Monday, November 9, 2015

The holidays are coming. A time for celebration with family and friends. For some of us, it is also a time of grief, remembering those who are no longer with us, on the physical plane. What I know about grief:

I could be an expert on grief at this point. I have lost many loved ones: a partner, a son, my son’s fiancée, a husband, a sister, a grandmother I was close to, several best friends, people I thought I would live with forever and their children, poetry companions, mentors and elders. I have lost homes and countries where I thought I had found home, said good-bye to children I helped raise and never heard from again, my faith in the Divine and faith in myself. I have been a hospice volunteer. My dad has severe dementia, so I have lost the man he was.

This is what I know: that grief comes in waves, it recedes and flows back but eventually the sharpest pain softens. That anniversaries of any kind—birthdays, day of death, holidays—bring up memories. That we may never feel we got to say all we meant to and that we may never know if our loved ones heard us, despite assurances from mediums that they do.

But I also know that love is not broken or diminished by death. That it lives on, it just becomes long distance or across dimensions. That we are not bound by time or space, if we can just stop holding onto the idea that it has to be tangible in this life. That our loved ones are part of us, no matter what we believe about the afterlife. We are the afterlife.

I know that being grateful for the time our loved one spent with us is a key to enjoying the holidays even though we miss his presence. To have gratitude for ourselves, to be grateful for the depth of our sorrow as a measure of the depth of our love. Thank goodness, we can love and hurt deeply.

In the midst of those terrible days after my son passed, when my soul felt as though it had left my body, I was too angry to pray. I asked others to pray for me. I attended Thanksgiving at Christ in the Desert Monastery so that I could be immersed in silence yet be in company; I could not handle a cheerful meal with friends. As I was leaving, I told the guest master I was grateful to be with the monks because I was unable to pray; I was too angry at God. He answered me, “I would be, too.” and a huge weight fell off me. I realized that my anger was natural. But in the midst of the most excruciating turmoil—why had I failed my son, why had God failed me—I knew there was a gift. In complete darkness and not knowing how I would survive the pain, I believed I would find a gift. I had no idea what it was but I knew it was there. I had seen it when my partner died: the incredible release of creative energy when I no longer was under the cloud of his depression and no longer anxious that he might carry out his threats of suicide, how friends mourned with me, how I knew how to hold sacred silence at the altar we created, to weep with abandon and to laugh as we shared stories. I inherited some of his qualities: the ability to laugh at myself, to dance not caring if I had a partner, to be silly and gregarious and inclusive and spontaneous. I was not alone in my mourning.

These gifts would come to me after Sam’s death as well. Fund raisers to compensate for time off work, prayers and vigils, the moment of complete silence in the circle at one, friends showing up to help scatter his ashes in the Chama, healing touch received at the Women’s Moon Lodge, the wonderful counselor at The Center for Grief, Loss and Transition, the ability to weep during the service at Unity, the poems that came, performances during Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the solace of grandchildren, and more.

But what I want to say here is that Thanksgiving is a time to say thanks, to grandchildren who fill my heart with joy, to friends who invite me to share the meal, to light-bearers who light the path before us, to poets who nourish my soul, to many who hold me in their hearts. But especially I want to acknowledge those of you who have walked this path. Those who have lost someone and mourn in waves that rise and fall, as we hold those precious memories close and admit we miss our loved ones. It is just not the same without them. We will never get over it, but our lives will move on.

For the first couple of years after Sam passed, there was often an empty seat beside me at meditations, prayer circles, poetry readings, concerts, places both crowded with an audience and intimate with a small circle. Yet the seat next to me…empty. The last time I noticed this was at David Whyte’s event at Islandwood which happened to be during Día de los Muertos. The packed room and the empty seat. I did not want that seat taken, although I had decided not to share my loss with the strangers beside me that week-end. I would leave my ghosts, my sadness, at home, I thought. Concentrate on joy and inspiration and hope.

This year, we created an altar to hold the photos and names of those we have lost. We drank a toast and shared what we received from them. Never will I feel we had enough time or that I have said enough words. If you do hear me, know that I love you beyond this lifetime and you are part of me forever.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


I am standing at a semi-enclosed bus shelter on Hennepin Ave, one of the main streets running through downtown Minneapolis. It is a grey, chilly morning, with scattered rain that promises to become snow by evening. The heat lamps are already activated, it just takes a push of the button. I have at least five minutes to wait for my connecting bus and the wind had added an uncomfortable degree of chill. However, in the shelter are three “dudes” and the immediate thought flashes through my mind: Do I want to put up with them at ten o’clock in the morning? Music blares from someone’s device and smoke is exhaled. In a moment I realize it is from a joint. One has pants sagging below his butt and I can see his blue underwear. He has long braids and a scruffy bears and is attractive —until he spits in a corner. One wears a hooded sweatshirt that covers most of his face, the other is turned away in a puffy coat and high top turquoise blue sneakers with the laces undone. I try not to let my dismay show on my face, as I cringe at their language. Fortunately after the joint is smoked and three more spits are expelled, they move on.

The day before, I was on the bus with my four year old grandson who loves to ride in the back of the bus. The back was occupied by a young man whose face I never saw although his words were loud and clear. Before I could convince my grandson to move up to another seat, we were treated to a diatribe where every other word was  f****k, or mother***er, or things like “and that m***r, he can lick my d****" and the clincher. “I gotta back to my f*** crib to change. I ain’t never gonna make it in time. I on to Bible class and shit.”

I ride the bus because I don’t drive. Until the past ten years, mostly I lived in cities where bus transportation was easy and affordable, or had partners who drove, or rode a bike. I have struggled to make riding the bus a spiritual practice, blessing passengers, repeating mantras or prayers (My favorite one is "Jesus Christ have mercy on me.") and remembering that I am riding often with the poor and humble. I overhear conversations in Spanish and try to translate, I smile at children, I send waves of sympathy to those in wheelchairs, those who are obviously homeless, those who are talking to themselves, broken, sorrowing, angry, faded people who share their distress in their voices, either on cell phones or to others who may or may not be listening and responding. But sometimes I am just weary. Sometimes I put my nose in a book and try to ignore the atmosphere in the bus. 

Occasionally someone engages me in conversation, occasionally there is laughter and good cheer that is not loud bursts of giggles from teens in the back or a drunk who is beside himself with commentary of contemporary life.

I wait for buses in all sorts of weather. I have learned to wear layers and the locations of heat lamps and shelters. I know, for example, that I can take the number 6 to a shelter to wait for number 11, and that the light rail may take longer than the express but it is more comfortable, despite the passengers who put their feet up, despite the signs posted asking them not to. Even here, I have had a drunk behind me swearing and pontificating. When I moved up to another section of the car, he did, too, although still just behind me. Sigh. Then it’s time for patience, mantras, or occasionally, getting off before my stop and waiting for the next bus.

It’s the face of humanity. All of us. It is a ride through fancy neighborhoods and poor, through strip malls and around lakes, past cafes and shoppers and crammed with people dressed in purple on their way to a football game. It is someone who needs a hand, someone who has a heavy backpack and heavy load and a day to kill before the shelter opens to serve a meal. It is kids and their slang and old people unbending out of a seat in slow motion. 

This morning I didn’t want to be stuck waiting in that shelter and I also wondered if I should say anything. Should I point out the rudeness, the unawareness? Perhaps a teaching moment? But I was silent. Not out of fear as much as the feeling of pointlessness. I can just hear their sarcastic response, "That old lady! Thinking she can tell us what to do!" But I have also experienced a young man apologizing to me for his cursing. I have had people give up their seats for me and bus drivers wishing me a good day and people asking what book I am reading and the good natured patience when the light rail route was blocked due to a car accident and it took 3 hours to make an hour trip. 

I am stuck on the bus, for now, although my dream is of a chauffeur. As I run out to the bus stop yet again, I think of how riding the bus had enabled me to do more with a limited income (my rides are 75 cents except for rush hour plus two 1/2 hour transfer time.) and I try to remember: there is a blessing here, if I will just pause to find it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Writing Memoir: Reflection and Take Away

When I wrote my memoir Flowers in the Wind, I wanted to document the things that had happened, the memories, before they faded but I wrote the way a writer of fiction would write. I wanted the reader to be invested enough to want to find out what happened to me and I hoped the reader would see himself or herself in the choices I made. As I approached publishers with the first chapters, it became evident that not including my reflections made the story read as a novel instead of a memoir.

The reason people read memoir is to connect deeply with someone they either admire or identify with, to gain insight into their own lives. But the memoirs that really touch people’s hearts are the ones in which readers not only imagine themselves in that person’s shoes, but can be uplifted, inspired, provoked, and connected to a universal truth. In which their hearts are pierced by the honesty and courage of the story-teller.

I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions but my writer friends told me that if I wanted the book to be read that way, I should write it as a novel. Now, I have nothing against writing novels, I have written four, but for this particular project, it would mean removing huge sections of the book. It would need tighter pacing. There was a natural and accurate rhythm of feeling lost and lonely, allowing decisions that I didn’t agree with to be made for me, then rebelling and leaving, followed by returning to where I felt accepted and loved. This might make it in a novel from the 19th century but not the 21st, sad to say.

I had taken out all of my moments of self-reflection and now I had to put them back in. When I worked with an editor, I also learned that I had to explain things more specifically. That someone who had never lived with our philosophy wouldn’t understand why certain choices were made. I could not assume my readers would "get" it simply by describing events as they happened.

The difference between reflection and take away is that reflection is a moment of inner musing to make sense of the experience but the take-away is a moment of connection with the reader, where you offer something that speaks heart to heart. Brooke Warner writes, “If you’re a reader of memoir and you’ve experienced a really good takeaway, you’ll recognize these moments as the ones where you experienced a chill, a deep level of connection, or when you needed to put the book down for a second to sink into the powerful truth the author has just revealed.”

Both reflection and take away must be interwoven through-out, little jewels of insight embedded in the text.  My editor suggested that I consider the theme of each chapter as well as the overarching theme of the entire book, a thread that runs consistently throughout, while each chapter may have slightly varied undertones. My memoir is the story of how I lived communally for ten years. We took in the homeless and traveled worldwide by hitch-hiking. But as we succumbed to the manipulations of one powerful and charismatic man, things began to unravel. My major theme is how I lost my identity in order to fit in and how I gained it back. The minor themes include the challenges of single mothering, desire for love, manipulation and abuse by a powerful man, traveling by faith and hoping to become a worthy disciple of Jesus, the desire to serve the less fortunate. The universal truth is that we all want to belong, to feel welcomed, to come home. This journey is harder if we are artistic, social rebels, pioneers, peace-niks, visionaries, and have a strong desire for social justice and true equality. We often give up parts of ourselves, sometimes our whole selves, our freedom, our money, our voice, our conscience, our beliefs, to fit in, to be part of, rather than demanding that the group change to meet our ideals or to leave the shelter of the group to go it alone. Reclaiming ourselves is essential to move forward after a severe and devastating loss when we no longer fit or are expelled or can’t put up with the inconsistencies any longer. For me, the life I choose was meant to be my life for the rest of my life.

This section of my memoir takes place when one of the “sisters” and I and our children have been sent off after being told that we were not disciplined enough to live with the group. I was seven months pregnant at the time and had a eighteen month-old son. I was determined to improve in order to return to the fold but was mostly consumed with finding places to stay. We ended up at my sister/friend’s family home while I gave birth, then I was invited to return to the group in Santa Fe.

 Snow started to fall as we pulled in to the Santa Fe Greyhound Bus station. Diane answered the phone and said someone would come to fetch me. I burst into tears when I saw Brett coming through the door. My entire body trembled with relief as we greeted each other with a warm embrace. I shoved the box into a locker. He swung Yoan up onto his shoulders, I tucked Ezekiel into my arms and we set off for the hostel.
 The familiar atmosphere of homeless men sitting around the TV while soup bubbled on the stove. A hot cup of coffee served by Tiffany with a gracious smile. Hugs and exclamations over the newborn—being welcomed the way a guest is welcomed. The insecurity flared up immediately. As sharp as that IV needle driven into my arm. How could I have ever thought I could fit in here?
The next day Russell escorted me to the other house, the private house where Ben and Marian stayed with its atmosphere of study and contemplation. I was an outsider. My room was in the basement, dark and hidden away. Yoan was expected to sit still through the morning readings rather than go off to play. All the children sat with us, including the youngest. I had never forced Yoan to do anything in his life. He wailed and squirmed. I took him outside and scolded him, disrupting the somber atmosphere.

My first conversation with Ben included being chastised for how many things I had acquired, how we were dressed (Yoan in corduroy overalls rather than jeans) and my utter lack of discipline.…I was scoured by Ben Oren from top to bottom. The clothes I wore (pastels), my relationship with Cristopher (all sweet, no substance), and my attitudes (spoiled princess), my lack of understanding and respect for my elders, my lack of obedience and devotion. Ben repeated his litany of my personality. “You are a beautiful girl but you have cotton candy in your head. It’s probably not your fault but you have to have to change. You are vain and presumptuous and that has to change.”

“But what can I do?” I wailed.

His face folded into a severe frown but Marian stepped in.

“Stephanie and Anna have just sent us a postcard from Missoula where they have been helping out at a place that feeds people. They just rented an apartment and want someone to come up there. You can leave tomorrow if you want.”

I slowly stood up, relieved that I had somewhere to go. Ben turned away. “Thank you,” he said sarcastically. I had no gratitude for what they were doing for me, pointing out the changes I needed to make. I was too hurt and humiliated.

I stayed at the hostel for the next two days while an attempt was made to raise bus fare. I trudged through slushy piles of snow, but I had used all my options in the fall. Finally Diane informed me that Salvadore would hitch-hike with me. It was the dead of winter and ...Ezekiel was three weeks old. My faith was being tested and I did not falter. By placing myself and my children in God’s Hands, I would be escorted every step of the way to safety. The only way to go was forward. Toward Montana.
  Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t protest or take my kids and get out of there. The heart truly makes no sense. Was I holding on to those moments when I felt connected, bonded, or was it the promise held out to us that we would become pure of heart and able to make miracles? Was it strength or exhaustion? No one ever shared their doubts or worries with me, but people would leave, usually quietly. The immediacy of finding rent and cooking and cleaning and caring for children, or those moments of euphoric companionship took away our ability to discern whether or not the Scriptures being poured over us every morning were truly transforming us into Christ-like disciples capable of healing or saving souls. We wanted to be “good servants worthy of our reward” and “inherit the Kingdom prepared for us.” Of course we did. I did.

I don’t know if this take away, that strong desire to be good while never being quite good enough, is one that will pierce the hearts of my readers. But every woman who has suffered demeaning abuse, every man who has put up with humiliation at the hand of a boss, will recognize that sometimes we ignore our inner knowing for the hope of acceptance, love, and redemption. It would take more than a scolding about the pastels I was wearing to wake me up to the dangerous power of control and condescension.

As writers, we must remember that we are telling a story as a way to build a bridge between us and the reader, one that is both tender and sturdy, fragile and invincible: the thread between our hearts.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Writing memoir: Pacing

When we speak of pacing in fiction, we are talking about the interweave of narrative, description, dialogue, and conflicts and decisions. The plot pulls the story along and keeps the reader turning the pages. In some ways, how much or how little of these elements you use is subjective. Consider what you like when you read. For example, I prefer not too much dialogue but I enjoy intricate descriptions of the characters’ inner workings, what he or she is thinking and feeling and why they react they way they do. I love descriptions filled with sensual imagery and unusual metaphors or similes.

When we begin to write our memoirs, we may not be thinking about plot. We may be writing down the basic story of what happened and what we think about it. But if we use the same craft elements for memoir as fiction, we will write something dynamic, fascinating and true to the holistic arch of the story.

The pace of the story is determined by the descriptions. Too many and the reader will start to disconnect; too few and it will not be vivid enough. Descriptions carry us along and work best interspersed with dialogue and plot. It's all in the details. As a writer, you need to transport readers into your setting and time period as well as to make connections to the universal truths in their own lives.

Description, dialogue and decisions move the plot along.
The main character is you: how do you write about yourself and show a personality worthy of your reader’s emotional investment? Start with vulnerability and courage on the page. Then through description, dialogue, and the decisions you made, you show that you are unique and yet flawed; that you acted on desires and sought solutions that may or may not have worked; that you are a real person with inner conflicts, quirky personality traits, motivated by the same things that motivate us all: to discover the key to understanding, the gift of insight, the ability to change. You want the reader to see the world through your eyes. At the same time, this is not a persuasive essay. This is your life, in all its messy twists and turns and wrong assumptions and judgments and aha! moments and love and tenderness and awakening. Nevertheless, you want to write in a way that makes sense to readers, that follows either the structure of before, during and after (before I was hurt, unhappy, unhealthy, struggling, abused, confused, etc and then I did this and this happened and afterwards, I was healed; found joy, acceptance and friendship; became a better person; became stronger, etc) whether or not you write in a linear time frame or use backstory, or you can use the Hero’s journey as a template: the call to adventure, the encounter with guides and mentors, given seeming impossible tasks and a protagonist you must conquer (even if it is your own doubts, fears, and weaknesses), leading to receiving the reward of insight, wisdom, or change.

Tension moves the story along. Tension is created through inner and / or outer conflicts. Inner conflicts are psychological or moral--desires, choices, reactions, beliefs, hopes and dreams. Outer conflicts include relationships, the sequence of events, heritage, family expectations, social-historical context, challenges such as health challenges or outer circumstances such as poverty, war, famine, or racism. The desire to be a free spirit while my culture and family told me that I needed to earn a living is one of the conflicts that underpin my stories of growing into adulthood. Or the tension between pleasing a loved one I disagree with while suppressing a desire to be heard and respected is another.

Decisions move the plot along. Decisions are ways the character makes choices that determine their fate, such as where they end up, how they feel, their relationships, and their gained insight or wisdom or change of attitude, perception or understanding.

Dialogue is natural; it is the way we interact with the world. It can be as simple as a few sentences. Too much dialogue and the piece will seem weightless and insubstantial. It can be used to illuminate the setting, tell the back story, show a relationship between characters, give information about the characters or the circumstances the character is in or the characters’ beliefs and attitudes. It captures the nuances of the characters’ speech patterns, especially if there is an accent, special verbal ticks, or particularities. It can show where a character is from, what they know, what they want. 

Each character should have a unique viewpoint and should sound unlike the others. Characters can be defined based on what they ask or tell as well as what they refuse to reveal.

Dialogue can replace long narratives to move the pace along with information that is important but not essential to tell in detail. It can transition between time periods. It can heighten tension, as when two characters disagree or be a way to shed light on how others perceive you.

Plot keeps the reader turning the pages.
Plots move from a conflict, challenge, quest or question, to resolution, transformation or change of attitude, perception or understanding. The main character is changed in some way.

Just like fiction, a personal essay or memoir has to include an inciting incident. Something has to happen to set off a physical, emotional, and/or intellectual reaction. For example, if you wrote an argument between your brother and your mother in which your brother wants your mother to stop riding her motorcycle, you'd want to denote what started that argument and whether the argument was about safety or about seeking control in the family or generational and personality conflicts.

Memoir is both a story of your inner knowledge and your experiences of interaction with the world: family, friends, lovers, mentors, guides. You also have antagonists: those who tighten the tension by misunderstanding, physical or emotional mistreatment, judgment, intolerance, even by being overbearing and meddlesome. Your antagonist could be your loved ones with expectations or friends who mislead you or demand misplaced loyalty. He/she can be a mentor who is competitive or a spiritual guide who misuses his power.

All these elements can be woven together in a way that bring you as the character to life but also keep the reader engaged and on the edge of their seat to see what happens to you.

A surprise delights the reader. It has to seem authentic and realistic. In other words, the events leading up to it must point towards it in some way.

Not all endings are positive and may leave a question unanswered. But the reader wants to see that the protagonist gained something from the experience. We read stories to learn how others cope, especially with loss, uncertainty, failure, illness and trauma. 

“The king died and the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot.” --E.M. Forster 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Memoir: how to deal with emotional overload

When writing memoir, it is inevitable that emotions will rise to the surface as we describe both happy and sad memories. Sometimes what we write stirs the caldron of unresolved emotions. Rage, guilt, shame, hurt, and fear can all surge back immediately, even if we have done everything we can to heal, from therapy to moving on to a new life. While sifting through the details of the past, we may suddenly have revelations that shed new light on our motivations and our personalities, and on others as well. These revelations can range from shame or embarrassment at choices we made and/ or our naiveté or culpability, anger at ourselves that we didn’t act on inner guidance, anger at others for mistreatment or ignorance of our suffering, regret that we didn’t make wiser choices or ask for help, or forgiveness of our innocence and ignorance and understanding or tenderness towards ourselves and others.

Scientists who examined the brain discovered that the center of memory lies close to the center of emotion, and that reading sensual details of smell, taste, sound, sight and touch trigger the brain to believe the sensations are real. Logically, it makes sense that these sensations register as real when we write about them as much as when we read about them. Your body retains cellular memoires that can be triggered by writing your experiences down.

So what can we do? We want to write from a place of telling our stories, not seeking revenge, as victors, not as victims, as wiser, not embroiled in emotional turmoil. The place for expelling the emotional turmoil is in our journal but for readers, we want our reflections to resonate: what the past means, what lessons we have learned, what we have gained. The take-away.

It is important to take care of ourselves as surprisingly, these emotional states can arise again and again in different ways and in different levels of intensity as we progress from writing to rewrites and through further revisions. The emotions may change: we may no longer feel softened by the naiveté of our younger self, we may feel anger or regret that we had not felt before, the injustices we suffered may be more blatant or relationships may take on nuances we hadn’t noticed when we were just getting the story down.

Ways to  take care of ourselves:
  •  walk or do yoga or dance, hang out in nature, feel the sun on your face or sit by a body of water, massage, cuddle, have sex, eat healthy foods. Any activity that occupies your immediate attention and gives you a break from over-thinking can help soothe and restore
  •  talk with a trusted friend or counselor, read uplifting messages, express love for family and friends, feel heard, discuss other topics, laughter
  • create and repeat positive affirmations, participate in a  spiritual community, sing, chant or listen to music, meditation and prayer: quiet the mind down
  •  make art or visit a museum, being inspired by others’ work will raise your vibration

Other possibilities:
  • write a letter to someone you admire, expressing your admiration and gratitude
  • write a letter to someone in your writing world (a writing partner, an imaginary agent or editor, a writer you admire) explaining what you are working on and your intended goals
  • write a letter to a reader, explaining why you need to write your story     
  • Keep a blessing journal:
Every day write down three blessings. Note any blessings such as a friend called, a new book to read, a good meal, a cleaned kitchen, a gorgeous sunset, an inspiring poem, help with a project, a favorite song, a great parking spot, the bus on time, a smile from a stranger
  • If the material is too hard to write, write in third person and/or turn it into fiction
You can go back and rewrite in first person memoir. Sometimes we need to the distance of third person to get our emotions on the page. Turning it fiction will give us permission to explore other points of view and perspectives.

  • Write your story with a successful outcome or amazing synchronicities or with the ending you dream of. 
Give yourself a break from the dissection of your self to the vision of what you can be. I once threw a “Come as you want to be” party. I arrived dressed up for my trip to accept the Nobel Prize. Even though it was a fantasy, it gave me momentum to keep going at a time when I felt discouraged. The Nobel Prize may be out of reach but I published two books of poetry and have performed for hundreds of audience members, have won four grants and have been able to teach in prisons and non-profits, schools and healing centers. Besides my work appearing in literary journals and anthologies, I had an article published in Poets & Writers magazine and I have been a community editor for the Saint Paul Almanac.
  • Take a break and write something else: poerty, short story, flash fiction
Come as you want to be as you rewrite your work: wiser, stronger, happier, beloved, and doing what you love to do. Keep your vision of your published book in your hand, your audience enthralled. Imagine the questions your interviewer will ask. Know that you have a story to tell that will open hearts and minds. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

How do I find my voice?

The difference between fiction and memoir 

is not only the structure that the writing takes, but the fact that your readers have to resonate with you as the main character. Your voice must reflect who you are, not a persona, and yet at the same time, you are the protagonist and have a persona on the page. You have experiences, adventures, struggles and revelations, insights and self-awareness leading to transformation, healing or connection.

Your voice is distinctive and your friends recognize your voice immediately on the phone. But how so we access our voice when we are writing? Or how do we know when we have found our voice? How do we walk that tightrope between telling our story so that others will feel what we felt and yet with enough subjectivity that we are sharing a story and not a therapy session? How do we maintain urgency while showing the wider picture?

I would ask you what has the most emotional energy for you? What are your passions, fears, and joys?  What is hard to write about? What do you avoid writing about? And what is your personal point of view on the world?

I teach what I call self-reflective writing in Writing for Healing classes and I use prompts to start spontaneous timed writing. I have discovered than when I read a poem and then dive into my feelings, my writing is lyrical, flows easily, touches my core beliefs, includes specific images and details, and ends on a positive note usually with a spiritual insight. When I use a writing exercise of craft such as writing a setting with a characters or characters, add dialogue, decision or a sudden change, or work with a prompt grounded in facts, my writing is a struggle for me and I meander back and forth all over the page. There is no sense of what drives the writing. I will need to edit and revise. 

My voice is attuned to my deepest feelings and core beliefs: life is full of terror, grief, and beauty and has meaning, love, and hope; each moment is a gift and holy in its own perfection, not matter how broken or bruised it may appear. My essential nature is to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I remind writers that writing is a practice. A practice means that we are practicing all the time, not only when we are working on a short story or memoir or poem. By writing exercises to warm up the intuitive imagination, we strike gold: something can be woven into a larger piece. 

I use a simple exercise to help writers access their material. We begin with writing numbers down the page in 5 sections such as this:
and then I suggest a category for each section, We write what comes to mind quickly and spontaneously without over-thinking. I move from one category to the next quickly.

The first category is always things I love because that one is easy. The following may be:
  • things that annoy me
  • things I regret
  • times I lost something important
  • things I will never forgive
  • moments that changed my life
  • places I hang out
  • people I admire
  • times I had to make a decision
  • times I took a risk
  • things I left behind
  • blessings

For example: things I love:
hearing the sound of Spanish around me
the beach
my grandsons

The exercise can be extended with specific details:
the beach in Puerto Vallarta at sunset with a cold drink in my hands
reading a story together with my grandsons
poems that opened my heart to recognize myself at the Islandwood reading

Often then I give a prompt:
  • What I will never forget
  • I remember
  • At that moment
  • The first time
The idea is to access right brain intuition by accessing memories but in a quick overview so that what is most compelling comes to the surface. Now we have 25 topics to write about, emotionally charged topics. Circle one and write for ten minutes. The exercise can be repeated; allow new memories to arise. I have taught it often and each time, what I focus on will shift depending on what items have filled my list.

I once made the mistake of changing the introduction of my memoir after attending a workshop on dynamic first pages. I had originally started with the impact of the ’60s, but moved that in order to begin with the first time I took a trip to Mexico. But I had cut off my own voice as surely as if I had strangled myself. I had to think again of how my own story really started. It began when I visited Arlington Cemetery as a 6th grader and become a pacifist, a realization that would lead me to the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam War and later, to seek my tribe of those who believed as I did.

Change to “dynamic first sentence”:
      The first time I crossed the border into Mexico, I was eight months pregnant and single. Caren invited me to accompany her as she drove Roxanna, Irene and their children, Chandra and  Carissa, from Santa Fe to Juarez. From there, they would hitch-hike farther south. I knew members of the group traveled to spread the Good News, imitating the first-century Disciples of Jesus. Despite the discomfort of the baby somersaulting in my belly and constant pressure on my bladder, I agreed.

Change to Claiming My Story:
       When I was in sixth grade, our class took a field trip from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC. I don’t remember much about filing through the White House, although I do remember being impressed by the size of the Senate chambers and the Lincoln Memorial. But our visit to John F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery changed my life.

      As I looked over the thousands of soldiers’ graves that fanned out to the horizon, a feeling swept over me of heartbreak, a profoundly disturbing sorrow. This is wrong, I thought. So many lying in their graves under simple white tombstones just felt wrong. I knew little about war and its justifications, but I knew my dad and his brothers had been soldiers. The sight of those tombstones stretching to what felt like infinity gave me an epiphany. At that moment, a clear vision transformed me into a pacifist. This philosophical and moral stance was firmly planted as my heart broke open, mesmerized by those white tombstones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly

recognized as your own
 —Mary Oliver

Finding your voice takes vulnerability and the courage to be yourself. With practice, you will tap into the story you are compelled to tell. That story that haunts you and will not let you rest until it is told. That's your voice.

Another tip: Express your opinion on a topic that resonates with you either because it makes you laugh, cry or even rage.

More thoughts on finding voice are here:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Writing Memoir part 1: Writing about secondary characters

We know that the stories we are compelled to write are the stories that haunt us, the ones that won’t let go. For many of us, these stories are based on memories. We write memoirs in order to reflect on our past and make sense of it, to share our experiences and the insights gained, and to capture those moments of joy or terror that make us who we are. I believe every one of us has a powerful and engaging story to tell. 

Writing itself is a therapeutic tool and can help us gain insight on the past and our patterns of behavior in order to coach ourselves towards the future. Telling our stories gives them meaning and validates who we are; they connect us to each other and the human community. But the dedicated composing and editing that is the core of how we get it down on paper (or on the screen) is where many of us give up, blocked, frightened, or exhausted.

To write from a deeper place of vulnerability and to become open to the pain of one’s memories, to remain with a soft heart despite the feelings of rage, guilt, grief, and denial that might arise, to allow the process to take you over the edge to where you might see the threads of your life in an intricate weaving instead of a tangled mess, this takes patience, practice, and using all the writer’s tools you know: writing in a group, taking a workshop, using writing exercises from books such as Pain and Possibility by Gabriella Rico or any of the Artist Way series by Julia Cameron, or a writer’s retreat. Or it may be as simple as reading back through your journals or calling someone to confirm details, playing a song from that era, flipping through a photo album, or returning to the place where the memories were born. Recording your dreams, meditating, and even eating the same foods might trigger something. Memories are built from our senses--the crunchy taste of falafel in Israel, the scent of garbage in the Mercado in Oaxaca, the day everyone in the circle wore blue, how the sea washed cold against our feet, the perfume of our grandmother’s garden, the rumbling of buses below the window.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?

The world would split open.”  --Muriel Rukeyser

 There is a time for gathering memories and putting them down on the page and there is a time to craft the words into an art form. What makes good writing? What makes a memoir refreshing and accessible? What makes readers connect to your story?

                                Honesty, vulnerability and courage
Good writing comes from a place of both courage and vulnerability. To show our human side: our failures, mistakes, doubts and fears, our desires, fantasies, and hopes and dreams, is a way to connect with readers. We must be a sympathetic character and we may have to step back from our story in a more objective way to ensure that we are revealing ourselves as flawed and yet determined or resilient  human beings. We must have the courage to tell the truth, despite those nagging voices that worry what others might think, in particular the other people in our story. Will they be offended, will they be shocked by our revelations, will they be hurt? You must write the story as if no one else will read it but you must edit the story for the whole world to hear.

In other words, if you are writing about real people, you must be aware of your motivations. Tracy Seely , author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas writes  that it is essential to have clean motives and transparency. If the person in your story is necessary and yet his/her actions are shown in an unfavorable light, what are the possible ways to handle this?

Some writers change the names and identifying characteristics of secondary characters. Some writers let the people in their stories read about themselves ahead of time. Some ask permission. If you are writing about a well-known public figure or place or business, your publisher may want to have you consult a lawyer. If you are writing about close family members that can be identified, you may want to consult a lawyer or ask their permission. But ultimately it is why you are telling this story that will influence the outcome.

At the 2015 AWP conference panel on writing personal essays, each member of the panel had a different answer to the question of how to deal with this issue, ranging from “I did not ask permission ahead of time and I was surprised by the support I received” to “Yes, my family member was upset, but not for the reasons I thought he would be.” When you publish, reactions from those you wrote about may not be supportive or someone may be hurt and it is up to you as the writer to decide if it is something you can live with. Are you compelled to tell this story? Should you change it to fiction? Personally, I believe if you write with the intention of sharing your healing or transformation or overcoming and surviving, the power of the story will transcend other people's reactions. By the way, the panel also mentioned that you must never assume someone will not read your work because they don't read literary journals or small magazines or on-line journals. The internet spreads our words everywhere and you never know where they will pop up.

Mark Fowler in his blog “Rights of Writers” writes: "Remember, to be actionable, the disclosure must be of private facts that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.  Most memoirs don't venture into that territory.  Moreover, book editors often tell their authors to write the truth and let the in-house lawyers figure out how the truth -- or at least most of it -- can be safely published."

Here is full disclosure: I changed everyone's names in Flowers in the Wind. Many of the people I wrote about are no longer alive but their family members are. I did not assume that anyone who once was a part of our alternative lifestyle would want publicity. I told my story through my own interpretation and take full responsibility for that. However, I choose not to ask permission. I feel that this is a story that speaks to those who tried alternatve lifestyles and they will understand our flaws and failures came from youthful immaturity. The "leader" who betrayed us was someone I loved as well as grew to resent and despise....but he is no longer alive.

Next blogpost: 
How does memoir writing differ from fiction? How do I find my voice?