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 […]

Veteran’s Writing Project: The stories that must be told

I am honored to have an excerpt from my memoir published this month in O-Dark-Thirty, the magazine of the Veteran’s Writing Project. Here is a description of the project written by the editors: “O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project.   Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find. One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.” My story, What the Dog Understood, describes a […]

Writing When the Time is Right: Memoir and Emotional Events

On this New Year’s Day, I am stuck on a thought: When is a writer ready to write about an emotional life experience? Most writers of memoir say that we need time and distance to enter the reflective process, especially with a highly charged memory. We know we have been transformed, but how? Transformation (healing, movement of ideas, change) occurs slowly over weeks, months and often years. Each person responds in their own rhythm with the revelation and understanding of how the event is part of the big picture – the story. For those who want to nudge the process along, taking notes and keeping a journal is useful. Then, at the right moment, a voice says: Write something, now. Surprise yourself with ideas about what happened. Go as deep as you can, for now, always asking: Is this true?   My mother and I were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She lovingly tolerated me when I was a child, but a deeper, more collegial bond emerged when I became an adult. I was surprised when I felt “orphaned” after her death on January 1st, 2008 at 12:00 noon.  I was sixty-one and thought it odd to feel bereft of a parent in this way. I had witnessed her decline for years and I watched her battle against impending death during the four preceding days and nights that it took her to depart the world. The sudden awakenings, the furtive looks, the grasping for my hand, the noisy, ominous breathing, the calming effects of morphine doses – only during the last four hours of her life did she seem […]

What’s So Funny? Humor in Non-fiction Writing

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 […]

Eat, Walk, Write: Food for Thought

One of my challenges in the writing process is how to be connected to the work and far enough away at the same time. It is like the desire to look through the wrong end of a telescope and be magnified unto myself – at a distance. I can work for hours laying down words and sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared there. I can convince myself that, even though I stock the frig, something new and different might have arrived by magic between paragraphs.   The amazing thing is that this little trip away from the desk helps the writing almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head.   Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must edit as if she knows nothing and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work. Novelist Zadie Smith […]

Reunion: Circle of Remembrance

Dave (wearing headphones) and members of Alpha Company. My face was bathed in the scent of a potpourri of aftershave lotions by the time I had been kissed by the last guy in line in front of me. This was not a typical reunion with old friends or classmates. I hadn’t known any of these men until this moment. As they hugged me and planted friendly kisses on my cheeks, they gave brief introductions: “I’m Joe. I carried the code book for the Captain.” “I’m Phil. I was his track driver. I don’t know why I wasn’t driving for him that day.” “I’m Dick. I was one of his platoon leaders. So glad you’re here. Dave was the best CO ever.” “I’m Lon. He was my hero.” “There are so many stories we have to tell you,” they say. “He was the best of the best.” They said they had known about me in ‘68-‘69 even if I didn’t know them. My husband, Army Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., carried a picture of me in his pocket in Vietnam, and at some point he had taken it out and shown some of them; perhaps some quiet moment when they sat around eating “beanie-weinees” or “ham and lima beans” from a pack of c-rations, or playing Blackjack back at base camp. For an infantry company in the area of Chu Chi province, there wasn’t much down time.  In April, 1969, one month before Dave was killed with four […]

Writers and Their Mothers: A Journey in Fur

I dealt with the furs today. I went to Mesahekow Furs in Waterford with the mink, the muskrat, the persian lamb, the black rabbit, the Russian squirrel stole and the formerly white bunny wraps (they are yellowed now, like rabbits who need a bath). Since my mother’s death in 2008, I kept her furs in the same cedar closet where they had lived for years. Downsizing furs is not easy. I don’t wear fur, but these felt like my mother’s pets. I’m feeling sentimental about a bunch of dead animal skins or perhaps I need to honor my mother’s eccentricities. The showroom at Mesahekow’s had the temperature and mysterious darkness of a wine cellar and might have been painted pale blue except the walls were in shadow. This is the only furrier within one hundred miles of the cedar closet. The spot lighting here and there cast light only in certain directions, highlighting  ghostly fur-clad mannequins and creating dark corners in the rest of the room like the interior of a ship sailing near Antarctica in the endless night winter season or some other frozen place. Furs need to be cold and I suppose if the room was warm no one could be enticed to try on one of these dead creatures. In cold and darkness fur feels warm and safe. An igloo atmosphere, cave-like, makes it enticing.  Fur bespeaks luxury and survival. Capturing, skinning, preserving this amount of warmth against snow and ice could be the difference between the life and death of a hunter. Nate, the furrier in charge, didn’t look like much of a hunter but […]

Small details, big ideas; writing about difficult memories

As writers of nonfiction, the goal is to adhere to the facts as we excavate memory for stories and it is often the unpleasant, difficult events in our past that are most suited to story. But, how do we tell these tales – especially the sad and incomprehensible events – so that, as Robert Olmstead describes, “…our minds find a place where they can endure what is unendurable.” The objective is to keep the reader with us, not to drag them along sad and whimpering, feeling forsaken as the writer describes the awful things that have happened to him or her. What’s the solution? Olmstead suggests in Elements of the Writing Craft that writers can find ways to talk about something large and unbearable (death, murder, terminal illness, molestation) by talking about the pain of something inconsequential right along side. It is almost as if the smaller unimportant pain provides a respite, a seat cushion on a hard bench, from which the reader can watch the large, devastating event unfold. It offers the reader a perspective with scale by moving from small, less easily categorized details, to the large and ungainly. Here is Donald Hall at the funeral home describing his wife after her death from cancer in, The Best Day and the Worst Day: “…Dead Jane looked all right… She looked like Jane, sick Jane after fifteen months of wasting. John Singer Sargent once described portraiture as that form of painting in which there is always something a little wrong about the mouth. There was something a little wrong about Jane’s mouth. Marion Chadwick told me that mouths were the hardest part.” He doesn’t say what the mouth looked like but his choice of […]

Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]

Writing about buried thoughts in memoir and the personal essay

Memoir and personal essays are all about the self but sometimes something impedes our pursuit of the “I” character. Here we are, writing about our “selves” and there is a hesitation to explore deeper consciousness or personality, or interiority of thoughts. What stops us? Take for example, our reaction to passing a roadside accident. We may be horrified about what we see and at the same time burning with curiosity to see the mangled vehicles and the EMTs prying out a body with the Jaws of Life. Concentrating on that secret desire to watch, to see possibly something horrific, is the challenge for anyone who wants to explore and reflect on one’s personal response in a moment like this – or any moment in time. We bury these thoughts, wishes desires, quickly, and hesitate to return. BUT – sometimes we really want to write about how it felt to be in that situation. How do we go back and dredge up our true feelings? Carl Klaus speaks about “fixedness” in his book, The Made-up Self.” That resistance to drill deeper through our habitual thoughts down to a less-recognized (or less acceptable) self. The question is not to dig up and record macabre thoughts, it is how to think deeply on how we respond, what we truly think in any situation. In her essay Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf speaks about the importance of “scene making” to get at buried thoughts.   She differentiates between private (reflective) thoughts and public approaches to delve into memory. The private are the scenes which we remember but can’t make sense of – the public are the roads we try to build into memory by saying this happened, then this, then this. […]