Monday, December 28, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Greats and Guides

I don't know who coined the phrase "Read 100 books to write 1" or more specifically "Read 100 books in your genre to write 1" but it rings true to me. When I'm writing fiction, I find myself reading fiction. Now, as I return to memoir, I'm reading every memoir I get my hands on. Recommendations? Send them my way!

When asked about favorite books, I usually respond that whatever I'm reading is my favorite. Which is sort of true and sort of an excuse because I never hold names or titles on the tip of my tongue. So for this end of 2015 post, I thought I'd share a few favorite memoirs. I realize Google Knows All and a simple search provides a far more complete list than any I can provide, but still.

The most renown will appear on any list. In no particular order, I've enjoyed Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Jeannette Walls, Susanna Kaysen, Rick Bragg, Lauren Slater, Alexandra Fuller, and others.

Then there are the novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Ann Patchett, and Joan Didion who have penned profound memoirs.

Recently a writer friend spoke of the genre of each memoir, what others might refer to as the spine. I remembered how annoyed I was when The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in 2008 and readers referred to it as true crime or book stores shelved it in the true crime section. And yet that's exactly what it is: true crime memoir. 

I enjoy reading lesser known memoirists, and now I challenge myself to identify the story within the memoir. Here are a few of my favorites:
Robyn Davidson's trekking adventures, Tracks and Desert Places
Mishna Wolff's multicultural childhood, I'm Down
Jane Bernstein's true crime memoir, Bereft
Dani Shapiro's family tragedy, Slow Motion
Loung Ung's memories of genocide, First They Killed My Father

The list could go on and on. And it should. And it does. These are only a few I enjoy enough to keep on my shelves so I can return to them whenever inclined. A quick look at the back of Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir provides a list many of us may never work our way through.

For those of you writing, or thinking about writing, your own memoir, here are a few of my favorite How Tos. Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir is an interesting read, but there are others that I find more instructive. My all time favorite is William Zinsser's Writing About Your Life. I also return to Judith Barrington's Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art and Mary Pipher's Writing to Change the World. And finally, though intended for K-12 teachers, I have found gems in Katherine Bomer's Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning--and Triumph Over Tests.

Read 100 to write 1. Or, don't write anything at all. Just curl up in your favorite chair, maybe light a fire, maybe brew a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine, and read. It's a great way to spend an hour, a new year.

Happy 2016!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Muddling Memoir: La Flor de Noche Buena

Memories assault us when we're least expecting. It's the memoirist's job to capture them as they flitter through the brain's clutter. Some writers carry notepads, others keep journals, still others sink deep into morning pages. The task of catching fleeting memories is a slow, but essential process.

As I venture into a new project, I rely on the journals and letters I've already mentioned in this blog series as well as the glorious flashes of sight, sound, smell that arise more frequently the deeper I dig into memories. The triggers? A total mystery. An example:

Thanksgiving day my daughter's future sister-in-law arrived to the festivities with a brilliant poinsettia she pressed into my arms. In a wash of memory, I was thirty-six years younger, alone in Mexico City. It was November 1979, my first winter in the city. I was still ignorant about most things Mexican. I didn't know poinsettias were an indigenous plant brought north in 1828 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), and arrogantly renamed in his honor. I didn't know the glorious Flor de Noche Buena grew as trees throughout Central Mexico. I didn't know that the floating gardens of Xochimilco, then on the southern edge of the city, were renown for the cultivation of these plants. I didn't know that in early December each year the largest city in the world was transformed by glorious color.

It happened overnight, or so it seemed in early December 1979. I have no memory of the day, the time or even where I was. It must have been somewhere along the glorious Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue as elegant as the Champs Elysees but not as commercialized. Not then. I was on foot, probably emerging from the subway on my way to a teaching assignment when I saw them. I froze as people jostled around me. I still feel the press of their bodies, smell the mingled scent of perfume and sweat. I stopped in place overwhelmed by what I saw. The concrete world of Mexico City I'd grown accustomed to over the past year was alive with color. The median running between the opposing lanes of traffic for as far as the eye could see were mounded beds of fiery red Noche Buenas.

I do not have a photo of what I saw that day, but here is a glorious shot of magic in the making from Google images:
Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Closure? Never.

December 18, 2003. It was a life time ago. It was yesterday. It was surreal. It was horrifying. I sat on a hard wooden bench in a crowded Seattle court room, my fourteen-year-old daughter at my side, as Judge Richard Jones read my sister's name and Gary Ridgway's sentence: "life imprisonment without the possibility of early release or parole."

I don't want to go back to that dark place. I don't want to re-enter those dreadful years my family and I suffered through. I made sense of them through words, by writing a memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim. Now, on the anniversary of the sentencing, I'm in pre-publication discussions regarding the re-release of that book, and I realize how hard I've tried to pack away the memories and how reluctant I am to dredge them once again to the surface.

But the truth is, the memories were never too deeply buried. I don't live in a cave. I live in Seattle. I read the news and see the television broadcasts.

November 30, 2001. After eluding capture for two decades in the worst serial murder case in the country, Gary Ridgway was arrested. Now, the last day of November each year is no longer the anniversary of my father's birth, but a reminder of my sister's murder, of the day her killer was finally put behind bars.

December 2003. Gary Ridgway was sentenced to life in prison without parole on 48 counts of first degree murder, and I completed a Notification of Changes in Conditions of Incarceration. An officer at the King County Regional Justice Center where I'd gone to retrieve the few items belonging to my sister assured me I'd be contacted if the prisoner was moved.

February 19, 2011. According to The Seattle Times, Ridgway was moved from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to the very same King County Regional Justice Center. At some point he was returned to Walla Walla. I was notified of neither move.  

September 3, 2015. I received the following email. I was so shocked, I failed to respond until it was already yesterday's news.

I’m a reporter with The Seattle Times. I am writing a story about the decision to transfer Gary  Ridgway to a prison in Florence, Colo., where he will be placed in general population and allowed privileges including a job and contact with other inmates. I was wondering if you have any comment. The decision was made because Ridgway apparently was having some mental health problems after 11 years in what amounted to solitary confinement at Walla Walla, where he could not be placed in general population because he would be targeted by other inmates. I’m wondering if you have any comment.

September 18, 2015. News of the decision to return Ridgway from Colorado to Washington blanketed the media, and I cried tears bitter with the realization that our criminal justice system is as dysfunctional today as it was thirty years ago, when it allowed this man to kill some say as many as ninety women over a twenty year period. Still, after such colossal failure, Dave Reichert, the man in charge of the Green River investigation, built a political career on an arrest he never made.

On this twelfth anniversary of the sentencing of my sister's killer, I am still angry. The failures and incompetence of the system that contributed to her murder in 1983 are as glaring today as they were then. And no matter how many memoirs I write, that reality will not change. 

It's a muddled mess this memoir writing, and the more emotionally charged, the more muddled. As a memoirist one must grow thick skin and a willingness to hold horror close. The idea of memoir writing as therapy just isn't reality.

After the original publication in 2008, readers often asked about the therapeutic affects of writing The Thirty-Ninth Victim. "Did it bring closure?" some wondered. The research and writing helped me understand and deal with family tragedy, but closure? Never.

I found the strength to share my story the first time, and I will do so again. Booktrope will re-release The Thirty-Ninth Victim in late 2016, and I will face the demons and unpack the memories as any memoirist must do because a published work requires marketing to find its way into readers' hands.

I've been writing this blog series with a focus on process and techniques of memoir writing, and I will continue to do so. But on this anniversary of the sentencing of my sister's killer, I jump forward to look at what it means, or what it has meant to me, to put a memoir into the world. 
Maureen and Me, Mexico City 1982

Prior posts in this series:  
Muddling Memoir: Beginnings  
Muddling Memoir: Journals  
Muddling Memoir: Letters  
Muddling Memoir: Perspective
Muddling Memoir: A Timeline

Monday, December 14, 2015

Muddling Memoir: A Timeline

I read the letters, a fragmented conversation between the twenty-something me and the parents I adored and deplored and didn't understand any better than I understood myself. I read and struggle to understand who that me was and why she was unable to accept the love so clearly expressed in her parents' letters.

I am also astonished by all I shared with my distant parents in those letters and equally appalled at how the older me was still unable to comprehend the overtures, gestures, expressions of love my parents showed me. All good fodder for a memoirist. A challenge for a middle-aged woman still curious about lives lived.

I read the letters and match content to journal entries marked with similar dates. Slowly a timeline emerges spanning the years from 1974 to 2009, a timeline far broader than the intended scope of this new memoir. I narrow the frame - 1979 to 1984 - a frame marked by significant events at both ends.

In writing a novel, the writer develops a storyline and plots scenes along a story arc. In some ways, a memoirist follows suit. But first, before I can focus on storyline or choose events (as opposed to creating them) to include or delete to enhance a story arc, I need a timeline. I need to dredge up the details of events, experiences, and emotions now buried for over three decades.

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes, "Some memories - often the best and worst - burn inside us for lifetimes, florid, unforgettable, demanding to be set down." The human brain - or is it the heart? - holds these major events, delightful and dreadful, but the memoirist seeks the details to link those events, the glue to hold them together. Tools at hand are journals, letters, photographs as well as long quiet walks, stacks of old LPs, and if I'm really lucky, reconnections with long lost friends.

One step at a time. Build a timeline. Create a table. Divide it into sections each labeled with a three month time period followed by three boxes: events, people/objects, and scenes. The first section reads "January, February, March 1979." A flexible guide, it is easy to add to or subtract from this table.
One of my father's numerous skills was bricklaying. We, his clan of nine kids, were his brick carriers. "Stack them solid. Wide at the bottom. No cracks lined up. Build up from the base for strength," he told us. The same principal applied to stacking firewood, a solid base with cross sections at the ends to hold the wall of wood together even as we removed logs through the winter.

The lessons of childhood apply to my writing process. The framework for a memoir requires a solid base which in turn demands research and a timeline based on more than the dominant memories that cling and haunt and exact attention.

I am still at this step in the process - the research/timeline building step - and likely will remain here for months. At the same time, I write scenes as memories emerge, scenes that may or may not find their way into the finished memoir, but like my father's bricks, they are scenes that add structure as they dredge up more memories of a life once lived.

Prior posts in this series: 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Muddling Memoir: Perspective

I procrastinated for a week. I did not want to dig deeper. I wasn't ready to read the letters between my mother and me. Was it fear of finding something I could no longer question her about, something impossible to double check with Dad? It was too late. I cannot query the deceased.

Creativity works in strange ways. I've always wanted to draw but never made time to learn. Earlier in the week I stopped at a local artist supply shop and bought my first drawing how-to. The book: Draw 3-D A Step-by-Step Guide to Perspective Drawing by Doug DuBosque. It was crumpled at the corners, a bit dusty, rejected. I found it on the floor under the book racks and knew it was the one for me.

At home, I dug around the house for an unlined journal and found my daughter's cast off journal with only the first dozen pages covered with the drawings and thoughts of an eight year old. It felt like the perfect fit. Convinced my daughter would enjoy the irony of her mother's efforts, I set to work teaching myself to draw. Interesting I chose a book on perspective.

As in visual art, perspective is essential to the creation of a strong memoir with universal appeal. In addition, the process as well as the completion of a memoir gives the writer new perspective on past events. The horizon line is different, we move the vanishing point a tad and we see the past from a slightly different angle. We gain perspective. Not closure, never closure. A memoirist does not close off memories. They are the fruits of an examined life. What changes is perspective.

Yesterday I opened two large envelopes of correspondence. Because my mother saved everything, I have both the letters I sent home as well as those sent to me. The collection begins with postcards dating July 1974 when I made my first trip to Mexico to a card from my mother dated November 2009 posted by the staff of the dementia care facility where her life ended. A card she could no longer write. She managed "Dear Dear Arleen" in her own shaky hand, and something more, something illegible. A volunteer wrote the remainder of the message and posted it.

I sorted those letters in chronological order, as I'd done with the letters from my friends. To do so, I pulled each letter from its envelope in search of a date. Where one was omitted, I tried to decipher the date on the postal stamp. What's unique here is that I was able to create a back-and-forth written conversation.
I have not yet begun to read this correspondence and already my perspective has shifted. I remembered it wrong. I thought all those letters were from my mother, written by my mother, a conversation between my mother and me. But I was wrong. At least half were written by my father. Memory again made of fool of me. Upset, I made my way to my 3-D drawing book and found solace in drawing straight lines to distant vanishing points.

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Prior posts in this series: