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 […]

Grandparent’s Day and 9/11: A story of resilience

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down.  Deep sadness, rage, disbelief, guilt, even becoming physically debilitated […]

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 […]

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 […]

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. […]

Memoir and Family

I often hear people express a desire to write a memoir. “What aspect of your life do you want to write about?” I ask. My friend Susan replied, “I’d like to write about growing up with an alcoholic mother, but she’s still alive. She’d kill me.” “Really? What part of the story do you think she’d object to?” I asked. I was being a bit devilish or at least provoking, because sometimes it can be too early for the writer to approach certain subjects/life experiences – which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to write about them, it’s just that it may take many drafts, many re-entries into the subject, to find out what it is they want to say. But this is the purpose of memoir. In writing about what we remember we are reflecting about something significant that happened in our life and trying to do it as truthfully as possible. The fact that some members of our family may not agree with our understanding comes with the territory. My brother often reads my work and says, “Oh, no, Ruth, it wasn’t like that.”  But what about this nagging question as to whether we should write about certain subjects at all, ever? Judith Barrington writes in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art that memoirist Jill Kerr Conway said that she couldn’t have written The Road from Coorain while her mother was alive. “She would have struck me dead,” said Conway. But Annie Dillard simply left out any details that might have troubled her family in An American Childhood. Teresa Jordan said that it was extremely hard to start writing about her family when she wrote, Riding the White Horse Home. “The ranching world is a very […]
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