Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Memoir Within A Memoir: H Is For Hawk

I finally finished Helen MacDonald's H Is For Hawk. I started it a long time ago, but then had to return it to the library. This time I was determined to get through. 

What had stopped me 1/4 way through?

Brilliance. Brilliance often stops me in books, more often than unreadability. When a book is really fucking good, I almost can't bear to keep reading it. For instance, this passage completely blew me out of the water, and made it both worth continuing and also exquisitely difficult to keep going:
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’ I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Small Messages and Details

Memoirists often struggle with figuring out what to include. A memoir, by definition, is not a story of your entire life. It is writing on a particular strand of your life - a recurrent theme or issue or approach - or focusing on one particular era. If you are including everything that is happening, it will not work.

However, you also need more than just the key stories. What might otherwise seem like mundane details - how you make your coffee, or did during that era, or how it has changed over time - could lend a lot of real human feeling and connection to the reader. And everything depicted in the memoir can carry the feeling of communication, the sense it was all included for a reason, even if - especially if - that reason is not explicit or overt.

How do we choose?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lovely Limitations

Faith Adele, on nonfiction versus fiction:

It’s having to create a metaphor out of facts. I love the puzzle in that and the challenge. It’s like having to write a sestina, any kind of strong, dictated form. It’s got to end with these words, and have this long stanza – stuff like that. You have to create something that’s meaningful out of it and it’s not just an exercise. To me, nonfiction gives you the same sorts of limitations. You have these facts, but then you have to create art out of it with language and metaphor. I think it’s stunning because I am fascinated by the truth, and then I’m also fascinated by how fallible memory is. I love how I remember things and how I misrememeber things, and then how when your memory comes into contact with somebody else, it changes. I just love the process of memoir. It’s not really true, but it’s a truth. So I’m fascinated by that whole project and having to create metaphor and sense out of all this real detail.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Motel of Memories

Whenever we go back to her parent's house for a visit, my wife inevitably winds up in the basement, going through boxes. The thing is, at thirty-eight, she knows she's gone through the same boxes again and again. She will likely not find something new at this point - some object that will tell her a huge part of her past she doesn't recall, some amazing letter or pair of tennies or...anything, really, that she hasn't seen.

What does happen, however, is that her view shifts - how she looks at what she finds changes.
This is true whether what we are looking at is actual objects - artifacts, letters, memorabilia - or simply memories, flashes in our minds or stories in others' minds.

One of my favorite all-time books is called Motel of the Mysteries (this link shows some examples and discussion of the book, but the book itself is worth checking out). In the book, which is tongue-in-cheek, the author shows us drawings of rooms that are clearly from a motel of our current time, but as seen by archeologists thousands of years from now as a place of worship. The book is chock full of humor - like the toilet being interpreted as an actual throne. As a former anthropology major, this book helped voice some skepticism I had about how we interpreted other living - much less dead - societies and cultures.

In anthropology and in memoir alike, where we run into trouble is when we believe that the past, since it is done, is dead and frozen. When we believe that there is only one way to tell the story, that there is only one truth. This kind of freezing locks us into an impossible dance, into only one interpretation of how things went down, and also into our current lives as one single thing. This kind of singularity brings us comfort - "I was a victim then and am a survivor now" - but can highly limit the possibilities for growth, for relationship, for change.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Memoirist Live Twice

comic from 11/24/15 edition of Cat and Girl

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. ...This is our life and it's not going to last forever. There isn't time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
-Natalie Goldberg
For this round of Read and Write, my students and I are reading the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. We just finished reading her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? for the last Read and Write, and a few folks were curious how this novel, her first and mainly  autobiographical, would read next to her memoir, one of her most recent books and written in with an adult understanding.There is, as one would expect, a huge difference in not only style (and not all of it is accounted for by genre change) but also perspective. That is invaluable - and the later memoir does not dismiss the award-winning strength of the younger semi-autobiographical novel.

I love doing this, the few times we have an opportunity to do it. I love looking both at the span of a writer's work, especially in two different genres, as well as looking at how they tell their own story, especially when it comes to memoir. I think more people, despite the Cat and Girl tongue-in-cheek comic above, should write more than one memoir. Writing even about the same topic - a period of one's life, for instance - at different ages would produce wildly different books. As Goldberg notes, writers live twice - I would add, especially memoirists - and there's no reason to wait to write it. 

Maybe later you will wish you hadn't written that memoir when you were young and "didn't understand." But you did. You understood how you understood it then. Enough of thinking that the adult perspective, with time and space, is the right one, the only one. We need to witness throughout our lives, and if we wait only until we are grey, we will have changed our tune so dramatically by then that we lose the vividness captured in between.

Just starting now, in your sixties or seventies? That's ok! Nothing wrong with that. Start whenever you can. But especially for the "young" - don't wait. There's never too young to explore, investigate your own life through the lens of memoir. 

Heck, live more than twice. Live a few times. 

Be a cat-like memoirist, live nine times. 

However many times you tell and re-tell the same story, live your life and writing fully, pen to page. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Digesting History

This is the week of American Thanksgiving, which starts off the holiday season in the US. When Thanksgiving is over, Jewish holidays kick in, then Christmas is in less than a month.

I've been re-reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, our Read and Write book for this quarter, a novel in pairing with her memoir we just finished, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? I ran into these passages about history and stories and felt them strongly related to memoir and also the holiday season, super full of both family and national history, stories and food:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Memoir and Memory as Mosaic

As it relates to survival, memory is a particular type of perception; it is not an accurate imprint of an event. In this sense, it is the process by which the organism creates a gestalt (functional unit) of the experience. This gestalt can be a faithful representation of an actual event or it can just as easily be a rendering consisting of unrelated data from several different events -- in other words, a mosaic.
-Peter Levine, from Waking the Tiger (Healing Trauma)

My parents' bedroom is a location I cannot describe in a single sitting. While at certain speaking or writing takes I can catch the plants in the window straight ahead and my mother's closet, it is as if remembering the whole thing at once is simply too much. This is not surprising, considering that both of my parents died there, and I had some pretty traumatic experiences around both their lives and deaths in that room. Each time I go to write about one of their deaths, or even just a regular, non-traumatic scene taking place in that fifteen by fifteen square space, I seem to miss a few things that I then only catch later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sirens and the Seduction of the Past

from Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind
There is.. a rather bittersweet exchange of a comfortable and settled present existence for a troubled but intensely lived past.
There are still occasional sirens to this past, and there remains a seductive, if increasingly rare, desire to recreate the furor and fever of earlier times. I look back over my shoulder and feel the presence of an intense young girl and then a volatile and disturbed young woman, both with high dreams and restless, romantic aspirations.
There is, for me, a mixture of longings for an earlier age; this is inevitable, perhaps, in any life, but there is an extra twist of almost painful nostalgia brought about by having lived a life particularly intense in moods. Life, on occasion, becomes an elegy for lost moods. I miss the lost intensities, and I find myself unconsciously reaching out for them, as I still now and again reach back with my hand for the fall and heaviness of my now-gone, long, thick hair; like the trace of moods, only a phantom weight remains. These current longings are, for the most part, only longings, and I do not feel compelled to re-create the intensities: the consequences are too awful, too final, and too damaging.
Still, the seductiveness of these unbridled and intense moods is powerful; and the ancient dialogue between reason and the senses is almost always more interestingly and passionately resolved in favor of the senses. 

I am well familiar with the collusion of past and present. Being someone who has always kept journals, wondered about what came before and curious about what is to come, reflective and contemplative, and occasionally also obsessive, I know there's a risk inherent to looking back.
Thinking back over something is one thing - writing about it to try and understand it is something else all together. The process of digesting our past is not easy, and something that is different in memoir than it is in therapy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mirroring and Finding Your Peeps

At 38, I am realizing how much losing my parents affected me.

Now, I was not unaware - as soon as my mother had an aneurysm when I was nineteen, and I was suddenly parent-less, I was very clear that my life differed from those around me. Friends were either in college but went home for the summer, weren't in college but were still living at home, or, for the most part, still strongly connected to "home" as being where they grew up, and the house in which their parents lived.

For lots of reasons, certain of my friends were more "out there" like I was - divorced parents who both moved to new cities and left no bedrooms for them, people who left abusive childhood homes and had nowhere safe to go back to, etc. However, I knew no one else in my particular circumstance: parent-less.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Directing Your Helping Nature Into Memoir

I have a client who meets with me bi-weekly. She's working, as many of my clients are, on a memoir. Hers focuses on surviving some pretty un-survivable sounding things: drugs, abuse and more. She has been driven to write it for years, but not found the time or support to do it. She hired me to help her keep on track.

Her vision from the beginning was very, very clear: "I want to write this book to share with other women who have been in situations I have been in - battered, abused - so they know they can find their way out."

This is a stellar and beautiful vision. This woman has a very strong helper nature, and I am excited to help her help others.

In the beginning we had a hard time getting her to stick to any kind of schedule. Not. Unusual.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Who Tells and How They Tell

I re-read Kay Redfield Jamison's Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness recently. I've been called to work with numerous people on memoirs that include psychosis and mania, so I knew it was time to look at how a major bestseller depicts this realm.

One of the things that is powerful in re-reading a book like this years after the initial reading is noticing how much I have changed, and how much the market has changed. Redfield Jamison, an academic and brilliant woman, writes about her experience mostly through telling. She uses very occasional scenes to show experiences of mania and depression, but for the most part she narrates what happened, and summarizes, relying on her own creedance as a researcher and psychologist to stand behind her story.

This is understandable. In 1996 in particular, memoir was less in a place of confession or even direct story revealing, and more a short version of autobiography.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Are Not Your Memoir

Sunday afternoon on Canal St. Martin, Paris, 2015

Here's the super tricky thing about memoir. Your readers, should you have any, are subject to the same problem that you are as the writer: they believe that you are your story. I am not talking about telling the truth here, or not in some explicit way. I am not saying that you can lie about how you lived, or mis-tell it deliberately, and scoff it off by saying that's just how you remember it. I am talking about something far more subtle - that the act of writing itself can convince us that this is it, the story for real, the final telling, and that it does not change at all and this is in fact the facts.

Natalie Goldberg addresses this in a passage from Writing Down the Bones. It's about poems, but you know it can be about anything, especially about memoir...
It is very painful to become frozen in your poems...the real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years..we don't exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don't identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.
-from We Are Not the Poem by Natalie Goldberg

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Memoir versus Memoire

"Stop Reflection" Canal St Martin, Paris 2015
This year in France I faced a gap I had sensed was there before, but didn't really research. This gap is between the American world of memoir - someone doing book-length or essay-length writing about a particular period or theme in their life - and the lack of such a category in French literature.

Does this mean that no one has written memoir in French? Not at all. But the tendency in French literature is towards either fiction or autobiography - autobiography being more a factual description of the entire life of someone famous, written by themselves. While personal essays certainly exist, the tendency with essays and other personal writing is more towards intellectual writing.

And the word "memoire" - which means "memory" - refers to a very academic project, akin to someone's thesis or dissertation.

When I say in French literature, I literally mean literature written in French, from France - not meaning "outre-mer", Canadian, or post-colonial literature, aka "Francophone." There you can find stronger examples - Dany Laferriere's writing, for instance, which skirts the lines between memoir and fiction. He is a Haitian writer who began writing in earnest once he exiled to Quebec. But for the most part, only famous people have gotten away with anything akin to what we would call memoir. Simone de Beauvoir, so famous for her huge feminist tome The Second Sex, wrote four great memoirs; though they are referred to as a four-volume autobiography, they often have more the tone of memoir . However, your average person couldn't get away with publishing something so personal, so akin to what we call memoir in the States.

My French students are hungry for it, though. They desperately want to be able to write their own stories, whether or not they get published. In fact, they have an even more realistic understanding that they may not get published. They are blown away by the idea that others write this kind of thing, that others want to read it, in a more fundamental way that the average self-doubting American is blown away by reading memoir or hearing about it.

I am excited to dig into this exploration with them, a firmly new ground. I know others have come before, and I can't wait to find them. I know others must be doing similar things, and I am lined up to collaborate. Let's get deep into memories, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and all the good ground of life that French minds will love to explore. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mental Health Memoir

In the last few months, I have found myself coaching four separate people working on memoirs about mental health struggles. The more I work with groups and individuals on these issues, the more it becomes clear to me how essential these stories are. How rarely they are told with accuracy, total honesty, and just how hard it is to express the experience of struggling with reality, or what you are told is reality, in a way that can be conveyed clearly.

I asked one student recently if she could explain more clearly, for instance, what is it like to lose time? She experienced a manic period a few years ago, and for a month or so she couldn't seem to track time. I asked her if this is considered normal - not because I needed to normalize her experience, but just to give some context. Yes, she said, but she didn't know that until later. She's reluctant - understandably - to explain what was going on since at the time she didn't know. It feels truer to her experience to just tell it like it was, which is to say that she not only lost time but wasn't particularly aware of it, much less losing it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Autobiography of Someone Else

After re-reading Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid, it's tempting to say that any autobiography is the story of someone else. Even our inner other.
Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you. -Jamaica Kincaid

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


How rare it is, in the process of writing memoir, that we find evidence.
Evidence that our version of the story was true, or not true.
Evidence that something we remember happening happened, and, more keenly, happened the way we remember it.

The fact is, most of the time, we are composing in the dark. And as we write, our understanding (hopefully!) changes. Therefore, our story changes. All of this I have written about a lot on this blog. But today I have something new and powerful to share.

I recently found evidence I hadn't really been looking for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Autobiography of My Mother

For this quarter's Read and Write, we read and discussed and wrote from Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid. The book, from title forward, is a bit of a mind-fuck, as I said to my students.
First of all, how can someone write someone else's autobiography?
Second of all, the character immediately writes that her mother died.
Third of all, it becomes clear (if it does) that the narrator is actually telling the autobiography of her mother, but in her mother's voice. So this is a story that exists - and yet - the mother claims she has no children, and her child is the one writing her autobiography.
Finally, this book is classified as a novel. What?

What do all of these gaps do? They turn the head on its side, playing with our expectations and biases in literature and memoir. Hopefully, they keep us wide open. The book demands that we stay open, keep exploring, sometimes coming in at a distance, sometimes going in full face, right up to oppression and trauma.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Half a Life

hell fire entrance, photo 2012 herspiral
Last night, I began reading a book I'd picked up at St Vinnie's a few days before. It was a half hour before bed, not a great time to start a new book, but I was in book limbo and didn't want something as stimulating as magazine articles or the internet.

I picked up Half a Life by Darin Strauss. A beautiful cover, made by McSweeney's, with a strong recommendation on the front from Carrie Fisher. I'd read the first few pages, and a few from the middle, while still standing in the biography section of Vinnie's. It looked good. It only cost $2.
Why not.

I finished the book in 2.5 hours, two hours past my bedtime. I could not put it down. It's a very compelling story, and the kind that some would potentially call a faultily self-absorbed memoir. But for me, the fact that he reflects on his memory process, his growth process and even his writing process sold me.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Few Seconds

I love this quote from an interview with Kevin Brockmeier about his recent memoir (previously mentioned on this blog): A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: a Memoir of Seventh Grade - 

I hope it's not graceless to say that while I was writing the book I also read a pair of memoirs that I found dissatisfyingly sterile or lazy in very specific (and fundamentally opposite) ways: negative examples. One of them was carefully and deliberately composed and seemed wholly faithful to the facts of the writer's life, but failed to offer anything like the lived experience of those facts, and the other was brimming with the lived experience of its writer's life, and was probably faithful to the facts, but was very poorly crafted — passionate, but at the expense of some vibrancy or precision in the phrasing. I did my best to avoid those shortcomings.

So many people focus on "how did you remember all that?!" And instead Brockmeier says the importance for him is emotional resonance. Read more here:

And another couple of quotes, from a different interview, where he more directly addresses questions about his book being on the edge between fiction and  memoir:

While I was working on the book, I found myself describing it interchangeably as either a memoir that employed the tactics of a novel or a novel that employed the tactics of a memoir—and, in fact, the version of the manuscript I submitted to my editor came with a long string of subtitles: a memoir, a novel, a recollective, a nonfiction novel, an autobiographical novel, a novel from life, a kind of memoir, a memoir-novel-thing, and, finally, what is this? True, I organized the book around one particular year of my life, and I tried hard to remain faithful to the way I actually experienced that year, but my stance toward the material was certainly peculiar, and behaving as though your past is unspooling before your senses in all its color and specificity is as much an act of creation as it is of recollection, don’t you think?

I suppose I would say that both memoir and nonfiction attempt to convey the truth, stripped of fabrication, but that memoir is in part about imaginingthe truth and that most other forms of nonfiction are simply about telling the truth. I’m sure there are other distinctions to be drawn, even contradictory ones, but that’s what writing A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip felt like for me: a sustained act of imagining my way into the truth.

That second interview is here:

Thursday, May 14, 2015


I recently finished an amazing memoir by Heather Sellers* called You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know

Ostensibly, the book is about face blindness, but I admire how she handles the trickiness of talking about her mother's undiagnosed schizophrenia and her own undiagnosed condition, mixed with alcoholism in her father and others, and still comes out talking about love.

This is from the afterword, and I love it:
In childhood, it’s our parents who give us standards for experience: “Here’s an inch,” they say.  “And this is a foot.” And a child says, “Thanks! I can make my own yardstick now.” In my family, there wasn’t any kind of calibration demonstration. In the chaos, I struggled to figure out anything at all…
And then one day I went home and turned on the lights, and began to look clearly at my childhood. Gradually I could discern what was, and what was not…More than anything else, laying out the story of how I came to see has brought me to clarity.
But I discovered something else in writing this book, something even more graceful and vital than the elusive “perspective.” In all that darkness, there had been love. What I’d felt all along was not a fantasy, not yet another misinterpretation. I loved my parents. I wasn’t wrong about that. And somehow, against all odds, my parents (especially my mother) were able to bring their versions of affection into our world, into our family, as well. I’d set out to write a book about how we learn to trust our own experience in the face of confusion, doubt and anxiety. What I ended up with is the story of how we love each other in spite of immense limitations…
The discovery that deeply flawed love and deeply flawed vision can coexist has been life-changing for me, and I feel uniquely able to illuminate it…Face blindness helped me to stay open to possibility – motivated me, on the cellular level, to try to know and understand what can’t easily be seen.
I hope that, at least in some small way, this story will help steer others toward clarity, and toward love, in spite of the greatest odds.

I deeply relate to this experience in writing memoir: recognizing love. The moment, the moments, of seeing how it was there, is there, despite it all. It's a powerful recognition, and absolutely necessary. It's harder to write stories out of the link to truth of story than vengeance or vindication, as Laraine Herring recently addressed. But it is possible.

And for me, in my process, the recognition of real love is really the only reason for surviving, and therefore, the only reason for memoir.

*Heather Sellers is also an amazing writing teacher. I cannot get over how pithy, smart and funny her book Page after Page is. Read it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Keeping Memory Alive

There is a book on a technique called proprioceptive writing called Writing the Mind AliveI often think of memoir as writing the memories alive. Despite Annie Dillard's cannibalism quote on the nature of memoir, I find the act can nurture the present by reviving the past. Neither lacks, neither is deprived by bringing both alive.

But last night I had a telling and haunting dream. I was sorting through the basement of our childhood home with my brothers. One had the Legos and some old letters, another had some figurines and tools. I had my old stuffed animals (of which I had legion) and toys. 

As I sorted the animals, some of them became animated. Untouched for decades, moth-eaten kittens and their brethren started to walk across the floor like zombies. More alive than they ever were in any of my fantasy-driven tea parties, at first I was enchanted. But then I went to pick one up and got a small pique of a bite on my hand.

It turned out rats, scorpions and spiders were revitalizing my childhood comfort beasts. My excitement turned to fear and disgust. I disinfected my hands, and I began to use tongs and gloves, laying them down to photograph them for the memories, then stuffing them down a trash compactor or roadside drain.

I can't help but think this is related to writing memoir. Thursday I meet with a feedback group to discuss my latest revision of an essay called Digging In The Dirt, which is about the act of digging up our family graves last fall, braided with musings on writing memoir and how it involves digging of its own. 

I am slow to get out of bed this morning, writing this post from between two very living animals - our cats - and strewn with some current, adult-acquired stuffed animals - adorable but not alive. I am in no hurry, other than the principle of early bird gets the worm. And yet, by lingering, I've been able to give breathing room to this dream. 

What's the worm here? A direct, palpable, single sentence insight I have yet to taste? Or just this: the space to feel, to be with while wide awake, hands on the animate animals that help me keep moving forward into the future, all the while writing about the past.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

We-moir vs Me-moir

Increasingly, I have been teaching to an international audience. One of the things I find interesting about this is how the understanding of what memoir is varies dramatically from culture to culture.

Even within the culture which I am the most familiar (white, middle class American), "memoir" often evokes images of what actually is autobiography: tell-alls by famous folks. Whole life stories are usually reserved for the rich, famous, and accomplished amongst us. But those are not the same as memoir.

Memoir takes a particular period or aspect of anyone's life - known or unknown - and explores it. Memoir, versus autobiography, is more a practice of language, lyricism and expression, than a rote dictation of fact and timeline. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Write? and Why Write Memoir?

This originated as a closing letter to students in my last round of Mindful Memoir on Shambhala Online. I realized it would be a good "manifesto" and give folks a better sense of my view of the path of writing. So here you are!

Often, people ask me if their writing is good.
"Is it worth it?"
"Do you think I should keep writing?"
"Is it publishable?"

I am afraid I am never able to give the answer I suspect people want to hear:


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shaping Story

I read an interesting article in the March 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine. You can't read the whole thing without a subscription, but here's a link in case you have one. The title is "Giving Up the Ghost - The eternal allure of life after death" and its by Leslie Jamieson. The main bent of it relates to a child psychiatrist researcher who collects stories about children who believe they are experiencing dreams/visions/knowledge from a former life. In particular, she discusses the story of a young boy thought to be a reincarnated WWII fighter pilot.

The thrust in this direction is interesting to me, but only in a passing way. What is most interesting to me is the story that the main family he/the article studies tells their story. Many times during the article, Jamieson, who is clearly also interested in this aspect, points the light back at the projector, so to speak, and glances at the parents, in particular, to see their attitude, note their relationship to the story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip

First of all, just look at this cover.

Looks like a library edition of a sociology text published in the late seventies, right?
It's a brand new memoir, just out in paperback this month. This is the hardcover edition, which, in fact, when holding it in person, feels like a library edition (no separate flyleaf cover, molded cover of colors). But this was the public version published.

I heard about it over here on Jen Louden's blog post about the best memoirs she's read lately.
I was intrigued - I've written about middle school and found it hard to do. What Jen doesn't mention, and what blew me away from page one, is that the whole thing is written in THIRD PERSON (he). First of all, this is relatively unknown in memoir (see some discussion/examples here) - usually it's written in first person (I/me) or at a stretch, second (usually more autobiographical novel form, like Bridget Birdsall's Ordinary Angels). If third person is used at all, it's used in small amounts - like in Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping. It's a stunner to keep it up the whole time.

And yet, for a lot of my students, third person allows a perspective - compassion, understanding - that can't seem to come alive when writing with "I". You can feel that here, in this passage, the most tender of them from this book:
There on the grass, spilling out of a speckled blue egg, is the goo of a half-formed bird, a strange lump of Vaseline with a dark net of veins inside it, connecting a pair of eyes and a tweezerlike beak and the popped red balloons of several tiny organs, one of which must be its heart.

It's not in third person yet. Could be a beautiful, intense description in a vivid memoir. Here's where he harnesses that image with third person, in the lines immediately following:
Kevin can hardly stand to look at it. That this transparent stew of parts, slopping around in the darkness of its shell, is all the bird will ever be gives him an awful gutshot feeling he cannot name, and he knows that if he thinks about it for too long tears will rise to his eyes. He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes.

I know, right? My heart bursts, and in a way, frankly, I don't think it would if it had been written in first person. So so powerful.

But to be clear, this is a memoir about seventh grade in America, in Little Rock Arkansas, and this precious young boy does have, well, less sensitive friends. I hate to break it to you, but this is what comes in the next paragraph:
Out of the blue, Kenneth says to him, "Hey, Kevin, I'm not making fun of you, I"m just curious: Could you fit your dick in that egg?"

I know, right? Trigger-worthy material for anyone who has been verbally bullied. And in-credible. The language, the honesty. Again, as you hear me write about a lot here, the refusal for victim-hood. Kevin clearly marks himself as sensitive, and as subject to bullying, but he also knows his otherlands and sensitivity are important. He bows, he kowtows to the other boys, until he realizes it isn't worth it.

And how does he come to that realization? In the dead center of the book it happens in a completely unprecedented way, and in a way I don't want to reveal too much of here, but needless to say, Brockmeier's fiction-writing past comes fully into fruition in an obvious way, that somehow seems to work.

I also write a lot here about the lines between fiction and memoir, truth and memoir, memory and memoir. Clearly Brockmeier does not remember every single one of these exchanges. And it's obvious by the time you get through the heart center where he converses with his older self (hint hint) that he's functioning on the high end of the fiction/literary spectrum when it comes to memoir. And yet, he is no James Frey. He is not lying to us. The emotional honesty, lack of exaggeration, the accuracy of heart is so pure, so direct and clear that I was along for the ride the entire way.

Approach this book carefully - if seventh grade or its equivalent for you was hard, you will either find this redemptive or impossible to read. And if you are one of very few in the world who passed through adolescence without scars, you will find it anthropologically interesting. Regardless, it's a powerful read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fire Shut Up In My Bones

Charles Blow's memoir of this title is nothing short of miraculous. It resonates with me in a way no memoir has since I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing by Maya Angelou. Two black lives - hers, a generation back; his, more contemporary - lives of poverty, of the south, of resilience and sexuality interrupted. And more. More than this list. Lives of incredible spaciousness mixed with precision.

I read a chapter/passage of this book in the New York Times awhile back. Please read that here. It gives you a strong sense of his voice, his power, and his vulnerability. I knew as soon as I read it that I'd need to read the memoir.

It is so incredibly hard to write about sexual abuse. So hard to truck the line of being a victim without turning it into a litany of victim-hood. And some people do that, maybe some need to do it. But Charles Blow refuses that. He refuses to make a single story out of his abuse, though the book is peppered with references to it and begins with the moment when he confronts his abuser once and for all. It is clear it was one of the biggest events in his life - marked him for a long, long time. A deep wounding. And also that his love - for his mother, for his family, and the love he received from them, though he felt so alone for so long - may not have fixed it, but exists alongside it.

Resilience. We can't write about it until we can respect ourselves, trust ourselves, celebrate ourselves for our own survival. The gritty truth combined with compassion, the mixed-in sense of suffering and insight - these are the combinations I find most compelling. Mixed-in. A part of the same. Not separate. Not as much about overcoming and living within, breathing, surpassing while never forgetting.

Almost impossible to articulate. And yet, Blow has done it so well here, all 228 pages.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Story-Editing - Not the Kind You Think

I have been reading Timothy Wilson's Redirect lately. While he writes in an approachable way, the main thing I want out of the book is actually the work of James Pennebaker, who has been researching writing as a healing technique for many decades.

The main exercise that interests me is called "story-editing." The twist I appreciate from Wilson is that one can focus on trying to understand what happened in a traumatic or difficult situation both a) from a multiple reasons perspective (aka don't just rehash again and again but try to find different reasons, especially ones that emphasize agency) and b) that actually work with multiple perspectives - in other words, writing about something that happened to you but in third or second person, so you can literally see it from another angle.

In this article about Pennebaker's work, you can see the story-editing process presented pretty clearly, minus Wilson's additions. Being a linguistic nerd, I am also super curious about Pennebaker's LIWC research - how can we estimate/see healing based on which words, how often they appear and how they change over time in someone's writing?

And all of this, does it relate to memoir? Of course it relates to memoir! It ties down deep in the way that contemplative writing in particular views the writing process. We are, from second to second, moment to moment, telling the story of who we are. It's how we develop ego, it's how we know there is an us - we are tying together our sense of who we are based on constant story telling. Revising that story also happens constantly. So to sit down and do it - whether for healing purposes or for full-length publish a memoir purposes - all of it is along the same spectrum, in my opinion. Our intentions and goals vary, but the research still bears importance, regardless of how you apply it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The story you made of me"

Excerpts and link from an interview with Lidia Yuknavitch.

These touch back to two crucial themes for me in this blog: how not to perpetuate victim status and how to work beyond confession in memoir. Please read these two passages and then link to rest if you are piqued...

With regard to Lena's book [Lena Dunham controversy], I understand some people were "triggered."  I'm a survivor myself. I was not triggered, but I can understand and respect that reaction. It's just that I'm not sure how one gets from that reaction and strong emotion to trashing the book and the author personally—I think that's a particularly contemporary activity that people seem too easily willing to engage in. 

And this:

I think the process of non-fiction writing is a deep, life-altering one, when it's done with serious intention. When it's done too quickly or without deep practice, you are just confessing or summarizing life events. Showcasing a "me."  When it's done as a careful artistic practice, you are hunting for meaning beyond events and relationships as they happened to you. Something bigger and deeper than just your you-ness.

For more...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Our Need For Story

Lately I have been thinking a lot about - and writing a lot about - the stories we tell and how they help or hinder us. 

The photo above is a page from Abigail Thomas' book, Thinking About Memoir. This little section is called "The need for story". 

Then, the link and excerpt below are from a slightly different angle - a novelist talking about his experience with therapy. I love the article title: "Psychotherapy as a kind of art". A good reminder that we are always, always constructing story, fictional or not. That's human-ness at its core.

But I stayed on, three times a week, for the next six years. And when, two years after that, my family fell apart and I became single parent to my three children, I returned and stayed on, twice a week, for eight years. Session after session, I talked with increasing freedom and trust about anything and everything — dreams, memories, doubts, fears — and about matters that had been hiding in closed rooms of my mind. I approached therapy sessions with the same energy, intensity and sheer playfulness I brought to my writing: I brought in journal entries, letters, books, photographs, my typewriter, my baseball glove and drafts of works in progress. So large was my desire for my doctor to know me that I once appeared at her door with that day’s show-and-tell piled high in one of my children’s toy wheelbarrows.

It may sound funny, but it never fails to amaze me how what we do and need in writing are the same as what we do and need in life, whether or not we are writing about our lives. But especially if we are.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Who We Are Now

In preparation for another Karuna Training weekend, and also while preparing for my Mindful Memoir course on Shambhala Online, I found this passage in The Sanity We Are Born With, A Buddhist Approach to Psychology (collected writings/talks by Chogyam Trungpa).

This is exactly what makes memoir so compelling. We write it from now, as it is a part of our now. If we see it as going back into the past, we dissociate from now and lose ourselves in it. 

If we write the past as a part of now,  we can capture a perspective that helps the reader - and us - get the space needed for compassion and understanding.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning to Teach Memoir

As a person who teaches memoir, people often think (wish?) I had a higher degree in English,  Literature or Creative Writing. I have had many feelings of inadequacy about my Bachelors in Anthropology and French. But mostly, I have found that my students trust me more based on my energy and the way I hold the space for them rather than on my "qualifications", especially since the focus in my classes is less on writing as product and more as process.

Lately, in the last year or so, I've been stretching my wings more and more in helping students with latter stages of the process, working towards creating product. I've had to plow through much fear about inadequacy and how much can I charge for something I am just starting to do now, etc, etc. But what I find in going further with students' writing - editing, critiquing, guiding larger projects towards finishing - is that I learn as I go along and so do they. Even better, we teach each other.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dreaming and Memoir

Recently, I had a version of a dream about my parents. In the dream my parents were alive. 
I have had many dreams over the years in which my parents (now deceased for decades) are alive. 
What was unusual in this dream is that we were having a conversation about the fact that neither of them died. It was all a misunderstanding. In the dream I was, like I am in real life now, working on a memoir. I was, as I am, writing about their deaths. 
However, there they were, alive in front of me. That's a bit of a problem, plot-wise.