A Writer Describes Making Something Beautiful Out of Something Broken
Minnesota writer Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, tells the story of her life in the same way that anyone remembers theirs—in fragments. Ouellette reflects on her early childhood through her adulthood, both in the moment at the age she was and as an older person who knows what will happen in the future. As Ouellette writes about her often traumatic upbringing, including sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, this stylistic choice reminds readers that there is a new future for that terrified child:
Like I said, it’s fall, not winter, and I am four years old. We are in the green house on the steepest hill, the house before we move to the gray one on Twenty-Fourth Avenue. At the gray house, we will have a corner store with a dusty wood floor and penny candy and a screen door that bangs. Mama will let me walk to the store by myself, because I will be five and then almost six. At the gray house we will get a braided rug and some macramé plant holders. Rachael will be born. She will be half of my sister. I will learn to rock her when she cries because her crib will be in my room. I will learn to wring out her dirty diapers in the toilet. “It doesn’t stink when you love someone enough,” Mama will say. I will try to love Rachael more.
This effect of being simultaneously in the painful past and the secure future allows Ouellette to explore her trauma while leaving room for change, love, and hope in a memoir Kirkus Reviews describes as “a textured remembrance of a traumatic childhood that also offers affecting moments of beauty.”
Ouellette’s path to authorship was more than a little nontraditional. She entered young adulthood out of the foster system, barely managed to graduate high school, and never did finish college. It wasn’t until years later, after building a successful writing career, that she was accepted into an MFA program in her 40s on the basis of her established skills alone. Because she didn’t have a traditional education to offer as credentials, Ouellette’s writing talent had to speak for itself. “I was able to find side doors and off-center paths into many opportunities I might otherwise have missed out on simply because I could write,” says Ouellette. “Since I didn’t do anything to earn the ability to write at an early age, I consider it tremendously good fortune that I discovered a love for it.”
As Ouellette found her way to a career, much of her writing was focused on earning a paycheck for her family. So when she started to write her memoir, she cherished the opportunity to focus on writing as art. At first, she was worried that no one would want to read about awful things like child abuse. But in her heart she really wanted to “find the beautiful in the broken” and “take experiences of heartbreak and despair and transform them into something beautiful, something filled with hope. It’s so important for people to know this is possible.”
As with any book, Ouellette wrote several versions of the manuscript before settling on the final, memorylike fragmentary version. There was a draft that was told as a more linear story, which Ouellette describes as “a very good exercise” because it forced her to take her memories apart piece by piece and understand them as a chronological series of events. A helpful side effect was that this understanding allowed her to make the more fragmented version hold together for a reader and have the effect of a real memory rather than a story told in parts. Ouellette describes books like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House as influencing her desire to write in a style that invites the reader to fill in what happens in those “in-between spaces.” “You’re really in collaboration with the reader when you’re doing that,” she says. “I love that.”
Connecting with her readers is enormously important to Ouellette. “For anyone writing about trauma, there’s a little flare you can always see, and that flare is for the readers who really need to have that experience of shared humanity with someone who has experienced something really difficult and come out the other end.” Writers like Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison held up a flare for Ouellette when she needed it, and Ouellette hopes her work can do the same for others, even if they haven’t suffered in the same way.
Despite the often thorny subject matter, Ouellette describes the book’s enthusiastic reception from readers and reviewers as “one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.” Praise, like getting a starred Kirkus review, as well as touching moments of human connection from readers who have reached out to tell Ouellette how much her memoir means to them make her heart “literally sing.”
Ouellette is passionate about connecting with others, whether through her writing or through her teaching as part of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, at the University of Minnesota, and for Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded herself. “It’s important for writers everywhere to know that if you have a story burning inside, it’s never too late to find a way to tell that story.” As someone who found a lot of opportunities through her writing skills, she feels that helping other writers, particularly incarcerated people and people from underprivileged backgrounds, is a way to give back.
Right now, Ouellette is thrilled to be taking the momentum from The Part That Burns and using it for writing fiction. “I’m taking all of what I gained from writing my memoir and applying it to an imagined world,” she says of the writing process. “It’s really fun!” Her goal is to have a draft ready next year.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.