Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Learning to Teach Memoir

As a person who teaches memoir, people often think (wish?) I had a higher degree in English,  Literature or Creative Writing. I have had many feelings of inadequacy about my Bachelors in Anthropology and French. But mostly, I have found that my students trust me more based on my energy and the way I hold the space for them rather than on my "qualifications", especially since the focus in my classes is less on writing as product and more as process.

Lately, in the last year or so, I've been stretching my wings more and more in helping students with latter stages of the process, working towards creating product. I've had to plow through much fear about inadequacy and how much can I charge for something I am just starting to do now, etc, etc. But what I find in going further with students' writing - editing, critiquing, guiding larger projects towards finishing - is that I learn as I go along and so do they. Even better, we teach each other.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dreaming and Memoir

Recently, I had a version of a dream about my parents. In the dream my parents were alive. 
I have had many dreams over the years in which my parents (now deceased for decades) are alive. 
What was unusual in this dream is that we were having a conversation about the fact that neither of them died. It was all a misunderstanding. In the dream I was, like I am in real life now, working on a memoir. I was, as I am, writing about their deaths. 
However, there they were, alive in front of me. That's a bit of a problem, plot-wise.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Narrative Therapy

Another powerful, palpable student writing. We were all struck by how this student, who has been writing with me for years now, has found a way to combine his powerful lyricism with a narrative - in fact, narrative therapy - to help re-write things that used to trigger him when he followed pure poetry.

Narrative therapy has strong overlaps with memoir writing, whether we like it or not. How we write, what we write, what we invite in and work through or not really shapes our story. And, of course, we are telling and re-telling our stories - especially our "life story" - every single day. To embrace that process and realize that our stories, too, are impermanent, is really empowering.

Enjoy the intense dip in, then strong heart that saves the reader - and writer - from dimness.


A feeling of satiety, 
not satiated or saturated,
or dripping. 
I've had the glimpse, that
hint of light that hits the mirror
just right - turn your head it's gone
That all of the craving, the striving 
powering the great samsaric engine.
For just that evanescent moment,
which seems so precious.
Must... hold tight.. and gone.
All that which I seek outside myself is already there.
But like the moment when I've achieved some goal, 
it too is gone. 

I'm brought back to the darkest days before the hospital. The entrance to the house was through the garage which opened to the basement. Dark and cluttered, it seemed a reflection of David, my stepfather's mental state. I had to watch where I was going. So did he. Up stairs that creaked every one, led into the kitchen. The kitchen, where he told me, near that chair that seemed out of place, that I was going to end up on the street. He would pace for hours. And drink, and breathe heavily. His presence was so onerous the house threatened to sink. Dark, deep eyes would stare off for hours. Deep pain. I could feel it all. Those eyes usually passed right over me. Boy, I tried not to get in their way. But could not. I felt like he had it in for me especially as my depression progressed. He was strong and I was weak. Or so I thought. I learned later the opposite was true, but it didn't matter then. I didn't know. Fear. Glare fear. And so I hid. I left my body. Went somewhere else, but the re-inhabiting, the re-entry was awful, like slipping into someone else's skin. Someone had been shaken deeply. So, too tension I used to protect myself. If I held myself tight enough and watched closely, remained vigilant I won't get hurt. Later I got angry, lashed out at my mother. I'm sure i caused as much pain out as I did in. Still David's footsteps as he passed back and forth, caged heavy breathing animal that he was made their way through. 
What I can see now, though is those protections, which look so maladaptive were out of love, protection. And they weren't my fault. And not that I was pure victim, but those parts deserve, need love compassion, a light touch. 
When welcomed into my heart, that's when I have a sense of wholeness, of fullness, and my heart opens to myself.

-Nick W.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Jumping Clocks and Calendars

A student wrote this piece in response to the Compassion prompt I gave a couple of weeks ago.
I am particularly struck, as a memoir piece, by the presence of both specific/personal and then universal themes. Because of the Baby Boomers, there are so many folks dealing with their parents in situations like these, and knowing that they, too, may be in these places one day themselves. This student really shows their ability to slow down and be in the situation, which is, after all, the truest expression of compassion one can get.

A couple of my favorite lines: "The avant garde of the avant garde," "I look directly at things, at the faces of people, that I wouldn’t have looked directly at before," and "I try to imagine this fuzzy-edged world where it’s so hard to get moving, where clocks and calendars seem to jump around unable to hold their hours or weeks in place." These strike me the most because they show the raw edge of compassion and also really deliver us into this place - showing us their compassion in really being present in the situation.

More folks need to be writing about this, publishing this. I hope that increases with time. Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant didn't win the award so many of us hoped it would. But perhaps, one day, memoir that so many in this generation really need to be reading will be more broadly offered.

There’s a man I often see when I enter the the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives. I don’t know his name, but I always say “Hello” or “Good afternoon” to him when I pass by where he’s seated near the entrance to the dining room. He’s the avant garde of the avant garde -- the first of the small coterie of men and the occasional woman who start gathering at the door of the dining room at 4:00, or even 3:45, in preparation for dinner being served at 4:30. That’s a pretty early dinner, but these guys like to get there even earlier, so they can chat, or I guess just sit somewhere other than in their rooms or the hallways, get a change of scene.

This particular man is relatively new here -- four months, maybe? When I say hi, he responds “Hello” in a deep voice, not a muscle moving in his face, his eyes may flick upward to meet mine or they may not. To all appearances, he’s sitting there like a rock, unfeeling, begrudging in his attention to passers by. But I’m unwilling to believe these outer appearances, for I know that sometimes people who look dead on the outside can be quite alive on the inside. They may be unable, for a physical reason or an emotional one, to show their aliveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Birthday Party

This is a response to a celebration prompt I wrote awhile back.
Usually I don't use this blog to post bits of my own memoir, but I felt compelled to share this.
This very cottage my brother is in the process of selling, so I spent more time there this year than I have in years. 
Writing from photographs is extremely powerful. I cannot promote it enough. It seems like such a simple thing to suggest, but still profound. Not just about the photograph. Put yourself back IN it.
Ironically, I can't find this photograph right now. As I wrote it during class, I didn't write from the actual photo in front of me. And now, as I go to post it, I cannot find it. But it is clear in my mind.
However, the photo above is about how old I was in the photo from the party.
It’s an annual event. Every July, the month before Bapa was born, we gather at the cottage. Sometimes I bring friends, as I have been doing all summer. Often there are chosen family there – mom’s best buddies from Kindergarten and college, and their kids, who are the closest things to cousins we think we have.

In one photograph, I am next to Bapa. He is shirtless and tiny, even though he was still only in his seventies. I am surprised at his slenderness, at how worn he looks. He will live another 18 years after this picture, but you wouldn’t know it by the image. He has his ever-famous cigarette – non-filter Pall Mall’s – suspended from between his middle and forefinger. The ash, as ever, is longer than what remains to smoke.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Tricky Memoir Issue of Blogging Real-Time

Someone wrote to me recently, concerned because her (almost) real-time memoir blog, about her experience of a friend's cancer, is starting to cause issues in their friendship.

She sent me a link, and I read through all of it.

Her blog is really well written.

And what she is doing is tricky as fuck.

I have a memoirist friend who does not publish in public what she is feeling until at least three months have passed. For her, this gives enough time to be relatively sure of how she feels after her initial reactions have settled down. We all have to make our policies.

The author of the blog who contacted me chose as much anonymity as she could, and still, it's getting tricky. She wants to be of benefit to the world, and really it is. It will be.
The question she is asking is: At What Price?

Here's the book I recommended to her, a collection of essays by Patricia Hampl. Thoughtful but direct, Hampl's essay in particular about writing about her mother hits the spot.

It is, as I told the person who wrote me, a universal memoir issue, made more intense by the real-timeness of the situation. I deeply respect her efforts and support her choices, and can also see how messy it could get even with the best of intentions.

This writing life, especially memoir, is not for the faint at heart.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hunting Memoir

Hunting Memoir

The spine of the book of my body is my back.
Cracked, massaged, oiled, poked -
I stroke it to try and restore it
to original condition.

What was this story before it was read?
Before I was a walking memoir (or two or three),
what could one read in me?
Sinewy muscle, mucky blood, bright red heart.

Now it is hard to flip the pages
and see anything but tall tales.
I've pinned the wings of my shoulder blades
to the front and back covers,

splayed open my own breast
like the center of a meaty mystery,
taking the rhythm of my beating heart
and rhymed it into words, sentences, paragraphs.

I tire of this exercise - one that works
my mind more than my diaphragm.
This ongoing search for concepts to communicate
the pulsing organs of living inherently.

And yet this is the fate of this body:
bound to word with threads of paper,
tied to spine like the binding of feet
in another era. It sounds like torture,

and sometimes it feels like it, too. And yet,
on the page, in publication, others tell me

they appreciate my viscera, my brutal
honesty, which honestly is a result
of hunting myself ruthlessly, endlessly
seeking the real stories under the stories.

I cannot seem to stop at the skin -
I insist on breaking in to the vein,
to the artery,  to the cellular level,
exploring each letter for my truth.

In doing this I find what? A mess
that's hard to make pretty again.
A thin writing of blood and flesh
that carries meaning beyond my body

into the eyes of others. Why this raw
enterprise? Why not the more truthful
lies of fiction, the disguise of journalism,
or my first inclination: ethnography?

Why do I insist on eating my own stories?
Is it possible to nourish myself
on resistance and regurgitation alone?
Do I have to be a victim of my own process?

My writing arm tightens, loosens,
reminds me this is all a choice.
Breathe into the words and worlds open
freedom hanging on the skeleton of certain stories,

so long as the intention is liberation
rather than the concrete that will eventually bury these bones.


I wrote this poem in response to my own prompt about reading this week. I was surprised at its visceral strength. Afterwards I realized I truly need to exercise more - winter settling in has disconnected me from running and other outdoor physical activities. And yet, this frustration - the energy of it - created a powerful, also truthful and questioning/searing poem. It's been a long time since I've written a poem like this. Hallelujah.