Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Being Black Back-to-Back: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Two Memoirs

Recently, I decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' first book, The Beautiful Struggle, for the first time. We've own a copy of it nearly the whole time it has been out, and I've long loved his writing at The Atlantic. But it wasn't until Between the World and Me came out that I decided to finally get down to his first book, a memoir.

In it's own way, Between the World and Me is also a memoir. It is framed as a letter to his teenaged son, and includes a lot more of politics, race, and history than his first book. But especially when reading them back to back, it is impossible to ignore how much his perspective has opened, how much his view is altered by writing about how his father related to him as a boy (Beautiful Struggle) versus relating now as a father to his son (Between the World and Me).

They aren't the same book ten years apart, of course - they serve different purposes. But when the same issues arise - especially around education, race, and living situations - his change in perspective as a father writing to son instead of son writing about his father is powerful to behold.

For example, here is a paragraph from the first book, Beautiful Struggle, in which he describes his father:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Three Stages of Mindful Memoir

One of the trickiest aspects of memoir is how to turn an aspect of your life into a story - something with a beginning, a middle, and an end; something with plot and conflict; something that will hook the reader and keep them invested. Without it, you are recounting, and that may work at dinner parties, but it won't work for memoir-length work.

Unless you are writing down memories for family (see my post on memoir versus memoirs), and not looking to publish at all, or share other than for the record, this kind of building, engaging, communicating, and directing requires outside help (tester readers, if not editor(s)).

It is in the mirror of other readers where we often run into the gap between what we experienced and what we express - all the way from, "But that's how it happened" to "I can't express it any other way." 

Memoir, by definition, uses the structures and teachings of fiction to shape fact into stories that will pull people along like fiction. We have to take anecdotes, stories we've told, beliefs we've had - subconscious and conscious - and shape them into a narrative, a flow with direction and feeling. We cannot simply lay out the facts and hope others will put two and two together.

This gap between experiencing and expressing is an issue for all humans, in all forms of communication, much less art. How do you take what you are feeling, thinking, what you have experienced, sensed, and turn it into something others can understand? 

There are three stages:

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sinking and Saving in the Process of Writing Memoir

In this powerful writing by one of my students, she explores how her stories about herself both sustain her and pull her down. I have highlighted the passages that, in particular, relate to memoir stories - but overall, as she is working her way through writing a book-length memoir, Christa is also re-considering all of her life stories, related to the memoir or not. This kind of inherent crisis around life stories is pretty much a given in memoir writing, and a big part of why we need to Do It Together, not alone.

Her visceral, physical writing is super powerful - "quicksand," "tangled tendons," "waterlogged wings." What direct physical ways to describe the experience of one's mind!

What I want you to know is that while this was written from a place of and a moment of deep despair, Christa has strong resilience and belief in the power of getting the stories through and learning from them. You can especially hear this towards the end: "Why the commitment to misery? Meaningless misery." She finds the light readily, regularly, and so even when the quicksand takes her down, she can still see a way through, even if it is not able to be articulated at that moment.

Life Raft by Christa Bruhn

What keeps me afloat? What air is beneath my wings? My story is like quicksand, pulling me under, and yet I still breathe. How is that possible? What on earth sustains me? My story criss-crosses through my body like tangled tendons. I stretch as best I can but get no relief. There is no letting go when the tissue has already grown in and around these tendons. There is no untangling them. I am left with limited movement, labored breath, heavy, waterlogged wings that simply cannot fly.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Helpers Who Write Memoir

We all need to be needed, but some are more driven by the gratification of having helped someone than others. And some of us really need that as instant gratification - to give a donation now, to interrupt our quiet time and help a neighbor in need.

There's nothing wrong with being needed, and helping others. In fact, the Dalai Lama has recently pointed to our deep fear of not being needed under a lot of the current anxiety in our political experience. If that's our motivation for helping, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. While keeping busy to alleviate anxiety isn't always skillful, if we wind up benefiting others and not burning ourselves out in the process, helping as a way of staying engaged is great.

However, I have found a lot of the women I work with who wish to write memoir have a hard time trading in these kind of short-term helping circumstances to commit to the longer-term gratification of writing memoir. Here's a conglomerate case study:

Anne has a history of having been emotionally and physically abused. She wants dearly to write a memoir about how she got through these situations, so she can help other women see how to get out of abusive relationships. She believes strongly in her story, and knows it is worthwhile, at least during class and when we meet. She's in her fifties, and is less ashamed of her struggles than she used to be. She has always wanted to write this story, and feels she is ready, but when she sits down to write, it won't come out. Whenever she can get some words down, magically, other people suddenly call on her - a neighbor who needs her help cleaning the garden, her mother, who is constantly calling for assistance. It's like they know she was just sitting down to write! How is that possible?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Marya Hohnbacher is bipolar, and her memoir of her life with it, Madness, is amazing. If you have an interest in mental health memoirs, which can be rare in terms of this kind of quality and attention to details, please read it.

There are so many passages when she describes what it feels like to be manic, or depressed, with such directness as to put me right there (squirming) with her. I'll share some of those.

But first, some of her more universal, process-oriented passages, which show her wisdom and whiz with words:

How do we know who we are or what we can become? We tell ourselves stories. The stories we tell are what we know of ourselves. We are a creation, a product of our own minds, a pastiche of memory, dream, fear, desire. My memory looks like a child's collage, or a ransom note, incomplete and full of holes. All I have is today, this moment, to work with. I am writing my story as I go. I am inventing myself one moment, one experience, at a time. 
And that's all right. It means I can choose who I become. It means I can write my future. I can create a person, write a story, full of hope.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gender: Profound and Mundane

Excerpt from Tomboy by Liz Prince
What I most often encourage students to write about, especially when it comes to memoir, is what is most mundane to them: daily details, describing how we even brush our teeth or wash our hair. Why? Because even if we don't wind up including that in a final memoir, the process of exploring - with curiosity - how we actually do daily mundane things can reveal more about ourselves than re-telling the most profound-seeming powerful bang-em-out dramatic trauma stories.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Being Known


Many memoir writers hope to be known through their stories. We hope by writing down what has happened to us, others will see us more clearly, we will be understood, acknowledged.

This is a dangerous gamble for memoir. If it is hard enough for us to feel known with real-life people right in front of us, who are already sympathetic and helped us live our story, the chances of a stranger picking up an essay or book and really feeling us in a genuine way are even smaller.

One of Natalie Goldberg's most famous expressions is "Don't use writing to get love." Most of us, if we are honest, do hope not just for recognition (fame, money, etc - the kind of "known" Katz refers to in her book) but also to be KNOWN in some deep way by sharing our stories, baring our souls. 

We need to be clear about what kind of "being known" we seek. Is it simply to garner fame? Rarely that simple. Is it to gain acknowledgement of what we have been through, or the prowress of our writing skills? Possible, but also uneven. Or is it that we want to be truly known as humans, really seen and accepted? This last kind of search will not be fulfilled by being published, I can all but guarantee it. For everyone person who sends you a personal letter, letting you know how much your story meant to them, there will be 15 others who dismiss it, write a bad review, and 1500 who don't care about it at all.

Does this mean you shouldn't bother?
Not at all!
But keep checking in with yourself about what it is you really want. Looking at your need to be KNOWN is important, and being realistic about how you seek it is crucial. If you are still convinced at some level that being famous, should that even be a result, will bring you a sense of Peace, all you have to do is read the words of famous writers and memoirists - their isolation, the gap between how others see them and their actual selves in particular.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't bother. You need to do it for the right reasons, is all. And if you desire to be truly known and accepted, use the writing process itself to more deeply accept and acknowledge yourself, seeking out supportive readers who can positively but clearly and precisely give you feedback on your story and how you tell it. 

That way, by the time you are "known", if that's how your writing turns out, you will already feel KNOWN, and have relationships to come back to for support when (if) fame comes along.