Wednesday, March 30, 2016

the art of memoir

Here’s the thing: like a lot of people, I feel pretty ambivalent about memoirs, mostly because I’ve read some really mediocre ones. At their worst, it feels like the author is forcing me to sit through a therapy session with them, or as if I’m sitting across from an extroverted stranger with poor emotional boundaries at a coffee shop. He is just talking at me with no pause to insert myself into the conversation. Bordering on painful.

I’ve read a few good ones. I was surprised by Stephen King’s On Writing, which was fun and insightful and which I still remember parts of (telling, for me). More recently, Edwidge Danticant’s Oh Brother, I’m Dying placed her own current life as a writer and soon to be mother alongside the lives of her parents and uncle, who raised her in Haiti and then in America, giving readers a sense of what’s kept and passed along through blood and across oceans.

Let me get to it: I read The Art of Memoir (mostly on a friend’s recommendation) and really enjoyed it. Part critique (of memoirs the author has taught to aspiring writers for many years), part instruction, and part memoir (of course), the book felt like taking a master class with a good friend. I underlined a lot, but my biggest takeaway is this sense that writing about one’s own life is shaped by one's particular passions and way of moving through the world.

Here is a passage that brought it together for me:
… there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page – no matter how shameful those revelations may at first seem – the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.

Throughout the book, the author calls this "what's exclusively yours" talent, which is kind of her because implied is that we all have it. It just needs to be uncovered and refined – through hours spent writing, interrogating, remembering, revising. (I would add a few spiritual disciplines to this list, too, but that may be another post for another day.) 

Also implied is that, requiring a process that involves reexamining and “correcting the easy interpretation” in order to reach a version of truth worth sharing, writing may actually heal us. Which, in my opinion, makes the hard work of writing a good memoir a worthwhile pursuit.


(photo: magnetic poetry memoir with by my niece)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

asking my father

Growing up, Saturday nights were for going out to dinner. When I heard my father’s footsteps come down the stairs, his boots tapping against the old worn wood, and when I heard the jingle of the keys as he picked them off the dining room table, I knew it was time to go. My sisters and I rushed to put our shoes on and zip up our coats. The three of us scooted into the back seat of the car, digging for seatbelts. I might have brought a book along to read, or I might have my walkman along to listen to music as I stared out the window, guessing by the roads my father took where we might be going.

There was no discussion, and I never asked, even though every time I had an idea in my mind, a place I’d wish we’d end up. I think I understand now why my father might have kept the decision to himself – it was easier that way, and better to not have to face the shame of not being able to meet the unpredictable desires of a hungry family. I looked forward to those Saturday night dinners, but secretly resented feeling like I had no say. And I, afraid of my hunger, came home from those dinners having eaten more than my fill.

I love my father, but sometimes he felt so unapproachable to me.

*        *       *

Now, I am learning to ask.

Last week, I left my friend’s house near Malibu and headed through the canyon to the beach. The road cut through the mountains flowered with yellow wild things. Close to my destination, I needed a bathroom and wanted coffee, and told Him so. Just then, a sign for Starbucks. Once I parked, I walked along the sidewalk and instead of Starbucks, found an independent coffee shop attached to a small bookstore. How well He knows me, I thought. How kind. The rest of the drive took me toward an overlook, where I parked and found a path that led down to a beach dotted with people and water calmly lapping up against the sand. A whale showed its back to us just a short distance from land. The sun was warm. I sat, read, prayed. I thanked Him (my Father) for listening to me in the car, and heard Him say that He is always listening.

The afternoon trip was more than I’d asked for.

*        *        *

…which one of you, if his daughter asks him for bread, will give her a stone? Or if she asks for a fish, will give her a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Friday, March 18, 2016

already with you

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
     by Jane Kenyon

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years...

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper...

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me...

I am food on a prisoner's plate...

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills...

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden...

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge...

I am the heart contracted by joy...
the longest hair, white
before the rest...

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow...

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit...

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name...


(a favorite, always...)

Monday, March 14, 2016

knowing grace in my sleep

Nearly a decade ago, it felt as if my body was starting to fall apart. My knees would swell mysteriously for two weeks at a time, so stiff and painful that I wouldn't be able to walk for a few days. Then it was my stomach, then bruised and swollen ankles and feet so sore when I woke up that I couldn't walk. By that time, I had a diagnosis and medication, but even with those concrete signposts on a path toward healing, I couldn't be sure I would get there. My body felt foreign to me and I didn't know how to make peace with it.

Just as troubling was the heavy boulder of tiredness that I felt I was always carrying around. Turns out that trying to be well is exhausting. Added to that, blood had been seeping out through sores in my digestive tract, making me anemic. I remember days waking up in a haze, wishing I could just go back to sleep. I remember evenings taking naps after work, then falling asleep before the summer sun had set. I remember being afraid I wouldn't be wakeful enough to do the things I hungered for: making day trips to the beach, working a meaningful job, mothering a baby.

As with most trauma in our lives (at least the minor, boundaried kind), the daily fear of navigating chronic disease faded as I got well. Now I remember that I am sick only because of daily medication and doctor's forms that prompt me to recall the disease by name. Symptoms are minor and no longer grip me in the same way.

But there's still the tiredness. Every month or so the wave of it will come, that boulder placed on my back, that heavy layer of clouds dimming my mind and energy. My life is mostly normal, except that I can't help but feel the loss of these hours every month, when I go to bed early or sleep in later or take long naps on weekends. I wish I'd spent them writing or at a concert or hiking. Instead, I am in bed, semi-conscious. I don't even have dreams to account for the time. I have written in my journal under goals for the month or year, or as questions for my doctor: "energy issues." That's what I call this need for my bed.

But here's the thing: being tired helps me know grace. I ask for words to form in me during my sleep that I couldn't have thought of sitting at my computer. Maybe I dreamed of that concert, even if I don't remember it on waking. The music might still be in my head somewhere. And my legs, they are made strong in the lying still and resting. The Lord gives sleep to His beloved, the psalmist once said, and I wonder if he gives it not only as a relief to those who lie awake anxious, but also to those who might know something true of life in the body that others miss as they run around in this crazed sunlit world. I want to know this beloved-ness.

(In celebration of National Nap Day, purely by coincidence.)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

tenth of december: the swell and crash of a good short story

 From Tenth of December by George Saunders:
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn't died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn't dead. He'd killed no one. Ha! Somehow he'd got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was-- 
The woman reach down, touched his scar. 
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn't do that out there, did you? 
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever. 
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through. 
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live? 
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.

The thing - or, I should say, one of the many things - I love about short stories is how intense they can be. All crammed into something to be read in one sitting. So you, the reader, get it all in thirty minutes or so - all that build up and then the thing that breaks open. It's like an afternoon spent in the ocean, wave after wave crashing over you. The best are the ones you don't see building so high, the ones that take your over your body and toss you about and then return you to the sandy ground again, maybe a little scraped up by the shells but the joy of it all was worth it.

That might sound like melodrama (we're talking about reading, I know), but the best short fiction gives me this kind of thrill. And I was kinda expecting it from Tenth of December by George Saunders because I kept hearing so much about it... Halfway through the book, I'd say half of the stories lifted me off my feet, but overall it was a pretty average day at the beach. (To be honest, his voice was annoying me, it felt too affected to me. Like Rachel McAdams in half of the movies she's acted in. Just tone it down a little bit.)

Yesterday, I sat down on my couch with book in hand, intending to finish it. I was coming off a weird, emotional week, one in which I'd been able to push through some of the hard situations thrown my way. But there was one that felt like a last straw, that internally somewhere I was deciding to give up on. These little choices can be insidious because you don't realize that each one is really a choice to stop living. I was choosing to let my heart get a little bit harder, which feels like protection but is actually a living death.

This is how I found myself when I started the last story in the collection. The premise is two stories that intersect, that of a young boy playing make believe outside in ten degree weather, and a middle aged man who has decided to end his life my freezing to death because of a brain tumor. Their stories are filled out with wonderfully particular details - you understand why this man might end his life - but then he makes a decision to save the life of the boy when he is threatened, a decision which, in the end, leads him to choose to live himself.

I've excerpted that section above, the one where he realizes he wants to live after all. It came in a perfect swell, one that lifted me out of myself and made me realize that I, too, wanted more than little death.

That's the thing about a good story, it can make you want to choose the bigness of life.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

if i could pack the sun

To avoid using a cliche, I won't tell you that my Dad is a man of few words. My guess is that that wouldn't even be true, that there are plenty of words that make him. Maybe they are all jumbled up inside like a box of rusted nails, sharp and mostly unused, or maybe they slip away just as soon as they form in his head. Ashes, heavy and dumb.

He clears his throat before he speaks, as if the act requires effort, preparation.

When, at 24, I told him I was moving to Los Angeles, the words must have gotten stuck somewhere inside as he turned the page of his paper that covered the lower half of his face. I waited, but not long, and then joined the rest of the family in the dining room. A few weeks later, I asked him out to breakfast, my way communicating that I wanted to hear his opinion about my move, even if I wasn't following it. We ate omelets at Perkins, and he told me that the last time he'd flown on an airplane was when he was younger than me, living in Virginia and working his first job. I hadn't known any of this. Later, we stopped at a plant nursery and, in silence, picked out flowers for my mother and him to plant around the house.

After I lived in LA for a few years, my dad finally got himself an email address (even a Facebook account!) and here is how I receive his words now: typed in one-sentence paragraphs, concise, sometimes poetic. Once, when I was getting ready to fly east for a family vacation at the beach, he told me to "pack the sun," which struck me as the most beautiful thing he could say, as if I could carry something capable of warming and spinning a whole solar system. Of course, he just wanted good weather to grace the unpredictable New Jersey August days.

Maybe he didn't realize that if I could give find a way to give him a light that would never fade, blue skies for days and that momentary glow in the heart at seeing the most beautiful sunrise over inexhaustible water that somehow stops just where you stand - if I could pack the sun and give it to him, I would. I am still searching for ways to tell him this.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

reading about earth 39,000 feet above it

I bought The Sixth Extinction on a whim. That morning, I had finished reading the staggering Far From the Madding Crowd, and though I usually like to sit for a while with a book finished before I choose a new one to read, I faced a six-hour plane ride from my sister's back to California (and that's not including time sitting at the gate). I couldn't let that time be wasted.

So, an hour or two before I was due at the airport, my sister and I drove through the rain to the quaint local bookshop we'd already been to once that weekend so I could choose a new book and not have to take a risk on the selection in my terminal. I looked at memoir, then at the new books table, asked the cashier about a book I especially wanted to read (they didn't have it), then found myself in the Science section, and there it was. I'd heard of the book and had some interest in reading it, and then, a few weeks ago, had seen the book selected as No. 1 Nonfiction Book on the Guardian. (It's not clear to me if this means it's their top choice, or if it's simply the first one they chose to feature.) Because I'm a sucker for reading list selections and the shiny gold Pulitzer Prize emblems (and, yes, because I'm a nerd), I decided to go for it.

I read a good chunk of the book on that flight home a few weeks ago, and slowly finished it over the days since. What I liked about The Sixth Extinction - and, as a medical science writer, what I appreciated about it - is that the author presents a complicated subject that has lots of subjective and controversial arguments surrounding it in a simple, accessible and relatively unbiased way. There is a narrative to it, the main character being the earth itself, and centuries of species the supporting cast, their appearances and disappearances adding to the central conflict. That conflict is support and survival. Humans are just another of these species, thankfully not the villain. They are all fighting time, catastrophe, decay.

But the thing about the book is this: for me, it might not be that memorable. I enjoyed it while I read it - it was lively, and Kolbert's language was concise, resourceful, beautiful - but I didn't find myself thinking about it much after I put the book down for the night, or on my drive to work the next morning. It didn't move me emotionally. It didn't get me to think differently or to wonder. (Though it did make me want to travel to the Great Coral Reef or the Amazon, so there's that.) I know this wouldn't have fit with her as a writer or what she was trying to do with her book, but I think what would have made me more emotionally engaged is more reflection - like, what does all this mean? Or at least, what does it mean to her? After reading the book, finding myself not emotionally involved in her topic, I'm not sure it means all that much to me.*

*I also understand that this is because I don't "believe" in science. Like, I don't think it has the final say. I think there's lots of room for mystery. So, it might not be the way she wrote the book. It might just not be my cup of tea.

(Readers - you may or may not have caught on that I've been writing posts about the books I read, a tiny effort of mine this year. Not a book review. More a response in words.)