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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Brown Girl Dreaming

Awhile back, I began to contemplate the lines between autobiographical poetry and memoir. I wondered where one would draw the line, saying that poems by a poet were about their lives, but what they created was a book of poetry, or whether something could be called a more poetic memoir?

I found a great book of poetry by memoir master Mary Karr (in this post here), and a good guest article by Keven Bellows on Marion Roach's blog here. Jill Bialosky's article on her memoir History of a Suicide and her contemplations about poetry versus memoir is here. I love this quote in particular from Bialosky:
Both poetry and memoir attempt to uncover what lies behind the unreasoning mask and rescue it into consciousness. The creation of both arts is reliant upon Keat’s ideas of negative capability, of being capable “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
These are all adult memoirists and poets, which is, in some ways was I was looking for.

I realized over time though that I had sort of overlooked the plethora of poetic biographies for children and teens out there. One example I used to use to teach middle schoolers is Poet Slave of Cuba (a biography). In terms of telling personal stories, Naomi Shihab Nye's collection What Have You Lost? is a wonderful tender collection of poems by children and young adults about real life loss.
In fact, it seems poetry is commonly used in younger reader literature, because it is construed as being simpler, more readable, more appeasing to kids. However, that can be deceptive. Intensity can pack a punch in poetry, even moreso than in prose (see Poet Slave).

In particular, Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, has been on my list since it came out a couple of years ago, and it is wonderful. Like Poet Slave, it deals with a difficult time filled with racism and struggle, in this case, the civil rights era in the south and north. Her lyrical verse makes it possible to depict difficult scenes - difficult for adults as well as kids! - and actually to reveal the simplicity of the logic that ruled - and still rules - racist thinking.

For instance, she speaks of going north with her family, moving from South Carolina to New York City, and how her mother begins to discipline their speech with switches:

We are never to say huh?ain't or y'allgit or gonnaNever ma'am -- just yes with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don't ever ma'am anyone!The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days... 
The list of what not to say
goes on and on... 
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
into them.
Or this amazing short poem, which depicts going back to South Carolina after living up north:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

As is so often the case, my favorite passages are about memoir itself, about memory, about writing. While Woodson is depicting an era, and her experience being black at that time in the US, she also questions the nature of memory itself, especially in family. These are various passages from the amazing poem "other people's memory":

You were born in the morning, Grandma Georgiana said.
I remember the sound of the birds. Mean old blue jays squawking. They like to fight, you know!...That's how I know you came in the morning.That's how I remember. 
You came in the late afternoon, my mother said.
Two days after I turned twenty-two.Your father was at work. Took a rush hour bus tryingto get to you. 
You're the one that was born near night,my father says... 
My time of birth wasn't listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people's bad memory.

Finally, she writes throughout about her journey of coming to writing. When she was very young, words were exceptionally hard for her, which had a sting because her sister excelled at everything (from "gifted"):

I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist
twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on. 
I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.
And, of course, as a National Book Award winner, she has done just that.

If you are usually writing or reading in prose memoir forms, explore poetry - whether it is explicitly labeled memoir or not. Play with form, on large and small scale. See if you can find a way to accept the uncertainty and complexity of life with simple forms, in a way complex paragraphs and sentences cannot grasp.