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Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

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Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Preparing for Mueller’s Firing

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Hello, my fellow Americans! I am packing for my trip to the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two years ago, I made it a point to blog every night from the Festival because there was so much amazing material, I had to capture it each evening. That was back in the halcyon days before we had a narcissistic reality TV star trying to play the part of the President of the United States.

Now, absurdly enough, before I travel I must check to make sure I know where the nearest emergency rally will be held should the TV star try to fire Special Counsel Mueller for investigating Russia’s hacking of our elections.

Today the reality TV star called the Mueller investigation “an attack on our country,” so it’s not unreasonable to assume that he may boil over, ignore all his aides, and try to get rid of Mueller very soon. (The fellow who usually makes trump’s unpleasantries go away, lawyer Michael Cohen, is reportedly otherwise occupied right now.)

So before I leave town, I want to make sure you have this link. Millions are set to rush into the streets should trump try to further obstruct the investigations by firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The website will help you find a rally near you. There are hundreds to choose from! And check back here at Writing with Spirit for news from the Festival later in the week.

It will be good to tune out our democracy’s distress for a few days and focus on something else. But if worse comes to worse, I will be in the streets.

Peace out.

Here are a few shots from the last FFW.

under tree

lawn2

A Writing Conundrum

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A WRITING CONUNDRUM

Today I wrote for three hours. it was tortuous. The whole time I heard a voice in my head saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

And I replied, “I’m writing. I’m writing.” At this point, that is all that matters.

It’s crap. It makes no sense. It probably does not even meet author Anne Lamott’s idea of a “shitty first draft.” But it is written. Fifteen hundred words in some sort of order.

The problem is that I do not know what this book is about. It is a memoir, so it is about me. (Yawning already? Me, too.)

The issue, I think, is parameters, boundaries. What’s in the story frame, what’s out? Why am I writing this anyway?

What belongs inside the frame?

Some things are in, for sure, like this old house in New Hampshire. Quiet Hills is my muse. It seems most integral threads of my story pass through this sacred space. She belongs.

My dearly departed brother probably belongs, although whenever he shows himself, the narrative starts to become about him, which if you knew him you’d agree was par for the course. Only it’s not about him. At certain times in my life, my story did become about him. Not anymore.

They say that the human brain tries to make meaning, tries to find patterns, and that’s never more true for me than when I attempt memoir. “What was all that about anyway? What did it MEAN?”

The story is really about a particular woman becoming herself and the life events that contributed to her evolution. But the older I get, the more I agree with Franciscan author Father Richard Rohr when he says “everything belongs.”

This does not solve my conundrum.

Winter Writing

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I’ve just arrived at my beloved New Hampshire house, where ghosts and God abound. My writing muse is usually quite active here, and I’m hoping that’ll she’ll be romping around the place over the next two weeks. Lots to do to close up the house for winter, but I’m looking forward to quality writing time.

I usually bring a stack of books about writing, but I’ve limited myself to just one so that if I put pen to paper, I’m not just underlining someone else’s words about writing!

I’m excited about reading the copy of If You Want to Write that I recently found at a used bookstore in Vermont, because although the book is one of my faves, I have only listened to it on audio. Brenda Ueland first published this little treasure in 1938 and it was re-released by her estate in 1987. My favorite chapter is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.”

While you are awaiting my glorious prose, I will share one of my favorite poems from Joyce Rupp:

Winter’s Cloak

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

In Honor of National Coming Out Day

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I want to recognize and celebrate National Coming Out Day, even if I don’t seem to be able to string together two sentences lately. I used to get stressed out when I had nothing to offer the empty page or the blank blog, but these days I am being kind to myself.

It is what it is (or isn’t).

Like many Americans, I am alternatively depressed, angry, stunned, or terrified by the raging chaos in the White House that has spewed onto the international stage. The result of the jarring tug-of-war in my head is a kind of creative paralysis. I’m not even writing in my personal journal, which is pretty unusual. It’s almost as if any type of reflection is dangerous — I need to be detached at the moment.

Still, on some occasions we must rise above, and I deem National Coming Out Day to be one of those occasions.

The pain and confusion experienced by most LGBTQ people at some time in their lives has deeply affected me in ways that I won’t go into right now. I have seen the utter misery of someone who is unable to come out of the closet, and I have witnessed the ebullient joy of someone finally being true to who they are.

I honor the courage of my friends and family who have struggled, and I salute you today — in or out of the closet. May there come a day when all feel safe being themselves.

Today and everyday I reject judgment, intolerance, hatred, and bigotry, most especially when it purports to be connected with Jesus Christ. That spirit does not come from the Jesus I know.

“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (The Bible, Galatians 5:22-23.)

Period. And amen.

Blogging Amidst the Trumpian Chaos

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BLOGGING AMIDST THE TRUMPIAN CHAOS

August marks five years since I started blogging here at Writing With Spirit, and I want to recognize the anniversary and thank my readers and followers. I truly appreciate the company.

When I first began blogging, each post was greeted with an empty echo. Now I receive encouragement and feedback (even if I am occasionally damned to hell), and I have virtual “friends” I’ve never met. I love reading comments from the people in my neighborhood, and I love imagining who my readers might be in Turkey and Japan and Australia.

I want to continue blogging — I do — yet I seem to be losing inspiration lately. Here I am in the midst of a two-week stay at my little writing retreat in New Hampshire, the place where my blog was born, and I haven’t blogged once!

Just sittin’ and pondering

I Blame trump

I blame Donald Trump, as I do for most things. Donald and Twitter. I am so overwhelmed by the chaos and danger and tragedy in the nation and the world that I can’t find a handle to get inside a story. It’s all just swirling around in my head and overwhelming me, like the toxic brown waters swirling around the people of Houston and India and Pakistan and Nepal and Yemen and Niger.

See? I try to use a simple metaphor and all of a sudden I’m drowning in the despair of lethal climate disruption and the current administration’s denial and vengeful dismantling of all of our climate protection programs. Not just the programs to research and curb the disruption and death, but the ones to address the consequences, like money for flood programs and healthcare.

And the EPA Administrator shaming the “opportunistic media” for insisting on talking about climate change “without basis or support.” And the Attorney General declaring that “Hurricane Harvey Is proof we need to militarize our police forces.” What???

And Twitter

I just can’t hold on. When I try to focus on one travesty, such as the president being unwilling to disavow white supremacists, the president encouraging police to hurt people, the president toying with nuclear annihilation, the president mocking efforts to prevent Russia from undermining our democracy, the president dooming our planet, well, I just, I just . . .

I just resort to wasting time on Twitter, is what I do. Which overwhelms me even more and exacerbates my ADD. You think you’re getting a handle on the hateful #Nazi violence in #Charlottesville when all of a sudden the hate-full #Evangelicals release their gay-bashing #NashvilleStatement.  (Mean, embittered religious men must always make a resounding STATEMENT or a PROCLAMATION.)

And who can keep up with the White House firings and resignations? I am both spooked and comforted by the apparent military take-over of the White House. Near as I can tell, General John Kelly is the only reason we still have a country at this moment.

So I want to say three things:

  • Happy anniversary to my beloved blog, which has kept me sane during some very trying times these past five years. I will persist and continue Writing With Spirit, despite the madness.
  • A hearty thank you to all of my followers and readers and fellow bloggers for the encouragement and inspiration and food for thought.
  • Climate change is real. It is happening. People are dying because of it, in hurricanes, floods, heat waves, tornadoes, typhoons, and tsunamis. After the flooding, the typhoid and cholera. So the Tweeter in Chief and his reality-deniers are criminals. Period. They should all be in jail for mass murder.

And that’s where I am, five years in to this blogging endeavor.

 

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