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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.)

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.

I Want To Write About Charlottesville

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I want to write about Charlottesville. About watching my Twitter feed in horror as scene after scene scrolled by — swastikas, confederate flags, t-shirts emblazoned with Hitler slogans, torches of hate surrounding a church full of peaceful praying people, a black boy being beaten with poles, and finally the car — the car crashing into living, breathing, beautiful human beings.

I want to say Heather Heyer’s name.

But I can’t seem to gather the words.

I want to write about how I wonder if even just a few trump voters are thinking, “Oops.”

If they might see the teensiest connection between the largest gathering of white supremacists in modern history and the election of a man who encouraged his supporters to commit violence and pledged to pay their legal bills, expressed regret that he couldn’t punch a protester in the face, yearned for the good old days when people were carried out on stretchers, and just the other day advised the police to rough up people in their custody.

But there simply aren’t words.

I want to write about the nameless fear and deep sickness and vast emptiness that must be devouring those raging white men who chant “We will not be replaced.” What is that? Whatever happens with healthcare, can we at least get these people some therapy?

I want to write about how I smirked at the images of the little boys with their tiki-torches and the fact that the Tiki-Torch company actually had to disavow nazism — I mean, it’s all so ridiculous — but then I remembered how much evil a bunch of “boys” with a simple loop of rope can do.

There aren’t words.

I want to write about the feeling of solidarity at the rally yesterday, thousands and thousands of us marching purposefully, signs aloft, our chants booming off the hulking federal buildings that line the roads in the nation’s capitol and then rising to a thunderous crescendo of “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME, SHAME” as we passed the trump hotel.

And my further feelings of love and gratitude when I got home and found dozens of Twitter photos of demonstrations and vigils in Philly, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta, Durham, Vancouver . . . and virtually all of my Facebook friends expressing grief, determination, love, and commitment to fighting for justice in whatever ways they can.

My friends didn’t post pictures of their cats and appetizers this weekend.

But all of these feelings are too much. There aren’t the words.

So although I want to write about Charlottesville but am unable, I will instead leave you with a quote from Anne Frank, which I must believe or I would perish.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

A Writer’s Attention Deficit Disorder At Play

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A WRITER’S ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER AT PLAY

Multi-day writing conferences are bad for my Attention Deficit Disorder. Or maybe I should say they’re good for it. They feed it, encourage it, even celebrate it.

“Rejoice!” such venues declare. So many ideas! So many stories! So many topics and characters to be enthusiastic about! And most of all: so many directions I could go!

Since I was diagnosed with ADD a few years ago, I’m more patient with myself in such situations. I don’t mind letting my mind out to play, to imagine, to dream. No harm done.

I know this hyper-excitement and bouncy brain syndrome will lessen within a few days of the closing session tomorrow. I’ll lose the business cards I’ve collected and forget all my new writerly best-friends.

The passions that are real and meant for me will stick, and the rest are harmless mental entertainment.

The time I’ve spent sitting in this quiet seminary library researching the possibility of a Princeton Continuing Education Certificate in Ministry and Theology will blend into one of countless similar memories.

Seminary Musings

Whenever I spend time with a bunch of pastors as I have at this Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop, I suffer from a mild case of WannaBe, even though I am technically already a pastor at my church. I feel like a pretend pastor, because although I’ve taken a few seminary classes and am a “certified” Spiritual Director, I’ve not done the real stuff, the painful stuff — the heavy duty Christian History and Comparative Theologies and Advanced Homiletics and Old and New Testament I & II.

Why would I? Life is short, and I’m fairly certain my studies wouldn’t help anybody. Nobody cares what I know or think about theology, it doesn’t help suffering people, and I’m sure I’d find some other reason to judge myself “not good enough.”

I never know where the Holy Spirit might lead me, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be to these hallowed grounds. Never say never, though.

Forget the Christians!

I did get some important clarity and focus today, which is, as any ADD-addled person knows, a nugget of pure gold.

Drum roll, please:

I think that I may have decided on the “audience” for my writing. Actually, if this sticks, it will be a huge step forward in my meandering wander towards an intentional, serious writing project.

Surprisingly, the clarity came during a ridiculously brief fifteen-minute meeting with a former editor of Christianity Today magazine. This teensy time slot came with my registration for the conference — time with an editor or publisher or author of your choice — so why not?

I went into the meeting with my usual random scattered thoughts and a page of notes that involved a number of question marks and read: outlets, publishers, trends, niche, spiritual, de-mystify, different kind of Christianity, CIA, environment, drug addict, pastor, memoir, audience.

Somehow in all that, my new best publisher-friend found a way to help me through my confusion.

“You are writing for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, and there are a lot of them. Not Christians. You’re not writing for Christians.” 

The relief and certainty I felt about this “not Christians” directive bordered on euphoria. I hadn’t realized it, but the thought of writing for Christians makes me tense, like I have to quote the Bible a lot and throw around names and phrases like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and orthodoxy and reformation.

Christians have historically believed that they have the answers to all of life’s big questions right in their big book. They tend to like certainty. I got nothin’ for folks like that. No answers, no resounding Message.

Gratefully, I think an increasing number of Jesus’s followers are moving away from that fixed mindset. As Anne Lamott said on the opening night of this conference, “I don’t want to read ‘message stuff.’ I want to know who are you and what have you figured out here?”

That, I can write about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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