On enemies of the people, William Stafford, and writing

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I was not happy when the President tweeted that our nation’s news media is the enemy of the people.

AmericanaseriesI am not a practicing enemy of the people, but as an undergraduate, my minor area of study was how to be an enemy of the people. I liked it so much I studied it in grad school, too. I have a brother whose previous job at a major newspaper was to help oversee the printing of work by enemies of the people for distribution to an entire city. When I was a librarian, my colleagues and I taught how to tell the difference between authentic enemies of the people and fake enemies of the people.

Given the President’s careless and disrespectful words, it was a comfort to be taking an online class with like-minded people, “Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford,” taught by his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

A poet and pacifist, William Stafford was amazingly prolific, having written some 22,000 poems during his lifetime.

WilliamStaffordHe had an early morning writing practice, and he never missed a day. Kim Stafford introduced us to his father’s writing process, gleaned from the stacks of journals William Stafford left behind. Kim encouraged us to relax into our writing, to be seekers as William Stafford was, to experiment and explore.

Our only requirement in this five-week class was to maintain a daily writing practice and share one day’s unedited writing with the class once a week. As you can imagine, the daily post-election drama weighed heavily on many of us and showed up often in our writing.

I chose not to work on my memoir during the 30 – 60 minute daily writing practice I began in connection with this class. Kim Stafford believes that, though writing can be hard work, it can be a pleasure, too, something to look forward to. When the writing isn’t easy, Kim looks for ways to make it more easeful. Since working on the memoir is goal-driven and often difficult or stressful, I decided to see if I could make my early morning writing time something separate and satisfying.

It did become that, and I now have the beginnings of several writing projects that I could develop further if I choose to:

  • An essay on whether the President has a mental illness, drawing on my experience of mental illness in the family
  • an essay on dystopias – whether we’re in one now and how each of us is a kind of “hero” character with a role to play
  • a personal essay in which I remember a disastrous first-grade art class and contrast it with a watercolor class I’m taking now, my first art class in decades
  • a sample first entry for my next book project, in which I observe, moment by moment, the sunrise outside my window.

I met some wonderful people, writers of all levels, including: a poet who is also a traditional letterpress printer and bookbinder in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; a professor of psychology and education with a background similar to my own (she also had a mother with schizophrenia) who developed a psychological tool to measure levels of humiliation that is used around the world; and another poet whose dream is to establish a retreat for artists and writers at her home on Whidbey Island.

If you are a writer and would like to know more about Kim Stafford’s approach to writing, you might enjoy his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and the Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. My copy is marked up with several favorite passages.

This quote is on the Northwest Writing Institute website:

“The problems of our time are political, ecological, economic—but the solutions are cultural. How do people speak their truth? How do we listen eloquently? If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?”  Kim Stafford

For a time, twenty of us enjoyed communally “the daily bread of language,” as my new poet/printer friend would say.

Here is a link to William Stafford reading “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

You might enjoy these wise words:

 

It just so happened that at the close of our class, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Natural and Built Environment featured a fascinating interview with the Stafford family, “Talking Recklessly.”

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A poem by printer Emily Hancock of St. Brigid Press. Emily refers to “the daily bread of language,” and that is what we enjoyed in Kim Stafford’s class.

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Visit the St. Brigid Press website, where you’ll see stunning photos of hand-set type, hand-carved illustrations, foot-powered presses, and hand-sewn books. If you frequently contact your representatives, consider ordering “The People’s Post Cards.” And be sure to see “This Is a Printing Office.”

He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

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A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

The Magic of Memoir

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San Francisco treasures

 

Excavating a Life

I’ll be taking a break from Books Can Save a Life until December so I can finish a draft of my memoir and get a good start on the revision. Before I go, I wanted to share highlights of my trip to San Francisco, where I attended the 2016 Magic of Memoir conference and spent some time with my son.

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Brooke & Linda Joy

The conference was fabulous, and left me with more than enough inspiration to see me through to the finish line of my current memoir draft. It was hosted and led by She Writes Press co-founder Brooke Warner and National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) founder Linda Joy Myers, who also happens to be my writing coach.

I’ve been working with Linda Joy for well over a year, and I had the chance to meet her in person for the first time. We had lunch together and talked memoir, of course. I was fascinated to hear about behind-the-scenes research she did for her second memoir, Song of the Plains, which will be published in 2017 – a delving into family history that took her to Oklahoma, Iowa, and Scotland. (Linda Joy’s first memoir is Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.)

Linda gave me a whirlwind tour of Berkeley, too, whisking me past Chez Panisse, a restaurant I’ve long admired, and other famous spots like Telegraph Avenue, the UC Berkeley campus, the Campanile, People’s Park, and the Berkeley Hills with their incredible views.

At the conference, I met many other writers who have memoirs in progress, which is one of the most valuable aspects of a conference like this. Memoir writing can be lonely, and it’s tremendously inspiring to meet others making the same journey.

We shared our writing with each other as we worked through the exercises and activities concocted by Brooke and Linda Joy to supplement their excellent instruction on the craft of memoir and developing an effective author platform.

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Several brave souls shared their work in progress during an open mic session hosted by Laurel Bookstore.

 

Brooke and Linda Joy are top-notch, experienced teachers in the art of memoir. Their discussions of memoir craft cover the important elements of theme, scene, narration, characterization, and takeaway. They demonstrate these elements with excerpts and examples from memoir classics, such as H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Also cited were some newer memoirs and others I haven’t yet read that you might want to check out if you enjoy the genre, including Body 2.0 by Krista Haapala, Drinking by Caroline Knapp, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Dog Medicine by Julie Barton, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.

Here, for example, is takeaway – the heart of a good memoir, a big-picture message or moment of shared connection with the reader, from Body 2.0:

“Endurance pain will not relent with change, as indeed this flavor of pain has changed  you. Loved ones may find you unrecognizable. You will see life through different eyes. In fact, endurance pain affords us the incredible opportunity to shed many useless cultural constructs like superficial success, unfulfilling relationships, and external validation.”

To this list I would add another excellent, just-published memoir, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which I wrote about in my last post.

With that, I’m off to write. I plan to finish my draft in conjunction with NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November. Since I’m not working on a novel, I guess that makes me a NaNoWriMo rebel. I’ll see you all back here in December, when I hope to have plenty of books to recommend for holiday giving and receiving.

Do you enjoy reading memoir? If so, can you recommend some of your favorites?

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I stayed in Bernal Heights and made it nearly to the top of Bernal Heights Park, where I was treated to this view of the city.

 

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I love all the colorful, artistic touches.

 

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I explored Golden Gate Park with my son. This is Stowe Lake.

 

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At my airbnb, I found this wonderful surprise, a beautifully designed backyard retreat.

My Favorite Things

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Asja and Sebree. If you’d like to hear a story about them, click on this link.

I’m all over the map with this My Favorite Things post – literally. Here are a few of my favorite things you might enjoy reading, watching, or listening to:

Orcas and making audio essays: This one is my own creation, I confess. “The Ancient Ones” is a new audio essay  in my From Where I Stand series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Have a listen – I’d love to share six and a half minutes of my fabulous Olympic Peninsula vacation with you, where I fell in love with Asja and Sebree. I’d appreciate comments and feedback here or on the Terrain.org site.

Books about famous bookstores: I’ve only been to Paris once, and I regret that I didn’t stop by the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I don’t know what I was thinking! Someday, I’ll have to remedy that. Now, there is a book about this famous shop, where some of the greatest writers of the 20th century spent their days, and even slept. See Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, by Jeanette Winterson.

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Chunksters, or Giant Translated Novels: I love this LitHub article, “Ten Giant Translated Novels that Make a Mockery of Subway Reading.”   Many thanks to my blogging friend Vishy for letting us know about this.

It’s a great little list if you want to take on some ambitious reading, which I like to do from time to time. Do any of these over-the-top books appeal to you? Which one(s)?

I want to begin Knausgaard’s My Struggle series one of these days (my son loves it), that’s what I keep saying, but I’m dismayed to find his last volume in the series is 900 pages!

a-true-novelI’m fascinated by the sound of A True Novel by Minae Mizumura set in postwar Japan because it has been compared to Wuthering Heights.

Giacomo Leopardi’s 2500-page Zibaldone may be worth dipping into, though not reading straight through, because of my Italian heritage. “Zibaldone” is what this great poet and thinker called his gigantic notebook, and these are his collected writings. I’m curious about it – there are SEVEN translators, including Ann Goldstein, who translated Elena Ferrante’s novels.

Several of the others appeal to me, too. Do any appeal to you enough to take one on?

Geeky things like an old video about the first Kodak Colorama made from a photo taken under water: For years and years, a giant Kodak photograph, known as a Colorama, hung over the crowds passing through Grand Central Station in New York. I was in those crowds; little did I know that in a few years I’d be living upstate in Rochester and working for Kodak.

Rochester is still steeped in the mythology, lore, and beauty of photography, despite Kodak’s decline. The Rochester Institute of Technology, where my son studied photography, is one of the top photo schools in the country. Fabulous photographers and photography teachers are plentiful here, as are photo galleries, photo equipment retailers, and photography experts. The George Eastman House is one of the world’s largest repositories of photos and films.

Neil Montanus was one of the elite Kodak photographers who documented America and baby boomers coming of age for Kodak advertising. I found this vintage video on the site of Jim Montanus, his son. If you’re fascinated by how things are invented and how they work, you might enjoy this.

 

People who make things: I think the trend of calling people “makers” is a little weird and pretentious, but I do love the movement back to “old soul crafts and lost arts,” in the words of one of the artisans in this delightful little video. I guarantee it will lift your spirits, especially your creative spirit. The With Love Project will soon be made into a book – I would buy it. After you watch this, tell us in the comments who your favorite maker is in the video. I’m partial to the shoe maker/designer, myself.

 

 

What do you think about anything on this list? Might you read any of the chunksters on the LitHub list? Are you especially enchanted by any of the makers in the With Love Project? 

My Favorite Things

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Our backyard water garden, where I’ve been hanging out making a podcast.

 

Podcasting!

I’ve been dusting off my out-of-date media production skills and taking a podcasting class online with Creative Nonfiction magazine. It’s been fun, aggravating and, at times, all-consuming. Last night I put the finishing touches on “Water Bewitched,” the first in my nature series entitled “From Where I Stand.”

Fingers crossed, there is an eco-literary site interested in my series. (I think I maybe made up the term eco-literary. Don’t know. There is something called eco-fiction, so…) We’ll see if they like my first one.

Quite some time has passed since I did media production for Kodak, and decades ago I received a master’s degree from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Since then, technology has reinvented itself. Now, anyone can be creative with media, but the learning curve can be steep and complex, at first.

There are about eight of us in the class from around the country and Australia who have been immersed in scripting and audio production, under the guidance of a devoted and patient reporter/teacher who works for an NPR affiliate. It’s been fascinating to see everyone’s projects as they progress. Occasionally, we meet together via Google Hangout to learn the audio editing software, trouble shoot technical difficulties, and give each other creative support.

During this, our final week, we’ll work on finishing touches and draft pitch letters for placing the podcasts.

Podcasting has taken off these past few years to become a HUGELY popular medium. The debut of the NPR podcast, Serial, was groundbreaking. This free podcast tells a true story in weekly installments. My friends and my son who listened to the first season became so hooked, they could hardly wait for each Thursday’s new episode. Sarah Koenig, the writer/producer, pioneered this new way of telling a story through sound. She’s immensely talented.

I confess I have not listened to Serial, which is in its third season, because I know I’d be hooked too, and I didn’t want it to take up lots of my time. That said, now that I’ve produced my first humble 6-minute podcast, I’ll be listening to Serial, out of curiosity and for inspiration. I highly recommend you check out Serial if you want to hear the powerful storytelling potential of podcasting.

Here are more noteworthy podcasts that I like. There are literally thousands, though, so if you’re interested, see what you can find by simply exploring online:

  • I highly recommend StoryCorps, if you haven’t heard it already. It is a public service dedicated to sharing and preserving humanity’s stories. These unscripted conversations are fascinating. If you live in certain big cities, like San Francisco or Chicago, you can reserve time in the StoryCorps booth to record your own conversation with a friend or loved one.
  • Radiolab is another high quality podcast that evolves around curiosity. These are longer programs that explore something fascinating or mysterious about…just about anything. Heady and intellectual.
  • This American Life is currently the most popular podcast in the US – that’s what they say, anyway. This is fine journalism. You can hear This American Life on your local NPR radio station, and you can subscribe to the shortened version as a podcast.
  • You can post your own podcast on SoundCloud, or you can browse to find podcasts of interest.
  • On Being with Krista Tippett is one of my favorite, favorite podcasts. It’s on public radio, too, in addition to being a syndicated podcast. A spiritual conversation that explores what it is to be human.
  • If you have a creative practice or you’re interested in the creative process, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the excellent book Big Magic, produces a series I love, called Magic Lessons.
  • Check out The Moth Podcast, based on the fine Moth Radio Hour on public radio.
  • Oops, almost forgot Tiny Desk Concerts, another NPR creation.  Fabulous, and we are lucky to know one of the talented co-producers!

There are lots more!

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Water irises in our backyard pond

My Favorite Things

 

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Books, writing, creativity, cool media and other delights….

  • Walking book clubs. Did you know these existed? Here are a couple in the UK hosted by two book bloggers who write fabulous reviews: Emily’s Walking Book Club with Daunt Books – turns out the one and only time I’ve been in London we went to Daunt Books, where we browsed for over an hour. Wish I’d known about Emily then, I’d have tried to connect with her; and  The Northern Reader – see also her Flower Power if you love gardening, flowers and nature lit.
  • Book spine poetry. A few weeks back in honor of April being National Poetry Month, I wrote some book spine poetry and asked readers to share theirs. Here is what Naomi at Consumed by Ink came up with. I love her little poems. Try it yourself, and if you’ve created book spine poetry you like, please share in the comments.
  • A good book. My favorite book bloggers always give me titles to add to my to-read list. I love this review of Hill by the French writer Jean Giono that Melissa wrote at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.
  • Instagram flat lays. I’ve been messing around with photography lately, teaching myself to do still lifes of books, flowers, and whatnot, and posting some of it on Instagram. I adore Cristina Coli’s floral work on IG, and enjoyed her “A Day of Creative Connection” blog post recently.

Have a great week!

litricity: a potent form of energy generated by great literature – – from Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms

April Lit

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden. First entry, January 1, 1906.

 

 

 

Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and often miss because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

Excavating a Life

Momphotos-18This is a happy coincidence: I’m starting a new, ongoing theme here at Books Can Save a Life (in addition to my usual book posts) called Excavating a Life on my fourth anniversary, to the day, of blogging.

Excavating a Life will be my informal, occasional, online creative journal: notes and jottings about the writing life as I try to finish this exhilarating and confounding marathon of writing a memoir, which I’m aiming to complete in 2016.

I hope these musings will speak to you who are immersed in a creative endeavor, or inspire you to begin one, and that you’ll share the challenges and high points of your own journey.

For those who follow me primarily for books, I’ll often highlight an author or work that has taught me something about pursuing a writing or creative practice with intention–so books will be a big part of Excavating a Life, too.

For instance, you’ll see a lot of Vincent Van Gogh here. I’m not a painter by any means, never learned to draw (though I’m making attempts to keep a nature journal), but I find Van Gogh’s letters an endless source of inspiration; I have three collections of them.

Here is a nugget of wisdom from Van Gogh. And it doesn’t just apply to painting (or writing) does it?

Vincent

“If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam–fine–that’s not unhealthy–if a stable smells of manure–very well, that’s what a stable’s for….Painting peasant life is a serious thing…”  Vincent Van Gogh: Ever Yours, The Essential Letters, Yale University Press 2014

 

I’m thrilled to acknowledge and thank my longtime friend and writing coach extraordinaire, Debra Marrs, who presented this gift of an idea for Excavating a Life when we met up a couple of times in Florida for afternoon tea and some fabulous Cuban food. We were in Florida to spend holiday time with family–a Christmas quite different from our usual upstate New York kind.

Thanks to my sister- and brother-in law, who have the perfect guest quarters, I started off the year with a week of intensive writing. During my mini-retreat, I was able to add 10,000 words to my memoir–not quite my goal of 13,000, but good enough.

Temple

Wat Mongkolrata Temple

My sister-in law, who is from Thailand, took us to the local Buddhist temple, where I meditated and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. It was a unique blend of spiritualities for me this mid-winter. That, and a change of scene, did wonders for my writing.

Before I close, here is one more tidbit. Have you ever heard of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory of creativity? I hadn’t, but apparently it is well known among many photographers. I found out about it yesterday. I love it and agree with it. Don’t get off that #!?&! bus. And remember, in the first stages of a project, feedback from others or your own emotions “aren’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing.”

Orchids

A different Christmas this year: orchids instead of evergreen. My niece said these look like butterflies, and I agree.

 

Are you immersed in bringing something to fruition? Or would you like to be? It could be anything: writing a book, building a stone wall, starting a business, learning to knit, climbing all the Adirondack mountain peaks, whatever. What’s your biggest creative challenge at the moment?

Journal

I bought this well worn leather journal cover in Florence years ago.

 

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

IMG_2446

 

Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

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