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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Articulation Versus Understanding

During a brief workshop in London a couple of weeks ago, some students and I got to an understanding that I have been mulling over for a long time, trying to articulate. Since this conversation, I have been discovering even more within it. To paraphrase the whole length of our exchange, the student and I eventually came to this conclusion:
Just because we can articulate something doesn't mean we understand it.

This is powerful for people who identify as "word people". I, for one, have not only valued in myself, but been valued for my ability to be articulate. I related to one student a story of an exchange I had with one of my brothers recently.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Sea and Her

One of the best ways to sink into a person's mind is via their space. Exploring landscape as both literal surrounding and also as a projection of mental experience is powerful.

The prompt for this writing was, in fact, landscape. In her response, the student brings us back fully to a place - and mental space - she waited to re-visit for many years now. A rich and raw writing, we can feel not just the sea but this particular stretch of it, and what the symbolism of space meant for the couple then - and for the re-visiting (literally and through writing) individual now.
She also addresses familiarity and home. My favorite lines include these:  "The car is almost driving without me and ahead is why I’m here: the path through the cedar to the sea. Still there. The car knows where to park and my feet remember the trail." I know I am in good hands, along with someone who remembers the way even if not consciously.
Enjoy this student writing - anonymous to protect her past. Try writing yourself to a place of memory for you - landscapes are a powerful path into the past.

It’s the end of my last day in Tofino so I go to Chesterman Beach. Past the house—is that the house? Of course it looks different. Twenty-six years. Thirty years. So much time has passed. There seems to be a garage or guest house just inside the fence—but stop looking at the house! The car is almost driving without me and ahead is why I’m here: the path through the cedar to the sea. Still there. The car knows where to park and my feet remember the trail. A little mucky and still a tangle of roots and hemlock, salal along the sides. That smell of cedar and sea salt and the air is always a little wet with spray and you can hear the roar of surf from here. Surprised at the feeling of homecoming though this was never my home.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Struggle and Memory

Sometimes it's hard to write.

We all know this - no surprise.

There's power in a clear description of the struggle, and in particular I love this student's depiction of the bare, spareness of struggle for inspiration. It's made even richer by the second part of her writing from the same week, in which she drops us into a landscape of incredible richness and a strong, vivid, lively memory.

In fact the prompt was to take us to a landscape. First she takes us inside her mind, an empty-seeming scape she describes acutely. Then, within that spare space, she finds a rich rabbit hole of a memory.

As always, this is fresh, unedited, pure mind raw writing.


Life On Earth
What appears? Nothing appears. That’s not exactly true. It’s just that it’s hard  to describe.