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.