Discoveries Along the Way: A Conversation with Memoirist Steve Majors

By Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center

Maryland-based writer Steve Majors recently published his gripping, startlingly honest debut memoir, High Yella, with The University of Georgia Press. He talked with us about the challenges of crafting this book and what he’s learned as an author.

ZP: I’d like to start after the book ends, so let’s look at the acknowledgements. You address the fact that the depictions of some family members are unflattering. How do you balance an honest recounting of trauma with compassion?

SM: It is true that some of the ways that I depict my family members could be considered unflattering. But for me it was important that these depictions first be honest and authentic. As I’ve written in the book, the dark family stories that I recounted were ones that my family often retold each other. It was a way to make meaning of some of the traumatic events in our lives. So, these stories were common family knowledge—they were part of our oral tradition. In that way I was certain that they were true and matched our common experience. Even so I was very conscious of my need to take a balanced approach and to ensure that I was also treating my family members with compassion. I sought to achieve that by also telling true stories about their humanity, about the love they showed to me and about the courage and resilience they displayed in the face of some extraordinary forces including poverty, intergenerational trauma, and societal racism. Some of their negative behaviors were in response to those forces. Ultimately, I hope I’ve portrayed my family as three-dimensional people who try and want to be their best, but sometimes fall short.

The book is told in two parallel timelines, your childhood and your adult/parenthood. And then within these, there’s a not-quite-linear flow of time. The chapters are often organized by thematic development rather than strict chronology. How did this arrangement come about?

I’m a first-time author and when I set out to write this book I spent quite a bit of time studying memoir. I’ve always been a fan of memoir and understood the basic structure of the genre, which is often chronological. But in telling this story, it was important for me to make sure there was an equal emphasis on the story of my childhood and the story of my adulthood. The first draft of the book was written in chronological order. But as I went back and reread what I had written I felt like there was an imbalance and that it was missing an emotional arc. Some of the heavier and darker chapters were weighing down the front of the book. In addition, I felt that some of the thematic parallels that I was trying to convey between my experiences as a child and my experiences as an adult were going to be hard for the reader to connect if they had to wade through it in chronological order. So, I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to rectify that. I should say I am a big media buff and the parallel structure is one that you often see in movies and television. Subconsciously I think the answer came from there. Subsequent revisions of the book really involved me outlining and re-outlining the stories in a way in which I felt the book was balanced between the two stories I was trying to tell.

Some of the stories in the book began as essays that I self-published or included as anecdotes in essays that were published in outlets over the years. When I finally came to the realization that there was a larger story to tell by including these stories in a memoir, I started by sketching out an outline and noted stories/chapters that I had already written and sketched out stories/chapters I would need to write to create an overall narrative. I took a six-week sabbatical at work and set a goal to write at least two chapters each day. After I returned to work, I dropped that goal to one and the first draft was probably finished in 12 weeks. But the book was far from finished. The final, polished manuscript took another year and is probably about 50% different from that first draft. I learned, as all first-time authors do, that your first draft is not the book you will publish. At every step of the writing to publication journey, I kept reminding myself that the process would be harder and take longer than I wanted it to. But I also told myself not to give up.

There’s a lovely thought later in the book that sums up one of the main themes: “Once again I was okay to exist somewhere in the murky middle of an identity.” So this book isn’t about a perfect resolution or a neat character arc. In the absence of that traditional story shape, how do you maintain forward motion?

I think the search for identity is never neat and for many of us is never finished. But in that search, there is always discovery along the way — we learn more about ourselves or we learn more about the factors and forces that are standing in the way of us truly knowing ourselves. So there’s an inherent tension. I think the tension of people continually searching, yet sometimes failing to find answers, is what can keep a story moving forward and a reader hooked. Also, readers will note that the subtitle of the book is A Modern Family Memoir. It’s not just solely my story, but it is the intertwining tales of my two families—the family that I was born into and the family that I created. Obviously, I’m part of those two families. I’d like to think that the emotional climax of the book comes as one of those families comes to the poignant end of its search for an identity, just as another sets off on a potentially more hopeful journey.

You, as a real life human, don’t come out of this book squeaky clean. You’re incredibly honest with a couple personal shortcomings. Did you plan from the beginning to include your own humanity so transparently? Or was this honesty something you had to work toward as you wrote and revised?

I could not have written this book any earlier in my life, because I’m sure my ego and need for self-protection would have gotten in the way. I felt that if I was going to be completely honest about the shortcomings of my family, I had to be honest about my own. That was an issue of fairness to them. Secondly, showing yourself as a flawed human being helps readers accept you as an honest narrator. But ultimately, the transparency was for me. People have often asked me why I wrote the memoir. I believe as memoirists, we write primarily for ourselves. It’s a way for us to make meaning out of the events and people in our lives. If I had taken my imperfect self out of the narrative, I would have been lying to myself about my own life.

Finally, what’s one piece of advice you’d offer to a writer just starting out?

I’ll stick to my personal experience of writing memoir and offer the advice that story decides structure. High Yella might have been written in chronological order. It might have just been the story of my childhood. And it might have worked as a published collection of short essays. But my decision to lengthen the story timeframe, use a parallel structure, and create the through-line that memoir requires was determined by the story that I needed to tell. Writing is both art and craft. First explore the art of your storytelling and then be intentional about how you use the craft to tell that story.

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