A writer describes how to make something beautiful out of something that is broken
writer from Minnesota Jeannine Ouellettememoirs, The part that burns, tells the story of her life the same way everyone remembers theirs – in fragments. Ouellette reflects on her early childhood through her adulthood, both in the moment she was and as an older person who knows what will happen in the future. As Ouellette writes about her often traumatic upbringing, including sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, this stylistic choice reminds readers that there is a new future for that terrified child:
Like I said, it’s fall, not winter, and I’m four years old. We are in the green house on the steepest hill, the house before moving to the gray house on Twenty-Fourth Avenue. At the gray house we have a corner shop with a dusty wooden floor and penny candy and a screen door that clatters. Mommy lets me walk to the store alone because I’m going to be five and then almost six. At the gray house we get a woven rug and some macramé plant holders. Rachel will be born. She will be half my sister. I will learn to rock her when she cries, for her crib is in my room. I will learn to wring out her dirty diapers in the toilet. “It doesn’t stink when you love someone enough,” Mama will say. I will try to love Rachel more.
This effect of being in the painful past and the safe future at the same time allows Ouellette to explore her trauma while leaving room for change, love and hope in a memoir Kirkus Reviews describes as “a textured memory of a traumatic childhood that also offers emotional moments of beauty.”
Ouellette’s path to authorship was more than a little non-traditional. She came out of the foster system in young adulthood, barely managed to finish high school, and never finished college. It wasn’t until years later, after building a successful writing career, that she was accepted into an MFA program at 40 based on her established skills alone. Unable to provide traditional training as a reference, Ouellette’s writing talent had to speak for itself. “I was able to find side doors and paths outside the center to many opportunities that I might otherwise have missed simply because I could write,” says Ouellette. “Having done nothing at a young age to earn the ability to write, I consider it immensely fortunate to have discovered a love for it.”
As Ouellette made her way into a career, much of her writing focused on earning a salary for her family. So when she started writing her memoirs, she seized the opportunity to focus on writing as an art. At first she was afraid that no one would want to read about terrible things like child abuse. But in her heart she really wanted to “find the beauty in the brokenhearted” and “take experiences of heartbreak and despair and transform them into something beautiful, something full of hope. It’s so important that people know this is possible.”
As with any book, Ouellette wrote several versions of the manuscript before settling for the final, memory-like fragmentary version. There was a concept told as a more linear story, which Ouellette describes as “a very good exercise” because it forced her to take her memories apart piece by piece and understand them as a chronological sequence of events. A helpful side effect was that this understanding allowed her to keep the more fragmented version together for a reader and have the effect of a real memory rather than a story told in parts. Ouellette describes books like that of Carmen Maria Machado In the dream house as influencing her desire to write in a style that invites the reader to fill in what happens in those ‘gaps’. “When you do that, you really work with the reader,” she says. “I love that.”
Contact with her readers is extremely important to Ouellette. “For anyone writing about trauma, there’s a little blowout that you can always see, and that blowout is for the readers who really need that experience of shared humanity with someone who’s been through something really hard and come out the other side.” .” Writers like Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison lit a candle for Ouellette when she needed it, and Ouellette hopes her work can do the same for others, even if they haven’t suffered in the same way.
Despite the often thorny subject matter, Ouellette describes the book’s enthusiastic reception by readers and reviewers as “one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.” Praise, such as getting a starred Kirkus review, as well as touching moments of human connection from readers who reached out to tell Ouellette how much her memoir means to them, making her heart “literally sing.”
Ouellette is passionate about connecting with others, either through her writing or through her teaching as part of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, at the University of Minnesota, and for Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded herself. “It’s important for writers everywhere to know that when you have a story inside that burns, it’s never too late to find a way to tell that story.” As someone who has found many opportunities through her writing skills, she believes that helping other writers, especially inmates and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is a way to give back.
At this point, Ouellette is excited to pick up the momentum from The part that burns and use it for writing fiction. “I take everything I’ve learned from writing my memoirs and apply it to an imagined world,” she says of the writing process. “It’s really fun!” Her goal is to have a concept ready next year.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.