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?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Journaling and Writing Prompts To a Deeper Place

I don’t journal much, but when I do it's usually in response to a writing prompt at a writing workshop.

While some writers are quick to say they don't like the emphasis on writing prompts (really a way to journal) that permeate many writing workshops and conferences, I am torn.

A writer has to be in the mood and frame of mind to write creatively . . . or at least I do. Words can't be churned out like widgets. On the other hand, prompts can be provocative, a gentle nudge to the muse.

Here's a helpful blog post on different kinds of prompts, including images, to move the writer off the blank page. I'd also like to share a couple prompts I found useful at the recent IWWG conference with special thanks to teachers and mentors June Gould and Eunice Scarfe.

Start out with On this day . . .

On this day I listen. He talks about the women in his life . . . immoral, no boundaries, little integrity, he says. His disappointment is palpable in the room steeped in angst and cigarette smoke. "These women" cheat on husbands and boyfriends; phone at midnight leaving rambling drug intoxicated messages; desperate texts begging, 'Please, I miss you! I need to see you again.' On this day I think back to when I was young and in love. I recall that Joni Mitchell lyric "tethered to a ringing telephone line." I waited for the call that never came. A man was supposed to pursue me! Is this role reversal of the sexes - woman as predator and pursuer - some bizarre end product of feminism?

Or this prompt: Write a letter to someone who is dead:

Dear Virginia. I see you sitting at the small green desk at Monk House. You choose your words carefully; scratch this one out, edit this one. As you stare out the window, the pink and white hollyhocks sway in breezes coming off the river. Very soon now you will put down your pen, take a deep breath, walk a mile (I know. I walked this same path); dip a toe into icy river waters, slowly, purposefully, wade in up to your waist . . . let the currents carry you downstream to your watery grave. Dear Virginia. You speak to me after all these years:

"When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke around me I am in darkness – I am nothing."

"So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say."

Another prompt begins with: What I mean to say . . .

What I mean to say is that masks hold deep meaning. A woman’s mask bought at a market stall in Venice hangs on my kitchen wall. A headdress of glittering purple and gold grape leaves frames her heart-shaped, porcelain face, full red lips. She is ripe, sensual – bearing fruit. The goddess of the harvest!

Or, she could have been, anyway. Her eyes are vacant – black holes ringed with gold.

What I mean to say is that a woman, this woman hides her feelings, her longings, her desires behind a worn and weathered mask. I had a dream that you and I would meet again. You come to me and with a sigh I wait for your touch . . . tenderly you lift my mask and I am free.


Summertime is the best time for thoughts and dreams to take flight, to open the windows wide and welcome the writing life of reflection and joy. What writing prompts can you share here in the Women's Writing Circle? Would love to hear some of your favorite prompts to jumpstart the muse.

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?