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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wild to Us

Another wonderful memoir piece by a student in response to the Landscape prompt a few weeks back. This first-person piece gives us a strong feeling for her small town's own "Field of Dreams" - minus all the grandeur but with as much of the power.

A sense of place is so much of what is necessary in memoir. Many classmates responded that they knew this field - that while her story is peppered with unfamiliar names, they all knew of a wild place like this in their midst as children. It is a universal story, filled with her strong specifics.

Enjoy the game, my dears!


Our backyard merged with the empty field, not yet filled with brown, yellow and white ranch homes like those surrounding the field. The field was wild in its way, certainly wild to us, living in houses on mowed lawns.

I don't remember the kind of grass that grew in the field but it never grew so high we couldn't stomp it down to create a baseball diamond. We didn't flatten the grass much further out than shortstop territory which improved our chances of hitting a home run. Finding a beat up dirty baseball in the grass and weeds usually took enough time to allow a couple of extra bases.

There was never a plan or a schedule for playing ball. We'd just show up after dinner and sometimes after school to see who else was there. If only two or five came we'd have batting practice taking turns as pitcher, outfielder and batter. Usually there were enough for two teams of four or five each, naturally dividing without having to say much, no captain picking his or her favorites. I wasn't the only girl who played. Sandy played regularly, running bases faster than any one, boy or girl. Johnna could hit into the next street over but could barely run because of her immense girth. We usually just called it a home run and didn't make her run around the rough diamond.

No one was perfect. No one complained of other's shortcomings. Playing was the thing.

We did complain about chiggers biting our ankles and blurring our view particularly as we played into dusk. These tiny beings generated hearty yells and thrown bats and the occasional "dammit." But it wasn't a sufficient obstacle to stop the game.

Where it was different for the boys and girls was the boys could move out further in the field, turn quickly and pee while we girls had to run home if we really couldn't hold it. I attribute my bladder's impressive ability to hold quarts of urine to playing baseball in that field. I'd rather let pee dribble in my pants than miss my turn at bat or interrupt my pitching momentum.

The taller grass past the shortstop provided cover for those moments when we decided to wait for a girl to come back from a pee break. Sometimes we would lie down and stare into the sky or turn on our stomachs to watch crickets and other critters you could only see if you were on the ground. The field was alive and we wanted to be in it and on it whenever we could. It was a friendly receiver of our missing baseballs, a cushion for our attempts to slide into bases marked by rocks, and a space to be with each other, with few rules, in fresh air with no demands to make a team or to be the most valuable player. We were all valuable players, and gave proper respect to each others' scrapes and bruises and time outs for a pee break.

I don't like to think about the field being filled soon after we moved away with more houses, more children to play with but no field to play in. It was so simple, so easy, so simply there, holding us while it still could.

-Linda Balisle

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Giving Directions

There's tremendous power in simply giving directions in writing. The experience of deep trust, being instructed kindly, gently by a trustworthy narrator, is quiet but powerful.

Lately I have been noticing student preference for writing that is dense, what I call "jungle writing" - super thick with images, almost impossible to track because of the lyricism. But there are many kinds of writing. The style of the writing in this piece, which is "raw and fresh and unedited" from a recent class reflects the solitude and quietness of the subject itself. It would be inaccurate to use hyper dense language for describing such a spacious, intimate location.

Richard, the student, has written "about" Dyer Pond before, but never actually taken us there like this. The process of writing this was very satisfying for him, and satisfying for us to listen to. At the end, he says: "At some point it is time to go back, because you always have to return. So you do." I find this line deliciously ambiguous - because you always have to return to your life, because you always have to return to the pond and you can't return to it if you don't leave it. I feel implicated, in the best possible way, impelled to go again and again until I, too, would know my way in the dark.


The path begins at Zoheth Smith Road, a private road off Cahoon Hollow Road,
which is off Route 6, just south of Wellfleet. Zoheth Smith is a recently built road, a loop
that goes nowhere, and it is dotted with vacation houses. It is always quiet, unless there is
construction. You enter the road, veer to the right, and walk for several minutes, and then
there is a narrow footpath to your right. It’s not at all obvious; you have to know it’s
there, and I’m pleased that I do know. The path winds slowly downhill between two
houses. The land is sandy and scrubby. You come out into the open and there is sun.
Low, wild blueberry bushes with small pale blueberries in season. And then there is an
open stretch perpendicular to the path, a wide but very long corridor with tall electrical
cable towers that appear slightly menacing on the open sand, like marching metallic
giants. Now you step into the woods, and it is more shaded. You turn right briefly, then
left, and you are in more of the scrubby woods that make up most of wild Cape Cod. The
path is obvious and easy to follow. It’s sandy and soft, but not too soft. The trees are
gnarled and there is no great high canopy, but a more open, scrubby aspect, and in some
places, long slender green grasses. Some oak trees and others I couldn’t name. Usually
you will not meet anyone on this path, but if you do, it will probably be a little group of
people in bathing suits with towels wrapped around their necks. Eventually you come to
a place where a wider dirt road cuts in from the right, and there is someone’s house on
the left. You go straight, more or less, and then the path forks and you go to the left. It is
narrow now, and soon you will see the water of Dyer Pond. Sometimes it is absolutely
silent because there is no one there at all. Oh, probably there are bird calls, or splashes, or
wings flapping, but no human sounds. You cut down to the left again just before a fence
begins that protects some of the fragile land above the shore of the pond. You wind
around and arrive at a narrow, sloping strand of beach, sandy, and just wide enough to lie
down on, your body angled toward the water. Depending on the time of day, you might
be in the sun. If so, the pond will sparkle. It sparkles and sparkles and sparkles. If you
move, the reflected sparkles seem to move with you, denser in a wide path, then tapering
off at the edges. The pond is quiet and still. Here in Wisconsin, we would probably call it
a lake, because it is small lake-sized. But on Cape Cod, it is a pond. Dyer Pond. You face
the closer shore, but it would still be a bit of a swim to get across. There are a couple of
scrubby trees right at the water’s edge where you can hang a towel or a shirt. Stepping
into the water, you discover that it is soft. It is cool, but not icy cold. The water is clean
and clear. The whole experience is like whispering; it’s like church, only better. There is
a radiance on the land, on the planet, and inside human beings, and you feel a little bit of
that as you ease your whole body into the water, which is a shock, and then you move
within its silkiness. You swim, you float, you paddle, whatever you like to do for
however long. If other people show up, that is okay too. Usually it is families, and
children might be noisy, but that is fine. Adults tend to be quiet here, to speak in hushed

Eventually you come out of the water. Maybe you stand right at the edge, feet still
in the shallows, and drip dry in the sun. Maybe you rub vigorously with your towel.
Maybe you lie in the sand for a while, eyes open or closed, the clouds moving lazily
above you. At some point it is time to go back, because you always have to return. So
you do.

-Richard Ely