Celebrating Resilience and Our Wild, Outrageous Capacity for Love: Jeannine Ouellette's The Part That Burns

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Oh, this book. I just finished The Part That Burns, an extraordinary, powerful, must-read memoir by Jeannine Ouellette. The Part That Burns epitomizes what Parul Sehgal, in a recent New Yorker article on trauma, wrote: "trauma becomes but one rung of a ladder. Climb it; what else will you see?" In The Part That Burns, Ouellette does, indeed, climb a ladder from trauma to healing.

Her beautiful, graceful, compelling writing tells her lived experience; shows us that healing, humanity, and words can guide us through both narrow canyons and wide open skies; and dives headlong into her search for self, and healing, and growth

"Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds."

Ouellette's words take the warp and weft of her life's loom and create such magnificent stories that I often sat, re-read, and thought deeply about the correlation of growth to my own life. (Also, upon finishing, imagine my astonishment at 37 bookmarks for favorite passages! A record!). I have gone back to those bookmarked passages to keep learning,  pondering, and marveling at the beauty of Ouellette's writing.

Isn't that what the best memoirs do? They give us such luminous examples of climbing that ladder, and inspiration to discover what else we will see.

I love this book. Highly, highly recommended.

Celebrating Resilience and Our Wild, Outrageous Capacity for Love: Jeannine Ouellette's The Part That Burns

Jeannine Ouellette's debut memoir, The Part That Burns, was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award in Women's Literature and a Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book of 2021, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Jeannine's work appears widely in literary journals such as Narrative, Los Angeles Review of Books, North American Review, Masters Review, and more, as well as in several anthologies, including Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men, Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, and Passed On: Daughters Write About Father Loss, Lack, and Legacy. She teaches creative writing through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, The University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, an independent program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel.

Celebrating Resilience and Our Wild, Outrageous Capacity for Love: Jeannine Ouellette's The Part That Burns

We were lucky enough to chat with Ouellette about her book, inspiration, joys and challenges, advice to writers, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Please tell us about your book, The Part That Burns...
My memoir explores how the intense and, for me, miraculous experience of motherhood reopened childhood wounds, severe ones. My stepfather molested me from when I was about four until I was ten, which is when he left for good. My mother was not able to be there for me or protect me, for a whole other set of reasons, equally painful. That, of course, is a hard thing for people to hear, and I tried hard in my book to tread lightly while also telling the truth. Mainly, though, the story is not so much about the re-opening of those wounds as it is about how motherhood, with its visceral nature, its physicality, and most of all, its fierce love, also offered me the tools I needed to begin to heal. And finally, then, the book is also about how healing created its own set of problems, because, as we know, healing is not linear. In my case, the problems arose when I began to really live in my body, rather than hover outside of it. Motherhood demanded that of me, and when I responded to that demand, I began to feel things I had not felt since childhood. Prior to motherhood, I was pretty numb, pretty disassociated—a condition that was a defense mechanism, a way to survive. So, for example, prior to motherhood I didn't find sex very exciting or pleasurable because for the most part I didn't feel it. I just went through the motions, and I genuinely thought that was fine. Who cared? Not me. But when I began to heal from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and started feeling things again, I found it unbearable to endure sex that felt bad. This caused so much upheaval in my marriage and in my life, as I eventually had to speak up for myself based on my needs. I had to choose between living up to some external definition of "perfect wife and mother" and respecting my own humanity and my own birthright to live in a body that could crave pleasure and protect itself from pain. 

What inspired you to write this memoir?
I've been trying all my life to write this story. It lived in me like a shadow self, like an immaterial self. It was a burden, like being fragmented in a way. To fully integrate that shadow self, I had to make something beautiful from the pain of my past, and I had to somehow tell the story of self-reclamation, and what it meant to me to reunite with my own body as I nurtured my babies. What finally worked for me with regard to telling this story was the fragmented, elliptical form. Healing is not linear, and neither is my story. We remember trauma in bits and pieces—and we see and understand trauma differently depending on our vantage point. The Part That Burns tries to capture that sensation, while celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the wild, outrageous capacity we have for love. So in that sense, my children (who are now grown) inspired me to finally find a way to write this memoir, as did my current husband, who has loved me so well for these past twenty years. Also, all the other women who have lain in bed at night—maybe pregnant, maybe nursing an infant or tending a feverish child—worrying about their own brokenness, feeling unworthy and frightened by the long shadow of trauma. This book is my offering to them. There is a way through and out of that darkness. I promise, there is. It may hurt, but birth usually does, and healing is another kind of birth.

What were the joys and challenges of writing your history...and sharing it?
Although it was a hard book to write, I was ready for it once I dove in, and there were elements of the writing that were really fun. That's because I used writing exercises and constraints that turned the process into a puzzle. This method—writing with writing constraints—is something I have lectured and written about pretty extensively, including this craft essay, From Play to Peril and Beyond, in Cleaver Magazine. I taught a session on this at HippoCamp last summer and am teaching another through Hidden Timber next July. These techniques also feature heavily in the class I am teaching for Catapult this month, called The Art of the Fractured (which I am teaching again through my own program, Elephant Rock, starting in March). In other words, I find joy in the craft, especially very specific craft techniques that require me to use more of my imagination, and more of my creativity, in order to see my story in new and surprising ways. That's where I find joy! I don't want to recite my story. That's not only boring for me, it's also potentially destructive, because we tend to be unreliable narrators of our own experience. I don't want to concretize my own myths. Rather, I want to discover new ways of understanding my experience, and then render it in unfamiliar ways and with language that feels alive, new, and real. Language that is light-filled, even when the topic is heavy. These techniques help me to do that.

Do you have any advice for writers interested in working on a memoir?
Be curious about your own life, and your own story! Be open to discovery. Be brave. Most of all, get close up to the words. It's easy to be overly focused on the story and not focused enough on the language. But words themselves have a sound, a character, a feeling, and a truth. The way we make images, the way we arrange words like stones on sand, creates a meaning that is separate from the logical meaning we automatically convey when we grasp for the first words we can find. That's fine for writing an email or a journal entry or a text or a grocery list. But it's not enough when it comes to art. In the case of art, and memoir is art, we need to test the words and images. We need to let words be the music that they are, and to hear that music and let it mean what it means. Playing with words allows you to find the story that is adjacent to the one you think you know. This is a vulnerable way to write because you're not in control. The story is finding you as much as you are finding it. This is counterintuitive if you think about memoir as a way to record events. But it makes complete sense if you instead think of memoir as a way to discover a truth, a deep, resonant truth that underlies lived experiences, a truth that already exists but is hard to recognize, a truth that reveals itself best and sometimes only if we spend enough time at the line level, playing with words, hearing their whispers and shouts and pleas.  

How has living through—and surviving—trauma affected your writing and teaching life?
You know, I am never going to be one of those people that says things like "all things happen for a reason," or, "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger," or even, "the crack is where the light gets in." I can't say those things because the fact is no child should ever be abused. Period. And no matter what light gets into that jagged rupture, it's not okay. That said, I am more empathetic, intuitive, and even clairvoyant as a result of my life experience, including childhood trauma. I am also more compassionate, understanding, and emotionally intelligent. The healing work I've done in response to the trauma of my childhood has given me so many gifts. My childhood is the reason I am a writer. And as for teaching, one of the things my students say—this feedback is constant and ubiquitous—is that I have the superpower of offering high standards and rigorous expectations coupled with genuine support, encouragement, positivity, and, above all, an emotionally safe environment in which to take creative risks. Safety is a huge deal to me. We can't really create if we're not safe, and too many creative writing spaces aren't as safe as they should be. I take safety extremely seriously.

How can readers find your work?
Other than The Part That Burns (which is available on Amazon and Bookshop and through my publisher as well as at many independent bookstores), some of my stories and essays can be found on my website.  I'm always so thankful when people are interested in my work. I don't think that will ever stop being exciting for me! 

Find her online at:

What's up next for you?
I am working on a novel and I am thrilled about it. I can't say too much about it yet because it's still gestating, but I can say that it is intense and hopefully beautiful. It has tragedy in it, but it also tests love to its outer limits. Oh, and there are coyotes--and coyotes are astounding animals! I had no idea, but, wow, there's a very good reason for the amount of mythology around coyotes. That's all I can really say, except that I do plan to finish a draft in 2022. And one of my literary heroes had a chance to review what I guess you could call a synopsis (which I had to write for a grant application) and she was so taken with it that she offered to help me make noise about it when the time comes. I can't tell you how much that meant to me! It's giving me a lot of energy and motivation for this project. It's a huge thing, that feeling you get when someone you admire and respect with all of your being believes in you and your work, and tells you that in no uncertain terms! It inspires me to do that for other writers. We very much need one another.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
I've been uplifted in the best possible way by my book's reception—I had no expectations for this book. I told myself that it was enough to write it, and if I found a publisher, that was extra. The point was to make this piece of art out of a heartbreaking past. So the fact that it's been so warmly welcomed, both by critics and readers, has left me in a state of wonder and awe. I will never stop being grateful.