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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Young Memoir

I just read this wonderful article on NYT about writing memoir before one is forty.
One of the things I love in her argument is the understanding that writing real-time, without the lenses which come later in life, has its own merit.

Generally, in the memoir world, age and distance is favored. Generally I favor it myself! Having begun work on memoir writing in my early 30's, I, too, experienced some of the same derision or disbelief she did. When I told them it was two memoirs, I got scoffs. Then, if they were at all interested, they would ask what I had to write about so early on.

"I lost both my parents by age 20, and I am married to a transgender woman."
"Oh," was the frequent response.
But having something to write about is not the same as being able to write about it.

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.