Monday, April 24, 2017

The Confidence of Memory―Memoir Writing


I have been reading Abigail Thomas’ memoir A Three Dog Life. It’s a quick, easy read and I’m almost done. The book, as one of its critics said, is “shot full of light,” meaning insights and takeaways abound. Which is helpful for me as I start teaching a four-week memoir class tonight. Reading another writer always helps clarify your own thoughts about writing, voice, storytelling that you hope to impart to others.

My class was advertised as “Getting to the Heart of Your Story.” And while this might seem simple enough, it is the most complex piece of the memoir writer’s journey―for one reason. Can I trust that my memory is true? Answer 'yes' to that question and the story falls into place.

Thomas writes how a friend once accused her of "stealing" a memory. Not only that, but of getting the memory wrong, infusing it with gratitude, not with the grief her friend recalled.


“For days the same questions went through my head. Is memory property? If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?"
The answer, Thomas writes, may be this. Everyone adds layer upon layer of memory to one story. And in the end, “the art of storytelling is too various to have any one person have complete control.”

Think of an eccentric aunt, a cousin who drifts in and out of our lives and then disappears. Everyone adds their own recollection of that person, infusing the stories with individual memory and perspective, an intricate weaving of many threads.

At the end of the day,
you have to trust your instinct, your voice, your emotion. How you write the story is also up to you. Throw away the rules. And as I often say to novice memoir writers who worry that so and so will be upset at what they write, “Let them write their own story.”



If I teach anything the next four weeks, it will be this: Getting to the heart of your story requires acceptance―this is your story, your memory, your recollection. Tap into the emotion, mine the grief, or the gratitude. Relish the confidence that your voice, your recollection, your story matters. Then go ahead, put the pen to paper and enjoy.

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Memoir Moments―Writing and The Woman Alone

From rampant misogyny during the presidential election to all the president’s white men making decisions about women’s health and birth control here and abroad, it’s been a tough, soul-depleting year for women. War, attacks and machismo … feels like a state of emergency.

That’s where writing comes in. I don't believe it's an overstatement to say writing is saving the lives of many women, especially now, at this moment in history. It offers a positive path forward, a way to sort through the rubble―the destruction of any hoped-for progress―and it winds back to the inspiration that comes with the life examined on our own terms.

With a little help from my friends―my writer friends who came to our Women’s Writing Circle critique session earlier this month―it gets better as together we offer visual depictions of our lives through writing and story. Who can write in a vacuum?

The power of a writing group resides in the validation and the support that your words resonate, that your opinion counts. We all suffer from a lack of confidence and our world only makes it harder for women to move forward with confidence and clarity. A writing circle provides valuable insight into the lives of women.

****

The woman alone has been a topic I’ve been pursuing in my writing and have shared in the Women's Writing Circle. Perhaps, I will delve deeper or even repurpose this with other blog posts I’ve written over the years, or turn it into a separate memoir or creative presentation.

Although many people want something light-hearted. Take my talk on Nepal, for example. My ramblings about Buddhism and the Nepalese culture appeal; women writing as a way of healing, perhaps not so much.

***

Like May Sarton, I feel blessed that I have this time in my life to think, to ponder, to work on my craft―which is creative writing steeped in memoir and the personal essay. I stress the creative part because it seems like another world now where I wrote solely as a journalist―reported on what I saw and heard and the people I met, although I always believe and always will that journalism gave me a strong foundation to stay “on track”―what is my story about, how to keep the story moving and the “facts” relevant to a larger picture? Creative writing “stretches” me; to see beyond the facts and bring a lyricism, metaphor and artistry to my attempts at expression. It is hard work and I work hard at it.

***
How many of us have known people who avoid solitude as if it were an illness? Who enter into a bad relationship because they fear being alone? Who live in a turbocharged atmosphere of perfection and accomplishment of their own making? Who miss out on the radiant red and yellow tulips glowing in the April sunshine, as if pondering them is a luxury reserved for dreamers and poets? Solitude―and the luxury of not having to go to a depleting job or take care of one's family anymore―is my fortune. And it is integral to my life as a writer. It’s beautiful. It’s lonely. Like much of the writer’s life, paradoxes abound. 

***

Having a dog is a pleasure. There is no contradiction, no puzzle. Lily is almost Zen-like. Calm and steady, wise and farsighted, she lives totally in the moment; her will at one with mine, the perfect companion for the woman alone. If I want to take a walk, she is ready. When I step out on the patio to soak up the sun, she is right behind me. As I head to my favorite reading chair, she curls up at my feet.

Her patience, her fortitude, her total commitment and unconditional love offer respite. She demands nothing except to be fed and walked. The past is not on her mind nor concern as to what the future holds. I watch her dream, legs moving, listen to her little whimpers … where does her imagination take her? In her dog’s dreamland, I imagine she sees herself racing through green fields, wind at her ears, cavorting with another Lab. Or maybe she comes upon the unexpected … being chased by a demanding owner.

***

Writing at will, in the moment, discovering where the pen leads; moving beyond confusion toward crystallization … the aha moment. This is my story. This is what I want to say.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Zen and The Woman Alone―A Memoir Moment



My son sent me this photo from his travels ... a tea house walkway in Kyoto, Japan. Photographs of walkways, trails and paths hold so much meaning for the writer. I have photographed many paths. They serve as visuals for the writer's way … where will the words, the writing lead?

This week my journey led me to my friend, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. She has been very sick. Serenity is elusive, especially for many older women. It’s not their fault. They have been victimized by a system tilted away from helping elderly women.

She saw me and immediately ran out of the activities room, hugging me and in tears, distraught over her situation. We spoke at length about her circumstances and we ate a lunch of salmon and bagels I had packed. People on the ward were crying, shouting, holding baby dolls. Many are in wheelchairs and need to be spoon fed.

This situation, my friend said, is contributing to her feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Her despair.

I want to practice Zen. Move forward yet remain in the moment, nonjudgmental, non-feeling, attached but not attached. She could be me … she could be any woman alone.

Her face is haggard, drawn. A man was involved. Aren't they always? A lot of emotional anger that he took out on her. Still, she defends him.

“I know he wasn’t much, but he was mine,” she said. “I can’t be alone.”

My journey has led me away from men, many of whom I view as unfeeling, domineering and controlling, predators even who use women and casually discard them. I won the lottery once, long ago. I'm not playing the odds anymore.

My friend has no desire to be in a nursing home. She understands she can use help, but she said she feels she is being manipulated by "the system." Yellowish-red bruises under both eyes and a scab on her chin and lip attest to a recent fall on the sidewalk. She shows me her forearms, deeply bruised from her brief hospital stay after the accident.

I want to think it was the system that caught her up in a maelstrom that consumes many of the elderly, although my friend is still in her sixties. But for now, all I can do is love her. Tell her that this is only a temporary situation.

Her room contains a small bed; she shares it with a woman who can't speak. A pair of legging-type pants smelling of urine crumpled on her unmade bed. I remove them and put them outside in the hallway in hopes the nursing staff might notice and wash them. My friend, a writer, has no reading glasses. Someone gave her a book on dogs. I had brought her a novel. Three times I ask about getting her glasses. A social worker/nurse on the ward said she had some downstairs and would get a pair. This had not happened by the time I left three hours later.


My friend and I talk about her being placed on the Alzheimer’s unit.
Does she believe she has the disease? She shakes her head. She said activities include looking at drawings and then identifying what they are. I point to a black and white drawing of a toilet on one of the closet doors. “Do you mean stuff like that?” I ask, and she says, “Yes. Stuff like that.”

A flash of her old cynicism shines through. "This is a disaster. How did it come to this?"

Then we reminisce. She remembers every detail of the day she introduced me to my husband. She is my best friend.

And the memory returns of a warm July afternoon. She and I sit under elm trees at the battered wood picnic table in her parents’ backyard. We are twelve and thirteen years old. We play with Barbie and Ken dolls, our whole world dreaming of the day when we meet Prince Charming and he carries us off to happily-ever-after.

Yesterday as I drove to the store, a man in a gray sedan pulled beside me, honking his horn, giving me the middle finger. “You c…! You cut me off,” he shouts through his rolled-down window. Had I? Perhaps, I hadn’t been paying attention.

But why did he have to use that word .... the c word? What kind of a man is so angry that he feels women can be ground under his boot heel?

Thoughts of how women journey into the darkness where a man is concerned often consume me. The newsfrom Bill O’Reilly to Bill Cosbyadds to the daily fare of abuse of women threatened with loss of career and, ultimately, their sanity. Some of my friends can't sleep, worried about the man they call "the Groper in Chief" holding power over their lives.

****

Did my friend end up in this horrible predicament because a man took her for her house and money? Did he emotionally abuse her for years because he had no life, no taste of success and took it out on her?

This is a cautionary tale; the fate of women, especially older women, if they are not careful.

I wrote this, not just for people who need to know about my friend, and the woman she is, but for me, as a healing journey, to put things into perspective. Writing does that. It offers a window into the hazy blur of something almost beyond our comprehension.

I look at the photograph of the tea house walkway; search for the serenity, relish the solitude, that Zen-like moment. For a writer this is essential. I have written about this before … as I have written about the cruelty of men, of the woman alone. I will continue walking this path to see where it leads.

Do you have a story of a friend who finds herself in a desperate situation? Do you have a story of writing as a healing journey?

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Spiritual Quest Along the Writer's Way


A writer does many things to present a compelling story to her readers, but perhaps the most important is conveying her message, her take on the world. In that regard, almost every writer must dig deep into her spiritual resources, her soul, if you will. Who is she? What is the divine power behind her creative journey? So, every memoir, for example, is a spiritual memoir; every novel the author’s own personal life experience and quest for grace and redemption.


Key to the artist’s creative muse, journey, spiritual quest is confronting the timeless battle between good and evil. This comes in many forms and faces. It can be the punishing parent who warns that if you publish this story she will see you in court and thus ends what might have been a glorious book enjoyed by many; the agent/publisher who rejects your work because he or she wants a “marketable” book, the sort of trash you have no intention of writing. It can be the voice within you saying, what I write is no good. I have no talent. This self-sabotage is often the darkest of places because there’s no way out except through sheer force of will.


This is where the dedication to the spiritual journey becomes even more crucial to the writer. She must believe that she has something of worth to say, that her journey is not just about her, but about the human condition, indeed, the divine power within and without her … the battle between good and evil. For that battle is ongoing every day in the most personal of ways, an affront to civilization, to decency. We see it in the news and in all the many horrific things going on here and around the world. Sin exists on a global scale.


Think of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (‘inspired’ after soldiering in the trenches in World War I); J.K. Rowling’s magnificent Harry Potter series; Rowling, a welfare mother, whose take on evil and attempts to degrade the sacred and the orphaned became an instant classic. Think of your own life; the son dying from addiction to opioids or alcohol; the growing malignancy in your husband’s body that slowly, cruelly is killing him right in front of your eyes and those of your young children.

The battle between good versus evil is epic.
The promise of writing is that we just might be reborn, that our creative quest gives us new life. At the end of the day (or the book), we, hopefully, find the atonement and redemption author and reader seek. It's a collaborative journey. Every great book offers lessons learned that readers can apply to their own lives, it’s both a spiritual and an educational finale for writer and reader.
Rose garden in New Zealand

Grace precedes atonement. Grace is our God-given talent and sharing that with others, whether through writing, painting, serving in leadership positions, volunteering, teaching .... Grace moves us forward.

As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, “Life is what we make of it. Whether we conceive of an inner god force or an other, outer God, doesn’t matter. Relying on that force does.”

During this Lenten and Easter season, I have been on a spiritual quest to understand the meaning of the Crucifixion. Why did Jesus have to die so horribly and in such a public fashion? And how does his suffering, degradation and inhumane treatment translate to our own lives … how can we believe in a God who lets this happen to people?

On Saturday, I attended a religious conference led by the great theologian Fleming Rutledge. One of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest, her message “hope in dark places” comes from the premise that we are constantly living in, among and around the forces of good and evil. This is the great battle that God has engaged with the devil since the beginning of time. But hope resides in even the darkest of places. Whether you believe in the Resurrection, I feel, is not the point, as much as do you believe that good will eventually prevail over evil and that the promise is fulfilled?
With Fleming Rutledge

On Sunday, I had the great pleasure to again share a conversation in church with Jerry Levin, former CNN network journalist, who was kidnapped and held hostage by Hezbollah.

Jerry produced a short memoir of his spiritual awakening Reflections On My First Noel, and a series of reports from the West Bank over several years and Baghdad during the opening months of the second U.S. invasion in West Bank Diary.

I realize that my journeyboth as journalist and creative writer has always been driven by this quest to make sense out of the senseless. As a journalist, it was to expose the truth. And as an author, the goal was to write about the power of sin, of great love and great loss, with love eventually triumphant.

The quest to make meaning of this fantastic, beautiful, dark and evil place called life is a powerful, God-given journey. I think it's safe to say it's a spiritual quest along the writer's way.

Your thoughts and comments are most appreciated.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Confidence and the Memoir Writer's Journey

The craft of writing requires contentment with solitude. In solitude, the writer begins to touch base with her spirit, her story.

She nurtures herself with the love and care required to find and trust in her voice. She explores her life and those around her with the interest and detachment required of all great writers. The corollary of solitude: confidence in herself, her craft, her reason and motivation to write her memoir.

I've met women who say they see no point to writing a memoir about that certain time, place or person, even though it all still haunts them. "I've moved on. That part of my life is over," they say.

But is it? I've been involved with enough memoir writers to know some stories can't permanently be shelved no matter how hard we try. It's why I wrote Again in a Heartbeat.  Let's be honest. We write memoir for ourselves, as much as our readers. If it helps those who read our books to sort through their own lives and life stories and traumas, so much the better. While writing Again in a Heartbeat was therapeutic, I never forgot my audience.

A couple of women contacted me this past week, asking about the Women's Writing Circle. They wanted to know more about our group. They didn't want to blunder into a therapy group, they said. Should they attend? One worried that reading in the Circle would be "intimidating." Newly retired, she had just started journaling, dribs and drabs here and there about gardening and such. I wrote back that was a fantastic start and recommended she read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, as well as The Artist's Way. Another woman expressed concerns about being "ready" to read her writing in the Circle.

In her book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about the shadow artist. She feels she has little of worth to say, received criticism early on about her desire to write, even thinks it is selfish to devote time to her creative life and is shadowed by doubts and insecurities.

I always remind people there are "no rules" and that a story that resonates with one, may not resonate with others and vice versa. Your voice, your style is unique and your own. Here's a blog post I wrote on the "rules" of writing after reading Francine Prose's book, Reading Like a Writer.

Spring signifies rebirth and renewal. Now that the days are longer and lighter, it helps develop my next memoir about a woman's journey ... alone, but not alone, as she watches the seasons change and finds solace in her companion, a yellow lab named Lily. Instead of worrying that no one will want to read this book, or I'm simply writing another Marley and Me, I'm intent on believing in my own story, my worth as a writer. Will everyone want to read this book? Of course not. Do I have something to say, those "lessons learned"  as we age and find ourselves alone? I hope so.

In the end, I want to tell my story as much for me, as my readers. I'm living this story now so in many ways it is easier than writing about the past. Like all writing, however, it evokes a journey of self-discovery which can only be fueled by confidence.

July, 2016
I have Lily and so I am never alone. She and I walked through the townhouse community today as we do every morning and afternoon. She finds interest and pleasure in the smallest blade of grass, which she smells intently, her tail arched, one pale yellow paw poised like a ballerina’s above the ground. A dog teaches you the value of living in the moment, of patience, of the simplest pleasure. 
Afterwards, she and I return to the house, I give her a biscuit and she falls into a contented sleep next to my writing chair in the living room, especially after I turn on the air conditioning. It is another hot day and the weekend portends a return of the exhausting humidity.

It was wonderful to get away last week with Daniel to Bar Harbor, especially since Alex took care of Lily.

Maine was so much cooler and the endless vistas of sunlight sparkling on the ocean made me feel more alive, as if each day might offer an unexpected gift; a new reader, a new person inquiring about my writing group, a good conversation. I do love seeing new places and Maine offers the most amazing scenery, solitude and utter stillness in the woodsy trails high above the Atlantic. And, of course, traveling with my grown son makes me the envy of many mothers. I know I am fortunate.

They wonder ... how it is that my sons and I travel the world together? I have a secret. I enjoy being with them, they encourage me to express myself and I them. We’re good companions ―Alex, Daniel and I. In a world where the three of us often find it hard to bond with others or make sense of it all, a special alchemy of trust and love brightens our days, made even more precious with Lily at our side. 
We sip cocktails, Daniel and I, in Kennebunkport, sitting on a cushioned wicker couch overlooking the harbor and talk about life, loves, his career aspirations.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Inspiration Leads To Life Story Writing

Each voice is important. A woman who shares a story that is especially difficult and revealing can anchor a writing group and offer a true gift.

We struggle to get past the things that block our writing; that keep us from moving forward with our lives. The list is long: abusive relationships; shame; not realizing we are no longer that person back when the abuse or shame occurred. But we are stuck there, at least for now.

We hope to reach the light and as we watch one do it, so it encourages another.

The quality of our work almost always depends on inspiration. Inspiration serves as the catalyst to all good writing, especially life story writing.

What inspires us to write? A person? A defining time and place? A crisis? A memory that remains vivid? Why this memory, this person, this subject?

In Saturday’s Women's Writing Circle, I was struck, as always, by voices and stories. Each story contributes to the whole experience ... writers learning from each other. I’m not talking about the craft of writing, but different perspectives, observations and life experiences that spark our creative process.

Confidence is another issue. Sometimes, hearing others read their work is all it takes; that little nudge to gain confidence, to get beyond the inner critic that whispers, "this isn't very good."

As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, notes. Set small and gentle goals and meet them; show up on the page “to rest, to dream, to try.”


My inspiration is John. It's why I wrote two memoirs and a novel. All, virtually wrote themselves. And I think the writing was for me, as much as for the memory of John.

And from our Saturday writing prompt "and the memory returns ..." I wrote this.
And the memory returns  ... Every year they bloom in riotous profusion, yellow in the sun along the old wood fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s. They have been cut back, trimmed down, because, if not, they would have taken over the whole backyard years ago. Some summers their scraggly branches, choked by vines climbed the fence, caught between the slats ... ugly, unruly. "Get rid of them," the boys said.

But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the heart. It would have been like cutting away―forever― the memory of you. I see you again, hunched over in the heat of a warm spring day, digging holes in the hard, rocky soil to plant the fledgling, tender shoots. I imagine you wore your old brown plaid shirt, a pair of jeans and black sneakers. It's been so long ... I cherry pick bits and pieces of time and place, recreating you from a collage of fading memories and distant dreams.

The forsythia, ready to burst forth after unusually warm weather, weighed down today with heavy snow. The snow arrived suddenly. The weatherman had predicted it, which is, I suppose a good thing, although it takes away the mystery of the unexpected.

And the memory returns. We had seen an ad in the local newspaper, a farmer offering free forsythia. So you drove there, dug them out and placed them, wrapped in damp newspaper, in buckets in the back of our station wagon. You grew up in the city, but your heart belonged to the quiet, restfulness of wooded places ... a house, a big yard. Our children, our nest ... you prepared as if in anticipation that you wouldn’t be with us much longer.

I want to remember you, planting the forsythia, strong, manly, a father to our children and a husband to me, your wife.
What inspires you? Your comments and thoughts about inspiration and writing life story are most welcome. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Writing and the Distractions of the Outside World

Our Women’s Writing Circle was on winter hiatus in February. I missed our group and look forward to this Saturday when we gather around a lighted candle and explore writing. Our Circle offers that sacred space to write a story that lives within you, that only you can tell … to be with other women whose journey encourages yours.

That said, a winter hiatus, of being alone, have an upside; becomes meaningful for the writer. A certain requisite reflection accompanies staying inside on a bitterly cold day. We tend to be loners, solitary creatures, anyway.

I always say when we first open the Women’s Writing Circle and light the candle that this is our time to “shut out the distractions of the outside world.”

Is that even possible anymore?

***
I met a man this week. As we got to know each other, we talked about changes in reading habits among the public. “Certainly, there are enough distractions to understand why most people can’t get through one book a year,” he said. “Books require a different kind of concentration (from tweeting and posting on Facebook). And there are so many books out there, it becomes difficult to initiate a conversation about any one book that many have read. I suppose that’s why there’s book clubs,” he said.

In another era, everyone read the same books … you know the ones: The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, 1984 (although dystopian novels have enjoyed a resurgence), To Kill a Mockingbird.

He and I also talked about writers posting their politics and political musings on their Facebook pages. Can it alienate potential readers?

“Isn’t controversy good for a writer?” he asked. “Any publicity is better than none, right?”

When it comes to writing, I feel that writers can’t be tied down to good manners and tactfulness if they have something to say that matters to them. After all, we aren't psychologists, we aren't arbiters of civil discourse, we're writers. 

Writers might be convinced in this day of social media and internet that being honest feels right.  At the same time, I feel we should question when it becomes a distraction from the real work at hand, contributes to a lack of focus, tempts us to journey down a dark path.

In the Women’s Writing Circle, we share our reflections, possibly a new sense of activism, an urgency to step out of the shadows. We share fiction, memoir, poetry, discuss literature and the craft of writing.

As we light the candle on Saturday, I look forward to celebrating the renewal that comes with spring. It’s an unblocking of sorts, a way to blossom after winter, of letting our voices be nurtured and heard.

Harbingers of an early spring are everywhere and have been for weeks; the lavender crocuses blooming under my neighbor’s elm tree. A dusting of snow on daffodils. Writing continues to consume and renew me. It leads to ever-greater discoveries, new people and new terrain; a refuge, hopefully, from the craziness―the lack of attention―in which we live.

Your comments and thoughts about the distractions that challenge you as a writer are most welcome.