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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Draws and Drawbacks of Finding a Writing Partner


At Saturday's read around, a woman mentioned the importance of a writing buddy. Her sister was her writing partner. I’ve never had a writing partner ... unless you consider my Dell computers, past and present. The  ‘e’ and ‘r’ and ‘s’ and ‘t’ keys were pounded until they faded to black ... after finishing a novel, two memoirs, several short stories and hundreds of blog posts.

Or maybe Lily and Lucy, the house dogs, the Labs I've loved over the years, are writing buddies. As I typed away, they faithfully remained at my side, or my feet, on snowy winter mornings and sunny summer days


I wonder: Can a writing partner check our "procrastinator" at the door, provide that spark of validation that keeps us going? Would we be friends?  Sisters can explore shared experiences and their lives. But what if we don't have a sister? And why would I need a writing partner? Writing, after all, is a solitary pursuit.

Coincidentally, right after Saturday's read around, a writer phoned me. He also happens to be a former pastor. He wanted to know what I was working on. I've known him for years so I gave him a brief outline of the new novel. A little surprise call that ended up being quite useful.

“Ava is where she needs to be, where she wants to be," he said of my novel's main character. "Jay has never left her side.”

It’s not how beautifully we write, it’s saying or writing what’s important, I think. He opened me up to ideas: Like death is never final and absence is powerful. Absence serves as reminder of the arm, once flung across the bed, no longer. 

 ***

I remember when I was in high school and my best friend, Paula, lived across the street. We decided  to write a book together; historical fiction romance a bodice ripper. She would write a chapter and I would write a chapter.

We worked on it all summer and then when we spread all those pages on my parents’ dining room table, figuring how to organize it into a coherent story became too much. And then Paula went away to college. No Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman were we. I remember thinking how hard collaborating on a novel with another person, even my best friend, turned out to be.

A writing group is another matter. It eases the isolation of writing. You have built-in writing buddies, several of them all at once, like we do in the Women’s Writing Circle, offering feedback and critique, on occasion. I like that, listening to the others and their take on life. They offer up new approaches to a topic that begins with: “My mother only had two basic rules.”  Some of the writers parsed it in a way I never would; interviewing friends and family about their rules or memories of those rules; or remembering a moment from childhood where the rules were oft spoken and repeated like a mantra, then incorporated into the writing, giving it a rhythm.

This is the unique voice, the magic of the creative at work.

I guess if you don't have a writing group — or even if you do — a writing buddy can encourage you to keep writing, offer validation. Go for it, as long as it does not become toxic or derail your work. For me, the hard work of writing, the discipline writing requires day in and day out ... and finding Lily next to me, is enough although I stay open to the little surprises along the way .... Oh, and, of course, the Women's Writing Circle.


How about you? Have you had, or do you have, a writing partner? Thoughts and experiences welcome.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Motherhood: Reflections on a 'Contract' In Perpetuity


After years of swearing I had no interest in becoming a mother, I got pregnant at the age of thirty-three. I guess I heard the biological clock ticking, drowning out years of declaring that I would travel, write the Great American Novel and never, ever, be tied down to changing diapers. Then, one day, I turned to my husband. “I want to have a baby. Is that alright with you?”

We had been married five years ... five years of luxuriating in lazy Sunday mornings after making love and working The New York Times crossword in bed ... five years of traveling to Yosemite and the seaside cliffs of Big Sur ... five years of dawdling over candlelight dinners. But, I suppose five years wasn’t that long when you consider that we met and married within a year of meeting.

“So, do you want to have a baby?”

John looked at me. “I’m happy just being with you, but if you want a baby, sure, let’s do it.”

And, just like that, I became a mother. Not once, but twice over the next four years, the first time the same age my mother was when she had me. Talk about a milestone. It beat turning twenty-one and becoming “legal” … it beat walking down the aisle and saying “in sickness and in health” … it beat turning sixty and trying to convince myself it’s the new “middle age.”

Motherhood, a friend said to me yesterday, is “a contract in perpetuity.” There’s no getting out of it or around it. It doesn’t end one day when your son or daughter turns eighteen and walks out the front door to attend college. It doesn’t end when they turn twenty-two and start careers. It doesn’t end when they bring home crises and you feel useless, knowing this is a journey they need to travel on their own.

Which brings me to my own mother. There was much about HER contract with motherhood that took me years to appreciate. Although she rarely offered advice and when she did it was "try marriage at least once" and "shave your legs on your wedding night" ... she packed school lunches day in and day out for me and my brother. She planted zinnias and cooked a mean rhubarb stew. She drank cocktails as she saw her possibilities dwindle — this after working as a baby sitter, and then as clerk in the local gift shop, and, finally, at the John Wanamaker store. In her 50s and without a college degree and no work experience (other than housewife and mother), this was all she could get … the price she paid to fulfill her "contract."


Those lessons — her lessons — served me well as I focused on reading and educating myself as a way to escape a similar fate.

Yet, what mother hasn’t put her ambitions on hold? What mother hasn’t had to leave the office early to pick up a child from soccer practice, attend a parent-teacher conference, rush home in order to make that school play? Being a single mother made it that much harder. It’s not something I regret — it is what it is. I was never going to be that star reporter at The Washington Post or write the Great American Novel — motherhood meant time to grow up.




Travel — I exceeded my wildest expectations. Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, England, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, Nepal and Morocco .... Who would have imagined that when I first held those squirming little bodies, powdered those bottoms and changed those diapers, my sons — and I — would travel the world together?


This job is not for the faint of heart.
Motherhood is about teaching trust, integrity, loyalty and faithfulness and trying your best to model that behavior. It's about discipline, teaching them that actions have consequences and taking away privileges. The lessons we teach should require a doctorate in philosophy and psychology. As mothers, we do the best we can — learning and teaching life skills, wrapped up in the wisdom of the ages, by the proverbial seat of our pants.

Writing the Great American Novel or the Great American Memoir could hardly have been as challenging or rewarding as this. Now when I introduce myself to people, I talk about my writing, but I also talk about the bigger part of my life. My sons. So what if I sound just like a million other proud moms? The fact is, this is who I am. A mom who holds close to her heart that "contract in perpetuity" she made so long ago.

Top Photo: Serious little girl with her mom, Gertrude

What are some of your reflections and memories about your mom or being a mom this Mother's Day?

Monday, April 30, 2018

Reflections From a Connecticut Writing Retreat


How does a writing retreat renew and inspire? Maybe just getting out of the comfort zone. I don't mean sleeping in a strange bed or driving four and a half hours. Maybe it’s being alert to learning, to staying open to new writers and their way of viewing the world which might be different than yours.

The downside to a writing retreat — you are forced to sit and write spontaneously. Some people don’t do their best work creatively that way. The retreat demands time commitment to the craft. Retreats offer raw writing from prompts. Write this ....

But no one is asking you to write a polished piece for publication, or at least they shouldn’t and critique was not our focus. This wasn’t a competition as to whose work is “better” than another’s’ so confidence boosting isn’t the reason to go on retreat.

***
I drove to the retreat from Chester County, Pennsylvania to Chester, Connecticut, another place whose namesake derives from that county town in northwest England. As I parked along the winding Main Street, our writing teacher, June Gould, pulled up in her car, and waved.


"Let me show you the town," she said. We walked past a pottery shop, and a brew pub. We entered a boutique June liked. A colorful top caught my eye. “That’s you, Susan,” June said when I modeled it. Elegant, artsy, chic. A good way to start this retreat. That and lunch at the River Tavern with seven other women who shared their excitement and pleasure at being on retreat.

***

“A labyrinth,” (Wikipedia notes), is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world.”

***
We spent three and a half days at the Guest House, immersed in poetry —"The Berlin Wall Tune” by Joseph Brodsky …"The Asians Dying” by W.S. Merwin — as jumpstart to writing about injustice, racial discrimination and discrimination against immigrants; the horror of the Holocaust; disease and untimely death. It wasn’t what I expected, but, then again, I didn’t know what to expect. I like June and valued her expertise in facilitating creative writing workshops which I have taken with her before through IWWG.

***
The Guest House is a restored 18th century farmhouse and barn; flowered wallpaper, private bedrooms and lobby replete with grand piano, gorgeous floral arrangements and original artwork offer picture-perfect ambience. Woodsy trails winding past creeks brimming with skunk cabbage and leading to a labyrinth serve as meditative and mindful outdoor resting spots.

No matter our experiences, our social or political proclivities or backgrounds, we all have stories to write. How and what we chose to tell matters and each voice is unique.

I write on retreat: There’s the fear of becoming useless …. There’s the fear of losing the writing; the fear of the black tunnel of writer’s block. But then, I think, maybe it’s just me taking a break, and soon I’ll be back, tapping away at that keyboard.

With June Gould

June titled the retreat, “The Stamina of Language.” The strength, the endurance of the written word. Language defines us." Language sums up who we are, our place of origin, our “social status.” Why has English been deemed “superior” to Spanish?

Our group of writers talk about code-breaking poetry ... a line of Spanish here and there to express the plight of Chicanos in the distinctive voice of the Hispanic poet. We learn about confrontational poetry that is insistent and unrelenting in its message of injustice. No apologies. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.

Stay alert to learning. Stay open to voices different from your own. Read your work aloud in community. Luxuriate in the joy of moving out of your comfort zone. 

I write on my Connecticut retreat: There is a place where the artist goes, built on pain and sadness. Pages torn from the past lead to the present, to this day, this place, somewhere on the dividing line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Can you share a writing retreat and your experience? Comments and thoughts most welcomed.