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This blog was featured on 06/13/2018
Porochista Khakpour On the Work Behind Writing Her First Memoir
Written by
She Writes
June 2018
Written by
She Writes
June 2018

Porochista Khakpour is no stranger to writing—with two previous novels under her belt—and this July, she’ll show her readers a new side to both herself and her writing with her first memoir, Sick. Though writing a memoir required a new set of skills, she found adapting to the form to be something challenging and ultimately, rewarding.

Like her readers, She Writes was curious as to the what it’s like to write in a new story form and the ways in which having an illness has changed her life and her career as an author. So we did some digging and found some interesting insight any writer can learn from.

Leaving Politics Out of Her Writing

During an interview with Tin House, Porochista Khakpour explains that she didn’t want to make it seem as if she was trying to capture everyone’s experience with illness in her new book. She adds that due to the political climate, writing a book without cultural influence was oftentimes hard:  

"I felt I had to be really careful not to make my book appear like it represents the experience of all chronically ill or disabled America. I mean, the reason I felt I had to write it was because I did not find a lot of stories like mine out there. In that sense I also felt if I paraded around Audre Lorde’s experience with cancer or even Amy Tan’s with Lyme, I would be creating a sort of wonky narrative dilemma: a sort of forced dependency, a connecting of dots, and for what? For whom? For metaphor? To justify my story? To say others were also sick? To teach you facts?

“I wanted to be able to tell my story directly to someone without couching it in theory, history, the sociological… All I am worth is my truth and hopefully that can inspire others to tell their truths too. That to me is a lot.”

The Importance of Location

Setting and location play a vital role in Khakpour’s memoir, Sick. In an interview with Pacific Standard, the author talks about why she decided to add a connection between her illness and location in her debut memoir:

“It seemed like the only way to tell the story. It's a mystery of sorts. The external was a sort of roadmap for the internal, at best, although you could say it was also a distraction because, as they say, wherever you go, there you are. I was looking for answers or a place to be, but also looking for myself, as so many clichés go! I have come to respect certain clichés greatly.”

The Process Behind Her First Manuscript

Talking to Prairie Schooner, the Sick author described how her first manuscript came to life. By starting the book as a single chapter based on an already-written short story, Khakpour managed to turn the short tale into a full-fledged book:

“I tried a chapter of a novel based on a short story I wrote there the year before. I showed it to my old wonderful adviser, the great Alice McDermott, and she said to keep going. Then I did another. Same comment. And another. (It was so liberating to just waste time, because I didn't think it could get published). I hit a problem in the middle and Alice said it was "Middle of the Book Syndrome." Who knew what that was? (Or if she made it up to console me, I wondered then.) So I wrote a "stalling chapter" imagining I would cut it later, and it helped me get to the next part. I just kept problem-solving a chunk at a time and got so lost in the performance of it and figuring out how to complete the arc, that it suddenly got done. Of course, that was a draft in those seven or eight months but I spent many years later editing it. Interesting—structurally it did not change much and that middle stalling chapter ended up being many people's (as well as reviewers’!) favorite.”

On Switching Up Your Story Form

Switching from short story form to a complete memoir is never an easy task for a writer. When asked about the difficulty of transitioning from fiction to memoir, Porchista gave a very honest answer in a recent interview with Pacific Standard:

“It is much harder. I found it incredibly painful and at times very confining. I had some experience writing essays for many years, so I had a way in of thinking of myself as a character. But that's easy to sustain and to play with for 1,700 words. Seventy thousand words is a whole different game.”

The Ways in Which Writing Sick Was Like Therapy

Writing about something as personal as illness is never an easy feat for a writer and in an interview with Bookforum, Khakpour relays the ways in which writing her latest book brought up things she hadn’t known about herself before.

“The process of writing a memoir is truly harrowing and I learned so much about myself that I did not even want to know. Writing an autobiography was therapeutic and traumatic at times, but unlike the novel, it continues its therapies and trauma long after I’ve written it. If I did not believe this could be of use to others, I could not have done it at all.”

Porochista Khakpour is an inspirational woman and writer and her recollection of what it took to cross genres and write something bigger than herself is a true testament to the therapeutic nature of writing. Khakpour is an open book about her illness and has found success in being honest about her experience, encouraging other women like her to write about their own stories. Porochista sees the value in every woman’s story and is a proud supporter of those willing to tell them. Make sure to pick up Porochista Khakpour’s memoir, Sick.

(feature image courtesy of porochistakhakpour.com)

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