Thursday, December 25, 2014

Narrative Therapy

Another powerful, palpable student writing. We were all struck by how this student, who has been writing with me for years now, has found a way to combine his powerful lyricism with a narrative - in fact, narrative therapy - to help re-write things that used to trigger him when he followed pure poetry.

Narrative therapy has strong overlaps with memoir writing, whether we like it or not. How we write, what we write, what we invite in and work through or not really shapes our story. And, of course, we are telling and re-telling our stories - especially our "life story" - every single day. To embrace that process and realize that our stories, too, are impermanent, is really empowering.

Enjoy the intense dip in, then strong heart that saves the reader - and writer - from dimness.


A feeling of satiety, 
not satiated or saturated,
or dripping. 
I've had the glimpse, that
hint of light that hits the mirror
just right - turn your head it's gone
That all of the craving, the striving 
powering the great samsaric engine.
For just that evanescent moment,
which seems so precious.
Must... hold tight.. and gone.
All that which I seek outside myself is already there.
But like the moment when I've achieved some goal, 
it too is gone. 

I'm brought back to the darkest days before the hospital. The entrance to the house was through the garage which opened to the basement. Dark and cluttered, it seemed a reflection of David, my stepfather's mental state. I had to watch where I was going. So did he. Up stairs that creaked every one, led into the kitchen. The kitchen, where he told me, near that chair that seemed out of place, that I was going to end up on the street. He would pace for hours. And drink, and breathe heavily. His presence was so onerous the house threatened to sink. Dark, deep eyes would stare off for hours. Deep pain. I could feel it all. Those eyes usually passed right over me. Boy, I tried not to get in their way. But could not. I felt like he had it in for me especially as my depression progressed. He was strong and I was weak. Or so I thought. I learned later the opposite was true, but it didn't matter then. I didn't know. Fear. Glare fear. And so I hid. I left my body. Went somewhere else, but the re-inhabiting, the re-entry was awful, like slipping into someone else's skin. Someone had been shaken deeply. So, too tension I used to protect myself. If I held myself tight enough and watched closely, remained vigilant I won't get hurt. Later I got angry, lashed out at my mother. I'm sure i caused as much pain out as I did in. Still David's footsteps as he passed back and forth, caged heavy breathing animal that he was made their way through. 
What I can see now, though is those protections, which look so maladaptive were out of love, protection. And they weren't my fault. And not that I was pure victim, but those parts deserve, need love compassion, a light touch. 
When welcomed into my heart, that's when I have a sense of wholeness, of fullness, and my heart opens to myself.

-Nick W.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Jumping Clocks and Calendars

A student wrote this piece in response to the Compassion prompt I gave a couple of weeks ago.
I am particularly struck, as a memoir piece, by the presence of both specific/personal and then universal themes. Because of the Baby Boomers, there are so many folks dealing with their parents in situations like these, and knowing that they, too, may be in these places one day themselves. This student really shows their ability to slow down and be in the situation, which is, after all, the truest expression of compassion one can get.

A couple of my favorite lines: "The avant garde of the avant garde," "I look directly at things, at the faces of people, that I wouldn’t have looked directly at before," and "I try to imagine this fuzzy-edged world where it’s so hard to get moving, where clocks and calendars seem to jump around unable to hold their hours or weeks in place." These strike me the most because they show the raw edge of compassion and also really deliver us into this place - showing us their compassion in really being present in the situation.

More folks need to be writing about this, publishing this. I hope that increases with time. Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant didn't win the award so many of us hoped it would. But perhaps, one day, memoir that so many in this generation really need to be reading will be more broadly offered.

There’s a man I often see when I enter the the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives. I don’t know his name, but I always say “Hello” or “Good afternoon” to him when I pass by where he’s seated near the entrance to the dining room. He’s the avant garde of the avant garde -- the first of the small coterie of men and the occasional woman who start gathering at the door of the dining room at 4:00, or even 3:45, in preparation for dinner being served at 4:30. That’s a pretty early dinner, but these guys like to get there even earlier, so they can chat, or I guess just sit somewhere other than in their rooms or the hallways, get a change of scene.

This particular man is relatively new here -- four months, maybe? When I say hi, he responds “Hello” in a deep voice, not a muscle moving in his face, his eyes may flick upward to meet mine or they may not. To all appearances, he’s sitting there like a rock, unfeeling, begrudging in his attention to passers by. But I’m unwilling to believe these outer appearances, for I know that sometimes people who look dead on the outside can be quite alive on the inside. They may be unable, for a physical reason or an emotional one, to show their aliveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Birthday Party

This is a response to a celebration prompt I wrote awhile back.
Usually I don't use this blog to post bits of my own memoir, but I felt compelled to share this.
This very cottage my brother is in the process of selling, so I spent more time there this year than I have in years. 
Writing from photographs is extremely powerful. I cannot promote it enough. It seems like such a simple thing to suggest, but still profound. Not just about the photograph. Put yourself back IN it.
Ironically, I can't find this photograph right now. As I wrote it during class, I didn't write from the actual photo in front of me. And now, as I go to post it, I cannot find it. But it is clear in my mind.
However, the photo above is about how old I was in the photo from the party.
It’s an annual event. Every July, the month before Bapa was born, we gather at the cottage. Sometimes I bring friends, as I have been doing all summer. Often there are chosen family there – mom’s best buddies from Kindergarten and college, and their kids, who are the closest things to cousins we think we have.

In one photograph, I am next to Bapa. He is shirtless and tiny, even though he was still only in his seventies. I am surprised at his slenderness, at how worn he looks. He will live another 18 years after this picture, but you wouldn’t know it by the image. He has his ever-famous cigarette – non-filter Pall Mall’s – suspended from between his middle and forefinger. The ash, as ever, is longer than what remains to smoke.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Tricky Memoir Issue of Blogging Real-Time

Someone wrote to me recently, concerned because her (almost) real-time memoir blog, about her experience of a friend's cancer, is starting to cause issues in their friendship.

She sent me a link, and I read through all of it.

Her blog is really well written.

And what she is doing is tricky as fuck.

I have a memoirist friend who does not publish in public what she is feeling until at least three months have passed. For her, this gives enough time to be relatively sure of how she feels after her initial reactions have settled down. We all have to make our policies.

The author of the blog who contacted me chose as much anonymity as she could, and still, it's getting tricky. She wants to be of benefit to the world, and really it is. It will be.
The question she is asking is: At What Price?

Here's the book I recommended to her, a collection of essays by Patricia Hampl. Thoughtful but direct, Hampl's essay in particular about writing about her mother hits the spot.

It is, as I told the person who wrote me, a universal memoir issue, made more intense by the real-timeness of the situation. I deeply respect her efforts and support her choices, and can also see how messy it could get even with the best of intentions.

This writing life, especially memoir, is not for the faint at heart.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hunting Memoir

Hunting Memoir

The spine of the book of my body is my back.
Cracked, massaged, oiled, poked -
I stroke it to try and restore it
to original condition.

What was this story before it was read?
Before I was a walking memoir (or two or three),
what could one read in me?
Sinewy muscle, mucky blood, bright red heart.

Now it is hard to flip the pages
and see anything but tall tales.
I've pinned the wings of my shoulder blades
to the front and back covers,

splayed open my own breast
like the center of a meaty mystery,
taking the rhythm of my beating heart
and rhymed it into words, sentences, paragraphs.

I tire of this exercise - one that works
my mind more than my diaphragm.
This ongoing search for concepts to communicate
the pulsing organs of living inherently.

And yet this is the fate of this body:
bound to word with threads of paper,
tied to spine like the binding of feet
in another era. It sounds like torture,

and sometimes it feels like it, too. And yet,
on the page, in publication, others tell me

they appreciate my viscera, my brutal
honesty, which honestly is a result
of hunting myself ruthlessly, endlessly
seeking the real stories under the stories.

I cannot seem to stop at the skin -
I insist on breaking in to the vein,
to the artery,  to the cellular level,
exploring each letter for my truth.

In doing this I find what? A mess
that's hard to make pretty again.
A thin writing of blood and flesh
that carries meaning beyond my body

into the eyes of others. Why this raw
enterprise? Why not the more truthful
lies of fiction, the disguise of journalism,
or my first inclination: ethnography?

Why do I insist on eating my own stories?
Is it possible to nourish myself
on resistance and regurgitation alone?
Do I have to be a victim of my own process?

My writing arm tightens, loosens,
reminds me this is all a choice.
Breathe into the words and worlds open
freedom hanging on the skeleton of certain stories,

so long as the intention is liberation
rather than the concrete that will eventually bury these bones.


I wrote this poem in response to my own prompt about reading this week. I was surprised at its visceral strength. Afterwards I realized I truly need to exercise more - winter settling in has disconnected me from running and other outdoor physical activities. And yet, this frustration - the energy of it - created a powerful, also truthful and questioning/searing poem. It's been a long time since I've written a poem like this. Hallelujah.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Articulation Versus Understanding

During a brief workshop in London a couple of weeks ago, some students and I got to an understanding that I have been mulling over for a long time, trying to articulate. Since this conversation, I have been discovering even more within it. To paraphrase the whole length of our exchange, the student and I eventually came to this conclusion:
Just because we can articulate something doesn't mean we understand it.

This is powerful for people who identify as "word people". I, for one, have not only valued in myself, but been valued for my ability to be articulate. I related to one student a story of an exchange I had with one of my brothers recently.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Sea and Her

One of the best ways to sink into a person's mind is via their space. Exploring landscape as both literal surrounding and also as a projection of mental experience is powerful.

The prompt for this writing was, in fact, landscape. In her response, the student brings us back fully to a place - and mental space - she waited to re-visit for many years now. A rich and raw writing, we can feel not just the sea but this particular stretch of it, and what the symbolism of space meant for the couple then - and for the re-visiting (literally and through writing) individual now.
She also addresses familiarity and home. My favorite lines include these:  "The car is almost driving without me and ahead is why I’m here: the path through the cedar to the sea. Still there. The car knows where to park and my feet remember the trail." I know I am in good hands, along with someone who remembers the way even if not consciously.
Enjoy this student writing - anonymous to protect her past. Try writing yourself to a place of memory for you - landscapes are a powerful path into the past.

It’s the end of my last day in Tofino so I go to Chesterman Beach. Past the house—is that the house? Of course it looks different. Twenty-six years. Thirty years. So much time has passed. There seems to be a garage or guest house just inside the fence—but stop looking at the house! The car is almost driving without me and ahead is why I’m here: the path through the cedar to the sea. Still there. The car knows where to park and my feet remember the trail. A little mucky and still a tangle of roots and hemlock, salal along the sides. That smell of cedar and sea salt and the air is always a little wet with spray and you can hear the roar of surf from here. Surprised at the feeling of homecoming though this was never my home.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Struggle and Memory

Sometimes it's hard to write.

We all know this - no surprise.

There's power in a clear description of the struggle, and in particular I love this student's depiction of the bare, spareness of struggle for inspiration. It's made even richer by the second part of her writing from the same week, in which she drops us into a landscape of incredible richness and a strong, vivid, lively memory.

In fact the prompt was to take us to a landscape. First she takes us inside her mind, an empty-seeming scape she describes acutely. Then, within that spare space, she finds a rich rabbit hole of a memory.

As always, this is fresh, unedited, pure mind raw writing.


Life On Earth
What appears? Nothing appears. That’s not exactly true. It’s just that it’s hard  to describe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wild to Us

Another wonderful memoir piece by a student in response to the Landscape prompt a few weeks back. This first-person piece gives us a strong feeling for her small town's own "Field of Dreams" - minus all the grandeur but with as much of the power.

A sense of place is so much of what is necessary in memoir. Many classmates responded that they knew this field - that while her story is peppered with unfamiliar names, they all knew of a wild place like this in their midst as children. It is a universal story, filled with her strong specifics.

Enjoy the game, my dears!


Our backyard merged with the empty field, not yet filled with brown, yellow and white ranch homes like those surrounding the field. The field was wild in its way, certainly wild to us, living in houses on mowed lawns.

I don't remember the kind of grass that grew in the field but it never grew so high we couldn't stomp it down to create a baseball diamond. We didn't flatten the grass much further out than shortstop territory which improved our chances of hitting a home run. Finding a beat up dirty baseball in the grass and weeds usually took enough time to allow a couple of extra bases.

There was never a plan or a schedule for playing ball. We'd just show up after dinner and sometimes after school to see who else was there. If only two or five came we'd have batting practice taking turns as pitcher, outfielder and batter. Usually there were enough for two teams of four or five each, naturally dividing without having to say much, no captain picking his or her favorites. I wasn't the only girl who played. Sandy played regularly, running bases faster than any one, boy or girl. Johnna could hit into the next street over but could barely run because of her immense girth. We usually just called it a home run and didn't make her run around the rough diamond.

No one was perfect. No one complained of other's shortcomings. Playing was the thing.

We did complain about chiggers biting our ankles and blurring our view particularly as we played into dusk. These tiny beings generated hearty yells and thrown bats and the occasional "dammit." But it wasn't a sufficient obstacle to stop the game.

Where it was different for the boys and girls was the boys could move out further in the field, turn quickly and pee while we girls had to run home if we really couldn't hold it. I attribute my bladder's impressive ability to hold quarts of urine to playing baseball in that field. I'd rather let pee dribble in my pants than miss my turn at bat or interrupt my pitching momentum.

The taller grass past the shortstop provided cover for those moments when we decided to wait for a girl to come back from a pee break. Sometimes we would lie down and stare into the sky or turn on our stomachs to watch crickets and other critters you could only see if you were on the ground. The field was alive and we wanted to be in it and on it whenever we could. It was a friendly receiver of our missing baseballs, a cushion for our attempts to slide into bases marked by rocks, and a space to be with each other, with few rules, in fresh air with no demands to make a team or to be the most valuable player. We were all valuable players, and gave proper respect to each others' scrapes and bruises and time outs for a pee break.

I don't like to think about the field being filled soon after we moved away with more houses, more children to play with but no field to play in. It was so simple, so easy, so simply there, holding us while it still could.

-Linda Balisle

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Giving Directions

There's tremendous power in simply giving directions in writing. The experience of deep trust, being instructed kindly, gently by a trustworthy narrator, is quiet but powerful.

Lately I have been noticing student preference for writing that is dense, what I call "jungle writing" - super thick with images, almost impossible to track because of the lyricism. But there are many kinds of writing. The style of the writing in this piece, which is "raw and fresh and unedited" from a recent class reflects the solitude and quietness of the subject itself. It would be inaccurate to use hyper dense language for describing such a spacious, intimate location.

Richard, the student, has written "about" Dyer Pond before, but never actually taken us there like this. The process of writing this was very satisfying for him, and satisfying for us to listen to. At the end, he says: "At some point it is time to go back, because you always have to return. So you do." I find this line deliciously ambiguous - because you always have to return to your life, because you always have to return to the pond and you can't return to it if you don't leave it. I feel implicated, in the best possible way, impelled to go again and again until I, too, would know my way in the dark.


The path begins at Zoheth Smith Road, a private road off Cahoon Hollow Road,
which is off Route 6, just south of Wellfleet. Zoheth Smith is a recently built road, a loop
that goes nowhere, and it is dotted with vacation houses. It is always quiet, unless there is
construction. You enter the road, veer to the right, and walk for several minutes, and then
there is a narrow footpath to your right. It’s not at all obvious; you have to know it’s
there, and I’m pleased that I do know. The path winds slowly downhill between two
houses. The land is sandy and scrubby. You come out into the open and there is sun.
Low, wild blueberry bushes with small pale blueberries in season. And then there is an
open stretch perpendicular to the path, a wide but very long corridor with tall electrical
cable towers that appear slightly menacing on the open sand, like marching metallic
giants. Now you step into the woods, and it is more shaded. You turn right briefly, then
left, and you are in more of the scrubby woods that make up most of wild Cape Cod. The
path is obvious and easy to follow. It’s sandy and soft, but not too soft. The trees are
gnarled and there is no great high canopy, but a more open, scrubby aspect, and in some
places, long slender green grasses. Some oak trees and others I couldn’t name. Usually
you will not meet anyone on this path, but if you do, it will probably be a little group of
people in bathing suits with towels wrapped around their necks. Eventually you come to
a place where a wider dirt road cuts in from the right, and there is someone’s house on
the left. You go straight, more or less, and then the path forks and you go to the left. It is
narrow now, and soon you will see the water of Dyer Pond. Sometimes it is absolutely
silent because there is no one there at all. Oh, probably there are bird calls, or splashes, or
wings flapping, but no human sounds. You cut down to the left again just before a fence
begins that protects some of the fragile land above the shore of the pond. You wind
around and arrive at a narrow, sloping strand of beach, sandy, and just wide enough to lie
down on, your body angled toward the water. Depending on the time of day, you might
be in the sun. If so, the pond will sparkle. It sparkles and sparkles and sparkles. If you
move, the reflected sparkles seem to move with you, denser in a wide path, then tapering
off at the edges. The pond is quiet and still. Here in Wisconsin, we would probably call it
a lake, because it is small lake-sized. But on Cape Cod, it is a pond. Dyer Pond. You face
the closer shore, but it would still be a bit of a swim to get across. There are a couple of
scrubby trees right at the water’s edge where you can hang a towel or a shirt. Stepping
into the water, you discover that it is soft. It is cool, but not icy cold. The water is clean
and clear. The whole experience is like whispering; it’s like church, only better. There is
a radiance on the land, on the planet, and inside human beings, and you feel a little bit of
that as you ease your whole body into the water, which is a shock, and then you move
within its silkiness. You swim, you float, you paddle, whatever you like to do for
however long. If other people show up, that is okay too. Usually it is families, and
children might be noisy, but that is fine. Adults tend to be quiet here, to speak in hushed

Eventually you come out of the water. Maybe you stand right at the edge, feet still
in the shallows, and drip dry in the sun. Maybe you rub vigorously with your towel.
Maybe you lie in the sand for a while, eyes open or closed, the clouds moving lazily
above you. At some point it is time to go back, because you always have to return. So
you do.

-Richard Ely

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Subtlety and History (via Sleep)

Over on Inside Space, I just posted recently about subtlety and long-term relationship struggles.
I have also been thinking about the issue of writing about subtle things in memoir.
Usually *what* has happened in a person's life is what sells - and compels - memoir.
It's about a particular theme, about a specific event.

Generally, it is understood that the more "literary" a memoir is, the less "drama-seeking" it is. For instance, memoir based on dramatic lives, by people like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs - is often juxtaposed against the more "writing for writing's sake" memoir of Paul Auster or Vladamir Nabakov.

Regardless of whether or not a memoir is big on events or more on the language or psychology, we still need subtlety. This means small memories and details, minor scenes, focusing on the mundane, even within a dramatic moment of revelation. It also means making those parts so exciting that instead of making us tap our feet while waiting for the next big scene, we are juicily captured into every moment, regardless of dramatic weight.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Memoir Back on Mind

Up and Down, Jefferson Flea Market, 2014.
Hello all. Sorry for that little almost-two-month spate of not posting.

I've been working on a book with my Miksang teacher. We are in the final stages of editing and whoo-ee. Does that take all my writing energy! No blogging and very little work or play on memoir.

But now I am back, and it is back: my memoir, Bermuda Triangles, erupted some insights in me as soon as I sat down to teach a small writing retreat this last week. Then I taught a writing retreat all this last weekend and out came some insights, how to get through the next bump, and more.

The next bump?

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Delay Can Last a Lifetime

This piece by a student is about writing memoir. It was written in response to a discussion about The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I am always touched by these, especially since Rebecca Solnit herself writes about the act of writing memoir in this memoir.

At our quarterly Read and Write, we first read aloud from the book, weaving around themes and understandings. Then we pick passages that make good prompts and write from those for a bit, then share with each other.

The selected prompt here is "A delay can last a lifetime," which provoked many of my students, who tend to be women in their late 40's, 50's and 60's. We discussed Malcolm Gladwell's article Late Bloomers from a 2008 New Yorker, which has come back to my attention a few times recently. This is a huge topic in the "boomer" generation and in the world of growing interest in memoir. How late is too late? Ever?

This whole piece is a lovely contemplation, but lines such as these really struck all of our attention: "The heart has a hard time hiding truth, hiding joy, hiding pain,""I have begun to fill them as my memories leak out like poison gas from that box," and " Like Mohammed I will be the messenger of my memories’ tales. I will tell them in their voices word for word."


A delay can last a lifetime... (prompt from Rebecca Solnit - The Faraway Nearby)
Student Writing
By Christa Bruhn

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Wisdom of Adolescence

Me, age 14.
I've been struggling with re-writing the teen years aspects of my memoir. It's so easy to say things I did or others did were mean, which I know is minimalizing and inaccurate. How can I depict, exactly, what happened between A and me, when I consciously thought she was "not cool" and so distanced myself, and yet, underneath, I also knew something I couldn't articulate for decades: that she also triggered me, was too close to my own trauma?

Last night, reading the latest issue of the New Yorker (don't be fooled - I am not caught up on its weekly overload. I just happened to pick up the issue that appeared in our mailbox and started there) I saw this passage in an article about John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars:
Green told me, “I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived. Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter. And they’re dead right. It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves. We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Memoir and Mystery

Watching the mystery of flight 370 on CNN at the airport, I think about how it is even possible that a plane can disappear. It seems apt, for me, writing a memoir called Bermuda Triangles, and I suddenly flash back to my mystery phase of peri-adolescence, that time of tween-ness when life itself seemed mysterious and so did the world. I read a lot of RL Stine and Chrisopher Pike, graduating to Stephen King once my father died.

During this time my dad was dying of cancer. I can't help but think, though I know plenty of tweens go through phases of fascination like this, that part of my seeking had to do with that: wanting to cure him, figure out the universe. My parents were, for the most part, both rationalists. They poo-pooed God, and any kind of religion, declaring that if - IF - some kind of spirit exists, it is unknowable by nature. Things happened for reasons. Though I don't recall ever actually discussing The Bermuda Triangle or ghosts or other apparitions with either parent, I am certain I did not bring these up because I sensed that in our house they were seen as conspiracy theories or delusions.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Haunting Joy

This is a memoir piece by a student in response to a prompt asking about joy. This student, Donna Stapf, went with a strong memory that popped up in response to the prompt, as soon as her pen hit the paper. It just poured out.

As always, this is rough draft, not edited. Enjoy the pure energy of this piece. In particular I love her contemplations about the haunting quality of joy. Asking about the difference between highs - joy - celebration - happiness. In particular, I appreciated (as a former theater person) her analogy for a relationship: paralleling it to the acts of a play.

Donna Stapf 
I see myself as a sophomore at UW in Bascom Hall, 2nd floor, outside the door to one of the theater department offices.  Door closed--dark inside--hall empty--the list is posted on the door: “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey  Cast List:  Juno…..Donna Stapf.  Heat and tingling rushes through my body.  My stomach is doing somersaults with joyful nausea.  All is silent ‘cept my heart banging beats.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wilderness of Sexuality and Poetry

This is a lovely memoir piece, in rough draft form, written by one of my students. She wrote it in response to a weekly prompt, which was "Wilderness" - to be interpreted any way your mind wanted. Kathy, the author, didn't know it was going to come out this way - at all! The surprise makes for juicy, invigorating memoir writing.

This line is so powerful: "Two secret, or rather undiscovered parts of myself - pulled to the surface by this magnetic force."
The poet and lesbian part both being seen as wild, as undiscovered parts, simultaneously emerging, inter-dependent.Both have what she calls in the last line:
the courage required in any wilderness...a synthesis of all the feelings and forces named above. Courage to step into this other place knowing it’s unlikely I’d be able to completely return.
This is powerful rough draft, and full of many places for her to discover/open up themes/enrich.

Thanks to Kathy for her courage to share in class and now online!
It was a very hot summer night sitting on cushions in Kirby’s living room trying to stay alert while listening to the mini-life stories of the dozen or so women who surprisingly all wanted to join our group. The group was a conscious raising group and we needed new blood, new members, but not twelve of them.

She was one of the last to talk and suddenly I was awake without effort. I felt pulled without any idea why. A very intense pull. Her story, interesting but not exceptional, her looks intense but not beautiful.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mother Memory and Spiral Cycles

Cracked Spiral, Albuquerque NM 2009
When does the crack appear between my mother and myself? Is it when I am born, taken from her womb, and she sees I am female, and wonders if she will have to compete with me, like she does with my father’s mother, for his attention? Is it when, after giving birth, she doesn’t lose the weight, stays fat, resents me for the gains and losses she’s made? Is it when Dad has to work more, to support another child, a third one, when he is fired from Lawrence University because he doesn’t have the PhD he lied about getting to her and everyone, and has to work for a tech college instead?
            Is it when I leave the carrots behind the National Geographics, rotting? Is it when I fake a fever to stay home and she catches me in the act? This is not a game of blame, figuring out if it was my fault. Because it was our fault, and a fault that began long before either of us existed. A crack deep in the earth between daughters and mothers, started the generation before me, between mom and her mom, and probably the generation before that, on the plains of North Dakota, out of boredom, out of necessity, the split between young and old. When I get close to my dad’s mom, that seems all the more betrayal. Then it is just the two of us.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Like lawyers, writers seek consistency; they make a case for their point of view; they do so by leaving out some evidence; but let me mention the hundreds of sandwiches my mother made during my elementary school years, the peanut butter sandwiches I ate alone on school benches in the open, throwing the crusts into the air where the seagulls would swoop to catch them before they hit the ground. When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing...

I was distant. I studied her, I pondered her. My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.
from Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Friday, March 14, 2014

To Read or Not to Read? And More...

Shadow Cut, January 2014
 I think we can all ethically agree that, unless strong circumstances call on us to do otherwise, people's journals are off limit to others' eyes. But what about after they die?

This article in the Opinionator column in the NYT is wonderful. It explores "the other side" of memoir/journals/diaries - do we read those of people we love who've died? Do we want those who outlive us to read ours?

It brings to mind the opening of Terry Tempest Williams' memoir When Women Were Birds, in which she finally opens all the journals her mother left her, only to find they are...blank. My god. To think all that was not, ever, written.

And then, questions not addressed, but significant for those who write memoir:
If we write an official version of memoir, do we then get rid of the journals? Annie Dillard is quoted in Inventing the Truth (a lovely collection of memoir writings edited by William Zissner) that we no longer remember what happened, just what we wrote (after writing memoir). What's the point of the keeping journals and letters after we are done "researching"?

So many questions, so little time.  Yet, worthy of pondering.
Just keep writing, I tell my students who worry about who will read what they purposefully (publication/fame) or accidentally leave behind (sudden death/journals). We'll figure out the next part when we get to it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What's In The Box?

A few weeks ago, I gave a prompt on opening a box. This was a writing by one of my male students (he'd like you to know I do have male students, grin). I love it because it skirts the edge of fiction and memoir. A few times you can hear him turn and address the question of voice:
Does it really matter how a story was written and how we read it? Does it matter if we can’t hear the writer’s original voice, the one that told their pen how to walk across a page as if it was dancing something sacred, as if it was performing a ritual that has been acted out many times before? Does it matter if we read a story in our own voice, color it with our own vision?
As well, he ponders the question of (personal) stories and whether or not to tell them:
What was said? Who remembers? Is this the box of history? Are these the remains of stories I should know? Of tales passed down through the ages from mouth to hand to ear to mouth to ear to hand to mouses’ teeth?
And what of all my stories? Is this where they will end up, in a box, a black box hidden in a shadow?
The details he uses - the gun in the box, the mouse droppings, all help to anchor these ponderings in something real, which is the point, of course, of using something concrete like a box for the prompt.

And I'll let you discover the final line, which is a powerful description of what happens when we try to see what is right in front of us, and points out the charge in what is hidden. As Dorothy Allison says, "Your shame is your gold."

Enjoy reading this writing, which is, of course, as always, unedited and fresh.

Then go and check out your own box - open it up. What's inside?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Varying Internal Voices

More - Austin Texas, 2012

One of the reasons why I think that approaching memoir mind-first works so well is that by becoming curious about how our mind works, we access the various natural voices already occurring deep inside our own daily self-discussions. Instead of developing voices out of mid-air, we can discover them naturally existing, then give them body.

Another benefit is finding our own natural multiplicity (taken from Rita Carter's book title of the same name), which has therapeutic benefits as well. All of us are many-faceted, and in writing memoir, we can't help but encounter all these parts of ourselves. In inviting them into the discussion, by allowing them to show us the many versions of events that occurred in the past, we can help resolve - better than resolve - accept that the conflicts about "what happened" - whether traumatic or not - aren't just external (eg your sister recalls something else than you do) but internal.

Memoir isn't about trying to nail down "the version" but finding a felt sense that is closest to "a truth" - and that means including multiple facets, and, I believe, multiple voices. Whether or not this writer keeps the voices distinct or integrates them through writing and therapy is up to her - regardless, getting to experience it first hand through her raw writing here really shows us the power of memory and mind and multiplicity.

When I speak of resistance, this is it. The deep, deep fears. What parts of us really, really don't want to share anything. If we don't give them voice, acknowledge them, we will never find a way to write with less suffering involved. 

Student writing by KA.

I don't feel like writing because I'm in a lot of physical pain. Actually, I see now it's not the physical pain that makes me not want to write, it's the voices below the physical pain. The seething pit of intestines trying to convince me, again, that…

I stopped writing…

I hear the words, I feel the words… But they hide from the page.

Is it you, the listener, the reader, that I want to hide from? Or, is it myself? Or, isn't that part of myself that does that speaking?

For years now… Again, I stopped writing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing Quickly, Writing Slowly

Overcome, 2011
This piece was written by a student, Nick Weismueller. The prompt encouraged students to  describing their intentions for the New Year. His piece refers more directly to emotions and interactions with others, not necessarily his writing, but after sharing the piece, as a group we all saw how it related to him (and all of us) slowing down pace in writing, as well.

Though this piece it was also not in direct response to an inquiry about memoir, it speaks to the excruciating pace of writing memoir.

Memoir must be done slowly. While there are moments when "ripping off the bandage" is what is needed, revision and constant re-exploration require time and patience. Nick's struggle with finding that pace is one that I hear a lot from my students, especially memoir students.

Many people are afraid of writing memoir, afraid that once they start it will, as he describes,   "pick(s) up houses, trees, horses, toss(es) them about." What if you begin and can't find your way out again? What about all the triggers laying in wait?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Milky Way Mammograms

Orion's Belt, Madison WI, 2010
I wanted to highlight both a student writing - still in rough form - and a passage from Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby this week.

The student writing is by a woman named Alison, who had a breast cancer scare in November. Solnit's passage is from her own breast cancer scare, and is in the first of two chapters called Breath.

How beautiful it is to use such cosmic, large scale imagery for such a small scale, intimate occurrence!  This shows one of the most powerful aspects of well-written memoir: the more personal it is, the more universal it is. In addition, Alison really brings in the personal - pears and hot cocoa - and intimate, to connect us directly, sensually, with the cosmic. One of Solnit's themes is apricots in her book, and she, too, brings "down" that cosmic imagery into the everyday magic of fruit.

I hope you enjoy these writings. They are depictions of painful experiences, rendered beautifully onto the page so we can celebrate and also feel their poignancy. Our poignancy: as human beings.

Alison's Writing
My breasts are ripe pears, freshly peeled on the monitor. Looking inside, they are space-
nebulae, the Milky Way, and a very long Orion’s Belt.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Pair of Essays That Point to the Same Paradox

I came across two totally separate essays this weekend that both express important aspects of things I have been exploring on this blog. One is a recent piece from Dani Shapiro; the other is an essay from 1999 by Patricia Hampl.

Dani Shapiro's piece is on It was posted last week, in fact. It is entitled "Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me On Facebook." I actually found it the morning it was published, which just so happened to be the morning I woke up late after finally reading Shapiro's memoir Slow Motion, which I have been hearing about for years. I stayed up for four hours past my bedtime reading it and it was worth every last crick in my neck. Holy shit. Great memoir.

This "Open Letter" of Shapiro's is pointing at the same thing I have been discussing here for over a year now - what is fiction and what is fact in memoir, where's the line (if there is only one or any at all) and, though I have not talked about this as much, where can a reader feel mislead if they "find out" that the memoir is not totally factual.

Here's just one paragraph:
(W)hen I am working on memoir, I burrow deep into a small, dark place inside me, no larger than the head of a pin. This dark place contains within it all the sorrows and confusion of my life: the death of my parents, the loss of most of my family, the harrowing illness of my infant son. When I burrow into that place, it expands and becomes oceanic. It fills and fills the room in which I write until it is the air I breathe, the water in which I swim. It becomes everything. I live inside the memory of whatever it is I still need to know. I try to shape a story – the only redemption available to me – from memory. In doing so, I attempt to make my life coherent. Are any of our lives truly coherent? Of course they are not. Screenwriters call this “the second act problem.” Our lives are composed of one damned thing after another. We live in a random, merciless jumble, and those of us who write memoir – along with those of us who read memoir – are looking to make music out of that jumble. This is why we have in our canon magnificent memoirs that are about only one aspect of a writer’s life. Say, William Styron’s depression. Vivian Gornick’s relationship with her mother. Tobias Wolff’s boyhood. The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.
I call this question: "What's the Truth?" because of course, if you are a part of any family or group of friends, you know that everyone remembers a different version. And even within ourselves we recall different versions - there's no way to have a 100% accurate recall.

That's where Patricia Hampl's essay Memory and Imagination comes into play (follow this link to read a PDF). She actually takes us through the process of writing a first draft of a memoir fragment - about learning to play piano as a kid - then debunks her own memory, bit by bit: that girl wasn't in my life at that point, I didn't know my dad played violin yet, etc etc. It is powerful and clear and delightful.

In particular, there's a line where Hampl states that she knows for sure she wasn't using a particular brand of piano lesson book. She goes on to say, "In pondering this "lie," I came to see what I was up to: I was getting what I wanted. Finally." What an honest and refreshing moment of revelation about how we tell all our stories in our lives - regardless of whether we are writing memoir or just talking to ourselves or loved ones.

Hampl also mentions and explores the difference between the value/feeling and stored memory/image. She says,
Over time, the value (feeling) and the stored memory (the image) may become estranged. Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live writing (this bit of) memoir I did not simply relive the experience. Rather, I explored the mysterious relationship between all the images I could round up and the even more impacted feelings that caused me to store the images safely away in memory.
Thank you, dear intelligent and delightfully direct women writers. You are telling it how it is - which is to say - complex, but clear somehow, at the same time.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What Happens When We Forget It All?

Closed, Milwaukee WI, 2011

What happens when we can't express it all? 

When we can't recall it all?

When we have to make things up?

When we have to let things go?

This post is the spontaneous intersection of three things I have encountered today:

1. This amazing post in the Draft column of NYT called Forgetting It All.

2. Finally actually reading The Butterfly and The Bell Jar by Jean-Dominique Bauby. I saw the beautiful movie years ago, but I forgot about the book until I read about it recently in Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart (which is an excellent book on memoir, btw). Seeing - feeling how his incredibly, necessarily short and pungent sensory descriptions are so often based in memory because he has lost so much ability to express and even to experience his world directly.

3. A conversation with a friend about whether a modernist angle of working with what we recall from now about then is enough, or if, in memoir, we should go back into source material to try and reproduce it (because I am digging around in my teenaged journals at the moment for memoir purposes).