Monday, July 11, 2016

Family 'Myths' That Stymie the Memoir Writer

The memoir writer has the unenviable task of breaking through the family myths to get to the heart of her story and the people who populate it.

Too often we bow “to the legend,” as Virginia Woolf writes in her memoir Moments of Being; by doing so it increases “the load” for others.

What are the stories we tell each other and ourselves that add to the “myths” of our lives; then are handed down generation to generation?

Dad was a great hero
Mom was self-sacrificing

Dad abandoned the family
Mom drank too much because she was weak

These simplistic messages paint others as "winners" or "losers" without shades of gray and the choices involved.

In her own family, Woolf’s father had “no shame” for raging in front of his wife and daughters. His behavior was excused by Woolf's mother as his “genius”; tacitly tolerated under the “myth” that he was a great thinker; not self-centered; behavior tolerated because he was a man.

Women in Edwardian England were viewed partially as “slaves", partially as "angels", Woolf writes. Women saved men from emotional ruin; the women found solace in their writing circles, volunteer activities, church work, and raising children.

Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, couldn’t live without the support of women who allowed him to vent his frustration and indulge in histrionics. So the myth, the denial, that it wasn't his superiority as a man, but his "genius" formed Woolf’s life long resentment toward her father.

Understanding the myths, the legends and the truth of our stories is at the heart of the writer’s task and by doing so we lessen the load, not just on ourselves, but others.

In a recent Washington Post article, this headline about the famous Kitty Genovese murder screamed attention: Her shocking murder became the stuff of legend. But everyone got the story wrong.

In going back more than four decades since the brutal murder of Genovese in 1964, and relooking at the crime in a new documentary, it seems that many got the story wrong, including the venerable New York Times.

Apparently, the real story of what happened that night was hardly as sensational as the iconic news story which became the stuff of legend. Says her brother, Bill: “It’s like we unconsciously make up bulls---, then we believe, because we repeat it in our heads many times until it becomes part of our life story.”

For better and worse, such stories deeply shape the people who believe them. The New York Times article led to major research in psychology and sociology, but it also made a group of people living in Queens look like heartless accessories to murder. They, apparently, hadn't stood by as silent bystanders and done nothing as Genovese was murdered, after all.

I once heard this in a writing workshop: A writer has to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but a need for certainty. In the Women’s Writing Circle this past weekend, we discussed this idea that the memoir writer can never truly “prove” the motivations of someone else – yet she also has a great need for certainty, of connecting the dots. And while we all love conflict and drama in storytelling, it can't be a substitute for truth.

Techniques to dispel myths:
  • Interviews of people they knew
  • Letters
  • Journals and diaries
  • Photographs
  • Understanding and researching the time in which they lived
Perhaps, seeking therapy so we understand ourselves and our perceptions.

Discovering the literary, thoughtful and reflective life.

My mother’s parents often told her she had “been a surprise baby” – code for a mistake; her parents already had a son and a daughter. When her father received the news that his wife was again pregnant, it wasn't greeted with rejoicing. So much for saving money; which is why he must never have encouraged nor offered to send my mother to college. “Women didn’t need a college education,” Mother told me he said.

This unfortunate story of  my mother as a midlife baby – a “mistake” – a burden to her father, who had lost everything in the Great Depression, must have influenced much of her thinking; she struggled with serious mental health issues her entire life, yet often referred to her parents as "saints."

And when it came to me attending college, she complained how "unfair" money spent on my education was while she received nothing in kind. I don't think she  resented me; she couldn't connect the dots with her own life story.

As writers we do our best to understand, to document, to draw those puzzle pieces together. What is true and what isn’t?

What techniques or tips can you offer to get beyond the myth or the legend and write the truth of  your story and your family's story?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Memoir Moment - The Library on a Rainy Morning

I keep seeing the rain-soaked street in memories of my childhood. A gray weekday morning in September or early October, newly-planted, young maple trees along the sidewalk dripping with rain; me in vinyl raincoat, opening an umbrella and dashing out of the car to escape the downpour and find refuge in the library on that street across from the Post Office.

I remember the feeling of what I might now call “an artistic moment.” 

It was then I felt most happy, at home, at peace on a rainy day on a tree-lined street, racing inside a book-filled sanctuary. I could lose myself in mystery, in the magic of stories told across the ages . . .women’s stories, young adult fantasies, histories of the English monarchy; a pathway to learning about myself and my life which I had yet to live.

Contemplation, reflection. How many of us have time for that anymore? Our senses continually bombarded with unending horrors, disasters, crises of incalculable human toll make those early years seem relics of a time that forever changed me and are forever gone.

I recently read somewhere about the questionable “relevance” of libraries in the digital age. Maybe, for some, they have become a place to check out a CD of songs . . . not books; libraries facing the unique challenges of changing “consumer habits;” their ability to rent, not own books, as in the case of the ebook, presenting problems involving licensing and copyright laws.

My memories return to being a girl of thirteen or fourteen; browsing books on wood-paneled shelves, scanning titles, names of authors, making my selection . . . walking over to the long tables by windows with views of busy Lancaster Ave., the main thoroughfare in Wayne; a small grocery store, yellow concrete columns of the Anthony Wayne movie theater.

Loving the feel and smell of the pages, falling in love with words, sentences, scenes, characters . . . with the idea of being a writer; stories swimming through my head of beautiful, strong women, chivalric men and moody, romantic landscapes of trees, meadows and skies.

Feeling the comfort of knowing my father would soon return, to pick me up, take me home.

I could write my own story; no strong woman to serve as template; my mother dealing with anxiety disorders and a cerebral and co-dependent husband. Just an imagination and a father who told me I could write amusing letters which I sent home the summer before from camp in New Hampshire.

I can’t remember if it was my mother or my father who went with me that rainy day as I ran up the sidewalk to the side door of the library, but I am thinking my mother since she was home, a housewife, no job, endless hours of housekeeping, running errands, preparing dinner.

We entered through the door on the lower level with its concrete walls adorned by painted murals of children flying kites; a special smell of books and chalk, of creativity filled the space; crayons and little pots of paint and brushes next to coloring books in the children’s reading room on small, low-lying desks. I think that must have been my first introduction to Head Start there in the Radnor Township Library.

Years later I realize . . . an artist needs that space; that room of her own, time in isolation with the stories, the words, the memories, the synergies, the takeaways.

This morning I'm feeling fortunate for being a writer; feeling lucky to have grown up with a public library in my town; with parents who willingly drove me to the library whenever I asked; to a special place, a respite from the world.

Can you share a childhood memory of the library or a place of respite from the world?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Exploring The Complexity of Personality In Memoir

The more I consider the challenges of the memoir writer, indeed any writer, the more drawn I am to this idea that what we write requires exploring the complexity of personality ... and capturing who our characters were – as men and as women – outside of their relationship to the narrator.

Maybe start with the question, what is personality? The simple definition:“The set of emotional qualities, ways of behaving, etc. that makes a person different from other people.”

Perhaps in our writing, we can capture:
  • A way of speaking
  • Honesty
  • Likeability
  • Someone who walks into a room and changes the tenor of the mood – for good or bad. I remember hearing how my grandfather’s stern demeanor lent an immediate somberness among his wife and friends who were laughing and being silly until he walked into the parlor. As my mother’s cousin wrote me, “When Mr. G. walked into the room, all the laughter stopped."
Something not easy to analyze . . . that's our task as writers.
I have written several blog posts about my mother, who preferred the company of men to women simply because she grew up in a society and culture that placed less value on the “importance” of women as having opinions and influence.

Last week I wrote about my father, attempting to capture who he was as a man – not just my father. Dad came of age at a time when the intellectual prowess of men, including the great men of the military, demanded reverence. Thus, he took a teaching position at a private military academy for boys. Men were never encouraged to explore their own feelings; my father was out of touch with his – and this made intimacy difficult, coming to a head in a midlife affair where he found in another woman, for a time, the admiration, perhaps even the nurturing, he had long sought from his mother and his wife.

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, I explored my late husband's narrative - his inner monologue - which I had not done in my memoirs. I had a great gift - his unpublished memoir which was incorporated into the novel. John clearly explains his own naivete . . . a man who grew up under the influence of "John Wayne dreams of glory" and a belief that honor was the true guidepost of a man’s life and the only thing that mattered in the end.

I’ve also written here in the Women's Writing Circle about my own self-discovery and the importance of reflection, as well as the concerns and “ghosts” that plagued me especially the older I got.

What does all of this mean and how do we write the truth, not just of our stories, but theirs as well?

I think we can draw on these elements:
  • Stories we have heard
  • Our own memories
  • Attention to detail
  • Reflecting on the time in which they lived
  • Who their parents were, what they did for a living
  • How they saw themselves in relation to the world
  • Intensity of emotion they aroused
I like to think I wrote about my life in my memoirs, the good, the bad and the ugly, to borrow a cliché. I can’t really puzzle out at this time why I wrote a particular scene in my memoirs other than the memories of them remained vivid and I could be true and accurate when it came to dialogue, setting and the importance of the memory in the overall relevance of my story.

The great challenge is capturing, not just our own, but the "truth" of the people in our stories. I will be teaching a memoir class in the fall about the relationships that influence us and our stories and how to capture them through the written word.
How do you go about trying to capture a portrait of the people in your memoirs?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Memoir and Immensely Important Relationships

As memoir writers we have an unusual and difficult task – stepping beyond ourselves and attempting to recall with honesty and dispassion those immensely important relationships in our lives.

We’re challenged by time and the changing circumstances of our own lives. Our identity of who we were then and who we are now – all of it merging with our imagination – influences the memoir writer.

As Virginia Woolf writes in her memoir Moments of Being, “What I write today is not what I will write in a year’s time.”

After reading Freud, writing about her father, according to Moments of Being editor, Jeanne Schulkind, led Woolf  “to greater understanding and acceptance of her feelings. In frankly acknowledging the vehemence of her anger against him she is free to acknowledge the depth of her love and affection for him.”

Woolf, who belonged to a memoir writing group, said the members "expected total frankness, some originality, and certainly they expected to be amused." This, of course, influenced her own writing, including her fiction. We can never forget our readers.

So how do we write with clarity about those immensely important relationships? One way, I believe is with attention to recall and detail. Scenes and events that might appear to be random form the hidden pattern or pieces of the relationship.
Bust of Virginia Woolf

As a man who grew up in a household run by two women who adored him – his mother and a maiden aunt – my father, an only child, was spoiled and used to doing what he wanted. His great love was teaching. He would walk into a classroom, teach Homer in Latin or discuss Hamlet in his English classes and shut out the real world. One of his former students who took Latin with Dad recently told me how students made fun of him and threw spitballs at his back, while Dad remained totally oblivious and kept writing on the blackboard. 

His large ears earned him the nickname “wings” by his students, and a name which he accepted with amused and gracious tolerance since he rarely, if ever, concerned himself with what others thought of him. He preferred to immerse himself in the pages of a good book – his favorite novel being Moby Dick. Dad loved New England, its culture, its history and its writers. He wore a silver ring with blue star sapphire on his little finger and favored the tweed suitcoats and vests of an English gent.

I remember him bragging to his friends about my letters home after a summer away at camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “Susie’s letters are so entertaining!” Dad admired my writing, he said, for my caustic wit and a somewhat mature ability for a thirteen-year-old girl to stand back and observe others and their quirks. His validation offered a path to believing I could write for a living. Unlike having a son, a more "serious" relationship, having a daughter was fun for my father.

Another way we can write with clarity about immensely important relationships is through setting.

The house I grew up in from the age of ten to nineteen was a prosaic split level built for us by Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The lower level held a musty, damp smell from year-round moisture and humidity. Dad’s study was on the lower level. He had the academy build special floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two walls. It was there my father kept a first edition of Catcher in the Rye, the collected short stories of the great American writers, encyclopedias and antique books with colorful leather and gilt-embossed covers, the Book of Common Prayer and a bible, among many other books. His large ugly mahogany desk where he wrote his sermons on lined yellow notepads faced a window with a view of a lone dogwood tree. Preaching to cadets in the academy chapel on occasional Sundays was a requirement of his position as dean of the academy. It was his only original writing.

Even now as I write about my father there is much I wished I had asked him about his boyhood and didn’t. With no surviving relatives those pieces are lost forever.

Top photo: My father and mother Andrew and Gertrude Weidener during their first year of marriage with their black cocker spaniel.

How about you? Can you share tips on how you write about those immensely important relationships in your life and in your memoir?

Monday, June 13, 2016

"I'm Not a Writer" and Other Words Of the Writer's Life

“I’m not a writer.” How many times have I heard this in the Women’s Writing Circle?

The words are usually accompanied by an apologetic aside just before a woman reads her work. “This is a rough draft . . . it really needs work . . . I'm not a writer . . .” she drifts off.

Then she reads aloud what she has written. More often than not, it is beautiful and resonates with her listeners. They love a certain line, the tenor of what she’s writing, maybe even a lesson learned.

So what makes a writer? Can anyone be a writer or is that a “talent” reserved for a few “special” people?

As Natalie Goldberg writes in Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life, "Naturally, anyone can be a writer, 'It's a free country,' I used to scream when I was in an argument with another kid. But there's someone further along on the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything. Write before you ask anyone, 'Is it okay if I write?'"

Confidence is key.

We all struggle with our voice, our confidence . . . and for good reason. After all, literary critics, primarily men, have been deciding for years what merits “literature” and what is tripe (usually associated with women's chick lit novels and memoirs).

In a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled The Snobs and Me by former Philadelphia Inquirer feature writer Jennifer Weiner, and 'chick lit' novelist, Weiner writes that she “too often gave credence to the naysayers.” She has “trouble hearing the readers who said my books gave them comfort, kept them entertained, made them feel less alone.” 

Maybe among women there is a lack of confidence, an inability, “to step up and say My work matters, and to really, truly believe it,” Weiner writes.

In the Women’s Writing Circle – a small group here in the Philadelphia suburbs – I have been thanked many times for writing my stories. I've been told I'm a good writer and that my books are page turners. Positive feedback and believing your story matters are essential in moving forward with writing.

If you ask yourself, Am I writer? let me offer my thoughts and observations.


Writing is a craft. It means committing to a set time and space to write on a daily basis, even if a brief journal entry.

Develop a willingness to pursue self-discovery and reflection. Explore those who have most influenced your life, your characters, your plot with an open and discerning mind. People are complicated. They are not a series of events on a timeline.

Join a supportive writing group! In the Women's Writing Circle we nurture and share in community our hopes for a better world through writing, and we work on developing our craft. We read aloud to each other. When you know other writers, this reinforces your love and commitment to writing. 
Read other authors. Study technique.

Develop a hard shell about criticism. This isn't about you, it's about your reader.

Accept that editing enhances your work. How wonderful if you can find an editor!

Silence the naysayers that women’s words – your words - don’t matter.

Develop your own style and voice. Never copy another style.
  • Write about that which interests you. I can't emphasize this enough. Ask yourself: Is this book/story something I want to go out into the community to discuss at talks and signings? 
Find joy in honoring your passion. Writing is a creative expression.  Brava!

It takes hard work and commitment, but if writing fulfills the creative life – as I have often heard in the Women’s Writing Circle – write.

In my own case, my books will probably never make the bestseller list, or be featured in airport kiosks, but just today in church a man who read my novel A Portrait of Love and Honor said this to me, “I loved your book.”

Step up to the plate, cast aside the negative mindset.  Move out of the defensive crouch. And tell yourself, "I'm a writer."

Love to hear your comments, your thoughts. Share an experience of the strength it takes to keep writing, or a moment that lent you the confidence to say "I'm a writer."

Monday, June 6, 2016

August Poetry Workshop: Writing Your Life in Verse

“The Best Words in the Best Order”: Writing Your Life in Verse

Saturday, August 13, 2016

“Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry can evoke an emotional response in a way that prose is not always able to do. In poetry, each word (and word choice) is precise and important. Writing, or at least exploring, poetry can be a valuable technique for memoir writers, as it forces writers to condense a feeling or story into its essence. In this workshop, we will read, discuss, and analyze works of published poetry. We will talk about word choice and imagery, and discuss and compare different poetic forms. Using a variety of prompts, we will work together to create images and emotions in poetry, and there will be opportunity to work and share individual works, as well.

When: Saturday, August 13, 2016 from 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.

Where: Hilton Garden Inn, 720 Eagleview Boulevard East, Exton, PA 19341

What to Bring: Favorite writing tools

This workshop is open to all members of the Women's Writing Circle.

Please RSVP: Susan Weidener:

Cost is $30 for non-members of the Women's Writing Circle. Workshop includes free coffee and tea. Space is limited for non-members.
Merril D. Smith

Instructor: Merril D. Smith is an independent scholar and poet. She holds a Ph.D. in American History from Temple University. Her published work covers a range of topics from troubled marriage in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, to gender roles, sexuality, rape, and food history. She is working on a book of poetry. You can find out more at

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memoir As a Healing Journey of Discovery and Reflection

I can still see John in his old gray and black West Point bathrobe from his days as a cadet, grabbing his first cup of coffee and eagerly preparing to head upstairs to work on his memoir. He had bought an electric typewriter and he spent the time on disability until his death chronicling his life.

Although the year was 1992 and “writing as a way of healing” had barely made a blip on the radar screen of life writing and sharing memoirs as a way to enlighten each other, that’s exactly what John was doing. Writing his memoir offered the healing he had long sought from his life’s greatest challenge, disappointment and crucible – graduating West Point but not being commissioned as an officer due to illness. He also wanted to write about his battle with cancer. Twenty years later I would incorporate his story and our love story into my/“our” novel A Portrait of Love and Honor.

I think John wanted to make sense of the “narrative” of his life; for him that narrative was that if we just dream big and accomplish our goal, then we will be “special.” The problem he – and I think most memoir writers in general – encounter is best summed up by what Virginia Woolf writes in her memoir Moments of Being. She says that one of the greatest difficulties of being a memoir writer is that people are “immensely complicated.”

People tend to write about the lives of other people, but often as merely a collection of events. As for themselves, self-discovery presents even a greater challenge than merely chronicling events on a timeline. I don’t believe John understood that as the son of an Italian immigrant mother, he wanted to attend West Point to achieve the American Dream, not just for her, but to feel special. But even he saw years later that West Point had been a disastrous "fit" for a man of his inquiring, sensitive and discerning mind. And that realization, in itself, was healing.

When I wrote my own memoirs, I felt intent on writing the story of John and me, and later, about striking out on my own as a single mother and widow. Perhaps I was too caught up in those books being “page turners” and not enough centered on a reflection of the inner life. I had bought into the notion that a memoir needs to read like a novel. A certain lack of exploration of Susan Weidener both in Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square came at the price of storytelling.

One of the great revelations in writing his memoir, John often told me, was coming to the realization that his true happiness had been found in me, his wife, and our sons, Alex and Daniel. It had not been his career, either as a teacher or computer analyst, nor even being able to say he had been commissioned as an officer in the US Army, which, of course, he wasn’t. All the rest seemed to pale in comparison to our home life and the path it offered to peace of mind – until, of course, cancer struck. In that regard, John was a truly unlucky man. Just as he began to hit his stride as a father and a husband, the disease struck him down.

The greatest reward that memoir writing may offer is that journey into the very depths of who we are, our longings, our desires, our dreams, as well as a study of those who have most influenced our lives. Where John struggled, I believe, and where many memoir writers struggle, is understanding the underpinnings of that – why that dream, why that narrative? Although I truly believe if he had lived longer than his forty-seven years, John would have discovered the answers.

John was a soldier and A Portrait of Love and Honor is one soldier’s story, no more, no less. An accomplished writer, former instructor in English with a master’s degree in English from Villanova University, John (whose pen name was Jay Scioli and the name of the main character in the novel) already had many of the necessary tools to write his memoir. His story in A Portrait of Love and Honor is a healing journey that guides us all to ask deeper questions about our own truth as memoir writers.

If you've been writing your memoir, what discoveries do you feel compelled to explore?

John with our son Daniel