Remembering Memorial Day

The Legacy of Vietnam   May, 2017, marks the 48th anniversary of my husband’s death in Vietnam. I don’t like to pin it down to May 17 (1969) because of the peculiarities of the time difference between where I lived at the time in Connecticut and where he died in Southeast Asia. The 8000 miles between us made it seem that we were days apart. Perhaps when managing this kind of tragedy, we play with anything that offers freedom from exactitude. The Life-Cycle of Grief Each year, remembering this event takes on a different shape in my inner world as it reverberates through wherever I am in the present. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that is locked in time, irreparably, so I note the similarity of the weather, then and now, and who I am, today. I remember that it was finally spring, trees were blossoming, and I remember the commencement of the grief process back then as I reabsorb this moment from long ago, again. Each year at this time I pay more attention than usual to my life navigation and where I’ve sailed from that lightning bolt of catastrophe. The most important thing I’ve done in all the years since his death was to understand the experience of war and loss by writing about it. Richard Hoffman says about writing difficult stories that you can never entirely redeem the experience, but you can make it beautiful (human) enough that there is something to balance it. When we restore balance, we integrate our experience and feel our own truth. It becomes manageable. Writing […]

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 […]

What is Your Writing Practice?

            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 […]
By |September 6th, 2015|writing|0 Comments

The Emotional Tentacles of Suicide

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 […]

Lessons learned from winning the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Award

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.

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 […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

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 a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]