Monday, July 9, 2018

Writing, Travel and Letting Go

A two-week vacation to the English Lake District, timed to coincide with my birthday on July 11, begins today. A couple birthdays ago, I went to London and before that, women’s writing conferences. Gifts to myself. Gifts to the writer. 

I’m traveling to the place where mountains, forests and lakes inspired Wordsworth. Windermere is not far from Manchester where my grandmother, Annie Beatrice Dean Weidener, was born. As a young woman, she traveled from England to Philadelphia, where she met my grandfather, Andrew Weidener, a marketing and sales manager for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine, Nanny ran a small boarding house (now called a bed and breakfast) in Germantown, serving tea to strangers, her cat purring on the windowsill ….

Like my grandmother, I travel. Lately, I’ve sensed a need to travel a new path … thinking of Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by”; a new beginning, a new endeavor, a new path. Which to choose? So many options.

Reflection and time, along with patience and good humor, help. Maybe, I’ll learn I’m right where I’m meant to be.

Several years ago, when my sons and I were in Hong Kong, we took a bus to Lantau Island. We climbed the endless steep steps to the top of the hill where a huge, seated bronze Buddha sat on a lotus throne and stared with impenetrable serenity toward the horizon. Alex said that Buddhists believe life is a struggle and the human condition one of pain and suffering. The way to reach nirvana lies not in holding onto relationships, or anything worldly, but in letting go.Warm breezes from the Sea of China mingled with the scent of incense, as monks prayed and mediated by the Buddha.

Writing is a way of letting go, of absorbing pain and moving on. It is my survival guide, my traveling companion.  I’m writing this now before heading to the airport.

As a writer, you look for a moonlit night thousands of miles from home, a conversation in a pub filled with old geezers and young people, alike.The notebook waits, pulled out of a suitcase. Thoughts and impressions jotted down. A memory, a moment, write it so you won’t forget. And I’ll think of my grandmother, how her life began in England, where I now travel.
Susan in Westport, New Zealand

See you in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dog Days of Summer and the Writing Life

It’s been hot here—a scorcher. The dog days of summer—literally, and figuratively. Just Lily and me, limiting our walks to shade behind the house.

I head to the pool ... turquoise-cool waters shimmer and beckon—and then—enter the pool Nazi! (Remember the Seinfeld 'soup Nazi' episode?)

You know who I mean. The one screaming strict regimentation. You’re in the laps lane and she is moving like a torpedo, plastic yellow flippers flailing, sinewy arms slicing the water, goggled eyes deep underwater, and then she hits you with said flippers and splashing arms. You ask if she might remove the flippers. Instead, she tells you that you violated pool etiquette, pool rules, because you didn’t make known to her you were about to have the temerity to enter the pool and begin your own laps.

“You’re supposed to wait. I didn’t even see you,” she spits out. “But I can’t move as fast as you. It wouldn’t matter,” I protest. At which point she repeats pool etiquette, as if I embody her recipe for rudeness.

I could dismiss her as some frustrated mom/overworked career woman taking out her angst in a public pool, but, instead of telling her to sod off—as the British would say—I don’t want a scene at the place where I spend four days a week exercising. I’m going to let it go. Besides, it’s too hot; not worth the energy.

“Do you want to move into this lane?” a woman in her forties, wearing a broad-brimmed pink straw hat asks. She appears to be wading, not swimming. Thank you, I say. The pool Nazi ignores us and goes back to her furious laps.

I admit I’ve been feeling a bit stumped of late as to how to deal with the outrageousness and incivility going on out there. It makes me want to curl up with a good book with the rotating fan swaying in the living room, Lily sleeping at my feet. When people push you aside, tell you to move over, or ignore you because you fail “pool etiquette,” it marginalizes any hope of a human connection, let alone a civil conversation.

Later that afternoon, I go outside, still in my bathing suit, spray Lily with the garden hose, rub a dollop or two of Pert shampoo into her tawny-colored coat. I hold the hose away from her face, but close enough to splash cold water on her head. She closes her eyes in obedience and generosity of goodwill toward me, her human, for this indignity. I take a towel and gently wipe the inside of her ears. A dog is so simple.

Last year I taught a writing workshop on the art of the personal essay. Maybe it’s time I started writing those essays; seeing if I can get them published in the newspaper; or writing politically-charged missives on this blog? Writing my angst, my disgust, my disapproval of people and their atrocious behavior. No. This takes more effort than I can muster. Instead, I’ll keep working on my novel, crafting a scene, working the characters, like a potter at her wheel, a Labrador Retriever at her feet.

I can imagine a new story, a way to play with words, construct sentences. An email from a writer in the Women’s Writing Circle lands in my mailbox. She shares a story she wrote the night before when she couldn’t sleep. It’s amusing, imaginative, it inspires me to write.

I call Lily. We step out onto the deck. I feel the sun on my face. It’s still scorching out. Like my father used to say, this too shall pass … and summer’s dog days will be replaced soon enough with the cool breezes of autumn. But, for now, the heat is on. “C’mon girl, let’s go in,” I say to Lily, where the fan beckons. Best to keep cool.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Writing Our Remorse: 'The Sense of An Ending'

Remorse and taking stock of our smug attitudes about people is the theme of The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes’ novel, which in 2011 won the Man Booker Prize. A potent story told in 165 pages (and made into a movie in 2017), the novel offers yet another portrait of people who suffer from the errors of their past.

I've been on a Julian Barnes reading kick this summer. Here's my review of his new novel, The Only Story. (Last summer, I focused on May Sarton with this review of her memoirs.)

Remorse is defined as deep guilt for a wrong committed. As a writer, I identify. Remorse played a major role in writing my memoirs and my novel. There appeared no way to undo the wrong committed … guilt and shame don’t go far enough. Remorse, some say, is living with the wrong you committed, year after year, but hoping to find atonement.

How? In my case, through writing. I wrote Again in a Heartbeat to understand, and, maybe, forgive myself for my presumptions of what life is supposed to be, not how it is. My memories of that time were—and still are—acute. I realize now I acted unthinkingly, sometimes out of anger, sometimes out of wounded pride, sometimes out of deeply felt confusion and grief that I couldn’t save him. As I wrote my memoir, I learned much about myself and the healing began.

Remorse strikes Tony Webster, the main character in The Sense of An Ending. Tony is “settled” … doesn't step outside his comfort zone. Then the past pays an unwelcome visit. A middle-aged Tony learns of the suicide of a close childhood friend, Adrian, forcing Tony to reexamine a hate-filled, vindictive letter he wrote to Adrian after college. The letter has resurfaced in Adrian’s diary, left to him by the mother of Adrian’s lover and Tony’s old girlfriend, Veronica.

“Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words,” Tony says of the letter.

I had a swath of my past to reevaluate, with nothing but remorse for company.”

Adrian’s suicide confounds Tony, especially when he learns the motivation. It is the same as Robeson, another classmate—one not as “smart” as Adrian—who also committed suicide after getting a girl pregnant. Now, Tony understands that Adrian, the "philosopher friend" he once idolized, was "no more than a version of Robeson."

How do we categorize people? Write them off, as this or that? Fail to understand someone? And how does this mount up over a lifetime? Writes Barnes: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” 

It's like hoarding. Stuff mixed up with stuff with stuff. It seems to me the "unrest," the remorse, comes from this: Why weren't we kinder, more understanding, less invested in our own egos? 

And what about Veronica? In college, Tony found her insufferable, a “tease,” emotionally inaccessible …“damaged.” When they break up and she gets together with Adrian, Tony writes both of them off. Now, forty years later, the mean-spirited letter and Adrian’s diary bring them together in a way that allows Tony reflection and reevaluation of his view of women falling into two categories: "mysterious", like Veronica, or uncomplicated and "straightforward" like his ex-wife, Margaret. There's a lot of hidden humor in the way Barnes writes this story.

How does a book like this teach us about our own lives? Divisiveness and civility—or lack thereof—make the news on a daily basis, resulting in painting people as “the other.” 

What we learn from The Sense of An Ending is keep trying, keep open to acknowledging our weakness and flaws, as well as those in others … that is, if we are to quiet the unrest, and maybe find that atonement we seek.This is all fertile territory for the writer whose job is to go beyond, to question, to understand the very nature of who we are and how, in so many ways, we are all alike.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Fear and Writing About My Father: Memoir Lessons

There is fear that comes with memoir. What is the impact on family? Will it lead to irreversible damage? Cut off hope of healing or reconciliation? Or, if the relationship is already severed, who cares what you write? Then the worry is retaliation. I’ve heard this many times over the years.

At a talk last week with memoir author and friend, Kathy Pooler, at the Amsterdam Free Library in New York, these and other questions again arose. Why put yourself through the agony of unearthing the pain of the past? Hopefully, the journey offers many treasures along the way, Kathy said.

She's right, of course. Still, memoir is a journey some choose not to travel. Which brings me to my father. What would Dad have thought about me writing and publishing in my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, the story of his mid-life affair? He has been gone for over two decades so I'll never know. Dad, an only child raised by a mother from Manchester, England, had much of the British in him. He rarely verbalized his emotions or encouraged others to. I can only surmise that he might have been uncomfortable with publishing family secrets.

I witnessed his affair … overhearing his phone conversations with the woman and the impact his infidelity had on the family. As I wrote in Morning at Wellington Square, I had trusted my father like no other. I wrote in my first memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, how safe and secure my father made me feel as a child. To learn of his infidelity at nineteen brought this life lesson: “That summer I grew up. I learned no matter how much we think we know another person, we never truly do. At the end of the day the only heart you can ever know is your own.” 

If it is true that the only heart we can ever truly know is our own, how do we write with certainty about those who impacted us? How do we portray them with honesty and fairness? When I talk about memoir to a group of people, as I did in New York, the issue of family fallout and family stories invariably arises. I point to the great Virginia Woolf, how she studied the times in which her parents came of age and applied that to an understanding of her father and mother. Her father, a writer, depended on women to stroke his ego, yet he used them—raging at his wife and daughters. Virginia’s mother excused his abuse as “genius.” Woolf resented that “myth” and her father for most of her life. In this post I write about family myths passed down from generation to generation.

The myth I grew up with: honorable and reliable men are incapable of betraying their family.

Would I have written the story of my father’s affair when he was alive and risked damaging our relationship? In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts. Sure, I could have told him I wrote it because I learned more about myself—what memoirists call “the truth of my story.” Still, he was my dad and I loved him and he loved me. I also feared his anger and his disapproval.

But maybe I’m being too hard on myself—and my father. Maybe Dad would have understood that his daughter wrote memoir as a way to use her talent—writing—to reach other people and share her story—and his—in a meaningful way. "I learned no matter how much we think we know another person, we never truly do. At the end of the day the only heart you can ever know is your own.”

After all, Dad was a good Episcopalian and studied the Bible. He knew storytelling was integral to the religious life and that Jesus used stories to teach others and share the universal journey.

Before Dad died, I had a short and awkward conversation with him about the affair. We never spoke of it again. That conversation is in the memoir.

In my memoir, I tried to present my father as an academic who loved literature and found his passion in teaching, a profession which my mother constantly reminded him didn’t pay enough for her to stop pinching pennies—a worry magnified by growing up in the Depression. I believe my father wanted a woman who adored him. From what I could tell through overhearing his phone conversations with the “other woman”, he found that adoration.

While my mother remained faithful, kept house, and raised his children, adoring him was not her priority. After the affair ended, my parents chose to stay together. He died thirteen years before she. From conversations with my mother, I learned she never forgave him, something I also wrote in the memoir—again, after she died. My part is this drama is explained in my memoir.

I advise this when writing about family: Pay attention to details … journals, diaries, photographs, conversations. Don’t paint people in black and white, but offer portraits with insight, based on knowledge, real and authentic. Ask yourself: Would I want someone to tell my story any other way? 

What is my gut telling me about writing something this personal

Finally, no one wants to read a rage or rant or a lengthy rationalization of "why I did this." Be honest about your feelings, your lessons, your part in the story. Tell your story as a writer. Some memoirists are best advised to visit an attorney to clarify if what they write is libelous. Then, after thinking about this and still deciding to write a memoir, you can’t go wrong. That said, this journey of fear and family becomes more challenging when the person is alive. Like I said, I don't know if I could have done it.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Role of Memory in Love: A Review of 'The Only Story'

True love is the major theme in my short stories and books. So with interest I read Julian Barnes’ new novel about love, The Only Story. It includes these opening lines. “Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.”

I had never read a Barnes novel before, although I quoted him in my memoir Morning at Wellington Square. “For sorrow there is no remedy.” Barnes’ wife of thirty years died of cancer and writing about grief has become a signature of his recent work.

The Only Story, a profound and deeply moving tale of two people destined to meet, begins in small town England, “The Village,” as Barnes calls it. Paul, nineteen years old and home from college for the summer, falls in love with Susan, who is thirty years older. From the moment they meet on the tennis court, they are kindred spirits, finding intimacy in a world of isolation and narrow-mindedness.

Barnes weaves the story from the memory of the older Paul, looking back on himself and his relationship with Susan.
“You understand, I hope, that I’m telling you everything as I remember it? Memory sorts and sifts according to the demands made on it by the remembered. Do I have access to the algorithm of its priorities? Probably not. But I would guess that memory prioritizes whatever is more useful to help keep the bearer of those memories going. So there would be a self-interest in bringing happier memories to the surface first. But again, I’m only guessing."

Julian Barnes

Paul remembers those moments in the first blush of love—discovering beauty in the curve of her ears. “She was my life.”

The role of memory is central to the novel.
Which got me thinking. How do we remember our parents, our lovers? How do our memories and imaginings converge? For the novelist, memory can be an invention, an artistic rendering. For the memoirist, handcuffed to “accuracy”, the task is harder, near impossible. Honesty and courage in the narrator's role in a tragedy can only be portrayed by plumbing the deepest and darkest memories.

Paul ponders the role of memory. “He recognized that memory was unreliable and biased, but in which direction?” Towards optimism … towards pessimism? He “investigates” his own bargaining, the codependency intertwined with his love for an addict.

Memory supposedly gives us the ability to learn and adapt from previous experiences, but what of love? Much of what we remember is seeped in self-preservation. We try to sort the good from the bad. If the bad becomes overwhelming, it numbs the heart. We move on, literally, if not figuratively.

Despite the disapproval of Paul’s parents and “the Village,” Paul and Susan move to London. Thus, begins an exploration of love from beginning to tragic end told through first, second and third person as Paul distances himself from the relationship that forever changes his life.

What drew me into this story? Barnes’ understanding of human psychology and the lessons of love.

Memories are viewed through what Barnes calls our “own private cinema” that play and replay, changing with time and circumstance. Betrayal in love is inevitable … whether that person leaves through no fault of his or her own (cancer, addiction) or is duplicitous. This is the story of Joan, Susan’s best friend. She falls hard for a married man, they spend years together, he gets a divorce and she learns one morning that he has not only disappeared from her life, but up and married another woman. A drunk, she lives alone with her dogs, swearing off love.

Unhappy men view wives as possessions. Susan’s husband, Gordon, hasn’t had sex with Susan in years, but knocks out her front teeth in a fit of rage (which Barnes equates to power), in reaction to his wife’s infidelity.

Susan keeps house, cooks large meals but can’t figure out what to do in her spare time. She numbs the emptiness and shame with alcohol. Her self-centered daughters make no attempt to get to know her as a woman.

Paul’s best friend, a kind man with an earnest heart, falls for a woman who says she loves him and then tries to take him for his money and house.

Love’s transformation—from gold to lead, thanks to society’s retribution, illness, disillusionment, lying and deceit, or age (you pick one)—is tragic and the theme of this novel.

Finally, Barnes offers his readers this: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

If all of this sounds sad and depressing, it is. A subtitle to this novel might be, Out of Deepest Love Comes Deepest Despair. But read it if you want insight into “the only story” … a story, which in my opinion, is really all our stories.

Have you read a book that got you thinking about memories and a story that resonated with you?

Monday, June 4, 2018

'This Is How It Is With Me' Along the Writer's Way

This is how it is with me. My grandparents’ house in Germantown is a shadow of its former stately self. I drive past it after attending a writer's meeting in that part of Philadelphia. Boarded windows and unpainted cornices speak of a world as faded as the velvet roses my crazy aunt once pinned to her silk dress. My parents married in June in the garden of that house—a carefully-tended montage of phlox, hydrangeas and rhododendron, now lost to weeds, an old tire and a pinwheel. There's a price to pay for a field trip down memory lane.

This is how it is with me.
I want to write, I will write. Not tomorrow or the next day, but today. If I don’t want to write, I won’t. People can find any excuse from the lawn needs mowing to the lampshade needs replacing not to sit down and write. If you don’t want to write, stop calling yourself a writer.

This is how it is with me. I’ve become one of those old ladies talking to her dog. I take morning coffee on the front porch, Lily by my side. We watch the SUVs roar up the street, people on their way to work. I drink more coffee, read a book, type a blog post, work on the novel. Not a bad life.

This is how it is with me. This past week I met another writer for coffee—although it has been so hot and muggy we sipped something called passion tea with a splash of lemonade—and talked. What is meaningful to me has little or no monetary value in the culture in which we live, she said. I agree.

This is how it is with me. Writing is totally undervalued in our society and unless you’re Virginia Woolf (which is money and a room of your own) you can’t afford to write, or pursue your passion, or explore what theologians and psychologists call your “authentic self.” I'm one of the lucky ones.

This is how it is with me. An email arrives from Richard Rohr Daily Meditations entitled Who Am I?  It has this quote: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."—Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981), theologian and civil rights leader.

This is how it is with me.
They say the economy is booming, the jobless rate at an all-time low. Try telling that to the bookstore owner; the adjunct professor getting a pittance for teaching a subject he or she loves; the director of a nonprofit agency where selflessness and commitment to the greater good goes rewarded with a salary no one can live on.

This is how it is with me. A storytelling group is winding down now after thirty-six years. Everyone is old and tired … workshops didn’t pay. People got fed up devoting their creative energy without a morsel of compensation. One man says he didn’t get one gig out of it. But he comes back to the group on this rainy day because telling stories makes him come alive.

This is how it is with me.
When one gets tired, you can bet another picks up the gauntlet … starts a writing group, holds a writing workshop, writes a memoir or a novel and reads at the local library, even if only two or three are in attendance. A full house would be nice, but unlikely.

This is how it is with me. The garden must be tended, not trampled underfoot. Most of the media is on a self-serving ego trip except for investigative journalists toiling away because journalism is their passion. I believed that once and still do.

This is how it is with me.
I worked a low-paying newspaper job, dragged my kids to daycare, never got promoted, and if my husband hadn’t died, I would have been working two jobs, or living in a trailer … or maybe turning to opioids … because the job I loved never paid, but his pension kept me afloat.

This is how it with me—throughout it all I’ve been reporting, scribbling, journaling, self-publishing, blogging and sharing my observations about the world. Because as Bukowski says about writing: "You will keep on doing it until you die or it dies in you. There is no other way and there never was."

Monday, May 21, 2018

Authors Respect Each Other: Traditional or Self-Published

Despite the soaring popularity of self-publishing, it seems some authors still see this as something to disparage.

At a recent writer’s meeting, the question was asked: Why do some agents still want query letters and manuscript samples sent snail mail? One writer answered it was “to weed out” all the self-published writers. I have no clue how he came to this conclusion or the evidence to support it. And while there may be truth that agents are overloaded, the fact that at least one or two authors in the group had gone the self-publishing route made the comment feel to me a bit snobbish.

I self-published because I liked the creative control, didn’t have to wait years to be published and felt I had written something worthy of a reader’s attention. I'll be researching publishing options for the August workshop I'll be teaching in our Women's Writing Circle on traditional vs. independent publishing.

My hope: Authors of any stripe who work hard to create good books should be respected.

The writer's meeting then devolved into how to write query letters ... often amounting to a marketing hustle that saps authors of energy and questions the merit of their work. A lengthy and exhausting process, the query can leave writers deflated even after the query is rewritten. I’ve heard this story repeated many times over the last ten years since I self-published Again in a Heartbeat.

The one time I pitched an agent at a writer’s conference, she looked at me and said that she thought I was going the correct route by self-publishing and tying that in with the Women’s Writing Circle. I thanked her because it validated what I hoped to accomplish, that writing is a creative expression open to all.

And what about marketing your work? Even if you are traditionally published, it still falls heavily on the author, difficult for anyone, even myself, a seasoned journalist.

In this 2016 article in Forbes Magazine Nick Morgan, writes:

For fiction writers, the answer is increasingly pretty simple: Self-publishing is the way to go. That’s because you can keep 70 or 80% of your book sales revenue, as compared to 20% under the traditional model. Simple decision, right? Here goes: All books, fiction or non-, need to be marketed heavily in order to stand out in a field of something like a million books published every year in the United States alone. While many authors assume that getting a traditional publisher means that publisher will take care of the marketing chores, the truth is that a traditional publisher will only put real marketing muscle behind the one or two books per year that it truly believes has a shot at becoming a bestseller. If a publisher brings out a hundred books per year, it’s expecting that one of those will outsell the other 99 – combined.
Nonfiction may be another matter. If you are publishing a book related to your business, then it might make sense to seek a traditional publisher, giving the book more professional cache in that niche, perhaps.

Why a big name publisher would publish an unknown author’s memoir is questionable. It gets back to why I created my own imprint, Writing Circle Press.

The snobbery inherent in espousing that writers must go through gatekeepers and other hoops relating to “apprenticeship” remains prevalent even after the explosive changes in publishing I’ve witnessed over the last decade.

I’m not one to worry who has published a book. As illustrated in the top photograph, both traditionally and independently published work has earned my readership. The proof, as they say, is in the written word. If a book is good, it is good. I do wish libraries would buy more copies of independent work, for example, especially of local authors, and that book clubs would take advantage.

In the end, I just wish that as authors and writers we could respect all authors. Is that too much to ask?

Your thoughts and comments are most welcomed.