Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Poetry and Prose in One Memoir: Sherman Alexie

For years now, I've read Sherman Alexie's poetry collections and novels. I've always enjoyed the edge of fiction/nonfiction he skirts, willingly and openly, in all his writing. But his brand new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, is the first time I've read non-fiction by him, even though he has written many articles and essays.

It was suggested to me to listen to his memoir rather than read it, because he narrates it, in a loving and living way. However, I found after a few chapters I also wanted to be able to read it. I could just tell he was also writing in poetry, and I wanted to see it on the page. I also wanted to be able to quote passages like this:
My little sister doesn’t remember that photograph. She doubts it exists. “You’re always making up stuff from the past,” she said. “And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.” 
“That’s just a fancy way of calling me a liar,” I said. 
“If the moccasin fits, then wear it,” she said.
He has imaginary conversations with friends in his head about whether or not he made up a quote he wants to use in the memoir. He continually questions the past, memory, authorship - taking us way beyond "unreliable narrator" and deep into the territory of the mind. I love it.

I don’t recall the moment when I officially became a storyteller—a talented liar—but here I must quote Simon Ortiz, the Acoma Pueblo writer, who said, “Listen. If it’s fiction, then it better be true.” 
Simon, a beautiful storyteller, doesn’t remember ever saying such a thing. “That sounds like something I might say,” he said to me. “But I don’t know if I have ever said that particular thing.” I don’t remember when I first learned of the quote. Did I read it in one of Simon’s poems or stories? If so, then why doesn’t Simon remember that he wrote it? 
Can a writer forget something that he’s written in one of his own books? Yes, of course. I wrote my first novel over two decades ago, and fans often stump me by asking questions about passages that I don’t remember writing. So perhaps I read that quote somewhere else and have mistakenly attributed it to Simon.   
(In talking to another teacher in his head about this quote and attribution:) 
“So maybe I’m the one who thought it first?” I said. “And I want to honor you and Simon.” 
“Well,” Alex said. “Crediting your thoughts to your mentors sounds more like you’re honoring yourself.” 
“That’s funny,” I said. “And sad. Is my ego the source of all my deception and self-deception?” 
“Perhaps,” Alex said. “Since you’ve just invented this entire conversation about storytelling and truth that you and I never had, and put it in the first chapter of your memoir, then I’m just going to call you the unreliable narrator of your own life.”
But it's the poetry. The way the poetry covers a lot of the same territory as the prose but - differently, because that's how poetry rolls. He uses the density and power of poetry and line breaks to tell the truth in direct ways:
At my mother’s funeral...

A cousin said, “Lillian was 
Our last connection to the ancient 
Stories and songs. Lillian was 
Also a mean and foulmouthed

Woman who scolded everybody. 
Right now, I bet you Lillian just arrived 
In Heaven and is scolding Jesus 
For playing the wrong welcoming song.”

We all laughed and laughed 
Because, yes, my mother was 
Exactly the kind of mortal 
Who challenged the Gods.

She was the reservation Medea. 
She was the indigenous Antigone. 
But just imagine how it felt to be 
Her fragile child. I never stopped

Being afraid of her.
And not long after, in prose:
And, if she could do it from the afterlife, my mother would schedule a giant powwow on her grave. 
“Okay, folks, welcome to the Seventeenth Annual Lillian Alexie Gravesite Powwow. Every song at this powwow will be a Special for Lillian. Every Grand Entry, Owl Dance, Blanket Dance, and Happy Dance will be for Lillian. And, yes, the venerable Prairie Chicken Dance will also be for Lillian. Okay, next drum is the Lillian Alexie Memorial Singers. This song will be an Intertribal. That means everybody gets to dance. Even you white people. Yes, that means all of you white people will also be dancing for Lillian. So, okay, Lillian Alexie Memorial Singers, whenever you’re ready, you can take it away!”
The whole memoir is a great exploration of what it is like to grow up with - then survive - a very unstable and powerful mother. It's also a beautiful pastiche of poetry and prose, showing where they overlap and where they serve separate purposes. It's an incredible journey through indigenous life, identity, and North American racism. Finally, it's a fine line exploration about running over the space between sanity and severe mental health challenges through multiple generations.

So many reasons to read it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Daily Life as Memoir Topic

Recently, we've been reading Life Work by Donald Hall for Read and Write.
I chose this book for a few reasons.

1. It is a "quiet" book - very little drama, mostly reflective, and not really about a specific happening but more the intersection between life and work for a famous poet.

2. Donald Hall is an amazing poet - his collections on his wife Jane Kenyon's death and after are powerful poetry memoir (Without and Otherwise) and his memoir about her death is a beautiful and also quiet reflection on loss. But what happens if this same poet reflects on simple family memories (we-moir) and contemplative topics?

3. During the writing of the book itself, Hall is diagnosed with liver cancer; this is after he and Jane both lived through bouts of cancer previously (and Kenyon dies of cancer two years later, which he doesn't know will happen as he writes this book). In other words, the memoir is both about the past and present, but also includes a dramatic happening as it occurs in real-time. Real-time memoir is a powerful experience - not looking back - or in this case, not just looking back - but living with a major event as it happens. He recovers, as we know because he published this book over 20 years ago and still lives today, but he doesn't know it at the time - and so he believes he is facing his own death square on and writes from that place.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Memoir with Recovery (and Dogs) Included

Remember how a few months ago I wrote a post about the absence of recovery stages in memoir?

Not long after, I picked up a copy of The Education of Will by Patricia McConnell. I auditioned it through the library (which I often do, before being sure I like it enough/will loan it enough/it has enough valuable passages) and then bought it.

I was very surprised to find that it not only satisfied my desire for covering the more "boring" aspects of recovery, it also is a memoir about far more than dogs. Which is good. Cuz really, I am a cat person, and have, for the most part, avoided memoirs about dogs (minus Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, which is also not just about dogs).

Patricia McConnell is a famous dog behaviorist, whose counsel runs across the NPR waves from little ole Wisconsin, where we both live. I hadn't heard of her, but many folks bought the memoir expecting more "dog" and got "too much personal"; I was unattached, and was glad for the more personal aspects. Overall, it's a lovely balance of the journey of her recovery and her dog's recovery, multi-layered with skillful writing and lovely scenes of southwestern Wisconsin.

But what I find most satisfying is how she is not shy about how long it took her to recover from her PTSD and what was needed to do it. She details the therapist visits (though not ad nauseum), and how she got worse before she got better. She is clear that it was not a single uphill journey with her dog's behavioral issues; more like the hills and valleys of the rural area in Wisconsin where she lives.  This honesty alone is worth it for me; it so happens the writing is also very strong and clear.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Myth of "If I Had Only Known..."

It's a common desire for memoir writers to want to share their stories in hopes that "if a younger me had known what I know now, she would have made different choices..."

While I think there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this as a motivation, there are two pitfalls in it. For one, while it's great to be of help, and certainly plenty of memoirs help in many ways, it overlooks the fact that a lot of us DID have the wisdom we have now, but did the things we did anyway. In large part, that's because though we hear advice when we are young, and often have good intuitions, there are many social pressures and reasons to strike out on our own and do it our own way, despite good advice.

A few years ago, I invited Susan Piver to Madison to teach a writing retreat. One of the most powerful exercises we didn't wasn't about writing at all. We envisioned a future self who had some wisdom she wanted to impart to current self. After doing this exercise, she noted the future self lives inside the current self, already. We already know these things, inside us. We simply need to tap into that wisdom.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Equanimity Through Ancestry

Yesterday, as part of my quarterly Read and Write* offering, we discussed Joy Harjo's memoir Crazy Brave. A student commented on how Harjo really takes into account her own heritage, her family's ancestry, and the overall context of her father and stepfather's situations when she shows her struggles with them.

The student, though you may have already assumed this, because we are trained to do so, is white.

Before getting to how Harjo does this masterfully both in this memoir and in her poetry, I am going to address one of the more painful points white folks almost never discuss with each other, much less in regards to memoir. The white person's tendency is to romanticize the ancestry of people of color, especially Native Americans. If we have any chance of having Native American blood, even if only 1/16th, then we romanticize our own ancestry. This is not the same thing as respecting someone else's origins; this is fantasy and exoticising. This tendency comes from the lack of connection we have to our own ancestry. And that comes from the choices our ancestors made in order to be white. Maybe we haven't actively made such choices in our generation, but at some point, some of our ancestors were given the choice to continue identifying as the nation and culture they were raised in, or assimilate. And because they were what we now call "white" at least in appearance, or close enough, they did it.

We all have heritage. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. White folks, too. We all have lineage - lessons passed on to us, good and bad. We all have culture. It's just that white supremacy renders it invisible to whites. This is the price we pay so we can feel normal, and be able to overlook others, or patronize their culture or ancestry by seeming to compliment it as "genuine."

This is not a "white pride" angle. This is part of what makes white life often feel so desolate, so mechanical and unconnected. It's part of the price we've paid and continue to pay unless we actively choose to turn it around. And in this earlier post, I mentioned an ongoing conversation I have with a good friend about how this also means that in memoir, and in real life, most white folks' stories about their parents and grandparents are negative. There's very little accommodating for context, very little connection to the cause and effect that took generations to get to us. Reading, for instance, these two memoirs by Nick Flynn and Ariel Gore give you good examples of writing about parents as main subjects in memoir with some equanimity that is rare in white family story telling. However, it is without effort (seemingly) that in Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow, he is honest and clear about the faults of his parents, but lacking in the kind of egotistical judgment white memoirists tend to laud onto their parents.

Joy Harjo is a master at writing with equanimity through understanding ancestry.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It's Not the End of Anything (For Fuck's Sake)

A writing student sent the following message to me and some of her comrades this week:
I just read an article in the New Yorker about the end of the personal essay—did you all see it? And what did you think? Memoir really interests me but am I too late???http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/the-personal-essay-boom-is-over
If you haven't read the article, please, go ahead and skim it. I will wait.

Let me tell you what happened to me when I read it:
Reading it made me angry. Angry at the need to declare something is over. Angry at the assumption that all personal essays are alike. Angry at the conflation between sensationalization/confession versus reflection/contemplation. Not angry at my student - let me be clear - but at the industry, and the way people write about it.

Despite not finding a NYT post from a couple of years back about how memoir was over as a genre, or that boom done, I know I have read at least one other such opinion piece, and they tire me. Why do people need to stick in a fork and decide something is done? Good grief. The only thing done is time, and not even that is as done as we sometimes wish it were.

Finally, what this opinion piece does is lump together a bunch of different kinds of personal essays - crisis pieces, especially - and completely does not include very deep and powerful examples of steady, long-running people working in this genre. People who survive fashion, who are dedicated to deep exploration.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I've just finished a memoir called The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod. It addresses an inquiry I've been having lately, a debate with myself and some of my clients - mainly in my own head, and not here in the blog, but from a totally surprising perspective. To sum up, I've started posts (and not finished) about a gist that is something like:
"When is it the right time to write about something and when is it not yet?"
Or, even more accurately:
"When is it the right time to SHARE what you are writing in regards to memoir, and when isn't it yet?"

Many, if not most, memoirs, reveal something the writer has not revealed to herself previously, or to others in more public contexts. Certainly, as in the case with Zolbrod, that "telling" is of a quite private matter - being molested by a male cousin when she was younger. However, even if the revelation is about how much we actually disliked our ex, or the way our mind actually works and is less virtuous-seeming to us than it seems to others in our life, confession, exposure, telling of any sort is a bit queasy-making, and is a part of the process of memoir, like it or not.

What is it you are trying to tell the readers? And is it something that is changed in the telling? In Zolbrod's memoir, she not only tells us about the molestation, but also about the act of telling - the book opens with her telling someone for the first time. Later, near the end of the book, she reveals that she has come to understand the act of telling ITSELF changed how she saw what had happened. At the time, telling the other twelve year old girl was an attempt to show her own sexual experience; instead, the other girl made it clear that what Zolbrod was sharing was inappropriate and icky, though she was not articulate about how that was so or why. Zolbrod hadn't particularly liked the molestation, but hadn't always hated it either, and so the quest to explore who, how, why, and even if we tell began for her, in parallel to her path of healing.

Zolbrod actually resisted therapy, paralleling her journey of growing up processing the abuse on her own with the trends towards naming, pathologizing, and demonizing both sexual abuse of minors and also the "false memory" movements - both for and against. She intuited that if she were to go to a psychologist, her memories might be altered, manipulated for the case of a therapists satisfaction; in the end, the single time she saw someone, the therapist barely noted it at all, as she describes here:

She blinked behind her glasses, rims the same silver-gold color of her short hair, lenses that needed cleaning. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said gently. “If you think it didn’t have much effect on you, you’re probably right.” 
So much for my fears that psychologists tended to see sexual molestation as the cause of any problem, which were stoked by the once widespread accusations that they pushed people to dredge up memories that weren’t even quite there. The therapist’s response was nothing like what I had feared all these years, which was that the sentences would be met with the leash-pulling certitude of a dog sniffing for a bone, with the imposition of a story that I didn’t recognize as my own. Trends in psychology must have changed since the eighties and nineties, the information about child sex abuse no longer unfolding and new. Yet I felt let down. In some ways, I suppose I was still looking for what I also had never wanted: a grown-up to take this tangled mass of yarn from my too-small hands, give it back to me balled up and explained, categorized if not taken care of. But I looked no further for a therapist who might have been able to help me understand this yearning. That kind of assistance was not to be.

This description of looking for what she never wanted blows me away. In fact, what blows me away the most in this whole memoir is Zolbrod's refusal to pinpoint her experience into a single cubbyhole. She explores her cousin's experience, her father and mother's experiences; she offers all sides then refuses to stand firmly in one spot. She will not be fixated; there is nothing to fix.

It's tempting to believe that we have to have an answer, something tied up nicely in insight form for the reader as a part of memoir. That we have gotten to a certain state of understanding and the reader will be satisfied with that as an offering. But, as I noted in this recent insidespace post, unanswerable questions are really the stuff of life, and despite the desire we may have to draw moral absolute firm and hard ground around things like childhood sexual abuse, it does reduce our experience excessively to talk about it in such dualistic language.

Zolbrod has many, many other things to say about the writing process, about abuse itself, and about telling, so I won't include it all here. But in the lines of what I have said already, Zolbrod shows great reflection in her process of deciding to write the memoir, to do it as a memoir, and talking to those affected by it in this paragraph:
My most electric writing occurred when I grappled directly with my own memories. My most clearheaded responses were to current events that raised issues of sexual abuse that resonated with my own past. I began swelling with the feeling that my own story was the one I wanted to tell. Anthony (her husband) supported me in this, even when my excavations into territory I had avoided all my life made me moody and tense, and even though he found it too painful to read what I was producing. His response contributed to a question I already had: for both myself and others, would my telling this story be more likely to heal, or help, or hurt?
This gets back to my original question - when is telling useful? And it has so much less to do with others, and more to do with what we actually intend to do with the telling. There's no one simple answer, but if you are wanting to tell in order to make a simple answer of your story, that is likely one hint that it's not a good idea for you to tell it. Not publicly. Not in memoir. 

Memoir is not "a take" on life. It should show complexity, honor with compassion all the parties involved, and include a depth and breadth of understanding. Ideally. That having been said, if you need to write it, just write it. Don't think about publication and whether or not you have equanimity. Just write it. Then, when you are ready, find someone you trust to share it with. It may turn out that's all you needed to do - write it and share it with one other person. Step by step, you can figure out how, why, and to whom you need to tell whatever it is you need to tell.