Tag Archives: truth in nonfiction

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.”

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(“how to care for the injured body”) From Claudia Rankine, Citizen

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I’ve long been meaning to post about the award-winning and beautiful lyric, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

I read it several years ago, and listened to the audiobook again a couple months ago as I drove back and forth to Dayton where I’m teaching. The living inside these pages (or on the discs, if you are old school like me, and listen to the CD) makes me know I have only just started to understand what it is to be living, in this country, at this time, as a person of color. And despite what I would like to believe about myself, I have only begun to understand. There are many ways of beginning to understand. This book is one of them. I recommend you read or listen, no matter what color your skin.

Something that resonates for me is a passage from “Some years there exists a wanting to escape…” on page 143. (Here’s a part, stripped of context, because the nature of this book is that it’s a lyric & a whole cloth, but this is haunting me today, for which I’m grateful, and I wanted to share it. You can read more of this passage at the Poetry Foundation.)

(And please read the book, too.)

How to care for the injured body,

the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?

And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?

Today’s writing headlines

photo of desk

Where I worked today. (Head cup by Beth Holyoke)

MORNING HEADLINES

NONFICTION:

I finished typing up the Bewildering Whatever-it-is begun at Omega with Nick Flynn (and mentioned here). I don’t know what it is or will be. I keep thinking of it as a coil of DNA for a memoir. It’s about 13,000 words. There will be more words as I uncoil and discover itself.

FICTION:

Last night, I dreamt an agent said there’s a lack of confident storytelling in my novel. (When I woke, and did today’s letter to the inner critic, I asked the critic what she does while I sleep.) I don’t think it’s true that there’s a lack of confident storytelling in my novel. Laughed it off.

Within a few hours, I got a kind rejection from an agent who has some very big name clients. (Another agent at her agency, whom I had approached to represent me, had been complimentary about the novel, and on her own initiative, forwarded the manuscript to this big-name agent thinking it might be more her style.) The big-name agent got back to me quickly, and was also complimentary about the novel, said, “It’s full of mystery and atmosphere, poetry, even.” But said she doesn’t think she could sell it. I understand it’s a business. I’m grateful for the kind words about my writing. I trust someday I will find an agent or press who will say YES, and take a risk on my work.

May it be sooner than later.

Onward!

New old project

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Fall cleaning and (finally, again) rifling through piles of paper so I can some day love my office…I found evidence that my new project is actually quite old. Turns out I’ve been writing it for years.

It’s hard to articulate how comforting this is. Like finding out you are who you always thought & hoped you were. Soon I’ll have the luxury of going to a week-long workshop where I can dive into that mess.

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(SFA socks from my dear friend Sally)

 

Tara Ison’s REELING THROUGH LIFE

 

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When I write about books on my blog, I aim to write smart, insightful posts. I want to sound like someone with important things to say, to say them with wit and economy, to sound casual yet sophisticated. This desire often stops me from writing anything, defeating me before I’ve tried. (The better I know the book’s author, the more pervasive this pattern and my anxiety.) Operationally, it goes like this: Read a (great) book, smile and glow and lovingly put the book on a pile in my office that I will write about some day. Sometimes I do write about the book. Sometimes the book just sits there waiting until I clean my office, and because it seems too much time has passed and no one in the blogosphere really needs or wants my opinion, I put it back on the shelf, and recommend the book to anyone I think would like it.

This dance has become unwelcome and leaves me with stacks of books, shame, guilt. But my inner story (that I am a lazy Literary Citizen, etc.) is no longer serving me, so I’m letting it go. From now on, my intention is to just write something, anything, about the books I want to tell you about.

**

I want to tell you about Tara Ison’s book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love, And Die At The Movies.

I love this book.

I owned it for months before I read it. Though I was busy, I was also intimidated by the idea of not knowing all the films inside and out, and by how much I admire Tara and her work. Excuses, excuses! (Tara was among the fabulous core faculty at Antioch Los Angeles MFA program when I was there at school, and is an exquisite teacher and human. And since then, she’s become a friend.)

At night when I’m reading, it’s often in the last hour before sleep, and sometimes I’m so tired that I just fade out. I never faded out while reading this book. As I read it, I felt an urge not only to stay up too late, but also to eat the book—it was tasty and decadent and full of unexpected spice.

I know Tara, so I have the pleasure of hearing her voice as I read these essays. I’ve seen some of the films she mentions, not all, but for those I didn’t know, or didn’t quite recall, she gives context in graceful strokes. The experience of reading it was therefor not in the least disorienting. Nor did she overload on context. The balance was graceful and perfect.

Of the million gems between these covers, I marked a section on p. 107 (in “How To Be A Jew”): Tara’s writing about the film The Chosen (which I have not seen).:

“Next up for the boys, a movie house, for some Van Johnson musical confection; Danny is unimpressed, bored. But then the newsreel begins: The ‘Nazi Murder Mills,’ with documentary footage of American troops liberating the concentration camps. Here we go, I think, begin the parade of those brutal, brutal images I have seen so many times by now. Again, really? I do not want to watch them again, I do not want another fix—or want to trigger the need for another fix—but I find myself shaking, my heart quickening. And I realize what is moving me, here, is Danny’s reaction to them. It is his first time seeing these images, and his horror is newborn and unfiltered, uncynical, raw. There are tears in his eyes, his jaw is both tightened and slack, his face seems to lose its shape; he is disappearing into these images, the way I once did, and watching his pain both shames me and reawakens my own. This image of Danny, a fictional character in a fictional movie, does not detract from what’s real, or from what’s true; it brings me back to what is real and true, an essential part of who I am, as a human being and a Jew, and for that I am also grateful.

I will never forget.”

(This, this, is how fiction matters.)

So for anyone interested in how the cinematic image can inform, bend, and shape our lives, I recommend this book. But the book is not just about film. The generosity, the humanity on the page affirms life, makes me feel more human. Tara is willing to air her frailty. While she never seems to obscure a corner of her messy inside story, none of it feels gratuitous. Her acts of humanity in this work are evident and unvarnished. It’s deeply satisfying as a memoir and a study of (capital S) Story.

If you are interested in writing sentences, read this book, because Tara’s sentences will help you learn about writing tight, gorgeous sentences.

And on a larger level: how she weaves film with her life story is a model in hybrid models…the form she’s made feels so inventive. I haven’t read anything quite like this. To me, it seems that Tara has created in these pages a new form.

**

So there it is. I could have agonized and shaped this post more, but instead I’m going to go smile at Reeling Through Life, and then hold it in my hands for a few moments before I shelve it where I can find it when it’s time to reread. (And try not to eat it.)

(And I’m grateful, because I still have Tara Ison’s story collection, BALL, to look forward to!)

My essay at The Rumpus

 

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I made this.

My essay “Hot Thing” (about menopause) was published last Sunday on The Rumpus. (You can read it here.) In the literary community, The Rumpus is a big deal, and I’ve never had anything published there. And to any woman, writing an essay about something as personal as menopause is a big deal. (Theme emerges; to me, this whole event is a big deal.)

(I’m grateful to Zoe Zolbrod and Martha Bayne, editors at The Rumpus, who asked thoughtful questions and helped me fortify the essay and say what I meant to say. May all writers have the experience of working with such helpful editors along the way!)

It’s also a big deal because they chose to use my original art alongside the essay. I was glad to be asked what I wanted them to use. To answer, I thought about the essay, extracted themes and images.  Flames, visibility and invisibility,  beauty, mess…The day before I sent the final revision, the image of Venus rising appeared. When I should have been working on edits, I printed the Venus image. On tracing paper with a felt pen, I sketched her lines and contours, placed the paper over various backgrounds, finally settling on a painting of the moon which I made decades ago. And from a photograph of autumn leaves torn from a discarded Glen Helen calendar, I cut flames. Pieces arranged but not glued down, I took a photo and sent it. I felt self-conscious about presenting the art (because I’m an amateur) but blazed ahead anyway. That they chose to use this image validated what I tell my students: Trust your instinct.

So that’s part of the story of this essay.

Another part is that that publication of “Hot Thing” inspired a 2:30am craft essay about writing the essay, which I am now hatching. Not sure where it will end up, but I’m holding on to the tail of the kite.

Another—maybe most important—part is of the story is that I am claiming this new phase in my life. As I put words and images into the world, I am no longer practicing the art of invisibility.

Some thoughts on why I write personal essays

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Leftover candleholders from my wedding, and weeds.

Here’s a statement I wrote last week for a grant application. I’m new-ish to personal essay, so it feels weird to proclaim anything about it (because I keep learning what it is!) but this piece describes some of my process and reasons for writing personal essay, so I thought it was worth posting here. It’s slightly edited toward blogginess. Cheers!

***

My essays grow from lived experiences (transitions and grief), but I wait to write them until I find a way to transcend my life and connect to something larger, something that might resonate for readers. Writing stories about life can be very therapeutic, but must stretch beyond the writer’s singular experience and have meaning to others.

In my experience, the process of writing personal essay is murky and chaotic. Sometimes I use the metaphor of an onion, as layer after layer I peel away to reveal what I really mean, to move toward something that feels true. (Some layers are just rotten, bound for the compost heap.) From there, I discover a shape, rendering that central image or idea in the stuff of lyrical essay. As I craft each essay, draft after draft, I interrogate myself repeatedly about what is relevant. When a story involves others, I ask myself which parts are mine to tell. I am careful in what I include, and what I protect. Writing personal essay means navigating these boundaries. Writing from life demands constant vigilance and integrity, lest the exercise and the writing itself collapse into mere therapy, or worse, narcissism.

With these essays, I intend to connect to others. Beyond that, I am interested in language, how to refine until even the vowel sounds help the reader feel what I mean to impart. It is life affirming when a reader tells me that something I wrote moved them, and it is satisfying as a creator when someone compliments the way I tell a story. It is these twin aims (reaching others, and artful storytelling) that keep me writing personal essay.

Specifically, in “The Bit Jar,” I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this topic for the public, but I felt called to encourage others who might be going through trauma. When the opening scene presented itself, I realized it could be the right frame to approach the material.

Sometimes finding a tight container is the way in.

In a similar way, “Love Letter (an avalanche)” arose when I sat and listened to a poetry reading. First I thought, “I have to write my ex a letter.” As the event continued, I thought, “Maybe this is a blog post.” Then finally I thought, “Maybe this is an essay.” The work-in-progress (“Hot Thing”) emerged because I wanted to capture in prose what it felt like to have a hot flash. The first draft began as a list, and eventually I kept the list form, steeping the essay in rumination about the tension between the facts and how it felt to me.

How It Felt To Me

Tell me what you can see here.

What you can see here?

In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes:

“…perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont…maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”

I’m writing a piece in which I wanted so badly to use these words, but I used another part of Didion’s essay, had to let go of this treasure for the sake of the whole fabric I’m making…but I love this passage. I love its cadence, I love the self-doubt and rumination. This progression from Fact toward How It Felt To Me is an important and rich one, and we dismiss it at our humanity’s peril. This has been on my mind a lot, sparked anew last night when I read David Ulin’s piece about redefining creative nonfiction, in which Ulin writes, “all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined.”

Yes.

We get up each morning. Unless we are nudists, we put on layers, veils, makeup, clothing to disguise or hide or redefine something about ourselves. “Reality” is manufactured somewhere inside each human brain. (I am not a brain scientist; I don’t remember which part, but I have read about this, and I think this is true.) Things happen, there are facts, and facts are arguably “real” or “true”, but it seems to me the realm of literature, or art, is built upon everything else. The murk. How It Felt To Me. Even when I’m writing fiction, How It Felt To Me matters much in the making. Even if I am creating a world and pretending it doesn’t actually exist, even if I am telling Lies, How It Felt To Me can’t help but steer the making. (I could lie to myself now and say it doesn’t, but lying takes too much breath, breath I could instead be using to write, breath I could be using to stay alive.)

The fun is grappling around in the mess of these parts.

The fun is shaping stuff from the parts.

A thing that won’t happen again (two essays published in two weeks!)

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Blue heron on Ellis Pond

All I can conjure to write is the cliche about raining and pouring, but I’ll spare you that. Another essay I wrote went live today on the Jaded Ibis Productions blog, Bleed. (You can read the essay here. And the essay at the Manifest-Station is here.) I’m so grateful to be able to share these fragilities with others. Sending my personal essays into the world is wholly new for me, and my baby legs are tottery. I’ve been inspired by the brave writing of people around me, including Rachel McKibbens, Taylor Mali, and Tara Hardy, the awesome poets I wrote about in the essay. Witnessing their courage, I awaken my own. My hope is that if I act brave, others will, too. And the world will become more whole.

Although many things distract me from knowing that it’s really this simple, lately I keep circling back to the core: For me, the whole point of doing this work (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, anything) is to connect with our shared humanity. That’s it. There are tools for this work (the craft) and plenty of folderol but really, it’s about finding and seeing the spark that lives in each of us.

(On Saturday night, I was with a group of others at Ellis Pond in Yellow Springs.  A blue heron stood on spindle legs in the water, undisturbed by our gathering. Calmly teaching us about how to live.)

Oh, you beautiful mess

IMG_0256To have written, to have made order from chaos: to have written about messy life stuff that defaced three pages of legal pad, scratched, abbreviated, rounding corners, lines written above below obscuring other lines, arrows pointing everywhere but straight forward. To have made some sense of that snarl, of that juice. To have expressed my self.

To say: today I am a writer.