Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The story you made of me"

Excerpts and link from an interview with Lidia Yuknavitch.

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

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

And this:

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

For more...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Our Need For Story

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Who We Are Now

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning to Teach Memoir

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

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dreaming and Memoir

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Narrative Therapy

Another powerful, palpable student writing. We were all struck by how this student, who has been writing with me for years now, has found a way to combine his powerful lyricism with a narrative - in fact, narrative therapy - to help re-write things that used to trigger him when he followed pure poetry.

Narrative therapy has strong overlaps with memoir writing, whether we like it or not. How we write, what we write, what we invite in and work through or not really shapes our story. And, of course, we are telling and re-telling our stories - especially our "life story" - every single day. To embrace that process and realize that our stories, too, are impermanent, is really empowering.

Enjoy the intense dip in, then strong heart that saves the reader - and writer - from dimness.


A feeling of satiety, 
not satiated or saturated,
or dripping. 
I've had the glimpse, that
hint of light that hits the mirror
just right - turn your head it's gone
That all of the craving, the striving 
powering the great samsaric engine.
For just that evanescent moment,
which seems so precious.
Must... hold tight.. and gone.
All that which I seek outside myself is already there.
But like the moment when I've achieved some goal, 
it too is gone. 

I'm brought back to the darkest days before the hospital. The entrance to the house was through the garage which opened to the basement. Dark and cluttered, it seemed a reflection of David, my stepfather's mental state. I had to watch where I was going. So did he. Up stairs that creaked every one, led into the kitchen. The kitchen, where he told me, near that chair that seemed out of place, that I was going to end up on the street. He would pace for hours. And drink, and breathe heavily. His presence was so onerous the house threatened to sink. Dark, deep eyes would stare off for hours. Deep pain. I could feel it all. Those eyes usually passed right over me. Boy, I tried not to get in their way. But could not. I felt like he had it in for me especially as my depression progressed. He was strong and I was weak. Or so I thought. I learned later the opposite was true, but it didn't matter then. I didn't know. Fear. Glare fear. And so I hid. I left my body. Went somewhere else, but the re-inhabiting, the re-entry was awful, like slipping into someone else's skin. Someone had been shaken deeply. So, too tension I used to protect myself. If I held myself tight enough and watched closely, remained vigilant I won't get hurt. Later I got angry, lashed out at my mother. I'm sure i caused as much pain out as I did in. Still David's footsteps as he passed back and forth, caged heavy breathing animal that he was made their way through. 
What I can see now, though is those protections, which look so maladaptive were out of love, protection. And they weren't my fault. And not that I was pure victim, but those parts deserve, need love compassion, a light touch. 
When welcomed into my heart, that's when I have a sense of wholeness, of fullness, and my heart opens to myself.

-Nick W.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Jumping Clocks and Calendars

A student wrote this piece in response to the Compassion prompt I gave a couple of weeks ago.
I am particularly struck, as a memoir piece, by the presence of both specific/personal and then universal themes. Because of the Baby Boomers, there are so many folks dealing with their parents in situations like these, and knowing that they, too, may be in these places one day themselves. This student really shows their ability to slow down and be in the situation, which is, after all, the truest expression of compassion one can get.

A couple of my favorite lines: "The avant garde of the avant garde," "I look directly at things, at the faces of people, that I wouldn’t have looked directly at before," and "I try to imagine this fuzzy-edged world where it’s so hard to get moving, where clocks and calendars seem to jump around unable to hold their hours or weeks in place." These strike me the most because they show the raw edge of compassion and also really deliver us into this place - showing us their compassion in really being present in the situation.

More folks need to be writing about this, publishing this. I hope that increases with time. Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant didn't win the award so many of us hoped it would. But perhaps, one day, memoir that so many in this generation really need to be reading will be more broadly offered.

There’s a man I often see when I enter the the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives. I don’t know his name, but I always say “Hello” or “Good afternoon” to him when I pass by where he’s seated near the entrance to the dining room. He’s the avant garde of the avant garde -- the first of the small coterie of men and the occasional woman who start gathering at the door of the dining room at 4:00, or even 3:45, in preparation for dinner being served at 4:30. That’s a pretty early dinner, but these guys like to get there even earlier, so they can chat, or I guess just sit somewhere other than in their rooms or the hallways, get a change of scene.

This particular man is relatively new here -- four months, maybe? When I say hi, he responds “Hello” in a deep voice, not a muscle moving in his face, his eyes may flick upward to meet mine or they may not. To all appearances, he’s sitting there like a rock, unfeeling, begrudging in his attention to passers by. But I’m unwilling to believe these outer appearances, for I know that sometimes people who look dead on the outside can be quite alive on the inside. They may be unable, for a physical reason or an emotional one, to show their aliveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.