“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]
Veteran’s Day, 1968. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion after War. He spoke of his time in Vietnam as unavoidable, a river to cross, an obstacle to remove. Once the orders are issued, he said he would face court martial if he didn’t go. “There’s no other choice,” he said. “I have to go even if Dad says the war is a mess right now.” What his father had said was that there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground, in the jungles, and what politicians and the Pentagon perceived the war to be and expected it to be, a reality which would not be unraveled from the fundamental untruths and hyperbole of the war until years later. But, I understood nothing about what he was about to step into. “We’ll survive – I’ll be home by Christmas next year,” he said. “Then I have only one year before I can get out of the army completely.” I promised to write every day and prayed for the rash to go away. “Letters – that’s all we’ll have over there,” he said. “Where I’ll be, there won’t be any other communication except mail.” The anticipation of verbal silence, physical distance, had its own power. It began slowly with long silences and idle activities, constant unspoken preparation. We could drive for an hour together without a word between us. We unpacked and repacked, organized cleaned, straightened, made lists. On our last night together on November 10, 1968 we barely spoke. We expressed our love for each other only with our bodies. The poison ivy scourge had […]
Writing takes time and courage. But, is there a sure-fire approach that will maximize productivity? I’m not sure. Unfortunately, I don’t have an organized practice – or even a routine that I can easily describe. Deadlines are always a great inspiration and get me to the desk more frequently than anything else. I know I’m not a morning writer. That’s when I prefer to read. I build up to writing during the day and hopefully start in the afternoon. It’s easier for me to see what distracts me from writing. Today, I’m feeling dispossessed, as if I can’t settle down and feel at home in the world. I’ve spent most of the day roaming around my house, picking up random books, wondering if I should give some of them to the library book sale. If I can sit down and start typing, I know that I might get through this odd feeling of having elusive, abstract, uncomfortable ideas. I might begin to understand and tease apart my sense of absence and become present. As David Whyte says in Consolations, “we become visible and real when we give our gift and stop waiting for the gift to be given to us. We wake into our lives again…” Whyte also says that most of us feel besieged: by events, by people, and even by our own imagined creative possibilities. He suggests starting the day with a “don’t do” list rather than a “to do” list so that you have the highest likelihood of getting to your writing. Life happens – birth, death, an accident, a financial setback – and may take you far away from […]
My mind needs spring-cleaning right now, just like the rest of my house. The ideas are piled up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They are mental meteors ready to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an adventure on the page, but the lights on the landing field are obscured. My brilliant gems zoom off un-tethered into the stratosphere. I excuse this by reminding myself that I am besieged because a member of my family recently committed suicide. I’m choosing my words carefully. David Whyte says that most people feel besieged most of the time by events, by people – even by the creative possibilities they have set in motion themselves. A traumatic event, a suicide, throws the mind into disarray by demanding a place within every thought, every activity. It’s difficult to remember our vision of what we were doing and what we wanted to do with our lives before the event. Someone has chosen to stop in the midst of life and we question how to regroup and reorganize our life without them. The people who are still in the world are waiting for us to come back from the disorganization and brittleness of grief and we’re not sure how to cross the river of broken dreams and rejoin the world. Peter Walsh, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than our basements. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want?” He starts with the purported “purpose,” picking up an object […]
During National Nurses week 2015, from May 6 – 12, we acknowledge and celebrate the excellence and dedication of those who choose the nursing profession. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated. The patients were mostly elderly people who had the usual physical and mental problems related to aging, but we lived in a rural area and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for many emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones, head injuries and emotional problems. I can see my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound caused by broken glass and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually, a doctor might become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, always women in those days, were unsung heroines. Nurses in war zones and military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed as well, putting their lives in peril on the battlefield for centuries. Yet, little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Even appropriate financial remuneration has been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ pay, both in military and civilian life, begin to become commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of their jobs. Many women served as nurses during the Revolutionary War, but they are barely mentioned in history books. The Second Continental Congress, heeding George Washington’s advice […]
My mother was a great fan of Benjamin Franklin. She was an entrepreneur and self-starter herself and she spoke frequently about Ben’s many successes: publishing newspapers; establishing a subscription library and philosophical society; a fire company; a hospital; a militia; becoming postmaster of Philadelphia; proposing the University of Pennsylvania; performing electrical experiments (the lightning rod!) and on and on to signing the Declaration of Independence and enabling peace negotiations with France and Great Britain. The first lesson: nothing hinders success more than lack of ideas. She spoke about him so often that, as a child, I assumed we were relatives. I thought of my mother when I was honored with the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award by the IBPA for my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War. She died years before the book was born, but I felt her influence as I battled continuous rejections by publishers. Once the book was written, the idea of giving up on its publication became impossible. It was only a question of when. I don’t know exactly how my mother planted the seeds of industry and determination in her children, but she did, and I’m happy to be associated with any famous person she admired (although Mata Hari was pretty high on her list, too). The second lesson: believe in yourself and your product – in my case, the story I wanted to tell. Now, in the spirit of Ben, I’d better get on to my next project.
It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even their home if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them and became one of the original signers of the group’s charter. The name was changed to Gold Star Wives of America in 1948 and the mission expanded to seek benefits for both the spouses and children of persons who died in war and as […]
Join me at the Veteran’s Summit at Lyndon State College in VT on March 14, 2015, for a presentation on remembrance and reunion after war.
Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.” Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad. Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s […]
At a recent meeting with a book club discussing my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, one reader asked me if it is difficult today for me to look at pictures of my husband who was killed in Vietnam in 1969. It’s a great question because it brought back my memory of the many years during which it was difficult to look at anything that reminded me of him and our happiness. I remember putting out of sight anything that triggered my grief and the pain in my heart, even the book plates that he had placed in all our books, with an image of the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, on which he wrote, “Dave and Ruth” was too much for me. I covered them up with the same bookplate, leaving the line where our names had been written blank. And yet, today, I have written and published an entire book about him, our relationship, his death and the serendipitous meeting of his comrades who have regaled me with stories about him. In the process of writing I’ve looked at many photographs of him, many supplied by the guys who were with him in Vietnam. I see this young, handsome guy who I was deeply in love with, who I still feel the same love for, but I can look at him and not feel shaken. Is this the effects of time, age, natural healing? Does the heart grow scar tissue? I’m not sure. In my memoir I wrote about learning from my mother’s example of putting things away after a death. When my youngest brother died at home after years of […]