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 change...you 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?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Visit to South Carolina

It took me all day and three airplane rides to get to Charleston, South Carolina. When I left Minneapolis at 4 am, the streets crackled with slushy ice. In Charleston, I immediately removed my jacket and leggings as I relaxed in the warmth. My first taste of the south was the local bus driver calling and waving to people we passed along the street, ramshackle houses crammed together in meandering neighborhoods, and the ubiquitous strip malls of national chain stores.

At the Not So Hostel, I was shown the top bunk. I wondered how I would get myself down if I had to get up in the middle of the night but I had decided that on this trip, I would accept whatever came my way. I had decided to travel without expectations and without a plan, except to show up on time for David Whyte's reading and workshop. I would follow my intuition and inner compass, sit quietly in sunshine, eat well.

I was in the middle of teaching a class at Stillwater prison on the topic of remorse for Victim Awareness week. This is the sixth class I have taught in the MN DOC. I have never wanted to know my participants' crimes but in this class, the men used the word "murder" and wondered if they could ever be forgiven or redeemed. Our writing structure started with writing about their own experience of intimidation in order to tap into their own emotions, then went on to write about the impact of the crimes on their families, the victim's family and the victim. They were working on their healing stories and how they have changed, their transformation. The class was emotionally intense and I wanted to nourish, inspire and restore myself through both taking a break from the cold and the culture of the Midwest and with the presence and poetry of David Whyte, whom I have heard speak twice before. He has had quite an impact on me. His insights shifted my perception of myself as a poet and opened me to a wider, wilder horizon, as well as left me in exultation, the elegance of his thoughts transforming me as though my very molecules were infused with light.

I dropped ten years sleeping in a top bunk surrounded by young people and left the hostel energized and ready for adventure. The air was soft and warm and after breakfast, the free trolley took me through the shopping district crowded with tourists to the cobbled streets of colonial America and the Slave Mart Museum.

The small building felt like such an understated whisper to the heart-wrenching horrors of slavery; families brutally torn apart; back-breaking, life-claiming work for the wealth of others. Here hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, mostly first born slaves, were  traded, bought and sold. I read about how they were instructed to present themselves to drive a good bargain. How slaves went out into Charleston to work, then were locked up at night. The rating scale of best workers to trouble makers. Examples of bills of sale and first person narratives. Charleston has gorgeous gardens behind colonial homes and beautiful plantations, but I could not get past the fact that they were built, tended, and nurtured by the sweat and blood of slaves. Charleston is also the first city to secede from the union in support of slavery. It seemed to me that waiters, sales clerks, concierges, bar tenders were white and maids, bus drivers, janitors, grocery store clerks were black. Charleston has several colleges and I hope they reflect a new story of opportunity through education. I thought about the incarcerated men I teach. With a reputation as a progressive city, the availability to move up economically, affordable health care, a variety of secondary schools, a cultural mega-spot and melting pot, Minneapolis has been touted as a miracle city. It also has the highest incarceration rate for black males in the country and a black community decimated by loss of their men.

I strolled through the crafts market but to tell the truth, there is not much I want to buy these days. I discovered a spice shop, the jeweled colors and exotic fragrances of the spices arranged in glass jars along the shelves. I stopped for lunch, shrimp and grits as recommended by someone on the plane. The meal was fabulous, the grits creamy and salty at the same time, accompanied by a blackberry moonshine drink.

But enough to temper the taste of injustice in my mouth, the thought of beauty built on such ugliness? The Slave Mart museum also exhibits the determination for freedom and the long journeys and risks and sacrifices to escape slavery. I know slavery has a historical perspective: the Egyptians, the Romans, the Africans themselves. And I know freedom is the most precious thing to me, a driving force in many of the choices I have made in my life. I think about the white women who demanded abolition in order to stop their husbands, brothers, uncles, fathers from raping slave women. I think of the courage to say enough. I think of the price we continue to pay in shattered communities: the shooting that occurred around the corner when I lived in North Minneapolis, the slow crawl towards stability in that neighborhood, the gangs and fear, the foreclosures and neglect.  I think of the incarcerated writer who wrote how his mom beat him as a child because  he didn't divide the crack she was selling the right way. I think of the voices of the forgotten and the invisible, how I want to hear them, and pass them on for others to hear. I think of hope. I think of change.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where do stories begin: A word or an image?

Where do stories begin? A sentence…a word, an image, a character, a dream, a question, a puzzle, a mystery, a hope, an overheard conversation, a picture, a feeling? Or is it the story itself which is compelling you: the struggle through crisis towards the happy ending, the illness and grief followed by healing, the joy found and hope revived after heartbreak, the resiliency of the human spirit, your spirit? Do memoir and novels begin the same ways? Do you begin with a character or a story?

My novels always begin with a character or characters. The birth of a child and the midwife-medicine woman-priestess disturbed and enthralled by the signs that appear is how my story MoonSense starts. One novel began with the image of a Mexican mother keening into the ground because her son has left to go up to El Norte. A young woman vacations in Mexico when her traveling companion mysteriosuly disappears. Eventually these two characters will meet. Another began with an elderly woman watching from a window in her wheelchair, lonely and aching for companionship, a grumpy, stubborn woman who must face her own difficult personality. And another starts with a singer who songs heal but has a family secret she must uncover.

A poem, however, may begin with an emotion and an image from the world around me, where I happen to be sitting, in nature, in a cafe, or on a bus, for example.

Memoir has to begin with a story, as well, but where do we start? Which memory do we choose? In Flowers in the Wind, my memoir of ten years of communal living, I wanted to start with the first time I walked into the hostel and met the people who would become my family, the tribe I had been seeking, for the rest of my life. But I had to fill in the reasons why this was an important encounter. I had to write about the influence of the ‘60s and the ways that freedom was intertwined with wanting to belong, a sense of belonging. Without that urgency of wanting to belong, the story of joining a commune and sticking with in despite the challenges and shadows does not make sense. Why would I give up my own choices, why would I allow my autonomy to be taken away, unless there was an investment, a huge emotional investment? I believed we were heading towards salvation, towards perfection, toward being able to heal the blind and the lame and take care of the oppressed, and that these people were mine to keep.

But then I had to tell the story of the first time I traveled to Mexico and was shocked by the extreme poverty and humbled by the simple grace of the family who received us into their home, a home without even a toilet, who treated us as special, important guests even though we barely spoke their language and hardly had anything in common except faith in Jesus. And how I recognized my own selfishness and self-centeredness.

And then I realized I had to go back even further, to the epiphany at Arlington Cemetery when I was 11 years old and suddenly awakened to a belief that war is wrong. The moment I became a pacifist. The moment that became my purpose when the anti-war movement started and I felt I had found my tribe, those who believed as I did in peace and love.

This is different than the memoir of living in Israel for three years which begins with getting off the ferry boat and ends with leaving on an airplane, a cut and dried beginning and ending.

Where does you story begin, with the moment that changed your life? Which moment? The one that set in motion the search for answers, the one that broke your heart and set you up to long for love, the one that was a dream of something you would hope for the rest of your life, the choices made out of disappointment, the choices made out of strength?