Monday, January 25, 2016

Muddling Memoir: Why?

The thing about memoir is that whatever you write, someone is likely to disagree with you, someone may be angered, someone might be hurt.
To write memoir, you need a clear understanding of why you write and why you publish. Odds are you will be asked, perhaps even attacked for your story.
To read memoir, you need to be aware that you are reading a single version of a story. If each character in the memoir were to pen their own story, they would see the events through different prisms. If you were to rewrite your story, the versions might differ as you wrote from new perspectives of age and experience.
I believe in honesty and truth.
I believe I cannot be a complete human without examining my life with a clear eye and, at times, brutal honesty. I write memoir because I need to understand myself and my past, my decisions and my motivations. I write to know who I am and where I stand in this crazy world.
Some may say, "Fine. Write. But why publish?"
That's a tough question, made more so if you believe your memoir may cause distress or that your version of life lived differs from that of those you cherish.
I publish because without publishing, I deny my voice. If I stash a manuscript in a drawer and try to forget it's there, I am censoring not only my words, but my essence, my life, my value. If I allow myself to be swayed by letting others dictate what I can publish, I forfeit my voice. By forfeiting voice, I forfeit self.
This is a tough challenge for the memoirist. No matter how careful and sensitive, honest and kind, you try to be, no matter how deeply you dug to find your personal truth, there's a good chance someone will call you a liar. Someone will deny your right to tell your story.
Are you strong enough? Can you withstand the pain?
Why do you write memoir? Why do you read it? Why are you reading this blog series (I'm glad you are - thank you!)?
I read memoir for truth. I read memoir to see the world of another and understand the decisions made, the how and the why of their choices. I read memoir just as I read fiction, for the poetic beauty of a story well-told.
Some value spoken over written word. Some can express themselves best through conversation. I am not one of them. I struggle to express my thoughts and ideas, my truths and passions, orally. I need pen and paper to organize my brain, to put words to passions, to find my own truth. It is that truth that I believe makes me a better human being even as I recognize that truth changes, that memory itself changes truth. I know I must continue to write even when the path is blurred and full of emotional potholes. To do less is to deny my humanity.

Prior posts in the Muddling Memoir series: 
La Flor de Noche Buena

Monday, January 18, 2016

Muddling Memoir: So Here's What I Did

After my last post, I realized I'd gotten ahead of myself on this project. I did exactly what I've taught should not be done. I focused on structure before story. I created a timeline (or tried), before I knew the spine. I needed far more exploratory writing before I could make the most basic, fundamental decision: am I writing memoir or fiction or some kind of hybrid?

At the moment, I'm feeling a strong pull from Jeannette Wall's "true-life fiction." I like the logic of a fictionalized story of lives lived. In Half Broke Horses, Walls writes of her grandmother. She didn't live her grandmother's life but bases her story on a lifetime of family lore.
The years I'm exploring for my own project are more recent, yet many of the characters are either no longer with us or impossible to access. To complicate matters, memories of my life in Mexico seem overshadowed by those of the traumatic years that followed. I find myself struggling as I write, questioning if something happened as I remembered it happening or only as I remember the memory of it colored and shaped by the intervening years. Can one look back and claim to still see clearly through the eyes of a forty-year-younger self?

In her essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion wrote, I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.
So here's what I did this past week. I put aside the timeline, and journal transcripts, and beginnings of a manuscript. I took up pen and notebook (this very pen and notebook where I scribble these thoughts while sipping cappuccino at the Frye Art Museum Cafe). I made a list of startlines - sentences based on a single flash of memory that can be used to jump start a timed-writing session. A technique I learned in 2002 from Robert Ray and Jack Remick when I first began writing. A technique that led to the completion of The Thirty-Ninth Victim. A technique I allowed to slip from my practice.

I wrote every day last week. Sometimes before work, other days at work, still others after. I wrote when I had 30-minute moments. As I wrote, new fragments of memory emerged - long forgotten faces, places, events - and I jotted new startlines. I can't guarantee that all I wrote really happened or "merely might have happened," but for now it doesn't matter to me. What matters is to continue writing until the story and genre reveal themselves.

Prior posts in the Muddling Memoir series: 
La Flor de Noche Buena

Monday, January 11, 2016

Muddling Memoir: Trusting the Process

Okay. I'll admit it . I'm feeling a bit lost. The holidays ended and winter quarter began. The skies are gray and the days are cold. I've got another miserable cold I can't seem to beat, but what I don't have is a story. I'm not writing. There, I said it. I'm not writing. Sure, I'm reading and thinking. I'm tippy-toeing around the periphery of faded memory, but I haven't found the door yet. I haven't entered, and I haven't discovered the story that lies within.

Is this what some refer to as writers' block? Or, am I just tired, bored, lazy? Or perhaps Pretense finally caught up with me, now tapping a gnarled finger on my forehead repeating: "You can't write. You have nothing to say. Just give it up and go watch the Seahawks game or a Hallmark movie."

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the Seahawks and Hallmark brings back warm memories of watching with my mother, explaining the simple plot lines to a brain befuddled by dementia. But neither Seahawks nor Hallmark, teaching myself to sketch nor learning what I can about marketing, or even repotting house plants and dreaming of future home remodels should pull me away from the writing. They never have before.

I've lived through a lifetime of gray, depressing Seattle winters. I've started a good ninety new college terms in my long career, and I've dealt with more head colds and sinus infections than reasonable for a healthy woman. So what gives? Why am I struggling with this story? Why can't I find it?

The thing about writing memoir, about muddling around in the past, is that sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we just don't want to go there and our brain and body put up every roadblock imaginable to avoid it. Some folks manage to navigate through life with little more than a glance over the shoulder. Others spend large chunks of time examining the past, trying to make sense of life lived, decisions made, people and places experienced. Unless life has been fairytale-perfect, that examination can be tough. We go through life hearing things life "you think too much" or "you're too self-absorbed" or "it's not your problem." Maybe all of that's true. Maybe it's not. Maybe we're memoirists and we have stories to tell.

So why am I struggling to find that story? Why the avoidance? Maybe I'm just a lazy sod who wants nothing more than a snorkeling vacation in Hawaii or the Bahamas. But as I read the signs and examine the more recent years - the last thirteen since I began writing by penning my first memoir - I know this is just a phase. I need to trust the process. That same process that has given me other stories. I need to put pen to paper for thirty minutes every morning and see what shows up on the page. The story will emerge if I trust the process. The alternative? Toss pen and notebook in the trash and walk away. But I know where that would lead me and it's not a pretty place. 

Prior posts in the Muddling Memoir series: 
La Flor de Noche Buena

Monday, January 4, 2016

Muddling Memoir: Vinyl

I am not a music person, not the kind who listens 24/7, wears earbuds to exercise or to block out ambient noise. Our home is quiet. When I write there is silence but for the voices in my own brain. When I walk or cycle, it is those voices or the birds or the wind that entertain. NPR plays during my short commute to and from work. When I put on music, I want to listen, truly listen, but  I find myself doing very little listening these days.

Yet as I untied each tiny bow on every Mexican ornament from the dry fir and pack away Christmas for another year, I made plans. The turntable would fit on the sideboard. I'd find some sort of decorative container, something other than cardboard, for the vinyl. I wasn't certain what I'd saved in the boxes under the stairs. It would be like Christmas all over again this opening of storage boxes to find LPs stored for decades silently awaiting resurgence.
When my husband and I married almost twenty-seven years ago, we merged our LP collections. I wonder when I will have time to listen to all that music. I've begun to sketch. A new hobby. A skill I hope to develop. I wonder if sketch pad and vinyl complement each other better than writing and music do for me. I think yes. There are no voices in my brain, no images flooding behind my eyelids like a movie on a screen when I draw.

The tree down. The house cleaned. My husband brought out the turntable and set it up only to discover it no longer functioned. The rubber belt, a bit like a large rubber band, had dried to fragments. He ordered a replacement. When it arrives, I will listen to the music of my years in Mexico and welcome the memories I am confident will emerge.