The Emotional Shock of Memory on a Sunday Morning

I didn’t see it coming: the shock; the rawness of loss; my father’s voice; the connection to a long-dead songwriter; my recall of lyrics from old country songs.

My father was much older than my mother; their cultural influences were a generation apart. My father died in 1985. He was many things in his life: rancher; explosives expert; orderly in a military hospital; Bureau of Reclamation employee; refinery security guard. He did whatever was necessary to pay the bills.

He was a self-taught, talented harmonica player. He could play a few songs on a piano, and he could sing–not great, but in key. He sang lustily or mournfully, depending on the song.

When I was a child, we would take road trips throughout Wyoming and South Dakota. To pass the miles–often on poorly maintained roads where we moved at a snail’s pace–he would sing to us. At home, in the evenings, he’d play his harmonica.

I remembered two songs he sang often, “Red River Valley,” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.” I was moved by the latter, probably because I was a child, and it was about a child’s death. Although those songs remind me of him, so do hundreds of others things.

This morning was typical: I was watching the Sunday Morning show, sipping coffee and chatting with the resident musician. When Charles Osgood announced his retirement and signed off, he sang a bit of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” As often happens, that led to a conversation which resulted in my dragging out my iPad. This time, I was looking up Woody Guthrie and the original lyrics to “Dusty Old Dust.”

In the midst of my research, I found a link to a singer and songwriter of the early 1930s–Carson Robison. From there,  I discovered an archive of some of the songs he performed (singing and playing harmonica).

That was when the emotional shock occurred. As I read down the list, and began to listen to the old recordings, I realized that I already knew the lyrics to many of the songs. Amazingly, from deep in buried memory, the words emerged. I felt a bit like people must when they get a knock on the head and, allegedly, wake up proficient in a language other than their native language. It wasn’t only the surprise of knowing the lyrics, but the feelings they engendered. I was in tears and couldn’t figure out why until I made the connection.

My father grew up during a time, and in an area of the West, where country music was popular, and old-time lyrics were appreciated and revived. He must have followed the music (radio or records) of Robison. He must have emulated the harmonica virtuoso of Robison and sung those lyrics to me. I’d only consciously remembered the “Red River” and” Little Shoes” ones, but the others were there, and they carried all the emotional impact of seeing my father again.

As writers, we often mine our memories to find inspiration–the muse that lives in our mind (As opposed to a Muse that reportedly hovered over the shoulders of poets in previous centuries–although I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well). Often these memories carry emotional force, but we are somewhat prepared, having consciously dredged up the memory to form or enliven our prose or poetry.

It is the memories that surface when we least expect them that shake us. And, maybe, those are the ones that deserve the most attention. Think what passion those memories triggered, and write while you are still feeling the joy or the sorrow, the pleasure or the sting.

Have you had a similar experience? Did it motivate you? Did you write about it?

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Naked I Write

This morning, I had the house to myself. This doesn’t often happen, since we both work at home. After a second cup of coffee, I stripped to get into the shower, then remembered I’d planned to clean the kitchen floor and vacuum a few throw rugs. My choices were limited: I could go to the trouble of getting dressed again before doing the housework, or I could just get out my electric broom and whip through the cleaning au naturel.  I was alone after all. I won’t furnish details-suffice it to say my final decision was extremely liberating.

As I worked, I thought about the self-imposed restrictions we place on our writing. What should be limited? What should be exempt? In fiction, we have considerable latitude in making decisions about language, nudity, sex, and violence. Other than plagiarism or defaming a living person, we only have to consider what kind of book or story we want to write, and what is needed to make it authentic. When we determine our target audience, the boundaries are fairly clear. We have a framework within a particular genre, and aimed at a particular group of readers. Assuming we have good judgment, we usually can rein in our writing to conform.

It’s often said that all writing is autobiographical, and to an extent I believe that is true, at least in a general sense. Science fiction and fantasy might be the exception, but writers frequently include their experiences, preferences, and attitude into the development of both character and plot. Again, not a problem in fiction.

Nonfiction is where the dilemma often occurs. Should the writer be free to write the facts–and their opinion–without restraint, or should he or she consider who might be offended, hurt, or shocked by the revelations? Can our prose be naked, or must it be clothed?

Consider a memoir. Usually, memoir will involve some family history. While the family history in itself might not be a problem, it becomes controversial when other family members are disturbed by the material. Sometimes it is only a matter of different perspectives; at other times, the distress is because unpleasant facts or secrets are revealed.

When publishing a memoir, we also have to consider the danger of breaching our own privacy limits. It’s not always easy to achieve a balance between what makes engaging reading (and, hopefully, book sales) and personal risk.

How do we set those limits?  Do we protect ourselves from humiliation and criticism, or do we simply state unvarnished facts?

I wrestle with this every time I add a line to my memoir, or write a scene that draws on my own experience. I am coming around to the notion that I need to develop my own literary litmus test. I still working on it, but I have a few points in mind.

1.    Follow the “need to know” rule. Will the information, if included, enhance either the readability or the interest level of the work?

2.    Is it self-indulgent? Is it motivated by vanity, justification, rationalization, sensationalism, drama? Confession as a means to expiate guilt?

3.     Who is the absolute last person I would want to read the story, book, essay? What would their reaction be if they read it? How would it affect our relationship?

4.    Would the general reader care one way or the other; that is, could the material cause harm with no benefit, thus not be worth the risk?

5.    How do I want to be remembered? As a writer? A person?

“A memoir is an invitation into another person’s privacy.”
Isabel Allende

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
Virginia Woolf

Premature Explanation

Anticipation fosters satisfaction: a cold drink at the end of a hot workday; the next episode in a series you enjoy; the aroma of fresh coffee brewing, or your favorite meal sizzling on the grill. Meeting a loved one at the airport; attending a wedding of close friends; a first kiss or new adventure. Often the pleasure is heightened because we have to wait, and during that waiting period, our imagination is aroused, engendering it’s own type of pleasure.

The same process applies when I open a book that promises to please me, perhaps because it’s an author I admire, or a subject that intrigues. I want to be drawn in slowly–call it literary foreplay–and have time to savor the plot as it unfolds. I want to gradually get to know the characters, understand the conflicts, and discover details of the setting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.

There is an author and producer whose work I admire. This person created one of the most memorable television mini-series of the last twenty years (my opinion). Throw in a brilliant actor, a skilled director, and you have the quintessential unbeatable combination.

I brought home several of her novels, expecting to be entertained. I also wanted to learn from this accomplished individual. I was disappointed; the first book didn’t engage me like I’d hoped it would. But why? The characters were believable; the plot was plausible; the setting was authentic; the editing was reasonable; the resolution was sound. Still, something was off.

I opened the second book and read the first thirty pages, then realized why the first one hadn’t made the grade with me. Because, in spite of the good things about it, it had seemed overlong and overworked. The anticipation was lacking. I had been “told” too much, too soon.

Most writer’s have heard a dozen times, “Show, don’t tell.” Most of us try to follow that, but it isn’t easy. Perhaps because we live in a world where so much communication is misunderstood and criticized, we are on guard. Maybe because we forget the written word is different from the visual media. For whatever reason, we tend to sometimes over-explain, rather than trusting the reader’s intuition.

Reading is an active endeavor in which readers must supply details from their own imagination. For example, a character has long blonde hair. What you see in your mind can be 180 out from what I see. Straight and stringy or full and wavy? Natural or bleached? Clean and fragrant or dirty and tangled? Depending on what we visualize from hints the author has planted about the character, we draw a conclusion about that character’s attitude and personality: angelic or bawdy; meticulous or slovenly; conservative or nonconforming.

When the author feeds us information slowly, throughout the book, the characters emerge along with the plot. If we are a little unsure at the beginning of just who they are, and how they will react, then the author has created anticipatory anxiety. The “Oh my god, she isn’t really going to let them into her house, is she?” kind of nail-biting tension that moves a story along and builds toward the climax and resolution.

On the other hand, when we are told, prematurely, exactly who the characters are, what their relationship is to others, and what they are thinking, there’s not much left for our imaginations to supply. Action and dialogue become inevitable because we know how the characters will react. They have been individually stereotyped and locked into predictable patterns.

As writers, when we create a character, we usually have imagined the character’s background, values, and temperament. We want the reader to know our characters as well as we do. Memorable characters, are, after all, why many readers follow an author and look forward to a sequel or series. However, in trying to accomplish this, sometimes we rush it and reveal too much, too quickly, and negate the element of surprise.

It helps to remember that, as readers, we form pictures in our mind: we visualize the characters; we see the setting; we experience the atmosphere; we find our emotions sparked by both action and dialogue. We cringe, cheer, laugh or mourn. We hold our breath, or exhale in relief. We are able to do this because our own emotions and experiences have supplied the cinematographic details. We see the characters and, by extension, ourselves in the fictional world.

Much like a treasure hunt, uncovering clues to the characters and the plot, as one turns the pages, heightens anticipation. And, sometimes, anticipation is the best part.

Letting Go of the Ledge

When reporting tragedies, television news channels occasionally air a video (amateur or professional) showing someone grasping the ledge of a building, clutching a rope dangling from a cliff, or clinging to a raft or tree. It is a visceral shock to see the victim let go seconds before saving hands can reach him or her. It is heartbreaking to see people slip away to their sure death with rescue only inches away.

I never fully understood why sheer adrenaline didn’t kick in and supply that extra ounce of strength needed to hold on for a few more seconds. Now I have an answer–and it came to me in the most mundane circumstances.

I live in Kentucky, where green algae and black mold can appear on nearly any surface. Thus, I needed to buy a power washer for my deck. I’d never used one before, but the one I bought was an electric model with a gentle, controllable output. Even so, it required a stronger grip than I’d anticipated.

Our deck is old, and there is some deterioration, so I went slowly and carefully.  I kept an even pressure on the wand trigger, persisting although I could feel my hand becoming fatigued. After about twenty minutes, the motor suddenly cut out. I waited a few moments, then squeezed the trigger. Soon, the motor began stopping and starting sporadically. I assumed I’d bought a faulty power washer.

I informed the male in my house that he would have to return it to the store. He didn’t think so, and took over. He is stronger and had no problem keeping a steady pressure. I tried again, and that’s when I realized that, independent of what I wanted to do (or thought I was doing), I had involuntarily relaxed the pressure on the trigger when my hand began cramping.  It had nothing to do with extra effort or willpower; my body reacted and relieved the muscles when the discomfort became too much.

Finally aware my body, and not my head, was in charge, I relaxed my hand every few minutes and finished the job. All the while I was working, a thought kept nagging at me. Wouldn’t it be nice if my mind could let go of moribund manuscripts in the same way? Wouldn’t that help me evaluate what was worth keeping? Wouldn’t it free me to work on something new? Why can’t I scrap tedious projects when they become too tiring?

Perhaps we’d be better off letting go of some of our previous attempts, rather than wasting time and energy trying to market them, publish them, or rewrite them? I admit, this goes against my nature (see previous blog: Down to the Last Petal); however, I wrote that blog before I had my epiphany with a power washer.

I’m thinking of establishing a literary triage system.

Folder #1: Working 2016  – Worth continuing: edit, rewrite, market.

Folder #2: Future Possible  – Not viable at present, but worth considering.

Folder #3: Good Try  – This one is difficult; it’s hard to retire words. Save, but forget.

While I couldn’t force my cramping hand to keep up the trigger pressure on the power washer wand, I can control manuscript decisions. If I wasn’t already convinced, the last two days have tipped the scale. I wrote a travel essay about 6 years ago. I wrote it for a gravely ill friend; it recounted our last trip together, and I made a point of keeping it light. It meant something to her, and I should have left it at that.

Instead, when a call for travel article submissions was sent to me recently, I opened the file on my old essay. The publisher set the word limit at 1200 words. I thought I could pull out one theme from my 8600 word essay and develop it into a short article. I worked two days. I worked, but my plan did not; the theme fell apart when I tried to piece together hotel anecdotes. That short piece is definitely headed for the Good Try folder.

Knowing when to pack in a lost cause can be liberating. Someday, I may blow the dust off it and give it more consideration, but for now I’m more interested in new material and a fresh start.

And, I now have a love affair with my pressure washer. The vinyl siding is next.

Wanted: Anal-Retentive Literary Agent

Freud suggested that children who experience conflict during what he termed the anal stage, might, as adults, manifest personality traits connected to controlling bodily functions. He labeled the personality type as “anal-retentive.” As an adult, the individual would practice a high degree of orderliness and meticulousness, tending to be careful, precise, and obstinate.

That designation came to mind when I was considering the agent dilemma. I could really use a “retentive” literary agent. I particularly liked a definition I read on the Urban Dictionary site which described an anal-retentive person as someone who “can’t let go of shit.”

That’s what I want in an agent. Someone who, if they believe in my work, will make it a priority to place it with an appropriate publisher. Someone who won’t forget all about my “shit.”

Translated, anal-retentive personality traits in an ideal agent would be:

Orderly: He or she won’t lose my cover letter–or the middle chapter of my manuscript–before reading it.

Meticulous: The agent will not confuse my submission with a manuscript she or he read the week–or month or year–before. The agent will read it carefully and apportion due consideration to the genre, theme, and overall execution. He or she will keep a record of when, and in what medium, it was received and make a point of responding within a reasonable length of time.

Overly neat: That’s fine with me. Having received back hard copies of manuscripts that were covered in coffee stains, wine stains, unidentified stains–not to mention reeking of smoke and other noxious odors–I like the idea of an agent that is “extremely or overly neat” and returns my work in approximately the same shape it was in when it left my desk.

Precise: I can handle precision, even if it comes in a blunt statement like, “That character is so cardboard you should turn him into a box.”  That gives me better information than a vague, “Well, I liked it but not sure if I like John or not. Well, maybe he’s okay, but he reminded me of my ex-husband. Oh, I don’t know . . . maybe he’s fine.”

Obstinate: Great. Be as stubborn as you like. I’ll listen to you. And, if I become obstinate as well, (No! I won’t add a vampire as a character no matter how popular they are.) then we’ll work it out.

Controlling: That word has gotten a bad rap, but in this case I want an agent who can direct behavior, influence opinion, and manage or orchestrate events. I would hope my agent is in the driver’s seat at meetings with potential publishers. Control away!

There is, of course, the view from the other side of the fence. I assume most agents would not want to see retentive traits in their clients, particularly an author who’d bug the hell out of the agent with phone calls, emails, and letters. They might consider the “I’d be published if you’d just do your job,” writer as a major irritant.  I suppose some of us are too demanding, while others wait patiently and bemoan the lack of communication and progress.

Is there a happy medium? Sometimes, but with, as one wit stated, “more solitary writers in the world than there are solitary drinkers,” it is unlikely that agents can efficiently meet the demand. They are probably so awash with unsolicited manuscripts  their offices threaten to looks like the Collyer Brothers’ Harlem brownstone in March 1947. Note: the brothers had managed to hoard 140 tons of collected material. (See Wikipedia article.)

I understand compromise is necessary, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting an agent with all the best qualities of anal-retentiveness, and none of the negative traits of the opposite, anal-expulsiveness (suspicious, messy, and disorganized).

We all have our dreams.

Down to the Last Petal

 

Down to the Last Petal

I don’t give up easily, or maybe I just don’t let go easily. I often buy fresh flowers, the local grocery store variety ($4.99 a bunch). I pick up a few extra packets of  bloom extender, even though the flowers come with one wrapped into the cellophane. Most of the flowers are long-stemmed, so I start with a tall vase, then I begin a gradual process of clipping the stems every few days, putting the remaining flowers into a slightly shorter vase, and doing it all again until I am down to a few straggly blooms in a very short container. A couple of times I’ve reduced this process to one languishing blossom in a tiny bud vase.

Although I could buy a bouquet of fresh flowers weekly, I find I can’t give up on those slightly frayed petals that still offers potential. I’m the customer at the local garden center who digs through the clearance table and buys a desperate looking geranium for $1.00. I bring it home, repot it, and nourish it until it flourishes again. A few years later, when it is nothing but leggy stems, I regretfully consign it to the trash.

I don’t get rid of things that have gone hopelessly out of style or have lost their original purpose, although often I should. I also don’t give up on people in my life, even though they sometimes vex me to distraction.

So far, I haven’t given up on publishing, even though it is often a formidable challenge. You know what I mean if, inspired, you have written something you believe is good enough to be read by others. At which point, you are faced with three choices, although, I suppose, there are other, imaginative, options. Basically, these are the typical avenues to publishing.

You can do the “dance of the agents.” If you know an agent, or have any connection to one, then you might luck out. On the other hand, if you are going through lists trying to find a fit (and visiting forums that supposedly give you the lowdown on various agents), then you have a major task ahead. Once you finally narrow down your choices, put together your query letter, and hit send or slap a stamp on an envelope, the wait begins. Maybe they’ll respond; maybe not. Maybe it will be in a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a year or two. Or not at all. Should they want to read your work, the same timeline often applies.

You can try to contact a publisher directly, although that has become extremely difficult because most of them use an agent as a gatekeeper. Some of the Indie publishers allow un-agented queries, but many of them are small operations and overtaxed by their own generosity.

All of this makes self-publishing attractive, since you’d like to see your work out there before it is hopelessly dated, or you have visibly aged waiting to hold that book in your hand. Self-publishing holds it’s own terrors along with the advantage of instant gratification. Ask anyone who has gone that route. Print on Demand is quick and easy. Marketing is several full-time jobs, during which you aren’t writing at all, or very little.

Still . . . there is that last petal (or poem, or short story, or novel, or nonfiction work) that you just can’t abandon. Neither can I, and I’m looking forward to this summer when I can rescue a few  headed-for-the-trash petunias. I’m also polishing a manuscript; I’m not allowing it to die an early death either.

Coffee Spoons and the Prufrock Predicament

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a difficult poem to teach to a classroom full of college students taking their first literature class. To lecture them on inertia–mental and physical–was pointless unless they could relate. What, if anything, would the following lines mean to them?

“Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”

I finally made progress by asking them if they were measuring their lives in beer cans or video games. At least two-thirds of the class perked up and began counting. It was a start.

It’s not unusual to regret, at least to some extent, that we haven’t measured out our lives as well–or as productively–as we would have liked. Although I’ve indulged in my share of meaningless occupations, I take some comfort in knowing my major distraction has always been a book, and I’ve learned much about people and the world from reading good fiction as well as some noteworthy nonfiction.

However, I wasn’t prepared for social media to be quite so irresistible. The result is that some days go like this: take my first cup of morning coffee into the bedroom; prop up pillows; turn on the television to catch the morning news; whip out my iPad to try to find a better news source; read the headlines; consider having my second cup of coffee at my desk and produce those 5-10  new pages according to my ideal writing goal.

So far, so good, but then I open the iPad again and see that little red flag indicating  I have new messages and posts that I haven’t seen. I’ve made a point of limiting my number of Facebook friends so I know every one of them, either as a family member, a good friend, a friendly acquaintance, or someone I met and liked. I consider most of them interesting and, usually, I am entertained or informed by their posts.

The hours fade away; the 5-10 pages become tomorrow’s project, and the posts multiply. I reply to some and answer messages. In an effort to stay on track with the writing, I don’t text unless under duress; I don’t tweet; I don’t do some of the other stuff (If I did, I could name it and not call it stuff.) But, the attractive distraction theory holds. Writing is work, frustrating work. Social media is play, and I like to play.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Stephen King and Isaac Asimov agreed, both calling writing a lonely job. Even if writers socialize regularly, when they get down to the real business of writing, they typically isolate themselves and put in long hours staring at a computer screen or filling a notebook.

When it is just me and the keyboard, it’s easy to tire quickly and decide to take a short break, scan through whatever social media outlet I favor, and then get back to my work. But short often becomes long, and it’s hard to regain concentration. Is there a solution? If we want to be productive writers, with a reasonable output daily or weekly, how do we discipline ourselves to avoid these attractive distractions?

I’ve spoken with various authors about their writing habits, as well as  reading a number of “how-to” articles. The suggestions for disciplined writing practices range from disabling all social media on the computer and hiding the cell phone in the laundry basket, to renting an office with no media connection whatsoever. Those are drastic measures, and most working writers realize that, along with the negatives of an internet connection, there is also one really big plus–easy access to information.

In the mid-1980s, I was several years away from getting my first computer. At that time, I was working on a nonfiction book that involved a century-old crime. I only had court records of the trial, newspaper articles, and some family documents. When I needed to sort out the time line and verify other data, I found myself at the Santa Barbara library on a daily basis: recreating a calendar from 1899; getting measurements of two steam ships on the Missouri River in the late 1800s; researching the name of river towns; locating maps of various gold mining camps in Montana. It was time consuming and, sometimes, nearly impossible.

I’m grateful for the internet, and the staggering abundance of information that is available with a few keystrokes. But the downside is that entertainment is just as plentiful–and tempting.

The best thing I’ve found to keep the word count up is only planning one day at a time.

“Today I will write the next chapter, or the next page of dialogue, etc. Today I will work; tomorrow I will if  I feel like it.”

By not locking myself into a long-term, rigid schedule, I actually spend more time writing. The payoff is that one good day’s work tends to be a motivator to repeat the process the next day (the snowball effect).

It seems that when I am really engaged in a writing project, it becomes more interesting than the distractions. When that happens, the social media loses its fascination and receives scant attention.

Do you have a system that works to keep you on track?

AKA and the Hesitant Memoirist

Also Known As is not jargon limited to law enforcement. Many writers prefer to use a pen name, particularly if they wish to conceal their true identity. Protecting one’s privacy (not to mention dignity) is a strong motivator.

Occasionally, it’s a way to test the waters, to see if one’s writing is strong and effective when not tied to previous publishing success (J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith).

Some authors assume a gender specific name in the belief it will enhance their credibility or sales (Bronte sisters: Charlotte was “Currer Bell.” Emily was “Ellis Bell.” Anne was “Acton Bell”).

Sometimes, the birth name and the writing pseudonym are interchangeably (MarkTwain: Samuel Clemens). Occasionally, an author uses more than one name; for example, the mystery writer Ruth Rendell also published as Barbara Vine. Then there are names that just sound better, or easier to remember: Allen Stewart Konigsberg just doesn’t cut it like Woody Allen does.

Adopting a pen name can be useful when writing in a different genre–particularly if the new genre is frivolous or erotic?  It’s a way to have fun and still preserve your reputation with your “serious” audience. It may also be a way to protect your day job–the one that really pays the bills.

And then, there is the Hesitant Memoirist.

I’ve started a memoir a half dozen times; I’ve stopped a half dozen times. I suspect that most people, with a few decades behind them, have a “past” that might surprise those nearest or dearest to them. I find that there are incidents I’m not eager to share with my offspring.  Things I am embarrassed by, or at least consider an assault on my intelligence and self-esteem.

Many of us have asked ourselves, “How could I have been so (insert any word that applies)?”

Often, in looking back on our youthful decisions, we wonder why we made those choices; what strength or weakness in our character prompted us to act as we did. Were we given too much love or too little?  Were we raised by a struggling family with little money, or were we indulged? Were we looking for an equal in a relationship, or were we looking for an individual that would take care of us and protect us from the world? Were we victims of our own insecurities?

To answer these questions honestly, to take off the blinders and write a memoir candidly and objectively, is tantamount to running the Boston Marathon naked. And that’s just us; we may also be stripping others down to their underwear, even if we change names. But that creates another problem; when we try to protect others, we often misrepresent facts. Perhaps all memoirs are partially fiction, intentional or otherwise. Memory, after all, is slippery and can become distorted for a variety of reasons–not the least of which is self-protection.

I began a memoir ten years ago, but quickly realized that it was really about my parents and the first sixteen years of their marriage, so I changed to 3rd person and told their story. It will be published sometime this year, under the title A Chance of Today. That still leaves my own memoir hanging. Each time I’ve begun writing, I’ve hesitated and put it aside. I now realize that I need to find answers to specific questions. I’m not alone.

Many people I’ve talked with, who are in mid-life or later, have voiced a desire to write a memoir. Their reasons are varied, but the questions remain the same:

1) Why am I doing this?
2) Do I use my real name?
3) Do I change the names of others? Locations?
4) Will anyone be damaged, angered, distressed, or shocked by what I write?
5) Am I including anything that would slander or libel another? (We live in a litigious society.)
6) How candid am I willing to be? Is there any advantage to revealing closely held secrets?
7) Have I really fact checked myself?

I’ve developed some guidelines that I plan to follow; perhaps they will be helpful to you if you are contemplating your life’s story.

It seems that #1 is the only one we need to answer before beginning. If our “why” is for family, then our relationship with the members of our family will dictate the content of what we write. We need to consider values, beliefs, and family dynamics. Leaving revenge or ill-feelings out of the equation (never a good idea in a memoir), how do you want your family to see you–and how do you want them to see themselves through your eyes?

If you are writing your memoir because your lifelong endeavor has been to create, organize, or foster a philosophy, religion, movement, or institution, then your accomplishments and that of others will determine much of the content. Perhaps you were a volunteer in the Peace Corps and want to write your experiences (good and bad). Sharing your knowledge can be a valuable contribution.

On the other hand, if you are writing to publish, then you have to consider the appetite of the reading public. In 2016, not much is private or off-limits. I’ve read some astoundingly frank blogs lately, as well as browsed some memoirs that leave nothing to the imagination. But, the blogs have large followers, and the books are selling well. The question is how willing you are to expose yourself–or others? Are you prepared for the consequences? Is a best seller or a good review worth it?

Many candid memoirs are not harmful to a person’s dignity or reputation, but some can be. Consider what you want to reveal to colleagues, family, and friends. Younger family members often cannot comprehend that their parents were ever sexual, emotional beings–and they don’t want to be reminded.

Once you figure out the “why” of your memoir, it is easier to determine numbers 2 through 6.
If publication (and hopefully success) is the goal, and you are writing a “tell all,” then a pseudonym may be in order. Name changes (including locality) is also a safeguard. After all, most readers don’t care if you grew up in Kearny, Nebraska or Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s what happened to you that keeps them turning pages.

Number 7 is mainly to make sure you have names, dates, and events properly cited. Have you ever been enjoying a book, then had a “something’s off here,” moment and had to leaf back through the pages to try to sort it out? If so, you know how frustrating it can be. Spare your readers the aggravation.

It is easy to get chronology confused; you might remember a public event–at which you were present–taking place in 1988, but if it was 1987 or 1989, a reader who attended the same event will surely note it and doubt the veracity of your work. In all of my writing, fiction and nonfiction, I’ve learned to keep a separate document where I either outline names and dates before writing, or I update as I go along–usually both. It keeps me from making a number of errors, particularly in a longer work.

And my memoir? I’m still dwelling on number one. Maybe after writing a few more sample introductions, I’ll get it figured out.

That Certain Slant of Light–On the Sixth Day

Whenever I am trapped indoors for an extended time, I think of Emily Dickinson.  Looking through the window, at mounds of ice and snow, I recall her lines,“There’s a certain slant of light/On winter afternoons/That oppresses, like the weight/Of cathedral tunes.” I wonder if, on those dark, cold days, she was inspired, or if–like me–she sulked and shivered. Did she pen those well-known lines then, or months later while enjoying a balmy spring afternoon?

For that matter, I wonder if Robert Frost, who wrote so glowingly of stopping by the woods on a snowy evening, would have really thought the winter woods were “lovely, dark, and deep” if he been trudging through the snow. It may have been a frosty, winter night that inspired him, but he wrote the poem in June 1922. Recalling snow as lovely is easier when one’s memories are softened by a gentle, summer breeze. Allegedly, he’d been up all night, working on a longer poem, and stepped outside, observed it was a glorious morning, and the poem popped into his head. He is reported to have said that he wrote about the “snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination.”

After six days in the house, there is something about the snow that is blanketing our property, and making our county road all but impassable, that is definitely oppressing me. I usually tell myself (when warned that a real blockbuster of a snowstorm is coming) to see it as an opportunity. The perfect time to marry myself to my computer and finish my British mystery, work on the sequel to my novel, or produce a new short story or essay. That’s what I tell myself.

Of course, it doesn’t happen.  Instead I bounce around the house, check social media, surf the internet (suddenly fascinated by some obscure article on the ruins of an ancient community or how water clocks were constructed), cook, eat, and read. Possibly cooking and reading are beneficial, but the other activities are simply evasions of my resolution to make the most of my forced confinement.

I do, however, write much more in the spring and summer. There is something about being at my desk in the summer–windows open, fresh air blowing through the house, birds singing, the smell of newly mown grass–that motivates me to put words on paper. When I’m happy in sandals and a comfortable tee shirt, sipping iced coffee, my computer suddenly becomes my friend again. Characters come alive on the page and ideas flow, in sharp contrast to winter when my creativity seems to freeze along with the water in the cat’s dish and the ice on the front steps.

It seems that, like a New Year’s resolution, my plan to take advantage of winter writing weather is, alas, a fantasy. Maybe from now on, when the snow falls and the temperature drops, I’ll simply make hot soup, wrap up in a warm throw, and read a good book. With luck, my characters are hibernating also and will emerge fresh and ready to grace my pages.

I hope you enjoy a writing season as well–a time when you feel motivated to breathe life into your words, and energy into your characters. And the rest of the time? Just live and make mental notes.

Baked Beans on Toast and Other Disappointments

I am an after-the-fact realist. Translated, a born romantic that has learned to accept reality, albeit not with grace. Two instances come to mind.

On an previous trip to Scotland, near Inverness, I spent a wet, chilly morning viewing medieval castles and trying to spot the Loch Ness Monster.  We found a small, warm cafe for lunch, and I was excited to see “beans on toast” on the menu. In my mind’s eyes, I would be served an inch thick slice of wonderful, just-baked brown bread, toasted to perfection, with a huge helping of oven baked beans, oozing with a rich, dark sauce. I was beside myself with anticipation.

What I received was a slice of thin, slightly-toasted white bread–the kind that can be condensed to the size of a marble if you wad it up. Accompanying it was a tablespoon of cold, canned pork and beans, placed precisely in the middle of the bread. I nearly wept.

A few years later, I planned a trip to the United Kingdom to spend an authentic English Christmas with friends who lived in the Yorkshire area. I fantasized what it would be like to experience a traditional Christmas devoid of plastic lawn decorations, artificial trees, tacky decorations, and the “buy-buy-buy” mentality that seemed to prevail in my home town. I wanted to get away from the commercialization and the over-the-top hype I found so depressing.

I pictured myself wandering through the small village where they lived, peering into beautifully lit shop windows contained quaint holiday scenes. I saw cozy afternoons before a roaring fire in a small pub, drinking a hot drink from a pewter mug, while locals came in, brushed snowflakes off their caps, and wished me a jolly holiday.

I saw myself sitting down for an elegant Christmas dinner, lit by softly glowing candles, while we sipped vintage wine from 100-year-old crystal glasses ( that were, of course, only used on that special day of the year). And, yes, I thought a Yule log would be burning in the deep-inset fireplace.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I’ll spare you the details; although, in fairness, the paper party hats and “crackers” did add a bit of zest to the holiday dinner. Clearly, Christmas in Merry Old didn’t live up to my romantic notion; rather, is was the world as it is, opposed to the world as I wanted it to be. Writing and publishing isn’t much different.

A week ago, I was on a panel with several other authors talking about self-publishing versus “being published.” We all wrote in different genres, and had different interests. One person talked about the value of social media; one referred to her sound marketing background. I talked about why it took a team (friends, volunteers or professionals) to bring a project to fruition. Most of the time was given over to a Q & A session with the attendees.

As I looked at the audience, I thought to myself, “There is talent there, and good books waiting for a reader.” I hoped their work would make it into print. I hoped they’d enjoy both intrinsic value and financial reward from their effort.  That is the romantic view. The reality is that only some will find publishing success.  Some will keep their faith and keep writing; others will turn to a different endeavor or creative outlet.

Yesterday, while browsing at a book store, I gravitated to the sections that held the type of books I like to write–and like to read. The shelves and tables were heaped with the latest offerings. As a reader, I was delighted. As a writer, nothing can be more intimidating than looking around a large-chain bookstore and seeing the sheer numbers of books–knowing that along with the “hold-in-your-hand” books, a vast number of ebooks are also available. Is it romantic or delusional to believe your first–or next–book might join the ranks of the best-selling new releases? Which notion should you hold onto while you click away on the keyboard or fill the pages of your notebook?

I just read The Martian. I don’t know if Andy Weir expected the book to become a best seller and a film. My guess is he didn’t. Rather, I suspect that as a self-described “lifelong space nerd,” he simply wrote about a subject he loved, in a field he knew. Did he have a romantic or a realistic idea of how the book would be received? Hard telling. But, he must have believed in himself–and what he was doing–to plan, plot, develop, write, rewrite, and put it out for the universe to accept or reject.

I still think that someone, somewhere in the world, serves savory baked beans on superb bread,  just as I believe there’s nothing wrong with being a romantic, as long as we accept the reality that sometimes follows.

Best Wishes to All My Readers for a Joyous, Peaceful, and Healthy Holiday Season