a basic question with a perplexing answer

cloud

So why DID I write my memoir?

Admittedly, I couldn’t answer the question over 10 years ago when I started writing my memoir. Now I’ve passed a manuscript hurdle, a professional developmental edit, and I’m polishing my book with a copy edit on my way to publishing. But who knew the life of a virginal indie author could be simple yet complicated. Who knew answering “why”, a seemingly curious, basic question could be so perplexing to answer?

I pushed aside automatic responses to why I wrote a memoir– because I could, I’m a writer, I have to write, I’ve got something to say–as insufficient and empty. Middle-age had knocked, and I needed to answer. My words had evolved changing shape and course from autobiography to a self-assessment where clarity allowed me to answer my question of what I learned from my experiences over the decades. I became more aware of my writing and what I was trying to say. Mindfulness spoke reflections and taught lessons as takeaways.

Everyone has a story to tell is an inherent belief especially for a memoir writer who speaks of personal issues and deep emotion leaving nothing unexplored and everything to the public. I questioned if I had a memoir because my story was not like other published memoirs. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I made no references to pain, per se. Despite my misgivings, I kept with it, massaging the details of my experiences hoping that through my thoughtful words and story my reader could identify a universal belief, one that would elicit an “aha” moment.

My memoir’s backbone is chronological starting with my young girl self in the opening pages. My scene was set where I grew up when I marked my home’s boundaries by walking its outside perimeter. I would begin and end at the same place–in the front yard standing next to a birch tree as if protector, growing in tandem with the walkway leading to the front door. I developed a kinship with my tree where standing next to it was my safe place and the front yard was where I learned connections and established my roots with every step. I showed my tree as metaphor woven throughout my story.

As I peeled away the layers of my timeline, I would discover connections to home and how they were presented in many ways. For me, the smell of eucalyptus in cool, damp air and the fragrance of pine trees laced in the sip of red wine connected me to a home in San Francisco. Our connections are bridges that keep an open path to home, wherever that may be.

It is with my story of overcoming adversity in my coming of age and faith-driven adulthood to finding safety and security once learned starting when befriending a birch tree, where I learned a first connection to home.

I wrote this book so that people can walk through their day of life, tap into their connections and always be at home.

professional-making

The time has come for you to meet your professional-makers. After countless hours of extracting my reflections from your words and declaring takeaways from your pages, I send you off with final blessings. Your copyeditor will make you shine, better than ever.

036

how i finished my memoir

When I was a young girl, a small glass ball threaded by a thin plastic rope through a pinhole hung over the lock of my double hung window in my bedroom. When the brazen sun enveloped the plant vase and took hold of the gnarly roots, I wouldn’t just see budding foliage, but tiny rainbows upon the refraction of light.

599b43bb6bd1302ad7089929dd43c688Sometimes we don’t always see what’s in front of us.

I didn’t see the obvious until after over ten years of writing my memoir and examining my events and experiences ad nauseam. I didn’t see what was in front of me because I was too focused on finding complex meanings.

My memoir began with a chronological structure, a timeline of autobiography of events and experiences. Though I understood it didn’t make a memoir, I didn’t understand how to turn it into one. I read all I could about memoir including books and blogs and I listened to presentations by professionals. I rejected reading other memoirs because their writing was different from mine in theme, story and structure. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I made no references to pain, per se.

I persisted in examining my words and looking beyond their meaning, trying to read between the lines as I compared my writing to others’ strong themes that spoke clearly. I reasoned my memoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because it wasn’t. And because of this, I saw the difference work for me, not against me. I saw a clarity I had yearned for. This simplicity was in front of me.

I began my story when I was a young girl when my mother insisted my photo be taken on my first day of kindergarten in front of the picture window of my house. I obliged her because my favorite tree was near, plotted in the center of circling greens where it stood tall and arabesque in front of me, as if to say “look here and smile.” My scene continued, my birch buddy and its branches not shading my eyes squinty from the sun’s high noon rays, my pixie haircut aglow in sun-bleached hair and my tanned body offsetting my navy dress, patterned in tiny white polka dots, with an appliqué of paint brushes and an artist’s pallet in primary colors at the hem. My dress was too small and my chubby feet were crammed into blood red Mary Janes. But I stood at attention with my feet together and my hands folded in front to pose with my heels brushing against the yellow marigolds in full bloom.

But my story was not just about me, my surroundings and a tree. I tried to look for deep meanings in my early memories and after many rewrites and flushing out themes and through-threads I realized meanings were not deep at all, but at the surface, right in front of me. I realized I had a connection to trees and to a specific birch tree in the corner of my front yard that the association was central to my theme. Connecting with my birch buddy made the irritations of a too-small dress and short-strapped shoes diminish as my buddy’s arms welcomed a toasty blanket of sun overhead. It was my tree that ushered a smile on my face and a squint in my eye allowing my contentment to win over my physical discomfort and adversity.

When I realized what was in front of me, that I was present with my house and my birch buddy, that I was at home; I knew I had my story.

Looking back on my overall memoir writing experience, I wrote every 78,000 plus words of my experiences and adventures, the people I had met and the conversations with them as enriching my life. Whether discovering a new place, engaging in a conversation, listening to music inside and the harmonies played outside, tasting the bitters of food to mouth or touching a numbing cold, discovering the simplicity of living life through my senses was key to finishing my memoir.

52fc03a34a981bed7dc6d9b4b43a29bd

When I explored the very connections learned as a young child beginning with a birch tree, I realized just how my life inspired me to see what was in front of me.

A sighting of my tree buddy spurred memories when I sought to be at home. Trees became a metaphor for living, a guiding symbol for finding home and the beginning for my story. My tree had a purpose.

“Developmental edit is complete,” Annie, my editor said. These words were not expected so quickly after my rewrite from her first edit. I’ve cleared a major book writing hurdle, one I’ve been working to overcome for years. I hope to publish next year, completing my vision for my memoir. I have learned it is about the journey, it’s about enriching our lives by living the moments. It’s about seeing what’s in front of us.

part II, the problem with memoirs

c254934dc3ea1a37d1452b6c9f1b336dI can understand Genzlinger’s irritability with the memoir genre becoming over-inflated. Memoirs seem to be riding the wave of too much sharing and providing an over-supply of personal information. In Part I from a previous post, I shared Genzlinger’s guidelines to would-be memoirists from his essay, “The Problem with Memoirs,” published in The New York Times. He felt that three out of the four memoirs he had read did not need to be written. Over the years of tilling the soil of my memoir, winning a writing contest for Magic of Memoir, studying its contents and its authors, I have a deeper understanding of why memoir. I believe memoirists are people of conviction; they believe their stories must be told. Perhaps Genzlinger doesn’t see that point.

My memoir has been in progress for over 15 years and I attribute a lack of direction, substance, reflection, even a weak theme to my stop and go’s in writing. Even though I have a tidy supply of vignettes illustrating overcoming adversity, coming of age, resilience perhaps, I continue to strengthen my overall theme, my thoughts, and lessons learned to the point of paralysis.

I wrote of a birch tree growing in my front yard when I was a little girl. I believed in my tree as a metaphor for home but didn’t know how to develop the very through-thread and sew it through the story. I looked for direction through professionals who would tell me what my memoir was about as maybe a test to see if I was writing effectively enough that I was understood. I was, albeit rather weakly. I had confirmation, perhaps validation that I was on to something. Maybe this was my permission to keep going at it. “But you can never know if you understand your story until you try to tell it . . . A story lives in its particular, the individuality of person, place and time,” writes Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd in Good Prose. I persisted in telling a story, one that was sure to have particulars of me, the places I had been and the time I had lived. The more I continued telling and writing, the more what I had to say was flushed out.

But something was holding me back, keeping me from believing in me and what I wanted to communicate. I continued to be intimidated by published memoirs illustrating tragedy, humanness of being and redemption of body and spirit written with strong words and message. Pain appeared to be a common theme. I became more despondent realizing my memoir was not like the other published memoirs. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I make no references to pain, per se. Could my memoir even be called one if it was thematically so different from the others? Could there even be a reason to write a memoir?

I reasoned comparing my memoir to others’ was futile; there was no comparison. In Magic of Memoir (MoM), 38 contributors narrated their memoir writing inspiration. Their essays reinforced my “no comparison” stance because the essays and references to their memoir as soul-baring and raw as their emotions allowed on the page were just as remarkable as the person who authored them, professionals with a spectrum of vocations and higher education degrees. Intimidating. Once again, strong themes about their memoirs spoke clear in the subject of their essays. I yearned for stronger clarity, reflection and takeaways in my memoir where my reader and I could connect.

My mommemememoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because of this, I began to see the very difference work for me, not against me. I believed I could still connect with my reader.

A birch tree, in simple image I wrote about, was the very inspiration I needed to connect with others, to show life in the moments, to reveal a very essence of a shared humanness, our abilities and capabilities, to express the heard cries of joy and sorrow, to see the light of day and how the darkness of night can light up, to taste the bitter winds of misfortune or the sweetness of youth and innocence. The simplicity in my uplifting words and positive images revealed connections in infinite ways and possibilities in finding home, back to my birch tree buddy, the first connection and the beginning of my story.

I would not have been exposed to the professional level of writers and learned from them and their writing if it wasn’t for MoM that gave me a deeper understanding of memoir because of the very professional work created with heart and soul by dedicated writers. I would not have learned from this experience if I wasn’t also a contributor, giving me an impetus to read the others’ works, comparing me to them, my memoir writing journey to theirs. Having a clearer understanding of my story and how I made sense of the significance of those specific memories I hold today enabled me to understand the journey, the self-discovery, the sharing of discovered meaning, of what is memoir. I no longer fight with my memoir to be like most because it isn’t. And the fact that it’s unlike the others has enabled me to see its theme in clearer understanding.

I would hope that Ginzlinger would read my memoir when it is published one day and declare it one of those that should be written. I take wise words from Plato, via Krishan Bedi’s essay in MofM, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Bedi sums it up well, “It’s a way for ordinary people to discover and share the extraordinary in their lives.”

Ordinary people like me share the uplifting, inspirational, human extraordinary in my life when my memoir, Under the Birch is published one day.

when a memoir may not really be one

Recent headlines for book reviews in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention. “Springsteen’s Father Looms Large in Born to Run Autobiography.” A few months later another headline claimed, “Anna Kendrick’s memoir: A simple song, pitch-perfect.” And then a small blurb said Caitlyn Jenner has an upcoming memoir due out in April. I noticed how these books claimed autobiography and memoir labels, but I questioned if they really were what they purported to be.

As I consider reviews, blurbs and other forms of a book’s marketing and promotional tools, I want to know if I can expect to read about the entirety of someone’s life or just specific aspects of it. I want to know if the book I buy is truly an autobiography or a memoir.

x4thblvdkicks-jpg-pagespeed-ic-ccvycxw7nfWhy the fuss? Yes, autobiography and memoir can be used interchangeably in some general contexts. In fact, Amazon puts them in the same category which is unfortunate because distinct differences between the two can be claimed. Autobiography is simply the chronology of the writer’s entire life. Conversely, memoir is a portion of the writer’s life, specific aspects that relate to themes and messages the writer is conveying. Memoir is a story, with a beginning, middle and end that explains why the writer is telling the story and why specific scenes are being included. Memoir is highly emotional, the writer takes you through a journey that may have been difficult and arduous where lessons were learned, wisdom shared and strength gained in the hope to share the experiences. Only after words have been carefully placed on the page and parts assembled does it begin to take form; the writer has made sense of it all.

An autobiographer does not necessarily need to make sense of anything, learn lessons, gain wisdom or strength. If I want to read an autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, for example, I could expect to read details of his life as a Founding Father and his accomplishments through his life. But if I wanted to read, let’s say, Madeleine Albright’s memoir, I would read her reflections on her personal story, how she balanced career and family, noting her emotions and wisdom gained through her experiences. Because of distinguishable characteristics, autobiography is very different from memoir.

But I refer back to my striking headlines. In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot, reviews Bruce Springsteen’s new book with the headline, “Autobiography, ‘Born to Run’ is more aptly titled than even diehards might realize.” Kot references Springsteen’s album, also with the same name as his book, and how it launched Springsteen into stardom. But then Kot writes in the beginning of the second paragraph, “Springsteen’s memoir tells the same tale: He’s spent his whole life trying to get out of Freehold, N.J., but it will always be with him. He writes of his father, who rarely engaged with his family, and how he spent a good part of the next 40 years trying to lift the burden he doesn’t fully recognize until he starts seeing a therapist. Kot goes on to tell the voice is confiding, honest, especially when judging himself. Wife and family are mentioned in the book as well as key words of isolation, disconnection and emotional containment moving to becoming a husband and father from childhood. Kot’s bottom claim is how the writer tries to understand his father and himself. He finds peace once he realizes this.

Kot’s review includes key words signaling memoir – isolation, disconnection, emotion, understanding, finding peace. His review tells me this is a memoir, not an autobiography and that it is no Ben Franklin.

The Kendrick headline, “Anna Kendrick memoir; A simple song, pitch-perfect” was part of a book review written by Laura Pearson. Kendrick is a 31-year-old actress and singer – star of “Up in the Air” and the “Pitch Perfect” movies. Pearson says Kendrick is forthright that the book isn’t a tell-all but a “curated collection of stories intended to entertain.” In her book, Kendrick writes of a “double-life,” one as a nerdy kid and the other as a passionate performer, of moving to the West Coast at 17 and that her 20-something experiences are typical. Pearson says she comes clean about her own persistent feelings of fraudulency. Perhaps this book opens a small window into the memoir sphere as Kendrick mentions her persistent “feelings,” connoting some emotional display, but as Pearson writes, “. . . expectations of a celebrity memoir is that in between cute anecdotes from childhood and never-before-seen photos of the narrator with other famous people, it will contain some delectable gossip.” Using the term “memoir” doesn’t invite a catch-all word that includes cute anecdotes, photos and gossip.

Perhaps by referring to a reviewed book as memoir, the reviewer has fallen into the craze, automatically joining the in-crowd who will snatch a book just because of its popular “memoir” label. Publishers know the difference between autobiography and memoir but appear to choose the memoir label maybe to take advantage of its surge in popularity, reaping sales.

A blurb in the newspaper reported that Caitlyn Jenner has picked a name for her upcoming “memoir. The newspaper says, “It will trace Jenner’s life from childhood and years as Olympic superstar Bruce Jenner through her multiple marriages and children and transition to Caitlyn. By mere definition of autobiography this books sounds as if it is one, starting at childhood chronologically moving through life to present. But we won’t know more until a book reviewer writes upon its debut, perhaps using autobiography and memoir interchangeably. Maybe this book will be a Madeleine Albright, as Caitlyn writes of balancing life’s demands of career and family.

True memoir writers couldn’t be more defined with a deeper understanding of their craft. You just have to read the 38 essays recently published in, “The Magic of Memoir,” edited by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Meyer of She Writes Press to get the true meaning of memoir. The memoirists in this book beautifully illustrate their writing craft, which are certainly no autobiographies.

For now, with every book review I read, or take a glance at a book’s back and front cover, I will weigh its claim closely as either autobiography or memoir to judge if the book spans the writer’s lifetime or professes access to internal reflections, emotional underpinnings and takeaways for me, the reader. I will then be able to decide if I want to read a Ben Franklin or a Madeleine Albright.

how I answered a call for submission

call-for-submissionsI usually don’t answer calls for writing submissions. That’s not to say I don’t read the calls but knowing that my writing is up against the caliber of professional writers is enough for me to retreat and surrender. My inner critic moves me along to the next call for submission when she reminds me my ho-hum writing may not being at a level yet to be recognized. I reasoned unless I could answer a call with a unique idea, perhaps a one-of-a-kind piece of work, I would move on.

When She Writes Press (SWP) put out a call for submissions for their new anthology “The Magic of Memoir,” I threw the comfort of being in my own zone to the wind. I submitted my essay for publication with confidence that I would be a contender. Though I could never be in the minds of the SWP judges or judges of any other writing submissions to understand what exactly they would be looking for, I believe two influences – countering an assumption with a different or unique writing approach and having a passion for what I was writing about – made me a contender.

When SWP put this call out, I understood that writers who would submit might have a few acronyms in educational degrees accompanying their name while wearing many hats such as educator, researcher, journalist, or social worker to name a few, and might also have numerous national publication credits to their name. I am neither a professional writer nor have an advanced degree but maybe if I searched hard enough I could find a nice fitting hat or two of my own to wear.

I had made an assumption that I didn’t stand a chance of being considered because the contributing writers were well accomplished, well-educated and nationally published. Maybe this was my inner critic speaking over me but regardless it was a reality I needed to counter in order to believe that I did have something to write and that it was just as good as the next writer’s work.

I reflected on how I could be different, a stand out, among the other submitters to the SWP call. I imagined what kind of essays would be submitted and how they would be written. Would the writer use excerpts from his or her memoir? Would the use of metaphors and rhythmic prose be woven throughout? Would the essay read like creative nonfiction with fact mingled with creative writing?

SWP’s call listed a dozen prompts to help writers execute their essay. As I read each prompt question, I had an immediate response like a dialogue unfolding in my head. The Q and A was if I was narrating the ancestry of my memoir with each question answered. And there I had it!  In one sitting I had the bones of my essay.

After three edits, I had the final essay. I knew how I would present it – a conversation with my memoir as if it was just the two of us in a room revealing our secrets, our worries, exposing insecurities and challenges. I wrote it simply and understated, “I was once eager to find complicated significance in what I now see as simplicity,” just as how I had written my memoir. I didn’t want to necessarily recount parts of my actual memoir in the essay, but rather offer inspiration, weaving in answers to a few of the prompts as suggested, in a unique, personal way that would resonate with a fellow memoir writer.

I was no longer in my comfort zone when I decided to take a leap of faith knowing I had something to contribute, something that was worth reading. I had not only confidence in what I was writing but also a strong belief in what I was saying. My passion for my words negated any inferiority I previously harbored with my assumption – that professional, many-times-over published writers would automatically rise to the top of the submissions pile.

Writing from the heart with passion and conviction was what I have learned to recognize. And sometimes simple and unadorned writing carries the most uniqueness that will be the difference in being accepted for publication.

“The Magic of Memoir”

My memoir writing journal unfolded without an analytical thought granted to the actual writing process. I had been a journaler, starting when I was fifteen when my mother showed me a pink book with shiny darker pink letters “My Journal” were engraved on the cover. She handed me the book telling me, “It’s yours.” I eyed the clasp as I took it from her, acknowledging my words could be sealed, closed within its pages with a click of its fastening.

My earliest recollection of my writing on those first pink pages was a poem I wrote, “To A Tree” where I realized I had a place in this world and that my tree had a purpose. I encouraged my curiosity by reading all I could about themes of discovery, our relationships we have to others, ourselves and to our outside world. And then I read “Summers with Juliet,” by Bill Roorbach, an inspirational, understated adventure where I saw an interconnectedness among all relationships we share. I became curious about my meaning of home and how connections were created, broken and reattached throughout my life.

My story began to write itself. It was not to be complicated but rather simple and understated, just as I knew a memoir could be in “Summers with Juliet.” And my memoir”Under the Birch Tree” was born.

mommeme

My essay, “I Called You a Memoir” reveals my heart-to-heart talk with my memoir on how I created her along with 37 other inspirational essays in”The Magic of Memoir,” out today.

As I continue to put the final connections together on my memoir, I hope you can see your relationships, even the magical one with yourself, in “The Magic of Memoir.”