a basic question with a perplexing answer

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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.

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.

i just want to write

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I recently completed an online survey in answer to a request by one of those writer’s magazines. They wanted to know what I wanted to read in their magazine. It took only minutes to click my answers to their straightforward questions. But when I finished, I screamed, “I just want to write.”

The purpose of the survey was to gain information for their readership: where I’ve been published, what areas of the writing world I visit,  my social media inventory, my genre, if I have an MFA, do I attend conferences, if so, which ones, how about writer’s groups and how much money I budget per year on my writing studies. And there’s the one asking me if I’ve won any writing contests or received any awards. I began to second guess myself. Shouldn’t I always be taking writing classes to keep my skills sharp at all times? Maybe a workshop is better.

The questions made me realize how easy it is to lose focus on actually writing, the just-sit-in-the-chair-and do-it mentality. The survey questions were like taking stock of me as a writer with a measuring stick to see if I added up or even if I fit in with others on the dedicated writerly train. Up until my survey-taking moments, I considered myself a balanced writer, keeping abreast of current trends and discussions about the memoir, latest books published, webinars, blogs and email list posts while maintaining writing time. After I completed the survey, I felt deficient as a well-rounded writer in her field. What I lacked in conference attendance, contest submissions, and credentials earned, to name a few, was blatant.

As a writer, I’m pulled in many directions resulting in an overload of information. I’m inundated with reads in print and online about my craft, writing in general, publishing and get-yourself-out- there posts. All the input available to writers to become the best they can be is overwhelming, inflicting anxiety that I should be multitasking at a higher speed. Finding the time to actually write can take a back seat.

I have learned that my responsibility as a writer is to develop a highly tuned filter, customized just for me. It’s okay to pass on an instructional video, class, book or seminar. Developing an intellectual understanding of my field, specifically my type of writing and sharpening skills is all good. But if I don’t have the time to actually produce after all that knowledge and skill, I lose the very value I have come to nurture.

I read many writers’ responses to the most popular subject of why I write. “It’s just something I have to do . . . to make sense of my world . . . it’s part of who I am. Maybe writers need to write because it’s a self-evaluation thing where writer’s doubts about why they are even doing it in the first place need to be quelled and reassurances and validations need to be made through answering the question. Writers need to periodically loop back to embrace the value and reevaluate why they write in the first place, retreat to ground zero, one’s roots where it all started for them.

I need to stop, draw a line and divert my attention back to writing and recall those essays and reflections from writers who put a voice to their reasoning of why they write. I won’t be taking online surveys anytime soon. I prefer spending that time writing.

the center of town

“The Deerfield Commons, it used to be over there, that entire block, with Waukegan and Deerfield roads fencing it in,” I muttered with a heavy sigh looking west as I drove north on Waukegan Road. I say it when I drive into Deerfield, the town where I grew up as I relive the memories of years passed. “This was the center of town,” I said, willing the hub back where it belonged.The center of town and I belonged with each other.

On the corner across from Deerfield State bank I see the old Ford Pharmacy with its skinny, short aisles tight with rows of shelves where I passed as a grade-schooler dressed in a plaid uniform and white blouse. The stop with Dad was custom at the shiny white counter on Saturday mornings to talk to a man who blended in with the counter standing behind it wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with buttons down the collar which continued down his shoulder resembling a priest’s vestment, like something Father Clark wore when he wasn’t saying Mass at Holy Cross church.

The Jewel grocery store was there in the Deerfield Commons with the parcel pickup man whose name I can’t remember. He was a young man who spoke with lively conversation and always a smile, never hidden by his thick chocolate-brown mustache. His dark hair was short and parted on the side, and he wore a white button-down shirt, dark tie and pants. He looked hurried while bagging groceries at the end of the check-out lane, with his tie a little loose and his shirt-tail not quite tucked in. He was polite and always eager to serve his customers, most of whom he called by name. I remember his name now. His name was Mark.

Kresges or “the dime store” as we called it, was raided for school supplies every September by the local grade-schoolers. I held my list, ready to check off my requirements as I plucked them from their bins. I could also get a milkshake there or a Black Cow (root-beer float) in the diner section, and afterward visit the parakeets in the cages aligned along the wall. I just needed to follow the bird seed remnants on the scuffed and yellowed linoleum at my feet and listen to their tweety calls to find them.

Also in the Commons, I found pierced earrings at The Gift Lantern for my newly pierced ears, solid gold balls (really they were more like dots). The Gift Lantern, with its carpeted blue floor and glass-topped wood cabinets, had many fancy sparkly things that caught my mother’s attention. Mom also shopped in Janie’s, where she got my Carter’s underclothes. Mom and I visited the clothing store a couple doors down, Junior Miss where we looked for a new outfit I could wear for my seventh grade school dance and school picture. “What do you think?” Mom asked as we stood staring at my new and improved image in the three-way mirror of the dressing room. “I think you’re wearing your big sister’s clothes,” the sales lady admitted. I didn’t think so. I felt grown up and ready to impress.

I remember the Deerfield Commons as a summertime destination where Martha, my pretend sister-friend, and I arrived riding our green Schwinn bikes with matching baskets hooked on the handlebars. It was a small neighborhood place where everyone shopped, greeting their neighbors as they got in and out of their Country Squire station wagons.

Things have changed. The Commons is gone now, replaced by high-end stores, a fancy restaurant and retail chains.The Music Center and Deerfield Bakery in town have been expanded and remodeled. The Schwinn bike store doesn’t seem the same, now that it faces a busy street with wider traffic lanes and more cars.

I still mourn for the town landscape of my childhood. And I feel regret for a new generation that never knew you could get a parakeet and a milkshake in one spot at the dime store, or a pair of pierced earrings and a gift for your mom at the Gift Lantern, or have a young man named Mark address you by name as he asked if you’d like your groceries loaded into your car.

What used to be reminded me of simpler times when the ease of shopping and the simplicity of goods were as ordinary as going to the pharmacy with Dad on Saturdays or an easy bike ride up Deerfield road to The Commons. The Deerfield Commons may have lost its original identity when it was bulldozed, but my experiences of yesterday still bring smiles to my heart and belonging to my soul as I remember what used to be.