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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Haiti On My Mind

A few weeks ago, I picked up Dany Laferriere's memoir of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Tout Bouge Autour de Moi (The World Turns Around Me). It's an amazing book, full of powerful, palpable, personal description. At one point, a nephew, also named Dany, insists he not write about the earthquake - that the elder Dany's Haiti is done, over writing about, and this is his Haiti, his topic. Elder Dany points out there are as many ways to write an experience as there are experiences - endless.

In search of more information about the quake and in particular, the failure of aid to improve Haiti's lot, especially with the recent hurricane Now also a factor, I turned to the half memoir, half reportage of Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By. Katz's book is a) by a "blan" - an outsider - and so has more distance (for better and worse) but also b) is the story of him living through the quake - including serious PTSD - as he was embedded there before and after the fact.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Memoir Vs. Memoirs

For a long time, the word memoir only existed in the plural.

Picture it: a rich Lord sits around his estate after a long life of plundering and looting, and decides it is time to write his memoirs. He wants to tell all the tales of his life, from being a young lad who aced cricket to marauding the barbarians to his retirement and marriage to a much younger woman.

This is what most of us picture (or some version therein; famous stars, former presidents, you name it) when we hear the word "memoir." But that is a whole other kettle of fish from what memoir is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Brooke Warner on Liability in Memoir

This is such a good article, i am just going to link to it. I especially agree with this closing passage, which could really start the article, and suggestion #3.

Check out Brooke Warner's classes and She Writes - great community and resources. And this new anthology Warner edited, mentioned in this article.

Here's the quote -

"If you’re afraid of a big fallout, consider whether that fear might be your inner critic at work, making you bad and wrong for exposing someone or something that you’re not “supposed” to share. Going against the grain and exposing yourself and others is the number one scariest experience of memoir writing. You may need to be in dialogue with your critic to ease its mind so you can continue to write your truth. Remember that you are brave and in charge of what you ultimately share or don’t share, and you have time between starting your book and publishing it to make incremental choices and edits along the way."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Waking Takes Time: PTSD and Memoir

Recently, I've been involved in learning a technique to help relieve PTSD. The project is focused around helping vets and their families, but the fact is, the organization also knows plenty of people have PTSD from non-explicit war circumstances: rape, abuse when growing up, even event-specific PTSD from things like 911.

I've also had some conversations with therapists who insist we cannot work on memoir until we have cleared the triggers around our PTSD. The fact is, as of now, I have yet to see anything, included the technique I am learning and offering, to clear those memories entirely. I've pointed to this before in this blog, here. But also, I am skeptical that waiting until we have reached some state of clarity is useful. There are exceptions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Embodied Love

There's no hotter topic in memoir than love.

To look at someone's sexual history up close (from trite 365 day dating projects, to heartfelt analyses of former lovers) is something a lot of us seem to be craving.

To reveal love in the context of marriage or divorce is also big (Eat, Pray, Love).

But in her book In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler breaks open all our previous concepts of love and bodies, sex and sexism. She slashes together her own bouts with cancer alongside rape in Congo with incredible eloquence. She has been there, owns her privilege, never lets her memoir be only her story of love, or sex, or rape, or loss. An incredible blend of the personal and political.

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