Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Memoir Reading and Writing

I've read a lot of memoirs over the past few years. For a while, I even dabbled at writing one, a sort of set the record straight document. While some fiction contains elements of life experience, writing a memoir relies upon one's fiction writing talents. When I read memoirs, I know, for example, that the writer is not remembering past conversations verbatim. Some license is taken in recording details, and I, as the reader, understand that what I am reading is being delivered in a manner to maximize dramatic effect. Memoir differs from autobiography in the delivery. Memoir is a story, autobiography is a recording of a sequence of events. As I worked on my memoir, I attended some workshops and read some books to help facilitate the process. I learned a few things. First, a great many people believe that their stories are extraordinary and would have a wide appeal. We are right in that our stories are all extraordinary. Every life holds magic and wonder and transcendence. But we are almost always wrong about the wide appeal part. After I swam way out into the middle of the icy lake of my own story, and a little voice whispered, "Yes, Nancy. But what's the point?" It's a humbling event when one can't answer that question. What is the point, indeed. I keep hoping that some day there will be one. In the meantime, the memoir sleeps in a REM stage. Second, where critique groups are concerned, submitting a memoir to a critique group places an unfair burden on the group. Group members find themselves in a position where they risk criticizing someone's life rather than the content or delivery. Readers can't exactly say that the story is not credible. In the end, I withdrew it as a project from my critique group because I felt as though my readers saw that I was soliciting feedback on a document of uncontrolled self-disclosure, when what I wanted to know was how it read as a story. Asking a critique group to read a memoir just ain't fair. There's something so pleasurable about reading a well-written memoir, though. Getting lost in a life, and knowing that it isn't fiction is somehow more engrossing. I've read many wonderful memoirs in recent years. The Color of Water, The Glass Castle, Living to Tell the Tale, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Warrior Woman are some of my favorites. The pair, Autobiography of a Face and Truth in Beauty especially captivated me as a story of a life and then another memoir of a friendship that looked on from a perspective that revealed a completely different story. I've read many others, some I found over indulgent and bulging with ego. But enough great ones are around to keep me interested in the genre. A New York Times Book Review reviewer published an article in recent months, stating that memoir is a useless genre. The writer was so scathing and pompous that he implied the only people more naive and boring than the memoir writers are the people shallow enough to read them. I believe that there are a great many stories worth telling and worth reading. Sure, we can flaunt our intellectual prowess by pigeon-holing them: The abused child memoir, The incest survivor, The adopted child, The teen pregnancy, The alcoholic treatment memoir, The coming out as a gay person memoir.. I've read memoirs by people who fit each of these categories. But I'm not jaded enough to believe that stories owning these natures are boring because someone else has told them. A story well-told will always stand on its own and need not strain to circumvent worn trails. So, I'll keep reading memoirs. And maybe in the quiet of my office, I will keep a silent vigil over my own sleeping manuscript.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Readings and Themes 2013

The year started with the New York books. I admit that, with guilt and pleasure, I have been watching Gossip Girl, which references a great many books about trust-funded young people, living in Manhattan. Hence, I read:

  • The Bonfire of the Vanities
  • The Beautiful and the Damned
  • Rules of Civility

And with the new version of The Great Gatsby, I also added a re-read to my list. First, I watched the old Robert Redford version, then went to see the new version with Leonardo di Caprio. I thought they did a great job with it. Now, I've always had a problem with Fitzgerald. I've read The Great Gatsby at least 3 times in the past, and found it like choking down dry, stale bread. I think the book had been assigned reading for some class or another. I just didn't get it. But, after watching both movies, I saw some commonalities that could only be based on the writing. And I had found the writing in The Beautiful and the Damned sometimes breathtaking. So, I opened The Great Gatsby with a shifted focus. This time, the characters came alive, and everything around them breathed some underlying truth.

One scene in Gatsby that especially struck me is the first scene where the women appear. They are lounging in a white room, a breeze from outside, and perhaps from the women, sets the gauzy curtains dancing and brings the room to airy, diaphanous life. When the men enter, one of them shuts the doors, everything stops dancing and tinkling. To me, the scene illustrates that women are so different in the presence of men as to be unknowable whenever a man enters a room. But, when men are not present, women possess a beauty men may never glimps.

This is the year I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald. To him, I apologize for my shortcomings during previous readings. Continuing the Fitzgerald exploration for the year, I am currently reading This Side of Paradise.

In addition to the New York stories and the Fitzgerald, I went on an Alfred Hitchcock bender due to the coming out of the movie, Hitchcock. First, I watched both versions of Psycho. Then I saw the movie, Hitchcock. I did a little research on Ed Gein, who the book was loosely based on. Such a gruesome true story, surpassing anything that has ever been written to fictionalize him. To compliment the movie, I read the book it was based on, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and, of course, read Psycho, itself.

Theme reading is fun, and I love a good tangent, but some really good stuff has come out this year. Gone Girl is one of the most engrossing reads of the year, with twists and turns I didn't predict. Then, Natsuo Kirino came out with a new book this year, The Goddess Chronicles. This book was so good, it will keep me looking for anything new she writes. John was taking an online class, which assigned Madame Bovary, so I read it with him. I'd never read it. Serendipitous mentions of Carson McCullers on three separate occasions forced me to pick up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. How did I miss reading this great book all these years? Other goodies in my bag include:

  • The Burgess Boys (Emotional and subtle)
  • The Orchardist (Haunting, beautiful, tragic)
  • Farewell, Dorothy Parker (How can I not read a book with a Dorothy Parker ghost?)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (mentioned in Hitchcock)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (only YA for this year, thank you, Jay)
  • Flight Behavior (Another goodie by Barbara Kingsolver)
  • W is for Wasted (Got to continue through this alphabet series...wonder what X is going to be)

I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

Getting caught up in a reading frenzy this year feels especially good. I loaded the Kindle app onto my iPhone, and now always have a stack of books with me wherever I go. I find it easy to shift to electronic media and don't understand people who resist it. I love that I can hear about a book and have it on my electronic bookshelf within a minute. Damn you, Amazon, for that one-click thingie! I still love the feel of a book in my hand as much as the next guy, but now I reserve paper books to things that have art or drawings. Usually, non-fiction and reference books are shipped in physical form.

I haven't written anything creative in over a year, but my mind is sniffing for a story. I dream writer dreams and describe the world to myself with a writer's music. I am close to catching the scent of a story that will send me off.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jeanette Winterson's Memoir on Adoption and Live and Love

I just finished reading Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I remember talking to an agent about my memoir concept, and I was told that the last thing the world needed was another memoir about adoption. Well, Winterson's memoir is one that was much needed, at least by me. This memoir is a painfully intimate, accurate document, describing what it is like to be an adult who was adopted in the late 1950s.

I saw so many parallels between her story and my own life that it is eerie. She talks about the wound we carry from being severed at birth from our source. She was adopted by a family with a mother who was strictly and weirdly religious, describing her adoptive mother as "such a mix of truth and fraud." Yes. I know what it's like to go mad, trying to sort out the truth from the lies. Mine was a terrible mix of truth and fraud, of ignorance and cunning.

From my own memoir, the one that's the last thing the world needs:

How do children know that adults are lying to them? I recall several instances in my childhood when I knew my mother was lying to me but I didn't know how I knew. Maybe her unwillingness to answer certain questions gave her away. Or maybe it was a quality of distractedness she would add to her demeanor to hide that she was lying.

Naturally, knowing that I was adopted prompted obvious questions like Why? What happened to my real parents? Mom told me they had died in a car crash. I picture an old Alfred Hitchcock film where, I think, Cary Grant is frantically maneuvering a car speeding out of control on a mountain road, his brakes gone.

"Where was I?"
"With relatives."
"Which relatives? Where are they now?"
"I don't know. The adoption agency didn't say."
"If I have other relatives, why didn't I get given to them?"
"You don't have any real relatives alive.”
“No aunts or uncles?”
“No. No one. They all died."
“All of them? How did they all die?”
“I don’t know.”

Now, it didn't take a rocket scientist or even a five year old (I was 4) to wonder if she might be lying. But choosing to believe her or not believe her posed a dilemma on each side.

As long as I believed her, that there really was no one, then I wouldn’t have to consider that I had been given up for adoption because I wasn't wanted. But I really wanted to believe that I belonged to someone.

I didn't know how to mourn those people…all of those dead people. Mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins (on both sides?) Hey!

"Did I have brothers and sisters?"

I always thought I was so much smarter than my mother, yet, in the end, she got the best of me. I've spent so much of my life trying to get past it all. She's been dead for over 20 years, and she still gets the best of me every day.

People who say, "don't feel that way, just feel another way," infuriate me. "Just come from a place of love." No one can tell you how to forgive because forgiveness isn't something you can will yourself to do. Forgiveness is something you can want to do, but getting there is a very different proposition. Jeanette Winterson understands that love is a tricky thing for people who were fed a steady diet of synthetic love, love on a bed of stinging nettles.

I admire Winterson for having the courage to find her mother. She describes it as the mixed-bag I imagine it to be.

Back in the 1980s, I applied to Los Angeles County to see my file. It turned out that my parents were not killed in a car crash. My mother left me in a car to be found by strangers. The authorities who examined me estimated that I was around 3 days old, possibly premature. The first name given to me that I know of was Jane Doe. I was found in a car parked a block away from the entrance to Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

Maybe my birth mother hoped I'd be taken in and raised by a movie star. Or maybe I was the daughter of the wardrobe girl who got knocked up by a famous producer. I look for my facial features on people in 1950s Paramount pictures. Silly.

That's all I know. The social worker who went through the paperwork with me told me that there was more, but those records are sealed. Winterson's memoir has prompted me to think about trying to break that seal. All of the familiar companions to that train of thought have re-entered the building. What if nothing more is known? You were a foundling, after all. They probably never found out who your birth mother was. But the social worker told me that there was more to know, more than she was allowed to tell me. What if my birth mother's name is known? What if she doesn't want to meet me? What if she does? What if she does and she turns out to be a needy, parasite of a woman who I can't then be rid of (like the one in A.M. Homes's memoir about adoption)? What if she turns out to be a great person who wants me in her life? How do I parse that? Blah blah blah blah blah...

Anyway, Winterson's memoir is brilliantly written and came along at a time when I most needed it.

My first novel, Giving It Over, (not published) is a YA novel about a group of pregnant girls living in a home, waiting to give their babies over to Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoption. It takes place the year after abortion became legal and goes into the reasons why each girl has chosen to birth her child and give it up. No one I've talked to has thought it marketable. One person told me that no one wants to hear about what it was like in the olden days. Maybe I just suck at pitching my stories, or maybe my writing just sucks.

It's been a long time since I've written anything, and I haven't felt really inspired since I finished Giving It Over several years ago. Yesterday, driving along the finger of Whidbey Island on a Washington Spring day, a sentence was spoken in my head. It was spoken by that strong, have-a-story-to-tell voice I haven't heard in a long time. It said, "You've got another YA novel in you, and it starts like this:"

I don't remember being told I was adopted. I just always remember knowing."

It's probably the last thing the world needs, another YA novel about adoption, but who cares.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Swan Song

A few years ago, I embarked on a mission to become a published writer. I'd always had the dream in my head. When I was 9 years old, I wrote a query to the Press Telegram's Action Line column and saw my question in print. I was hooked from, well, probably even before then. I've always been a writer. And, quite separately, I've always wanted to be in print.

I say so many quasi-meaningless things to myself, all of which I realize are not complete sentences. If only I'd really tried early on. If only I'd gone to New York when I was in my twenties. If only I'd said different things when Peter Ridder called me to ask what my career aspirations were. Yes. I had chances. And I handled all of them poorly. Now I'm a 54-year-old woman with a handful of ideas and dreams long turned to mist.

The way the publishing market has turned, no one is ever going to publish me. Ever. I'm a good writer. A woman of ideas. However, I'm not marketably original. Not even artsy-fartzy original. No one is interested in my work, and I've come to accept that.

Even my closest friend hates when I ask him to read one of my pieces. I can see him set his bodily frame when I ask him to listen as I read something. His customary response is something akin to, "Okay. Thank you for sharing that with me."


Am I really that bad?

Apparently so.

So, for the first few years of my life, people praised me for my writing abilities. I mean from the 5th grade through junior college, people were saying, wow, girl, you've got something special. Now that I'm growing ungracefully old, my writing is an embarrassment, and I seldom tell people that I do it. Being a bad writer has become a cliche, a club I belong to.


I'm not going to ever stop doing it.

I'm just never


going to show anything I write to anyone

ever again

(well, maybe if you ask)


not ever again.

I'm so sorry for all those who have suffered through my writings in the past. I really thought I was good. I really thought this was my "calling."


What a ninny I am.

How self-serious and ridiculous.




And thank you for indulging me all this time.

Go find something better to do.

Many better options for reading, I'm sure.


Sunday, August 07, 2011

Anne Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder is the story of Marina Singh, who enters the jungle with reluctance but a sense of purpose. Marina needs to find out the details surrounding the death of her co-worker, who preceded her to the Amazon. His death was announced in a letter from the doctor on site, stating simply that he had died of a fever.

The South American jungle she enters is not so much chaotic, but rather a place dancing in perfect step to music only it can hear. The doctor on site, Dr. Anneck Swenson, bends her head to yet another tune. Swenson presents a wall to any purpose other than her own. She is direct yet cryptic, confrontational yet indifferent, rejecting yet needy. Despite Marina's efforts to get a bead on her, she remains slippery to the end.

Marina acts, at every turn, in a way I hope I would act in her circumstance. She resists Swenson's attempts to control her, while she assimilates herself into the local culture with grace and joy. The natives strip her and re-cloth her, braid her hair, offer her the flavors of their world, and she takes it all in with openness and trust. A mirror to her openness and trust is Easter, a deaf boy who lives among them also as a foreigner. Easter hails from a community even deeper in the Amazon, a savage, cannibalistic group who live along an obscure finger of the river. Soon after they meet, Marina and Easter fuse into a single soul. Light, open, loving.

Through a fluke, Swenson learns that the dead doctor isn't dead at all. After imbibing ritualistic hallucinogens, he wandered into the jungle and was taken in by the feared cannibals. Swenson seems to regard this news as little more than a dropped stitch, but Marina and Easter take the boat into the jungle and find the missing scientist. Of course, the cannibals want something in return for the doctor. Recognizing him as one of their own, they want Easter. The confrontation is horrible.

Okay, I was trying not to draw parallels to Heart of Darkness, because the connection is too obvious. But here it is. Here's the confrontation with the inner depths, and Easter, not a creepy Doctor Kurtz, is the one sacrificed. Easter isn't killed, he's delivered to a place where he will dwell, against his will, forever seeking escape. Easter, the embodiment of innocence, is placed in the most primal, uncontrolled tendril of the jungle. Will he be ravaged? Will he transform those around him? I will chew on this for a while.

Marina returns, with her co-worker, to her mid-western existence and leaves us to wonder what she now carries within her from the Amazon and whether it will allow her to return.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Voltaire Gem

I'm re-reading Candide, and it's just as fresh and wonderful as I remember. What a great little masterpiece. Here's one of my favorite parts:

The man of good taste explained quite clearly how a play could arouse some interest, yet have no merit. He proved in a few words that it is not enough to bring in one or two of those situations which are found in novels or two of those situations which are found in novels and which always captivate an audience; but that a dramatist must be original without being eccentric, that he must be often sublime and always natural, that he must know the human heart and make it speak, be a great poet without letting any of his characters sound like a poet, have a perfect command of his language without ever sacrificing meaning to rhyme. "A playwright who doesn't observe these rules," he added, "may turn out one or two tragedies that will be applauded in the theater, but he'll never be regarded as a good writer.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fictionalized Life

I have always written fiction. The first story I remember writing was when I was seven years old. I've had some long dry periods, but I have written fiction my whole life.

I was just thinking about how everyone does...create fiction, that is. If you're a mother, you've been fictionalized by your kids. My kids have created stories of who I am and what I am to them. They're not interested in knowing me. Or maybe they are, but maintaining the fiction overrules getting to know me because the fiction serves a vital purpose in their day-to-day realities. I'm saying that again because it seems so contradictory but isn't. The fiction upholds what they believe to be reality. My younger daughter, especially, uses fictionalized accounts of me to make the drama of her life a tactile experience to herself and anyone who will listen to her. The result is that every time I see her, I feel like a lamb tied to a stake. There are reasons I don't try to see her.

My mother, rather than talk to me, fictionalized who I was to exonerate herself from taking responsibility for the fictional me. I, in turn, fictionalized my mother in an attempt to explain why she acted the way she did.

My conclusion is that all is fiction. We never really know anyone. Where memory is concerned, the brain is a flawed organ.