Making Memoirs with Anna Badkhen - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Making Memoirs with Anna Badkhen


We are delighted to welcome author and Tulsa Artist Fellow Anna Badkhen to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities tomorrow as part of our exploration of memory. This talented memoirist will read from her own work and then welcome readings from some of the students who have just completed her creative writing course. Please join us on Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m. in Tyrrell Hall for this free event.

We recently chatted with Anna and her students Rae, Ethan, and Emily about their experiences with memoir writing–and what surprised them most this semester.

Anna Badkhen

I consider storytelling a kind of a curatorship, an invitation to encourage compassion and to challenge the dominant, reductive narrative of the world. For more than twenty years I have been documenting the human condition in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, using high art to expose the world’s iniquities.

As an immigrant writer whose work focuses on human rights and social justice I look forward to the opportunity to encourage and cultivate a new generation of storytellers whose voices are necessary to keep our world accountable.

Teaching, to me, is another aspect of my work of inquiry into what matters most in human life. I see teaching as a way to more fully extend ethical concern and moral witness, another part of my being a human in the world who strives to help cultivate empathy and keep from cynicism and despair.

Memoir is experiential nonfiction: a storytelling tool that combines the empirical and the remembered with the researched to create, hopefully, a narrative that addresses injustice and offers another way of looking at the world. Not to be confused with autobiography (as my colleague Beth Kephart suggests, leave autobiography to the celebrities–or simply leave it, period), memoir requires rigorous research and a level of introspection and honesty. Though I suspect that if I taught any other creative nonfiction class, or poetry class, I would demand of my students the same: to write with dedication, to use language with precision and love sentences, to cultivate curiosity and to strive to use high art to expose the world’s iniquities. For a semester I tried to teach my class to pay attention, challenge preconceptions, and to intend compassion. To see them get it, to see them break out of their comfort zones and broaden their ethical and literary inquiries into how the world works and doesn’t–that has been, to me, the most rewarding aspect of the class.

Rae Riggs

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

I was most surprised about how much research goes into writing a memoir, it wasn’t simply the recollection of thoughts that made our stories “real”, it was the supporting evidence that justified why we were writing and demanding the reader’s attention. I was also surprised by how much can be said in so few words. This class never had a minimum word count. It was actually preferred that we stay under a certain word limit, unlike most classes where a writer is filling with “fluff,” we were encouraged to cut to the most basic, additive language, making our pieces much clearer and more concise.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I was reluctant to admit how much my final project still effected my everyday life. I’ve rewritten it many times while still only scratching the surface. Every time I read that piece, I find ways to connect that trauma to disruptive behaviors that are still present. That surprised me. I thought I overcame so much, but I am still growing. Through writing this memoir, I may finally start to heal.

Ethan Veenker

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

One week after reading one of my pieces to the class I got nervous, as I always do in workshop scenarios. Before anyone could say anything I said, “So, I know this isn’t really memoir,” but Anna cut me off, asking, “Why not?” I responded that because the piece I had just read dealt mostly with another person, and hardly at all with myself, that I didn’t consider it memoir. If I could paraphrase what she said in response, it was something like, “No, this is fine. If you’d written about yourself that would have been autobiography. This is memoir. They are different things.”

It’s a small thing, but that interaction opened a larger understanding into memoir for me, both as something to read and something to write. It’s an incredibly versatile genre, and there’s a misunderstanding out there from people who don’t read it. Memoir doesn’t have to just be writing about oneself; it can be writing about anything, situated in a personal or cultural way.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

The essay has always interested me as an art form, but I have always been intimidated in writing it, as I’ve felt my life simply lacks “interesting content.” While memoir doesn’t necessarily have to be about myself, I’ve learned in crafting the pieces for this semester that, should I choose to write about myself, I can do it, and I can create a compelling essay. Writing about one’s life isn’t writing about what happened, but looking at it through a different lens, and analyzing and commenting on what did or didn’t happen, and that definition isn’t exhaustive. No one is incapable of having an examined life.

Emily Every

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

More than anything else, I’ve learned that truth rings throughout successful memoir. As much as it is easier to write memoir that treats complex subjects with simplicity of emotion and theme, neither the author nor their audience are satisfied with those sort of answers. If something is complex, allow yourself to speak to that complexity without feeling compelled to sterilize the subject matter.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I struggle(d) with a tendency to view my own experiences as less weighty or impactful than the experiences of those around me. Spending this semester sharing my life and own point of view with my peers through memoir has, in a lot of ways, strengthened my confidence in my own voice as a writer, cliche as it may sound.

For more information about this event, please visit our Facebook event page here.