memoir

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A new wrinkle

In all the scenarios I’ve ever imagined, never once did I think of Stephen King’s dystopian vision as a possibility of what Jake could endure. At this point I skitter like a rock across a lake over thoughts of where Jake might be. It’s an unbearable lightness of being. I am unbearably light.

I had to look the book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) up to understand why my brain went there. The book’s take is that to be light means you accept that life lacks ultimate meaning, that it is best to simply live for momentary beauty.

Despair tempts one to think that.

I rabbit-trailed to Parmenides’ poem, and found this:


Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.[6] R. P. 114.

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fragments_of_Parmenides

Jake is lost to me. It is. It is. And it’s impossible for it not to be. That is the way of my search.

COVID-19 seems impossibly large to me. I’m paralyzed by dread, thankful for self-isolation, too scattered to do what I love.

I am now caretaker of a nursing cat I never saw before four days ago or so. She leapt on my porch with a yowly meow and did not shut up till I fed her. I’m a natural cat magnet and try to avoid connecting with neighborhood cats but this one is relentless, and it was only today that I discovered why. I don’t know where her kittens are, and I’m torn between different ideas of responsibility here. My most basic one is feed the mama.

She has two purple collars and is unafraid of human contact. I suspect she is a casualty of the fear that the virus is spread by cats. She’s also a patchy calico–mostly white with some oops-puddles of mottled color on her coat. And she is loud. And if my front door is open, hello new cat.

My Dinah shows no sign of intruder-trauma probably because the new one is promptly led out with cat food. One day at a time is all I can do. I wonder if many are in this space right now. The virus is a new wrinkle for all of us.

In Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman describes a world in which time flows more slowly the farther you are from the center of the earth. People frantic to slow the aging process move to the mountains, only venturing to the valleys for urgent business. Those who live in the high mountains are snobby and insubstantial and live on gossamer food, and eventually become old and bony.

Lightness of being–avoiding attachment to anything because nothing has meaning–that’s what is unbearable.

Viktor Frankl, whose wisdom I frequently draw upon because he bore the unbearable, too, claims that “meaning [comes] from three possible sources: purposeful worklove, and courage in the face of difficulty. ” –from the Brain Pickings site by Maria Popova. If you feel despair, check this link for some perspective.
https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/26/viktor-frankl-mans-search-for-meaning/

One day at a time is all anyone can do.

Write Rite Right of Passage

I am embarking on a trip in a few days that will lead me to connect with my past in good ways, and I am in full panic mode. I’m half convinced I’m going to die, the same way I used to feel in the past when I went over bridges. I read years ago that it was likely rooted in my fear of change. My therapist told me that a lot of people fear heights because they’re afraid they’ll succumb to the urge to jump.

In this case I’m taking the leap.

So I’ve got 3586.6 miles ahead of me.
(I shouldn’t have added that up. It adds a whole new layer of dread.)
But there it is.
And I am going.

I’m going to see my mother’s sister for the first time since the 70’s. Mama is dead, but I hear her voice when I talk to my aunt.
I’m going to meet my very first born son and his parents–him for the second time, them for the first. I am very blessed to be welcomed and loved there.
And then I’m visiting my best friend from elementary school, whom I have not seen since 1976.
How does so much time slip by?

I’ll write about it as I go to keep my brain occupied with the beauty and adventure. I’m bringing my sewing machine and some fabric, which strikes me as hilarious but I’m telling you, it’s absolutely necessary.

I will be thinking of Jake, too. He traveled up in the area where I’ll be the winter before he disappeared, and I know I’ll look for him. I’ll have to.
I won’t find him.
I know.
But I’ll have his boots in my trunk.

My mantra: When you’re going through hell, keep going.
The moon is packed. http://onegirlriot.com/2017/07/pack-up-the-moon

 

Memoir writing: Make a list of memories and then cull from it

Write a list of 25 memories. The note for each memory should be short.

Example:

  1. the time I sledded into a tree
  2. the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  3. taking the shortcut to school through the woods
  4. shooting the rapids in the Santa Ana aqueducts with Mama
  5. the night my mother attempted suicide
  6. ice skating in 7th grade
  7. Greyhound road trip from CA to NC with my 70-year old foster mother
  8. road trip to my mother’s funeral
  9. road trip to wedding when I was in college
    (I see a pattern with road trips so now I’m pursuing it on this list)
  10. weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  11. road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  12. taking the train from Oregon to California to see my Nana (age 18?)
  13. shortcuts I learned from my Nana when she planned the routes for Daffodil Days
  14. the sole trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  15. moving to Forest Falls after Mama got married to Schuy
  16. trips to get firewood
  17. trip to Vermont
  18. trip to Wallowa lake the summer I had nowhere to go–driving past house on Stone Road
  19. trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage (theme: escape)
  20. finding roots in Danville, VT and searching for the Pettingill cemetery
  21. visiting the Evergreen cemetery with my now-missing son
  22. my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him
  23. the day I realized Jake was missing
  24. walking ditch banks with my sons when they were small
  25. flying kites with my sons out in a field off West Ross

This list is fresh; I’m going through the process myself to show you how I work with it.

When I got to #9, I realized I was free-associating road-trips, so I just focused more attention on that theme. All the road trips or trip-related things I could think of, fast. As I wrote, I started thinking about why I took those trips.

I took some of those trips to escape to a place that felt safe, and now, when I think of traveling, I think of how present I can be in every place. So I ask myself now, when I am running away, can I actually see where I am at any point? In the leaving place, the journey, or at the destination? I think perhaps my own sight was limited. I tend to recognize my surroundings no matter what, but I am not always present.

So now with this list I’m looking for themes. Escape. Fear. Longing. Curiosity. Friendship. Adventure. Connection. Family.

I see that in three parts I can identify a theme for my mother:

  • the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  • the night my mother attempted suicide
  • trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  • my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him

They all relate somehow to escape. I spent the summer with my brother’s grandma the summer Mama got married to Schuy.  Pushing us off for that time is, in my mind, a form of escape because Schuy didn’t want kids, and this kept us at arm’s length for a while. (It could also have been their honeymoon, I realize.)

This escapism is also seen in some of my own trips:

  • road trip to my mother’s funeral
  • weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  • road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  • trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage

In each of these trips, I was escaping something. When I went to my mother’s funeral I was driving from misery to misery, but it was all about escape.

If I were to pursue this, I might explore the things my  mother and I each fled from, and why, and then I might explore what I see now.

Some patterns don’t stand out immediately, so you may have to ponder for a while.
Right now, even as I write, I’m thinking of other ways I escape–reading, browsing thrift shops, binge-watching Criminal Minds or Bones, eating–and I see that those are dimensions I would have to add to the narrative.

My goal in creating the list is to identify a framework on which to hang my stories. The theme of escape here is my through-line, my thesis, so to speak. Everything I then would write about these memories would be with this through-line in mind.

Likewise, you should pay attention to that common theme so that you are writing for a purpose. Because this is your narrative, only you can decide what to cull, only you can decide what the themes are.

Keep in mind that each of the items on your list may also serve as a launch pad for other themes. My weekly trips to gay bars with friends while I attended a Christian college have many layers, not the least of which is rebellion. I have a lot of memories in which that theme resides, along with the themes of belonging, faith, and connection.

If you make a list, please feel free to tag me in your post so I can come read your list.

 

 

 

 

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Still in the starting process.

After you’ve written several memories down, you can keep going, you can take a wee break and make a list of memories to come back to, or you can pause that part of the process and focus on fleshing out one or more individual memories. Sometimes it’s best to vomit everything onto the page. Sometimes it’s better to flesh out a handful of memories to give you a clearer idea of where you’re headed thematically. Either way is productive, and they’re certainly not the only ways to approach writing your memoir. If you’ve got a way that works, keep at it.

Writing a list of memories is a compromise between the two. You can take a step back from the close writing necessary for the other two approaches, but you are still moving forward. It doesn’t matter what order the memories are in. The point is to get them on the page. I know from experience how difficult this can be, so I’ve developed a couple of tricks to help me write. I bought a kitchen timer–the kind that ticks because the that is an important part of this for me–and I set the timer for 5-15 minutes, depending on how loud my inner censor’s being. The five minute trick always tricks me into writing more because I’m not even done thinking the first time the timer goes off. Fifteen minutes works, too, because it goes faster than I expect.

The other thing I do is tell myself that I’m going to play with words for a while. Part of what has kept me from putting things on the page is that I know they won’t be perfect. So I remind myself that I can play, and that I can always come back and fix mistakes.

As you write your list or blast through another handful of memories, be thinking about where you want to go in your memoir. What is your “so what?” You may not really know this for a long time, and that’s fine. But the sooner you put that pot on the back burner, the sooner your ideas will bubble up.

Who is your audience? This can guide you to your “why.”

Look for patterns.
Start with the obvious, and go beyond it. For example, in my family we have abuse, but we also have strong, bossy women.
And in several generations, on both sides of my family, we have various name issues: either someone had a name constantly misspelled or mispronounced, or it was not what it should have been–in the case of my great-grandfather, he and his brothers had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s. This happened in a fervently religious household, one in which at least five of the brothers were Methodist ministers. This helps me understand why my grandfather was judgmental toward me when he found out I was pregnant before I got married. It also sheds light on other family issues. I myself have two sets of names. My mother changed her middle name in her 40s; my son, Josh, has two middle names (not on purpose); and back in my roots lived a woman named Rhayerdagowy. One census taker just left her name blank on the census. I imagine she said her name and he just threw his hands up in despair.

Perhaps there’s a pattern of violence, but it’s a peculiar, particular type of violence.
Perhaps hoarding is an issue.
Or addiction.

These are all generic, but how your family manifests them is unique.
When you explore, be aware that you will likely find discrepancies and contradictions. Write anyway. Write your perception of the events and be true to your inner eye on these things. Right now, you are writing your story and no one else’s. You will come back later and add the other interpretations and your own adult perspective. How you view your childhood events gives you a strong clue about your worldview. The discovery process is fascinating and surprising.

Press on, even when it’s difficult. Your story is important.

“We can, by telling our individual truths in the most authentic way, touch the universal truths that can change us all” (xv).
-Hal Zina Bennett, in the foreword to Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton.

A Day in the Life of a Writer: Getting started on your memoir

When you want to write a memoir, it’s difficult to know where to start. You hear people discuss themes, and character arcs, and think, “I just want to tell about my life. Just start at the beginning, y’know?”

Yes. And no.

Where exactly is the beginning?
And the beginning of what?
A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s a themed piece of writing about your life.

For example: The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is about how she mentally puts her father’s suicide in some kind of orderly context (the point being that you really can’t, and this is her attempt to deal with a very messy situation.) Dry, by Augusten Burroughs is about his struggle with alcoholism.

Most people cringe when they hear the word theme, but it need not be intimidating.  Think of it as a belt that holds pants up or cinches a dress at the waist. If you don’t wear it with your pants your crack will show, and without it the dress is bland. Likewise, the theme helps eliminate cracks in your story, whether they’re jumps in time or missing details. Theme also gives the story completion.

So you need to choose your theme, but often that’s difficult if you haven’t written anything yet. So choose a memory that sits in your chest so heavy that sometimes you can’t breathe. You know. That one about the thing on that one day?
Write it.

Don’t worry about fleshing out details and such the first time you write a memory. You have to give the memory words on paper so you can massage them later.

And when you sit down, it helps to create a small ritual that puts your psyche in the right place. For me, it’s having a cup of coffee or tea in my Bad Kitties mug, my headphones, and the sound of a train. (Here’s what I listen to: Train Sounds)

So you write that memory, and it looks pitifully short. Just dashed-off paragraphs that don’t seem to mean much now that the memory’s there in black and white. Don’t stress it. Put it in a folder, and write another memory. Maybe it’s about a guy. Or your sister. Or your mom or dad.  Write that memory, too. Put it in the folder with the other one, and write another memory.

After you’ve written four or five memories, take some time to write some lines  about how you felt at the time, in each of the memories. What did you feel then? Did your feelings have the same tone, so to speak, in all of them, or were they different?
What stands out in these memories? What compels you to share them?

When we have this strong sense to tell our story, it often means an underlying theme resonates and will resonate with readers. I think many times we instinctively know this, even if we can’t articulate it. Find the feeling and write more about it. Find other memories in which you felt this way. Write the bare bones and stick them in the folder. You will come back to them later. For now, you must get the memories on the page.

Please tell me if you’ve started to write. I’d love to hear about it.