Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Brown Girl Dreaming

Awhile back, I began to contemplate the lines between autobiographical poetry and memoir. I wondered where one would draw the line, saying that poems by a poet were about their lives, but what they created was a book of poetry, or whether something could be called a more poetic memoir?

I found a great book of poetry by memoir master Mary Karr (in this post here), and a good guest article by Keven Bellows on Marion Roach's blog here. Jill Bialosky's article on her memoir History of a Suicide and her contemplations about poetry versus memoir is here. I love this quote in particular from Bialosky:
Both poetry and memoir attempt to uncover what lies behind the unreasoning mask and rescue it into consciousness. The creation of both arts is reliant upon Keat’s ideas of negative capability, of being capable “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
These are all adult memoirists and poets, which is, in some ways was I was looking for.

I realized over time though that I had sort of overlooked the plethora of poetic biographies for children and teens out there. One example I used to use to teach middle schoolers is Poet Slave of Cuba (a biography). In terms of telling personal stories, Naomi Shihab Nye's collection What Have You Lost? is a wonderful tender collection of poems by children and young adults about real life loss.
In fact, it seems poetry is commonly used in younger reader literature, because it is construed as being simpler, more readable, more appeasing to kids. However, that can be deceptive. Intensity can pack a punch in poetry, even moreso than in prose (see Poet Slave).

In particular, Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, has been on my list since it came out a couple of years ago, and it is wonderful. Like Poet Slave, it deals with a difficult time filled with racism and struggle, in this case, the civil rights era in the south and north. Her lyrical verse makes it possible to depict difficult scenes - difficult for adults as well as kids! - and actually to reveal the simplicity of the logic that ruled - and still rules - racist thinking.

For instance, she speaks of going north with her family, moving from South Carolina to New York City, and how her mother begins to discipline their speech with switches:

We are never to say huh?ain't or y'allgit or gonnaNever ma'am -- just yes with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don't ever ma'am anyone!The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days... 
The list of what not to say
goes on and on... 
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
into them.
Or this amazing short poem, which depicts going back to South Carolina after living up north:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

As is so often the case, my favorite passages are about memoir itself, about memory, about writing. While Woodson is depicting an era, and her experience being black at that time in the US, she also questions the nature of memory itself, especially in family. These are various passages from the amazing poem "other people's memory":

You were born in the morning, Grandma Georgiana said.
I remember the sound of the birds. Mean old blue jays squawking. They like to fight, you know!...That's how I know you came in the morning.That's how I remember. 
You came in the late afternoon, my mother said.
Two days after I turned twenty-two.Your father was at work. Took a rush hour bus tryingto get to you. 
You're the one that was born near night,my father says... 
My time of birth wasn't listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people's bad memory.

Finally, she writes throughout about her journey of coming to writing. When she was very young, words were exceptionally hard for her, which had a sting because her sister excelled at everything (from "gifted"):

I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist
twirl across the page.
When they settle, it is too late.
The class has already moved on. 
I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.
And, of course, as a National Book Award winner, she has done just that.

If you are usually writing or reading in prose memoir forms, explore poetry - whether it is explicitly labeled memoir or not. Play with form, on large and small scale. See if you can find a way to accept the uncertainty and complexity of life with simple forms, in a way complex paragraphs and sentences cannot grasp.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Young Memoir

I just read this wonderful article on NYT about writing memoir before one is forty.
One of the things I love in her argument is the understanding that writing real-time, without the lenses which come later in life, has its own merit.

Generally, in the memoir world, age and distance is favored. Generally I favor it myself! Having begun work on memoir writing in my early 30's, I, too, experienced some of the same derision or disbelief she did. When I told them it was two memoirs, I got scoffs. Then, if they were at all interested, they would ask what I had to write about so early on.

"I lost both my parents by age 20, and I am married to a transgender woman."
"Oh," was the frequent response.
But having something to write about is not the same as being able to write about it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Being Black Back-to-Back: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Two Memoirs

Recently, I decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' first book, The Beautiful Struggle, for the first time. We've own a copy of it nearly the whole time it has been out, and I've long loved his writing at The Atlantic. But it wasn't until Between the World and Me came out that I decided to finally get down to his first book, a memoir.

In it's own way, Between the World and Me is also a memoir. It is framed as a letter to his teenaged son, and includes a lot more of politics, race, and history than his first book. But especially when reading them back to back, it is impossible to ignore how much his perspective has opened, how much his view is altered by writing about how his father related to him as a boy (Beautiful Struggle) versus relating now as a father to his son (Between the World and Me).

They aren't the same book ten years apart, of course - they serve different purposes. But when the same issues arise - especially around education, race, and living situations - his change in perspective as a father writing to son instead of son writing about his father is powerful to behold.

For example, here is a paragraph from the first book, Beautiful Struggle, in which he describes his father:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Three Stages of Mindful Memoir

One of the trickiest aspects of memoir is how to turn an aspect of your life into a story - something with a beginning, a middle, and an end; something with plot and conflict; something that will hook the reader and keep them invested. Without it, you are recounting, and that may work at dinner parties, but it won't work for memoir-length work.

Unless you are writing down memories for family (see my post on memoir versus memoirs), and not looking to publish at all, or share other than for the record, this kind of building, engaging, communicating, and directing requires outside help (tester readers, if not editor(s)).

It is in the mirror of other readers where we often run into the gap between what we experienced and what we express - all the way from, "But that's how it happened" to "I can't express it any other way." 

Memoir, by definition, uses the structures and teachings of fiction to shape fact into stories that will pull people along like fiction. We have to take anecdotes, stories we've told, beliefs we've had - subconscious and conscious - and shape them into a narrative, a flow with direction and feeling. We cannot simply lay out the facts and hope others will put two and two together.

This gap between experiencing and expressing is an issue for all humans, in all forms of communication, much less art. How do you take what you are feeling, thinking, what you have experienced, sensed, and turn it into something others can understand? 

There are three stages:

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sinking and Saving in the Process of Writing Memoir

In this powerful writing by one of my students, she explores how her stories about herself both sustain her and pull her down. I have highlighted the passages that, in particular, relate to memoir stories - but overall, as she is working her way through writing a book-length memoir, Christa is also re-considering all of her life stories, related to the memoir or not. This kind of inherent crisis around life stories is pretty much a given in memoir writing, and a big part of why we need to Do It Together, not alone.

Her visceral, physical writing is super powerful - "quicksand," "tangled tendons," "waterlogged wings." What direct physical ways to describe the experience of one's mind!

What I want you to know is that while this was written from a place of and a moment of deep despair, Christa has strong resilience and belief in the power of getting the stories through and learning from them. You can especially hear this towards the end: "Why the commitment to misery? Meaningless misery." She finds the light readily, regularly, and so even when the quicksand takes her down, she can still see a way through, even if it is not able to be articulated at that moment.

Life Raft by Christa Bruhn

What keeps me afloat? What air is beneath my wings? My story is like quicksand, pulling me under, and yet I still breathe. How is that possible? What on earth sustains me? My story criss-crosses through my body like tangled tendons. I stretch as best I can but get no relief. There is no letting go when the tissue has already grown in and around these tendons. There is no untangling them. I am left with limited movement, labored breath, heavy, waterlogged wings that simply cannot fly.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Helpers Who Write Memoir

We all need to be needed, but some are more driven by the gratification of having helped someone than others. And some of us really need that as instant gratification - to give a donation now, to interrupt our quiet time and help a neighbor in need.

There's nothing wrong with being needed, and helping others. In fact, the Dalai Lama has recently pointed to our deep fear of not being needed under a lot of the current anxiety in our political experience. If that's our motivation for helping, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. While keeping busy to alleviate anxiety isn't always skillful, if we wind up benefiting others and not burning ourselves out in the process, helping as a way of staying engaged is great.

However, I have found a lot of the women I work with who wish to write memoir have a hard time trading in these kind of short-term helping circumstances to commit to the longer-term gratification of writing memoir. Here's a conglomerate case study:

Anne has a history of having been emotionally and physically abused. She wants dearly to write a memoir about how she got through these situations, so she can help other women see how to get out of abusive relationships. She believes strongly in her story, and knows it is worthwhile, at least during class and when we meet. She's in her fifties, and is less ashamed of her struggles than she used to be. She has always wanted to write this story, and feels she is ready, but when she sits down to write, it won't come out. Whenever she can get some words down, magically, other people suddenly call on her - a neighbor who needs her help cleaning the garden, her mother, who is constantly calling for assistance. It's like they know she was just sitting down to write! How is that possible?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Marya Hohnbacher is bipolar, and her memoir of her life with it, Madness, is amazing. If you have an interest in mental health memoirs, which can be rare in terms of this kind of quality and attention to details, please read it.

There are so many passages when she describes what it feels like to be manic, or depressed, with such directness as to put me right there (squirming) with her. I'll share some of those.

But first, some of her more universal, process-oriented passages, which show her wisdom and whiz with words:

How do we know who we are or what we can become? We tell ourselves stories. The stories we tell are what we know of ourselves. We are a creation, a product of our own minds, a pastiche of memory, dream, fear, desire. My memory looks like a child's collage, or a ransom note, incomplete and full of holes. All I have is today, this moment, to work with. I am writing my story as I go. I am inventing myself one moment, one experience, at a time. 
And that's all right. It means I can choose who I become. It means I can write my future. I can create a person, write a story, full of hope.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gender: Profound and Mundane

Excerpt from Tomboy by Liz Prince
What I most often encourage students to write about, especially when it comes to memoir, is what is most mundane to them: daily details, describing how we even brush our teeth or wash our hair. Why? Because even if we don't wind up including that in a final memoir, the process of exploring - with curiosity - how we actually do daily mundane things can reveal more about ourselves than re-telling the most profound-seeming powerful bang-em-out dramatic trauma stories.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Being Known


Many memoir writers hope to be known through their stories. We hope by writing down what has happened to us, others will see us more clearly, we will be understood, acknowledged.

This is a dangerous gamble for memoir. If it is hard enough for us to feel known with real-life people right in front of us, who are already sympathetic and helped us live our story, the chances of a stranger picking up an essay or book and really feeling us in a genuine way are even smaller.

One of Natalie Goldberg's most famous expressions is "Don't use writing to get love." Most of us, if we are honest, do hope not just for recognition (fame, money, etc - the kind of "known" Katz refers to in her book) but also to be KNOWN in some deep way by sharing our stories, baring our souls. 

We need to be clear about what kind of "being known" we seek. Is it simply to garner fame? Rarely that simple. Is it to gain acknowledgement of what we have been through, or the prowress of our writing skills? Possible, but also uneven. Or is it that we want to be truly known as humans, really seen and accepted? This last kind of search will not be fulfilled by being published, I can all but guarantee it. For everyone person who sends you a personal letter, letting you know how much your story meant to them, there will be 15 others who dismiss it, write a bad review, and 1500 who don't care about it at all.

Does this mean you shouldn't bother?
Not at all!
But keep checking in with yourself about what it is you really want. Looking at your need to be KNOWN is important, and being realistic about how you seek it is crucial. If you are still convinced at some level that being famous, should that even be a result, will bring you a sense of Peace, all you have to do is read the words of famous writers and memoirists - their isolation, the gap between how others see them and their actual selves in particular.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't bother. You need to do it for the right reasons, is all. And if you desire to be truly known and accepted, use the writing process itself to more deeply accept and acknowledge yourself, seeking out supportive readers who can positively but clearly and precisely give you feedback on your story and how you tell it. 

That way, by the time you are "known", if that's how your writing turns out, you will already feel KNOWN, and have relationships to come back to for support when (if) fame comes along.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Haiti On My Mind

A few weeks ago, I picked up Dany Laferriere's memoir of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Tout Bouge Autour de Moi (The World Turns Around Me). It's an amazing book, full of powerful, palpable, personal description. At one point, a nephew, also named Dany, insists he not write about the earthquake - that the elder Dany's Haiti is done, over writing about, and this is his Haiti, his topic. Elder Dany points out there are as many ways to write an experience as there are experiences - endless.

In search of more information about the quake and in particular, the failure of aid to improve Haiti's lot, especially with the recent hurricane Now also a factor, I turned to the half memoir, half reportage of Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By. Katz's book is a) by a "blan" - an outsider - and so has more distance (for better and worse) but also b) is the story of him living through the quake - including serious PTSD - as he was embedded there before and after the fact.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Memoir Vs. Memoirs

For a long time, the word memoir only existed in the plural.

Picture it: a rich Lord sits around his estate after a long life of plundering and looting, and decides it is time to write his memoirs. He wants to tell all the tales of his life, from being a young lad who aced cricket to marauding the barbarians to his retirement and marriage to a much younger woman.

This is what most of us picture (or some version therein; famous stars, former presidents, you name it) when we hear the word "memoir." But that is a whole other kettle of fish from what memoir is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Brooke Warner on Liability in Memoir

This is such a good article, i am just going to link to it. I especially agree with this closing passage, which could really start the article, and suggestion #3.


Check out Brooke Warner's classes and She Writes - great community and resources. And this new anthology Warner edited, mentioned in this article.

Here's the quote -

"If you’re afraid of a big fallout, consider whether that fear might be your inner critic at work, making you bad and wrong for exposing someone or something that you’re not “supposed” to share. Going against the grain and exposing yourself and others is the number one scariest experience of memoir writing. You may need to be in dialogue with your critic to ease its mind so you can continue to write your truth. Remember that you are brave and in charge of what you ultimately share or don’t share, and you have time between starting your book and publishing it to make incremental choices and edits along the way."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Waking Takes Time: PTSD and Memoir

Recently, I've been involved in learning a technique to help relieve PTSD. The project is focused around helping vets and their families, but the fact is, the organization also knows plenty of people have PTSD from non-explicit war circumstances: rape, abuse when growing up, even event-specific PTSD from things like 911.

I've also had some conversations with therapists who insist we cannot work on memoir until we have cleared the triggers around our PTSD. The fact is, as of now, I have yet to see anything, included the technique I am learning and offering, to clear those memories entirely. I've pointed to this before in this blog, here. But also, I am skeptical that waiting until we have reached some state of clarity is useful. There are exceptions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Embodied Love

There's no hotter topic in memoir than love.

To look at someone's sexual history up close (from trite 365 day dating projects, to heartfelt analyses of former lovers) is something a lot of us seem to be craving.

To reveal love in the context of marriage or divorce is also big (Eat, Pray, Love).

But in her book In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler breaks open all our previous concepts of love and bodies, sex and sexism. She slashes together her own bouts with cancer alongside rape in Congo with incredible eloquence. She has been there, owns her privilege, never lets her memoir be only her story of love, or sex, or rape, or loss. An incredible blend of the personal and political.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ancestral Keys

The following is a spontaneous Haibun (she didn't know this form existed, combining prose and haiku) by a student, following our most recent Read and Write where we shared and discussed Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

As maddening as it can be to have to write and rewrite our way through old personal stories (if memoir) or characters' life events (if fiction), the fact is, most of writing is re-writing, and most of re-writing is simply understanding. If memoir, simply understanding what we believed without realizing we believed it - or could believe differently - this whole time.

The Key The Old One Gave Me - 

Barbara Samuel


I wish there had been a key, but I had to open the door myself by writing about him.  By writing about him I learned what I did not know before.  The key was in the writing.  The key was hidden for nearly two decades after he’d already died.  I had created a story and carried it all my life.  I can’t remember when I made that story, but it seemed true enough.  I believed it.  Only when I began to write did the story fall apart.  I could no longer hold my story together.  The words of my story floated away, lost their meaning.  As I wrote about my father, I discovered him again and wished I had created a different story so long ago.  As I wrote about my father, I saw a different man than the one I thought I knew, even though I wrote only what I already knew.


I began to forgive him for all the things he had done to make me hate him.  No, I began to forgive myself for hating him.  That is hard to do.  Because I can’t go back and tell him I’m sorry for hating him.  I can’t make it right.


The key to my father is in the words I write about him.  I have not yet stepped all the way through the door, but I’m getting closer.


What animal sleeps

Beneath fertile years of earth

Waking in my roots


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Selling Childhood

This last week, a relative put on the market the last piece of property my family owned: a cottage near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. My family was in good fortune to have four properties over the generations - the house I grew up in, in Appleton, Wisconsin; a greystone in Chicago, Illinois; my grandmother's house in Woodstock, Illinois; and this cottage. All of the other properties got sold closer to the deaths of the folks who owned them initially - this one stayed in the family.

It's been a long process, including digging up the cremains on the property so we wouldn't leave a graveyard there. Not easy. When the listings did finally appear, I was a bit shocked - there it is! Some parts of it look exactly as they have for over forty years, some parts are newer because of some room remodeling. Nothing unknown, except that kind of aspirational zen quality that comes with empty rooms, a sort of "Hey, maybe I could make this work for me," feeling that always crosses my mind with property for sale and rooms empty like blank canvasses.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

questions about memoir

Recently, I was asked to fill out some questions for a woman who is writing a book on creativity. It's a project in progress, and I don't know if my answers will be included, but they were an interesting enough time capsule that I wanted to include them here. The book is currently titled: True You - How to Be Creative In An Already Full Life. I'll start with the key question for me which revealed, quite extemporaneously, something I had gone through and not quite realized I'd gotten through it:

Now, or in the past, has finding and taking time for your creative pursuits created any disruptions or problems in your relationships or obligations with family, friends, co-workers or others? If so, how did you handle and/or solve these issues. Specific situations and examples would be extremely helpful.

My answer, as surprising to me as to anyone else:
In the past, I have often felt as if what I want to make - whether the content compromises or could compromise someone I love, or our relationship is impacted by the time I want to spend creating - cannot happen without sacrificing my relationship to the people I love.

But I am starting to think it simply isn't the case.

For instance, in my memoir, for the longest time I thought I absolutely had to include certain family details (I will not share them here, but let's call them very potent and also damaging to those who were involved). If I had persevered, I likely would have wound up severing some of the only family relationships I have left (there aren't many). In the end, I cannot say virtuously that I chose not to include those details because of a moral decision - frankly I realized it had to do with the plot, the arc, the point of my story - however, I can say that overall my story now, as written, is less about victimhood, less about "what others did to me" and more about "how I have worked with my life" and resilience. In doing so, in shifting the focus to me, ironically, I actually save the honor of others, which after all didn't need sacrificing so much.

I believe in truth, and each of us having our own truth (though it changes constantly for me). I also believe in boundaries, and maintaining healthy family relationships. But it's taken awhile - and luckily many rejected manuscripts - for me to realize the deepest hurts aren't always what need to be shared. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Stories We Aren't Sure We Should Share

I am running a contemplative writing retreat right now on Washington Island in Door County Wisconsin. I run this annual retreat in an old house with a football-sized field looking out over Detroit Harbor. We usually have around a dozen students for a weekend, then the group shrinks down to eight or so as we sink in to an entire week together with the wind, water, our minds, and each other.

Most of my students write memoir, or at least personal stories. Perhaps because this is my main writing form, and I attract them. Or perhaps because deep underneath, so many of us have felt our stories are not welcome in the past, not something others want to hear, are open to receiving. The act of writing our stories - for our own sake, for an immediate audience, or for publication, can be not only therapeutic but also sincerely and deeply resolve a deep rejection we received from others at the times of trauma or difficulty.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


People often tell me if they grew up in the suburbs, they have nothing to write in terms of memoir.*

However, due to my great privilege to read the minds (on paper) of people who did grow up in suburbia, through wonderful unpublished and published pieces, I can directly attest to the falseness of this claim. Besides, it seems to be an extension of the "boring life" fear, which is actually never an issue, since you don't have to have an exciting life to write memoir - just be willing to write about it directly, clearly, with connection, and honesty.**

Recently, a writer I follow named Harriet Alida Lye, published a lovely piece on Hazlitt about being from a Toronto suburb. She speaks to the power of the landscape that shaped her, even though she's had the great honor to also live in Toronto and even Paris. Paris may be more romantic, more likely to sell than Richmond Hills, but the fact is, Richmond Hills is where she is from.***

A boyfriend once said of Appleton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, that it was a suburb without a city to be attached to. Astute. Appleton's distinct blandness is the suburb-like tone of a place counting on a larger city to make it more appealing. Only except for Green Bay, Appleton is the largest city in Northeastern Wisconsin, and Green Bay, a half hour away, is hardly a metropolis to harbor 'burbs.

The lesson of writing what we know, where we are from, where we have lived now and where we were born, is a continual one in accepting who we are, what our experience is, which is key to the right tone of voice to keep in memoir. Memoir isn't confession, it isn't expulsion of dark secrets.

It's simply revealing what life is, next to what life was. Life happens everywhere - even in the suburbs. Fact is, since the 50's, suburbia has grown and continues to grow at a rapid pace. Writing about your life in suburbia may go even further than simply expressing your truth - chances are it can counter the false faces of shows like Desperate Housewives and instead connect others who are ashamed of their milquetoast past in a deeply universal way. Go for it.

*I am speaking here of specifically the North American suburban phenomenon. Suburbs act really differently in other countries - the main one I know being France, where suburbs are actually where immigrants fled to after being driven from cities by white Parisians, for instance. Inverse white flight.

**I also suspect this fear of writing about suburbia has something to do with avoiding the complications around white flight in North America, wherein suburbs were built not only to house the prosperous returning soldiers from WWII, but also expanded rapidly as people of color moved into cities and white people fled to surrounding areas. For now, that's another issue, but I wanted to point to some of the secret white guilt I suspect underlies some fear of the "boredom" of 'burbs. As a white friend who lives in Marin County recently pointed out, he and his wife have traded "danger and tons of culture for safety and zero culture" - code for moving out of mixed race/class areas in Oakland and into a purely white, rich area. If you grew up in a rich, white place, or even middle class boring white place, that doesn't mean your story isn't worth telling. It just means it will be different from a different class and race story.

***Bonus: Read Alida Lye's wonderful piece questioning whether a disillusionment with the City of Light actually exists here. And reading list for a couple of great memoirs explicitly about suburbia, though if you pay attention, lots of memoirs actually take place in them:
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie
Blue Suburbia: An Almost Memoir by Laurie Lico Albanese

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Your Story Doesn't Matter - And That's A Good Thing

Your story doesn't matter because it is all in how you write/tell it. 99% of your memoir writing is about your voice, your approach, your angle, your understanding, and only 1% about the story itself. Even if two people have the same pretense - writing about having grown up with alcoholic parents and how that shaped their future relationships - even the same one line summary: "Growing up with alcoholic parents, I learned love is giving your all to someone else. In my failed marriage, I learned otherwise," - there are two different books, only partially influenced by the fact that their lives are separate.

People worry to me all the time that their lives are not interesting enough. Not enough happened to them (usually, the worry goes, not enough trauma, or only trauma).  Really, truly, this is irrelevant. What matters is wanting to write about it enough to stick out a project, to really care and be curious.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Parent Memoirs With Equanimity

I love the serendipity of library roulette. I put a lot of books on hold, some of which take a long time because they are newer or rarer, some of which come in immediately.

Recently, my holds for End of Eve by Ariel Gore and Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn came in at the same time. I groaned - whoa - that's two heavy "parents-with-mental-health-challenges" memoirs at once. But the timing turned out to be quite in tune.

ABNiSC is Flynn's memoir about the incredible intersection of his father's life and his own. He grows up without his dad, only really meeting him when Nick Flynn is in his 20's, after his mom has committed suicide. How they meet, however, is the crux - by the time thy meet, Nick is working in a homeless shelter and his dad is near-homeless, eventually winding up in the same place where Nick works.

EoE is about a two year period in Ariel Gore's life when her mom is dying of  stage four lung cancer. Gore moves her entire life - son, partner at that time, house - to where her mom wants to be as she dies. Of course, what was supposed to take a few months took two years, and revealed even deeper layers of her mother's narcissism (something Gore had struggled with for years) in the dying process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Structure as Liberation: Unmastered

I finally read Katherine Angel's memoir Unmastered: A Book on Desire (Most Difficult to Tell). It had a strangely warm welcoming in 2012 in England - I say strange because it is a pretty direct and robust memoir about sexuality, and because England doesn't have the same memoir trend happening as in the States.

At a surface level, for me, this book is by a vanilla, heterosexual, cis-gendered academic woman exploring the edges of BDSM. Normally I wouldn't touch a book like that - I am much more interested in queer experience, as it is closer to my own, and playing with much more explicit depth around gender and power.

However, just like the apparent content and identity, the structure - complex but often showing just a few words a page - belies the complexity and depth of this book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Memoir and Face As Time Code

Ruth Ozeki, who made the incredible short film on her grandmother which I have written about here before (Halvinf the Bones) has come out with a genius short memoir called The Face: A Time Code (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632060523/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_6PUvxbX216BW2).

This incredible tiny title chronicles her watching her own face in a mirror for three hours. That's it. But it's so profound - her reflections on impermanence, self and lack of self, aging and racism, are all mind-blowingly astute, accurate and poignant.

To whit:
Eleven years prior to my birth, my two halves had been mortal enemies. My mother’s people were killing my father’s people, and vice versa, and at a very young age, I was aware of this enmity and aware, too, that I embodied it. And yet my face evinced its opposite: the force of the attraction—true love, sex, miscegenation, call it what you will—that brought me into being. With all these primal and contrary passions eddying below the surface of my skin, it’s no wonder people found my face disturbing.

I myself have been pondering the classic Buddhist Koan which asks what your face was before your parents were born. The fact that Ozeki opens with this question drew me in immediately. This question deeply gets at interdependence and the lack of a beginning or ending of a single self. Ozeki, in her prologue:
What did your face look like before your parents were born? I first read this koan when I was eight or maybe nine years old. Someone had given me a little book called Zen Buddhism or perhaps the book had belonged to my parents and I’d taken it from their shelves, thinking it ought to be mine. The book was small and slim, the perfect size for a child to hold, but more importantly, it had a friendly face, which made it stand out from the other duller books on my parents’ shelves.

She even interrogates the face of the book! And wonders about the nature of faces all together:
What makes a face so special? It’s just an organizational device. A planar surface housing a cluster of holes, a convenient gathering place for the sense organs.
Such an intelligent and genuine line of personal questioning from one of my favorite playful zen philosophers. 

And, of course, Ozeki also looks at her own process as an author and filmmaker:
It was so hard to put my first film out into the world, to publish my first novel, to break my family’s silence. I suspect all families have this, some code of silence that is absolute and inviolable and yet so omnipresent as to be almost invisible, too. Like God. Or air.

Noh masks, classic films and plays both Japanese and American, a million small moments of irritation and curiousity - this great small experiment is a treasure of a mini memoir. And, as always, her humor:
01:36:41 As a Zen priest, I probably shouldn’t be using makeup at all. Isn’t there a precept against lipstick? If not, shouldn’t there be? Surely I should be a bit less attached to my physical appearance by now, no? Is my lingering attachment a barometer of my unenlightened state? The author in me is apparently still vain. She is still trying. Is there a time when a woman is officially old enough to stop caring?

Yes, even Zen priests still care about their aging faces, at least female Ruth Ozeki ones do.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Your Body Keeps the Score

The title is reference to a masterful book by Bessel Van Der Kolk. He researches and discusses the endless spectrum of awareness we can experience about where in our body we hold trauma, in particular. With incredible stories from his own experiences as a therapist, and plenty of personal, readable discussion, it's one of my new favorite books. Incredibly life-affirming.

And it is good these kinds of resources exist, because it can be quite intense to unlock trauma in the body. Even if you don't have a history with "Trauma" (capital T), simply going through childhood gave you enough experience with separation, isolation and individuation to cause disturbances and neurotic habits that often persist in your body without your conscious awareness.

Last weekend I co-taught a program with Sasha Lasdon of Integrated Eros called Write From the Hip. It was a powerful experiment in doing simple movements involving the hips and pelvis, then writing from those experiences. Many of the participants found not only sex and sensuality arising, but also vulnerability and anger. For quite a few, it released something in them they would have never found not paying attention to those sources.

Embodied writing is crucial, especially in memoir. Not only does your body keep the score, it also keeps the story - the whole story, not just the single layer that may exist in your mind only. Keep exploring, deep into your body with people you trust. Explore EMDR, TRE, Somatic Experiencing Therapy; do yoga, walking, exercise. Find what your body has to offer to your writing and you will find all the layers you need to make your story strong.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Short Memoir Film and Memory

(Still from I think this is the closest to how the footage looked)

A friend shared this short film, called I think this is the closest to how the footage looked with me, after I posted on Facebook on Sunday (Mother's Day) that no matter how much I want to try and celebrate all the awesome moms I know, Mother's Day is almost always unbearably hard for me, even nineteen years after my mom died.

It brings me back to the movie Halving the Bones, one of my favorite short films on memoir and memory, and The Stories We Tell, a full-length feature exploring a we-moir of a family who finds out about a mom's secret life after she dies.

I cannot say enough about these movies. And as I am still recovering from Mother's Day, I won't. Please go watch them, and keep exploring these topics in other genres. Sometimes film - including a tiny movie made with a coffee grinder as father and door handle as son - communicates better than any written word what remains and what gets lost when we try to document the important things that happen to us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Spectrum of Memoir

There's a long spectrum of personal writing out there, and I like to think of the word "memoir" encompassing it all. A lot of what I discuss here isn't formally memoir - essays are technically not memoir, though collections like Brenda Miller's (see a list of them here) really play with that line. Technically, a memoir is a book-length project covering a particular era or theme of one's life. But one of my mindful activities is re-defining memoir.

Autobiography holds down the far left end of the spectrum of memoir-like writing. Autobiography is something book-length that famous folks write, or what used to formally be called "memoirs" - note the plural. Unless you are a former president or athlete, chances are no one is going to read your birth-to-death story. So most of the rest of us write something to the right of autobiography.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Provoking Empathy in Memoir

One of the potential powers of memoir is to bring readers deep into a life they otherwise would not experience. For someone who has never thought of themselves as an addict, reading a very real and raw depiction of drug addiction is more powerful than reading journalistic reports or statistics. 

However, it is also challenging to read - and write - such a thing. By how we write about our trauma, we can distance our readers - or encourage the further distancing we are prone to doing when we encounter someone else's discomfort and don't want to get close to it. The more difficult the content of the story - violence, extreme isolation, trauma - the more the writer has to do to develop safety so her readers will keep reading and relating to her without exploiting the tale.

One of my students is writing a memoir about a time in her life when everyone she had been close to for decades left her. Because of their misinterpretation of her health, people suddenly disowned her: canceled their friendships, and otherwise cut her out.

The effects, as you can imagine with even the smallest amount of empathy, were devastating.

As we have discovered in our intimate and supportive group working with her on the manuscript, even we who know and sympathize with her are doing our own distancing. It's an unfortunately common human way to subconsciously pretend we don't understand in order to not connect. On the one hand, this is because we don't actually understand - if all your closest friends and family have never given up on you, it's almost impossible to imagine it. Really. No matter how empathic you are.

On the other hand, "I can't even imagine what that was like," is not an uncommon thing for us to say to someone like who has been through horrific experiences. When I hear someone or even myself say this, part of what I hear is:"I don't want to imagine."

We want to keep extreme suffering at a long distance from our seemingly stable and companionable lives. By thinking someone os not like us, by making their experience separate enough, we can keep ourselves safe - or so we think. As if suffering is infectious by some imagination osmosis.

So, as readers, as humans, we can try to relate more. We can try harder. All of us.

As memoir writers, often our stories ache to be told BECAUSE others did not understand or relate or hear us when we are suffering. So from our end, what can we do to help people develop empathy, understand us, and see the whole picture in our story?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Versus How

When they begin writing memoir or even reading it, so many people are concerned about the "what", or the content: Can I tell stories about my mom or dad or sister or brother or cousin? I can't really talk about my marriage, right, or my children, or my former job, right?

Starting memoir concerns are most often about these kinds of things - about what to tell, what not to tell. They belies a misunderstanding common in our culture - memoirs are "tell-alls" and what we tell is the hardest part. Will I get sued? Will my mother die? Questions like this are about content.

Content is important, don't get me wrong. Certainly Wild would not have been as strong a seller if her mother hadn't died (to be crude) and Eat Pray Love is leveraged on Gilbert's divorce (again, not to be crude). If those women had chosen to not write about these key aspects of their personal struggles because of fear over libel or dishonor, they would not have written the books at all.

However, what is more important is not what is written, but how it is written.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Right Distance in Memoir

Recently, I've been working with a client on her memoir about becoming psychotic. She is a mental health care provider, which adds an extra depth to the whole experience.

Psychological care providers having experienced mental health challenges is a powerful topic, one strangely un-published about, save a few very notable examples: Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison,  The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, and Undercurrents by Martha Manning. This client and I have been discussing why that might be the case, and the standard issues apply: professional reputation, respectability, stigma, etc. Of course, all of these challenges are even better countered by a professional taking the risk to tell their tale. But the lineage of stigma is strong. And it goes deeper than just the lack of publication - it also enters the form the tales take once they are written and presented to be published.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mary Karr: Poetry Meets Memoir

In my search for poetry-as-memoir, I have encountered something I intuitively knew but hadn't quite articulated or had articulated for me:
Most poetry is memoir. 

Highly autobiographical, with lyricism that can get at feeling over fact, poetry and memoir both  prefer senses, experience and feeling. No wonder I like them both so much.

My favorite discovery so far is finding Mary Karr's poetry. I had no idea she wrote poetry. 
And here's the best part - it's really fucking good. From the collection Sinners Welcome:

STILL MEMORY The dream was so deep
the bed came unroped from its moorings,
drifted upstream till it found my old notch  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Perec's Four Kinds of Memory

I recently found a copy of a collection of short non fiction pieces by Georges Perec, a French author who played close to the OuLiPo* school and loved to toy with the edges between fiction and fact.

One essay in particular caught my attention immediately: The Work of Memory. One of the things Perec did in his writing was elevate the worth of daily, mundane tasks, promoting himself to recall them with as much directness as - if not more than - trauma or large significant events. He speaks in this essay about a socialism of memory, in a sense, a non-hierarchical access to the place where collective experience meets personal expression.

In a follow-up, Notes on What I'm Looking For, he refers to four fields of his interest in his work. I love these descriptions - "in one he grows beetroot, in another Lucerne, in a third, maize." All grown by him, but with different focuses of interest. Here are those four fields, also of great interest to memoir readers and writers:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Looking at History Through Memoir: Jim Grimsley

I have read quite a few memoirs/autobiographies about the the civil rights era by black civil rights leaders, most notably John Lewis' Walking With the Wind (which he calls "A Memoir of the Movement" - a fascinating subtitle, for another time). Before now, I hadn't realized how little I knew about the desegregation era in schools in specific. To read my first hint of it "from the inside" from a white man is powerful, though of course, incomplete. I am now seeking out more titles which explore it from the black perspective, as well. In the mean time, please find more about a wonderful, historical book by a white man who happened to be a boy in the "front lines" of integration.

The memoir is Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. Grimsley happened to grow up in a tiny town in North Carolina, and be high school aged when the Freedom of Choice program went into effect in 1966. The bulk of the memoir covers the time between 66-68, when the Freedom of Choice program gave way to full desegregation.

Grimsley is a fascinating narrator. He was a self-identified young "sissy" - gay but not knowing the word, hemophiliac to such a degree that no other kids touch him and he never plays in gym class. Already an outsider, in other words, and an outsider others are afraid to bully or tease, lest they kill him. He half places and half finds himself making friends with the black kids - first the three girls that come to his all-white high school, then the completely halved population of black and white the first few years of desegregation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More Multimedia Memoir and a Word on Natural Metaphor

I cannot get over this cartoon about being date raped.

I want to warn you that it is intense, and visceral, and yet not explicit. She has found the 100% perfect balance between personal and universal, and a naturally-existing metaphor in her own experience: making breakfast for her rapist, being precise about it turning out just right, in order to convince herself she was not raped.

For all of the memoir I read, cartoon memoir are actually likely my favorite. Included in that list are the ever-classics Persepolis and Fun Home, but also lesser-known works like Need More Love and underground classic Blankets.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Multimedia Memoir

Linsday Rogers, cermaicist, painting a mug with some donated words from a poet at Pentaculum, the residency I attended at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in January.
The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us. 
-Natalie Goldberg, "We Are Not the Poem" in Writing Down the Bones  

The above quote is one of my favorites. I love it especially because so much of poetry is autobiographical - whether or not we use "I" in it.

A few years ago, I wrote a sestina about a young girl getting raped and having a child from the rape. It was an immediate poem and very powerful. When I put it in the third person, it felt too distant. I changed it to first person, and it was much stronger. Most of my friends and readers knew it wasn't me - for one, I don't have a kid. But the famous visiting poet at my residency *did* think it was me. I was a bit embarrassed to explain I had not overcome all the woman did in the poem to take a month off to write, and she was a bit embarrassed to fall for the belief that "I" in a poem = autobiographical. She applauded the power of the poem none the less.

I bring this up because it is rare to find memoir in verse form. It is rare to find any full length book in verse form, other than a poetry manuscript in which each of the poems are their own distinct pieces. But in my recent residency at Arrowmont in Tennessee, I was reminded by my fellow writers that a fair number of poetry manuscripts are unofficially memoirs.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parts Work

A split-person pot from the "boneyard" (discarded pottery) room at the Arrowmont School of the Arts
Though of course, memoir is not therapy, there are natural overlaps between the two. Just like there are natural overlaps between mindfulness/meditation and memoir.

Because I am a contemplative psychology nerd, on occasion I like to bring out that side. And one of the most helpful tools I have found for memoir writing - for writing in general, and in fact, for life - is parts work.

Parts work stems out of Gestalt Therapy (we consist of many parts that fit together) and Internal Family Systems Therapy (we have internalized our family situation and have aspects of us that speak to each other in those same dynamics). Teaching writing, I encourage students to explore these, because they represent our natural range of voice (not to say our only range, but our natural starting) and developing compassion for all these inner parts (whom I sometimes call our "inner others") really helps us meet the outer others - strangers, friends, lovers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Importance of Basic Goodness in Memoir

In writing memoir, we must veer from blame-placing or shame-taking. Either of these actions imply two beliefs:
1. There is something fundamentally wrong/bad/broken about our lives
2. If we could just name names, all will be fixed.
Either of these are uselessly circular - endless struggle and suffering.

I had a dream last night in which I started a righteous argument by trying to place blame. It all escalated from there, and I soon remembered there's no backing down from a bad beginning. And that's not even a published manuscript, just a dream in my head. A parable reminder of how painful and self-defeating that is.

But there is another kind of endlessness. In contemplating basic goodness this morning, in pondering something my mind believes but heart still struggles to grasp: that humans, that all beings are fundamentally good, ok, as is - the image of ouroboros came to mind. The snake eating its own tail.

I have often thought of the ouroboros as a sign of futility, but a little research showed me its natural positivity and flow (see in image above). 

That fine edge between wisdom and neurosis, right here in our own stories.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mirror Maze

I came to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to revise my main memoir, My Bermuda Triangle. I came here thinking it would be like Johnson, Vermont, where I spent a month at Vermont Studio Center a decade or so ago. Johnson is a tiny town, barely a town, quite rural and remote, extremely quiet.

Gatlinburg is not.
Or, I should say, Arrowmont is (the school where I am in residency for the week), but the town is not.

The town has not one, not two but eight separate Ripley's museums - the main "Believe it or Not!" museum, plus two mirror maze things, plus a haunted house and...you get the idea. It's actually a lot like Wisconsin Dells near Madison, with strips full of 100's of crappy shops which seem exciting at first but then you realize just repeat variations on the same fudge (universal) and moonshine (ok, THAT we don't have in Wisconsin).

But what caught my attention first thing the first day was the mirror maze.
THAT is what memoir is like, I thought, and snapped the above shot.