Having struggled with the urge to write memoir, I was pleased this week to find a book that helped: Jane Hertenstein’s Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir (2013). This discovery came right after hearing a talk at Lighthouse Writers Workshop on flash writing, fiction or memoir, by Laura Miller. We did a flash bit during her talk, and for a habitual free-writer, it felt fine. I came up with something I liked and will keep. It started with Miller’s prompt, “a significant object.” I wrote about my beige car, reliable, but in no way as exciting as other cars I’ve owned. Of course, reality says that dependability and economy matter more than style and that new car smell.
From Hertenstein’s book I discovered not so much a prompt as a template that works for me: flash memoir as postcard. I first thought that such a brief space would lead to summary, telling without the senses, all in-the-head stuff. And then I did the dope-slap thing. No! It’s the picture on the front that is the flash. If I picture an event from my life and write it as an experience shared through the senses, I have a flash memoir (think 100 to 1000 words). And what, you ask, is the good of that minuscule text?
These discrete bits of writing will pile up and fill a notebook. I may or may not sort them and transition them into a longer narrative, but for now I’m delighted to work short, to allow these memories to work like mosaic, the distinct pieces building a fuller picture even though their edges show.
Recently I finished participating in a memoir group. For each of five weeks we wrote on an assigned topic such as family, work, etc. The final assignment was to write about values, spirituality, or religion. I won’t bore you with my internal meanderings on this topic, but–you knew this was coming–that assignment led me to think about my beliefs as a writer. So, here’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.
I believe in morning pages 365 days a year as finger exercises, messy first drafts and free writing. I believe in the benefits of a dedicated process that encourages regular writing and in fresh, energetic language, honest sentences and sensory images. I believe in reading, although I don’t believe everything I read. I believe in ink on paper and in the wonder of my Mac Mini, in conversation among writers, face to face, in revision and honest, gentle critique, in ebooks and printed pages and independent publishing.
I believe that poets are writers, no matter what the title of that famous magazine says. I believe that writing makes me happy, neatness counts, gratitude should show, praying might work when I’m stuck but that persistence works better. I believe that I’m sensitive to criticism, that writers need a sense of humor and that my poems often need more energy. I believe I’ve said enough on this subject–for now. Oh, one more, I believe in sobriety. Your turn.
The inter-net is a rabbit hole. I jump in and hours later poke my head up into the sunshine, startled that the day is bright blue. This morning, listening to The Baroque Show on Colorado Public Radio, I heard that Bach’s eldest son was his favorite. That, I thought, must have created ill will, chaos, jealousy among his huge brood of talented offspring. Well, this tempting diversion from morning pages drew me into roads not only less traveled but also some never taken. Picking up my tablet to search was all too easy.
Fact: Bach fathered twenty but ten of his children died early, some shortly after birth, including a set of twins, and some lived about three years. One boy who lived into adulthood was not as smart as his sibs. Then I wondered about the girls—many talented brothers and scarcely a mention of the sisters. Of the four daughters who survived into adulthood, one married, one was a talented singer, the other two barely mentioned, except that one of them died “in poverty.” As did Bach’s widow.
Now I’m fussed. Four sons were successful composers and their mother died a poor widow? Their sister died in poverty? How dare they? What does this say about their life of privilege? What does it say about their father that he could not inject them with a dose of generosity along with their musical instruction? And how about the brother who died at 24 “of mysterious circumstances”? Would he have lived longer if his family had cared for him? Maybe my initial thought is correct, ill will plagued that family, along with death and grief and poverty.
My search this morning warns me not to believe all of what I hear. In his glorious music I do not hear the pain. I hear success and glory, but oh, not those dead children. I finished my morning pages in a different mood than when I began. I’ve put a library hold on a Bach biography and will read it instead of chasing mere facts that leave me fuming and distracted. This is why I still need books and libraries.
Recently I suffered mild abuse from fellow writers for my use of regionalisms—words that make perfect sense to me but not to the range folk of Colorado. I wrote about an old farmhouse, a Cape, which in New England denotes a house with a central front door opening onto a hallway with a flight of stairs that include a half-way landing. (My son and daughter-in-law live in just such a house built in 1819.) Now to describe all of that when the one word Cape could do the work, well, I refuse to be driven to verbosity. Similarly, my use of dooryard was questioned. What exactly is a dooryard? It’s the area around the front door, but not a doorway, which is too restrictive. At said Cape, our dooryard was large enough to turn a team of horses or a dump truck. We also had in the kitchen a sink window—yes, the window over the kitchen sink.
These colloquialisms are perhaps distinct. And I treasure that distinction. So much of American English is homogenized, flattened by media, short changed by texting. If I can tolerate reading about nin berries and klaru bulbs in a memoir of Nisa of the Kalahari, why can’t my American readers bear with me in matters of New England farms? No one complained about puckerbrush, thank heaven. It’s not in my American Heritage Dictionary, so I’d have trouble defending it. But it’s important that I get the right word for the sentence, the tone, the style, etc. As Mark Twain famously said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is “the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” English has 1,025,109.8 words according to the estimate by the Global Language Monitor as of January 1, 2014. So it’s no use saying we cannot find the exact word. Given so many choices, we have only to persist. (I wonder how they came up with that .8)
Everyone who knows me knows that I love to write. I write first thing in the morning and any other time of day when I find a quiet place and even the scrap of an idea or image. I love the tactile feeling of pen on paper, fingers on the keys. But what to do when I’m not writing, other than feeling bereft and vaguely guilty? I’ve learned to do something that has little to do with language. I crochet and attend to the feel of yarn, the difference between Navaho wool and chunky cotton. I walk the dog and take note of how many trees he marks, which spots he chooses for a good back-rubbing roll. I go for a drive. (Yeah, it’s an eco-sin, but I like driving, getting lost on purpose just to see how to get unlost.) I sit on the porch and watch the birds, the dog walkers, the bicycles and cars speeding by. I listen to the suburban world in which I live. I take a break from words.
How can a writer ignore language? Words are our medium, our challenge, our glory when we get it right. But the wonder of words is that they are a substitute for reality. In Kenneth Burke’s Language As Symbolic Action, he writes about terministic screens, language “through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.” (My italics) If I scratch my dog’s silky ears, I can write about it, but that’s not the same as touch. There are times when I need to take a break from the words that buzz around me and separate me from tangible reality.
One of the many writing groups I attend is a bunch of free-writing fools, as we often call ourselves, though I don’t know that we have ever formally accepted that label. A lot of what we do is happy or not-so happy foolishness, freedom to let the words splatter onto the page and know that the others in the room will accept them unconditionally. Play therapy? Maybe, but once in a while a tiny miracle occurs and we accept that too unconditionally. We meet in Kit Hedman’s art studio a couple of times a month, sometimes we are four, sometimes we are eight in number, although those figures might also refer to our mental ages.
At a session about a month ago, we used some of Kit’s art work as a prompt. He has a framed series of ink blots that lend themselves to interpretation. Whether or not he had intended that, he accepts the urge of writers to recognize the definable out of the ethereal. One in particular impressed me and became in eight minutes the prose poem posted below. Kit asked for a copy and specified that I not revise, but leave it as it emerged full-bodied on the page. So, a little gift. Happy Saturday.
The giant walks and walks. His feet and legs are muddy and with each step he flings his arms and clots of dirt fly and those clots become planets and he admires them, so he walks faster and laughs to see the worlds that fling themselves through space. The giant wishes he could tell someone about this creation but he’s the only one in sight and tears mix in with the young planets that fly off his fingertips. He’s crying and laughing and walking across fields of white space, making his mark. When the planets and moons scatter, he stands still, watching them spread and sees it all and feels that these things need names, so he makes sounds that become language and he tells himself that some day soon he will find another being to talk to, but for now his galaxy will have to do.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
This quote from Muriel Rukeyser is fitting for Woman’s History Month, and some of us take it as permission to tell the truth about our own lives. Recently I joined a memoir group with the sole intention of gaining insight about who I am. What I write in this group will likely remain unpublished, an exercise that I’m eager to try all the same. Any writing can be good writing, whether useful to others or not. I want to understand my life in the context of the immigrants who spawned me. This family history has led me into the second growth of genealogy and into ramblings on paper about my lack of deep roots. I have little sense of belonging to a place, although New England comes close. So, my working title for the memoir is Woman on the Move. Writers I admire often have a deep sense of place. Mine is superficial.
It should not have surprised anyone that I married into the military with its assumptions about moving where and when the orders told us to go. But my own restlessness extended beyond that marriage. Colorado is a state of many migrants, immigrants, and transplants. I am an invasive weed that takes shallow root where it lands. I’ve mostly seen my restlessness as a deficit. I lack loyalty and stability. Maybe I can, through the memoir process, begin to see my travels and uprootings as positive.