Tag Archives: memoir

Beginnings

It’s the time of year to think about beginnings.  And endings.

We on this globe—at least those who live some distance from the unchanging belt around the middle—live in a world of constant beginnings and endings.  The snow blesses then gives way to flowers.  The leaves unfurl then tumble into dust.  The sun rises then withdraws its bounty.

Credit: Koan | morguefile.com

The essence of our Earth is change, a world constantly remaking itself in earthquake and volcano, in fire and flood, in life evolved and life eradicated.  Even the seeming constant stars die, and planets are born in their fiery deaths.  In the midst of this birthing and dying of everything we know, you and I enter, breathe for a brief patch, and are gone.

And while we are breathing we keep starting over.  And over.  And over.

There was a time when I thought my life was meant to be a straight line toward some distinct and thoroughly desirable goal.  What goal I didn’t know, but I was certain I would arrive there.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Today I look back across nearly eight decades and find a different truth.    My life has been—still is—crammed with discovery, with dreams, with joy more sweet than anything I’d ever been told I deserved.  It has also been littered with missteps, mischance, misperceptions, misunderstandings, mischoices.  Perhaps that dichotomy shapes every life, but certainly it shapes of mine.

To my own credit I can say that I have learned along the way.  Not everything.  Perhaps not even enough.  But the learning goes on, even in age.

Now, already deep into a century I found unimaginable when I was a child, I stand at the threshold of another New Year starting over once more.  Not just nodding to an artificially declared holiday but truly starting over.  So much in my life is new, is being done over, tried again.

New work.  Work I have never dared attempt before.  Hard work, even harrowing sometimes, but good, so good.  Will it find a place in the world out there?  I have no way of knowing, but it calls and I tiptoe after.

New understanding.  So much I thought I knew seems unimportant from the vantage point of age.  So much I understood has been proven wrong.  Or if it isn’t wrong, it has moved on to become something I can no longer fathom.  What to do in the face of my ignorance?  The only answer seems to be declare my incompetence and open myself to discovery.

New peace.  Not the kind of peace from which the chaos of the world doesn’t matter, but a struggling peace, one that seeks openness before the intractable, quiet in the midst of noise, caring against a world of indifference.

And love.  A new love.  Sweetest of all, this new love.

What have I learned as I start over once more after so many other startings?  One thing that I can name.

I eschew regret.

My mistakes have formed me as deeply—perhaps even more deeply—than my gifts.  And here I come carrying it all, mistakes and gifts together, into another day.  Another precious day.

What can I possibly do but rejoice?

Credit: alexfrance | morguefile.com

Who Am I?

Marion with Chester

Marion with Chester one of her Grandsons

A woman,

a lover of this precious, crumbling world,

my own fleshly world crumbling,

precious, too.

 

An infant born to a mother who adored infants,

who needed an infant

forever;

a too-soon awkward child;

an adolescent struggling toward the salvation of competence;

a wife, certain she knew how she should be,

how he should be,

how everyone should be;

a mother, a perfect mother, a failed mother;

a lesbian starving for food she had never tasted;

a grandmother,

a grandmother,

a grandmother.

All tucked neatly, like nesting dolls,

inside an old woman.

An old woman standing close by the end of her eighth decade.

 

Who am I?

A lone woman,

a fleck of dust in an expanding universe,

a fleck of consciousness

amazed.

 

A gatherer of words.

Words laid out, one by one by one,

seeking . . .

not the eternity of the page.

Paper crumbles, too,

like worlds.

Like my fleshly crumbling world.

I gather a bouquet words,

my past into words,

hold it in this moment,

only this moment

of loss,

joy,

confusion,

wonder.

 

I gather words to say

this,

this,

only this.

 

I am here.

I am.

 

[A piece from my memoir in progress, currently titled  All the Love in this Trembling World:  A Memoir in Verse]

When the Answer is “No”

sunriseI knew the call was coming. We had planned it that way, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, and I. I’d decided it was time to get an informed answer about the marketability of the memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. So I’d asked him to read what I had and give me his best judgment. Was it something he thought he could ever place?

It had been at least a year-and-a-half since he had seen any of it. The first time he saw it, those eighteen months ago, it had been entirely in verse, and he’d been impressed. No guarantees, of course, about being able to sell such an oddity, but when I’d said I thought our only hope would be small presses, he disagreed. He would start with the big boys, the places where I publish my children’s books, though the market I’m aiming at with the memoir is definitely not children.

When a long-time children’s writer turns to writing for an adult audience, she doesn’t start at ground zero. She starts at about ten points below ground zero. There is that much prejudice in the world of adult publishing against those whose careers have focused on writing for children. But Rubin was with me, nonetheless. And I went home from that early conversation heartened.

I also went home and after a few more months of work shifted my direction. (Without consultation, I might add.) I retained some of the verse, but I began writing more of the memoir in prose, which allowed me to reach more deeply, to fill in gaps. I wrote and rethought and wrote and rethought, loving the challenge of the work every step of the way. I paused from time to time to write something else, something small that could be marketed, but mostly my days have been filled with the memoir. It has been hard, good work.

I began this project for myself. That’s what I told myself and others. “This is what I need to write just now,” I said. “If it can be published one day, that’s great. If it can’t I will have it for myself and for my family.” And I learned an enormous amount through this writing.

After many months of work, I approached a halfway point of this mostly for-myself project. About a third more remains to be written and about a third of what I had in front of me still needs deep revisions. But I decided it was time to ask the question of the one person I was confident could answer it, the one person I knew would answer it both honestly and gently. Can this be marketed, or I am truly writing only for myself and my family?

As I said at the beginning, Rubin called. And you already know what his answer was, because it was in the title to this piece. “No.” He said all the right things, of course, all the nice things about how well written it was, about how rich the life was it represented. But the manuscript didn’t have, he said, enough of a hook. And besides that, it was out of its time. Some of the content of my life that would have been attention-grabbing twenty years ago, even ten years ago (clergy wife who discovers herself to be a lesbian, for instance) would be old news by 2019 when this might reach an audience.

I listened and knew what I didn’t want to know . . . he was right.

Every writer needs someone in her life who is so objective, so knowledgeable, so kindly right.

So what do I do? I’d said all along I was writing the memoir for myself. Right? But for all the times I’d said that, losing the thought of any potential market felt like letting the air out of a balloon. All the air. With a rude sound.

I went to bed that night, still feeling as though I had stepped off a cliff. I was the one who had asked, after all. I could have just kept on going, kept on doing what I was doing. I woke up in the morning, still with no ground beneath my feet.

But all the while I’d been feeling discouraged, I’d been feeling something else, too. Possibilities. Lots and lots of possibilities. And gradually the possibilities began to sort themselves out.

While I lay in bed in the morning sorting, sorting, two ideas rose with the sun. The first one: I can return to the memoir. I’ll select the childhood material that would work for a young audience. I’ll write that part for the audience I already know, the one that knows me. And I have reason to hope what I produce will be marketable.

Second, I will take the later material, return to the primarily verse form that once distinguished the manuscript, find a single clear hook—living into loss, I think—and a closely defined audience—other seniors like myself, other old ladies like myself—and try again to produce a marketable manuscript.

Not just well written. Not just richly conceived. But a manuscript that has enough to offer those who are strangers to me and my work that a publisher might even want to take a chance on it.

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

And then you try another way.

First Draft, Second Draft, Third . . .

ripples in a pondI wrote last time about revision, and I’ll return to revision here. It’s one of my favorite topics, because revision is one of my favorite activities.

Yes, of course, the doing over can be frustrating. My first drafts have a way, initially, of seeming . . . well, not perfect—I always assume the need to polish—but pretty darned good. And then there is the discovery, made new each time, that each small change is like dropping a pebble into a pond, that chasing those widening ripples through the entire manuscript can be maddening.

Once I get past defending my first effort, though, or resisting the consequences of change, I love returning to a piece I’m deeply committed to and making it sing. That process—and its result—is one of the most satisfying in all my working life.

The revision of the memoir I’m working on right now, however, has evolved as a rather different process than any I’ve experienced before. The manuscript has truly required a re-vision, a new vision, and a rather different way of working. I like discovering new and different ways to do my work. Challenges keep me fresh.

I wrote the memoir the first time in verse. Using verse wasn’t just an experiment. Doing it that way seemed to give me the permission I needed to approach my own story safely. The quick-in, quick-out that verse provides allowed me to leave out all I didn’t choose to reveal, especially about other people. Eventually I discovered that it allowed me to leave out whatever I didn’t want to touch about myself, too, and that was the problem. I’ve already written here about the choice to start over in prose—April 21st, “The Letting Go,” and May 5th, “And Again!”—so I’ll move on.

I began my careful way through a new draft. I’m inclined to call what I was doing slogging, because sometimes it felt that way, but it was a slog that was taking me where I needed to go. I found a new form that retains some of the verse but rewrites far more into prose, prose that demands I go deep, and the whole evolved into a shape I liked.

Taking what I have already created in verse and reworking it in prose was an interesting and challenging process, though. Sometimes the movement from verse to prose seemed to be working so brilliantly that I found myself thinking, “I should do this every time, write all my manuscripts first in verse to find their essence and then in prose to expand.” Because the individual stories have already been told but in a highly condensed, powerfully felt way, I could relax into the material, explore it for nuance, extend it into worlds I’d leaped over the first time through. My work grew stronger.

Sometimes, though, a topic played out in verse recast as a prose story seemed flat, even tedious. I’d go back to the verse, examine the two versions side by side, and create a third, trying to retain the best of both tellings. And wonder if I was beating a dead horse.

In the midst of this work I spent time on an island with two alumni of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults where I used to teach. We were there to plan a north woods writers’ retreat—more about that another time—but as we planned we also exchanged manuscripts.

One of the women pointed out that two of the five sections I had completed still didn’t go deeply enough, and I had already guessed that and was grateful to have the work I knew lay ahead affirmed.

The other, both a writer and a librarian, pointed to a deeper concern. She said she didn’t find enough of a hook, enough reason for the people who came into her library to ask for my story. She talked about the memoirs folks did ask for, again and again. And I knew instantly that she was right. That’s also something I’d known from the beginning, but I’d put my knowing on a shelf, and I’d had no plans for dealing with it. Again, I was grateful, though a bit scared, too.

So I came home and started again at the beginning, seeking to find a way in that would serve both my personal story and the readers I must draw if this manuscript is going to be published.

Third draft. Third and final? I always think this one is going to be final, hope it’s going to be final.

So today once more I sit down to write. Good work. Work that I love to do.

And the love . . . that’s what matters.

I Stood before the Mirror


I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
perhaps,
he.
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had
fallen
again.

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by
the
long
grieving.

Now,
when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.


This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.