Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Haunting Joy

This is a memoir piece by a student in response to a prompt asking about joy. This student, Donna Stapf, went with a strong memory that popped up in response to the prompt, as soon as her pen hit the paper. It just poured out.

As always, this is rough draft, not edited. Enjoy the pure energy of this piece. In particular I love her contemplations about the haunting quality of joy. Asking about the difference between highs - joy - celebration - happiness. In particular, I appreciated (as a former theater person) her analogy for a relationship: paralleling it to the acts of a play.

Donna Stapf 
I see myself as a sophomore at UW in Bascom Hall, 2nd floor, outside the door to one of the theater department offices.  Door closed--dark inside--hall empty--the list is posted on the door: “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey  Cast List:  Juno…..Donna Stapf.  Heat and tingling rushes through my body.  My stomach is doing somersaults with joyful nausea.  All is silent ‘cept my heart banging beats.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wilderness of Sexuality and Poetry

This is a lovely memoir piece, in rough draft form, written by one of my students. She wrote it in response to a weekly prompt, which was "Wilderness" - to be interpreted any way your mind wanted. Kathy, the author, didn't know it was going to come out this way - at all! The surprise makes for juicy, invigorating memoir writing.

This line is so powerful: "Two secret, or rather undiscovered parts of myself - pulled to the surface by this magnetic force."
The poet and lesbian part both being seen as wild, as undiscovered parts, simultaneously emerging, inter-dependent.Both have what she calls in the last line:
the courage required in any wilderness...a synthesis of all the feelings and forces named above. Courage to step into this other place knowing it’s unlikely I’d be able to completely return.
This is powerful rough draft, and full of many places for her to discover/open up themes/enrich.

Thanks to Kathy for her courage to share in class and now online!
It was a very hot summer night sitting on cushions in Kirby’s living room trying to stay alert while listening to the mini-life stories of the dozen or so women who surprisingly all wanted to join our group. The group was a conscious raising group and we needed new blood, new members, but not twelve of them.

She was one of the last to talk and suddenly I was awake without effort. I felt pulled without any idea why. A very intense pull. Her story, interesting but not exceptional, her looks intense but not beautiful.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mother Memory and Spiral Cycles

Cracked Spiral, Albuquerque NM 2009
When does the crack appear between my mother and myself? Is it when I am born, taken from her womb, and she sees I am female, and wonders if she will have to compete with me, like she does with my father’s mother, for his attention? Is it when, after giving birth, she doesn’t lose the weight, stays fat, resents me for the gains and losses she’s made? Is it when Dad has to work more, to support another child, a third one, when he is fired from Lawrence University because he doesn’t have the PhD he lied about getting to her and everyone, and has to work for a tech college instead?
            Is it when I leave the carrots behind the National Geographics, rotting? Is it when I fake a fever to stay home and she catches me in the act? This is not a game of blame, figuring out if it was my fault. Because it was our fault, and a fault that began long before either of us existed. A crack deep in the earth between daughters and mothers, started the generation before me, between mom and her mom, and probably the generation before that, on the plains of North Dakota, out of boredom, out of necessity, the split between young and old. When I get close to my dad’s mom, that seems all the more betrayal. Then it is just the two of us.
            The divide gets deeper as I am a teenager. In fact, I don’t recall being aware of us being so separate before then, though of course we were. Dad glued the space between us. After Dad dies, there’s no more glue, just the two of us and a lot of open wounding. We fight over who misses him more, over who has it harder. I grow further and further away, less interested in spending time with my unstable mother who sometimes listens quietly and holds what I say, sometimes screams or cries. I never know which mother I am going to get so I distance myself from both, from either, from any. I get work, whether or not we need the income, I separate myself more and more from her, simultaneously wanting to make her proud – of my grades, my technical theater career – and jealous – of all the time I spend with others, not her. It works. By the time I am a junior in high school, she fills out a form for my school, a survey in which they are trying to assess whether parents feel their kids get enough support for schoolwork at school, how much time parents are spending on schoolwork with kids. I still have this form. In it, my mother launches a real, impassioned plea, ostensibly to the school, but really to me. She checks off all the boxes, notes that I get plenty of support at school, and that she rarely has to help me do homework, partially because I don’t ask. But no complaints, she notes, she does well in school without help from me.
            Then, when given space to make other comments, she does, and here, in this essay, are the hints I miss then that she has changed. The clouds have passed, her grief released her and she is free to love me again, perhaps for the first time in a real way. Only I am too busy. I am occupied with running away from her, traumatized from my father’s death, from how she and I both reacted. I won’t be able to redact my rejection of her in time. We only have two more years together and I will spend one of them across the Atlantic or living in Chicago, and the other doing the same I’ve been doing for two years at that point: living at home, but barely there. Partying, working, school. Rinse, repeat.
My mother’s mini plea essay says she just wishes I would be at home more, so we could spend more time together. At the time, I don’t turn it in, when she leaves it for me at my place at the table. Somehow I know this information isn’t for my high school, its for me. It makes me angry and sad, both, feeling that she’s doing too little too late. Yet somehow I know she has changed. It’s not a complaint, not really. It’s not even a plea. It’s the poignant observation of someone who knows she cannot win with me.
            Across the divide she tries this one last time. Then she lets go. I feel the freedom, the occasional oddball motherly grasps – telling me not to smoke cigarettes, at least, they are worse than pot; suggesting I wait until I am 18 to have sex with my boyfriend because at least then it will be legal; even a clutch at me to not go to school in California, refusing to sign the financial aid paperwork, saying I’ll have to declare financial independence if I want to go to the private college even in Minnesota, leaving me only with Madison as a choice. By the time my eldest brother and I declare we are going to Europe for three months, all she can do is stare. She has tried, tried to connect us one last time, but I have to leave now. It is too late.
            I recall the interactions between us, after I get home from Europe, when I am in Appleton before and after Chicago, on Thanksgiving and Christmas break of my freshman year, to be benign. Possible even a bit sweet, funny – drinking together, making puns and jokes, telling stories. The distance, the actual physical distance, is doing something, healing some of the psychological distance I instituted to save myself in my teen years. Maybe this can work, perhaps she thinks, maybe I think without realizing it. Perhaps we can get along.
            Then, suddenly, without notice, without warning, a week after I have returned to college from winter break, she has an aortal aneuryism and dies. Her heart bursts and I am not there when it happens. It’s too late for us to connect again.

            Or is it? Today would be her birthday, were she alive. This year I am in a new place, a place of not just hearing but feeling what my mom’s best friend knew was the truth and tried to tell me after she was gone. My mother changed. By the time I was in my late teens, and separate from her inside myself, she was becoming more her genuine self. She was alert, awake, alive and even happy at times. Seeing this is sad – I mourn the possibilities that could have come of that, had she lived. But it is also powerful to see that it’s never too late for me to understand, to open up, to explore and appreciate.
            Spring was her favorite season, a time of growth and buds, gardening and fresh air. Today I will take a walk, celebrate the crocuses and crows. I am sad, yes, and also grateful. Thank you, anniversaries, for returning me to the cycle/spirals of life so I can constantly grow and reassess, re-telling these tales, with an endless allowance for revision. Never too late for that.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Like lawyers, writers seek consistency; they make a case for their point of view; they do so by leaving out some evidence; but let me mention the hundreds of sandwiches my mother made during my elementary school years, the peanut butter sandwiches I ate alone on school benches in the open, throwing the crusts into the air where the seagulls would swoop to catch them before they hit the ground. When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing...

I was distant. I studied her, I pondered her. My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them.
from Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Friday, March 14, 2014

To Read or Not to Read? And More...

Shadow Cut, January 2014
 I think we can all ethically agree that, unless strong circumstances call on us to do otherwise, people's journals are off limit to others' eyes. But what about after they die?

This article in the Opinionator column in the NYT is wonderful. It explores "the other side" of memoir/journals/diaries - do we read those of people we love who've died? Do we want those who outlive us to read ours?

It brings to mind the opening of Terry Tempest Williams' memoir When Women Were Birds, in which she finally opens all the journals her mother left her, only to find they are...blank. My god. To think all that was not, ever, written.

And then, questions not addressed, but significant for those who write memoir:
If we write an official version of memoir, do we then get rid of the journals? Annie Dillard is quoted in Inventing the Truth (a lovely collection of memoir writings edited by William Zissner) that we no longer remember what happened, just what we wrote (after writing memoir). What's the point of the keeping journals and letters after we are done "researching"?

So many questions, so little time.  Yet, worthy of pondering.
Just keep writing, I tell my students who worry about who will read what they purposefully (publication/fame) or accidentally leave behind (sudden death/journals). We'll figure out the next part when we get to it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What's In The Box?

A few weeks ago, I gave a prompt on opening a box. This was a writing by one of my male students (he'd like you to know I do have male students, grin). I love it because it skirts the edge of fiction and memoir. A few times you can hear him turn and address the question of voice:
Does it really matter how a story was written and how we read it? Does it matter if we can’t hear the writer’s original voice, the one that told their pen how to walk across a page as if it was dancing something sacred, as if it was performing a ritual that has been acted out many times before? Does it matter if we read a story in our own voice, color it with our own vision?
As well, he ponders the question of (personal) stories and whether or not to tell them:
What was said? Who remembers? Is this the box of history? Are these the remains of stories I should know? Of tales passed down through the ages from mouth to hand to ear to mouth to ear to hand to mouses’ teeth?
And what of all my stories? Is this where they will end up, in a box, a black box hidden in a shadow?
The details he uses - the gun in the box, the mouse droppings, all help to anchor these ponderings in something real, which is the point, of course, of using something concrete like a box for the prompt.

And I'll let you discover the final line, which is a powerful description of what happens when we try to see what is right in front of us, and points out the charge in what is hidden. As Dorothy Allison says, "Your shame is your gold."

Enjoy reading this writing, which is, of course, as always, unedited and fresh.

Then go and check out your own box - open it up. What's inside?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Varying Internal Voices

More - Austin Texas, 2012

One of the reasons why I think that approaching memoir mind-first works so well is that by becoming curious about how our mind works, we access the various natural voices already occurring deep inside our own daily self-discussions. Instead of developing voices out of mid-air, we can discover them naturally existing, then give them body.

Another benefit is finding our own natural multiplicity (taken from Rita Carter's book title of the same name), which has therapeutic benefits as well. All of us are many-faceted, and in writing memoir, we can't help but encounter all these parts of ourselves. In inviting them into the discussion, by allowing them to show us the many versions of events that occurred in the past, we can help resolve - better than resolve - accept that the conflicts about "what happened" - whether traumatic or not - aren't just external (eg your sister recalls something else than you do) but internal.

Memoir isn't about trying to nail down "the version" but finding a felt sense that is closest to "a truth" - and that means including multiple facets, and, I believe, multiple voices. Whether or not this writer keeps the voices distinct or integrates them through writing and therapy is up to her - regardless, getting to experience it first hand through her raw writing here really shows us the power of memory and mind and multiplicity.

When I speak of resistance, this is it. The deep, deep fears. What parts of us really, really don't want to share anything. If we don't give them voice, acknowledge them, we will never find a way to write with less suffering involved. 

Student writing by KA.

I don't feel like writing because I'm in a lot of physical pain. Actually, I see now it's not the physical pain that makes me not want to write, it's the voices below the physical pain. The seething pit of intestines trying to convince me, again, that…

I stopped writing…

I hear the words, I feel the words… But they hide from the page.

Is it you, the listener, the reader, that I want to hide from? Or, is it myself? Or, isn't that part of myself that does that speaking?

For years now… Again, I stopped writing.