Hugo House teacher Kimberly Dark is the author of four books, including Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old; The Daddies; and Love and Errors. Her most recent book, Damaged Like Me, which explores how we can create more equitable and loving collective culture, was published earlier this summer by AK Press. In addition to her work as a writer, Kimberly is a sociology professor at CSU San Marcos.
On September 4, Kimberly will be teaching Making Meaning in Memoir, a one-session online class that dives into techniques writers can use to connect their stories to larger cultural and historical moments. She’ll also be teaching Short Essays for the Internet on October 2. We recently caught up with her to learn more about Making Meaning in Memoir, her recent book, and her path as a writer.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to memoir writing in particular?
Memoir remains one of the most popular genres of writing because humans need witness—to see and be seen in our vast complexities. In everyday life, we often shy away from our complexities, putting on the best face for family, or for work or in our various social settings. And yet, we’re deeply complex and often at odds with ourselves and social expectations. Memoir helps us to remember and validate our complexities. Ultimately, it’s not about the life someone has led; it’s about the meaning the author has made of that life. As a sociologist, and a person with a rich complex life, all of my work includes elements of memoir that connect to broader cultural circumstances. I hope my writing engages readers about things like love, harm, and transformation, but ultimately, that it models how we can each become more astute social creators and more able to embrace complexity.
You’re also a sociology professor at CSU San Marcos. How does your work as a sociologist inform your work as a writer?
My training as a sociologist is palpable in all of my writing, I think. I’m interested in how humans create culture and transform ourselves again and again throughout our lives. I use sociological curiosity, but not the language of sociology which is often dry and can feel impenetrable. We have so much to learn from each other’s stories—especially when we’re able to see those stories alongside cultural trends and values.
Your newest book, Damaged Like Me, was published earlier this year by AK Press. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and what inspired it?
As with my last book, Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old, Damaged Like Me is also about appearance and identity. It’s about how we navigate social hierarchy, the humor and tragedy of social expectations and inequality. The stories in Damaged Like Me are also modeling cultural disruption and the beauty of personal reinvention; this book also includes trauma in new ways. Specifically, I assert that past trauma can be a site of wisdom. When we are hurt, we need care, but later, the perspectives that come from social trauma (including things like racism, sexism, sizeism—in addition to child abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional manipulation) can embolden us to create a better world. After all, there is no part of human culture that is not created by humans. We are the ones we’re waiting for and when we claim our credibility as social creators, the possibilities are endless.
Your upcoming class, Making Meaning in Memoir, focuses on ways memoir writers can more fully tell their stories by connecting their experiences to larger moments in culture and history. Could you share a couple examples of memoirs that you think do this really well?
This class is focused on generating material and seeing experiences from new angles and perspectives—finding and creating patterns that give readers access to the story in deepening ways. There are so many ways to connect personal and cultural storytelling. Writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Isabel Allende are brilliant examples. Ocean Vuong’s last book, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, is another fine example. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong is also excellent. Some of these books are fiction and some are nonfiction, but all use memoir, in my opinion, to connect to larger moments in culture and history.
What would you say is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned (so far) about writing memoir?
Here’s something important about writing memoir: Memory is a co-constructed act. There is no objective truth roaming around in our heads to be plucked out and recorded. Memoir is about meaning-making and repair. We need it like we need water.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
My approach to teaching short workshops is to suggest and experiment, to prompt, practice and discuss. In longer workshops, it’s different, deeper, but I think short workshops can be powerful too. I aim to offer so many ways to turn a moment or event over in your hands that you leave being able to do that yourself. Look at a new facet, write in a new way, interpret disparate events in concert. We’ll learn by thinking-talking-doing.