The Adventure of Travel Writing

Travel has a way of slowing you down, says author and traveler Rolf Potts, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end on your return home. It can be one of the benefits of planning, before the trip,  to write about experiences on the road. I love this notion of living each day with the anticipation and exhilaration of seeing, hearing and smelling a place for the first time – even if I’m visiting my living room. But what is travel writing – today?  A look at styles, purpose and tradition is worth a moment of consideration as we gather pen, paper, journal and IPad before setting out on a journey. There are writers who create “service” articles and guides – those helpful hints about what to do, for example, if you come upon a shark while swimming off the coast of Australia, or how to find the oldest church among the thirteen in San Miguel de Allende, or the best restaurant in Los Gatos, CA, (where they claim to have the best restaurant in the US) or the site of a Civil War battle in New Jersey (did they battle that far North?). And then there are those writers who take us on their journey. They might be searching for ancestral roots in Poland or describing how they managed to know how to behave at a luncheon with members of the Communist Party in China. The common thread among travel writers dedicated to 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 […]

Reading, Writing: The Natural Life of a Reader

I read for pleasure, information, adventure, enlightenment and inspiration. I read other writers who are writing in the same genre as myself, usually the personal essay, to keep up my energy and try to understand what I’m doing. Reading is an unending source of nutrients. When someone recommends a book – and I like it – it’s the best present I could receive. A friend recently suggested Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories, and now I’m ready to read everything written by Steven Millhauser. I enjoyed the same feast years ago when I discovered Robertson Davies and Carol Shields. I could read The Stone Diaries again and again except that now, waiting for me, there are new discoveries: Out Stealing Horses, The Library at Night, Travels with Herodotus, and on and on. Barbara Holland says in Endangered Pleasures, “ move permanently into one’s head and construct their own space there, a kind of walled garden full of tame dragons that we can walk around in whenever we want.” Love of books and stories bubbled up through my family. I remember my father reading the Encyclopedia Britannica throughout my childhood; he was never put off by an obscure or dry subject. As we sat in the living room together in the evening, whatever we were doing separately was punctuated by enthusiastic yelps from dad, like, “Listen to this! You’ve got to hear this,” and he would read aloud about an explanation of mitosis or yet another lost tribe. At bedtime, he would spin a new rendition of Brer Rabbit and Reddy Fox as my brothers and I […]

Looking for Mr. (and Ms) Goodness: Writers and Teachers Who Inspire

“Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us… Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprised, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable….In a higher manner, the poet communicates the same pleasure. By a few strokes he delineates, as on air, the sun, the mountain, the camp, the city, the hero, the maiden, not different from what we know them, but only lifted from the ground and afloat before the eye. He unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew.” An excerpt from “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson   What a pleasure it is to bask in Emerson’s words, even if his style from the mid-nineteenth century requires slow, close reading. When I reread this essay, it brings me back to my first meeting (with his work) in high school. I still feel that intimacy of recognition as if he is speaking directly to me, tapping me on the shoulder, creating the “bling!” moment of a new idea. This was my introduction to what a poet might be doing – unfixing nature and experience. Until then, I hadn’t a clue and I hadn’t expected to fall in love with a man ten times my age.   I was fortunate to have an English teacher in 1962, Miss Whalen from California, who not only immersed her students in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but also hired a bus and took us on the three-hour trip from Connecticut to Concord, Massachusetts. She wore the same spike heeled shoes that day as she […]

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 […]

Vintage Food: Recipe for Nostalgia

Vintage food is not “old” food as in – past its prime; uneatable; expired. It’s not that bulging tin can of stewed tomatoes with cryptic black lettering suggesting it was best eaten before 1985. It is the food we remember like a perfect postcard of something delicious that mom or gramma prepared (maybe dad, although I only remember my father standing in front of the stove once to put out a small fire I started at age seven while making toast on a gas flame). Vintage food is a fragrant pan of fresh-baked Parker House Rolls; little pillows of smooth golden crusts, brushed with butter and brought by Aunt Elsie to every funeral reception. It’s a basket of shell beans encased in papery pink and green mottled pods. It is fat, juicy hamburgers cooked in sliced yellow onions and made from a slab of top round beef that the butcher down the street had put through his meat grinder that same day. It is a picture of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in the Saturday Evening Post showing them sitting behind TV tray tables with their forks poised over a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner served in an aluminum rectangle with three separate compartments for Turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans. It is Red Flannel Hash (corned beef and diced  potatoes), cod fish cakes sizzling in a heavy, black cast iron fry pan, Finnan Haddie (salted cod cooked in cream) next to boiled new potatoes on a Blue Willow patterned china plate. It is succotash (corn, beans and yellow squash). It is three-layer gold cake with chocolate frosting melting down the sides […]

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 […]

When in doubt, throw it out? The writer and her archives.

I clicked on a link to the Dr. Oz weight loss program recently hoping to find inspiration about how to lose unwanted pounds of paper; those pages and pages of first, second, third  …two hundredth drafts of book chapters, essays, lectures – anything that can be written down and rewritten – and saved. These are not stored on a hard or a flash drive anywhere because – heaven forbid – they could be lost. An astroid could hit the earth and destroy everything that is not written in stone on paper. I know this is an inherited disorder. I’m descended from a long line of paper-savers. My mother and grandmother saved every letter, green stamp and receipt for purchases. Receipts I can understand; anyone can be audited by the IRS and you’d better have proof of purchase for that lampshade bought back in 1941. These old drafts of articles, poems and essays are like bicycles; I might need them for parts. I revere these yellowed pages as if they are ancient Schwinns or Peugeots. They just don’t make them like that anymore. What if I can’t write like that anymore? Do I really love every word I’ve ever written this much? When Hemingway or Faulkner or whoever it was said that we must “kill our darlings” and ruthlessly prune our writing, even of our favorite parts, he didn’t say that we also must dispose of the bodies. Like those delightful ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, we can cart them down to the basement and stack them in the canal. There are artists among us who have […]