Truth Be Told

“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 […]

The Joy of Sharing

  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.

A Veteran’s Day Remembrance

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 […]

Musings on Memoir

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 […]

What is Memoir?

    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 […]

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]

Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War

I’m very happy to have my memoir in my hands after its long gestation. It’s available for pre-sale here on my website. Just go to the “Publications and Projects” button above. The official launch date is May 17, 2014 at Bank Square Books in Mystic. Reading and signing from 4 – 6pm. Refreshments to be served and a party to follow.

Daughters of the Atomic Age

My friend Martha from Oak Ridge, Tennessee has started to write about growing up in a town created by the efforts to build the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was one of the areas dedicated to the Manhattan Project. Overnight, an entire town was built up in which every adult was somehow connected to the develop of, and the building of, the most lethal weapon the world had ever known. Martha’s father was a brilliant young scientist. Her mother was from the small sleepy town of Sugar Tree, TN. Today, Martha is an accomplished singer and songwriter and she is just beginning to tell her story in prose. She has come to the realization that the best you can do is to tell your story and hope that you can inspire and encourage others because of your journey. Here is the beginning of Martha’s story about the events that shaped her life and all of our lives from that time forward. Dogwood Daughter: 3 ANGELS PROJECT Postcards from the Secret City – In Search of my Atomic Childhood Recently, a new book titled The Girls of Atomic City, the Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan, was published.  It’s been a best seller, not only here in Oak Ridge, but even landed on the New York Times bestseller list.   Kiernan’s book features interviews with the now very old women who came to the Secret City, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during WWII to work on the Manhattan Project.  Little did they know, at the time, that they were working on an atomic bomb, the bomb that would ultimately be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, ushering in […]

Truth and Consequences: When family and friends see themselves in your writing

(a workshop presented at a meeting of the SE Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association in Groton, Connecticut, October 21, 2013) People will always assume that what you write is true – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.   We cannot know in advance what people will be offended by  – and sometimes you will be shocked. They may resent that you haven’t included them enough in your story.   Vivian Gornick – author of “The Situation and the Story” says that good writing must do two things. It must be alive on the page and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.   Writers of all genres wrestle with putting autobiographical material in their work – and writing things in which friends and relatives might recognize themselves.   For writers who write memoir this is an especially important question. In fiction you can use false names, new settings, or even a different ending to the story. Memoir offers no such hiding places.   With family stories, the stakes are particularly high – especially if family members are still alive. You have to make ethical and practical decisions at every stage of the writing.   You have to decide – what is yours to explore and what should be respectfully left out.   (a large part of this decision is related to what really needs to be in the story. There are some things that should be left out simply because they don’t actually contribute to the story)   Every writer has to make the determination of what is too private and how to know when enough has been said and all writers approach this control differently.   For example, Paul Austin, an emergency room physician who wrote a memoir entitled: “Something for the pain” wrote about his feelings […]

What prompted that? Looking for inspiration in the writing process

    Recently – as I tried to jumpstart another essay – or at least get a few words on the page, I felt that familiar numbness spreading down my shoulders and arms and paralyzing my fingertips on the keyboard. Instead of writing I was listening to the little voice from writer’s hell that likes to play with my common sense. Some writers call it monkey mind. When it happens to me, I feel confused and drained of ideas at the same time.  Of course you have ideas, I prodded myself, but my genius moments were just wisps of smoke –  amorphous, intangible, lost in the jungle undergrowth of my mind. Accessible only to the chimp in my brain. When I reached up to snatch a thought, it was nothing but air. Not even a gnat’s wing of substance.   Dr. Beatrice Hinkle,  who opened the first psycho-therapeutic clinic in the United States at Cornell Medical College in the 1920s and specialized in treating artists, wrote, “ Every writer, …suffers from periods of drought, in which not a trickle flows. He is in full command …carried along on a flood of creation.”   I love her generous sprinkling of adverbs. Hinkle is certainly not the first or only therapist who has tried to understand artistic temperament and productivity, but I like the simple way she describes what is fundamentally an indescribable process; the torturous road of creativity where putting one foot in front of the other seems like an Olympic […]