Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Digesting History

This is the week of American Thanksgiving, which starts off the holiday season in the US. When Thanksgiving is over, Jewish holidays kick in, then Christmas is in less than a month.

I've been re-reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, our Read and Write book for this quarter, a novel in pairing with her memoir we just finished, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? I ran into these passages about history and stories and felt them strongly related to memoir and also the holiday season, super full of both family and national history, stories and food:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Memoir and Memory as Mosaic

As it relates to survival, memory is a particular type of perception; it is not an accurate imprint of an event. In this sense, it is the process by which the organism creates a gestalt (functional unit) of the experience. This gestalt can be a faithful representation of an actual event or it can just as easily be a rendering consisting of unrelated data from several different events -- in other words, a mosaic.
-Peter Levine, from Waking the Tiger (Healing Trauma)

My parents' bedroom is a location I cannot describe in a single sitting. While at certain speaking or writing takes I can catch the plants in the window straight ahead and my mother's closet, it is as if remembering the whole thing at once is simply too much. This is not surprising, considering that both of my parents died there, and I had some pretty traumatic experiences around both their lives and deaths in that room. Each time I go to write about one of their deaths, or even just a regular, non-traumatic scene taking place in that fifteen by fifteen square space, I seem to miss a few things that I then only catch later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sirens and the Seduction of the Past

from Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind
There is.. a rather bittersweet exchange of a comfortable and settled present existence for a troubled but intensely lived past.
There are still occasional sirens to this past, and there remains a seductive, if increasingly rare, desire to recreate the furor and fever of earlier times. I look back over my shoulder and feel the presence of an intense young girl and then a volatile and disturbed young woman, both with high dreams and restless, romantic aspirations.
There is, for me, a mixture of longings for an earlier age; this is inevitable, perhaps, in any life, but there is an extra twist of almost painful nostalgia brought about by having lived a life particularly intense in moods. Life, on occasion, becomes an elegy for lost moods. I miss the lost intensities, and I find myself unconsciously reaching out for them, as I still now and again reach back with my hand for the fall and heaviness of my now-gone, long, thick hair; like the trace of moods, only a phantom weight remains. These current longings are, for the most part, only longings, and I do not feel compelled to re-create the intensities: the consequences are too awful, too final, and too damaging.
Still, the seductiveness of these unbridled and intense moods is powerful; and the ancient dialogue between reason and the senses is almost always more interestingly and passionately resolved in favor of the senses. 

I am well familiar with the collusion of past and present. Being someone who has always kept journals, wondered about what came before and curious about what is to come, reflective and contemplative, and occasionally also obsessive, I know there's a risk inherent to looking back.
Thinking back over something is one thing - writing about it to try and understand it is something else all together. The process of digesting our past is not easy, and something that is different in memoir than it is in therapy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mirroring and Finding Your Peeps

At 38, I am realizing how much losing my parents affected me.

Now, I was not unaware - as soon as my mother had an aneurysm when I was nineteen, and I was suddenly parent-less, I was very clear that my life differed from those around me. Friends were either in college but went home for the summer, weren't in college but were still living at home, or, for the most part, still strongly connected to "home" as being where they grew up, and the house in which their parents lived.

For lots of reasons, certain of my friends were more "out there" like I was - divorced parents who both moved to new cities and left no bedrooms for them, people who left abusive childhood homes and had nowhere safe to go back to, etc. However, I knew no one else in my particular circumstance: parent-less.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Directing Your Helping Nature Into Memoir

I have a client who meets with me bi-weekly. She's working, as many of my clients are, on a memoir. Hers focuses on surviving some pretty un-survivable sounding things: drugs, abuse and more. She has been driven to write it for years, but not found the time or support to do it. She hired me to help her keep on track.

Her vision from the beginning was very, very clear: "I want to write this book to share with other women who have been in situations I have been in - battered, abused - so they know they can find their way out."

This is a stellar and beautiful vision. This woman has a very strong helper nature, and I am excited to help her help others.

In the beginning we had a hard time getting her to stick to any kind of schedule. Not. Unusual.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Who Tells and How They Tell

I re-read Kay Redfield Jamison's Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness recently. I've been called to work with numerous people on memoirs that include psychosis and mania, so I knew it was time to look at how a major bestseller depicts this realm.

One of the things that is powerful in re-reading a book like this years after the initial reading is noticing how much I have changed, and how much the market has changed. Redfield Jamison, an academic and brilliant woman, writes about her experience mostly through telling. She uses very occasional scenes to show experiences of mania and depression, but for the most part she narrates what happened, and summarizes, relying on her own creedance as a researcher and psychologist to stand behind her story.

This is understandable. In 1996 in particular, memoir was less in a place of confession or even direct story revealing, and more a short version of autobiography.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You Are Not Your Memoir

Sunday afternoon on Canal St. Martin, Paris, 2015

Here's the super tricky thing about memoir. Your readers, should you have any, are subject to the same problem that you are as the writer: they believe that you are your story. I am not talking about telling the truth here, or not in some explicit way. I am not saying that you can lie about how you lived, or mis-tell it deliberately, and scoff it off by saying that's just how you remember it. I am talking about something far more subtle - that the act of writing itself can convince us that this is it, the story for real, the final telling, and that it does not change at all and this is in fact the facts.

Natalie Goldberg addresses this in a passage from Writing Down the Bones. It's about poems, but you know it can be about anything, especially about memoir...
It is very painful to become frozen in your poems...the real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years..we don't exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don't identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.
-from We Are Not the Poem by Natalie Goldberg