Tag Archives: memoir

short story published in CROOKED HOUSES

CROOKED HOUSES anthology by Egaeus Press

(photo by Merida Kuder-Wexler)

My short story “Your House, Any House. That House” was published in Crooked Houses, a new anthology from Egaeus Press. The story was heavily inspired by the house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I grew up, which was burned down by the fire department (as an exercise) when the Village expanded Gaunt Park. (I am also writing a memoir about that house.)

The first printing of Crooked Houses sold out immediately, but the press plans a reprint in January 2021. It’s a great table of contents, and I’m honored to have my story included.

VESTIGES OF COURAGE by Mireya S. Vela

book cover of Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)

Vestiges of Courage, by Mireya S. Vela (cover art by the author!)

There are ways of saying things, making phrases and sentences that could not be any more succinct or perfect. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I read it. When I consider the brilliance of Mireya Vela’s writing in her memoir, Vestiges of Courage, I marvel at her ability to work with a gratifyingly tight linguistic economy. In the memoir, Mireya exposes the toxicity and spirit/mind/body assaults women are expected to endure, and boils it down to the bone, illuminating the lived truth. Her act of peeling back, her lack of veil and refusal to bullshit carries incredible power. There is no time for waste, she seems to say. You just have to speak the truth.

For instance, on page 24:

“Women are trained into this type of acceptance:

‘Kiss your relatives.’

‘Hug creepy Uncle Manny.’

‘Don’t be uppity. You’re rude. Go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap.’

‘Uncle Manny gave you a gift. Show proper gratitude.’

‘Liar. He didn’t touch you. That’s your imagination. Why are you always such a drama queen, looking for attention?’

Whittle down the women. Take off all the rough edges till they are smooth and fit into the palms of men.”

***

And it’s beautiful how she writes about the armature of memory…on page 132:

“Sometimes I see people I know aren’t there. This has been happening since I went into therapy four years ago and I unhooked the memories from their anchors.

Memories float. No matter what you do, whoever you were 15 years ago can float to the surface to haunt you. It doesn’t matter if you are ready or if you are walking back to your classroom.”

***

And finally, she offers affirmation about the pain and necessity of healing. On page 134:

“I don’t talk to my psychiatrist about the people I see. I know she’ll heavily medicate me. I strongly suspect this is post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem with PTSD is that it prefers to unsettle you just as you feel you are moving beyond those memories. When you feel strong, the memories appear, waiting for resolution.

Instead, I go to my therapist. The words spill out of my mouth with trepidation.

‘Is it men?’ she asks.

‘Yes. How did you know?’ I say.

‘It’s out of the corner of your eye?’ she says.

‘Yes.’

‘Do they look like the men who hurt you?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘That’s common with people who have had sexual abuse. I’m sorry,’ she says.

‘I’m not crazy?’

‘No,’ she says, ‘You are just healing.’

‘Healing feels awful. Why am I doing this to myself? I just want it to stop.’

‘Because,’ she says, ‘you want something better for your children.’

‘Yes. Yes, I do.’

But for a moment, I think about quitting. Why do they call it healing when it feels like being ripped open?”

***

We need to do this work; we need something better for our children. We need more books with the inside of the human showing. We need more writers who can cut through bullshit, use deft strokes to arrange the words so that they accumulate to tell the truth. I am grateful for the act of humanity that Mireya Vela did in writing this book.

(And speaking of deft strokes, Mireya Vela is also a visual artist. Please go peruse her creations here: https://www.mireyasvela.com/)

essay “Cushion & Frame” in Bayou Magazine

Cover of Bayou Magazine #72

Bayou Magazine #72

(This post was written using the imperfect yet helpful voice typing feature on google docs, because I am recovering from wrist surgery. Please forgive typos!) 

I’m excited to announce that my essay, “Cushion & Frame,” was recently published in Bayou Magazine Number 72. Founded in 2002, Bayou Magazine is a biannual, national literary magazine published by The University of New Orleans. Bayou’s mission is to publish exceptional, exciting work by both established and emerging writers. “Cushion & Frame” is part of my memoir-in-progress. 

“Cushion & Frame” is also likely the most personal piece I’ve ever put into the world. Its publication leaves me heady and vulnerable. The essay deals with trauma and my history as a survivor of sexual abuse. When the essay was accepted, I realized that beyond the sweet sunshine of strangers believing in my work, they also believed my story. To a survivor, being believed is essential. And while I usually like having my work accessible online, I’m a little glad this one is only available in print. That fact makes me feel somewhat less exposed.

 I am grateful to beloved humans who read this piece at various points along the way, or in other ways provided nourishment, including Deanna N., Jahzerah B., Lisa P.,  Renee A., Diane B., Nick F., Jennifer N., Lisa B., Candace R., Elaine G., Kristin W., Vanja T., Rachel F., Anne E., Susanne F., Mary H., Amy C., JoJo K., Puy N., Dina P., Gayle B., and especially Melissa T. 

And especially Mama. And especially Hummy. 

I’m also grateful to the humans who invited me and heard me read and read with me in 2018 at AWP in Tampa for Tiferet Journal. And extra-rainbow-sprinkle grateful to Gayle B. for encouraging me to read that piece. And Mireya V. for a beautiful connection after the reading.

I hope I did not forget to thank anyone. So many have helped me survive and write this piece. Thank you all. 

(And may we all continue to heal.)

Issue 72 is available for purchase from https://bayoumagazine.org/.

 

Because, by Joshua Mensch

Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch

Because, a lyric memoir by Joshua Mensch

Because, by Joshua Mensch, is a devastating and beautiful lyric memoir. I can’t recall why I picked it up to read, but I’m so glad I did. It was rough going because of the subject matter (childhood sexual abuse) but the language, its incantation and repetition and just plain brilliance is so well suited to how memory and trauma work that the writer’s work (processing the devastation, and crafting language to approximate it) pulled me through.

If you have a history of sexual abuse, you might only want to read this book if you feel sturdy in your recovery. I’m sure it could be very triggering. But I also found it very healing to read.

I won’t soon forget this diamond.

(consider the commas, etc.)

Revising rough paragraphs from the house memoir…realized it was actually a handful of deflated, sad sentences wanting to be a poem so I wrote them into a poem. And right now, I’m in love with the poem.

…revision’s cool heart, still to come, and time, will tell. (But for now it’s fun to fall in love with this unplanned poem.)

Reframing (being open)

Laite Memorial Beach, Camden, ME, August 2018

Laite Memorial Beach, Camden, ME, August 2018

Each week, I email the week’s writing goals to my friend Diane. I’m grateful for this practice, because it helps me focus. (Thank you, Diane!) Today I wrote the following, which I thought I’d post here. I’m reframing a couple of things that have been getting in my way as I work on the memoir about my childhood house, 318.
Goals for this week:
1. Remind myself that I’m doing this for me, not for the publisher whose contest I plan to enter in January. The thought of pleasing someone else has become a huge, anxiety-producing barrier (someone I don’t know, someone who may want something very different from what doing, whose wants I cannot anticipate, etc.), so I am reframing thusly: I am doing this for myself. I need to please myself. It’s not an assignment someone else gave me.
2. I keep repeating “I’m lost” in the writing process. When I talk to people, I say, “I’m lost.” It is how I feel, but saying it again and again seems to be self-fulfilling. It doesn’t feel good to say “I’m lost.” I’m tired of saying I’m lost. It’s not a good kind of lost, like when you’re walking around Venice and you have no idea where you are, but you’re on vacation and there’s a gelato place so you get some melon gelato, let’s say, and it’s so delicious, and you walk a little bit more and you end up somewhere you recognize. This writing-a-memoir-lost is NOT like Venice lost. This lost feels kinda bad. So I realized this morning (as I did the morning pages from The Artist’s Way) that maybe I’m not lost, maybe I’m just OPEN. I have never been much of an outliner in my writing—it’s always been messy and organic. In that way, I’ve always been open. So maybe instead of “lost” I will start saying “open.” Being open feels much better than being lost. Being lost describes a struggle. I want to alleviate the struggle, the powerlessness.
Being open feels much calmer.

I am doing this for myself.

I am open.

Heartberries, by Terese Marie Mailhot (“The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”)

9781619023345-256x413A thousand thanks to my friend Dr. Kelli Zaytoun for recommending this distilled and beautiful memoir. From the publisher’s description:

“Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.”

This book is among a few gems I’ve read lately, written by women, that grant permission. Permission to reveal the self, in all its tatters and glow. Permission to speak the truth even when it isn’t convenient or dainty. I can’t recall where I heard this, but somewhere, a wise human referred to writing memoir as a kind of alchemy: how a writer metabolizes her experience into a distilled piece of art. Mailhot does so here, with grace and wisdom.
A couple shimmery passages from Mailhot’s memoir:

Page 72: “[My mother] taught me that I didn’t own things. I really liked the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land—maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it. Our grandmothers have been uprooted and shelved in boxes, placed on slabs of plastic, or packed neatly in rooms, or turned into artifact—all after proper burials. Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that.”

And: 

 

Page 97: “I can’t believe my reserve of water—from my nose and eyes. I have dormant fluid in my body, every woman does. I don’t know if I am a cavern or a river.”

In the back of the petite volume, Mailhot is interviewed by Joan Naviyuk Kane. In the conversation, Mailhot says things about writing that I know will stick with me (and will help, in working on memoir):

About women writing our stories:

Page 131: “I know the book isn’t simply an abuse narrative, but then it is. I was abused, and brilliant women are abused, often, and we write about it. People seem so resistant to let women write about these experiences, and they sometimes resent when the narrative sounds familiar. It’s almost funny, because, yeah—there is nothing new about what they do to us. We can write about it in new ways, but what value are we placing on newness? Familiarity is boring, but these fucking people—they keep hurting us in the same ways. It’s putting the onus on us to tell it differently, spare people melodrama, explicative language, image, and make it new. I think, well, fuck that. I’ll say how it happened to me, and by doing that maybe it became new. I took the voice out of my heat that said writing about abuse it too much, that people will think it’s sentimental, or pulling at someone’s pathos, unwilling to be art. By resisting the pushback, I was able to write more fully and, at times, less artfully about what happened.

I remember my first creative writing professor in nonfiction asked his class not to write about abortions or car wrecks. I thought, You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day). I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring familiar themes in the human experience. When the individual gets up and tells her story, there’s going to be a detail so real and vivid it places you there, and you identify. I believe in the author’s right to tell any story, and the closer it comes to a singular truth, the more art they render in the telling.”

And about work that is never really finished:

Page 132: “Cathartic or therapeutic—those words are sometimes used to relate a feeling, like a sigh of relief, or release, but therapy is fucking hard. My therapists didn’t pity me, not the good ones; they made me strip myself of pandering, manipulation, presentation—they wanted the truth more desperately than I did, and they wanted me to speak it—live it every moment. I feel like writing is that way. Writing can be hard therapy. You write, and then read it, revise your work to be cleaner, sharper, better, and then, when you have the best version of yourself (not rhetorically, but you’ve come close to playing the music you hear in your head)—you give it time and re-read it—you go back to the work—it seems endless. Nothing is ever communicated fully. The way being healed is never real unless every moment of every day you remind yourself of your progress and remind yourself not to go back, or hurt someone, or do the wrong thing—it’s not healing unless you keep moving—you’re never done. The work of ‘never done’: therapy and writing.”

Everything reminds you of what happened

multi-color fabric partial quilt front, shape of face and moons, etc.

detail from a quilt I made in college, never finished

(That thing that happens when something is consuming you, how you see it everywhere. My memoir is everywhere, apparently. Here’s one place I saw it the other day.)

Question
by May Swenson

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

(writing about math & the bones)

photo of papers on the floor, writing process

Working at Omega, October 2017

…when you hand yourself over to an hour freewrite about numbers and math, and it all adds up to the shape your bones will be when your body goes to the fire. (& instead of scrawling your usual “thank you” at the end of your freewriting, which Laraine Herring taught you in her workshop—thanking yourself and your writer self for showing up—you write “mic drop.”)

(boom.)

The Art of Misdiagnosis, by Gayle Brandeis

The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis

An exceptional act of humanity is discoverable between these covers.

Sometimes I encounter a book I know I want to reread again and again, to understand grief, and humanity, and move my psyche toward wholeness. Among these glittering narratives is The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, by my friend Gayle Brandeis. (Gayle Brandeis and I met when we both attended the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program—and then, as now, she seemed an angel in the world, though with the beauty of authenticity shining through.)

In her memoir, Gayle captures the static that is chronic worry about a damaged loved one…when someone close is suffering in an inescapable stew of chaos, the background noise of concern is constant…and Gayle depicts the grim throb that can be brought on by the phone’s ring…she shows how complicated is the very human wish for relief…

As I read her memoir, I imagine I’m sitting alongside the narrator in the patrol car of the heart, witnessing firsthand the human struggle between connection and release, touching the complicated fiber of existence as we intersect with & knock against other broken humans…how we each bend into the shape necessary to survive the life we’re born into…how we try not to drown as we reach (often involuntarily) toward the drowning beloved…

I’ve been obsessed lately with how trauma shapes our bodies: literally, the physical body, and the spirit/psyche. The Art Of Misdiagnosis meditatively walks this terrain, and also somehow inoculates against trauma and grief, or at least wakens antibodies for understanding those parts of a life.

I read Gayle’s memoir for pleasure, allowing myself not to take notes, just to take it all in…and as I’m processing some of my own traumas, the book provides a balm, strangely reassuring. (None of us are alone.) Taking notes sometimes pulls me from the reading experience, but couldn’t I resist this part, near the end, on p. 222, after the narrator has experienced an intense physical release of trauma…

“When I am ready, Celia helps me up and hugs me back into the world.

‘Thank you,’ I tell her, but the words don’t feel strong enough. How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart? For helping release a burden you’ve carried all your life? For resurfacing just when you need her? For saving you again, almost twenty-four years after she saved you the first time?”

This memoir appears at the perfect time in my life. And as my body types Gayle’s words (above), I notice they echo how I feel about her memoir, and her writing in general: How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart?