Category Archives: memoir

The Secrets of Our Hearts

heart lock

Credit: Jacky | morguefile.com

In my last blog I talked about knowing ourselves, about using that knowledge as the basis of all we choose to write, even nonfiction.  I talked about knowing what we love, because that’s where all writing starts, with what we love, what gives us energy, what gives us hope.

But when it comes to writing fiction, we need to reach beyond what we consciously love.  We need to draw from the hidden parts of ourselves, the secrets of our hearts.
The first novel I ever wrote was called Foster Child.  Looking back now I see it as a well-meaning, overloaded, somewhat clumsy attempt to deal with important topics.  (Both religious and sexual abuse.)  It was, however, written with heart, the kind of heart that captured attention when it appeared in the world.  It also broke taboos so powerful in 1977 that they didn’t even need to be spoken, which, no doubt, contributed even more to the attention it received.

The topics came to me naturally.  As a clergy wife then, I had strong feelings about the proper and improper uses religion can be put to.  I had also fostered several children and had learned that foster children too often endure sexual abuse in the homes that rescue them.  I had strong feelings about that, too.  Riding on the energy of those feelings, I wrote my first novel.

7_29FosterChildInterestingly, though, it didn’t occur to me until years later to consider why I was so passionate about those abused foster children, passionate enough to spend months framing imagined experience into a story that I knew might be too controversial to ever be published.

The truth was, my passion came from a much deeper place than my surface knowledge of the abuse suffered by children in foster care.  It came from my own experience.  I had grown up in an intact family.  I had been constantly and routinely protected, as middle-class girls routinely were in the 40’s and 50’s.  Nonetheless, I had been sexually abused, my abuser my trusted godfather and family physician.

When I pounded out that first novel, I hadn’t forgotten that experience.  The memory has never gone underground.  But strange as it seems, I never thought about it as I wrote.  Not once.  Not consciously anyway.  Rather I thought about and felt passionate about abused foster children.  I transferred my own powerlessness, my impotent rage to my character.

I suspect that’s the way knowing informs stories for most writers.  We work not so much from conscious knowledge as from a magnetized core in our psyches, one that is at least partially hidden to us. Stories fly to that core like iron filings to a magnet.

In those stories we mine our own ferocity, our own passion, our own knowing.  And that knowing brings our characters to life, creates the illusion—sometimes even for us—that they live quite separately from us.  But whatever skins we dress them in, they are us.

Often they are the us we are struggling to know.

How might Foster Child have been different if I had been aware as I was writing that I was telling my own story?  I suspect I never would have made my way to the end.  I would have felt too vulnerable, too exposed.  My attempt at writing a first novel probably would have died, frozen by self-awareness.

In recent years I have begun from time to time to shed the protective scrim of fiction, to tell my own story in a straightforward way.  Does it make for a better story that way?  I’m not sure I can answer that.

I do know, though, that the garments of story have made it possible to spin my small personal experience into a much larger story, a varied and repeating one, and that’s good for a career.

Maybe it’s good for the stories, too.

How to Measure a Life

stars over flowersHow to measure a life?
By mistakes gathered in mounds, in hills, in mountains?
By years of anxious caution?
The marriage that should not have been?
The son born to be the hope of the world—
the hope of my world—
who defeated himself at every turn,
defeated me at every turn?
And then—just when we had begun to like one another—
died.

Do I measure by words thrust like poison arrows,
lobbed like bombs?
By a world disintegrating around me?
By the grave I skip, dance, march, plod closer to each day?

Or should I measure my life by applause, achievement?
Moments of peace gathered in an open palm?
By the love I have learned,
at last,
to live?
The daughter growing daily in gentleness?
The grandchildren blooming, blooming?
Every word set so lovingly on the page?
By a world that recreates itself,
again,
again,
again.
By the undying life that birthed me?

Or do I measure this moment
only this moment,
breath in my lungs,
earth’s breath at my windowpane,
stars breathing light?
The goodness of it all,
the deep goodness of it all,
the precious goodness of it all.

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.

Why?

heart

“Why should anyone want to read about your life?”

I wanted to laugh. I probably would have, but the question came from my brother. (What brother in the world wouldn’t ask that question of a little sister writing a memoir?) And besides, he spoke in his usual earnest, really-wanting-to-know way.

So I explained . . . or tried to. I told him if I’m able to make this memoir work it won’t be because the content of my life is so fascinating. It certainly won’t be because I’m someone the world longs to gather scraps of information about. If the memoir works it will be because I have written my life the way I would write any story, with an eye to making my life matter.

I said all that, but there is something else I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the question he posed is the same one I have to push past every single time I sit down to write . . . Why should anyone want to read about my life?

I also didn’t say that some days I have no answer.

It’s the question every memoirist must confront, of course. But if you come from my family, particularly if you come from the father my brother and I shared, it’s a question that carries a particular sting. No one wants to know about you, my father would have told me, did tell me many times. No one.

The act of writing a memoir, he would have said, is egotistical, conceited, even repugnant.

My father was born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and though he cast off the conservative religion of his parents, our Puritan forbearers’ repugnance for any kind of personal display permeated his bones to the end of his days. “That fellow,” I once heard him say in disgust when he’d heard a man telling friends about his upcoming heart surgery, “was feeling really sorry for himself.”

So from the moment I took up this memoir, I’ve struggled to dismiss the very voice I now hear repeated through my brother.

It doesn’t, of course, require my father’s old-fashioned Puritanism to sustain such a critical view of memoir. It’s common to see memoirists as self-obsessed. But however hard we try to hide the truth, even from ourselves, aren’t we are all ego-driven vessels? Perhaps memoirists depart from the self-obsession we all live only by daring to shape the contents of our psyches into art.

No matter how often I explain all this to myself, though, I have yet to dispel my father’s question . . . or the disdain that accompanies it. Why should anyone want to read about my life? (The fact that Dad died many years ago hasn’t diluted his opinions inside my skull. It means only that they have never had a chance to mellow.)

So I keep asking the question . . . and trying to answer it, too. And this is what I say to myself: We write memoir, we read memoir for exactly the same reasons we write and read story, any story . . . because we long to break out of our own isolation, because we need, again and again, to rediscover our shared humanity.

Something I used to say to my students . . . “The difference between life and story is that life doesn’t come with meaning intact. It just happens, one damned thing after another. Story is selected in order to create meaning.”

Memoir, if it works, makes meaning out of a life.

Every time I sit down to order, select, reveal, I am searching for the truth of my own days. And if I can capture that search on the page, capture it honestly, then surely my words will, as well, give my readers a glimpse into their own hearts.

Which is the best reason I can think of, my brother, for writing about my life.