Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Memoir Mind Round-Up

And More, Atlanta GA 2011

Help me celebrate a full year of this blog being online!

What this post IS:
The best of what I read (could be published this year, could not be)
A list that focuses on my particular slant: mindfulness in memoir and seeing the writer's mind
An extension of my page that lists recommended memoirs and books about memoir

What this post is NOT: 
An industry summation
A list of what was published this year
A conclusive list of all I read of/about memoir this year

On to my round-up for 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The New Anonymity

"Brain Print" / Chicago IL / 2013
On a flight back to Madison recently, I ran into one of my online writing students, a woman I had not seen in person for a few years. I knew she'd be coming to town, but I hadn't realized it was at the same time as me. In fact, the night before, I had emailed her asking when we could see each other. Then, at the gate, laying over from another location than mine, there she was.

Hey! I cried out and we both leaped up and hugged one another. It's not surprising that we got to talking about memoir, since she has written one and is shopping it around, and since I have been running an in person memoir critique group for over a year now. I asked her if the publisher she had mentioned a few months before had gotten back to her, and she admitted to dropping the ball herself. I sensed some ambivalence. I asked a bit more about it.

"The thing is, the memoir is about a really dark time in my life. All the people who have read it say it needs to get out - and I agree. But..." Eventually what we came to discuss was her fear, which is legitimate: what would happen if now, in her public life in another realm, the story did well enough to drawn attention to her. What then? How could she bring her two lives together?

"I don't want to, you know? I mean, I'd be happy to travel around and talk to people about the book, help at support groups and the like. But I don't want the people in my life now to be asking me those things." I asked if she'd thought of using a pseudonym - she had, but that seemed so complex. "And in the age of the Internet, people could put two and two together so quickly."

Only if they want to.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Most Important Memoir Question

Are you ready?
It's a question to ask, not to answer.
It's a question that can create madness if you are too forceful with it.

Who Am I?

That's right. I would contend that a lot of the problem with this question, which certainly plenty of memoirists are asking, is not that they are asking it. It's that they are hoping to answer it.

I am going to break the suspense: There Is No Answer.

No one answer. No memoir will capture you forever. In fact, memoir is supposed to be one aspect of you - not your whole life or whole self. Most of my students overshoot, try to cover everything, or start writing about everything in order to see if they can feel out what is underneath. This kind of feeling out is very helpful and useful, but does not replace the actual understanding that needs to come with picking out themes and structure:

There. Is. No. You.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ann Patchett on Killing and Writing


These passages are from a Byliner mini ebook called The Getaway Car, which can be found here for $2.99. The Getaway Car is also a chapter in Ann Patchett's brand new book, This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, which is a collection of nonfiction essays (only some about writing) recently out in hardcover. While the larger book is interesting, The Getaway Car blew my socks off so hard that no other essay in the book can even hold a candle to it. Get it. Now.

 Patchett is writing about fiction in The Getaway Car, though Happy Marriage is a book of nonfiction essays. However, what she says about writing fiction here is EXACTLY the same with especially memoir. When she speaks of that butterfly below, imagine she means, instead of the idea of a story, YOUR LIFE. How hard it is to go from YOUR LIFE to WORDS ON PAPER/MEMOIR. Absolutely killer accurate description:

 The book makes a breeze around my head like an oversize butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. The book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life…When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page…Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the color, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book…The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies…Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Natural Metaphor

Turn to Clear Vision, Dallas TX, 2013
I often refer to something in my writing classes that I call "natural metaphor." What I mean by it is what is called an objective correlative - something in the story that expresses the emotions of the characters (usually in fiction).

A great example is this: a student wrote a few weeks ago about liking sitting on the floor, but especially liking to sit on the ground outside. She described her ideal sitting circumstance: the form is comforting but not too hard or too soft, she can sit up without any effort on her own, a feeling of sitting on a cloud, able to lie down but not falling down. She described her connection to nature: sky, open fields, mountains, water.

When she was done, she laughed: "Of course, this is really about the whole of my life - not wanting to fall down, to be comfortable, to have enough open space around my emotions..." and we all laughed with her, but the description was both a) more powerful and b) more complex when she also described how these emotions/cravings manifest in a directly physical way, too.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Closets, Cocoons, Secrets and Other Obstacles

This video is about memoir, if you watch it with that in mind.
Here's what amazing - the way she talks about the dangers of comparing pain, the way she addresses shame as everyone's closet without using that word. When she talks about closets I think of Chogyam Trungpa's cocoon metaphor for the disgusting but somehow so familiar eg safe places our habits create for us in the dark recesses of our minds.

How to get to what is universal - "your shame is your gold," dorothy allison - while also respecting our individual experiences is really, really hard to do. Please watch this 11 minute video - Ash does it stunningly well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Read this.

All I have to say is: Wow.

The same student who sent me this link also recorded Dorothy Allison giving a talk at UW Madison this last week. I am blown away. I will see if I can get permission from Allison to post her talk - not the parts where people share - here on this blog. Because that, too: Wow.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mothering and Loneliness

This is a writing from a student a few weeks ago. I love her process of at first grounding herself in where she is - a garden in early autumn - then heading into dread about winter. Then, she really goes inside the fear, exploring what it is really about - motherhood.

Natalie Goldberg says in her latest book True Secret of Writing that weather is never a surface level thing. It is real. It is grounding. You can connect very deeply just by talking about weather, especially if youlet it open up to what is going on underneath, as Maggie did here.

Write your season right now. Go outside and write, even if it means long underwear and gloves. Write what is there, out there and inside you, then see what is inside even that.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Alice Munro and Almost-memoir

Alice Munro: "The constant happiness is curiosity."
From an NPR interview with Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, recent Nobel Prize winner in Literature:
Still, as a woman of her generation, she felt conflicted about taking time she needed to do her work, telling WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996: "There tends not to be the feeling that this is what you deserve. I still find it hard to think that I deserve this time — to this day. I can be made to feel guilty if a friend phones just to chat ... Also just about all the things that I could be doing to be a better homemaker, as I was trained to be."
A friend referenced this quote to me recently. She was blown away that such a famous writer - fourteen collections of short stories and many awards - would feel this way. Then I told her I do, too. My friend insisted - but you have to write. It's a part of your living. Yes, and? Somehow no matter what we are doing and how valued it is, there's always a doubt - maybe I am not doing enough, or not doing what I should be doing.

Munro doesn't write memoir - she writes short stories - but they are highly autobiographical. She is exactly the kind of writer - one who has lived in the same region her whole life and writes strongly of place - that Natalie Goldberg suggests for her students to read. As a person, too, she is delightful. One of my favorite quotes of hers is in this NYT article: "The constant happiness is curiosity."

Keep reading women authors, never doubting the significance of fiction, too, to enlarge our sense of empathy, as this recent NYT article says research now shows. We learn how to write everywhere, not just in our own genre.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Karinthy and Little Me

I received an email from a student with a passage from the book A Journey Round My Skull.
The book itself a sort of very early (1937) Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. I am just now reading the book, which is good but not amazing, writing-wise. The content is interesting to me because I am interested in perception and neuroscience. As far as the writing goes, Karinthy's self-commentary is accurate, as Oliver Sacks notes in the introduction: he begins the book a bit over-analytical, and full of excess detail, so, while I enjoy the humor and insight, it often feels like he is showing off.

However, by the time he gets to the section my student sent me (3/4 way through the book), he has calmed down his narrative to a more straight-forward style, with plenty of self-awareness. This passage, in particular, is him interrupting his narrative to discuss the act of writing memoir itself. Amazing internal discussion.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Stories We Tell

Screen shot from Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley
A few weeks ago a student told me I needed to watch a film she had just seen called Stories We Tell. For a brief time it was available at our local indy theater - Sundance - and now, because this is the miraculous and odd era we live in - it is already available to stream from Google Play online (not to mention to purchase as DVD). So last night I finally streamed it and got a chance to see it.

She recommended it heartily without saying much about it, which leaves me now in a similar position, having watched it last night. I want to say a lot about it, but also don't want to "give away" what is revealed over time. This is a good non-spoiler summary from Rotten Tomatoes:
In this inspired, genre-twisting new film, Oscar (R)-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley discovers that the truth depends on who's telling it. Polley is both filmmaker and detective as she investigates the secrets kept by a family of storytellers. She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to the same questions. As each relates their version of the family mythology, present-day recollections shift into nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family: always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving. Stories We Tell explores the elusive nature of truth and memory, but at its core is a deeply personal film about how our narratives shape and define us as individuals and families, all interconnecting to paint a profound, funny and poignant picture of the larger human story.
(c) Roadside Attractions

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ghost Memory

While on retreat with Natalie Goldberg this summer in France, I sat next to a woman who is trying hard to figure out how to write a memoir about her famous father. I feel for her. My parents are deceased and almost no one knew them, though of course they have friends and family who have survived them and are people I need to navigate while working with private issues. Whether or not one's memoir is a "we-moir" as Kirin Narayan's husband called her family memoir My Family and Other Saints, our families and friends are going to be involved. If any of those people are known at any phenomenal level - as famous or otherwise public figures - that makes writing about oneself, much less one's family, all the harder.

When I read an interview with Donna M. Johnson, I immediately went to my Kindle shop and bought a ecopy of her book, Holy Ghost Girl. Despite my best attempts to leaf through my issues of Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers, I cannot seem to find the interview that drew me in. All I can tell you is that it was about her process, and a reference she made to the difficulty in truth-telling, rather than about the quite-sellable tale of her growing up in the Terrellites. I am generally not drawn to tell-all/confessional memoirs. Most of my interest is in the ordinary/mundane life, regular Joe and Jane heroes who survive or simply live. However, her compelling paragraph about truth in memoir writing drew me to her story.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Learning from Jo Ann Beard

I ran into this article, after reading The Boys of My Youth and wanting more about her writing process. What I love in particular is the discussion of how she handles "creative non-fiction" in the first half of the article. The second half discusses her first fiction book, In Zanesville, which is also fascinating in the whole world of what-is-memoir-what-isn't.

Listen to her read one of my favorite essays here. It's called "Behind the Screen" and is a deep dip into childhood, told in the first person present tense, which is the way I am telling my own memoir tales - so far. Sven Birkerts introduced me to her work in his wonderful memoir book called On Time in Memoir, which I cannot recommend enough. He noted the ambiguity in the reviews on the cover of her collection - some calling it "a collection of stories," some, "memoir" and the actual filing being under memoir/essays.

As I continue to explore this line, the line that so many have explored before me and will be investigating for a long time, I invite along your comments and reflections: where is fact, where is fiction in memory? What's the difference between writing for process and editing for readability?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Memoir is Cannibalizing

Annie Dillard
This is a powerful quote from Annie Dillard, from the collection of essays on memoir edited by William Zinsser called Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir. It is so provocative I almost have nothing to say about it.
My advice to memoir writers is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason that you would embark on any other book: to fashion a text. Don't hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid - eschew - writing a memoir. Because it is a certain way to lose them. You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them.
Such a powerful passage. She goes on to say that it is because you spend so much time crafting the text - often more time than you spent in the actual experience - that in the end, like a photograph of a situation, you recall more the text than the experience. Really, I suggest reading the whole essay, and the whole book, but at least Dillard's essay, which is linked here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tormented Urgency

This is an excerpt from Paul Auster's Invention of Memory, excerpted in Sven Birkert's The Art of Time in Memoir, which I simply cannot recommend enough...

Auster's own description of his feeling captures the tormented urgency that underlies this memoirist's enterprise:
 There has been a wound, and I realize now that it is very deep. Instead of healing me as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept this wound open. At times I have even felt the pain of it concentrated in my right hand, as if each time I picked up the pen and pressed it against the page, my had were being torn apart. Instead of burying my father for me, these words have kept him alive, perhaps more so than ever. I not only see him as he was, but as he is, as he will be, and each day he is there, invading my thoughts, stealing up on  me without warning: lying in the coffin underground, his body still intact, his fingernails and hair continuing to grow. A feeling that if I am to understand anything, I must penetrate this image of darkness, that I must enter the absolute darkness of the earth.

I often have written here, and on messages on Facebook, and mentioned in conversations, especially in the last year of running a critique group for memoir with some of my students, that memoir writing is hard. Just hard. Writing is hard, and big manuscripts are hard - writing a full-length memoir is both of those plus more. This is the more, what Auster says above, and something he doesn't say, but is there for me and all of the memoir writers I know - figuring out what is safe and what isn't, which darknesses will take me further away and which will get me closer to the truth.

I always tell my students - trust you will make it back. We are here for you. Go where you need to go and we will be here to welcome you back. Your mind will make its way back. But trusting that, as a writer, is harder, especially when you enter the way back machine into the past, and dig, root around in there looking for a fingernail or hair.

Birkerts describes the distinctions between therapy and memoir (the main one being the need for a narrative arc, even if the structure is lyrical - an overallness that doesn't happen at the time of digestion/cognition but through the process of writing/editing). But he also discusses where they overlap. Here's one place for sure - that tormented urgency to know the self, to figure it out, even if it changes nothing. To see, to feel, to sense for sure where the wounds are.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vamos a Ver

Edna Taylor Conservation Prairie - Hanging On - July 2013
This is a student writing. She is an older student, and someone who has wanted to write for a long time. When she heard about my classes, she realized it was time, though not everything (including her inner critic, whom she has named "Vampira") moved out of the way for her. This was an ending prompt for a session this spring - what was she going to take with her at the end of the seven weeks of class?

I love that this is also about what it takes to take time to write memoir (which is what this student is writing). So many of my students, and myself, fight with that line that Vampira gives to some of her friends:  “You’re not doing anything for anyone else, and this is so narcissistic.” Especially for a life-long activist, that's no small feat of a belief to conquer.

The writing is unedited, just as she wrote it in class.

Clearing space

A year ago I was having repeated dreams, I call them chaos dreams, waking with intense headaches in the night, in the morning.   Most nights there was a pregnancy in the dream, mine or someone else’s.   I listened, journaled and committed to connecting with Miriam to begin a writing class.

Now my dreams are less chaotic, fewer headaches or sometimes none and the repeating images are of babies and small children needing care.  My stories.

A friend commented that I seem more strong—or—not that—more deeply into my own life than she’s seen me.   I am energized, committed to this journey almost without making the commitment.  Gathering what I need for support, clearing away what distracts.

This week I let the Raging Grannies know that I’m taking a break from singing.   Vampira had used a couple of friends to speak, “You’re not doing anything for anyone else, and this is so narcissistic.”   So I took a deep breath and shared with two close friends that I’m taking the time and energy to focus on my writing.   Vampira didn’t answer.   They were very affirming and supportive.   A little part of me stands aside saying, “Yipes!   Really?  You’re sure about this?”

Finding out where to share, what to share, when.   Seeing this as an experiment.   Some things are clear, not with my sister.   Sometimes I don’t get feedback, wonder and think, “OK, that’s not where you want to share again”.   And surprises.   I shared the Ben’s Barbershop story with my son.   He like it and went on to tell me much more than I’d known about his experience there.

Belief that this matters, to me, to my kids who will have access to my life and that which we’ve shared in a new way.

And now, learning to live with a flood of memories, an intense energy that needs to be grounded, to rest.   Muddling thru organizing, keeping track of threads of stories.

For many years, I’ve joked that I hoped I’d live to be really old so I could sit in a rocking chair and make sense of it all.   Well, getting really old may or may not happen.   There’s a sense of “no time to lose” tempered with letting go of the outcome.   I’m in the river without a map being carried somewhere.   Vamos a ver.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Under Story

Battement D'Ailes, Correze, France, June 2013
I taught a Contemplative Writing workshop in London a couple of weeks ago. It was, as always, a powerful experience - the students brought their stories and souls to the pages.

The power, the energy comes not so much from the revelation of secrets or shame, as I am coming to understand. The empowering comes, in fact, from seeing the understories - the stories beneath the stories. Getting past the things we tell ourselves about ourselves: the ongoing narratives of self, the self-hatred and criticism and resistance, even the clever renditions of what we have done in our lives; this all leads to a place of feeling like we have nothing at all to say.

At the end of the weekend program, a few students remarked - in their writing, in a discussion period - that they felt they were done. Not done with the practice or process, but done as in they had nothing more to say.

"That's a great place to be," I noted. "The perfect place. I wish we could keep going together tomorrow so you could see what appears when we think we are done." Contemplative Writing itself, like the Writing Practice of Natalie Goldberg that it is partially modeled after, says to keep going, during the 5, 10, 20, 40 minute period you are writing, no matter what arises. There is no done. Done is when the timer goes off, not when you think you are done. And the same extends to the larger scope of your practice and your life: when you think you have nothing more to say, there's more to say.

There are many adages for writing that prove to have even more depth for 
Contemplative Writing:
1. If you are not surprised, as the writer, then the reader won't be surprised.
2. Don't show, tell (meaning: describe, let the reader experience it, rather than just saying what is).
3. Universal is strong, personal that shows the universal is even stronger.
4. Devil is in the details.

All of these can be taken at the level of the word, or at the level of the mind. 
Leave it to Contemplative Writing to take it at both.

In my last talk for the retreat in London, I read from a piece I had written in which I mention that I carried grief like baggage for many years, believing it to be essential: a crucial part of who I was, and a necessary, undeniable facet of myself. I came to this insight over years, of course, not just over the span of one two-minute writing. But I had never encountered this prompt ("bags") at this moment, in that circumstance, towards the end of a retreat, thinking about how heavy my actual luggage was, and in a mindset where I thought I had nothing else to say.
The analogy/metaphor hit me hard - as it hit the students hard. In fact, it was so fresh that the most universal piece of feedback from all participants was that that insight - that I believed grief essential to who I was for so long and carried it around purely because of that belief - was something they would carry with them as a benefit from the weekend.

What was so powerful? That I got to the understory. That I pierced through the story I carried for so long - not the grief itself, but the story about the grief - and got to the under-story/belief that was the actual weight. What was personal was my own story about grief - what was universal was this way in which we carry things we don't have to carry anymore. I revealed a mythos - a personal myth - and by doing so, as happens with all myth, I revealed the wires, the puppet machine that shows how our minds attach to a story.

This is the most powerful thing memoir can do. I think it is the most powerful thing any writing can do, but especially memoir. 

It is not confession. It is not what is being shared, though that, too, carries its own potent. What carries the power within us, and what carries that power through to the writing is not the revelation of crucial details or the poetry of the words. It is the ability of the writer, as a human and as an artist, to reveal their own forms of self-deception and see the mind, and see words, for what they are: ever-changing, impermanent and exploratory. 

If we can see the mind in its process, as it tries to grasp and understand, if we can abide patiently as it rides its way out and through, until it reaches the point where it can actually show itself, then we have some really, really good writing. It takes time. It takes practice. But the wonderful thing is that the mind - and writing - are endless. There is no end to where we can go, even with our own stories.

Drop in. Write your way underneath - beneath even the level of shame you think is the most vulnerable place you can go. Write that. Write it many times until it exhausts itself. Then you can find what is truly groundless: your direct experience, previously un-explained.  
There you know you have truly begun.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Raw Paris

Paris June 2013
No, this isn't about Raw Food.
This is about my raw insides.

My brain, washed out with French and phenomenology.
My ears, confusing what's familiar with what is unknown.
My mouth, atwist with mixed French and English.
My eyes, overfull with fields of perception.
My nose, blank after days of Paris smog.
My skin, hot and sweaty on the outside, pushing to get out on the inside.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Entering, LA, January 2013
Sometimes, we run into what Lynda Barry calls "an image" - a deeply set, just-waiting-to-emerge story that really needs to be told. In the last of my seven week classes a few weeks ago, this popped out of my student, Nick Wiesmueller. He said that this memory has always stuck with him.

This piece so well depicts what it can be like to go back and approach these intense images in writing. What it is, what it means, what it feels like to write memoir, or, even more so, for your memoir to write itself. Overpowering, sometimes overwhelming, incredibly enriching.

There was a time on the bus
from camp
A time which lasted forever,
I held my heart close
lead in my feet, hands,
I felt some deep loss
of people
of place
of belonging
of community
of my first girlfriend
and more than acceptance
and love, boy it sure felt
that way

The movement away
left syrupy remains in my body
as if wind pulling at part of
myself gently giving way
piece by piece
held firmly
heavy feet
heavy heart
heavy heart
lead on bus seat
frigid emotional air as I tried not to cry.
Why, I would always wonder does this tear so deep
Why must I feel so much
I can feel like it
like here
I would hold tightly to vestigials, try to tie loosely
together, contact with

with phone calls, letters
until those connections, spider thin
were taken by distance time.

Yet always my heart belonged there,
and that’s why I chose
my one experiment in the woods
for college.

I haven’t even let myself
believe in that sort of fulfillment
I had there for years.
The fire, when burning just hurt too much.
So deep down it went.

There’s so much I’ve given up and sacrificed just to stay in the groove.
Deep in the groove,
Rutted, drive over and over until every bump, pot hole
is known.
it’s notched  deep, it’s hard to know what it means to leave it,
only that it’s somewhat terrifying

letting this in is deeply unnotched.
But it’s the demon that swims circles through my brain,
as insomnia time ticks the hours the by

It’s also love, tenderness.

That which deny is goodness, turned destruction,
energy bereft of acceptance takes on many unnatural forms,
comes out strange.

So the idea is whole acceptance of past selves,
past need fulfilled.
Not desires, needs pummeled into some outlet,
which though surface beneficial like biking 25 miles at lunch,
often is violence.
A violation of myself.

I have PTSD, diagnosed by a few.
And the amalgamation of emtions,
the incongruent attribution,
the self penalization by trenchant punch of emotion
into something it’s not.
Because there is just so much energy.
All typical.

Monday, May 27, 2013


I am off to Europe in just over a week, and so in lieu of sharing my own writing at the moment, I'd like to share this link to a provocative NYT opinion piece on "Social Nostalgia." Please enjoy and feel free to comment on how this relates to memoir here!

Beware Social Nostalgia by Stephanie Coontz

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Le Guin, Again

Awhile back, I wrote a post that mentions Ursula K. Le Guin's relatively tight position on "truth" in memoir. She struggles with the increasing allowance granted to memoir writers, as a genre.

I struggle with her essay on it, because while I fundamentally agree with some of her ideas - we have to be careful about how much leeway we give ourselves when we don't actually remember things, etc - I think that memoir is changing, for good or at least for awhile, and getting more free in form - more lyrical, less narrative. If our forms of memoir are beginning to resemble poetry over prose, even if in paragraphs, then the permissable also shifts. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Somatic Writing and Memoir

Toronto, Ontario
Body Memory, in case you aren't aware of the idea, purports that we store experiences, sometimes exclusively, in our bodies. The only way to access these memories, or, a very direct way to access them, is through the body. Have you ever had a massage and suddenly burst out crying? Ever felt a pain that wouldn't go away that an allopathic doctor could not seem to treat? These are extreme examples of the body processing, or recalling, something that your mind cannot seem to access.

But it's more subtle than that. Alice Miller, in her book The Body Never Lies, goes pretty deep into analyzing, for instance, certain writers and how we can see what they struggled with, even though they don't express it directly in their journals/diaries. Because I am less interested in this kind of direct interpretation and more interested in overall communication "between" (as if they are separate) body and mind, the latter sections of this book (parts II and III) are what interest me most.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Single Stories

Chicago Bean, March 2013
"So, you know what I am going to ask, right?" the reader to my right asks me.
"Sure," I answer.
"Why so much animosity towards your mother and so much affection for your father?"
"Honestly? I don't know."
This is this last Sunday, at a memoir critique group I run with some of my students.

I thought I had the answer. For a long time, throughout my teens, at least. After my mom died, I was so certain of my anger, of the solidity of my struggle with her, that I never questioned it until a month-long meditation retreat in my mid-twenties made me realize I actually missed her. Was sad about her death, not just angry.

When I began writing my memoir about childhood and sexuality, about family and relationships and intimacy (Bermuda Triangles), I found it as simple as describing her physically. Ditto my father. My editor at the time said "I am not buying it. She loves her dad but I don't see any reason why."
"But doesn't every little girl adore her dad?"
"Not all of them. And that's not reason enough. You have to show us why SHE does."
That lead to a lot of unpeeling, unveiling of all kinds of mixed feelings about my father, who died when I was 12, that I didn't even know I had.

Now I am there with my mother. Last week was her 72nd birthday, or would have been, were she still alive. Her best friend from elementary school posted on my wall that she misses my mom sometimes so much she could scream. I replied that I do, too. That's a big deal - wanting to see my mom, wishing she were still alive. The older I get, the more I feel I understand her, and the less I am sure that I really disliked her that much.

This all gets filed under "the danger of a single story" - the personal aspect of a wonderful TED talk that Chimamanda Adichie gave a couple of years ago. It's a fantastic talk, and one that is easily applied to memoir writing. I am not, of course, the only person in this situation - a few of my students are struggling with the same thing: Why is it that *your* mother doesn't appear at all in your memoir?  If you didn't in fact hate *your* father your whole childhood, then what? How *did* you get to be so independent at such a young age?

I dare say that most memoirs written, published, emphasis a single story. Isn't that, after all, what we are writing the memoir for? To tell a story? *A* story? Not many stories or paradoxical feelings or exploring something answerless. And yet, that's what our stories actually are. They aren't neatly tied up or answered. Writing memoir should make us more aware that the stories we've told, while they have been our truth for a long time and therefore do have *an* effect on us, are not the "only truth".

I am not even talking about objective truth here - what "really" happened - as if any of us can really find that out thirty years later. No, I am talking about the multiple truths of how we feel about things at different eras and ages. If I believed that I hated my mom for a fair span of my adolescence, then, whether or not I actually did, that story carries a lot of weight. That single story is true, in a sense, and yet, is not the whole truth. When I look back into journals and writings, the Family Circle cartoons she left me as a way of trying to communicate humor, I see moments of affection and connection between us. I even read, from time to time, "I love my mom." Even though I seemed to block out such complexity at the time, it did exist. And that is what I want to write.

So maybe the reason why I can't explain the utter animosity in my story towards my mom - not now, now I have compassion, but in the mind of the child I am depicting - the reason why I can't explain the total boundless affection towards my father - again, not now, now tempered by reality, but of the child then - has less to do with "forgetting something" and more to do with remembering things - and realizing that the single story I am prone to telling first isn't the actual story at all.

Maybe it would make a better sale if I were to set up that dichotomy: good cop, bad cop. Dualistic. Nice and clean. But it's completely unreal. And my inability to write it that way in a believable way does not mean I am doing a bad job. It means I am so bound to the truth that I cannot tell a single story, though I told it in my mind for decades. It's time to uncover the real stories. The ones I find writing that I never realized I knew all along.

Even if this memoir never gets published, it's been a hell of a process. Hard. Very hard. And also healing beyond belief: not because I am "finally telling" stories that need telling. No. Quite the opposite. Because I realize those stories I've been hiding aren't the real story. Maybe that's why I hid them for so long - if others read them I knew they'd say "I am not buying this," in the most loving way, just as my critique group is saying now.

Friday, March 15, 2013

How Can We Write Memoir With No Self?

Without Self, Chicago, February 2013

I can't believe I haven't asked this question before.

I mean, really. I've been writing non-fiction, predominantly memoir for years now and not once has that ever entered my mind. I have thought and written about related topics: how to write stories that open us instead of solidfying us (a great blog post by Susan Piver here on that topic, that leads to others' thoughts on it on their blogs). I've certainly contemplated Natalie Goldberg's maxim "You are not the writing," and visited upon my own identifying with/investing in my writing.

But late one night about a week ago, on the toilet (hey, that's where it happens sometimes) it hit me. I had been studying a lot of Buddhist teachings in preparation for AD training (an assistant director for Shambhala Training), a further meditation instructor authorization. Lots of teachings on emptiness (which is actually fullness) and no-self (which is actually to say that we are all connected/the same, ultimately). 

And it hit me like a truck - how can I write about myself if my self doesn't exist?

The answer is multi-fold, and a crux point for this blog all around. I am a Buddhist teacher who also teaches writing, so the answers, as I hope to keep exploring them, are going to be Buddhist-bent. For me, that also means good, clear, strong writing. I certainly don't think you have to be a Buddhist to be a good writer. However, the teachings of Buddhism certainly have a lot to offer to help keep writing fresh, clear and strong.

As we write our stories, I will simply say for now, we can notice whether or not we are using them to pin us down ("THIS is who I am,") or to explore/open/lean into the groundlessness of what it means to be a person - constantly changing, never secure, never sure. Writing memoir from the POV of "all-knowing future self" is not only annoying and unskillful, it is also not truthful.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

I'd say more than that - if we can really experience/direct compassion towards those "former selves" then we can truly be here in the life we are living now.

When I was younger, I sure loved looking back on my journals. I'd be like, "Oh yeah. I have matured so much since then!" Until I realized, some time in my twenties, that I'd always be able to say later that I "figured that all out," which means I never have it all figured out. I became mortified, instead, of my journals, as signs reminding me how very human I am.

Now, I try to be grateful as often as I can for that very same information. I want raw humans writing in my classes, and I want to be one myself. I want to read them.

So let's work together with this seeming paradox: 

writing the stories of the self that does not exist. 

Like an Aesop's fable. Only this one isn't fixed - it's always in progress.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Dignity of True Self-Expression

"OP N" Chicago February 2013
I am studying to become a meditation instructor - I am one already, but one that maintains longer-term relationships with meditation students. I have a program this weekend, so I have been cramming on dharma in preparation for "exams" and other assessment tools coming up.

This morning, I read this passage in Chogyam Trungpa's guide for Shamatha instructors. While this is a limited text, this passage does not impart anything secretive, so I believe I can share it. It connects in really well with the ongoing conversation here regarding the role of "confession" in memoir:
A lot of people fall into the trap of confessionalism. You begin to tell people how bad you were, how terrible the trauma was that you have gone through..You feel the students will think you are an honest guy, and you have vomited everything you have to vomit. Somehow this seems to be very deceptive in some sense; it builds you up, showing how honest a person you are.. (This is not very dignified).. You are comparing notes between two people in jail, and somehow that doesn't seem to be the point..Obviously there should be first-hand experience exchanged, but at the same time one shouldn't indulge that particular style of winning someone's confidence. That's a double twist of some kind -- that purity and at the same time a lot of personality trips are involved.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Manual for Shamatha Instructors
I like that - "the trap of confessionalism" and "you have vomited everything you have to vomit." I have spoken here before about the importance of not hiding important details - how the readers know when the writer has not shared important information, can feel the lack or the lie. And yet, if we have some idea that by sharing it all we have fulfilled a role for the reader, we have sorely missed out on nuance and respect. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Memoir: Fact/Fiction Redux

It's coming on strong - as it has been for the last couple of years: What's Up With Memoir?
Is it fact?
Is it fiction?

This is becoming a theme in this blog, which is ok with me. Here's a just-found article (new-to-me) on Why Some Memoirs Are Better As Fiction. I think he clarifies a point that Le Guin makes that I wasn't getting through her dismissal of any conversation recounted=fiction, never truth. Taylor Antrim, the article's author, points out that memoir can become a short cut - a weak version of story telling, where authors are not held accountable for making solid characters. They pick and choose from the cherry tree of literary styles/methods, and leave behind the most solid storytelling.

I could give him that. Now, re-reading Le Guin's essay, I can hear where she is coming from better. He also points out there's a long and respected tradition of auto-biographical fiction (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath being a big one). So now I am feeling out - what would be better done as fiction?

This liminal space, this mixing of style and manner, content and intent, is risky for sure, and it is only getting riskier. The more I personally work on memoir, the more I want to write in present tense, dropping the reader and myself into the moment without reservation. Some kind of truth is coming forward that would not if I kept writing in the past tense, or "about" conversations instead of the conversations themselves. Do I not entirely recall things or recall things incorrectly? It's a given.

Can we write memoir knowing that's a given?
What's the line between what is acceptable and what isn't?
Between "emotional truth" and factual lies?
I have a lot of journals, some of which contain actual interactions with others. I am curious when I encounter them what I recalled incorrectly. I know that is not just a possiblity but a likelihood.

But I don't want to write fiction. I want to write memoir and I want my story to be taken as such. I appreciate Antrim's notes on responsibility of the writer, and would like to apply them to my own work. More helpful fodder for writing strong memoir. I am, however, certainly writing memoir.

What if we *accept* that likelihood and create a new form, well, that's already been created: more memoir than fiction, more autobiographical than projection, and yet. Well.

I am fine with what Le Guin notes in her essay - as soon as we encounter actual dialogue, we know that it's not factual recall but emotional recall. However, here's where she and I diverge: what if, instead of at that moment we trust the writer less (as she says she does),  we recognize what they are doing, the style they are using, and continue with that understanding? 

We read the memoir knowing the memoir is based on emotional recall and not factual. We accept that the parameters of memoir have changed, while still holding folks accountable for outright lies and manipulations. 

We use memoir as a chance to notice how memory works, how minds work, and stay curious instead of sticking to former concepts of how personal stories should be told?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Digging in the Dirt/The Body Under the Rug

A student sent me a link to this article in the Opinionator (NYT). It's title is very apt - for the Peter Gabriel video above, for the content of this blog post: "The Body Under the Rug."

It's the most recent in a long line of many, many articles and opinion pieces on memoir, especially in the NYT. It's all the rage to rage on memoir lately, and I am very interested in the direction it is taking. I am very interested in the direction memoir is taking, period. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his book Creativity (2004), innovation is based not only in what is created but how it interacts with what is already - or isn't already - available.

I hate to say it, but I think what has been happening lately is that the "Reality TV" form of innovation has taken over in memoir. Which is to say: the more I confess, the more shame I out, the more fresh the memoir will be. Fresh as in fresh meat.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Knowing Mind

Chicago Graffiti, February 2013
Natalie Goldberg, my writing+dharma teacher, speaks frequently at retreats about the significance of reading authors' works and seeing their minds. When we read aloud raw work to one another - something that has just now been written, unedited, we really see raw mind - whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I believe this to be true. Brand new writing is especially powerful and vulnerable, even if it is written about a topic which is not particularly vulnerable or is complete fiction (as if that even exists). Published work, as I have been exploring here, is also significant in terms of knowing a writer's mind. Obviously, memoir, a non-fiction and also entirely personal/intimate form, seems to be the ultimate source of "knowing someone's mind."

But is it?

In the process of publishing memoir, a lot of editing happens. A lot of adjusting timelines, changing vulnerable personages into composite characters. Whether you are LeGuinian about this or not, nowadays the trend is certainly towards lyrical styling, or towards using "creative non-fiction"/fictional techniques to write non-fiction content. For instance, I am writing about my early sexuality and intimacy, and the style my critique group and I have found to work best is intercutting scenes from childhood with adolescence and adulthood. This is not your mother's narrative - not straightforward, not linear in time or even in mind. It is a bit how I work, but it is also how the story works best - I am adapting my writing to fit what the story needs. Perhaps this is some of the "dishonesty" that LeGuin speaks of in her essay in Wave In the Mind. It certainly adds a layer of complexity - never a bad thing, just something to take into account - to finding mind when reading memoir.

How my ordinary, daily mind works is to leap from idea to idea. I am a linker, not a cutter, though as I age I appreciate more and more the honesty of recognizing ideas as less and less "like" something else and simply appreciating them as is. When I write "naturally," off the cuff, I freely and widely associate - quotes from authors come to mind, references to other eras of my life. But this way of associating my early readers found distracting. And quite revealing. I would write a passage about spending time with my father, and slice in all kinds of oblique references or currently-unneeded info. Yes, this is how my mind works. Yes, it does show my mind to the reader. No, it doesn't make for solid reading. It took away from the intensity of the story and scattered the attention all over the place. My resistance was clear, and while that is a significant part of my story, it makes for sloppy writing and reading.

Now, in adapting the writing to just the stories, without distractions inside them, at anywhere from 2-9 pages a pop, then slicing them into each other, I am preserving some of the same quality of my mind - it's tendency to leap and associate - while creating a much more readable style. As soon as a brave member of my critique group announced that all she cared about in the chapter about my father was our story, and none of the distracting elements (this meant cutting out half the chapter as it was), I knew she was right. I wasn't sure how I was going to make up for a lot of lost words, or explain more expository elements without so many distractions, but I knew she was right. I could - I can - show my mind as is, but on the more sophisticated level where my writing needs to be in order to publish.

Natalie Goldberg often says that we are "closing the gap" between what we think we write and what we write, who we think we are and who we are, as we write this way: in Writing Practice, in Contemplative Writing. Sometimes people poo-poo this as secondary writing, journaling, practicing. However, the only way I've been able to see what is really going on and what really needs expressing is to get it all out on the page, and then to pull back. You can take it or leave it, but my writing mind isn't the same as my everyday mind. It's better. A lot better. More clear and kind, sophisticated and smooth. But it is honest and it is really me. No fakery. No pretending. And when I connect my writing mind to my ordinary mind, I give my ordinary mind the chance to "improve," to realize I can be better than I am, unify myself on a higher level. The level of understanding my ordinary mind doesn't even realize I have inside.

The level of real, true knowing mind.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Image Nation

Lately, I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderful book on reading and writing called The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on The Reader, The Writer and The Imagination. I read her book on writing (Steering the Craft), and have read The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness, but never her essays or talks, which are a bit more occasional than the instruction(s) in Steering the Craft.

She has a chapter on memoir in Wave entitled "Fact and/or/plus Fiction", and it addresses exactly something that comes up a lot in my discussions about memoirs with students. To whit: what is it ok to fabricate/exaggerate/change in memoir, and what needs to be 100% remembered?

In an interview in the back of her memoir Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch says that she's read neuroscience reports that the *more* we remember something (I call this leapfrogging - at age 10 my mom tells me about something that happened at age 5, and if I recall it now, it's be reinforced, instead of remembering from 35 about something from age 5) the less reliable it is.
Yes, you read me right.
Each time we recall it, that present moment leaves its mark/interpretation on that memory. Makes sense to me. So if it is possible to recall things whole cloth from way back, not already-remembered memories, technically they will be fresher/purer.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

When There's A Ball and Chain On Your Pen

Smiley Versus Skull, Mar Vista, LA, January 2013

I have for your reading consideration another writing by a student of mine. This was in response to my "intention prompt" for the last of our session together. This student has been writing with me for a couple of years now, and has grown, frankly, leaps and bounds. She came in ready to break open the division between her inner logical self and inner artist, and in addition to my classes has done many other courses with local folks who do complementary work to mine (dance, drawing, etc).

Her reading lead to a very important conversation - the beginning of it, anyway - about how we treat trauma in writing, when we are airing our shameful laundry and when we are simply witnessing or processing, and when airing laundry is what is needed. Anyway, without further ado, I'll simply post what she wrote. It's very good and pithy, and hopefully, a provocative addition to the conversation I started here in this blog.

Comments are welcome! And thanks again to this student for her relentless but gentle exploration of personal process. It benefits us all, even when we feel awkward about asking these questions.
“Empty” is the word that came up before Miriam finished reading the prompt.  Its a word for all years.  It’s a good word, a good place to be.  It’s positive, it’s happy, it’s a vessel to fill with joy and color.

I get the strong feeling sometimes that what I need to do is empty myself.  That this is the cure for feeling bottled up, encumbered with secrets, and that until I divest myself publicly of all my sins I’ll never be authentic, I’ll always be hiding something, I’ll always be dishonest. 

Recently, I’ve felt otherwise.  That this urge to spill all the dirty details is just shame disguised as honesty.  That it’s too easy to believe that a public confession of the gory details of my perceived failures in life will somehow be ultimately freeing.  How many days have I spent sitting in this writing class wondering when I’ll ever have the guts to spell out my particular set of lapses and addictions, losses and indulgences, mistraveled paths and roads not taken?  That it’s all about hiding is what it seems to be not about.

Why not write from the open space, the lovely EMPTINESS that has opened up like a well, deep and blue, peopled with stars of gold, with millions of silent voices urging me on to fling color, to rhyme words at odd angles, to paint over portraits with my own vision, to speak out and listen to the ringing of my own voice across vast spaces that until recently were not accessible, were out of reach behind tall fences topped with barbed and electrified guard dogs of shame and self denial and self doubt.

I’m not really that interested in the personal details of other peoples’ dark journeys -- well, okay, maybe in a voyeuristic way -- but what is illuminating about their journeys is the energy they write about them with, and where that energy takes them.  That’s where the value lies. 

So, I’m thinking NOW that this urge of several years to spill it all, describe each shard as if it had something important to reflect back, is a red herring, or WORSE, it’s a continuation, it’s the same, same old, it’s the trick where I act out of contrition, I air my smelly undies, display the embarrassing stains, describe the specific muscle weaknesses that allowed various spiritual and moral sphincters to loosen and it’s all really just prostration in public before the SAME FALSE GODS, FALSE DEMONS that I bowed down to during my secret life in the darkness.

That’s not freedom.  That’s writing with a ball and chain on this pen.  Jump into the emptiness!  I know this is right, this is true, even though it’s so slippery I can hardly keep it on this page.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Confession Versus Expression

Re-posted from Inside Space. This post truly began this blog, Memoir Mind. To follow in a couple of days will be a student piece that explores the confessional issues in writing memoir.

This is an unusually long blog post - I am letting you know because it's been a long time coming, and is in fact a draft of an essay for my book on writing in-progress called Sleight of Hand. I promise it is worth it, but it's longer than you are used to here at Inside Space.

I write memoir. It's the main genre I write, though some essays are more "essay-like" and some are more "memoir-like," depending on how you define the genres. Definitely I fall into the category of "creative non-fiction."

In my experience (reading and writing), what makes non-fiction creative is not the number of adjectives or the less-narrative-more-lyrical-structure. These are common definitions that I myself use in clarifying the distinctions of this new-ish-ly celebrated genre, which rarely finds shelf space of its own.  What really makes it "creative" is that the truth is being communicated in a less conventional manner. Instead of reporting the facts, confessing the crimes, objectively investigating the connections, creative non-fiction (especially of the memoir ilk) explores the truth through poetic form.

Naturally-occurring metaphor (situations where coincidence make you say "You couldn't MAKE that up," or "Truth IS stranger than fiction!"), universal emotional resonance despite the reader/listener having a completely different set of life experiences, allowing for non-linear descriptions that communicate an unknown fact but felt truth...these are what make creative non-fiction distinctive for me.

And in the process of writing memoir that is creative non-fiction (it IS possible to write memoir which is distinctly straight forward non-fiction, though it tends to get categorized as autobiography) has made it clear to me that there is no need for confession. It's really the process that has taught this to me - not the product. However, reading a product (for instance, just now finishing the book of "essays" - really a memoir - by Brenda Miller entitled Seasons of the Body) that clearly has a lot of tough things to communicate: uncomfortable, unfortunate and awkward things to say, makes it also clear to me that if something feels like it's a confession, it's not processed enough yet to be creative.

This is a strong statement. I realize this. Perhaps that's why I couched it at the end of a potentially run-on sentence at the end of a long paragraph. As so many say on the internet these days YMMV - your mileage may vary. However, I think it's worth considering the distinction between confession and expression - considering that I have found such a distinct difference between the two in all my writing and reading. And my students, whether they plan to or not, wind up writing a lot about confession-caliber things in my classes. There's a distinct difference, even in the rough draft, between someone who is writing something the first time and something that is coming through after many writes, or, possibly, many therapy sessions, much self-reflection, etc. I always tell people that Olga Broumas told me she wrote many poems - and published them - about her mother (after her death) until she was able to write the "real" poem - awkward, hard, but real (and, ironically, also with swimming imagery - see below).

Confessions, to me, aren't real intimacy. They are practice. Necessary, but not actual intimacy. They are too literal and not vulnerable, though they may feel more vulnerable, more exposed, than a well-written, deeply explored self truth.

I realize you need examples, so I am here to give them to you. I picked samples that actually use some of the same language in my own memoir - which is tentatively titled My Bermuda Triangle, and uses a lot of sea/water images.

Awhile back, I read a three memoirs that closely related to one of the memoir (manuscript-length) books I am writing. My memoir, in the few words, covers my early relationship to intimacy -  my parents' deaths, sexual experimentation and trauma, bisexual hilarity. I have read everything I can get my hands on (hint: you need to do this if you want to try and sell your manuscript to anyone) that at all relates. The closest (and best) books are Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen (found at Target late one night on accident) and Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water (recommended by a friend, then forgotten until it cropped up again on another friend's list). One day, at Frugal Muse books, I spied a memoir entitled Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg. It's about the author's hyper-dramatic mother, her own spates with drugs and sex, and struggling with intimacy. Because the issues sounded close enough to those with my own mother, I picked it up.

Her Last Death was - is - a disappointment. Natalie Goldberg, my writing - and reading - teacher, always instructs us to read books that have sold well in order to figure out why they have sold well. I am here to tell you that I think that Her Last Death did relatively well (Scribner/Simon & Schuster bestseller) because it is confessional. All the reviews on Amazon point to this - folks call it a "tell-all," state that she tells too much, in fact, in some cases. But she says no more than any other memoir of this type - the discomfort comes with the *way* she tells her stories.
A passage from Her Last Death:
When Penelope answers she sounds like she's drowning. "Oh, sweetie," I say until she can stop sobbing and tell me what she's heard. Newly married, lucky with fun jobs that flame out fast, Penelope lives in the New York apartment where we grew up, subletting from our mother. She doesn't seem to mind being buoyed by the swells of Daphne's manic behavior.

It's a pretty good passage. Alliteration, a hallmark of creative writing ("flame out fast"), simile/metaphor - drowning versus flaming, continuity of images: buoyed and drowning. It's well-written, tight, but also strangely lacking in emotion. This is in fact one of the least "dramatic" parts of the book, but even in a more personal part, with much more at stake, you can feel her emotional distance and the clinical way she describes her trauma:
Water rose up the sides of the tub, lapping against my hips. I waited and thought about the lawn mower mowing, my mother putting a stamp on a postcard, Shelly holding the door, and then my first orgasmic flush spread up my thighs, around my ass and into my tummy, which still felt queasy from my father's interest.

A passage from Loose Girl, which I think is the second-most (or least, depending on which way you are going) personal of the three. Published by Hyperion/Random House, a major press, it got some good press attention. I had not heard of it, but found it to be pretty honest and straight-forward - not as lyrical writing as I wanted/as I write, but still "less confessional":
Before boys put their soft, eager hands on my skin, before they pull me into dark rooms and whisper promises I hold on to like rope pulling me from water, before I sink further and further into trouble, I have crushes. Most girls know what its like to long for boys in this way...overwhelmed by both my mother's need and her absence, that sensation feels like desperation.

This passage uses a lot of physical description and is incredibly precise in those descriptions, almost claustrophobically intimate. As soon as I read it, I knew that no matter "what" happened to this woman, even if our stories vary dramatically (which, it turns out, they don't) the feeling she was communicating, the fundamental truth, was closer than any I had read or heard before.

Finally, Yuknavitch's Chronology of Water, which uses water and swimming (she was a swimmer her whole school career) as central metaphor. This title came out through Hawthorne Press, a small but distinguished Pacific Northwest press. Yuknavitch is friends with Chuck Palaniuk and keeps good writer company. Her book got an unusual amount of attention for the size of the press run, and she has a cult following, but it certainly had no sales on Cohen or Sonnenberg.

Yuknavitch writes about losing a daughter in a miscarriage, something I cannot relate to at all as a story (this is significant), and yet, the emotional truth is so resonant it blew me away:
I sat on the stool and closed the little plastic curtain...I bled, I cried, I peed and vomited. I became water. Finally she (the nurse) had to come back inside me and "Save me from drowning in there." It was a joke. It made me smile. 
Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight. They swell and dive in and out between great sinkholes of the brain. It's hard to know what you think of a life when you find yourself knee-deep...
Upside down I saw the sun and sky at the surface make silver blue electricity. The rushing water and strength of current pulled my arms, rocked my head. The upsidedowness of blood in my skull made my head ache. I closed my eyes. Still smiling. The cold wet of my life. My body in deep water. Weightless. Airless. Daughterless void.

What's the distinction, or what are the distinctions here? When we are confessing, we are looking to someone else for forgiveness: demanding, pleading or simply asking. We are vulnerable - very vulnerable - showing that we need something from someone else. But that kind of vulnerability can have a lot of aggression in it. Expectation. We need the reader to sympathize, demand that they understand and ironically, it is a false intimacy. You can feel the separation that Sonnenberg puts into her writing.  In Amazon reviews people cite it as a refusal to "name names" seeing as how Sonnenberg is a society girl, but I think it's more this kind of lack of intimacy, ironically. It's as if we are asking, when we are confessing, others to do something for us (forgive us) that we cannot do for ourselves. In the New York Times review, the critic states that she doesn't do any "dime store analysis" and that both distances her in the book and also drops us into a present tense experience. Except for it doesn't; other than the book being in present tense, there's little sense of her being present at all whatsoever, as a person (if so, an accurate betrayal of dissociation) or as an author (a more disturbing state of dissociation).

We have to forgive ourselves, first, or at least have done some of the footwork. Then real intimacy can occur. The thing is, this isn't just for memoir, though clearly that is my "genre" at least for now. Real intimacy with the self, with one's own mind, is necessary for any writing. I'd argue it's necessary for real living. Dissociation, rampant in a world full of traumatic experiences (whether one writes about them directly or not!) is dangerous. Intimacy is essential. As my previous blog post explores, we can make a new normal - not a confessional normal, which is what so many "sex and drugs" memoirs are now being cast as, perhaps rightly. But a REAL normal, that allows others to directly experience - with emotional language offering lyrical resonance, a universal quality while not belying the individual experiences. At least in memoir form.

Yuknavitch's book is not without problems. I think she needed stronger editors - it wanders a bit, and it's clear the opening part is the strongest. But she took on her own narrative - with a chronology, as she says in the interview in the back - more like water than anything else, running over itself, far from linear - and dropped herself, and us, right into it.

I want to close with some words from that interview with Yuknavitch about the "confessional genre." Clearly I have a lot more to say about all of this, but this is a good beginning. Thanks to the patient students who have waited a few months for me to write this, and to my cats who woke me up this morning, realizing I was ready to give it a try.

So like the drug and alcohol monolithic narrative, there are so many stories of incest out there yet to be told. But if you don't tell the right incest narrative, you got butkus. My goal in offering my own story isn't to claim that abuse suffered from my father is any more important than anyone else's. Nor is it to "claim" the incest narrative to sell books.
My goal is to put the reader into the space of childhood and young adulthood where fear and confusion and rage get born -- like they do in all of us for different reasons. To put the reader in their body through language. Because when I teach or give readings or workshops, I meet a hundred people who know what it feels like to be shamed, or beaten, or molested, or just made small. We all move through the waters. Language helps us feel less separate.

I would say it does. I agree. However, the language that makes us feel less separate has to come from someone not separate from her own experience. It has to come from direct experience. As Yuknavitch quotes later in the interview, from the Tempest: "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine." Blame and shame are outcroppings of pain - but if we stay out at the edges where they are, we don't actually get to the human intimacy inherent in all our experiences. The writing suffers.

This is what true creativity requires - radical intimacy and honesty. 
Not confession - true expression from deep inside experience, where clear waters run.