a developmental journey

I doubted the day would come. I had been working on my memoir for over 10 years, admittedly at a more stop than go pace, chronicling the timeline of my youth, coming of age to adult years. I had recorded memories, nestled them in my mind as if contributing to my DNA, creating a map to become the person I was destined to be. I thought my memories and sensory connections that reminded me of my encounters with people and places, to a birch tree and to home were enough to guide my memoir in establishing an innate connection I would have with my reader. I thought I had what it took not only to call what I was writing, a story, but also a memoir. But my writing fell short of what made a story and a memoir.

writingThe day did arrive when all of it came together. However, I do not take sole responsibility for mastering my arrival. Professional intervention and a rediscover of a time when I was learning more of myself and the places where it happened worked together to overcome the hurdle of development, pulling story and memoir in tandem.

My first engagement with a developmental editor was as I expected. She questioned me in the right places, prompted me for more when needed, and called out my many contradictions. I accepted that I was on a long road to my new developmental rewriting journey. I called on my stamina and dug my heels in deep, to acknowledge difficult work ahead to uncover deeper issues and expose their meanings. It wasn’t until pensive work, detailed analysis of what was behind each scene, its placement, the paragraph and the chapter, answering my own question of why I chose to write about it in the first place, when I had landed on the other side. When this journey had ended, I had lifted from the ground and stood on the other side of the barrier. Developmental edit complete.

I likened this journey to growing up as a little girl in my house on Carlisle where spaces had become a Petri dish for my development. I would often sit on the yellow and white shag carpet in my walk-in closet and engage my mind, filling silence the closet walls enveloped with talk in my creative thoughts. I surveyed the perimeter of the closet floor, spying an Etch-A-Sketch, Light Bright and a plastic briefcase containing art supplies. A large shoebox filled with crayons, a Singer Genie sewing machine with a macramé box slid underneath, knitting and crochet needles sticking out of an old canvas bag lined the opposite floor. My cave-like surroundings gave me security and inner contentment as the closet walls loomed tall and wide yet my small being sat small and narrow in the middle on the floor. My view was not limited to this space. I would turn my head to the outside, to my bedroom where a small glass ball vase with a hole threaded by a thin plastic rope hung over the lock of my double hung window caught my eye. The brazen sun enveloped the ball and took hold of the roots as they struggled to expand in their water-filled round bottom. The light filtered and refracted upon the globe into tiny rainbows. I smiled from seeing rainbows on my window. I was confident and in control of these spaces where I wasn’t alone—I had all that was me huddled around me, reassuring me of who I was.

When I confronted my developmental-lacking manuscript, I needed to tap into all I could that would guide me through newly written pages. I recalled my comfortable familiar as I once did in my bedroom closet and bedroom, evoking emotion of pleasure and happiness, of all that was me. The confidence and security felt while settled in my spaces reemerged in the drafting of new, enriched pages. My memories boasted large to get me through developing my story and calling it a memoir.

Recalling a comfortable familiar time and holding hands with the sensory emotions and feelings reassured me that my memoir would be developed in the best way I understood. I was sure to reach the finish line after mastering the hurdle of developmental editing. That day had indeed arrived.

riding the wave of a writing contest submission

letterwavedetailLast fall I won a writing contest for The Magic of Memoir edited by Linda Joy Myer and Brooke Warner of She Writes Press. This was a first time I entered a writing contest and a
first win for anything that had to do with my writing. A win at anything says it all, a handshake in welcome, validation that you’re writing well, and self-confidence to keep going and tackle another contest perhaps. I decided to ride a wave of a newly diagnosed writing karma and consider submitting to another writing contest.

Starting to write an essay from a blank page, no, really solid, bright white, is paralyzing. What’s more daunting is the word “contest.” It’s like you know you’ve got a test coming up and you better start cramming now so you’ve got plenty of time for your best answers to shine at the time of the test – the submission.

I’ve never been one to enter writing contests just because of the competition. I know the level of my writing, what I’m capable of producing and I admit it’s probably not competitive enough with the writings and writers who have been the contest submission route many times and have published. It’s taken me 15 years and unmeasurable hours of practice to now consider I’m ready to submit another time.

My main consideration to submit is the topic or theme. The writing contest I am considering asks writers to write about any aspect of the writing life. I like the topic; I have a few ideas. But when contest guidelines require an essay about a topic I have neither interest nor knowledge, even the best research I could do would still not yield an effective essay. My lack of contest submission track record could be explained, for example, in a guideline suggesting my interpretation of a given word, such as “adaptation,” as I recently saw in one magazine’s contest announcement or a niche theme such as the supernatural. My lack of connection to my topic or word would be evident in poor writing.

I can write a more effective essay when I have an immediate reaction about a topic or word that catches my eye. I know it happens when, upon the first few seconds I read the contest guidelines, a thousand bolts of ideas strike my mind. I know I’m on to something when I need to scramble to type the ideas on that big white space before they dissipate from my head.

My writing life is the memoir. I can draw from my memoir writing experiences – rewrites, development, editing, self-discovery, connecting – and write that which I know. Writing from the heart, from personal space and from a core knowledge developed from my writing experience is all I need to craft an essay.

Memoir writing gives me the opportunity to tap into the unexplored and find meaning of what is discovered. It also presents a universality when reading a paragraph, a sentence or just one word results in an, “ah, yes!” in birth of a connection from writer to reader.

Perhaps writing about the supernatural or your interpretation of a given word strikes you with the right chords to compose a winning essay. I’m sticking with that which I know and have learned over the years of practice – the writing life – to submit my chances for another win in a writing contest.

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.

a problem with memoirs

Recently during a Google search, “The Problem with Memoirs” popped up. Neil Genzliner wrote it for The New York Times. As a memoir writer, I never considered memoirs having a problem, but apparently Genzliner did. “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up,” he said. This writer was successful in delivering his goal; he got my attention. I wondered why he was so miffed. He explains as he continues declaring our current age of oversharing (his observation in 2011) when his Amazon search produced about “40,000 hits, or 60,000 or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.”  Today, my Amazon search for “memoirs” netted 415,000 hits. He claims the genre has become bloated, “disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight,” to name a few qualifiers. I can’t argue with him there as I’ll add that biographies or autobiographies appear to have joined the popularity as de rigueur of nonfiction writing – the memoir.

I became concerned about the inner workings of my own memoir after I considered his claims. No, my memoir is not part of his umbrella engorgement he claims about the genre. I do not write of any physical or mental affliction had by me or a loved one. Yet I question if my memoir even has a place in the group precisely because it’s lack of membership in his observed qualifying tribe. Would it even be a memoir if it is other than what he claims characteristic of the genre?

memoirGenzlinger comes to a conclusion after deciding that 3 of the 4 new memoirs he read did not need to be written and as a result, he proposes a few guidelines for would-be memoirists: 1) that you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir,  2) that no one wants to relive your misery where the sole purpose of the author is to generate sympathy,  3) that imitation runs rampant; “there can’t be just one book by a bulimic . . .” and 4) make yourself the least important character. “That’s what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, but a shared discovery . . . if you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” Aha. There it is number 4. Memoirs are not about your story. They are about what you did with your story, the discoveries that made your story what it is. My memoir is not about where I grew up, my parent’s divorce, or that I had lived in many houses, the autobiographical. It’s how my experiences growing up shaped me, the impact of my parent’s divorce, and the meaning of the connections I made to home despite living in many houses in different places – and all my discoveries because of these.

I reread Magic of Memoir, (MoM) not only the essays in search of inspiration for my memoir writing, but also to learn more about the anthology’s contributors. I found them to be from mid-age to 84 with some who are retired. Many are multi-published writers and authors of poetry, creative writing, and anthologies to match their prolific backgrounds. Some are educators. There is even a former pastor and a couple of psychotherapists, a screenwriter, a few life coaches and public speakers. Many have advanced degrees. The level of talent and professionalism matches their accomplishments. Also a contributor, I felt I had not a thing in common with what I considered an intimidating lot. But after matching their biographies with their essays, I realized I had more in common with them than first considered. It’s about me not having advanced degrees, prolific writing talent or accomplishments to match, but everything to do with the memoir itself.

Part II of “The Problem with Memoirs” will continue in a follow-up post where I will share what I learned about being a MoM contributor, my fellow contributors and studying Magic of Memoir contributing to my deeper understanding of the genre.

tracking memories underfoot

walking-feet-clipart-free-clip-art-imagesYou will take over 200 million steps in your lifetime. Imagine if your feet could narrate a travelogue, reporting miles and destinations, while they are at rest, and injuries they may have sustained. They dance and run, burrow in sand, hold you in mountain pose. Your feet have tracked memories, recording the spot beneath them together with the merging of your heart and mind to make lasting impressions” Fred Astaire said, “I just put my feet in the air and move them around.” What joy our feet can give us, dancing in happiness. Feet are even referenced in War and Peace, “And each time he looked at his bare feet, a lively and self-satisfied smile passed over his face. The sight of those bare feet reminded him of all he had lived through and understood during that time, and he found that remembrance pleasant.”

You may simply view your pair as extremities to get you where you want to go. But have you ever taken a good look at your feet, though? Do you notice how they may have footstepchanged, from perhaps once chubby feet as a kid to now feet with longer toes, a narrower arch, spread wide with age? The evolution of your feet and its characteristics bear witness to the miles traveled in your life and memories you have made. Your conscious observation of intricate details – shape of the toes, alignment of digits, the sculpted curve of the arch, even the haphazard maze of wrinkles – reveal your story.

My memoir, currently in progress, spans many years. My life stories were possible because my travels got me to their starting marks. I make this point because my story is speaks to the lasting impressions embedded in the many places I have been where my feet have walked me through life, starting from my first day of kindergarten. Mom dressed me for success in a 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 with a white Peter Pan collar around my neck. My chubby feet were the center of my attention because they were crammed into blood red Mary Janes where Mom struggled to pull the strap just to the first hole on the buckle. But I maintained my uncomfortable composure anyway while standing still with my feet together and my hands folded in front posing for my picture to be taken in the front yard under bright sun. I greeted the shine overhead with a squint in my eyes while my heels brushed against the yellow marigolds in full bloom, diminishing my uneasiness. The scene created memories of summer warmth and smiles with a palette of blooms surrounding me while my feet were firmly planted on solid ground beneath them. This was where I started. This was my home, my beginning.

My little chubby feet evolved to wider foot stances, albeit still small, over the years. Whether walking, running or bike riding, my busy feet and I developed a desire for adventure and in turn, created self-confidence. My growing feet, commensurate with maturity, took me to places outside my comfortable perimeters when I left Chicago, my home town, for a new city known for its beauty, San Francisco. Traipsing my new place for hours resulted in sore feet, reminding me I had enough, for just a short while to take care of the very vehicles that enabled me to create new memories. Idle feet enabled me to absorb the present moments, the sensual details, the smell of the Bay water, the whirl of inline skaters, witnessing the love of outdoors shared by many, succumbing to the sun’s warmth atop my head and shoulders. And then onward my feet would go after a respite, treading the new earth, to make discoveries in parts unknown, and in myself where I would learn to connect back to home in a myriad of ways.

I refer to feet merely as a metaphor for the vehicle that is inherent with all of us to create life stories. Our feet lead us through travels in our lives where we feel pain or happiness from heart and mind all the way to the bottoms of our feet.

low-section-footage-of-woman-walking-on-wet-sand-slow-motion-video-of-female-with-bare-feet-on-shore-during-sunset-tracking-shot-of-woman-spending-leisure-time-sunlight-is-reflection-on-seascape_vdgp8So when I strap up my bare feet in a pair of sandals, instead of red Mary Janes, I am reminded of where I have been, how I have lived and where I am about to go, reminiscent of my starting point with heels pressed against marigolds while standing in sunshine. I smile at the anticipation of knowing what is yet ahead for me. And that memory, is indeed, pleasant.

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.