Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Why Your Weekend Plans Should Include SIFF

Just over two years after I retired from teaching, I received an unusual email from a documentary film maker named Cady Voge. In that email, she explained that she'd been filming a former student of mine and her family for over four years. 

In that email, Cady wrote, "...I captured many moments at home with them. One such moments was a very sweet (and very brief!) moment that I captured of Mirna at the end of a session on zoom in one of your English classes. You had a lovely interaction with her and her son, Joshua, it's very sweet." She asked if I'd be willing to sign a release form to allow her to use the brief audio clip in the documentary. As a staunch believer in the need for wider coverage of the challenges facing refugees, I gladly signed and sent the release form. 

To my surprise, I received another email from Cady Voge last week - an invitation to the premiere of All We Carry at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend, Saturday, May 18 and Sunday, May 19. An invitation I'd like to share with all of you. 

The film will also be streamed from May 20 to 27 for those who are unable to attend the premiere here in Seattle. Please take a look at this amazing link Cady shared and join me this weekend at SIFF! 



Friday, April 5, 2024

Who's Reading Next Week?

In my prior post regarding the PoetryBridge event at C&P Coffee Company next week, I mentioned three featured readers but failed to include the names of the other two. Please allow me to remedy that. 

I first met Bonnie Wolkenstein virtually to discuss the Guanajuato Writing Retreat she curates. Are you curious? Check out her website here. I've never participated, but Guanajuato is lovely, and the retreat sounds wonderful!

I've also had the privilege of meeting Christopher Jarmick. It was pre-pandemic! We enjoyed a brief conversation after a reading at BookTree, the independent bookstore he owns and operates in Kirkland, WA.

I'd also like to acknowledge the dedicated work of Leopoldo Seguel, the force behind PoetryBridge. Leopoldo has organized this community of writers since the first reading in February 2010 and actually managed to grow the group by switching to zoom during the pandemic years. Thank you, Leopoldo! 

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate at PoetryBridge and am honored to read with these talented writers. I hope you can join us next Wednesday, April 10 at 7:00 pm.

Friday, March 29, 2024

You know how it goes …

... you’ve finished a long project. Or maybe you just hope you're done with it. Then someone points out that really, it's not finished at all, and you realize you still have a ways to go.

Almost a year ago I thought my work-in-progress was ready for a final copy edit. It’s a memoir I started in early 2020 titled Pandemic Baby: Letters to My Grandson Before He Could Read. It took the astute and kind comments of a few early readers to make me realize the story was incomplete and the manuscript needed more work. So, I returned to my desk (actually, the dining room table) and started over.

I’m happy to say I’m ready to share my efforts once again. This time with the public – that means you! I'm honored to be a featured reader for PoetryBridge at C&P Coffee Company, and I hope you'll join me. The mission of PoetryBridge “is to promote the best of poetry and storytelling in West Seattle.” Every month there is a group reading with three featured readers presenting both poetry and prose, followed by a community open mic.

If you live in the Seattle area, I’d love to see you on Wednesday, April 10 at 7:00 pm. Maybe a bit earlier to grab a beverage and a seat. If you’re a writer, I welcome you to bring some words to share at community mic. The event will also be live streamed on YouTube for those unable to attend in person. To learn more, please join PoetryBridge Association of West Seattle.

PoetryBridge @ C&P Coffee Company
Wednesday, April 10
7 pm- 9 pm
5612 California Avenue SW
West Seattle
206-933-3125

Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Lowly Dandelion - An Abecedarian for My Grandson

April 2023

Your great grandmommy’s last visit to Seattle was in April. You remembered her from our previous August trip to Bloomington, Indiana to celebrate her eightieth birthday. I hold an image of the two of you in my mind’s eye. You are face-to-face, Grandmommy sitting in a garden chair leaning forward to your eye level. You both hold delicate dandelion seedballs in your hands. She releases a gentle puff of air and seeds rise skyward like tiny helicopters. You are delighted by this magic trick. “Now you try,” Grandmommy tells you. Not yet having mastered the fine art of blowing, you inhale, blanketing your face with tiny dandelion seeds. Your shared laughter is a joy. 

Bees, Birds, and Butterflies

Dandelions are one of the first flowers to bloom in early spring, a time when nectar is not readily available to bees. The leaves and seeds of the dandelion also provide much-needed protein for birds and butterflies. Because the dandelion provides early nourishment, these important pollinators are healthier and better able to pollinate other flowers and fruits, vegetables and herbs to maintain a healthy ecosystem and provide nourishment for other animals, you and I included. 

Common Weed

The dandelion is a common weed some despise, and others love. As a child I picked dandelion bouquets for my mother, your maternal great grandma. She’d thank me while explaining they were weeds and encouraging me to pull the roots. In her final years, I remember her bent at the waist digging dandelions from her lawn, determined to destroy the bright yellow flowers before they went to seed. Did I fall for the bright yellow dandelion just to be a contrarian? Perhaps. The first time you presented me with a scraggly yellow bouquet, it took center stage on the living room coffee table.

Diagnosis

Grandmommy and her two sisters were sorting their parents’ photographs and memorabilia at the youngest sister’s home in Indianapolis. On September 25, Grandmommy felt ill and went to Indiana University Medical Center. A few days later she was given a diagnosis: cholangiocarcinoma. A rare but aggressive form of bile duct cancer. 

Edible

From flower to leaves to root, all parts of the dandelion are edible, except for the stem. Flower petals can be added to baked goods, leaves can be used in salads or cooked like spinach, and boiled roots can be added to soups and stews.

Family 

Your great grandmommy is Baba’s mother. A week after he learned of his mom’s diagnosis, he flew to Indiana to be with her. A week later you, your mama and I met them in Ohio where the family usually gathers. On the day family photos were scheduled, we arrived early. The family stood around a parked car waiting while Grandmommy sat in the backseat with the door open. You found the only dandelion seedball anywhere in the surrounding lawn and ran to the car, arm extended. With innocence and love, you handed your gift to your grandmommy.

Globular

The globular seedball of the dandelion is also called a blowball, puffball, or clock. The average dandelion plant can produce about ten flowers. Each of those flowers ends its life as a seedball composed of a hundred to two hundred tiny seeds. Each seed is attached to a tiny parachute or helicopter shaped structure called a pappus. When blown by breeze or human, these seeds are carried through the air making for a lot of potential new dandelions.

Hope

The dandelion symbolizes hope. We clung to hope, knowing there was little to be had.

Infection

Three days into the family visit in Ohio, Grandmommy was back in the ER. She’d developed an infection. She was released only to return the following day. On her second day in the county hospital, your mother and I had to say goodbye to her. Three days after we returned to Seattle, Grandmommy was ambulanced back to Indiana University Medical Center.

Jack

You were so confused, Jack. Why was Mama crying? Why didn’t Baba come home? Why was Grandmommy sick? The week you returned home, you had a fever of 103. When you were well enough to spend a day with me, you asked “Did Grandmommy puke like me?” You wanted to know when she would get better. How do you explain incurable cancer to an inquisitive three-year-old? 

Kiss of Death

By the last day of November, Grandmommy had enough of hospitals and procedures. She asked to go home. Home was a hospital bed in your great aunt’s dining room. Baba was on another flight back to Indianapolis. It was the kiss of death.

Lion’s Teeth

Due to the jagged shaped leaves, the French name for this member of the daisy family is Dens Leonis, Lion’s Teeth in English. In Latin it is Taraxacum Officinale. In our part of the world, we call it a dandelion. In English, dandelions are also known as Cankerwort, Irish Daisy, Monk’s Head, Priest’s Crown, Earth Nail, and Milk-, Witch- or Yellow-Gowan.

Medicinal

Dandelions are known for their medicinal value. Health benefits include vitamins A, B1, B2 and C as well as various minerals. The leaves contain more iron and calcium than spinach. In addition to being antioxidants, consuming dandelions has also been shown to control inflammation, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure as well as support the immune system. In traditional medicine dandelions, especially dandelion roots, have been used to treat cancer.

November 16, 2023

Your great grandmother died of cholangiocarcinoma complicated by infection. 

October

You were three when we traveled to Ohio in October, when you last saw your beloved Grandmommy.

Picking Seedballs

It is early December as I write these words. Baba is home again, and we slowly find our way back to some type of normalcy. There are few dandelions growing in Seattle at this time of year. Seedball picking is limited. When you find one, you hold it up to me like a sacred object.

Questions

You are still full of questions. Questions we cannot answer. 

“Where’s Grandmommy?” 

“Remember, Jack. She died.”

“But where she GO?”

Just before Grandmommy’s death, you saw a collection of tiny brass tools I amassed during the years I lived in Mexico City. You wanted to know why I had tools. You are obsessed with tools and still a bit sexist, believing they are only for boys. 

“When I lived far from my family, the tools reminded me of my daddy,” I told you.

 “Where he go now?” 

“He died a long time ago.”

“But where he GO?” you asked, arms extended to your sides, palms up. 

I put one hand on your head and the other on mine and said, “He’s here because we always remember the people we love.” 

You gave me a skeptical look, pushed my hand away and said, “He not in there.”

Remembered

We never forget those we love, even when they are gone. We may not have as much time with them as we wanted and expected, but they’ll always be remembered and always be with us, a part of the fabric of our being. You lost your great grandmommy a decade before anyone who knew her imagined her death. Three instead of thirteen, you were deprived of a decade of memories with her. Still, I have no doubt that every time you see a dandelion seedball, you will remember, and she will be with you.

Six Weeks

Six weeks from diagnosis to death. 

Thanksgiving 

Baba and I have hosted Thanksgiving dinner for decades. Baba bakes pies and a few favorites he and Grandmommy perfected through the years, I roast a turkey and make gravy, and everyone brings their signature side dish. This year was no different though our joy was laced with sadness. We toasted Grandmommy and expressed our gratitude for having known her.

Grandmommy rarely came for Thanksgiving. She preferred to visit in the spring, a season she loved for nature’s rebirth and the abundance of fragrance and color (including bright yellow dandelions). But there was one Thanksgiving she came to Seattle when your mom was still a preteen. One of your great uncles was serving time for marijuana possession. This was before it was legalized, before cannabis use was as normalized as a champagne toast at Thanksgiving dinner. We were invited to share Thanksgiving dinner behind bars with him, and Grandmommy agreed to go with us. The meal, cooked by inmates, was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners we’d ever enjoyed. Your great uncle was charming and funny, and we all had a blast, including Grandmommy. She was an amazing woman. Always open to new experiences with never a shred of judgment. We need more like her in this world.

Unfulfilled Dreams

I wonder how many unfulfilled dreams Grandmommy carried in her heart, dreams stolen by cancer. Two years ago, Baba and I visited her in Bloomington, Indiana. We stayed at a lovely inn, and he gave us watercolor lessons on the university campus. Grandmommy dreamed of creating a watercolor she was proud of, and Baba dreamed of helping her reach that goal. We promised ourselves and her that we’d return every year. Last August was her eightieth birthday party and family reunion, a fun visit but different. Now, there will be no more visits.

Various Health Benefits 

I do not know if Grandmommy ever consumed dandelions, but I do not believe it would have made a difference. For despite the various health benefits of dandelions, I doubt any would have been strong enough to save your grandmommy.

Watercolors

I found a photograph of a field of dandelions – yellow flowers and white seedballs on a background of tall, verdant grass. I want to paint it in gentle watercolors, but it is beyond my skill level. Like Grandmommy, I love watercolors and am glad Baba has returned to that medium. He is the visual artist in our family, not me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy trying. And your mama, too. She has artistic skills she hasn’t explored since high school. Maybe one of us, maybe all of us, can create an image of dandelions for you. And for Grandmommy.

Xiaosaurus

You love dinosaurs. We read about dinosaurs before nap every time you spend the day here. You chose a dinosaur duvet for your new big-boy bed and a stuffed dinosaur to sleep with you. Not long ago we read about the Xiaosaurus. You wanted to know what they ate. When I told you they were herbivores, you made loud, gobbling dinosaur noises. Then you asked, “Do they eat fast or slow like Grandmommy?” Before I could answer, you added, “But Grandmommy doesn’t eat now. She’s dead.”

Zest

Your great grandmommy had a boundless zest for life. At eighty-one, she still wrote, published, and distributed a nutritional newsletter to health clinics around the country. She loved working in her community garden plot. She was creatively and physically active as well as engaged in the world around her. She socialized with friends and family and enjoyed sports events until just weeks before her death. 

During those long dark weeks when Baba was in the Midwest and I was at home in Seattle, we had long nightly phone conversations. When he told me that his mother had lost her zest for life, we shared a cry knowing her end was near.

As we find and pick early spring dandelions for bouquets or edibles, as we gently snap off seedballs and puff the tiny seeds into the wind, we will remember Grandmommy. We will remember her positive energy, her bright smile, and her zest for the gift of life.


Monday, September 4, 2023

When a Writer Needs a Break...


Last spring, I posted Getting Through announcing the completion of a new memoir manuscript. I haven't touched that manuscript in four months. Instead, I have taken a lovely, long break filled with all the things that matter most to me: baking brownies with my grandson, road-tripping with special people, re-experiencing the joys of (ultra-light) backpacking, and coming to terms with e-assist cycling. In other words, it has been a summer to reset a life and psyche deeply affected by the fear and unrest of COVID and the Trump years. 

I'm not saying the reset is complete or the fears for our collective future are gone. I'm also not saying that during this long break I have stopped thinking about memoir or memory. To the contrary. My manuscript (and what it needs) has settled comfortably into the back of my mind as a nagging voice demanding I dig deeper and do the research needed to make the work complete. 

As autumn closes in with gray skies and longer nights, I will return to my work-in-progress, Pandemic Baby - Letters to My Grandson Before He Could Read. In the meantime, I'm preparing a memoir workshop I will be leading early next month. I hoped to reference a piece I posted in June 2017 titled Memoir & Why I Do It only to discover that the link to the complete essay no longer functions. To remedy that issue, I've reposted the essay below. 

As to the workshop, the title remains the same as that of prior workshops I've offered, but it has been expanded to a three-hour format. Thanks to our wonderful system of public libraries, it is FREE. If you're in the Pacific Northwest and have a story you're eager to get on paper, I hope you'll join us.

Writing Memoir - What? Why? How?
Mill Creek Library
15429 Bothell Everett Hwy, Mill Creek, WA
425-337-4822, sno-isle.org
Saturday, October 7, 2023
1:00 - 4:00 p.m.

***

Memoir & Why I Do It

A few weeks ago, I was driving home to Seattle from eastern Washington with my sisters. I sat in the back seat. As we drove over Snoqualmie Pass and started the descent into the Puget Sound lowlands, I noticed two police vehicles parked in an open area, perhaps a weigh station parking lot, to the north of the highway. One was an SUV, the other a sedan. Both were black. They were parked head-to-head with the drivers’ windows aligned. The SUV was on the highway side, almost blocking the view of the sedan.

 “Looks like that’s where the cops take a break,” I said.

 “But there’s no donut shop around,” said my sister, the one riding shotgun.

 We laughed and thought nothing more of it. Five minutes down the road, a police SUV passed on our left. A moment later they’d pulled someone over.

 “Where’d that guy come from?” I wondered.

 “Same one we just saw,” my sister said.

 “No way. The parked cars were black. That one’s white.”

 “No,” my sister said. “It’s the same white SUV.”

So what happened? The paint color of the cop cars obviously hadn’t changed, so one of us had to be wrong. Was it her or me? Was the white SUV the same vehicle we’d seen parked or another? Was it possible that when we joked about donuts, my sister and I were actually looking at different cars?

If I were writing a memoir that included this scene, I’d write them as different vehicles. The two parked cars were black. The SUV that passed us was white. That’s what I saw and that’s what I remember. I also know my sister would tell me I was wrong. And maybe she’d be right.

I could contact the Washington State Patrol to find out what vehicles were patrolling the I-90 corridor that Saturday at that precise place and time. But for a memoirist the actual color of the SUV is not of primary concern unless it is an essential element of the story. Memoir is not the reporting of researched, measurable facts. It is the sharing of perception and personal memory.

 I write memoir not only to remember people, places and events in my life, but also to make sense of those events, as well as the decisions I made and paths I took. I also write memoir because memory, how the human brain remembers or doesn’t remember, intrigues me.

 I believe memoir—whether poetry, short essay or book-length work—is the most challenging form of creative nonfiction because while memoir allows us the freedom to revisit our past, it demands we dig deep with brutal honesty to make sense of life lived, choices made, and the consequences of those choices. If a writer is able, if I am able to write that deep personal truth, pain subsides, joy deepens and life goes on, richer and fuller than ever before. This is my experience writing memoir.

 As a memoirist, I write my own memories, my personal version of events I struggle to understand. All the while I am aware that the simple act of recalling and transcribing memory, the act of turning memory into story and hopefully into art, alters the memory. 

Memory is a sneaky devil, a slippery thing. As soon as I come close to what I believe to be an honest truth, shape-shifting is a risk. Especially when excavating memories from years past. The person remembering is not the same as the person who lived the experience. The me today—the rememberer, if you will—is not the same me as the young woman living in Mexico City, or the ex-pat moved back to Seattle after the disappearance of her youngest sister, or even the middle-aged daughter caring for her aging mother. The me changes, and as it changes so too does the way I perceive past events. The act of remembering alters the memories.         

I am not the same woman or the same writer today as I was in 2002 when I began The Thirty-Ninth Victim. If I were to write that story today with the life experience, knowledge and understanding I now possess, I have no doubt it would be a different book from the one I wrote fifteen years ago. My perspective has changed. But that in no way invalidates the memories recalled or the story told back in 2002 when I began writing or in 2008 when the book was published.

Here’s another way to think about memory. There’s plenty of evidence about eyewitnesses to the same crime reporting extremely different versions of what they saw, just as my sister and I saw different colored police vehicles. Witnesses have also changed testimony over time. Were they wrong? Did time and distance, life experience and perspective, change the way they saw the event?

Truth, like the perception of beauty, is individual. Imagine you are in a crowded bookshop reading. Look around you. If you were to describe the event, you might include furniture or wall color, the aroma of rich coffee, the sounds of voices and music. You might add an emotional layer. How are you feeling? How was your day? What is causing you fear, sadness, joy? That story of the event would be your truth. But what about if you were blind or deaf? Then your memory would be markedly different. What if you’d just had a fight with a loved one or just celebrated a milestone? Would your telling of the reading be the same if you were to write your memoir right now or later this evening, a week or month from tonight, or ten years from today? Would the versions be the same if you wrote the piece multiple times? If everyone in the room wrote a description, I venture that they would be quite different. Sure, there’d be some consistent facts—a middle-aged reader, a dozen people on an assortment of chairs, a barista in the back room—but the details each chose to include or omit would vary widely. If everyone wrote of the event ten years from today, the stories would vary both from each other’s as well as from personal versions written on the spot. Such is the truth of memoir.

Another challenge the memoirist faces is that of shaping memory into story, ideally story with universal appeal, story that readers can relate to, feel connected with, be inspired or entertained by. As William Zinsser explains in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir “A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, the other of craft. The first is integrity of intention … Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.

The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t work … Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”

Zinsser uses Henry David Thoreau to illustrate this. He reminds us that Thoreau did not simply return to Concord and transcribe his notes. Walden took eight years and almost as many drafts to complete.

Memoir, like fiction, needs narrative structure: plot line, character development, beginning, middle and end.  Just as in fiction writing, the writer must also consider genre. The Swenson Book Development website (http://www.swensonbookdevelopment.com/blog/2013/the-many-subgenres-of-memoir/) lists sixteen “subgenres” of memoir including travel, humor and grief.  So a memoir must be crafted, but truth must be retained. The writer’s truth must be honored.

Why write memoir in the face of such challenge? Factual, perceptional and emotional truth are all aspects of personal truth, and all equally valid and essential to a memoirist. Yet finding and sharing personal truth and facing those who may not accept my version, my personal truth, of shared events is not easy.

I write memoir because I’m fascinated by memory, by how the human brain processes and retains information as well as how it deals with extreme stress. I laid the groundwork for memoir writing in my late teens when I began my first journal. But let’s not confuse memoir with journal or diary writing. Memoir writing is the art and craft of taking a life event and creating a story in much the same way as one writes a short story or novel, with the added challenge of creating universal interest in what is essentially a personal experience.

I’ve written two book-length memoirs and am working on a third. I’ve explored three different aspects of my life, three areas to excavate pain, examine it from all sides, accept it, and then set it aside and move along in this short journey of life. I’ve also taught college classes, given conference presentations, led library workshops on memoir writing, but still I feel like a fraud, like I don’t really know what I’m talking about, like I’m snorkeling in murky water, blinded by the agitation around me. Such is the nature of memoir.

I wrote The Thirty-Ninth Victim to understand my sister’s murder and how our early family dynamics may have contributed to her dangerous missteps and flawed decisions.  I wrote a yet unpublished memoir I’m calling Moving Mom to try to make sense of motherhood, memory loss, and the consequences of writing memoir as I cared for my mother and witnessed her deepening dementia.  I’m currently working on a new story about the years I spent as an undocumented ex-pat in the Mexico City of the early 1980s.

With the first memoir, I struggled with collective memory and family myth as well as with the effects of emotion on how we choose to remember or to avoid memories of events we’d rather have never experienced.  Just as perception affects memory, emotion and memory are also strongly linked.

I’m from a family of nine siblings. Just as witnesses to a crime report widely divergent versions of the same event, so too my siblings and I hold different memories of our early years. World events and family circumstances changed. Kids grew into teens. Parenting styles transformed through the years.

Then there’s memory loss due to the emotional blocking of memories too painful to endure or the altering of memories to create a more manageable personal reality. As I watched my mother slowly lose memory after my father’s death in 2002 until her own death eleven years later in 2013, I couldn’t help but question what brought on such a dramatic decline. The simple physiological explanation—mini infract syndrome—felt inadequate. I believe my mother could no longer handle the emotional overload of loss. Losing her youngest daughter to murder had been traumatic enough, but now she’d lost the love of her life, her reason for living, her life partner of fifty-five years. With Dad gone, and only a few years later his dog, Mom had no one to take care of, to keep alive. So she let go. But the remarkable thing was that in memory loss she became in some ways the happy carefree woman she must have once been, the woman I only caught a glimpse of at a point in her life when she no longer remembered my name, when she confused me with a favorite sister who always made her laugh. A comparison I was happy to embrace.

Now as I work on The Ex-Mexican Wives Club, I’m reminded of a complaint I’ve heard echoed repeatedly throughout a lifetime of teaching English as a Second Language. “Teacher, I cannot remember anything,” my students tell me. The burden of learning a new language in a foreign culture layered over the trauma of immigration and day-to-day survival jumbles the mind. I experienced the same frustration when I was learning Spanish, a feeling of such confusion that all memory, even the simplest To Do list, slipped from grasp. Was this because the memory was stored in Spanish and I was trying to remember or visualize it in English?

In “Working memory: looking back and looking forward” published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (1 October 2003) http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v4/n10/execsumm/nrn1201.html Alan Baddeley wrote, “The concept of working memory proposes that a dedicated system maintains and stores information in the short term, and that this system underlies human thought processes. Current views of working memory involve a central executive and two storage systems: the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad.”

I imagine two storage systems, two file drawers or computer files, one full of sound, the other images, both in neat alphabetical order. When you learn a second language, do these drawers or files become a muddled mess? My minimal research shows equally minimal research has been conducted to address that question.

My current memoir project focuses on a six-year period I experienced over thirty years ago, in a culture utterly different from that of my youth, at a time when I spoke fluent Spanish. Is it linguistic and cultural differences that challenge my ability to remember people and events? Perhaps trying to retrieve memories in English creates a barrier to events experienced and remembered in Spanish. Perhaps returning to Mexico and relearning Spanish would allow greater access to memory.

Or is it that one moment, the moment I opened the letter from my mother telling me my youngest sister had gone missing? Did that moment short-circuit my memory? That’s my husband’s theory. At first I laughed him off. But shock treatment was once used to block memory or deter behavior. Life experiences can do the same. That’s what PTSD does, block some memories and intensify others.

So I keep writing. I have a treasure trove of letters, journals and photographs I am mining. I have contact with some, but not all, of the friends I once shared Mexico with. I have the ease of modern day research at my fingertips. And I have timed-writing practice. I set a timer, alone or in a group, plant my feet on the ground and go deep in hopes of being surprised by the memories that emerge on the page.

With all the challenges and pitfalls a memoirist faces, why publish? Why do I share my work—either as blog posts, magazine pieces or as books? This is a question every memoirist must address, a difficult question, especially if the memoir explores painful events involving others who may not want the story to be told or who do not agree with your version of events. Given that few of us live in a vacuum, it’s likely that our work will include characters in addition to the narrator. How do we justify writing about others and why publish?

I walk a razor’s edge. I am from a very large first family that is not at all fond of having a writer amongst them, particularly a memoirist. I understand their position, but that does not change who I am or what I do. When I write memoir, I include others where their lives intersect with my own and are essential to the story I’m writing. I do not tell their stories or pretend to know where their truths lie. I tell my own.

I publish because finding voice necessitates the bearing of witness to that voice. I began writing to understand, and I published my first memoir because I understood that if I did not publish I was allowing others to censor my voice. Personal growth and strength came in learning from readers that my story touched many lives in a variety of positive ways. I found voice, and I found myself, by seeking publication for that first memoir. I will continue to write and publish memoir despite the challenges, and I hope you will do the same. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Getting Through


These past two and a half years have been like no others for all of us. We each experienced them in varying unexpected ways, sometimes tragic, sometimes just okay, and others joyful. At least that was my reality.

I found myself retired from teaching sooner than planned. I also found isolation a great excuse for gaining ten pounds – I still can’t explain why I didn’t just get outside and cycle. Fear of the dreadful unknown virus? Depression about the state of our world?

In June 2020 I became a grandmother. With the strength of a mini tornado, Jack brought a new kind of intense joy (and fear) into my life. When my daughter’s family leave ended, I began caring for him a few days each week. I watched and learned from this tiny bundle of new life, always acutely aware of the gift, the privilege, I enjoyed by having him close, aware that others suffered from not seeing, smelling, holding loved ones – new and old – because of isolation mandates. My husband, daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and I made a pod of five. We got through together.

And I wrote. Over time, my scribbles turned into a manuscript. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, but the process of writing Pandemic Baby: Letters to My Grandson Before He Could Read helped me get through these past few years, in the way of all creative work, through the temporary escape from the day-to-day. 



Monday, December 12, 2022

Pure Joy


Last week I got an email that read “Congratulations! You qualified to have a chance to sign a deal for your very first movie adaptation.” I’ll admit it caught my attention.

I read further despite being fairly certain it was a pay-for-representation offer. At “...  upon scrutinizing your book …” I almost hit Delete. Instead, I emailed back asking which of my six books he was interested in representing.

After some back and forth, I knew this was not an avenue I was interested in pursuing. Still, the interaction got me reading the Amazon listing of The Alki Trilogy for the first time in ages. What I found was pure joy.

In today’s world of online shopping, reviews matter. The joy I found were the wonderful reviews from readers I do not know. Don’t get me wrong. All reviews are great no matter who writes them or even if the reader finds fault with the book, but reviews from readers who do not know me personally indicates my books have traveled beyond my small circle of family and friends.

With deep gratitude to all readers who take the time to share their thoughts, I’m including a few reviews below. You are of course invited to read more online. 

If you are enticed to read my novels or gift them this holiday season, the eBooks are on sale for one week, December 13th to 20th for only 99 cents!

5.0 out of 5 stars Running Secrets 

I read this book in one weekend. It was hard to put down and only did when I had to. I loved the characters in the story and the building relationships, especially the mother/daughter relationship between Chris and Gemi because I was adopted as an adult and I know how that can heal old wounds. Wonderful book. Highly recommended.

5.0 out of 5 stars Some books are a great read, but other books are ...

Some books are a great read, but other books are a great reading experience couched in an important read. I feel that Biking Uphill is the latter. In Biking Uphill, Arleen Williams captures your attention with the pictures she paints, which somehow evoke the warmth and sincerity of photographer, Paul Taylor's pictures of the migrant workers from an era more than half a century before. Her story is a rich and earthy stew of friendship, desperation, triumph, and the power of love in the face of hopelessness. All these are wrapped in a running theme of the gross injustices of humanity. But it's her gift for imagery that prevented me from putting the book down. It's not symbolic imagery, but real, almost photographic pictures she presents of the characters and places, right down to the smells and the light....all my senses were aware while gathering more secrets of each character. I felt more like I was watching a movie than reading a book. As for the story itself, it's timely and brave for its vivid portrayal of the universal pain caused by arbitrary borders, learned prejudice, and the sorrow of separation these things create. She is making an important contribution to society through her honest writing, and I am certain, through her teaching, as well. I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy!

5.0 out of 5 stars A Trilogy to Savor Again and Again

If you're an avid reader, you know well the thrill of stumbling upon a book that resonates with you so powerfully you just can't put it down. When it ends, there is a feeling of sadness and a longing for more. That is how I felt when I first discovered the Alki Trilogy by Arleen Williams. It started with Running Secrets, the story of a young woman hurtling toward self-destruction before meeting Gemi Kemmal, a healthcare provider and survivor of the horrific political and civil clashes in Ethiopia.

Gemi is the binding thread in each of the books in the trilogy, which continues with Biking Uphill, and culminates with Walking Home, a beautiful and very true-to-life story of an Eritrean refugee called Kidane seeking to build a new life in Seattle. Sadly, in spite of Kidane's best efforts, he remains plagued with nightmares and flashbacks from his own struggles in the Horn of Africa, until he, too, meets Gemi. This time, the caregiver becomes the care receiver at the heart of a tale that brings each character from the trilogy together in beautiful fashion.
What I appreciate most about Walking Home, Biking Uphill, and Running Secrets, is that each of the characters are so believable. So real. So many authors choose to make their characters human, but still somehow detached from reality. Williams doesn't. Instead, each of her characters, from Kidane and Gemi, to Talisha, Kidane's future wife, and their growing circle of friends, is so true one half expects to visit the Alki area and run into them.
Also, unlike other novels of the genre, or similar genres, the drama the characters face is also believable, and therefore makes it easy for readers to identify with in some way. I found myself in Chris, the main protagonist of Running Secrets, right away, but also saw glimpses of me in others in the trilogy as well.
What I especially appreciate is that each of the books is so compelling, you'll want to read them again, and because of Williams's flowing style - not too lofty and not too simplistic - you can and will discover something new when you do. But I caution you, there are moments in these books, particularly Walking Home, that will leave you breathless and stunned. There is a plot twist so unimaginable in Walking Home it spins the head. But do continue reading until the end or you'll miss an amazing finale.
I truly hope that Williams continues to gift readers with more stories with rich, multifaceted characters, stunning backdrops (if Alki Beach is real, I MUST visit!!), and stories that leave readers feeling a sense of "yes!" after the last page. Williams is a gifted writer and storyteller, and the Alki Trilogy proves it.