Leaning Into the Dissonance

by Suzanne Ohlmann

I don’t believe that memoir and its inherent self-as-protagonist is equal to narcissism. I believe that when we take out our own trash and sweep our front steps and paint our houses and go to the dentist, we make ourselves better neighbors.

Most memoirists wait until family members die, specifically their parents, before they publish stories involving painful or embarrassing truths. But not this gal! And now, my mother’s small town book club wants my memoir to be one of their nine selections for their 2022-23 season. Jesus Harold Christ, I think to myself as I read Mom’s email detailing the names of her church friends, food pantry friends, teaching friends, who plan to read or worse, have read my book. These are God-fearing, Christian folks of the Great Plains who don’t miss Bible Class and wear aprons to serve Folger’s Classic Blend at funeral luncheons. Now they know that my life has included moments of suicidal ideation, potty breaks in Indian train cars with neither water nor sink, and torrid affairs with brawny Italian stagehands.

I did consider my mother and her churchly friends as I drafted my manuscript, both at Wilkes under the careful eye of Bev Donofrio, and after, while shopping it around to agents and publishers, but the Lutherans of my hometown never deterred me. I struggled over years and drafts to decipher just for whom I was crafting and editing my story. Creative nonfiction is a literary art, but my story could have stayed where it had always lived: buried into the cells of my body and in fragments written into a lifetime of journals.

But I wanted to delve into the shadowland of my closeted skeletons. I believed that by taking the events of my life that had caused me pain — adoption, sexual repression in the realm of religious piety and pedophilia, sexual trauma from rape and serial abuse of a partner, and a forced subculture of toxic positivity — and carving them into a narrative, I would compel myself to consider my own capacity for transformation. And maybe, if I got down to the level of each word, sentence, page, and chapter, and carved away — removed some memories, enhanced others with more detail, sped up the narrative, other times slowed it down — I could make my own transformation vibrate with others who’d never worked at the Dairy Queen, or lived in Middle America, or eaten off banana leaves in India, or suffered the pangs of post-rape PTSD.

I don’t believe that memoir and its inherent self-as-protagonist is equal to narcissism. I believe that when we take out our own trash and sweep our front steps and paint our houses and go to the dentist, we make ourselves better neighbors. Just as with writing memoir, if we do it right — our house cleaning of the soul, our editing of our narrative, our chopping the wood of our own sadness — it can be of great benefit to our readers. We love the music of Bach because it literally vibrates in our cells, our bones, our teeth, our fibers, not because we too are Baroque-era German church composers who sire twenty children and write a cantata for our choir each week. Bach wrote music, edited it, left some flourishes out, added grace notes in, leaned on some dissonance, wrote a trumpet here, an oboe d’amore there: all so that we, fellow humans several centuries down the road, could vibrate with his art form.

I’m not sure anyone will read my book next year or next century (except for Mom’s book club, so help me God), but I do hope that I’ve done my life justice by writing it, for my own mental health, for the sake of learning the art of writing, to keep Bev turning the page (not an easy task, mind you!), and for the sake of anyone else who’s bumped up into unmitigated sadness and wondered if they could ever wake up in the morning and think about anything besides their pain. Mom’s church friends aren’t so clean and tidy that they have avoided sin and sadness. I had to leave their fold to understand my capacity to create as a writer. I’m grateful I found a way to launch my story into the world, a world I live in as a most definite sinner, but, thanks to Wilkes, a well-edited one.

Suzanne Ohlmann is a writer and registered nurse who lives in Nebraska and streets of San Antonio, Texas. She and her husband, a firefighter, share their home with a community of rescued dogs, cats, the occasional opossum, and their baby son, River. She works with rural heart failure patients who would otherwise not have access to advanced care, and who love to remind her that they’d rather be frying frog legs or fixing fence line than listening to her advice.

SHADOW MIGRATION: Mapping a Life, University of Nebraska Press, 2022; “Sustenance,” MORE IN TIME: A Tribute to Ted Kooser, University of Nebraska Press, 2021; “A Rural Nurse Has Just About Had It,” Texas Monthly Magazine, June, 2020.

Suzanne has an M.A. and an M.F.A., 2017, from Wilkes University; a B.S., 2008, from Columbia University; and a B.A., 1998, from St. Olaf College.

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