A Little Bit of Everyone on Every Page: Diana Goetsch on memoir structure, point of entry, and This Body I Wore
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 months ago
A Little Bit of Everyone on Every Page
Diana Goetsch on memoir structure, point of entry, and This Body I Wore
By Michelle Kicherer
“Some of the most important events were only discovered as I wrote them.”
My first introduction to Diana Goetsch was through an online, pandemic-borne class she taught called Actually Writing. Each week we’d get a new prompt to awaken some part of our creative abilities we didn’t know existed. We’d give ourselves permission to write badly, as Diana would say, and to follow the words and let them show us what stories to tell. As an instructor myself, stepping into Diana’s classroom felt like a burden relieved. During those sessions I allowed myself to write a bunch of crap in order to reveal some language and topics I didn’t even realize were within me.
When Diana’s memoir came out in 2022, I knew that from a craft point of view, it’d be a master class on memoir. After twenty-plus years of teaching English and creative writing, and publishing poems in The New Yorker, The Best American Poetry and many other heavy hitters, Diana took her poetry to prose. This Body I Wore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) tells Diana’s long journey to coming out as trans. The New York Times called it “achingly beautiful” and “...with such clarity it bowls one over.”
This Body I Wore is not a transition memoir. It is the story of the fifty years of life Diana lived before coming out. “I wasn’t about to reduce that to a ‘before’ photo,” she wrote in an article for LitHub. To Diana, a transition memoir almost inherently invites transphobia. “When you focus everything on this little window of body morphing, it's inherently reductionist,” she tells Writing Workshops.
Before we move forward, I’d like to make a note regarding language. As Diana writes in her memoir’s introduction: “In this book I sought to use terminology authentic to the era of each experience. As I, and others around me, tried to make sense of our identities, language was part of what shaped our reality. We misgendered and deadnamed ourselves left and right, in part because words like “misgender” and “deadname” had yet to come into use. By the same token, words matter, pronouns matter, misgendering matters, and for those who are aided by trigger notices, this is to respectfully advise you.” Here, when I refer to scenes in which Diana writes about herself pre-transition, I will use she/her pronouns, even though Diana herself tends to use her deadname when writing about her past.
One of the most universally difficult decisions memoists have to make is regarding structure. What scenes do we open with? How should we order the book’s events? What events should we even include?
Diana compares her memoir’s structure to that of Forrest Gump: “You start on the park bench in the middle, right? That's your narrative present. And you spend a lot of time there. Then you go to the past, and then you go to the future. Then you go, okay let me get off the bench.”
A good rule to keep in mind: you don’t have to start by writing the first scene in the book. Start with what feels most vivid. Before having any book deal or even an agent, one small scene started the whole writing process for Diana.
“When I wrote that little piece I said, okay, I probably could do a memoir. It somehow gave me a way to enter this material.” That point of entry was the opening of a chapter called Northport.
The scene opens in the present tense in the year 1981: “I am sitting on the orange couch in what my parents call the family room. The couch is an ungainly dual-reclining contraption, in which two people get their own angle and footrest. It has grown old, rickety, and comfortable. Out the big picture window to my left is Northport Bay…”
“All I knew was that I wanted to describe what it was like to be a closeted trans kid – closeted from even myself,” shares Diana. “And also the experience itself that I'm remembering, which was so full of overwhelm in all the particulars…You're entering overwhelming material, things that I had no idea how to write: the actual phenomenology, the actual experience, the texture of the reality. For such a person at such a time it's almost a prehistory. And if you don't have the words, you kind of don't exist. So I thought well, let me talk about the thing I know exists: this orange couch.”
Readers see the orange couch, then what’s out the window and who is in the other room. Slowly a world is being physically built to help contextualize the kid living in it.
“That was kind of my point of entry just in terms of craft. And I didn't know if it was right or wrong to start in the present and go back to the past…I didn't care.” In order to keep moving forward, Diana didn’t write out key events like some memoirists do; the events revealed themselves as she went along. By the time she wrote the book’s proposal, she knew that the opening section would take place in New York in the eighties and nineties in what she refers to as the “messy and in some ways lovable, dangerous world of that underground, cross-dressing subculture that I plunged into while I was teaching school and trying to stumble through the ‘best years of our lives’ that I was supposed to be having. So, I knew I would start with that stuff.”
Likewise, she knew that her book would end with her coming out. Having a known ending helped inform the structure of the book: every scene leads readers toward that ending. After a 1987 prologue, we see formative scenes from the year 1984, 1985, and most years through the eighties, nineties then up to the present day. Each setting (Passages Academy, Stuyvesant High School, teaching poetry to the prose writer William Zinsser) is given to us with intention: they show us something that Diana would lose were she to come out.
As she puts it, there were two main throughlines in the book: “Growing awareness in the trans community, but also in myself…If you were transsexual in that time you would lose your job,” Diana says. “So here I am, part of the fabric of my city, and if I came out I wouldn't be, you know? So that's why it was important to me to have a scene where I'm a school teacher. Where I'm part of these kids’ education. They'll go home to their family and talk about what happened in school today, and here we are, here I was, part of their lives.”
While Diana taught for many many years, she included just one scene for each setting. “You get one scene, because the memoir is not about that. It's a great exercise though,” she adds of the art of choosing some of your life’s most impactful moments. “To show just one day, one class, one exchange. Maybe it's even just three minutes of a lesson.” The point is, to make each scene impactful.
In writing about a fifty year period of life, how does one remember enough details to accurately relay them? “I don't write about what I don't remember,” Diana says. “But I have a really good memory.”
Diana references a moment in the book in which dialogue plays a big part in the movement of the scene. And she remembers that exchange verbatim. “There's a dialogue between me and my mother when I was, you know, something like 5 years old, where she asked me to name my punishment, and to this day I remember saying, ‘That's your job. You're the one who does that.’ I know she did that, and I know her language, and I know how she talks.”
Diana usually recommends keeping dialogue short, because especially in memoir, too-long conversations can lose the reader and question your ability to recount that much dialogue as clearly as you’re conveying it on the page. “Find the best dialogue that moves us along…If you can keep it minimal and you can nail the voices, I don't know anyone who would doubt you.”
Another piece of dialogue advice she shares is the art of paraphrasing. This Body I Wore uses a hybrid of dialogue and paraphrase along with extremely accurate characterization.
The chapter called “The Isle of Staten” begins with about four pages of pure dialogue in a juvenile hall classroom. Diana was willing to write a riskily long stretch of dialogue for a couple of reasons. The first? “It’s all kinds of wild, hilarious shit. So I was like no, I gotta do this. I know I'm gonna risk losing the reader on this one but I’m trusting the reader to trust me to know how these kids talk.”
The type of scene she creates here is called a model telling: presenting a scene once to convey the way those classes went and the way those kids talked. This tool shows up in other ways in the book; we only need to see a description or interaction once to understand that that’s how a certain setting was or how a group of people interacted.
This leads us to a common question among memoir writers: What is my audience?
“I think you can write an everybody book if you've got the craft,” Diana says.
One night shortly after the book came out, Diana was at dinner with her old professor, Henry Abelove, who hadn’t yet read the book. He asked her who the book was for. “‘Everybody,’ I told him.” Abelove, a long-time academic, asked, “‘How could that be? How could you write for everyone?’ I said, ‘Read it. See if I succeeded.’ I'm not saying I succeeded, but that was the intention–to write a book that did its own particular thing as books do. Books have particular subjects, but there's a little of everybody there.”
We share that thought for a moment, then Diana ends by telling me about a song called “Trouble in the Fields,” by Nanci Griffith. There’s a line that goes, “There’s a book up on the shelf/about the Dust Bowl days/And there’s a little bit of you/and a little bit of me/in the photos on every page.”
“I love that lyric,” Diana says. “And I want a little bit of everyone on every page. That is my job as a writer. To see if I can do that, and to maintain the confidence that however strange, bizarre, narrow an experience is, that it's still universal. Everyone has to come out to themselves. Every single memoir is a coming out of one kind or another if it's any good; if it’s honest.
“Everyone's in transition, and every journey is equally perilous in one way or another, whether it's an interior journey, a medical journey, a legal journey, an addiction memoir, a survival memoir: every journey is equally perilous. They just look different. So I don't think I needed to sell out or change how I wrote, other than deepen it, in order for the book to at least try to speak to everyone.”
Diana Goetsch is an American poet and essayist, author of eight poetry collections, the acclaimed memoir This Body I Wore, and dozens of features and columns. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, LitHub, Tricycle, The American Scholar, The LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, Best American Poetry and The Pushcart Prize. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Grace Paley Teaching Fellowship at The New School.
Michelle Kicherer is an arts journalist, writing coach and instructor specializing in fiction and memoir. Michelle regularly interviews some of the world’s favorite writers. Her work has been published in outlets throughout the United States and Canada. Michelle believes that there are no dumb questions in the classroom, only pretentious teachers. @MichelleKicherer