Own Your Story So It Doesn’t Own You

Jamie Brickhouse talks about the process of writing from memory and how he uses comedy to tackle darker subjects.

Jamie Brickhouse is the author of the critically-acclaimed Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother. His work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Salon, Out, Huffington Post, POZ, Amtrak’s Arrive, as well as other places. Brickhouse is a comedic storyteller, a three-time StorySLAM winner of The Moth, a Literary Death Match champion, and just finished a week-long New York engagement of the solo show based on his memoir, which won an Audience Choice Award and received rave reviews in NY Theater Guide, Theater is Easy, and Hi! Drama.

Brickhouse has taught about the art and craft of memoir writing and book marketing and publicity at the Columbia Publishing Course, and other venues across the country and in Mexico. He has also spoken and taught about suicide prevention, alcoholism and recovery, and overcoming HIV and LBD stigma.

At the upcoming 2017 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Jamie will teach a craft-based session on “Memory & Memoir,” and will participate in the roundtable discussions “The Writer as Activist: Making Your Story Matter” and “Engaging Your Audience: Raising Your Profile & Self-Promotion.”

We asked Brickhouse about the process of writing from memory and how he uses comedy to tackle darker subjects.

CNF: You’re a comedian and a memoirist. Were you ever more one than the other? Or have those two interests always found a way of intertwining themselves? How do writing and comedy overlap for you?

BRICKHOUSE: I was a comedian first, but when I started writing my memoir I couldn’t not write funny. I mean, what isn't funny about alcoholism, sMother love, suicide, and HIV? I’ve always seen the humorous absurdity in any situation. It’s the way I view the world. 

CNF: You’ve been referred to as a comedic storyteller, and you use comedy in your writing to talk about darker subjects like suicide and addiction. In what ways would you say that comedy serves you in your writing career? Do you think comedy can be used as a tool for better or more honest storytelling?

BRICKHOUSE: Writing about the funny side of something dark not only gives the build-up a deeper punch (make ‘em laugh and then devastate ‘em), but it can also shine the most honest light (you know it’s funny because it’s TRUE.) When you tell true stories with humor, ears prick up, truths swallow easier, and levity is added. The first person at whom a writer should be laughing is himself.

CNF: You’re a three-time StorySLAM champion for The Moth and you received the Audience Choice Award for your solo performance, based on your memoir, in New York. That’s impressive! Engaging an audience is something a lot of writers and performers struggle with. Can you offer any tips about what has helped you become so successful in that arena?

BRICKHOUSE: Rarely do writers land perfect prose on the page with the first draft. It takes practice and rewriting. It’s the same with performing. When I read or perform a story from my work, the performance on stage is the result of rehearsing and rewriting. I never go out there cold. How to engage an audience? Well, know your audience—what’s going to appeal to them—and, for god’s sake, don’t overstay your welcome. So many authors read for too long. Time your piece, and cut, cut, cut. Leave them wanting more, not looking for the door. A cook knows never to serve a dish he’s never made before at a dinner party. Likewise, don’t ever perform a piece you haven’t practiced first. I suggest recording yourself reading/performing and then play it back with yourself as the audience. Believe me, that will improve your performance.

CNF: Additionally, are there tools for engaging a live audience that translate to engaging readers on the page? Would you say your stage persona is similar to your persona on the page, or are they different?

BRICKHOUSE: Many readers who either know me or have seen me perform have said that they can hear my voice when reading my work. What you read on the page—a wry, frank persona who lets you in on the joke—is what you see on the stage. In both my prose and my performances I like to hook readers/audiences with a boffo opening line, followed by the yin and yang of humor and pathos, and close with either a surprise ending or one that not only echoes the opening but adds new dimension to it.

CNF: What is your writing process like? How do you choose the specific memories you write about, and is there a certain point when they stop being memories and start shaping themselves into pieces of a story?

BRICKHOUSE: I was an everyday drinker. I thought that when I got sober I’d become an everyday writer. Didn’t happen. But, when I’m committed to a piece or a book, I usually write in the mornings and edit in the evenings. I can rarely create new prose late in the day. And, on weekends, I write at the library to avoid distraction—and because it makes me feel like I’m a serious college student. We memoirists have the burden of too much information to carry with us. We should think of our stories and memories as pieces of furniture that we’re moving from a big, rambling house (our life) into a compact, stylish New York apartment (our memoir). Not all of it will fit. We have to choose the pieces that best serve the “new apartment” and place the other pieces in storage. That said, I don’t often choose memories to write about. They choose me. The memories which materialize from my stream of consciousness—the ones that cannot be ignored—are the ones that I must write about, and are usually the ones that solidify on the page. I use the “I Remember” writing prompt, in which I lay stream of consciousness "I remembers” on the page before writing prose. It's akin to an artist priming a canvas before painting. I then sift through those “I remembers” and shape them into narrative prose.

CNF: You’re working on another memoir now, about your father. Can you tell us anything about where you are with that project and/or what inspired you to write about your father at this time?

BRICKHOUSE: Where am I with that? Having written one book, I now know that that’s a difficult question to answer. I have about 100 pages, but am I one year away from finishing, or five years? Dunno. What I can tell you is that it’s about my relationship with my father, Earl (or Daddy Poo, as I called him). He’s in the shadow of Mama Jean in Dangerous When Wet. Now it’s his turn. After she died I told him that her death would leave more room for our relationship to deepen, and, in the five years we had together after she was gone, that came true. Even though I’m a mix of both my parents, I’m most like my father. That revelation was the inspiration for me to begin writing the memoir. In fact, I am the extreme—or full blown—version of him in many respects, for better and worse. In recent years, and especially since he died, I’ve heard folks in Beaumont, Texas—where I grew up and where he lived his whole life—say, “You favor your daddy.” That’s the working title of the book: I Favor My Daddy.

CNF: You write and speak about a range of different topics, from alcoholism and addiction to suicide prevention to LGBTQ issues. You’re also speaking on our panel, “The Writer as Activist: Making Your Story Matter.” Can you tell us about your take on the writer as activist, and how personal stories can connect with bigger issues?

BRICKHOUSE: I didn’t set out to write a self-help book. If anything, I wrote a self-hurt book. But, in doing so, I discovered that readers have connected to various aspects of my story, and I find that endlessly gratifying. I’ve never thought of myself as an activist, in my typical idea of that word—marching in parades, writing to senators, hugging trees—but I’ve realized that merely writing and speaking out publicly about the issues that are part of my story is activism. I wasn’t in the closet about being gay, but I was about my suicidal behavior and about my HIV status. I’ve since become a passionate writer and speaker about overcoming the shame and stigma associated with both issues, as well as about Lewy Body Dementia, a disease my mother had. I continue to talk about my alcoholism and recovery in interviews. I feel that the most powerful form of activism is to own your story so that it doesn’t own you. Whether you do that one-on-one, with an intimate group of family and friends, or publicly—sharing your story always helps others understand their own. As the old ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) slogan goes: Silence = Death.

About the Author

Kaylee Ritchie

Kaylee Ritchie is a former intern at CNF and currently works as an Assistant Editor for CNF. She recently earned her B.A. in English & Creative Writing from Point Park University and hopes to begin the grad school application process in the coming months.

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