Monday, June 20, 2016

Memoir and Immensely Important Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence is key.

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

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

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

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

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

MOST OBVIOUS:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, June 6, 2016

August Poetry Workshop: Writing Your Life in Verse

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

What to Bring: Favorite writing tools

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

Please RSVP: Susan Weidener: sgweidener@comcast.net

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


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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memoir As a Healing Journey of Discovery and Reflection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John with our son Daniel

Monday, May 23, 2016

Even A "Boring Childhood" Yields Nuggets of Gold







I didn’t write much – if at all – about my childhood in my memoirs. My childhood seemed inconsequential and uneventful.

No Kill a Mockingbird or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn childhood for me. No abuse or divorce, or civil rights’ quests . . . just rhubarb stew bubbling on the stovetop in summer, winters sledding on neighborhood hillsides and a dog named Lucky.

Writing about those growing up years as I have begun to do offers this insight: I became a writer because of that ordinary life, alone in my bedroom imagining a magical world waiting outside the solitude of suburbia.

Writing prompt: Write about your childhood starting with this line: "What I really want to say . . ."


What I really want to say is that loneliness has been with me as long as I can remember. My July birthday is a quiet affair. All the families are away at the New Jersey Shore or Pocono mountains. The plastic inflated swimming pool filled with icy water from the hose offered relief from the heat and humidity. I see myself in the pool wearing my blue and white checked bathing suit with strings that tie behind my neck.

Lucky, a mix of spaniel and terrier, is by my side. A vanilla cake, a few presents, one friend and the sound of humming cicadas set the scene. The purple and pink Rose of Sharon bush by the side of our house blooms on my birthday, July 11. Dad calls it “Susie’s Rose of Sharon,” as though this is celebration enough.

The sound of my childhood is a small glass wind chime bought on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey. I tie the wind chime to my bedroom window catch and the soft breezes of summer and the cooler winds of autumn lift the thin rectangular glass panes. The tinkle perfectly captures a sense of possibility that the world outside my window holds  romance, a child’s imagination spurred on by fairy tales of women who found happily-ever-after in a devoted Prince Charming. How was I to know that my prince would die long before I, leaving me with a tangle of thorns, bittersweet memories and an eye evermore scanning the horizon for storm clouds?

A sledding party.
On a bookshelf in my bedroom, I display my china horses: a palomino, a black horse and a little brown pony with a beaded saddle and a tuft of white furry mane purchased in a  tacky boardwalk shop in Ocean City where everything is made in Japan.

Horses, wind chimes and the Nancy Drew mysteries fill my quiet child’s world.

Those years remind me of a way of life long gone now, one I value the older I get for its utter simplicity, at least on the surface. Barbecues, kickball, hopscotch and sledding on neighborhood hillsides.

I walked to my elementary school along tree-lined sidewalks, past stone houses with big chimneys, tucked behind ancient arborvitae and oak trees. My pale brown hair pulled back in a barrette, I remember thinking I wasn't very pretty. "Pretty" was a word for the girls with the thick hair and upturned noses; not me, skinny and gangly, already the tallest girl in the class.  Maybe then I began to build a shell to protect myself, not let other people see I cared. . . .

Pennsylvania is, if nothing else, a place where trees, flowers and plants flourish. Monkey vines in the woods behind our house, black snakes and turtles in the creek - before development stripped every acre for profit - formed the woodsy montage of my childhood in the 1950s.

I dug gobs of gray clay from the creek banks and molded them into little people with rounded balls for heads and torsos; squiggly, wormlike arms and legs. I dried my little people on newspaper in the sun, there in my own outdoor arts and crafts workshop until Mother called me in for lunch.

In second grade, our teacher Miss Stafford talked about leaves – a second grader's introduction to photosynthesis. A shy child, I heard myself tell the class we had a red sugar maple in our backyard and before I knew it, sixteen or so second graders followed our teacher’s lead from Strafford Elementary, walking the sidewalks to my backyard where a perfect turquoise sky framed the tree. We gathered gold and crimson leaves, took them back to school and fashioned clay ashtrays in the shape of those leaves. Mine looked like a mitten. I stained it bright aquamarine before firing it up in the kiln. My father kept that ashtray in his den by his books for years. I wish I'd saved it. But even then I thought it ugly, not very good.

So you see? Even in a boring childhood, the "takeaways" exist, a map to the unknown, a memory here and there sparked by a thought or two. Who knows where it might lead?

What about you? Can you share a childhood memory or how it sparked your writing?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Viewing Life Through the Lens of Fantasy Fiction


In the Women's Writing Circle we explore many writing styles and share our stories through a variety of genres. If there's one thing we have in common, it's how writing offers an exploration of those things that most capture our imaginations, our pain, our joys, our self-discoveries and the human condition.

In this guest essay Women's Writing Circle member and fantasy fiction author Helen Hieble shares her love for the fantasy genre, explains what it is and how it offers the writer a unique melding of magical worlds with aspects of real life.  ~ Susan


I'm twenty-six years old and I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I've always loved fantasy stories. So, I guess it's no surprise that I write mostly fantasy fiction.

As a writer of fantasy, one thing I often hear is, "I don't usually read fantasy so I don't know much about it."

So, what is fantasy fiction? There are many types and sub-genres of fantasy, but the basic definition: Fiction that contains magic and supernatural elements as a main point of the story. Stories often take place in worlds created by the author. Magical beings and fantastic creatures such as unicorns, dragons, and many others, are not only possible, they are a part of life. 
          
Fantasy novels offer a broad range of characters and settings and stories to tell. Characters can be men or women, they can be adults or teenagers or even children. There are fantasy novels written for people of all ages by people of all ages.

Characters can be any race from human beings like you and me, to vampires and werewolves, to fairies or mermaids, or even dragons. Or people who turn into dragons. Or dragons who turn into people!

It's just so much fun to think about what life would be like if I could actually go into one of these magical worlds. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to fly? Or see a unicorn? Or use magic?

I can imagine visiting another world and experiencing these things. I love writing fantasy because I can create another world and fill it with characters who, in my place, can experience these things for me.

Stories can take place in a fantasized version of the European Middle Ages, such as in the The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Or a stylized version of the Oriental feudal era in Alison Goodman's Eon and Eona.

They might be set in a real town in the real world in the past, or modern day. One example of a fantasy series in this setting is the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.

They might also take place in a fictionalized town set in the modern day, real world like the town of Mystic Falls, Virginia in L.J. Smith's young adult series The Vampire Diaries . . . or in a world created by the author in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth series. And sometimes in multiple worlds as in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling or in Frewin Jones', The Faerie Path.

Another question I'm asked, "Why do you like fantasy so much?" I haven't always had a clear understanding of why. As a child, I never put much (or any) thought into why I liked something. I just liked it. But as I grew older, I began to identify with the characters. And while I knew that many of the things my favorite characters went through were things that I would never have to deal with exactly - such as fighting and defeating monsters - I also knew I would deal with difficulties in my life.

The heroes and heroines of my favorite stories, despite the many hardships, trials and tribulations always find a way to persevere in the end, usually with the help of friends, family and teammates.

The characters in the books I read as a teenager and the books I still read today, inspire me and give me hope for the future. They help me to believe that things will always work out and that with hard work and the help of your allies, you can do anything.

Please join in the conversation and share your thoughts and questions with Helen about fantasy fiction or how stories spur imagination and offer insight into our own life journeys.


Helen Hieble  lives in Wayne Pennsylvania. She has been writing short stories in the fantasy genre for over ten years and has self-published one fantasy-romance novella, The Wizard of Hirodenal. She has also written a journal, My Favorite Things: A Journal to Record Your Favorites, From Anime to Video Games.  Helen runs a copyediting and writing service: www.writefromtheheartservices.com.  Her author website is www.thewizardofhirodenal.com. In her free time when she is not writing, Helen enjoys listening to music, playing video games, and watching anime. She is currently working on her next novella.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

With Time Comes Understanding My Mother's Life


My mother used to say, “A woman president? What a terrible idea!” My mother felt men held more sway, their opinions carried more weight. I suspect, although can’t be certain, she would have applied the ‘b’ word to Hillary.

“I prefer the company of men to women,” she often said.

My mother didn’t choose the moment in history in which she had been born. And with time comes more understanding of my mother and her life.

With a cloud of dark hair cascading around her shoulders, large expressive brown eyes, and a slender figure that enhanced stylish dresses, Gertrude graduated at age sixteen from Germantown High School in Philadelphia. She met the boy next door – actually across the street. Dad courted her while he lived at home with his mother and attended the University of Pennsylvania. Following a two-year engagement, she became – at the age of twenty-three – his bride. Despite a fractious marriage punctuated by her husband's infidelity in midlife, she never took off the delicate silver wedding band my father slipped on her finger that June day in 1940.

At Christmas she sat down at the piano and played, “Oh Tannenbaum,” warbling in a soprano voice that wavered on the high notes. “I am proud to be German,” she announced afterwards, finishing off with a flourish of chords.

I remember the night Mother came home drunk from a party. My father looked at me. “I think your mother is out for the night.” Then he went upstairs.

I watched her dance around the living room like Isadora Duncan, hands fluttering in time to a melody only she could hear. Finally, she flopped down on the living room sofa and passed out in turquoise silk high heels and long raccoon coat, a rhinestone bracelet glinting on her thin wrist.

An insecure and anxious girl - a confession she readily made - her innocence found a connection with animals. Her first dog, a black cocker spaniel my father bought her when they were newlyweds named Charkie (short for Charcoal), vanished one afternoon shortly after my brother, Andy, was born. Mother believed Charkie had been stolen for medical research. The disappearance of her dog broke her fragile heart. A photograph of her in tweed winter coat with huge padded shoulders, her “baby" dog snuggled in her arms remained on her bedroom dresser for years, a symbol to me of love, loyalty and incurable sentimentality.

Mother demanded being the center of attention, especially with men. Men were the currency of self-worth. One night when I was about sixteen, she sat on the lap of her best friend’s husband and stroked his cheek, giggling, “Now Jack, what is that I feel pressing against my thigh. You bad boy!”

“Aw, Gerrude,” Jack said slurring out the ‘t’. His stubby hand held a cigarette and a tumbler of whiskey. “Why don’t you and I head upstairs?”

“Jack,” Mother chided in mock horror. “Maryann would never talk to me again.”

“Gertrude, you can have him. With pleasure,” Maryann said, slurring her words a bit and lighting another cigarette, her black Standard poodle Monsieur sprawled at her feet.

I wanted to crawl under a table and disappear. While his wife shamelessly flirted with another man, Dad remained his usual refrained, unruffled self. Dad had married a diva, a drama queen and he made the best of it. I’m sure he also knew Mother would never carry through with Jack. Years later when I caught myself flirting with a man while my husband sat in the room, I caught my breath.

Maryann was Mother’s best friend. The friendship revolved around a daily weekday morning phone conversation about hair appointments, cleaning house and gossip at the school where both their husbands worked.

“Maryann is so bored she’s dusting and vacuuming again,” Mother would tell my father after hanging up.

As she aged, the harder it got to manufacture dreams of happily-ever-after or foresee where it all went from here. Days revolved around bargain hunting at grocery stores, and Mother resorted to whatever means she could to be acknowledged.

The lovely brunette cut and dyed her hair a bright ash blond, flirted with the pharmacist who filled her prescription for anti-depressants and the butcher with the blood-stained apron who brought her the juiciest tenderloin steaks. A small, but meaningful triumph!


She adored my husband. “John is a doll,” she often said, as if I didn’t know this already. “And so talented,” she enthused because, unlike Dad, John knew how to cut a sheet of drywall, fix a broken fence. John redid their small family room in light wood paneling, replacing the “dark dreary,” paneling Mother hated.

Depression set in hard that even a small job at the local gift shop couldn't derail. The lunchtime port wines, long afternoon naps and two-hour cocktail hours took their toll . . . offered temporary escape from high anxiety.

When John danced with her on her 50th wedding anniversary and said, “Mom, you’re beautiful, I love you,” she literally bloomed in his arms.

My mother always had my lunches packed for school and fresh flowers on the table. The older I got, the more she said, "I love you, Susie. You're a good daughter."

And the older I get, the more I say, "Thank you, Mom. I love you. I understand."

How about you? Do you remember those moments  . . . the ties that bind you and your mother?