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.
Done?

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

Telling


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.







Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Recovery Isn't Covered


Discussing a memoir called Loose Girl* by Kerry Cohen with a friend the other night, we ruminated on the lack of the recovery period in memoirs. Recovery. Not the sexy, busy, crazy, wild part where you go manic/have a sex addiction/are institutionalized, but the long, arduous, boring-as-hell-in-real-time but actually super-fascinating-and-inspiring-for-others time period.

We are both often disappointed by the lack of recovery. In fact, we could both use a whole other memoir post-Loose Girl and that ilk (as much as we love these books for their incredible honesty), focused just on recovery alone. How it is to tow the long road from figuring out for real now you have a problem (addiction, mental health challenges, etc) to the point where you can even begin to consider writing a book like this (now-ish).

The "credentials" that appear on a memoir of someone recovered - family, job, degrees - all are supposed to suffice for recovery. We need to imagine how someone got from realization to present moment, as it is often covered in a chapter, if that. I am thinking of often very commercial books like Wild, or Fast Girl, but these issues plague even more literary, mindful and small press memoirs like The Center Cannot Hold, or a favorite here on this blog, The Chronology of Water.

To stop the memoir after all that action and then leap forward to publication in an afterword, if at all, is painful for those of us who live in survivor or recovery mode. We come wanting beautiful painful words, yes, but we also want slow joy and hope, building up how to get by brick by brick, day by day.

Those who do focus on the nitty gritty tend to ONLY do that - Anne Lamott's books are all basically recovery books, in which she relentlessly shares her failings and insecurities. Mary Karr, once she gets past the core childhood memoirs of Cherry and Liar's Club, does that with Lit a bit more. And the work of Abigail Thomas** really does this, continuously exploring not just individual difficult events, but the rich weaving of life that goes on behind and underneath survival and recovery.

What I'd love to see is more books in-between - books based on single events, but with recovery woven into the story. It's the denouement, and it is too short-shifted right now. Somewhere between more on-going, contemplative, life-writing memoirs (one of Abigail Thomas' books is titled An Actual Life), and those about single incidents, dramatic effects, or recovering from addiction, there must be a middle ground with a fuller picture included.

*previous posts with Loose Girl here and here.
** previous post with Abigail Thomas here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Then and Now


A few weeks ago in one of my classes, two women happened to write about ex-husbands. The prompt had nothing to do with spouses, though it did ask about people’s relationships to love. What is auspicious and amazing is that, out of 28 students in all my classes, only these two wrote about ex-spouses.
What’s also amazing is the difference.
One person, student #1, wrote about her ex-husband, from whom she split only a few years ago. The other, student #2, about her ex-husband from over twenty years ago. With their permission, I am sharing part of their writings, to really show what a difference time makes. 
These are very different women with very different former marriages; I don’t mean to imply they are the same. Yet something about the two of these side-by-side really spoke to me. It’s hard to know when we’ve had enough time to have perspective on difficult things in our life – even if it hasn’t been enough to find equanimity, we should still write about it. But it is also hard to keep a feeling of connection, even if we have found some balance. With distance, we can neuter our story, make it seem benign; if we are too close, it can feel very strong and we are unable to get out. Both of them have found middle ground between proximity and distance, with time, of course, but also a lot of work and reflection and compassion for themselves and their former spouses.
 What I love about the writing from student #1 is how much she has gone back to own her own past and patterns. This is a powerful exploration of how we got into situations like the one she was in, without blaming herself. She's still struggling, mind you, but she's opening to herself a lot. 
I'll let student #1 tell you:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Gaze, Voice, and Audience


"Who are you writing for?" is one of the prime questions in any writing. I don't believe it is something we have to worry about too much in rough draft, but as soon as we begin revising, we need to be considering who this is for. Not just why, the deeper reason why, but to whom we are writing.

It's a hard question, though, because audience can't be too big or too small. "Everyone," is not a working answer. Too vague. "My sister," is too specific, though you can find clues in there. Why your sister? Because she, too, survived an abusive childhood? In that case, maybe you are writing to people who survived abusive childhoods. A somewhat narrow (though not narrow enough, unfortunately) audience, but getting closer. Perhaps then people who want to know what it was like, not just survivors. Ah, now we are getting there - an interest group, an audience, big enough to be diverse, small enough to have focus.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Listening and Hearing

 This is a wonderful writing from a student, a response to the prompt "Listening and Sounding" in last week's class. The many layers of listening and speaking, of remembering memories, and of the ways our stories about ourselves change all feel well-handled here. I appreciate her straight-forwardness mixed with wry humor. Thanks for sharing this first draft of direct writing with us, Barbara Samuel.
-------—--------------------------------------

I found a cassette tape that I thought I’d lost long ago.  I don’t know how it found its way into the plastic storage box I pulled out of the closet in the back bedroom.  I don’t even know how the storage box found its way into the corner of that closet.  Or why I chose that day to dig around in the closet and investigate things that had remained in the dark for years.

 

When I was in my early twenties, before two-thirds of my life so far had unfolded, I was still suffering from many forms of psychic torture.  I had been living in Madison and with my partner for just a few years.  But I was certain that I was on the verge of becoming completely crazy, unreachable, and I attributed that to the aftereffects of a disastrous acid trip I’dexperienced at college several years before.  My shrink, on whom I became completely dependent, suggested I tell him about that night, step by step, leaving out no detail.  He said he would record it.  By telling the story, he said, it would lose some of its power over me, and I would have the tape to play back for myself if I ever needed confirmation that I was okay.

 

My narrative took up most of the sixty-minute tape.  I don’t remember ever playing the tape back, listening to what I said.  I kept it in my top dresser drawer for years, until it was no longer there.  I searched for it a few times and then forgot about it.  When I found the cassette in the box in the closet, I didn’t know what it was.  Written on the outside in someone else’s handwriting were the letters SAM in capitals.  I couldn’t think of anything besides the Rafi song compilations we made when my son was a baby.

 

When I finished rummaging in the box – an unexpectedgoldmine of memorabilia – I took the tape downstairs to the kitchen where I still have a combination radio, CD and tape player, now lightly blanketed in kitchen grease.  I put the tape in but it was backwards.  I put it in again, correctly, and I suddenly heard my voice; then nothing but scratchy sounds from the machine.  I pressed stop, opened the little door and discovered a length of tape caught in the mechanism and becoming crinkly.  In a controlled panic, I gently disengaged the tape and found a pencil with an eraser.  Five minutes later, the tape was flattened out and rewound.  I tried again.  This time it played.

 

As late afternoon became evening, I stood in my kitchen listening to my twenty-five-year-old self, telling her shrink about the drug experience she suspected might have ruined her life.  It was pretty boring.  I was disappointed.  There were long pauses.  Sometimes I laughed at my young self as I listened.  “You said this wouldn’t make me go crazy.  How do you know?  Are you sure I won’t go crazy?”  “No; I really don’t believe you’ll go crazy.”  My shrinks voice.  What a pair we must have been, he with his thick New York accent, I with my incessant need for reassurance.  At times, I wanted to say to my young voice, hurry up; get to the good part.  But there was no good part.  My memory had created a much more vivid story than my narrative on tape revealed.  In the now dark kitchen, the dogs clamored for their dinner.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Immigrant Buddhist Memoirs

I am what they call a "convert Buddhist" - born white in North America, to a nominally agnostic family, but raised in Christian culture. I came to Buddhism in my late teens and early twenties, and adopted Shambhala Buddhism, which contains threads of original Tibetan Buddhisms and also American adaptations, specifically for people like me.

But I am aware this is not the only experience by far. One of my ongoing "research" projects is to learn more about race in North American buddhism - specifically how the convert buddhisms we have now in North America often cater more towards white folks than people of color. In the meantime, I am also taking up efforts to immerse myself in the experiences of immigrant buddhists, sometimes called "ethnic buddhists" - folks who (or whose parents) came to the US as buddhists, and attend temples or places of practice oriented towards only their kind - e.g. Thai, where all attendees are Thai or Thai ethnically, and speak only Thai together. This seems especially important now, in the heightened era of intense national discrimination against immigrants.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Your Story Must Change


This afternoon, on our annual winter writing retreat, one of the participants noted: "Dammit. Now I am feeling compassion for my mother. I wasn't supposed to feel that!" We all laughed - we know she feels plenty of compassion, always has, but it is true in her writing and stories its often been hard to uncover that. And if we can't uncover it in our writing, we won't feel it completely. We could also relate to what she said - it would be so much easier if her damned story would stop changing, if her mom could stay the evil bitch and she could remain the innocent princess.

If your story isn't changing as you write it, you are in trouble.
This means you have to stay vulnerable, open, raw, and not fixating on a specific story.

There is no one version of your life, not even from your own perspective. As you write memoir, your understanding should change along the way. If it doesn't, if you find you are pinning down facts you've decided long ago are 100% true, then you should stop writing.

Memoir, like life, is not solid. There's nothing fixed or known for sure, even in retrospect. Our constant attempts to make that seem untrue are a part of the process of peeling back what really happened.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death. Yet again, and again, my story about her, my loss of her, my life with her, changes. I stay open to the changes. At some point enough will be pinned down to finish the book, but in the meantime, there's no reason to hastily paste together a solid story. In the meantime, I let my story change, so I can keep changing, too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lithium Jesus


Lithium Jesus by Charles Monroe-Kane came to my attention a few months ago, when a friend and fellow memoirian and student and avid reader sent me a text one afternoon, with a link to an interview Monroe-Kane just did, and an ad for a reading he was doing that evening. She was very excited - we are both interested in and keep an eye out for well-done memoir on mental health challenges, and the quote she sent me from the interview sounded very profound. It pointed to confusion about feelings of spirituality and struggling with sanity.

However, she got ahold of the book faster than I did, and was a bit disappointed. Mine took until this week to come in - he's a local author, and producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, so his book flew off the shelves. By then, I was a bit reticent, but wanted to go for it. Reading Undercurrents by Martha Manning and other similar books (here) or Alexandra Fuller's work (here), I and some of my friends and clients I work with find it incredibly satisfying when someone can render on the page the direct experience of being outside what is normally accepted as mentally sane behavior.

And the fact is, all of the memoirs I've read from people with severe mental health challenges have been women.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Incident-Based Memoir Versus Thematic Memoir


Typically, there are two reasons/narrative threads under writing any given memoir. The first, and most common, is to write a memoir about a particular incident. Half a Life by Darin Strauss is about the author accidentally striking and killing a girl on a bike with his car when he was eighteen, and the impact that had on his life and community. History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky is about the author's sister's death from suicide and the author coming to terms with it. There are a million examples of these kinds of specific memoirs. They can be quite lovely and focused, giving a central event to focus attention on, and explain further experiences from.

However, when we read only these memoirs we get the idea that only folks who have had "big things" happen to them in their lives (read also: tragedies) can write memoir. It's good to notice even most memoirs written based in an incident also thread through the themes of someone's life, like Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, in which her eventual diagnosis of epilepsy clarifies some of her difficult journey with spirituality, but in fact isn't the central focus of the story.

And, there are memoirs which truly just focus on a thread, a theme, or a connection throughout someone's life, rather than single incidents, and certainly not always around trauma. In our story-obsessed culture, these memoirs tend to get less media, but they are insightful and powerful nonetheless.