Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Write? and Why Write Memoir?

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

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

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


Why?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shaping Story





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


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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip

First of all, just look at this cover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fire Shut Up In My Bones

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Story-Editing - Not the Kind You Think

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The story you made of me"

Excerpts and link from an interview with Lidia Yuknavitch.

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

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

And this:

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

For more...
https://litreactor.com/interviews/the-story-you-made-of-me-an-interview-lidia-yuknavitch-about-dismissed-narratives





Thursday, February 5, 2015

Our Need For Story


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

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

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


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

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