Monday, June 23, 2014

A Delay Can Last a Lifetime

This piece by a student is about writing memoir. It was written in response to a discussion about The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I am always touched by these, especially since Rebecca Solnit herself writes about the act of writing memoir in this memoir.

At our quarterly Read and Write, we first read aloud from the book, weaving around themes and understandings. Then we pick passages that make good prompts and write from those for a bit, then share with each other.

The selected prompt here is "A delay can last a lifetime," which provoked many of my students, who tend to be women in their late 40's, 50's and 60's. We discussed Malcolm Gladwell's article Late Bloomers from a 2008 New Yorker, which has come back to my attention a few times recently. This is a huge topic in the "boomer" generation and in the world of growing interest in memoir. How late is too late? Ever?

This whole piece is a lovely contemplation, but lines such as these really struck all of our attention: "The heart has a hard time hiding truth, hiding joy, hiding pain,""I have begun to fill them as my memories leak out like poison gas from that box," and " Like Mohammed I will be the messenger of my memories’ tales. I will tell them in their voices word for word."


A delay can last a lifetime... (prompt from Rebecca Solnit - The Faraway Nearby)
Student Writing
By Christa Bruhn

My life feels delayed, but is it? Have I not lived? If I can let go of whatever I thought my life was
supposed to be, what it is and has been may actually come into focus. I have been going through my
days wearing someone else’s glasses. No wonder I squint and don’t believe what I see. I need to take
them off, see my life with my own eyes, then I can also tell my story, my experience as I actually lived it, not as I was expected to remember it or even forget it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Wisdom of Adolescence

Me, age 14.
I've been struggling with re-writing the teen years aspects of my memoir. It's so easy to say things I did or others did were mean, which I know is minimalizing and inaccurate. How can I depict, exactly, what happened between A and me, when I consciously thought she was "not cool" and so distanced myself, and yet, underneath, I also knew something I couldn't articulate for decades: that she also triggered me, was too close to my own trauma?

Last night, reading the latest issue of the New Yorker (don't be fooled - I am not caught up on its weekly overload. I just happened to pick up the issue that appeared in our mailbox and started there) I saw this passage in an article about John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars:
Green told me, “I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived. Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter. And they’re dead right. It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves. We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.”
This was tremendously healing for me. I felt myself palpably relax. Oh yes. That's right. We did know. They do know. In fact, I knew more then, was aware of more then than now, in some ways. Yes, I was detracted, distracted by social mores, but I am equally so now. What I am aware of now about the triggering, about the trauma, that I couldn't speak then - what I am aware of now I am only aware of because some part of me knew then.

I haven't read any John Green, have to say I actually hadn't heard of him before reading the article. I cannot vouch for his work or his view. But that paragraph alone helped open my own heart, which is needed again and again, to memoir-me. Adolescent me. She's got so much to share, and I can just let her speak.

I'll be watching Stars when it comes out, thought maybe not with the teen hoards, tomorrow.
Then again, maybe I will join the hoards. And listen carefully as they cry alongside me, feeling the wisdom they actually know they have, that we so easily dis-count as adults. And then I will go back and revise, revise again, until the wisdom of adolescence runs clear in the chapters of my memoir that cover my teen years.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Memoir and Mystery

Watching the mystery of flight 370 on CNN at the airport, I think about how it is even possible that a plane can disappear. It seems apt, for me, writing a memoir called Bermuda Triangles, and I suddenly flash back to my mystery phase of peri-adolescence, that time of tween-ness when life itself seemed mysterious and so did the world. I read a lot of RL Stine and Chrisopher Pike, graduating to Stephen King once my father died.

During this time my dad was dying of cancer. I can't help but think, though I know plenty of tweens go through phases of fascination like this, that part of my seeking had to do with that: wanting to cure him, figure out the universe. My parents were, for the most part, both rationalists. They poo-pooed God, and any kind of religion, declaring that if - IF - some kind of spirit exists, it is unknowable by nature. Things happened for reasons. Though I don't recall ever actually discussing The Bermuda Triangle or ghosts or other apparitions with either parent, I am certain I did not bring these up because I sensed that in our house they were seen as conspiracy theories or delusions.

My father haunted me after he died. I never discussed this with my mother, but frequently I would hear the sound of his walker, which he used in the last months of his life, waking me in my sleep and I was sure I would see him there, at the top of the stairs, looking in my bedroom door. He never did appear in any literal ghost-form, but he definitely haunted me.

My mother got desperately into mysteries: Agatha Christie, the show Mystery! on public television. When I asked her how she could read such light stuff, such crap (this is the woman who pressured me to read all of Dickens before age 15, like she had; a woman with a Master's in Russian) she shrugged. She explained that after Dad's death, she needed answers - and these books had answers, formulas, known solutions.

Back to the television, all of the answers lined up, the conversations on Facebook about easy-possible solutions, conspiracy theories, I wonder about the significance of my parents' very likely potential denial of the mystery of Bermuda Triangle. I do not have an opinion one way or the other, about the literal Bermuda Triangle: do I think it actually exists? To me it doesn't matter. My memoir isn't about that. It is about these mysterious areas that exist without question in our lives, and about which we all have different stories. And the places where we - where I - definitely got lost. Why lost? Lost for good? All of these questions remain. Cause and effect are not so linearly explained. Just knowing that there's an unknown there is enough for me. Touching the mystery - any mystery.

If I had lost someone on that flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, I'd have different feelings about it. I am aware I am using an actual occurrence - a few of them - as metaphor here. I don't do it callously - I have lost a lot of people to quite clinical and real forms of death, but I have also lost people to no one knows what. Death of old age, broken heart, no one particular symptom they could look back and say was the cause of death. And even if we do know a cause, does that make death any less mysterious?

If we are honest, it does not.

And to my mind, memoir - good memoir - isn't about answering questions, either. It isn't about solutions, it is about exploring mystery. Minding it. Mining it, but without the aggression we so often over-apply to our lives. Simply exploring, as Peter Gabriel puts it, "Digging in the Dirt."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Haunting Joy

This is a memoir piece by a student in response to a prompt asking about joy. This student, Donna Stapf, went with a strong memory that popped up in response to the prompt, as soon as her pen hit the paper. It just poured out.

As always, this is rough draft, not edited. Enjoy the pure energy of this piece. In particular I love her contemplations about the haunting quality of joy. Asking about the difference between highs - joy - celebration - happiness. In particular, I appreciated (as a former theater person) her analogy for a relationship: paralleling it to the acts of a play.

Donna Stapf 
I see myself as a sophomore at UW in Bascom Hall, 2nd floor, outside the door to one of the theater department offices.  Door closed--dark inside--hall empty--the list is posted on the door: “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey  Cast List:  Juno…..Donna Stapf.  Heat and tingling rushes through my body.  My stomach is doing somersaults with joyful nausea.  All is silent ‘cept my heart banging beats.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wilderness of Sexuality and Poetry

This is a lovely memoir piece, in rough draft form, written by one of my students. She wrote it in response to a weekly prompt, which was "Wilderness" - to be interpreted any way your mind wanted. Kathy, the author, didn't know it was going to come out this way - at all! The surprise makes for juicy, invigorating memoir writing.

This line is so powerful: "Two secret, or rather undiscovered parts of myself - pulled to the surface by this magnetic force."
The poet and lesbian part both being seen as wild, as undiscovered parts, simultaneously emerging, inter-dependent.Both have what she calls in the last line:
the courage required in any wilderness...a synthesis of all the feelings and forces named above. Courage to step into this other place knowing it’s unlikely I’d be able to completely return.
This is powerful rough draft, and full of many places for her to discover/open up themes/enrich.

Thanks to Kathy for her courage to share in class and now online!
It was a very hot summer night sitting on cushions in Kirby’s living room trying to stay alert while listening to the mini-life stories of the dozen or so women who surprisingly all wanted to join our group. The group was a conscious raising group and we needed new blood, new members, but not twelve of them.

She was one of the last to talk and suddenly I was awake without effort. I felt pulled without any idea why. A very intense pull. Her story, interesting but not exceptional, her looks intense but not beautiful.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mother Memory and Spiral Cycles

Cracked Spiral, Albuquerque NM 2009
When does the crack appear between my mother and myself? Is it when I am born, taken from her womb, and she sees I am female, and wonders if she will have to compete with me, like she does with my father’s mother, for his attention? Is it when, after giving birth, she doesn’t lose the weight, stays fat, resents me for the gains and losses she’s made? Is it when Dad has to work more, to support another child, a third one, when he is fired from Lawrence University because he doesn’t have the PhD he lied about getting to her and everyone, and has to work for a tech college instead?
            Is it when I leave the carrots behind the National Geographics, rotting? Is it when I fake a fever to stay home and she catches me in the act? This is not a game of blame, figuring out if it was my fault. Because it was our fault, and a fault that began long before either of us existed. A crack deep in the earth between daughters and mothers, started the generation before me, between mom and her mom, and probably the generation before that, on the plains of North Dakota, out of boredom, out of necessity, the split between young and old. When I get close to my dad’s mom, that seems all the more betrayal. Then it is just the two of us.
            The divide gets deeper as I am a teenager. In fact, I don’t recall being aware of us being so separate before then, though of course we were. Dad glued the space between us. After Dad dies, there’s no more glue, just the two of us and a lot of open wounding. We fight over who misses him more, over who has it harder. I grow further and further away, less interested in spending time with my unstable mother who sometimes listens quietly and holds what I say, sometimes screams or cries. I never know which mother I am going to get so I distance myself from both, from either, from any. I get work, whether or not we need the income, I separate myself more and more from her, simultaneously wanting to make her proud – of my grades, my technical theater career – and jealous – of all the time I spend with others, not her. It works. By the time I am a junior in high school, she fills out a form for my school, a survey in which they are trying to assess whether parents feel their kids get enough support for schoolwork at school, how much time parents are spending on schoolwork with kids. I still have this form. In it, my mother launches a real, impassioned plea, ostensibly to the school, but really to me. She checks off all the boxes, notes that I get plenty of support at school, and that she rarely has to help me do homework, partially because I don’t ask. But no complaints, she notes, she does well in school without help from me.
            Then, when given space to make other comments, she does, and here, in this essay, are the hints I miss then that she has changed. The clouds have passed, her grief released her and she is free to love me again, perhaps for the first time in a real way. Only I am too busy. I am occupied with running away from her, traumatized from my father’s death, from how she and I both reacted. I won’t be able to redact my rejection of her in time. We only have two more years together and I will spend one of them across the Atlantic or living in Chicago, and the other doing the same I’ve been doing for two years at that point: living at home, but barely there. Partying, working, school. Rinse, repeat.
My mother’s mini plea essay says she just wishes I would be at home more, so we could spend more time together. At the time, I don’t turn it in, when she leaves it for me at my place at the table. Somehow I know this information isn’t for my high school, its for me. It makes me angry and sad, both, feeling that she’s doing too little too late. Yet somehow I know she has changed. It’s not a complaint, not really. It’s not even a plea. It’s the poignant observation of someone who knows she cannot win with me.
            Across the divide she tries this one last time. Then she lets go. I feel the freedom, the occasional oddball motherly grasps – telling me not to smoke cigarettes, at least, they are worse than pot; suggesting I wait until I am 18 to have sex with my boyfriend because at least then it will be legal; even a clutch at me to not go to school in California, refusing to sign the financial aid paperwork, saying I’ll have to declare financial independence if I want to go to the private college even in Minnesota, leaving me only with Madison as a choice. By the time my eldest brother and I declare we are going to Europe for three months, all she can do is stare. She has tried, tried to connect us one last time, but I have to leave now. It is too late.
            I recall the interactions between us, after I get home from Europe, when I am in Appleton before and after Chicago, on Thanksgiving and Christmas break of my freshman year, to be benign. Possible even a bit sweet, funny – drinking together, making puns and jokes, telling stories. The distance, the actual physical distance, is doing something, healing some of the psychological distance I instituted to save myself in my teen years. Maybe this can work, perhaps she thinks, maybe I think without realizing it. Perhaps we can get along.
            Then, suddenly, without notice, without warning, a week after I have returned to college from winter break, she has an aortal aneuryism and dies. Her heart bursts and I am not there when it happens. It’s too late for us to connect again.

            Or is it? Today would be her birthday, were she alive. This year I am in a new place, a place of not just hearing but feeling what my mom’s best friend knew was the truth and tried to tell me after she was gone. My mother changed. By the time I was in my late teens, and separate from her inside myself, she was becoming more her genuine self. She was alert, awake, alive and even happy at times. Seeing this is sad – I mourn the possibilities that could have come of that, had she lived. But it is also powerful to see that it’s never too late for me to understand, to open up, to explore and appreciate.
            Spring was her favorite season, a time of growth and buds, gardening and fresh air. Today I will take a walk, celebrate the crocuses and crows. I am sad, yes, and also grateful. Thank you, anniversaries, for returning me to the cycle/spirals of life so I can constantly grow and reassess, re-telling these tales, with an endless allowance for revision. Never too late for that.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Like lawyers, writers seek consistency; they make a case for their point of view; they do so by leaving out some evidence; but let me mention the hundreds of sandwiches my mother made during my elementary school years, the peanut butter sandwiches I ate alone on school benches in the open, throwing the crusts into the air where the seagulls would swoop to catch them before they hit the ground. When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing...

I was distant. I studied her, I pondered her. My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.
from Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby