more
Rita Ciresi
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This collection of interviews with celebrated memoirists moves away from that overly discussed question of how to tell the truth in creative nonfiction and looks at ways that authors can confront the emotional core of their story and craft it into art. This book would make a great text for introductory creative nonfiction courses and a perfect gift for student writers seeking advice on how to tell their own stories. More experienced writers will welcome the chance to sit down with some of their ...more
Aug 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Ms. Brooks wanted to write a memoir that she knew would be painful to write. She wondered how other memoirists managed to write about difficult subjects and instead of just thinking about it, she emailed writers and asked for interviews with them. I think that was brave of her! The various writers agreed to talk to her. What we end up with are fascinating stories of how each one dealt with writing hard stories and how the public reacted to the books. In each case readers wrote or met with the au ...more
Laura Hancock
Sep 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Brooks interviews memoirists to learn how to write about trauma. I learned a lot: whether to care what other family members think of your story and why; how to structure your story; whether or not it was healing or hurtful to bring up the painful past. Each author’s response was different to an extent.

I wanted more advice on how to write when it hurts to put down the words, when your heart is racing and you want to run away from it. How to keep going when it’s so hard. Some authors seemed to ar
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
I heard Brooks speak at AWP earlier this year, and I was intrigued by the idea of this book. It wasn't what I was expecting, but I definitely wasn't disappointed. I think I expected more of a guidebook, but it wound up being much more emotionally accessible. The lesson I learned is that, essentially, writers are people, too. We go through hard things and each one us has a journey to even get to the place of writing about what happened to us. I felt encouraged after reading this, knowing that my ...more
Oct 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: gifts
So many of these interviews are about truly terrible life experiences - I constantly wonder at the cruelty of people. Some of these stories are unlucky (Monica Wood, for example) but others are just terrible and make one wonder at the human being's inhumanity to another human being. I think it is fascinating that so many of these authors felt so much better after writing their hard story down (since I am not a writer or an aspiring writer). I will be interested to read Melanie Brooks's memoir wh ...more
Lori Johnstone
Jul 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, writing
Just what I needed to read, at the perfect time to ignite some writing energy. It gave me hope, from others who know the personal agony involved in getting the story down right, and to survive the emotional impact of the process. I would say that Melanie's book is important, even necessary for would be memoirists. I am so glad that I stumbled across it, and am very thankful to the author for putting this out there into the hands of those who need it. XO
Jen Dupree
May 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
With this thoughtful and thought-provoking book, Melanie Brooks has written the craft book every writer (memoirist or not) needs. It's more than a how-to, it's a how-to-survive. How to survive digging deep, examining hard truths, telling the most important stories. Brooks gets the answers because she asks the questions with warmth, depth, and intelligence.
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
I picked up this book and I'm glad I did. Reading the interviews and the information shared by each author of memior was enlightening and informative. I appreciate how Melanie Brokes not only entertained but allowed for much needed lessons on memior writing. I will be reading most of these authors memiors to gain further knowledge on writing the hard stories. Very vuable.
Nov 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Even for those not writing memoirs, or even tackling hard subjects in writing, this book has loads of nuggets of comfort. It's a good testament to the idea that no one is alone in anything that they are going through. That we as people are strongest and best when we are being honest with ourselves and others about our experiences.
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Melanie Brooks is a writer, teacher, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children, and yellow Lab. She received her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. She teaches college writing at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts. She also teaches ...more

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