Why I Write

A recent issue of The Writer magazine featured writer Alice Hoffman speaking about how and why she writes. On the subject of reading and writing she says “Writing serves the purpose that reading used to serve for me. I always feel like reading save my life because it was a place for me to escape. I feel like quitting all the time, but the act of writing is like being in an ecstatic state. It’s like being high because you are not there. You’re experiencing something on a different plane.”   I feel what she means about writing, but what exactly do I feel? Making a list is always a good thing to do when this kind of question comes up. Here is my list of eighteen reasons why I write:   To understand what I’m thinking. To revisit places and people of the past via my imagination. To entertain myself. To feel the magic triangle between ideas, the pen on the page and the written result. To dig for buried treasure. To reflect on common things. To reflect on extraordinary things. To approach an understanding of human nature. To contemplate death. To open a window in my brain. To translate experience into understanding. To be with others through language. To discover my childhood. To describe. To play with words. To find lost worlds. To remember To forget.

Sisters Among the Gold Stars

  It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women whose husbands had died in World War II traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with another war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote in her news column, My Day, that they, “…came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room for a meeting. It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. The five women who met with Mrs. Roosevelt had grown from an original group of four widows who had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment on West 20th Street in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of war widows and their children, and to participate in memorial and recognition ceremonies for the war dead. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt to join with them after President Roosevelt’s death was auspicious. She became one of the original signers when the Gold Star Wives of America was chartered as a non-profit organization whose purpose was to do any and all things to benefit the spouses and children of persons who died in war or as a result of service connected illness. Today there are more than 9,000 active members of Gold Star Wives  and potentially 80,000 more survivors who are eligible for membership. It is not a group that one covets simply because of the very fact of how you become eligible. But, […]

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 Down the Ham Bone: Healing the Griever Within

I borrowed part of the title of this essay from Natalie Goldberg whose generous craft book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” offers great sustenance to writers. Her’s is a healing book to encourage writers to get on with life, to feed the writer spirit, to be attentive to place, to memory and experience. I’ve been grappling with writing about healing from grief, specifically how I survived the death of my husband in Vietnam in 1969, and then the tragic death of my father after a construction accident in 1981, and my younger brother’s death from AIDS in 1989. I’m not special in my experiences. It is rare to meet anyone who has not experienced a generous helping of tragic events. But, my question is: How do we share these experiences among ourselves? How do we decide what to do and what to say? Can we pinpoint things that are helpful? Being a lover of cooking and the sharing of food, some old culinary memories bubbled up as I thought about living through tough times. I can’t say that I desired anything to do with eating in the aftermath of learning that my husband had been killed when I was twenty-three, but I do remember the presence of food in that difficult time; I remember people gathered around me at the dining room table and in restaurants where others ate and I sat in stunned silence.I remember kindness and encouragement without pressure to participate and eat. When my grandmother died in 1972, a basket arrived on our doorstep even before the funeral. It contained a […]

Nutrition and the Stress of Tragedy

Naomi appeared lean and fit, although a bit pale, when she arrived for her appointment in the Nutrition Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first glance, before taking her history, I thought she might be a long-distance runner, an ice skater, or a gymnast. I had counseled many elite athletes over the years. They usually wanted to know what kind of foods would enhance their performance and if it was true that some nutrients or supplements made it easier to build muscle. Sometimes they had an eating disorder brought on by the constant competition to be strong, but look thin. As soon as Naomi began to speak, I realized that her nutritional challenge was completely different. “My mother thought I should see someone,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t eat – I have no desire to eat – in fact I feel full all the time – but also empty.” She described a feeling of heaviness in her chest, lack of concentration, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and frequent tears. Further conversation revealed the source of her emotional and physical state: Three months before, her fiancé had been killed in Iraq. Many people don’t realize that learning terrible news – being suddenly and powerfully aggrieved – triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to handle emotion, it is the body’s way of trying to stay safe. Both the physical stress of athletic training and the emotional stress of a sudden tragedy can create the same reaction in the body. As we battle to survive, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. As these hormones surge throughout the body, they enable us […]

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 […]

Mental Clutter: Organizing the mind for writing

  Perhaps it’s the winter season and I think I should be hibernating. Why else do I have the sense that I can’t get myself organized to write an essay? The ideas are there, piling up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They fly around in my head, meteors intent to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an interesting adventure on the page. But – the big BUT – I seem to have turned the lights off on the landing field. My brilliant gems zoom off untethered into the stratosphere. The end result: my mind is cluttered with bits and pieces, words, storylines, plot ideas, and nothing is happening on the page.   Peter Walsh, an authority on organizing the content of homes, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than in our basements, closets or garages. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter and cluttered minds on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects (things) when he helps people to tidy up, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want and the home you want?” He works room by room with people, starting with the purported “purpose” of the space. In each area he picks up objects and asks the owner if the thing moves them closer or farther away from their vision of the life they want. If it’s further away, out they go.   Let’s visit […]

Remembering War

This essay entitled “My Buddy’s Hat”  also appears in the winter issue, 2013, of the on-line Journal PersimmonTree.org “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”  Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April, 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This is the recreational outing during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  They include me in their repartee – as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’. “ How amazing to be on a road trip with some of the guys who were with my husband forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m […]

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 […]
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