“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
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.
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.”
“I usually write long historical romance–mostly set in western America in the 1800’s, but I will also have a Medieval anthology coming out in the fall/winter and a civil war novel in the future, as well as a Canadian Mounted Police novel. I’ve also been included in anthologies and novellas.
As far as researching goes: first I investigate climate, terrain, foliage and fauna, foods, and items used at the time, types of lingo, and slang.
For example, in A COWBOY CELEBRATION, which is set in Wyoming in 1882, I had to make sure there were apples and what kinds, what the growing season would have been, and the ripeness and color of the apples hanging on the trees. Thank God for the internet, because it’s so much easier today than years ago doing research.
But my problem is, I get so wrapped up in research that I spend hours reading every tidbit and never use half of I read. I think that happens to a lot of us. But I love finding the answers!”
“I started writing as a form of catharsis made necessary by having to watch my son suffer through drug addiction. You see, books save lives in the writing, as well as in the reading of them.
Shortly after I started writing The Post Office, my son was arrested on drug-related charges and ended up in a prison where he was not allowed to have books. He’s been an avid reader all his life; this was the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment. So I started sending him my chapters, imbedded into letters, so he’d have something to read. He would edit them and make suggestions in the margins and mail them back. We had a flurry of mail going back and forth and I’ve not been as prolific since. His one pencil became his most important possession while he suffered through his time there, and his proverbial fingerprints are all over my book.
My suspense novel features six characters, five of which are made up and one of whom is not –it’s me; putting my story and feelings into keystrokes, which turned into pages, then chapters, made it possible to function during some very dire times. I keep writing now that he is clean, to document his success and to let other mothers know that drug addiction can be survived. It’s my belief that it is very important to be talking about addiction; there are so many suffering from it, and even more people who suffer on the sidelines as I did and do; I hope that my efforts will help people to be comfortable with this conversation.”
Roz Murphy’s Bob books [Bob at the Lake, Bob at the Plaza] narrate the screwball adventures of a crabby woman of a certain age, the kind grape grower who lives up the hill, and a martini-loving ghost.
“Since I’m the “crabby woman of a certain age” in this scenario, all I pretty much had to do was tell the story of Bob, my pain-in-the-butt martini-loving ghost, and our misadventures here in the Finger Lakes. I usually write early in the morning, while Bob is still nursing his hangover from the night before, since he’ll leave me alone for a couple of hours then.”
“In January 2012, my sister and brother-in-law invited me to celebrate the 90th birthday of a dear friend on the porch of Belhurst Castle for their famous Sunday Brunch. Watching the staff serve up incredible food and fuss over our friend made me wonder about their lives, their hopes and dreams. And wonder about the guests. And wonder about the visitors to the dining room and the spa. So many stories!
The idea for Lakeside Porches was born that sunny winter morning. That said, Tompkins Falls is not an actual city. Chestnut Lake is not Seneca or Canandaigua Lake or any of the Finger Lakes, although it has much in common with several of them. The Manse Inn and Spa is not Belhurst Castle, although the Belhurst may very well be one of the beautiful lakeside inns with a dining porch that serves lunch to the characters from my books.”
It’s Monday of spring break when Professor Lyssa Pennington’s backyard garden project unearths a loaded revolver. With no record of violence at their address and no related cold case, the Tompkins Falls police have no interest. But the Penningtons and a friend with the State Police believe there’s a body somewhere. Whose? Where? And who pulled the trigger?
At the height of the Irish famine of the 1840s, in a small town of Ahadallane, north of Cork City and south of Mallow, Jeremiah joins the rebels in the fight for Ireland’s freedom from British rule and learns firsthand the futility of violence. He and his best friend and brother-in-law, Father Michael Riordan disagree about the means to the end and ultimately take diverse paths when Michael is assigned to a parish in America.
Elizabeth took more than a dozen trips to Ireland to research Jeremiah’s Hunger, which is based on her own family history. Currently, she’s working on a memoir about her years in a convent with the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“My research has been chronologically driven. For Jeremiah’s Hunger, I discovered genealogical records that led the way. For Saving Faith: A Convent Memoir, I am working with a distinct time period (1968-1977) so am able to explore those times historically, culturally, politically and cull the important and relevant facts. Imagination for the historical fiction and memory for the memoir are key elements.”
Mothering: An Art of the Heart is a collection of short and engaging stories that celebrate family life, told by nine moms who want to share the wisdom and experience they gained in the process of raising their children. Each story highlights a specific idea or activity that may be used by the readers to enhance their families’ experience as their children grow.
This is not a text book or how-to manual, rather it is a forum where one set of mothers hopes to help another set of mothers by sharing “things that worked” in their families. There are 118 stories in all.
“I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”
“What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”
“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were.” – Louise DeSalvo
I’d heard DeSalvo speak at a free National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar, and she was fantastic. (The founder of NAMW is my wonderful writing coach, Linda Joy Myers, who does an outstanding job connecting the best memoir writers and teachers with those of us trying to make our way through the wilderness of writing our own memoirs.)
I would say if you are writing a memoir, a novel, or any long-form work of nonfiction, or if you want to write about your life as a form of self-expression, this book is a must-read, a valuable companion to have at your side at all times while you work. DeSalvo’s voice is warm, wise, encouraging, and firm. She’ll help you develop a common sense writing practice that is less of a struggle and more intentional, self-caring, and restorative.
One of DeSalvo’s key points is that writing your story is healing and transformative, but only if you go about it the right way. As a medical librarian, I’m all for looking at what the scientific research has to say before making a claim about anything, and DeSalvo does just that.
We’ve all heard that writing can be healing, but simply venting emotions on the page may cause a writer to get stuck or even set the writer back. On the other hand, telling what happened in a dispassionate way – a mere listing of events – won’t do much, either.
Writers need to do both – honestly tell about events and honestly recount their emotions – and link them in a meaningful way. “A healing narrative links feelings with events.”
Research has shown that only when a person tells what happened with honesty, nuance, and detail that includes not just events, but feelings, and with the intention of unearthing and crafting a true, meaningful story – only then does writing about one’s life hold the possibility of transformation.
This is not easy. It requires honest self-evaluation and facing aspects of yourself you may have kept hidden. It requires putting yourself in the place of others so you can understand why they may have behaved in certain ways.
Vivid characterization, dialogue reconstructed to the best of your ability, movie-like scenes that highlight key events and emotional peaks and valleys, all woven into a narrative, is a lot of work, but it’s a way to re-experience life events that can bring catharsis, insight, and meaning.
DeSalvo points to research that suggests people who recall traumatic events in a vague, general way – without detail or nuance – have not yet begun the healing process. I was amazed when I read this, because my first drafts tend to be frustratingly superficial. As a child and adolescent, I’d numbed out to protect myself and, as an adult, to avoid grappling with painful events. Writing about them now often requires several drafts as I gradually mine through to the essentials of the experience. I thought this was a sign that I was a mediocre writer. DeSalvo helped me understand that this is a normal part of the healing and writing process.
Even though I haven’t finished writing my memoir, I’ve already reaped benefits. Writing about events that are emotionally difficult or that arouse shame indeed lose their repressive power over me once they are on the page.
Honoring people’s privacy is also a concern that can hold writers back, but DeSalvo encourages us to remember we are writing a draft, and that these issues can be carefully considered later, if we want to publish. At that time, we can make revisions to protect privacy.
She reminds us, too, that there is a lot to be said for public testimony (in a way that doesn’t harm others) about trauma and issues that society has pressured many of us to keep silent about. In the case of mental illness, for example, no one is healed and nothing can improve unless long-avoided issues are brought into the light of day and confronted.
For me, DeSalvo’s book is most valuable because she has given me a way to write a memoir without losing my mind. She breaks down the process into phases and walks me through each one: Preparing, Planning, Germinating, Working, Deepening, Shaping, Ordering, and Completing.
Not every phase is pleasurable, and if we have difficulty, we aren’t to blame ourselves, but persist. It’s just part of the process. We learn what we can realistically expect in each phase, which greatly reduces anxiety.
I’m still learning how to integrate writing into my everyday life so it becomes habitual, manageable, and enjoyable. I’m still learning how to care for myself as I write – for example, by writing in short, frequent doses so I’m not overwhelmed emotionally and by judiciously sharing my writing only with those who support my work and have some understanding of the rigors of the process.
I should add that, as I’ve excavated my life and the effects of my mother’s mental illness on our family over the years, I’ve had the help of an excellent therapist. DeSalvo encourages writers to connect with a good therapist if they’re having difficulties. Writing is not a substitute for therapy. She says: “I personally believe it is essential for people wanting to write about extreme situations to have skilled professional support while writing or to attend a reputable support group.”
There is so much more to this book. DeSalvo draws on the wisdom of psychologists, researchers, and well-known writers, integrating their knowledge into a compelling and enormously helpful guide.
Many, many passages in my copy of Writing As a Way of Healing are underlined. Here are a few:
“Sometimes the writer is unsure about precisely what happened because…she or he was in a state of shock or emotional numbness while it was happening. The most basic and important survival tactics often involve blunting the emotions, carefully watching, splitting the consciousness (watching the event as if it’s happening to someone else), even splitting the self (into two or more personae). Finding words, finding literary forms to convey these self-preserving defensive tactics, these superlinguistic layers of meaning, often seems impossible.”
“Virginia Woolf said moments of profound insight that come from writing about our soulful, thoughtful examination of our psychic wounds should be called ‘shocks.’ For they force us into an awareness about ourselves and our relationship to others and our place in the world that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. They realign the essential nature of our being.”
“In time, I learned how Zen artists and writers devote themselves to an orderly, contemplative way of life that prepares them for their work. But how doing their work, too, becomes a form of meditation. Work and life are deeply integrated.”
A quote by Henry Miller:“[Writing] lifts the sufferer out of his obsessions and frees him for the rhythm and movement of life by joining him to the great universal stream in which we all have our being.”
Note: After reading this post, my dear writing coach, Linda Joy, tried to leave a comment, but either WordPress or my comment settings didn’t allow her to. So I’m putting her words here, which I greatly appreciate:
What a wonderful essay about the essentials in writing memoir and narrating our truths. I have loved Louise DeSalvo’s book for years and was so happy when she joined us for two NAMW presentations last year! I also got the other books, Jane Eyre’s Sisters thanks to you Valorie, and love it. It offers a more accurate template for the heroine’s story, which is necessarily an internal journey, not just an external one. Thank you for illuminating these gems and what you find valuable in your lovely blog! – Linda Joy Myers
Thank you, Linda Joy.
Below are photos of Port Townsend, where I did some writing and read Louise DeSalvo’s book. Nature is a wonderful restorative when you’re writing memoir.
“…Kent State on that early afternoon of May 4 is where all the raging waters of the 1960s, bad and good, evil and sublime, flowed together for one brief, horrible moment.”
“…the Guardsmen turned back toward the parking lot, went down on one knee or crouched, and raised their M1s to their shoulders.” – Howard Means,67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence
Excavating a Life
May 4, 2016 is the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine injured by the National Guard during campus protests of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
I was fifteen at the time and lived about 40 minutes away from the Kent State campus. That tragic day has a part to play in the memoir I’m writing, but at first I didn’t realize it. In early memoir drafts, I mentioned May 4 only briefly. In my view it was someone else’s story, and I was having a hard time remembering how I felt about this tragedy that happened so long ago.
But the more I wrote, the more Kent State haunted me. I began to realize May 4 had been a turning point in my political consciousness. It’s probably more accurate to say that Kent State was the birth of my political consciousness.
I began to think about the role of the tumultuous 1960s in the life of my family. I had two younger brothers, and I didn’t realize back then how much my father worried about them being drafted. Years later, he told me he’d happily have given them some cash and urged them off to Canada. A World War II veteran with a Purple Heart and an active member of AMVETS, my dad kept his anti-war opinions to himself because he’d have been viewed as unpatriotic by most of his friends.
My father was badly wounded during World War II, and in retrospect I think he may have had a form of PTSD. In the days after May 4, it was common to hear angry locals say the National Guard should have shot all of the student protesters. I don’t recall talking with my father about Kent, but he must have been horrified by the military takeover of the campus and the fact that students had been killed.
As for me, up until May 4, 1970, I’d been just an interested onlooker while the 1960s played out on the nightly news. I had my hands full maneuvering my teen years with a mentally ill mother, and I hadn’t given much thought to social causes. But suddenly the older brothers and sisters of my friends were hitchhiking home, refugees from Kent State, Ohio State, and other local colleges that had been shut down amid protests, tear gassing, and riots. I recall plenty of arguing about who did what to whom and who was at fault.
To me, it seemed clear: the National Guard had bullets, and the students didn’t.
For decades, people have been trying to piece together the sequence of events that led to the Kent State tragedy on May 4, with only partial success. No one directly or indirectly involved has the big picture, and it’s unlikely anyone ever will. My Spanish teacher took a leave for a couple of months to serve on the federal grand jury that investigated the shootings. Later, she told us that she remained baffled. No one admitted to giving the order to fire on the students, and no one was held accountable.
67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocenceby Howard Means was published in April, and I bought the book as soon as it was available. It’s a fascinating read that has given me a much clearer picture of the fraught atmosphere in my part of the world and in the nation in 1970. This historical context will be invaluable as I continue to work on my memoir.
I think Means has done a good job of even-handedly summarizing what is known about May 4, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath. His book is a page-turner, packed with many first-person accounts from all sides: student onlookers, student protesters, Guardsmen, Kent faculty and administration, and many others.
Now I understand that there was no focused planning by the students protesting the war in the days before May 4 and on that fateful afternoon. In fact, the hard-core protesters were only a small group among many thousands of students who were curious onlookers or simply passing by on their way to class. Nor did the Kent State administration, the office of Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, or the National Guard have a rational plan for diffusing the situation.
Instead, as Means clearly depicts, there was only monumental incompetence and mismanagement on the part of just about everyone.
Ultimately, Means takes the view that the students had a right to peacefully assemble and protest, and this right was violated by a vast over-reaction that turned deadly when the military became involved.
Means makes clear that the students weren’t blameless. A small group of them burned down the ROTC building on the Friday evening before the Monday shootings, and a crowd of drunk students vandalized businesses in downtown Kent, badly frightening the residents. (ROTC buildings on many a campus across the nation were destroyed.) Just before the shootings, the hard-core war protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at the Guardsmen. But Means says that videotapes show these students weren’t close enough to the Guardsmen to seriously hurt them, and in the end only one Guardsman was taken to the hospital, for hyperventilation.
Here are a few excerpts that I found enlightening but disturbing. I hadn’t realized the depth of the hostility between Kent State and the larger community back then:
“’The town hated the students, and the town hated the faculty,’ recalled Lew Fried, who joined the English faculty in the fall of 1969 and would remain at Kent State for the rest of his career. ‘This was a very conservative, right-wing-to-reactionary town. I was told that after the shootings, when students were being forced to leave campus, the majority of the town, which had grown fat on student-generated income, refused to sell them food, refused to sell them gas.'”
“Janice Marie Wascko was sitting with her roommates on the front lawn of their house in downtown Kent that evening when a patrolling police cruiser noticed antiwar slogans chalked on the sidewalk and a low retaining wall. The cruiser, she said, had no license plates. Badge numbers were taped over. ‘They had a sawed-off shotgun and pulled it on us. And they got out of the cruiser and stood there, pulled the guns on us, and said, ‘Wipe it up, scum,’ and made us get down on our hands and knees and wipe it off, the slogans off the wall and the sidewalk. [They were] saying, ‘We should have killed you all,’ and laughing at us. A short time later…they caught somebody down by what is Pufferbelly’s [restaurant] now and beat the crap out of him against a wall.’”
I’ve been selective in the excerpts I’ve included, based on my own stance and bias. I want to emphasize that Means provides a more balanced, nuanced view in 67 Shots.
Here are additional points from the book that I found noteworthy:
Over 1300 National Guardsmen, 17 helicopters, and 250 half tracks, full tracks and armored personnel carriers, including three mortar launchers, were sent to the Kent State campus. On Saturday and Sunday before the shootings, helicopters hovered 24/7 over the campus and town, lighting the sky with searchlights throughout the night. This greatly fueled paranoia, suspicion, and fear among the students and townspeople.
After initial media stories mistakenly reported that National Guard soldiers had been killed, some residents of Kent were armed and ready in the streets and on rooftops for the hordes of students they feared were about to raid their town. Rumors circulated that student radicals had poisoned the water supply with LSD.
The vast majority of Kent State students were interested onlookers, not war protestors, but some became instantly radicalized by the overwhelming military presence. Most students and faculty assumed that the National Guardsmen’s M1 rifles were not loaded. Many of the Guardsmen were young, inexperienced, and poorly led – local boys who were the same age as the students.
President Nixon was frustrated when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his COINTELPRO program of spying on war protestors, black activists, and women’s rights and lesbian/gay groups found no evidence of communist involvement in the protests at Kent and other universities. Some historians believe Kent State was the beginning of Nixon’s downfall – his obsession with spying eventually ended in the Watergate scandal.
Some say Kent State helped stopped the Vietnam War. Others believe the military response had a chilling effect on protests; in the 1970s social movements died out and people turned inward.
There’s lots more I could say about 67 Shots and its impact on my own story. I also worry about how ripe we are here in the US again for protests to become violent. But for now, I’ll leave you with this:
My dad often told stories about World War II, which I now realize he censored quite heavily. One day when our sons, Andrew and Matt, were just old enough to appreciate that their grandfather had once been a young man with interesting experiences, we’d been talking about the war in Iraq. My father reminisced about being drafted in World War II and boarding the train with his cousin, bound for basic training, and how the extended family saw them off. He talked about the Battle of Metz, where he was wounded and many were killed.
“I think about the war every single day of my life.” Turning to Andrew and Matt, my father said, “War is a terrible thing. Just because someone tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
The song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young captures the tenor of the times. There is a video with Kent State photos and an “Ohio” soundtrack uploaded by Mars Daniels on YouTube you might want to check out. Daniels claims fair use, but I have my doubts about copyright legality, so I’m not linking to it directly.
Note: Ten days after the Kent State shootings, two African American students were killed and many were wounded by police and state troopers at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The students were protesting racial intimidation as well as the killings at Kent State. The tragedy at Jackson State received little media coverage, whereas the deaths of white students at Kent was all over the news.
If you lived through the 1960s, are there events that resonate for you on a personal level? If you’re younger, do your parents have memories of that time that they find especially meaningful? If you write memoir, have you used historical sources to shed light on your own formative experiences?
Once or twice a month I’ll share newsy items, links to some of my favorite blogs about books, writing, and creativity, and whatever else strikes my fancy that I think you might like.
Here is what’s caught my eye lately:
A short, beautiful video, “Lessons from Flowers,” that is a narrative about death and loss. Larisa Minerva at Wildest Blue says we could stand to change our attitudes about death. My next post will feature a new memoir about death and dying.
Lonesome Reader’s review of Kate Atkinson’sA God in Ruins. I’ve read and written about her novel Life After Life, and hadn’t planned to read her newest which features another character in Life After Life. What more could be said about this mesmerizing World War II story? But Lonesome Reader convinced me otherwise.
Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”
Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.
Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.
You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.
As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.
And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.
Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:
Pat Conroy(The Great Santini):“Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”
Cheryl Strayed(Wild):“I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”
Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped):“The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)
A.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”
(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)
Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, andStill Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…
…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”
James McBride (The Color of Water) “The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”
“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”
(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)
Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:
In Other Words,Jhumpa Lahiri
Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube,Blair Braverman
A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried
Beautiful Affliction,Lene Fogelberg
The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas,Eva Salitis
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
Just Kids; M Train,Patti Smith
Life From Scratch, Sasha Martin
Shepherd, Richard Gilbert
A Profession of Hope:Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler
I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.
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.
You 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:
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.
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.