Thursday, March 15, 2018

Whose Death Is It, Anyway?

‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’     
-Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk 
Today is the 28th anniversary of my father's death. My father. Before I revised my memoir to make the naming of various characters consistent - always calling my mom's dad Bapa, always calling Dad by that name instead of "my dad" or "my father," a reader noted that whenever I referred to Dad, I used the first person possessive. "My father's death," I would write, as if the death happened to only me, or to only him and I was the only child.

Only, I am not. I am the youngest of three. And my siblings definitely suffered.

My memoir is about my loss, not about theirs. But I still found it an uncanny consistency that I didn't call him, "our father." It's how I tell my story - this is my loss, and not just because I am owning my story, but because in my story, I am alone.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why Navel Gazing Isn't An Insult

Wow. Where Have I Been?
October of 2017 ate me alive and only recently has spit me back out.

So as I re-group and get my weekly blog schedule going again, I am going to just put this amazing powerful holy fuck interview with Melissa Febos right here for you to read...

Some juicy key quotes:
"It is a concern I have heard from countless students and peers, and which I always greet with a combination of bafflement and frustration. Since when did telling our own stories and deriving their insights become so reviled? It doesn’t matter if the story is your own, I tell them over and over, only that you tell it well. We must always tell stories so that their specificity reveals some universal truth. "

"I am complicit. I have committed this betrayal of my own experience innumerable times. But I am done agreeing when my peers spit on the idea of writing as transformation, as catharsis, as—dare I say it—therapy. Tell me, who is writing in their therapeutic diary and then dashing it off to be published? I don’t know who these supposedly self-indulgent (and extravagantly well-connected) narcissists are. But I suspect that when people denigrate them in the abstract, they are picturing women. I’m finished referring to stories of body and sex and gender and violence and joy and childhood and family as “navel-gazing.”

"I polled the audience—a room packed with a few hundred readers and writers. I asked for a show of hands: “Who here has experienced an act of violence, abuse, extreme disempowerment, sexual aggression, harassment, or humiliation?” The room fell silent as the air filled with hands."

"Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old woman, a former junkie and sex worker, to presume that strangers should find my life interesting? I had already learned that there were few more damning presumptions than that of a young woman thinking her own story might be meaningful. Besides, I was writing a Very Important Novel. Just like Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth or Hemingway, those men of renowned humility.

“No way,” I told my professor. I was determined to stick to my more humble presumption that strangers might be interested in a story made up by a twenty-six-year-old former junkie sex worker.
Do you see how easy it is to poke holes in this logic?"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Poetry and Prose in One Memoir: Sherman Alexie

For years now, I've read Sherman Alexie's poetry collections and novels. I've always enjoyed the edge of fiction/nonfiction he skirts, willingly and openly, in all his writing. But his brand new memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, is the first time I've read non-fiction by him, even though he has written many articles and essays.

It was suggested to me to listen to his memoir rather than read it, because he narrates it, in a loving and living way. However, I found after a few chapters I also wanted to be able to read it. I could just tell he was also writing in poetry, and I wanted to see it on the page. I also wanted to be able to quote passages like this:
My little sister doesn’t remember that photograph. She doubts it exists. “You’re always making up stuff from the past,” she said. “And the stuff you imagine is always better than the stuff that actually happened.” 
“That’s just a fancy way of calling me a liar,” I said. 
“If the moccasin fits, then wear it,” she said.
He has imaginary conversations with friends in his head about whether or not he made up a quote he wants to use in the memoir. He continually questions the past, memory, authorship - taking us way beyond "unreliable narrator" and deep into the territory of the mind. I love it.

I don’t recall the moment when I officially became a storyteller—a talented liar—but here I must quote Simon Ortiz, the Acoma Pueblo writer, who said, “Listen. If it’s fiction, then it better be true.” 
Simon, a beautiful storyteller, doesn’t remember ever saying such a thing. “That sounds like something I might say,” he said to me. “But I don’t know if I have ever said that particular thing.” I don’t remember when I first learned of the quote. Did I read it in one of Simon’s poems or stories? If so, then why doesn’t Simon remember that he wrote it? 
Can a writer forget something that he’s written in one of his own books? Yes, of course. I wrote my first novel over two decades ago, and fans often stump me by asking questions about passages that I don’t remember writing. So perhaps I read that quote somewhere else and have mistakenly attributed it to Simon.   
(In talking to another teacher in his head about this quote and attribution:) 
“So maybe I’m the one who thought it first?” I said. “And I want to honor you and Simon.” 
“Well,” Alex said. “Crediting your thoughts to your mentors sounds more like you’re honoring yourself.” 
“That’s funny,” I said. “And sad. Is my ego the source of all my deception and self-deception?” 
“Perhaps,” Alex said. “Since you’ve just invented this entire conversation about storytelling and truth that you and I never had, and put it in the first chapter of your memoir, then I’m just going to call you the unreliable narrator of your own life.”
But it's the poetry. The way the poetry covers a lot of the same territory as the prose but - differently, because that's how poetry rolls. He uses the density and power of poetry and line breaks to tell the truth in direct ways:
At my mother’s funeral...

A cousin said, “Lillian was 
Our last connection to the ancient 
Stories and songs. Lillian was 
Also a mean and foulmouthed

Woman who scolded everybody. 
Right now, I bet you Lillian just arrived 
In Heaven and is scolding Jesus 
For playing the wrong welcoming song.”

We all laughed and laughed 
Because, yes, my mother was 
Exactly the kind of mortal 
Who challenged the Gods.

She was the reservation Medea. 
She was the indigenous Antigone. 
But just imagine how it felt to be 
Her fragile child. I never stopped

Being afraid of her.
And not long after, in prose:
And, if she could do it from the afterlife, my mother would schedule a giant powwow on her grave. 
“Okay, folks, welcome to the Seventeenth Annual Lillian Alexie Gravesite Powwow. Every song at this powwow will be a Special for Lillian. Every Grand Entry, Owl Dance, Blanket Dance, and Happy Dance will be for Lillian. And, yes, the venerable Prairie Chicken Dance will also be for Lillian. Okay, next drum is the Lillian Alexie Memorial Singers. This song will be an Intertribal. That means everybody gets to dance. Even you white people. Yes, that means all of you white people will also be dancing for Lillian. So, okay, Lillian Alexie Memorial Singers, whenever you’re ready, you can take it away!”
The whole memoir is a great exploration of what it is like to grow up with - then survive - a very unstable and powerful mother. It's also a beautiful pastiche of poetry and prose, showing where they overlap and where they serve separate purposes. It's an incredible journey through indigenous life, identity, and North American racism. Finally, it's a fine line exploration about running over the space between sanity and severe mental health challenges through multiple generations.

So many reasons to read it.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Daily Life as Memoir Topic

Recently, we've been reading Life Work by Donald Hall for Read and Write.
I chose this book for a few reasons.

1. It is a "quiet" book - very little drama, mostly reflective, and not really about a specific happening but more the intersection between life and work for a famous poet.

2. Donald Hall is an amazing poet - his collections on his wife Jane Kenyon's death and after are powerful poetry memoir (Without and Otherwise) and his memoir about her death is a beautiful and also quiet reflection on loss. But what happens if this same poet reflects on simple family memories (we-moir) and contemplative topics?

3. During the writing of the book itself, Hall is diagnosed with liver cancer; this is after he and Jane both lived through bouts of cancer previously (and Kenyon dies of cancer two years later, which he doesn't know will happen as he writes this book). In other words, the memoir is both about the past and present, but also includes a dramatic happening as it occurs in real-time. Real-time memoir is a powerful experience - not looking back - or in this case, not just looking back - but living with a major event as it happens. He recovers, as we know because he published this book over 20 years ago and still lives today, but he doesn't know it at the time - and so he believes he is facing his own death square on and writes from that place.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Memoir with Recovery (and Dogs) Included

Remember how a few months ago I wrote a post about the absence of recovery stages in memoir?

Not long after, I picked up a copy of The Education of Will by Patricia McConnell. I auditioned it through the library (which I often do, before being sure I like it enough/will loan it enough/it has enough valuable passages) and then bought it.

I was very surprised to find that it not only satisfied my desire for covering the more "boring" aspects of recovery, it also is a memoir about far more than dogs. Which is good. Cuz really, I am a cat person, and have, for the most part, avoided memoirs about dogs (minus Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, which is also not just about dogs).

Patricia McConnell is a famous dog behaviorist, whose counsel runs across the NPR waves from little ole Wisconsin, where we both live. I hadn't heard of her, but many folks bought the memoir expecting more "dog" and got "too much personal"; I was unattached, and was glad for the more personal aspects. Overall, it's a lovely balance of the journey of her recovery and her dog's recovery, multi-layered with skillful writing and lovely scenes of southwestern Wisconsin.

But what I find most satisfying is how she is not shy about how long it took her to recover from her PTSD and what was needed to do it. She details the therapist visits (though not ad nauseum), and how she got worse before she got better. She is clear that it was not a single uphill journey with her dog's behavioral issues; more like the hills and valleys of the rural area in Wisconsin where she lives.  This honesty alone is worth it for me; it so happens the writing is also very strong and clear.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Myth of "If I Had Only Known..."

It's a common desire for memoir writers to want to share their stories in hopes that "if a younger me had known what I know now, she would have made different choices..."

While I think there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this as a motivation, there are two pitfalls in it. For one, while it's great to be of help, and certainly plenty of memoirs help in many ways, it overlooks the fact that a lot of us DID have the wisdom we have now, but did the things we did anyway. In large part, that's because though we hear advice when we are young, and often have good intuitions, there are many social pressures and reasons to strike out on our own and do it our own way, despite good advice.

A few years ago, I invited Susan Piver to Madison to teach a writing retreat. One of the most powerful exercises we didn't wasn't about writing at all. We envisioned a future self who had some wisdom she wanted to impart to current self. After doing this exercise, she noted the future self lives inside the current self, already. We already know these things, inside us. We simply need to tap into that wisdom.

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.