by Annie Scholl
Melanie Brooks was 40 and just starting an MFA program when she joined thousands of other writers at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Boston and questioned whether she belonged.
Ten years later, she not only attended the 2023 AWP Conference in March, but she served on the panel, “Creating an Author Platform Based on Tragedy without Sounding Perpetually Tragic.” Her memoir, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All (Vine Leaves Press, 2023), launched six months later.
Brooks writes about her journey from a fledgling writer to a published author in a Brevity Blog essay, A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making. In it she shares that it was the words of poet and author Kim Stafford at that 2013 AWP Conference that sparked hope in Brooks. She heard Stafford read an essay called, “How a Book Can Set You Free. Stafford talked about the challenges of writing 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir about his brother’s death by suicide. That Stafford told his “impossible story” meant that maybe Brooks could tell hers too.
In her memoir, A Hard Silence, Brooks explores the impact of her father’s illness and subsequent death. She was 13 when her father, a respected general and thoracic surgeon, contracted HIV in 1985 after receiving a blood transfusion in their native Canada during heart surgery. Due to the stigma of HIV/AIDS at the time, he kept his illness a secret—as did his family. It was a secret Brooks kept well after her father died in 1995.
She found the inspiration and confidence to write her book through Stafford, her colleagues and teachers in the Stonecoast MFA program, and the authors she interviewed for Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017).
A teacher at Northeastern and Bay Path universities, Brooks hopes that by sharing her struggles she’ll inspire other writers to step through fear, doubt, and uncertainty to tell their stories.
“My goal is to show that writers are normal, messy human beings,” Brooks tells The Sunlight Press during a break from her book tour. The mother of two adult children, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, Chris.
I follow you on social media and you’re very responsive and gracious with readers and writers. Is that intentional?
It really is. I think I’m a generally nice person, but when I reached out to those writers for my first book (Writing Hard Stories), many of whom were very well-known writers, they were extremely generous to me in their responses and their interest in me and what I was writing. I thought to myself then that if I ever publish a book and can pay this forward, I will.
You started writing your memoir, A Hard Silence, 10 years ago. Could you have imagined it would take 10 years to birth this book?
Absolutely not. I remember talking with my first semester mentor in my MFA program about where I might get started and what I should do, and he said, “What I really suggest is don’t think about this as a project. Don’t think about this as any kind of overarching anything. We can talk about it being a book five years from now when it’s taken shape.” I remember thinking, are you kidding? Five years? I’m not going to be writing this book for five years. Clearly, I was wrong.
When I started the MFA, that’s when I really started to write this story. But I thought I already knew it. I was 20 years removed from my dad’s death. I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I knew what I was going to be writing about. And then as soon as I started, I realized I didn’t have any idea what I was doing at all. I was caught so off guard by how psychologically traumatizing all of it was. I did not expect that. I also thought I was removed from the grief of the loss. What I realized in the process was I hadn’t processed any of it.
What sustained you during those 10 years?
My book Writing Hard Stories was a very selfish endeavor. It was a project for my MFA. What you don’t see in the book is in each one of those conversations, about half was focused directly on my work and my writing. I credit having those 18 interviews with being a big part of the encouragement that kept me going. Also, I developed some strong friendships with people in my MFA program. They kept me going. I don’t know that I ever felt like I wanted to quit the writing, but once I had a manuscript in place, the publishing process was a whole other endeavor. It took me almost five years to find a publisher for this book. That was where I felt like I wanted to quit.
What kept you going?
I had a wonderful mentor through my MFA program who just kept saying, “I know this book is going to find a home.” What I say to all writers is you need somebody in your corner who believes in your book more than you do.” She was that person. When I called crying about another rejection, she would encourage me to keep going.
Can you see now that it worked out?
I really can. If this book had been picked up in 2017, it would have been a completely different book. I think it needed that time to become the book it is. And I think I needed that time to use new lenses to see the story. I feel like it’s the right time.
Your book launched September 12. What has this time been like for you?
It’s been a whirlwind and I’m loving it. I’m loving the opportunity to go all over the place and talk to different audiences. The best part is many of these events are in conversation with writers I admire. And readers have been super engaged at these events. So, I’ve loved it so far.
How did you give yourself permission to write this book when, as you have said, ‘silence was our family history’?
It took me 20 years to give myself permission. I started writing about it almost 20 years after my dad had died. It wasn’t a quick, easy flip of the switch. It took me recognizing I had something to say about this experience and that what I had to say was different than what had already been said. My parents wrote a book and that was our official family story. I kept going back to that version feeling this sense that there was more to this story for me. I think most people who write memoir—we’re not thinking we’re going to publish it. We’re just doing it for ourselves, to understand. Eventually we build up the courage to show it to somebody else. I fooled myself into thinking I was writing it for myself, to try and figure it out and understand the experience the best I could. Gradually, I started getting more confident that this was my story. I’m allowed to tell my story.
What has been the reaction from your family now that the book is out in the world?
They’ve been very supportive of my writing process, my need to write this story. But as much as it’s my story, it intersects with pieces of their stories. I think there’s a general sense of discomfort, perhaps a sense of exposure, that they’re working through. I think it’s also hard to feel represented through the lens of someone else, no matter how careful that person is trying to be. One of the things I’ve realized is I need to give them space for their reactions to it, but I also know what my intentions were, and it wasn’t to cause anybody harm or discomfort. I hope the purity of the intentions helps. I remind myself and my students that we do the best we can to treat the people who become characters in our stories with respect, integrity, and honesty. I really do follow the do-no-harm mantra. But I also have to allow them space to feel whatever they might feel about it.
You have said you hope that in sharing your story, people will feel less alone with theirs. Why is that important to you?
My story is one of isolation and loneliness. I was carrying this very big secret that I could never really talk about, and it felt overwhelming, isolating, uncomfortable, and scary all the time. If I can help somebody not feel that way, then that makes all of this worthwhile. While my circumstances in this story are particular, the circumstance of carrying suffering in silence is not. Family secrets are not unique to my family. When we open space with our stories for other people to enter in with theirs, we’re giving them companionship—somebody to walk alongside them. I hope that in reading my story, other people find the courage to tell their own.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr