Jeannine Ouellette’s debut memoir, The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, January 2021) recounts a painful personal history in fragmented vignettes. In gorgeous prose, Ouellette writes about coming out of hiding and being found, about living in a fragmented body and becoming whole. She recounts the story of an unstable childhood choreographed by an impetuous and reproachful mother, who repeatedly kicks her out of the family and banishes her to the basement. She survives the repeated advances of a groping stepfather and the conditional love of a fractured father. Meanwhile, she dreams of the doors that will open to her future life when she will have her own family. Which she does, and, as her narrative unfolds, she masterfully excavates the truths of her upbringing and the childhood scars that threaten to open and bleed. Yet what transfixes us to the narrative is the grace of self-discovery. The book culminates with a call and response duet between Jeannine and her daughter, Lillie, who writes with her as if in one voice.
Ouellette’s superpower is her expansive writing style that embraces metaphor, while guiding us from the innocence of childhood to the wisdom of experience, and back. Dorothy Allison praises The Part That Burns as “a book she loves.” Joyce Carol Oates describes the writing as “simply beautiful, precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid.” Kirkus, in a starred review, calls the memoir “a textured remembrance of a traumatic childhood that also offers moments of affecting beauty.”
Jeannine lives in Minneapolis and teaches creative writing through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She is the founder and director of Elephant Rock, an independent writing program. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her over email about her first book, the use of constraints to help a writer go deep, her fascination with cognition and memory, and her artistic choices to write in fragments.
The Rumpus: In The Part That Burns, you write vignettes rather than chapters, and the material is not chronological. What drove this artistic choice?
Jeannine Ouelette: Thank you—it’s a joy as a memoir writer who is also female to be asked first about craft—especially because structuring this book was an arduous process, full of detours. I intuited straightaway that fragmentation was right for my story. I love fragmented books: Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth—I could go on! All distinct, but with a shared quality of being created from disparate pieces of things, pieces that form a shape when juxtaposed with one another.
Also, white space. I appreciate how white space calls on the reader to participate in meaning-making. Fragmented work is similar to flash in treating the reader as an active collaborator, requiring a different quality of attention. In a recent Writer’s Chronicle essay, Jennifer Sinor, notes that Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, through their magnification of fragments, force us to see differently. O’Keeffe herself said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else… I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” She also famously said, “I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”
Rumpus: Fragments also depend on metaphor, right? And your superpower is your expansive writing style that embraces metaphor, while guiding us from the innocence of childhood to the wisdom of experience, and back. You dig deep to the bottom of the well to bring us into the moment with you. How do you access your inner voice?
Ouellette: I love that you assign me that superpower! Because until this book, I was never able to write about my childhood. Meanwhile this original trauma coursed quietly beneath my other work, a river of melancholy that I could never get to flow openly, but artfully, onto the page. Not until I discovered writing constraints, which are simply a literary technique that involves requiring or forbidding certain elements, juxtaposing various incongruities, imposing patterns. Like in poetry, you have sonnets, sestinas, haiku. The idea is, limitations can jostle us out of familiarity and into new territory, propel us away from our usual creative stomping grounds. That’s partly I think what Joy Williams meant when she said, “The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.”
But it’s hard to break patterns. Daniel Kahneman has an incredible book on this called Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s not about writing specifically. It’s about how the two systems of our brains work—System I and System II. System I is fast-thinking and anticipatory. It jumps to the first obvious conclusion. System I can only recite what we already think we know, and it’s the system we default to most of the time. System II, in contrast, is slow and plodding, effortful. Necessary for calculus or assembling an Ikea dresser. System II is exhausting so we tend to avoid it. But System II is also where new ideas come from. So, what writing constraints do, by giving us a puzzle to solve, is engage System II, which, as Kahneman explains, disables System I. We can’t use both systems at the same time. Disabling System I makes us much more likely to write something unexpected because, while System II is busy wrestling with the constraint, our subconscious mind sneaks out and onto the page.
Writing constraints definitely help me access a voice for writing about my childhood—especially my stepfather’s abuse and my mother’s struggles. In “Wingless Bodies,” I used as much iambic pentameter as I could, and required myself to stay close to the Mississippi River throughout the vignettes. In “Tumbleweeds,” I set rules about what I had to braid in, including the botany of tumbleweeds, the mating habits of the Western Meadowlark, snippets of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration address, and so forth. And in “A Chronology of New Years,” I used number one songs as a framework. Essentially, by giving my mind something else to focus on, I could get System I to stop standing over the page censoring, correcting, and explaining.
Rumpus: It’s obvious you’ve done significant research on the human brain and memory. How has that impacted your writing?
Ouellette: It’s true, I’m fascinated by this topic. To think that our cells contain the entirety of our experience—astonishing! I’ve been an armchair student of brain science for years. But where I really got interested in memory with regard to writing was during a workshop with Donald Maass, a well-known New York agent. His topic was evoking feeling in writing, and the link between feeling and cognition. He has this whole “third-level emotion” technique which is pretty complex, but the gist is that through this technique and the steps it entails, you can make a lasting emotional impression on the reader. Generally, he says, readers just read along, relying on short-term memory. If we create a scene complex enough, the reader has to discover how they feel about it, which requires working memory. If a reader chews long enough on the scene, it has a good chance of making it into long-term memory. But the scene has to be something the reader did not expect. The other thing Maass said that stuck with me is that when we feel something as readers, we’re not feeling what the character is feeling—rather, we’re drawing from our own long-term memory, reliving a feeling we ourselves have experienced, which is fascinating. In fact, this workshop prompted me later to write my critical thesis on how literature can evoke bodily responses of emotion in a reader. What is that process? There is no formula, but certain books were invaluable in understanding the science of emotion, especially Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. Also, two by Antonio Damasio—The Feeling of What Happens and Looking for Spinoza.
One of my advisors, Richard McCann, once said that what he wants from a piece of writing is “to be devastated.” My first thought was, me, too. My second thought was, that’s also what I want to do in my own writing.
Rumpus: Another theme I love that runs through the book is the doorway metaphor—this vehicle through which you can slip from one reality to another. Can you talk a little more about this?
Ouellette: I have a long-running love of thresholds, the spaces between one thing and another—the edges of things, moments of possibility. Which is related to fragmented work, now that I think of it.
But with doorways, the original reference comes from a childhood experience with Nora, my fifth-grade friend in Wyoming. Her parents were building an A-frame cabin on Casper Mountain, and Nora and I would play there while her dad and brothers worked. I don’t know how many acres they owned, but enough that we’d trudge all afternoon without seeing other people or houses. I love such wild spaces. Trees grew however they grew, a woodland tangle. Nora and I would come across trees that did what I describe in the book—touched their branches overhead to form an arch. Some were so precise, so perfect, that you couldn’t, if you had even an ounce of imagination, not wonder about stepping through into another world. Sometimes we’d convince ourselves that we had accessed another realm, but the shift was so subtle only we could perceive it. After those mountainside adventures, I spent the rest of my childhood looking for portals. I was also enamored with time travel and out-of-body experiences. You could say I was trying to escape, but it was more about transformation. I understood from an early age that people can change. My mom was incredibly aspirational—the first in her family to attend college, let alone graduate school. She had visions. But sometimes attaining her visions came with costs she didn’t seem to anticipate, which showed me that our desires can have a shadow side.
Rumpus: You explore what it means for a girl who was sexually molested to live inside her body. In the paper doll scene with your sister, you write: “For another thing, as soon as you try to make paper dolls do anything, their bodies bend over. Sometimes their necks break. Always, their clothes fall off.” Pivotal. For the rest of the book, I saw you as the one-dimensional paper doll who, through life experience and love, became multi-dimensional. Were you that paper doll?
Ouellette: Oh, there’s a story behind the paper doll scene, one I’ve never told. It was inspired by the book’s cover art, the clothes floating above the chimney. That image, by the artist Kelly Popoff, was itself inspired by another scene I wrote earlier—and ultimately scrapped—while I was in residence at Millay Colony with Kelly.
The scrapped scene was about a white cotton nightgown given to me by the mother of my boyfriend—Cyrus in the book. When I shared that scene with Kelly, she made a tiny painting of a nightgown that, for me, evoked memories of paper dolls, as do the clothes now on the book’s cover. Those clothes also remind me of the dozen moves during my childhood—so much chaos of packing! And the explosion my mom survived when she was young. But, most strongly, I see paper dolls.
After Kelly’s art was finalized, I rewrote the scene where the narrator is playing with her little sister, Janie, to include paper dolls, not just reading and coloring. Through writing, I recalled how frustratingly awkward and fragile paper dolls are. Which is how I felt during those two years at my dad’s. Everything looked normal on the outside—nothing to hide. But invisible dysfunction can be terribly destructive, because you feel crazy. I’d get these debilitating migraines there—vomiting, auras, everything. I also suffered sleep paralysis, a form of lucid dreaming where your mind is conscious but your body is asleep, and you cannot move. Terrifying. So, I do think the paper dolls reflect the narrator’s feeling of helplessness at that time. Not just about things done to her, as with her stepfather, but also a simple lack of control. The narrator saw herself reflected in the dolls’ maddening, seemingly insurmountable limitations.
Rumpus: When I teach memoir classes, we always read André Aciman’s essay, “How Memoirists Mold the Truth,” which you quote in your opening: “There is no past; there are just versions of the past.” Did you ever consider writing another version of this book?
Ouellette: I love that essay. And yes, I actually did write two other distinctly different versions of The Part That Burns.
At first, I was just writing and publishing these linked pieces, most of them fragmented—”Tumbleweeds,” “Wingless Bodies,” etc.—as stand-alone essays and stories. Then in 2016, I worked with Dorothy Allison at Tin House on the chapter called “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” and she got excited about my piece and asked if I was writing a book. I said I wasn’t sure, but that I was amassing these related pieces. She said, “That’s how it works. That’s how I wrote Bastard.” Dorothy is a longstanding hero of mine. Her validation was everything. Thanks to her, I suddenly understood I was pushing a book project forward.
My first version came from deconstructing existing essays into little shards and scraps and arranging them—along with new vignettes—in mostly chronological order. But that structure didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. So, I tried, based on some generous and motivating feedback from agents, to force the manuscript into a traditional narrative arc. They wanted that, a clear narrative arc. This time I wrote a novelized version with substantial new connective tissue between all the vignettes. I worked on it throughout 2018, then submitted it to the Autumn House Press novel contest. It didn’t win, but it was a finalist—so I wasn’t completely discouraged.
At that point I returned to my original intuition that fragmentation was right for my memoir. I restructured the manuscript into its current elliptical form, leaving the various standalone pieces mostly intact—though most of those pieces are in some way fragmented themselves—then writing new fragments whenever white space was too vast. It took many rounds of revision to amplify the resonance between fragments—the intentional echoes and overlays. But I was sure, at last, that this elliptical structure was working.
Rumpus: Then in the final chapter you come full circle: from a young girl routinely kicked out of the family, banished to the basement, to a mother-daughter dyad writing together in a voice so similar it feels like the umbilical cord is still connected. What motivated the choice to end the book with this intimate conversation?
Ouellette: I never questioned ending with “Bent.” That chapter takes us the farthest forward in time and answers some of the narrator’s fears by showing the other side of epigenetics, the side that implies we have some agency over what becomes of the memories held in our cells. As the narrator says, “Not everything underground will quicken come spring.”
Also, it was joyful writing with Lillie, and joy felt like a wonderful landing. Lillie had recently returned home from China—they’re fluent in Mandarin and had been living and working in China for a couple of years—and wanted to write something collaboratively. We’ve always been creative together. In particular, we wanted to explore epigenetics and trauma with regard to mothers and daughters, a topic that intrigues us.
We did use constraints—one was that we had to tell each other’s stories, instead of our own. Another was time. We wrote during our morning coffee, with a timer. Usually twenty minutes, though we sometimes pressed on longer. But we couldn’t go indefinitely because we both had to get on with our days. So, it took time to amass the material. Then I had to shape it into something before we could revise together until the two voices were doing everything they possibly could.
I find “Bent” very hopeful, especially the last two sections. Throughout the essay we hear how old stories permeate mother and daughter, how they exist before conscious memory, especially, as Lillie says, “the Mafia story.” But in the penultimate section, Lillie says again, “I know my story, and Mama’s.” And the mother seems to agree, saying, “You’ve heard this one before.” Lillie says, “The Mafia story.” Here, the narrative takes a turn. “No,” the mother says. “The one where you slid out of me so fast the nurse was caught off guard. Begged me frantically not to push, even though I was already pushing with everything I had.” The mother perseveres in telling Lillie’s birth story, which overlays and drowns out the Mafia story. By the next and final section, Lillie is talking about crossing the threshold of this beautiful first-grade rose ceremony. The cut rose dies, of course—but Lillie tells us it can be preserved, because that’s what her mother tells her. All the while, the mother continues recounting Lillie’s birth, the beauty of it. It’s the third birth story in the book—both Sophie’s and Max’s birth stories are in earlier sections. With this final birth story, the narrator is fully reclaiming herself with a capital S. The Mafia story is still there, it always will be. But the narrator is asserting something else more permanent over it. That, undeniably, is a threshold.
The final micro fragment, “Rock on Bone,” originally came first, like a tiny prologue. But my editor suggested moving it to the end, which I liked because it is the end, really. The narrator has had this rock in her knee since early childhood, a rock that eventually becomes scar tissue before finally disappearing. The scar is still there, of course, somewhere. And that’s sort of a recapitulation of the book’s premise—that we can be both torn and whole. There is no other way.
Photograph of Jeannine Ouellette by London King.