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?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Return of the Light, turn of the Seasons

Here in Minnesota we are having a brown Christmas, in contrast to last year when I thought I might be stuck at the house, unable to get out due to the snow storm. Grey skies are not my favorite weather. I consider myself a Mediterranean girl and in Minnesota by default. Or that is to say, by way of love for my grandsons. And once I accepted that I was here to stay for a period of time, have made my home here, there was the realization of dreams come true, the many wonderful opportunities of living in a culturally vibrant community, the joy of my spiritual community, the ability to get medical insurance immediately so I could take care of the necessary hip replacements, the circles that I am part of and the work I believe in that we do.

Is it possible to love the Light within so much, so deeply, so constantly, that the weather outside is nothing more than that: weather, subject to change, a condition? Is it possible to hold both the thought and acknowledgment that the weather is probably a sign of climate change and all the repercussions coming more quickly than we had imagined and still hold to the belief that we humans are creating a better world of generosity, peace, and interconnectedness? Can I behold the good and the bad, the light and shadow, at the same time and not choose sides, simply allow them to each whisper to me something sacred, something wise, something true? Can I hold my light no matter the cost of what has been demanded from me in my life: the losses, the grief, the regret, the pain, the betrayals, the disappointments, the fall and the failures, the struggle and the shame? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with the Angel until the Angel had to put his hip out of its socket in order to escape? And wasn’t that a blessing, a reminder daily with each step he took, that he encountered that Angel, that he demanded to be blessed, that he received that blessing and it could never be taken away? His life was changed, he was transformed. 

I have been blessed by such a bountiful generous universe, blessed with love and the ability to have my heart break over and over and yet be stitched back together, to choose joy despite the weather report. I have been blessed with work I love to do and the ability to get up out of bed, get where I need to go, and find waiting for me inspiration, kindness, cooperation, conversation, order in the midst of chaos, meaning in the midst of suffering, light in the midst of darkness.

I have been blessed with the memories of heat and warm beaches and a brilliant aquamarine sea stretching before me and nothing to do but enjoy a meal, a friend by my side. And I have been blessed with sorrow that lets me know I am human, I have loved fiercely, I will never let go of the love I have known but I will let go of my ghosts, my regrets and my stubborn refusals. I say Yes. I say Yes. I say Yes. To the rain, which reminds me of how much I love the sun but still I carry the sun perpetually within me, a heart beat away.

May this days of holy time for reflection grace you with replenishment of your oil, whatever that means to you: family or friends around a table sharing a meal and laughter and stories, quietude and rest, music and singing along, a fire in the hearth, a belief in miracles which never ends.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


I want to remember that I was hungry so that I never forget to say thank you over a meal, an orange, a sliced cucumber, just picked strawberries from the garden, a gift of Christmas cookies.

I want to remember that I was confused and lost and yet I found my way. I learned to ask for help. I learned that I am not alone. Let me never forget that where I belong is exactly where I am.

I want to remember that I was cold so I will bless the sun, the heat, the hot water, hot pad, blankets on a bed, a shawl around my shoulder.

I want to remember that I was exhausted and let my body stretch and release into corpse pose while my breath rose and fell in a rhythm of contentment.

I want to remember that the grief threatened to carry me over the edge. I could not unfold my wings scorched from the burning of my child’s body into ash. The edge between madness and the ability to carry on, the dance between oblivion and love, feeling that one more day in such pain was impossible. And yet I walked step by step and took one more breath while my wings were repaired by the loving hands of friends and angels and my own determined self.

I want to remember that I was terrified and did it anyway. That I was angry and choose words instead of a fist. That I was betrayed and learned forgiveness. That I was a stranger and found home wherever I could light a candle, say a prayer, learn a name.

I want to remember that I stood in darkness in order to adore the light, I stood in silence in order to find my voice.

I want to remember my tears and the way they brought me salt.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What will you do in the time that remains?

I'll wear blue. I'll wear the moon, I'll dress up in starlight. I'll dress up for dinner, even if it's only me at the table. I'll wear pajamas to dinner, alone in my apartment, the red lampshade a miniature fire.

I'll wander the wild, the space between sea and sand, with my heart beating to the sound of waves hitting rock. I'll walk to the park holding my grandson's hand, cherishing every moment before he lets go. We'll pretend we're racing off in a fire truck. I'll shiver in the shade before I coax him into the sun.

I'll wear berets, pink and grey and salmon, and pretend I never left the childhood estate of traveling through foreign lands without a dime in my pocket. I'll remember to say thanks every time I turn on hot water, I'll remember those cold buckets of water poured over the head.

I'll sit with a book in hand and rejoice in words. I'll dance to world beat and wish I could stay up all night. I'll surrender the last crumbs of self pity to the lake, to the fishes and the ducks. I'll love as fiercely as ever, as untidy and profligate as wildflowers. I'll remember the birds flying in formation to land on the sunset waters of the Bosque, the breathtaking beauty, so many wings.

I'll dream of that trip to Paris, I'll keep my passport up to date just in case. I'll drink Scotch and eat tid bits of news gleaned from fb. I'll listen deeply to my heart, to your heart, to the guidance from the Holy Ones, to the call of the trees and the voice of the rocks, to the conversation we have begun of blazing depth and incandescent laughter.

I'll sit by the fire and spark into poetry, into song. I'll pray on bended knees with hands upraised and open, hoping for an answer, hoping for a sign. I'll pray in silence and aloud, remind us that we carry light within.

I'll leave behind a box of photos and stories. I'll let you decide which ones to keep and which to toss away.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Even on your worst day you are surrounded by things you care about—

Worst day: let’s not think about the worst day. Let’s think about waiting for the bus in sub zero temperatures and stomping your feet and dropping coins in the snow and wondering why you are doing this when you could still be under the blankets, curled up in dreams? And then the bus arrives and you sit down, frozen fingers tingling back to feeling, and you think of the little boys you waved good-bye to as you ran out the door. How once again love saved you from despair. How you could be a drunk under a bridge or a pile of ashes thrown to the wind but you had those babies to think about, the grandsons, new life. How the little one throws his arms around you and says I love you. And that makes the grief, the bankruptcy, the arguments, the disappointments, the months when you had no home to be embraced and sheltered within, all recede into the past. And you remove your wool beret and run your fingers through your graying hair and think how it could have been cancer like your good friend, dead one month after diagnosis, or it could have been HIV like a man you love, or it could have been the fibromyalgia that plagues a writer you know who can never take a step without planning for ways to reduce the pain. And so you tap your feet in your red suede boots that you bought last minute, thank God, and don’t think about the worst. You think about poems on the computer waiting to be printed and the writing group where you’ll drink free coffee and sit around a warm table, free to be yourself, free to praise the snow.