Guest Post by Christi Craig: On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

Iphoto of Christi Craig am very happy to be able to host a guest post today by one of my favorite writers and bloggers, Christi Craig! I’m fortunate to have met Christi in person, and she is every bit as graceful and lovely as her writing. Please refer to the end of the post for her bio and blog, Twitter, and Facebook info.

On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

by Christi Craig

Sitting in a critique group one night, Stanley Kunitz came to mind as we discussed the challenges in writing memoir. Not because I thought Kunitz wrote memoir, but because I remembered one of his poems that sheds light on how to craft a good memoir, and in turn, how to craft good fiction.

An older gentleman in our group had just finished reading a section from his life story, a collection of tales that would capture any audience. In that one section, several scenes begged for expansion, and soon it became apparent that his life story could easily become an epic-length book, or two. The question arose: how does a writer condense decades of one’s life into 300 pages?

Which memories should this writer spotlight, when his adventures spanned the course of twenty years or more, and how does one pull pieces together into a complete story and, at the same time, avoid rehashing every minute of every day of how you got from there to here?

“Stanley Kunitz,” I said. And, then I explained.

After my mother passed away, a good friend gave me The Collected Poems, by Kunitz, and directed me to page 217 where I read “The Layers.” This poem, a tribute to loved ones who have died but whose presence lingers long after their physical being is gone, gave voice to my grief. It urged me to move forward at a time when I desperately wanted to do the opposite, to go back. Two passages from “The Layers,” stood out for me:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Abandoned campfires and precious stones. That poem first spoke to me as a daughter, but in the midst of my critique group, I saw, in its words, a new meaning.

Memoir isn’t about retelling every detail of every day. It’s about picking and choosing pivotal moments and recounting powerful relationships in our lives that served as a catalyst, that swayed us one way or another or shifted our perspective slightly, that forced us to grow and to change and to become.

I write mostly fiction, but the moment I related Stanley Kunitz’s poem to memoir, I realized the same principle applies to novels. I get stuck in the minutia of fictional characters’ lives. My early drafts always read like a ticker tape:

She stood up and walked into the kitchen. She turned on the water and filled up her glass. She took a drink.

But, I don’t have to record every gory detail to complete the story. I need only to discover places along the characters journeys where they stayed awhile – just long enough – so that an imprint remained. Then, whether I’m writing memoir or fiction, I tie those moments together with story structure: plot, character arc, and theme.

In an interview on Writer Unboxed, between Jan O’Hara and Kim Michele (author of The Unbroken Child), Michele’s comments confirm my belief that memoir and fiction mirror each other. Michele says:

For a memoirist, a book must offer two important components for a reader; hope and resolution. Each writer’s journey or path taken to reach such is diverse and personal.

Abandoned camp-sites, precious stones, hope and resolution.

Those are the ingredients of memoir.

And, those are the same ingredients I hope to weave into my fiction.

What about you? How does poetry guide memoir, and does memoir guide your fiction?


Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

Christi Craig lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children. She is a sign language interpreter and a writer. Her work has been published online and in print, and she was chosen as a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s April 2010 Family Matters Contest. You can follow her on Twitter, friend her on Facebook, and catch up with her at her blog, Writing Under Pressure.

18 thoughts on “Guest Post by Christi Craig: On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

  1. Christi, thank you so very much for this poignant yet practical post. As someone who also lost my mother a few years ago, I teared up when I first read what you wrote about “The Layers.” What a thoughtful and wise friend to have given you the book at that time.

  2. Hi Christi, followed you over from Twitter (again). I love the Kunitz poem. I’m not a memoirist either, but this is so timely. I’m moving into the end-game of my WIP, and have been trying so hard to sort out my precious stones, finding my way from the ‘all-is-lost moment’ at the end of act two, to resolution. But I also keep reminding myself that I need to get it down (not freeze), and that I can sort out the precious stones in the rewrite process. I fear I’m getting a bit over-cautious this week.

    A lovely post. Lots to think about, and very inspiring. Thanks!

    • Vaughn, Twitter friend :),

      Glad you stopped by! I like your point that sometimes we just need to get everything down and sift through our work later to find those precious stones.

      I don’t know who said it, but the real writing happens in the rewriting.

  3. Excellent post, Christi! I wasn’t familiar with the Kunitz poem, but it spoke to me. Thanks for sharing that.

    Your words were also timely for me. I’m not writing memoir, but the novel I’m working on now is essentially a memoir of the main character. I am aware of “choosing pivotal moments and recounting powerful relationships” that created the woman she is at age 47.

  4. Christi — what a wonderful surprise to wake up and see this post. Poetry is truly inspirational to my writing, although I don’t write it myself. And I need this Kunitz collection…now!

    • Rebecca,

      I don’t write much poetry, but I love when the poems I read strike a chord with me. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” continues to be a source of inspiration for my WIP:

      You do not have to be good.
      You do not have to walk on your knees
      for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
      You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

      …Or, maybe it’s just inspiration for my writing in general.

  5. Hope and resolution. I haven’t read that Writer Unboxed interview, so I’m glad to see the quote — and I too hope I can weave them with the precious stones into my fiction. Thanks for a beautiful post.

  6. Christi – thank you for the lovely post. That Kunitz poem is a treasure. It was also a relief to me to read that some other writers also find in their early drafts, “I get stuck in the minutia of fictional characters’ lives. My early drafts always read like a ticker tape.” That sometimes happens to me – and, another problem I have is I can, again, in early drafts, spend far too much time in my main character’s head w/out much happening! (Thank goodness I learned, finally, to enjoy revision!) Thank you again. Great post!

    • Pam, Thanks for your comment. I’m appreciating revision more and more, and I don’t get as overwhelmed with the amount of ink I put down on a printed out draft 🙂

      I’ve also begun seeing some of my early drafts as character studies, so that I don’t get frustrated when it seems I’m spending too much time inside the protagonist’s (or the antagonist’s) head.

  7. Good morning, Christi!

    What a wonderful post. I’ve loved poetry for all my adult life, and with as much of it as I read, I wasn’t familiar with this one by Kunitz…until now. What treasures he left us.

  8. What a wonderful post, Christi. I am a poetry fan, and am constantly amazed by the lessons I learn from it to incorporate into my fiction. Poetry shows how there are so many different ways to convey meaning in a shorter amount of time. I hope your critique group friend was able to move forward with his work with the help of your comments.

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