Tuesday, July 26, 2016

questions about memoir

Recently, I was asked to fill out some questions for a woman who is writing a book on creativity. It's a project in progress, and I don't know if my answers will be included, but they were an interesting enough time capsule that I wanted to include them here. The book is currently titled: True You - How to Be Creative In An Already Full Life. I'll start with the key question for me which revealed, quite extemporaneously, something I had gone through and not quite realized I'd gotten through it:

Now, or in the past, has finding and taking time for your creative pursuits created any disruptions or problems in your relationships or obligations with family, friends, co-workers or others? If so, how did you handle and/or solve these issues. Specific situations and examples would be extremely helpful.

My answer, as surprising to me as to anyone else:
In the past, I have often felt as if what I want to make - whether the content compromises or could compromise someone I love, or our relationship is impacted by the time I want to spend creating - cannot happen without sacrificing my relationship to the people I love.

But I am starting to think it simply isn't the case.

For instance, in my memoir, for the longest time I thought I absolutely had to include certain family details (I will not share them here, but let's call them very potent and also damaging to those who were involved). If I had persevered, I likely would have wound up severing some of the only family relationships I have left (there aren't many). In the end, I cannot say virtuously that I chose not to include those details because of a moral decision - frankly I realized it had to do with the plot, the arc, the point of my story - however, I can say that overall my story now, as written, is less about victimhood, less about "what others did to me" and more about "how I have worked with my life" and resilience. In doing so, in shifting the focus to me, ironically, I actually save the honor of others, which after all didn't need sacrificing so much.

I believe in truth, and each of us having our own truth (though it changes constantly for me). I also believe in boundaries, and maintaining healthy family relationships. But it's taken awhile - and luckily many rejected manuscripts - for me to realize the deepest hurts aren't always what need to be shared. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Stories We Aren't Sure We Should Share

I am running a contemplative writing retreat right now on Washington Island in Door County Wisconsin. I run this annual retreat in an old house with a football-sized field looking out over Detroit Harbor. We usually have around a dozen students for a weekend, then the group shrinks down to eight or so as we sink in to an entire week together with the wind, water, our minds, and each other.

Most of my students write memoir, or at least personal stories. Perhaps because this is my main writing form, and I attract them. Or perhaps because deep underneath, so many of us have felt our stories are not welcome in the past, not something others want to hear, are open to receiving. The act of writing our stories - for our own sake, for an immediate audience, or for publication, can be not only therapeutic but also sincerely and deeply resolve a deep rejection we received from others at the times of trauma or difficulty.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


People often tell me if they grew up in the suburbs, they have nothing to write in terms of memoir.*

However, due to my great privilege to read the minds (on paper) of people who did grow up in suburbia, through wonderful unpublished and published pieces, I can directly attest to the falseness of this claim. Besides, it seems to be an extension of the "boring life" fear, which is actually never an issue, since you don't have to have an exciting life to write memoir - just be willing to write about it directly, clearly, with connection, and honesty.**

Recently, a writer I follow named Harriet Alida Lye, published a lovely piece on Hazlitt about being from a Toronto suburb. She speaks to the power of the landscape that shaped her, even though she's had the great honor to also live in Toronto and even Paris. Paris may be more romantic, more likely to sell than Richmond Hills, but the fact is, Richmond Hills is where she is from.***

A boyfriend once said of Appleton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, that it was a suburb without a city to be attached to. Astute. Appleton's distinct blandness is the suburb-like tone of a place counting on a larger city to make it more appealing. Only except for Green Bay, Appleton is the largest city in Northeastern Wisconsin, and Green Bay, a half hour away, is hardly a metropolis to harbor 'burbs.

The lesson of writing what we know, where we are from, where we have lived now and where we were born, is a continual one in accepting who we are, what our experience is, which is key to the right tone of voice to keep in memoir. Memoir isn't confession, it isn't expulsion of dark secrets.

It's simply revealing what life is, next to what life was. Life happens everywhere - even in the suburbs. Fact is, since the 50's, suburbia has grown and continues to grow at a rapid pace. Writing about your life in suburbia may go even further than simply expressing your truth - chances are it can counter the false faces of shows like Desperate Housewives and instead connect others who are ashamed of their milquetoast past in a deeply universal way. Go for it.

*I am speaking here of specifically the North American suburban phenomenon. Suburbs act really differently in other countries - the main one I know being France, where suburbs are actually where immigrants fled to after being driven from cities by white Parisians, for instance. Inverse white flight.

**I also suspect this fear of writing about suburbia has something to do with avoiding the complications around white flight in North America, wherein suburbs were built not only to house the prosperous returning soldiers from WWII, but also expanded rapidly as people of color moved into cities and white people fled to surrounding areas. For now, that's another issue, but I wanted to point to some of the secret white guilt I suspect underlies some fear of the "boredom" of 'burbs. As a white friend who lives in Marin County recently pointed out, he and his wife have traded "danger and tons of culture for safety and zero culture" - code for moving out of mixed race/class areas in Oakland and into a purely white, rich area. If you grew up in a rich, white place, or even middle class boring white place, that doesn't mean your story isn't worth telling. It just means it will be different from a different class and race story.

***Bonus: Read Alida Lye's wonderful piece questioning whether a disillusionment with the City of Light actually exists here. And reading list for a couple of great memoirs explicitly about suburbia, though if you pay attention, lots of memoirs actually take place in them:
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie
Blue Suburbia: An Almost Memoir by Laurie Lico Albanese

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Your Story Doesn't Matter - And That's A Good Thing

Your story doesn't matter because it is all in how you write/tell it. 99% of your memoir writing is about your voice, your approach, your angle, your understanding, and only 1% about the story itself. Even if two people have the same pretense - writing about having grown up with alcoholic parents and how that shaped their future relationships - even the same one line summary: "Growing up with alcoholic parents, I learned love is giving your all to someone else. In my failed marriage, I learned otherwise," - there are two different books, only partially influenced by the fact that their lives are separate.

People worry to me all the time that their lives are not interesting enough. Not enough happened to them (usually, the worry goes, not enough trauma, or only trauma).  Really, truly, this is irrelevant. What matters is wanting to write about it enough to stick out a project, to really care and be curious.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Parent Memoirs With Equanimity

I love the serendipity of library roulette. I put a lot of books on hold, some of which take a long time because they are newer or rarer, some of which come in immediately.

Recently, my holds for End of Eve by Ariel Gore and Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn came in at the same time. I groaned - whoa - that's two heavy "parents-with-mental-health-challenges" memoirs at once. But the timing turned out to be quite in tune.

ABNiSC is Flynn's memoir about the incredible intersection of his father's life and his own. He grows up without his dad, only really meeting him when Nick Flynn is in his 20's, after his mom has committed suicide. How they meet, however, is the crux - by the time thy meet, Nick is working in a homeless shelter and his dad is near-homeless, eventually winding up in the same place where Nick works.

EoE is about a two year period in Ariel Gore's life when her mom is dying of  stage four lung cancer. Gore moves her entire life - son, partner at that time, house - to where her mom wants to be as she dies. Of course, what was supposed to take a few months took two years, and revealed even deeper layers of her mother's narcissism (something Gore had struggled with for years) in the dying process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Structure as Liberation: Unmastered

I finally read Katherine Angel's memoir Unmastered: A Book on Desire (Most Difficult to Tell). It had a strangely warm welcoming in 2012 in England - I say strange because it is a pretty direct and robust memoir about sexuality, and because England doesn't have the same memoir trend happening as in the States.

At a surface level, for me, this book is by a vanilla, heterosexual, cis-gendered academic woman exploring the edges of BDSM. Normally I wouldn't touch a book like that - I am much more interested in queer experience, as it is closer to my own, and playing with much more explicit depth around gender and power.

However, just like the apparent content and identity, the structure - complex but often showing just a few words a page - belies the complexity and depth of this book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Memoir and Face As Time Code

Ruth Ozeki, who made the incredible short film on her grandmother which I have written about here before (Halvinf the Bones) has come out with a genius short memoir called The Face: A Time Code (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632060523/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_6PUvxbX216BW2).

This incredible tiny title chronicles her watching her own face in a mirror for three hours. That's it. But it's so profound - her reflections on impermanence, self and lack of self, aging and racism, are all mind-blowingly astute, accurate and poignant.

To whit:
Eleven years prior to my birth, my two halves had been mortal enemies. My mother’s people were killing my father’s people, and vice versa, and at a very young age, I was aware of this enmity and aware, too, that I embodied it. And yet my face evinced its opposite: the force of the attraction—true love, sex, miscegenation, call it what you will—that brought me into being. With all these primal and contrary passions eddying below the surface of my skin, it’s no wonder people found my face disturbing.

I myself have been pondering the classic Buddhist Koan which asks what your face was before your parents were born. The fact that Ozeki opens with this question drew me in immediately. This question deeply gets at interdependence and the lack of a beginning or ending of a single self. Ozeki, in her prologue:
What did your face look like before your parents were born? I first read this koan when I was eight or maybe nine years old. Someone had given me a little book called Zen Buddhism or perhaps the book had belonged to my parents and I’d taken it from their shelves, thinking it ought to be mine. The book was small and slim, the perfect size for a child to hold, but more importantly, it had a friendly face, which made it stand out from the other duller books on my parents’ shelves.

She even interrogates the face of the book! And wonders about the nature of faces all together:
What makes a face so special? It’s just an organizational device. A planar surface housing a cluster of holes, a convenient gathering place for the sense organs.
Such an intelligent and genuine line of personal questioning from one of my favorite playful zen philosophers. 

And, of course, Ozeki also looks at her own process as an author and filmmaker:
It was so hard to put my first film out into the world, to publish my first novel, to break my family’s silence. I suspect all families have this, some code of silence that is absolute and inviolable and yet so omnipresent as to be almost invisible, too. Like God. Or air.

Noh masks, classic films and plays both Japanese and American, a million small moments of irritation and curiousity - this great small experiment is a treasure of a mini memoir. And, as always, her humor:
01:36:41 As a Zen priest, I probably shouldn’t be using makeup at all. Isn’t there a precept against lipstick? If not, shouldn’t there be? Surely I should be a bit less attached to my physical appearance by now, no? Is my lingering attachment a barometer of my unenlightened state? The author in me is apparently still vain. She is still trying. Is there a time when a woman is officially old enough to stop caring?

Yes, even Zen priests still care about their aging faces, at least female Ruth Ozeki ones do.