Monday, September 12, 2016

How Much Should the Memoir Writer Reveal?

I’ve been thinking about Hillary Clinton and the criticism she has endured for not revealing her diagnosis of pneumonia right away; this after being the most transparent candidate in political history and working grueling “25-hour” work days. I have to admit it reminds me of what the memoir writer endures.

First, there is the push for constant transparency of her life, her story, her family, her choices. Next comes the blogging and demands of social media to keep revealing more and more, all the while writing yet another book. And unless we write some vapid, feel-good story, we open ourselves up to criticism, vitriol and judgment by others.

There was no roadmap for this, no little Golden Book to show us the way.

I think of Elizabeth Gilbert who bared her own soul yet again last week with the announcement that she is in love with a woman, her best friend. This might have come as a shock to some, but not when you consider that she is a memoir writer, illuminating “the truth” of her story even a decade after the publication of Eat, Pray Love.
As I wrote on this blog last week, where do we draw the line? How do we – or should we market a highly personal memoir? This resulted in a rather spirited discussion on social media as others have obviously been wondering the same thing. Several women pointed to their readers who offered “how much my story helped them” as making it all worth it. One author noted, however, that the publication of her memoir ended an immensely important relationship.

How exhausting it becomes to keep revealing and revealing. Perhaps, like Hillary, we will finally succumb to illness, almost collapse and need to go home, rest up and restore and renew ourselves as all the while the jackals circle demanding still more and more.

Our hope - my hope - is that by writing the cogent memoir, it is often a healing journey and offers messages and lessons learned that resonate with the reader.

If we truly believe our stories make a difference and help others going through similar life experiences then maybe we are on surer footing. The “art of memoir” is not for the faint of heart, despite how wearying and soul-searching it becomes. We believe in our story. We are breaking new ground as women sharing our stories and finding our voices, things I feel men have long taken for granted as the “right of the masculine.” 

Our guidepost, our "little golden book", if there is one, rests in the belief that we are using our talents, our skills and our abilities to help make this a better world.

As I travel to Nepal later this week I pray that such an exotic locale offers a chance to ponder more of the writer within. I’ll be taking a break from this blog for the next three weeks, not bad considering that I have missed no more than six weeks over the last seven years. I'm going to give myself a little rest and renewal. See you in October.

How much do we reveal? How much honesty and transparency do we demand of ourselves as memoir writers?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Marketing the 'Highly Personal' Memoir

John’s class – the Class of ’71 – meets this coming weekend for its 45th reunion at West Point. 

Over the past several months I had received all the emails accorded the widows of the class; the invitations to the river cruise on the Hudson; the bus trip into NYC for shopping and sightseeing; the Friday night dinner; the tailgating party before the Army football game. I had seriously considered going. Then I asked myself, do I want to spend time with these people or do I want to sell books?

West Point brings back vivid memories of fall weekends when John and I traveled there as a young married couple. The possibilities then felt endless. Going there now to hawk a book based on his experiences at the academy during Vietnam felt wrong, especially considering the nature of the book.

A friend who read A Portrait of Love and Honor told me that my late husband John M. Cavalieri had a “complex connection” with West Point. Anyone who has read the book (a novel based on a true story) knows this is true. A soldier questions the military and comes to terms with a system – to quote a popular phrase – “rigged” against those who do not "fit in." He ultimately pays the highest price.

This story is complex, elegiac and not suited to "mainstream marketing," my older son, Alex, observed of his father's memoir which is the centerpiece to A Portrait of Love and Honor. How lucky I am to have a son who offers this insight and advice!

Just yesterday a reader said this to me about A Portrait of Love and Honor, "The story is highly personal . . ."

How do you - or do you - market the 'highly personal' memoir? This is a question each author must answer for herself. While some might argue that all memoir is highly personal, questioning "sacred cows" is not popular, although certain publishing companies will fail to educate the author in this for obvious reasons. (Trending topics form another category, in my opinion.) In embracing controversy, we raise eyebrows, which is a writer's duty.

The reunion also coincides with what would have been John’s 69th birthday, Sept. 11, 1947. John’s life was cut short due to what the Veterans Administration deemed a "service-related" illness. John died at the age of 47, a “casualty of war,” surely as if he had died in the jungles of Vietnam.

Before he died, John told me he had made peace with himself and with the system. In writing his story he asked the right questions, found the answers – and the forgiveness – he sought. What mattered most to him were his sons and his wife.

While no systems, no establishments are ever perfect, they do owe those who vow allegiance a willingness to be held accountable for their failures. It’s obvious to those who read A Portrait of Love and Honor that our military veterans are often discriminated against, not only in the military, but in the workplace.

At John's funeral 22 years ago under flawlessly beautiful October skies at West Point, two white-gloved Army officers handed me a folded American flag. That flag remains folded and stored in a closet in my basement. It’s not that I don’t value or appreciate it, rather I wish I could have held John all these years, not a flag.

(The photo pictured above was taken with two cadets at the West Point Founders Day Gala less than a year before John died in 1994.)

How about you? Have you written a highly personal story? How do you feel about marketing it? 

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Solitary Life Offers Memoir Lessons

I first learned about May Sarton while attending a writing conference and the subject of my next book came up. “I’m writing a memoir tentatively titled A Woman Alone,” I said. At which point a writer offered: "Have you read Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton?"

I hadn't. In fact, I had never heard of her. Yet her memoir is one of those gems I will go back to, reread and relish.

For the memoirist, the book is a must-read. The very solitude that fosters Sarton's acute loneliness is also necessary for the artist to create, most especially when delving into the deep and murky waters of life story writing.

How often have I heard in the Women's Writing Circle the lament about the lack of time one finds to devote to the craft; the demands of everyday living impinging on the necessary time it takes to learn and hone the craft - not through taking classes or academia - but through trial and error and the discipline required to write every day in the privacy of one's own room in order to become a better writer?

Which is why I love Sarton. She understands that this discipline and this time alone is the great "classroom" of the writer.

This journal opens in September with the words:“Begin here. It is raining.” Simple, yet evocative of what is to come. As Sarton's journal unfolds over the next twelve months, she ponders the loneliness of living alone, yet rejoices in her work.
“We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone – time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it.”
The author offers her readers honesty and an open heart about her life living in the solitude of rural New Hampshire with just a few half-wild cats and a pet parrot named Punch. The isolation can result in what Sarton calls “neurotic depression.” Yet, as she notes, it is the distractions of everyday life that foster "resentment" in her. The creative life often means selfish devotion to the work and forgoing a certain commitment to the demands of relationships and other people.

Sarton died in 1995 of breast cancer at her home in Maine, yet this memoir is testament to the power of the memoir genre. She – the poet, the novelist, the memoirist and the woman – is alive on the page.

May Sarton
Her tender and tough ruminations about friendship; the wonder of the first white peonies in the garden; waking up to “the meadow bright silver with frost;” the death of her beloved pet bird . . . her own love affair that had turned sour by the end of the year, breathes life in all its richness and despair on the page.

These are the ordinary moments and days of our lives rendered extraordinary due to the writer's ability to observe in detail and depth.

A native of Belgium, Sarton traveled frequently throughout Europe and met the great Virginia Woolf of whom she writes:
“What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine – why is there resentment at female-oriented art?”

Why indeed? And if art is “life-enhancing” – which I believe it is – then Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude belongs to the ages; an intricately beautiful testimony to the struggles the single woman without family faces, yet the incalculable joy in just being alive, alone with her art, her voice, her story.

When I finished this book, I pondered my own writing, my own work-in-progress memoir. I felt Sarton had set the bar so high it seemed almost pointless to continue my own "journal of a solitude." But then I thought about the lesson I took away from her memoir. Writing the confessional is always a valiant effort . . . and when we do "the days fly by" as she puts it, in the joy that comes with the enormous privilege of having the time to think, to write and share our journeys.

Monday, August 22, 2016

When Death Is a Pathway to Writing

When I first started writing memoir, truth be told I didn’t think anything as “ordinary” as my story of love and loss would matter. Six years later, I feel that writing what I endured during and after my husband’s death helped heal me and perhaps gave others the possibility of believing that their stories mattered too.

Death is a pathway to healing. I heard that at a religious retreat at St. Mary’s of Providence retreat center in Elverson a couple weeks ago.

Located amid rolling hillsides and farm country about forty-five miles west of Philadelphia, the center features a mansion house built by the descendant of an iron magnate.

The Daughters of St. Mary manage the center which includes a chapel, walking paths, dining hall, and retreat rooms. It was here I attended my first faith healing. A friend invited me and I felt it discourteous to refuse. Although I wanted to believe, the cynic in me often wins out and I heard a voice whisper . . . "This is like a cult."
About ten of us went to a healing service. The healer, an ex-Marine from the British Royal Navy, he almost died from his wounds and had become a priest in mid-life after his own miraculous recovery. He spoke about believing in Christ, in the Risen Lord who has done the suffering for us. “You can’t nail yourself to the cross. It’s impossible,” he said putting out his arms and showing how no one can use his hands to nail himself.

The trick, he said, is not to let others nail you to the cross, or let your emotions do the work for you. “Be gentle with yourself,” he said, have fun. He then went around the room and each person was asked what they wanted him to heal. The majority of the requests had to deal with healing “anxiety.” He wore a large silver and turquoise crucifix around his neck. He told us he had been born in 1954, which made him 62 years old.

I had an upper molar extracted two months before and the gaping cavity left in my gum had been slow in healing, including a passageway into my sinus which caused pain, I told him. This pain was exacerbated by the anxiety of being a woman living alone. He put some oily balm on his fingertips, rubbed it on my forehead and then held his right hand to the left side of my face where the pain resided. I could feel his hand quivering. Although the room was air-conditioned, I noticed the sweat that soaked through his shirt; under his armpits, on his back. A woman priest attending the retreat told me over lunch earlier that day that the exertion of healing had taken a tremendous toll on him; he had many ailments which she said had been brought upon “by the devil” who does everything in his power to stop the healer.
Interestingly, the pain totally subsided two days after the faith healer laid his palm on my cheek.

It makes me realize that the pathway isn’t always clear. Surprises and revelations appear along the way, hidden by brambles, thorns; the overgrowth that is grief, bitterness and cynicism.


As writers, many of us are motivated by death; the death of a loved one; the death of our spirit, the death of an old life, the death of a dream.

It took thirteen years after my husband’s death for at least some TRUE measure of healing to begin . . . to trek forward through the tangle of weeds; of angst and pain. It happened gradually; the sunlight after winter’s first snowfall; the blank page waiting, where through words I could find “refuge”; a way to begin making sense of the question: Why was a good man, the father of two young sons, stricken with an incurable cancer at the age of thirty-nine?

I wish I could say that I have mastered the fine art of prayer
– although, I suppose, writing is my prayer on the page; thought-centered but also the emotional, the feeling core of my heart. Writing represents the need for self-expression, the cry in the “wilderness.”

I have spent much of my life flirting with Christianity; the transformative message that love and resurrection alleviates – or at least makes sense of life’s suffering and answers our prayer for meaning – compels. It’s a good flirtation, one that as I age I hope develops into a deeper love affair. Pursuing the spiritual is always a productive use of time for the writer.

It’s hot, humid today and the day lilies are most gone now; their thin, reed-like brown stalks reaching up like dead fingers toward an ash-gray, August sky.

As the seasons turn and as in winter when life is frozen, so it sprouts again in the spring . . . the first yellow and purple crocuses pushing up through fall’s dry, brown leaves.

How about you? Can you share how death was a pathway to your writing or healing?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing Our Lives in Verse, Women Explore Poetry

The Women’s Writing Circle “Writing Your Life in Verse” poetry workshop on Saturday led by Merril D. Smith brought us closer in touch with the wealth of words within each of us as we explored the special landscape that is poetry.

Merril offered a gentle, nurturing and intelligent touch to her teaching and we loved hearing her read from her own work, including one beautiful poem titled “Legacies” about her mother and the mother-daughter relationship.

At the conclusion of the workshop, I had asked each woman to write on a piece of paper what they brought to the gathering and what they felt they were taking away. These "soul cards" are always a joy to me when, later, I can sit quietly at my kitchen table, read them and ponder a special day.

The comments received from the twelve women – who had come from many different backgrounds, educational levels and writing experiences – contained striking similarities; writing requires discipline, but it is truly amazing what you can produce in ten minutes with the proper writing prompts, whether words or images. Thank you, Merril.

Many also wrote that reading aloud their work in a sharing and supportive circle of writers was a special experience and tremendous boost to their confidence! 

Sharing a technique I learned when I attended Eunice Scarfe’s class at the International Women’s Writing Guild, I asked each woman to draw a line beneath her free write and add the words, “Job well done,” followed by her name.

The hesitation with which some do this after reading aloud is always insightful. I believe we forget that writing is hard work and we must give ourselves credit for opening our hearts and minds and sharing in public.

From magnetic poetry
It always surprises and delights me to see how participants bring a willing spirit to the craft and the magic that is a writing workshop. Perhaps, we are all starved for that connection with like-minded spirits – what some call “our tribe;” offering sustenance, kindness and caring through the creative arts.

This is the eighth Women's Writing Circle workshop featuring outside instructors who are experts in their fields. The first began with my mentor, Mary Pierce Brosmer, founder of Women Writing for (a) Change; followed by  Cynthia McGroarty (fiction and creative writing), Cathleen O’Connor (creative writing and inspiration), Jerry Waxler (memoir), Linda Joy Myers (memoir), Kathy Pooler (journaling), Sonia Marsh (memoir and independent publishing) and Merril D. Smith (poetry). I thank each of them for the unique talent and inspiration they brought.

In these workshops, there is always a great appreciation for learning more about the craft of writing, coupled with a growing realization that any formal education - or what one woman called her “lack of training” – is not a hindrance.

I remember when I heard Francine Prose at Bryn Mawr College and I wrote a post about it. She spoke how an MFA program can often drain the writer of her creative spirit. There is a beauty and innocence in the untrained pen. 

Susan Weidener and Merril Smith

Collectively, we learn from each other, nourish each other. What a writer needs is a desire to explore, take a risk and a leap of faith and trust that through the blank page she becomes an alchemist in her own right. That's what I take away from these workshops.

As one woman wrote on her soul card: “What I take away is a confirmation that the world still has souls, that some shine bright with enthusiasm, joy, appreciation for life, and support for each other.”

This is the magic of our Women's Writing Circle. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Do you have thoughts or comments to share about an experience of writing and learning in a group or writing workshop?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Strategies for the Writer . . . And a New Memoir

This week I wanted to blog about writing strategies, but also how important it is to have a writing project. I feel motivated as a writer when I have a project. I am happy to be working on new memoir tentatively titled A Woman Alone: Reflections.
Waking up in the morning to write has always been exciting and energizing, even more so now for me, living the life of the writer.

I have found a format/structure that feels right; based on May Sarton’s journaling. I am writing this book in journal format. Each entry represents "a day in the life of" . . . the seasons of one year; themes encompassing friendship, single parenting, aging, just to name a few.

Flashbacks will play prominently as do takeaways – those “pearls” we offer the reader of lessons learned. From those takeaways emerge themes that continue to crop up time and time again in the writing, which I am excited to know I will discover as the writing process unfolds.

I also like the idea of incorporating lists that a woman alone finds useful; how to cope with being single; keeping a house going, raising children, paying bills on time . . . making the most of those special quiet moments.

It will also include photographs; an invitation to the reader to write her own story through useful writing prompts, photographs or images.

One writing strategy that has effectively worked for me in the past is the willingness to take a risk, to be openly honest about my life. How you do that is, of course, up to you, but know that the reader expects and deserves honesty. The question is not what the reader thinks of you, or the main character, but what he or she thinks of your story, whether fiction or memoir.
Another strategy: making effective use of your voice as a writer. No two voices are alike and as I have often said, honor yours. As women we search for our voices and it feels especially relevant now; how little we know about women in strong leadership positions, especially the presidency where verbal assertiveness has always been associated as a masculine trait; nurturing as a feminine one not often valued.

Another writing strategy; know your audience. The Women’s Writing Circle has had a huge spike in readership this summer. Thank you! I wrote almost solely about memoir; about family relationships and using images as writing prompts when journaling or memoir writing. Memoir seems to be where the interest lies. 

I continue to read May Sarton’s memoir Journal of a Solitude and much of it resonates with me. Although, unlike her, I have a family – my sons live nearby and drop in often for visits – I identify with the solitude Sarton writes of . . . the work that must be done every day to write and create and to forge a life as a woman alone without the “safety net” of a routine, going to a job, taking care of children, a husband.

Sarton liked keeping fresh flowers and blooming bulbs around her home in all seasons because they brought life to the house. Yesterday, I bought a small tea rose bush and placed it in a white ceramic container on my kitchen table.

Much of this summer has also been spent reading Virginia Woolf’s life; pondering her unique genius. Woolf, of “a room of her own” fame, offers the writer wonderful lessons in understanding those immensely important relationships that influence the writer and her life stories. Be an avid reader.

Can you share writing strategies that help you move forward with a new project or an existing one; help mold your stories. poems, journals or novels?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Power of Image in Journal and Memoir Writing

Has an image ever come to your mind, stayed there during the day, at night, in your dreams? An image can work as a powerful writing tool; from it we journal to a deeper place, craft it into memoir writing.

In my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, the image of forsythia stayed with me throughout the writing of that book; a metaphor for the fleeting beauty of spring, bright, glorious, quickly fading like young love . . . and untimely death.

So I challenge you to find an image, use it as a writing prompt, a way to journal to a deeper place.

In May Sarton’s Journal Of a Solitude, she begins the book describing an elegant spray of white lilies and a branch of peony leaves in a Japanese jar on her mantel. “When I am alone, the flowers are really seen, I can pay attention to them. They are felt as presences. Without them I would die,” she writes. From there she goes on to write about her life, her thoughts, her fears,

A teacher in a recent writing workshop, Susan Tiberghien, whose wonderful memoir Side by Side, Writing Your Love Story about her long and passionate marriage . . . a book which also includes writing prompts, said in class her image was a sailboat. She didn’t know why, but that sailboat kept appearing and so she would use it as a way to write.

You can also create a dialogue with your image, Susan noted. (Next week I'll write about strategy in writing and the numerous and uniquely creative ways to tell story.)

My image was the crepe myrtle blooming in profusion on the campus where our writing workshop was held. I wrote this:

A pink bobble-headed blossom, crepe myrtle sways in the summer breeze. My thoughts drift to my mother. I think of her often these days. She died in August and my own life is now well into the "second  . . . and final act." I see her arranging brightly-colored zinnias of deep red, pink, yellow and orange, cut from her garden next to the side of our house by the Rose of Sharon bush that blooms every July near my birthday. Mother places the zinnias in a crystal bowl inherited from her parents. She possesses an innate, artistic flair, somewhat at odds with her life, but not her fragile and tender heart. I watch her. Perhaps, in that moment, I cherished a woman’s touch . . . the immeasurable importance of beauty, of family, of memories . . . something I, as a mother, have tried to recreate in my own home for my sons.

Another image this past week – water sparkling in sunlight. I had traveled to Acadia National Park in Maine with my son and water is everywhere, around every corner, appearing at unexpected places.
The water dances in sunlight under azure skies. My spirit dances with the water; it tells me to "be hopeful . . . life is about the unexpected". . . helps lift this shroud of depression; floating me to contentment in this place, at this moment, at this time on a Thursday July afternoon.

Use images to journal to a deeper place. Which leads to this quote by William Zinsser, “The subject you best know is yourself.” How better to explore your life, thoughts and memories than through images?