This Is How I Speak: Diary of A Young
Woman is an intimate portrait of a graduate student trying to
come to terms with the end of her dance career even as she embarks on a new
one as a writer. The book explores the complex relationships between men
and women, mentor and student, and the precarious balance between ambition
and fear, anger and forgiveness that helps the author discover her own voice
in a world already filled with the voices of others.
ClubMemoir: This Is How I Speak
is written in diary format, spanning your days in a MFA fiction writing
program. When you were keeping your journal at that time in your life,
were you conscience of the fact that one day you might want to publish the
work, or parts of it?
: I had been keeping a journal since my freshman year of college and by the
time I wrote the entries for This Is How I Speak, I probably had
filled twenty notebooks, and never once saw the journals as anything but
a place to record my thoughts and perhaps serve as a mine for potential short
stories. But somehow that first year in the MFA program, the quality
and the subject of the entries changed — there was a cohesiveness about them
and a sense of narrative that the writing never had before. Partly I think
it was simply that I had moved 3000 miles away from my friends to attend
grad school and the stories I normally would I have told them, I put into
the diary instead. I also think that the traumatic events recounted in the
diary, most notably surviving a sexual assault, made me really take a hard
look at myself, not unlike the work one would do for creating a character
for a novel, so the book seemed to evolve naturally.
ClubMemoir: Passages in your book read more like typical
narrative than diary form such as several paragraphs of dialogue or a sentence
or two of background on a new character you're introducing to the reader,
even though you may have known them for years. For example, when you
introduce Nathan Katz to the reader you throw in a parenthetical ("whom I
met at Mount Holyoke when he served as a writer-in-residence.") Did
a lot of this come through in the process of your turning your journal into
a book, or is this typical of the way you keep a diary?
Sonnenfeld: Both my publisher and
I very much wanted to keep the diary entries exactly how they were when I
first wrote them. In a few instances for reasons of clarity, I did
add descriptives to a few entries during the editing process to help make
it easier for the reader to understand the context. But surprisingly,
perhaps because I already was employing so much of the narrative format,
a lot of those tags already had been included in the original work.
ClubMemoir: How and when did you decide that this period
in your life needed to be published as a book?
Sonnenfeld: I didn't so much decide,
as respond to opportunities. My publisher initially began as an editor
of an anthology of journal entries. I had seen the ad she posted in
Poets & Writers calling for entries, so I submitted 20 pages of the diary
that I thought were the most interesting, and she accepted them. Once
I decided to share part of the diary, I guess it just seemed natural to share
the rest, especially when I began receiving encouraging letters from potential
ClubMemoir: Many people, especially a lot of writers and
other creative people, record their daily lives regularly in journal format.
What do you think it takes in a journal, or one's life, to turn those entries
into a book published in diary format as opposed to using the entries as
a jumping off point for writing a more narrative memoir?
Sonnenfeld: I believe that
a compelling story, and good writing, no matter what the form is the key
to any successful publication. Most people do write diaries strictly
for themselves and likely aren't paying attention to their writing style
or focusing on narrative techniques such as character development, dialog,
description, etc. I think because I was writing these entries while
enrolled in the MFA workshops, I was practicing those literary techniques
on a daily basis, so the diary immediately took on a narrative feel.
Diaries and journals serve a very important personal purpose for many people,
and they shouldn't sacrifice the personal growth it offers them in an attempt
to publish. I think in some ways, my own success with This Is How I Speak
was something of a fluke, because many of the elements came together unconsciously.
ClubMemoir: Getting published in diary format is very
difficult these days. How long did you search for a publisher before signing
on with Impassio? And what are any rejection stories you can share
Sonnenfeld:It wasn't an easy task
convincing a publisher to buy the book. I shopped the manuscript around for
more than 10 years. I was even short-listed twice by some New York publishers,
but everyone seemed frightened by the diary format, urging me to turn it
into a traditional memoir or novel. There also were quite a few so-called
"agents" who "agreed" to represent me in exchange for a huge "editing" fee--so
I would urge all writers to be careful of entering into any agreements with
agents or publishers who expect you to pay them (unless your intention is
self-publication) instead of the other way around. I had all but abandoned
the idea of publication, when Olivia Dresher of Impassio Press came into
the picture. I had worked with her years before on an anthology of journal
writing and when she casually asked me what else I was working on, somehow
or other I just knew that she would understand what This Is How I Speak
was about. She did, and for that I am very grateful to her.
ClubMemoir: Who is the target audience of This
Is How I Speak? And what do you hope readers will take away from this
Sonnenfeld: Writers, of course.
But also any woman who has suffered or known someone who has experienced
a great trauma, whether that be sexual assault, illness, political or social
oppression or any other life-altering event. I do not want This Is
How I Speak to be viewed as a book about victimization, but rather a
hopeful book about the challenges and rewards of finding one's own voice
after a great trauma, especially in a society that is already so crowded
with the voices of others.
ClubMemoir: What is the most valuable lesson you learned
during the entire publishing process of this book?
Sonnenfeld: Be humble. Be
grateful. Be persistent. Let others help you.
ClubMemoir: Who are some of the writers who have influenced
Sonnenfeld: Margaret Atwood.
Joan Didion. Barbara Kingsolver. Anais Nin. F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Isabelle Allende. Basically, women and men of feeling who still know how
to tell one heck of a story.
ClubMemoir: What book is currently on your bed side table?
Sonnenfeld: Paris to the
Moon by Adam Gropnik, which recounts his experiences while living in
Paris five years with his wife and small son.
ClubMemoir: What tip or piece of advice would you give
to writers pounding away on their first memoir?
Sonnenfeld: Be persistent.
If you intend to publish, always ask yourself if what you are putting down
on the page would be of interest to anyone other than you. By that
I mean, are you telling the story in such a way that it compells the reader
to turn the next page? If you haven't yet learned all the important
elements of narrative, buy a book or take a writing workshop and study them.
Don't take a workshop in memoir, but in fiction writing, because I think
it will help you learn what makes a story work.
ClubMemoir: Any additional comments you'd like to make?
Sonnenfeld: Hard work and a willingness
to be flexible are just as important as talent.