Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ancestral Keys

The following is a spontaneous Haibun (she didn't know this form existed, combining prose and haiku) by a student, following our most recent Read and Write where we shared and discussed Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

As maddening as it can be to have to write and rewrite our way through old personal stories (if memoir) or characters' life events (if fiction), the fact is, most of writing is re-writing, and most of re-writing is simply understanding. If memoir, simply understanding what we believed without realizing we believed it - or could believe differently - this whole time.

The Key The Old One Gave Me - 

Barbara Samuel


I wish there had been a key, but I had to open the door myself by writing about him.  By writing about him I learned what I did not know before.  The key was in the writing.  The key was hidden for nearly two decades after he’d already died.  I had created a story and carried it all my life.  I can’t remember when I made that story, but it seemed true enough.  I believed it.  Only when I began to write did the story fall apart.  I could no longer hold my story together.  The words of my story floated away, lost their meaning.  As I wrote about my father, I discovered him again and wished I had created a different story so long ago.  As I wrote about my father, I saw a different man than the one I thought I knew, even though I wrote only what I already knew.


I began to forgive him for all the things he had done to make me hate him.  No, I began to forgive myself for hating him.  That is hard to do.  Because I can’t go back and tell him I’m sorry for hating him.  I can’t make it right.


The key to my father is in the words I write about him.  I have not yet stepped all the way through the door, but I’m getting closer.


What animal sleeps

Beneath fertile years of earth

Waking in my roots


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Selling Childhood

This last week, a relative put on the market the last piece of property my family owned: a cottage near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. My family was in good fortune to have four properties over the generations - the house I grew up in, in Appleton, Wisconsin; a greystone in Chicago, Illinois; my grandmother's house in Woodstock, Illinois; and this cottage. All of the other properties got sold closer to the deaths of the folks who owned them initially - this one stayed in the family.

It's been a long process, including digging up the cremains on the property so we wouldn't leave a graveyard there. Not easy. When the listings did finally appear, I was a bit shocked - there it is! Some parts of it look exactly as they have for over forty years, some parts are newer because of some room remodeling. Nothing unknown, except that kind of aspirational zen quality that comes with empty rooms, a sort of "Hey, maybe I could make this work for me," feeling that always crosses my mind with property for sale and rooms empty like blank canvasses.

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.