Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Multimedia Memoir

Linsday Rogers, cermaicist, painting a mug with some donated words from a poet at Pentaculum, the residency I attended at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in January.
The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us. 
-Natalie Goldberg, "We Are Not the Poem" in Writing Down the Bones  

The above quote is one of my favorites. I love it especially because so much of poetry is autobiographical - whether or not we use "I" in it.

A few years ago, I wrote a sestina about a young girl getting raped and having a child from the rape. It was an immediate poem and very powerful. When I put it in the third person, it felt too distant. I changed it to first person, and it was much stronger. Most of my friends and readers knew it wasn't me - for one, I don't have a kid. But the famous visiting poet at my residency *did* think it was me. I was a bit embarrassed to explain I had not overcome all the woman did in the poem to take a month off to write, and she was a bit embarrassed to fall for the belief that "I" in a poem = autobiographical. She applauded the power of the poem none the less.

I bring this up because it is rare to find memoir in verse form. It is rare to find any full length book in verse form, other than a poetry manuscript in which each of the poems are their own distinct pieces. But in my recent residency at Arrowmont in Tennessee, I was reminded by my fellow writers that a fair number of poetry manuscripts are unofficially memoirs.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parts Work

A split-person pot from the "boneyard" (discarded pottery) room at the Arrowmont School of the Arts
Though of course, memoir is not therapy, there are natural overlaps between the two. Just like there are natural overlaps between mindfulness/meditation and memoir.

Because I am a contemplative psychology nerd, on occasion I like to bring out that side. And one of the most helpful tools I have found for memoir writing - for writing in general, and in fact, for life - is parts work.

Parts work stems out of Gestalt Therapy (we consist of many parts that fit together) and Internal Family Systems Therapy (we have internalized our family situation and have aspects of us that speak to each other in those same dynamics). Teaching writing, I encourage students to explore these, because they represent our natural range of voice (not to say our only range, but our natural starting) and developing compassion for all these inner parts (whom I sometimes call our "inner others") really helps us meet the outer others - strangers, friends, lovers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Importance of Basic Goodness in Memoir

In writing memoir, we must veer from blame-placing or shame-taking. Either of these actions imply two beliefs:
1. There is something fundamentally wrong/bad/broken about our lives
2. If we could just name names, all will be fixed.
Either of these are uselessly circular - endless struggle and suffering.

I had a dream last night in which I started a righteous argument by trying to place blame. It all escalated from there, and I soon remembered there's no backing down from a bad beginning. And that's not even a published manuscript, just a dream in my head. A parable reminder of how painful and self-defeating that is.

But there is another kind of endlessness. In contemplating basic goodness this morning, in pondering something my mind believes but heart still struggles to grasp: that humans, that all beings are fundamentally good, ok, as is - the image of ouroboros came to mind. The snake eating its own tail.

I have often thought of the ouroboros as a sign of futility, but a little research showed me its natural positivity and flow (see in image above). 

That fine edge between wisdom and neurosis, right here in our own stories.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mirror Maze

I came to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to revise my main memoir, My Bermuda Triangle. I came here thinking it would be like Johnson, Vermont, where I spent a month at Vermont Studio Center a decade or so ago. Johnson is a tiny town, barely a town, quite rural and remote, extremely quiet.

Gatlinburg is not.
Or, I should say, Arrowmont is (the school where I am in residency for the week), but the town is not.

The town has not one, not two but eight separate Ripley's museums - the main "Believe it or Not!" museum, plus two mirror maze things, plus a haunted house and...you get the idea. It's actually a lot like Wisconsin Dells near Madison, with strips full of 100's of crappy shops which seem exciting at first but then you realize just repeat variations on the same fudge (universal) and moonshine (ok, THAT we don't have in Wisconsin).

But what caught my attention first thing the first day was the mirror maze.
THAT is what memoir is like, I thought, and snapped the above shot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Memoir Within A Memoir: H Is For Hawk

I finally finished Helen MacDonald's H Is For Hawk. I started it a long time ago, but then had to return it to the library. This time I was determined to get through. 

What had stopped me 1/4 way through?

Brilliance. Brilliance often stops me in books, more often than unreadability. When a book is really fucking good, I almost can't bear to keep reading it. For instance, this passage completely blew me out of the water, and made it both worth continuing and also exquisitely difficult to keep going:
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it is like!’ I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Small Messages and Details

Memoirists often struggle with figuring out what to include. A memoir, by definition, is not a story of your entire life. It is writing on a particular strand of your life - a recurrent theme or issue or approach - or focusing on one particular era. If you are including everything that is happening, it will not work.

However, you also need more than just the key stories. What might otherwise seem like mundane details - how you make your coffee, or did during that era, or how it has changed over time - could lend a lot of real human feeling and connection to the reader. And everything depicted in the memoir can carry the feeling of communication, the sense it was all included for a reason, even if - especially if - that reason is not explicit or overt.

How do we choose?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lovely Limitations

Faith Adele, on nonfiction versus fiction:

It’s having to create a metaphor out of facts. I love the puzzle in that and the challenge. It’s like having to write a sestina, any kind of strong, dictated form. It’s got to end with these words, and have this long stanza – stuff like that. You have to create something that’s meaningful out of it and it’s not just an exercise. To me, nonfiction gives you the same sorts of limitations. You have these facts, but then you have to create art out of it with language and metaphor. I think it’s stunning because I am fascinated by the truth, and then I’m also fascinated by how fallible memory is. I love how I remember things and how I misrememeber things, and then how when your memory comes into contact with somebody else, it changes. I just love the process of memoir. It’s not really true, but it’s a truth. So I’m fascinated by that whole project and having to create metaphor and sense out of all this real detail.