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 […]
I am grateful for a year of blessings. My book launch on May 17, 2014 was beyond my wildest dreams. More than 100 people came and crammed into Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT. Since then, the bookstore has sold more than 120 copies (not bad for a small town!) and I was honored to present my book to President Obama at the White House on Memorial Day. The book continues to be one of the top sellers on Amazon. I believe that the success of my book is related to the fact that many people need to hear and speak about those years during which the Vietnam War ravaged our spirits in this country. Because I am telling my story of how I became a widow at age 23 in 1969, and how I survived and eventually met, in 2006, the men who served with my husband, people are responding to me with their stories. I am honored to hear them. The power of stories and storytelling for healing is amazing. Bless this year, and all of you. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War: “I like to think that a rough-cut wisdom sustained me through my earlier life when I arrived at the beginning of adulthood, met incomprehensible tragedy and thought I had nothing left to live for. Sorrow does leave footprints, but healing is the courage just to continue, to begin again and again – many times over. I’m still standing, still believing. Hope works from within, rebuilding, even when we feel hopeless. It […]
When I grew up in rural Connecticut in the 1950s, we attended church in Quakertown, an area in Ledyard founded by the Rogerene Quakers in the 17th century. The Quakers of that time were trying to escape persecution by the Congregationalists. Both of my parents had been born at home in Ledyard and were descendants of the Rogerenes. The church service had evolved since the early days and had become fundementalist, similiar to a Southern Baptist style. The main event of every worship service was music and lots of “praising” as people stood up spontaneously to say, “Praise the Lord!” They would mention the sick and needy during the praising periods and ask for blessings. Some people were overtaken by the Holy Spirit and rolled on the floor in the aisle while speaking in tongues, a nonsensical language over which the speaker supposedly has no control. For me, it seemed like a curious explosion of adult emotion. Kids didn’t “know” this language but grownups appeared to feel better afterwards. When they recovered and got back in their pew, they would be smiling and perspiring. I’m not sure what anyone expected, but they seemed relieved. At Christmastime there were trees laced with paper chains and ropes strung with cranberries and popcorn at the front of the church. Choirs and soloists sang carols and children performed pageants and memorized poems. My grandmother inscribed my poem on the back of an empty Christmas card box. She wrote it out in longhand and, because I couldn’t yet read at age four when I was assigned my first poem, she spoke […]
Since my book launch on May 17, 2014 I’ve experienced the joy of sharing conversations about my book with many book clubs and at schools and libraries. At a recent event at the Groton Public Library, several Vietnam Veterans were in the audience along with people who said they had protested the war back in the sixties. Everyone expressed a need to talk about that time and the long silence that followed. Telling our stories is a healing experience and I’m happy that my book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, seems to resonate with so many and stimulate the joy of sharing and hearing each other’s memories about a difficult time in our nation’s history. By talking about not just the bad times, but also the good times, people begin to feel more whole. Remembering the goodness of some people during dark days seems to trigger a greater sense of happiness in the brain. Writing about these experiences can also have profound healing effects. There are no rules. Write whenever you want and however you want. Only you know and can tell your story. And, hearing your story might help others to remember their’s.
I was deeply touched by the responses to a question I posed on Facebook recently when I asked for thoughts on why people become depressed (or more depressed) around the holidays and which holiday is the most challenging. No one spoke about having to work on a holiday as a source of distress and no one mentioned cooking, but this was a limited sample. A sense of loss was number one; loss of family members, traditions, and place (for those who have moved far away from what they call “home”), especially when the losses were irrevocable. Certain people in our lives seem to be beacons for how to celebrate and enjoy a holiday. One person described her deceased husband as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. When he was gone, it was difficult to get into the spirit in the same way. Christmas is a time when we miss people the most. One person mentioned that her sadness since her husband’s death in Iraq is greater at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young to remember their father. He died when they were babies. Right behind loss was the overwhelming sense of expectation; that holidays require being social and happy, buying gifts, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all this in a short period of time (if you haven’t been shopping all year!). December 26 is a day of enormous relief for many people. Maybe that’s the day the party should be held. After expectations, a […]
My brother Sam was three years younger than me and died from AIDS while still young and handsome at the age of thirty-nine in 1989. On November 21st, 2014, he would be 65, eligible for Medicare. I’m not sure how he would have handled getting older. We were very close, in spite of a scrimmage now and then. When we were growing up, I seemed to be the person he preferred to fight with, but also the person he ran to whenever he got into difficulty. He was fiercely competitive with me, even though I didn’t want to compete. My first memories as a child were about Sam, and my memory of his dying words stuck with me. Eventually, I had to write about it in order to try to understand what he was trying to say. I was honored to have my essay about our life as brother and sister, Sam’s Way, published in The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 2012), and doubly honored when it was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013. Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world – and it worked. Many people who had known him contacted me and I had lots of great conversations about what a funny, courageous, difficult and generous person he was. In honor of Sam, I’ll be baking his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing on Friday and thinking about all the beautiful and talented people who were lost to a horrendous disease. Happy birthday, Sammy. Wish you were here.
My husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., left for Vietnam on November 11, 1968. Veteran’s Day always brings back the memory of his early morning departure from a small local airport. This year, on the anniversary of his death in Vietnam, May 17, I published a memoir about that time in my life and the aftermath. I’m happy to say that the experience of writing this book and reconnecting with the men who served with him in Vietnam has been transformative. I have reconnected with a neglected past. The following is an excerpt from the first chapter: Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War Truly nothing is to be expected but the unexpected! Alice James (1891) On May 17, 1969, when I was twenty-three, my husband, Captain David Rockwell Crocker, Jr., was killed in the Vietnam War. We had married on the day after his graduation from West Point in June 1966. Three years later, after six months in Vietnam, he was mortally wounded while inspecting a deserted Viet Cong bunker. He had entered the small dark enclosure with his first sergeant along with a Vietnamese translator, and another soldier, who was a conscientious objector, carrying a bulky radio. There are speculations about what happened next in the bunker. Possibly an unseen wire like fishing twine, strung overhead, connected to the trigger on a booby trap; probably the antenna, projecting up from the radio, pressed against the wire. The explosion sent earth, human flesh, glass, bamboo and shrapnel in all directions. Dave survived for a few hours with fatal wounds to his […]
In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller. The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now. We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self. Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box. Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story. Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story.. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel. The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking […]
Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer. A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a […]