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Wisconsin Writer Joanne Nelson's New Memoir Is A Testament Of Resiliency

Vine Leaves Press

You may have heard or read Lake Effect contributor Joanne Nelson’s essays before. For her, writing has always been a way to not just escape but process.

Her new memoir, This Is How We Leave, is a collection of essays that span Nelson’s life — from her Milwaukee working-class Catholic school upbringing to building her own family while juggling her difficult past.

Amidst the background of a family filled with abandonment, disruption, emotional abuse and alcoholism, Nelson walks readers through her life’s memories with detail, humor and empathy. 

Nelson notes that some of the essays in the collection have up to eight years of drafts and edits. Time has been a necessity to put the collection together, which she originally didn't see as a memoir.

"There's no way I could as a writer deal with material that was very fresh," says Nelson. "It would just be too much of feeling like your darlings you were killing. But at this point, I was at least willing to try the experiment."

The first couple of drafts are typically when the emotions truly come up, she says, which then help shape her edits. "Sit and let that play out and see where you feel it within your body, and maybe that also needs to be added to the narrative is the first place to go," Nelson explains. "Secondly is to get outside for lots of walks."

Writing non fiction involves two key perspectives, according to Nelson: the situation that happaned and the story and meaning that you understand as you age. Arranging her collection of essays did impact her realtionship with the characters, and showed her that leaving isn't always a bad thing.

"It really cemeted things for me as I started to look at these generations of men leaving, but also the other ways that I leave," Nelson notes. "Like by clamming up and not saying something or by reading as much as I do, especially as a kid. I just totally left any bad situation through literature." 

While she hopes sharing her story can help spark conversations, Nelson also wants This Is How We Leave to show the positives that can come out of hardships. 

"If I could sum it up in one word, I think it would be ‘resiliency.’ And I think what I would like people to take away is, there are a lot of ways to turn out and to get through hard times and come out positive — and to use that past to help others," she says.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.