Sunday, November 27, 2011

Memoir Becomes Story - A Prompt

Memoir is often maligned as self-indulgent, unimaginative and inconsequential. Yet what writer has not written memoir, even if cloaked as fiction? It is what you do with the story, how you make it larger than your own experience, that determines its appeal. . . how you take the ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary.

Does writing memoir make one less an artist than writing fiction because the writer can't be bothered to make things up?  What blurring exists between fiction and non-fiction?  And is it important as long as the story is true?

A recent New York Times book review discussed the impact of releasing Ernest Hemingway's letters and photographs.  One photograph of Hemingway drinking with friends at a table in Pamplona includes a caption that states that everyone in the picture was a character in The Sun Also Rises, only given a pseudonym.

Laments the reviewer, Arthur Phillips: "Hemingway shaped real people and events into stories, but he also explicitly said stories and memories were different. The fiction was meant to serve a larger purpose. It seems the life project of some scholars (and now even his granddaughter) is to shout him down, to remind us only to read his great works small.    

Phillips also writes that the fascination with Hemingway, the man, kills — or at least weakens — the power of his fiction, limits how we think of it. We start to read it small, view it as merely well-pruned memoir. It becomes an illustration of his life (“Oh, that character’s really his first wife”), when of course the best of his fiction is unique because it is not just one man’s story. It is great art because of its range of possible meanings and effects. His finest fiction is vast, universal, open to interpretation, changeable and debatable, intentionally opaque, impersonal. It is ours, not his."

A writing prompt for our Dec. 10 read-around. 

  • Take a memory and find in it a story. 
  • Consider the theme or message you wish to convey. 
  • Give the story emotional resonance.
  • Keep in mind  that persona is a vehicle to express yourself as narrator whether her name is yours or not. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Staying Connected Through Writing

Writing is an isolating endeavor.  How to break that and find connection with like-minded human beings?  Join a writing group.  The problem - writing groups in my area were few and far between.

I would start my own group as a way to connect and make this business of writing a little less lonely. What I didn't realize was that this would not be my group, but our group.

Today, as we celebrate the two-year anniversary of the Women's Writing Circle, we also celebrate camaraderie and friendships - an unexpected benefit. 

 t In a world that has become increasingly dehumanizing and where people are  glued to their cell phones or iPhones - isolation has intensified.  We are prisoners of technology. 

In the Circle, we rediscover  conversation and community.  Our stories are varied and rich.  We support and encourage each other. We hear  a human voice responding to the expression of being human.  A year ago I started a critique group.  This has also been a way to learn from each other.

To the women who have offered their voices, vulnerability and talents and have helped us stay connected as human beings. . . .  thank you. I feel blessed to have shared with you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writing From the Heart

Whenever I travel, as I did this past month to China, I set a goal to get some writing done.  I write from my own experiences and travel provides an eye-opening window to thoughts and new perspective that I hope to capture before returning home. 

How can one not be moved to contemplate life's greater meaning when visiting the Hong Kong Museum of Art and seeing the work of Johnson Chow Su-sing as I did this past October?  Chow writes that many of the majestic landscapes, flowers and birds of the world inspired him to paint and understand the mysteries of nature.

Writing is similar in that it allows us to explore the landscape of our lives.  We find in stories we want, need to write, a path to unraveling the mysteries; not just of our own lives, but maybe even the people who have most influenced us. 

Mural by Chow Su-sing
As I sat in the airport in Beijing waiting to come home to Philadelphia, I met a woman who asked me what I did.  I told her that I was a former journalist, but over the last several years had written a memoir and started a writing circle for women as a way for women to find their voice.  "I started writing something," she confided, "but it led to a place where I just couldn't go.  It was too unsettling, too frightening, so I stopped." 

Writing from the heart is often unsettling until a sufficient detachment sets in.  Like the artist who views the landscape and then attempts to render its majesty and mystery on canvas, a certain letting go of the ego, so to speak, is required.  This isn't so much about me, as about the broader view of something greater than myself, a voice whispers.  This, I believe, is the voice of the artist speaking.   

In Asia, Buddhist philosophy centers around the concept that "causes and effects come from the mind.  Everything changes when our mind changes."

Giant Buddha, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
How can we apply that to our writing?  How can we step back and take the longer, broader view, and create something that not only extinguishes pain, but brings joy and understanding, even ecstasy?  I leave it to you to decide, but I know I will be working on that in my own writing now and, hopefully, in the future.