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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.)

Memories of September 11, 2001

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MEMORIES OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

If you were alive and old enough to comprehend what was going on, you have your memories. Here are mine:

Hearing about the first plane strike on NPR as I got ready to leave for my office on Capitol Hill and thinking, “That wasn’t an accident.”

Arriving at work, turning on the TV, seeing the Pentagon in flames and thinking, “We are being attacked. This is a war.”

Huddling around the TV with a dozen others as we watched the tower fall, and saying over and over, uncomprehendingly, “Are there people in there? Are there people in that building?”

Standing on the deck outside our office and seeing a plume of smoke rise into the air beyond the Capitol building — the Pentagon burning.

Frantically trying to get my coworkers to move away from the windows, fearing that the Capitol would be next. They laughed at me, none of us realizing that at that moment, the heroes of Flight 93 were taking down the plane that was aimed at the beautiful dome just a few blocks away.

The weight of making the decision to send everyone home, even though we weren’t sure it was safe. Walking to my car and passing hundreds of congressional aides milling around dialing their useless cell phones. All systems were down.

Battling evacuating traffic and finally reaching my neighborhood just as the NPR reporter signed off his long and painful shift.  His voice was cracking and wavering with emotion.

Pulling over to the side of the road and wailing like a bereft child.

Stopping at the sub shop because I didn’t want to go home alone. Nobody speaking. An older woman looking at me and shaking her head, over and over, as if trying to expel the images.

A friend came over that night. I don’t remember much of what we said as we tried to process the day, but I remember telling her that I felt like I’d lost an innocence I hadn’t even known existed, and that I would never feel safe again.

In Memoriam

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.

A Peek into My New Hampshire Journal #1

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A PEEK INTO MY NEW HAMPSHIRE JOURNAL #1

Here for your reading pleasure is the latest in my “too-random-to-be-called-a-series” series of snippets from my journal — always some of my most popular posts! Everyone’s a voyeur, right? Plus, I don’t have to edit or revise. ♥

  • August 23 – Quiet Hills

I am here. Here where there is courage and rest and centeredness. I had an excellent drive, just 8 1/2 hours with stops. The house is horribly musty and the mice have been active, so here I sit, windows and doors open, fans going. It’s only 9:30, so I have a few hours to let it air. I’m going to sit on the deck and look at the stars — lovely clear night, and I didn’t notice too many bugs while I was unloading.

Deep breaths. Up here I can pretend that Donald Trump is not president if I stay off the computer. He gave another unhinged speech last night, trashing journalists (“I don’t think they like our country”), threatening to shut down the government to build his damn wall. Really sounded nuts. Very much the way a dictator begins, trying to discredit anyone who disagrees with him. The good news is, the GOP is in total chaos. The bad news is, so is the country.

I get to choose a new novel tonight. I finished Daddy’s old “The Strange Death of Manny Square.” I loved seeing his handwriting in the margins. What a wonderful connection.

  • August 24 – Quiet Hills

Glorious afternoon, cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Just perfect. First mosquito — so few! I came out before bed last night and the coyotes started up their chorus; it felt as if they were welcoming me. Utterly cool. I gathered some flowers for the table this morning: goldenrod, phlox, stock, bee balm. So pretty. There’s a ton of poison ivy in the flowerbed. Lazy day today.

Grandmother’s Garden

  • August 25 – Quiet Hills

Late summer morning with a tinge of autumn already. Cloudless sky, save one flowing line of small white puffs in the north. To have time to watch clouds — imagine!

The seasons up here are much more pronounced. In Maryland it can be sweltering in Sept and even in April now. Here, nature knows what it’s meant to do. No confusion, no argument. When it’s fall, it is decidedly and brilliantly fall and then along comes a big rain with wind and boom!, only the browns are left and then soon a snow, and winter has come.

Today I am celebrating being here. Just being. Listening to the wind in the trees, watching the tired yellow apple leaves flutter down to the deck. The field is frosted with an airy layer of Queen Anne’s Lace. The birds are almost silent, just an occasional twitter. Crickets and grasshoppers.

  • August 26 – Quiet Hills

It was a quiet morning until Bill and the boys arrived on a tractor and bearing chainsaws. I had been writing a lyric poem (of sorts) about the quiet. Doing a little mindfulness practice from my book, Fifty Ways to Pray, and then here they came. The chainsaws are a-blazin’ — he’s cutting a fallen tree in my meadow.

3:30 p.m.

I had Bill cut a huge branch off the apple tree, the lovely one that reached out on the horizontal and framed the garden. It’s been dead a good while and I feared the rot or whatever it was would spread. So now I have a massive pile of logs and branches to deal with. Bill thinks I could sell it to someone who uses apple wood to smoke meat. Probably more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps I’ll burn some of the smaller logs tonight. It’s going to be cold.

7 p.m.

This day. Just like this. I read for hours, made gazpacho after a run to the spring, and am now chilling on the deck with a glass of wine while perusing a cookbook. Another Moosewood one I found at a used bookstore up here and haven’t spent much time with. Soon the deer will be out — I saw them come from my woods into the meadow last night.

Deer’s Meadow

I’m very happy right now. I’ve been noticing this feeling quite often the past few months, and I’m grateful for it. I want grieving people to know: you will be happy again. I was all but shattered — stripped naked — just 3 1/2 years ago. I still get sad. I miss Biff, and Mom, too. Up here with the ghosts, I miss everyone. But I am happy. Thank you, God.

  • August 27 – Quiet Hills

I checked my computer only once today, I think. Up here, the spell can be broken, thank God. I feel as if I’m on vacation in every way, including from the internet.

The other night I got stuck for several hours watching storm chasers on Twitter during a massive hurricane that hit Texas. Terrifying and no doubt the worst is yet to come. As I write, there are multiple wildfires raging out west and deadly flooding going on in Texas, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen, and Niger. But no, there’s no climate disruption. None at all.

Yesterday I began some notes and reading for a possible sermon on hope for the planet. Or for climate change. Not sure yet. Checking out some “green faith” books I’ve had for ages but never read. One is by some scientist/Christians; looks good.

If I can stay off the computer . . . no, let me re-phrase. Since I will be off the computer, I’ll have time to read, write, and submit. Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a couple of books on teaching.

How did I become such a book freak? Blessed, blessed, blessed.

The Power of Words

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Frederick Buechner wrote in one of his memoirs that “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”

Or as Anne Lamott said last night, we want to say, “Me, too!”

The power of words to connect us seems to be a theme at this third annual Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Seminary. At this morning’s keynote, author Diana Butler Bass referenced “the tender power of I,” suggesting that the word “I” connects us to one another and to God. When Moses said, “Here I am,” and God said, “I AM,” it connected them and placed them on sacred ground.

Dogwood on sacred grounds of Princeton Theological Seminary

Many times as Diana told her personal story, I found myself thinking, “Me, too!” Her journey along “the road to an unexpected vocation” resonated with me and made me feel just a little less crazy for chasing this writing dream.

“Writing is a spiritual path,” she said. “Cherish your own path . . . Who are you? To me, that is the central question writers must struggle with.”

Writing Good Into the World

As intimate and personal as writing can be — especially memoir writing — there is also a strong communal element to it. Who am I in the world? What is my calling? How can I be of help?

I don’t know if it’s the spiritual nature of this conference or the dire times we live in or both, but this sense of mission and calling seems to be another big theme this week. 

Like Anne Lamott, Diana expressed “deep distress” over what’s going on in America. She thinks it’s a critical time for people of faith to “write for the world” as a way to counteract evil and inspire people.

“We are living in the age of the anti-word,” she said. “There is evil surrounding words right now . . . amazing technology that could spread beauty is instead being used to spread evil. Words are being purposefully used to undermine truth and beauty and wholeness . . . Malevolent forces are taking words and using them for oppression.”

Diana urged the two hundred-plus people crammed into the auditorium this morning to “write to reach people’s hearts” and to “engage intentionally to build goodness and beauty and to embody the Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1

Dear Prudence: Meet My Hidden Personality

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DEAR PRUDENCE: MEET MY HIDDEN PERSONALITY

You haven’t met Prudence. A few years ago, I introduced you to my multiple personalities — the confused and frightened kids who live inside me and with whom I have largely made peace. Occasionally, their fears still knock me off-center and cause me to lose my inner calm. My therapist has taught me to ask myself, “What part of me is afraid?” and then I can soothe that particular aspect of my being.

I won’t tell you all of my coping skills because I suspect you already think I’m flaky enough, but for instance, if “Sport” is afraid, I can work in the garden. She likes to be outside and get dirty. She likes earthworms and roly-poly bugs. She’s seven.

If “Whisper” is afraid, I can play the piano or sit down and listen to classical music. She learned to play the piano loud when dysfunctional family chaos upset my eleven year-old self.

My teenage self, “Cat,” is the hardest to soothe because she is tough and she’d rather die than admit she is afraid and you can’t teach her anything anyway. Driving really fast makes her feel better, but this is not ideal. She likes banging on the drum.

Careful of the cat

At the time I revealed my inner children to you, I was not aware of Prudence. That’s the thing about her. She is secretive. She is mistrustful and extraordinarily protective of “ourselves.” I think that she directs some of the other kids, though I’m not certain. She’s very strong.

I’ll never forget when I discovered Prudence. I was with my therapist, who asked,

“What part of you is driving that behavior?”

That’s usually fairly simple to figure out, but after a long while, I was still baffled. “I’m not sure who it is. It’s different energy.”

And she said, “Is there another one?” I nodded. She said, “Does she have secrets?” I nodded again. “What’s her name?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

But the moment I walked out of the office and into the flowering courtyard, the song “Dear Prudence” came to me in its entirety, and I knew that was her name.

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play

Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day

The sun is up, the sky is blue

It’s beautiful and so are you

Dear Prudence won’t you come out to play

♥ ♥ ♥ 

Dear Prudence open up your eyes

Dear Prudence see the sunny skies

The wind is low the birds will sing

That you are part of everything

Dear Prudence won’t you open up your eyes?

♥ ♥ ♥

Dear Prudence let me see you smile

Dear Prudence like a little child

The clouds will be a daisy chain

So let me see you smile again

Dear Prudence won’t you let me see you smile?

Prudence doesn’t smile. She doesn’t come out to play. She mistrusts sun and birdsong and daisy chains. She doesn’t want to be “part of everything.” Life is a serious, treacherous business for Prudence because someone has to be the cautious, watchful one. The prudent one.

Prudence knows that at any moment your perfectly loving father can have one too many glasses of brown stuff and turn into a monster. One day your mother will defend you, one day she will not.

Stay hidden. Trust no one.

The election of President Tweet traumatized all of my inner children. It caught the whole world off-guard. But not Prudence. She could have told you. She always knew a mentally unstable, dangerous man might become president and threaten the future of our country and the planet.

Prudence doesn’t want to be comforted. She has work to do.

♦ ♦ ♦

** Please read this disclaimer about Dissociative Personality Disorder (DID) which I do not have.

** Thanks for the writing prompt: prudent.

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