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Recovery, Memoir, and Daily Practice

Memoir writer Elizabeth Jannuzzi recounts a magical afternoon she spent listening to her memoir heroes discuss writing and recovery at a conference in New York.

By Elizabeth Jannuzzi

October 05, 2023

“Field Notes” is a new Journal column where book inc writers who have been out and about in the world debrief us about their writing excursions. Up first is Elizabeth Jannuzzi, our program manager who attended a conference with her memoir heroes.  

Recovery & Practice Conference
Friday, September 22, 2023
The Forum at Columbia University
New York, NY 

Panel Discussion: “Riveting Blazers – Recover, Memoir, and Daily Practice”

I was cruising around Facebook when I stumbled upon a post by memoir author Mary Karr. 

Hey FB Fam, this Fri 9/22 as part of Columbia University’s RECOVERY & PRACTICE Conf, I get to talk sober tactics for memoir with Leslie Jamison & Betsy Crane at 330 … If yr in NYC, c u there! 

If my social media scrolling had sound effects, you’d have heard a screech as I slammed on the brakes and then a loud WAWAH WAWAH as this post set off PAY ATTENTION alarms in my head.

Besides Mary Karr and Leslie Jamison being my personal memoir heroes, the panel topic, “Riveting Blazers – Recover, Memoir, and Daily Practice” seemed tailor-made for me. The description said the panelist would discuss the narrative possibilities of recovery, addressing the question “How can the story of rebuilding become as riveting as the story of falling apart?” My memoir that I’m currently revising in Book Revision Lab focuses on my early recovery, and how to keep my book interesting to readers as I detail my sobriety is certainly a concern of mine.    

My mind went to work on a plan: I’d have to request a half day off of work, secure rides for a child, borrow a car to get myself to/from the train station, take a three-hour roundtrip train ride from Central Jersey to Manhattan, and then a long subway ride from Penn Station up to Columbia University. It was a hassle, but something told me this conference was special, and I knew I should go. 

Was it worth it? Yes, yes it was. 

Here are some of my key takeaways from this wonderful afternoon:

“We are not a glum lot,” is a phrase often used in recovery and this was certainly true at the conference. When I thanked Leslie Jamison for a great talk on the way down in the elevator, she said “Oh it was so fun to get to talk writing and recovery with my friends.” “It looked like you guys were having fun,” I replied. Message: Writing (and recovery) doesn’t have to be torture.

Mary Karr’s East Texas spirit was on full display, calling her panelists “these ho bags” and telling funny stories like the time her friend nicknamed Jack O Lantern got pushed off a balcony.

On getting to the emotional core:

“You don’t want to confess the lesser sin to hide the greater sin.” True in life and writing. 

“Look at the sentences where your language is imprecise – that’s usually where you are hiding something.” – Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s editor specifically told her that when she wrote about her ex-husband’s wrong-doings she was VERY specific, but when she discussed her own, her writing was vague. Get specific about your own wrongdoings.

On not doing harm to others while telling your story

All authors emphasized the importance of focusing on YOUR story, not someone else’s. You can tell the story of your divorce but write what happened to you, how you reacted, and what your feelings were. Don’t tell someone else’s story.  

Elizabeth Crane wrote a chapter called “Bitch” (about her husband’s mistress) and it was funny and well-written but in the end, she took it out because it was cruel and unnecessary. 

All authors told a story about how they shared their work with the people who are mentioned in it. They were surprised by some of the requests. Like Leslie Jamison’s father didn’t mind her saying he drank too much but didn’t like it when she referred to him as “powerful.” 

On revising and cutting:

“Cut Cut Cut.” “Stuff is standing in line to be written.” Sometimes you have to just get it out until you can get to the good stuff. – Mary Karr

Mary Karr is currently writing a book about her sister who passed away two years ago. The first year of writing she said her memoir was like a PowerPoint of her resentments. She gave her pages to her editor who returned them unmarked (gasp from the audience) and said “Not this.” She spent a year writing and threw all those pages out.

On process:

Both Elizabeth Crane and Mary Karr wake up, meditate, and read something “better than they can write” before they start writing. No news. No social media. No emails. 

Mary Karr said she will write for six hours but maybe three out of those six she is actually writing. But she forces herself to just sit there “with her tea” and not look at her phone.  

On the importance of readers:

When asked “How do you know when something is good?”, all three women shared that they get feedback from trusted readers. 

Leslie Jamison talked about her proposal for The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath and that she started with a dream and then several pages later wrote about another scene and it was her ex-husband who told her “Ditch the dream and start at this scene.” To this, Mary Karr added: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”

Leslie Jamison talked about the feedback she got from Mary Karr where she said “If you want to tell a story about divorce, you have to tell a story about love.” Nobody will care about the divorce if you don’t first talk about the love. 

“A book is like a bomb that doesn’t detonate until somebody reads it.” – Mary Karr

On gratitude lists:

Get specific on your gratitude list. Don’t just write “I’m grateful for good food.” Be in the body and write about what it was like to eat the donut, etc. Also, getting specific with your gratitude aids your memory.   

Other gems

“The claustrophobic crawl-hole of the self.” – Leslie Jamison

“My life was certainly less bland when I was on cocaine. But cocaine is not the solution. Because there is not enough of it. There’s never enough of it.”  – Mary Karr. (Big laughs.)

I barely noticed the commuters bumping into me on my long journey home as I was floating on air after being in the presence of my literary heroes. I was itching to tell my book inc writers about my experience and quickly typed up my notes.

The discussion of recovery and memoir provided a much-needed boost to my writing project. When you listen to best-selling authors share their struggles, you realize that your struggles are just part of the writing process. The next day, I opened my memoir and continued to revise. I can do this, I thought, one day at a time.          

Elizabeth Jannuzzi

Elizabeth Jannuzzi, book inc's program manager, is a mother and writer living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, The Brevity Blog, , and HerStry. She is currently working on a memoir about recovery.

Elizabeth Jannuzzi, book inc's program manager, is a mother and writer living in New Jersey. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, The Brevity Blog, , and HerStry. She is currently working on a memoir about recovery.