Monthly Archives: July 2014

Crying on the Road

For many adult years an image lodged in my mind that I didn’t understand.

I am five years old and walking with my family down a dirt road.  My parents are walking ahead, as is my older brother.  Mother is carrying my younger brother.  They are talking amongst themselves while I fall farther and farther behind.  My young legs are unable to keep pace.  Finally I collapse in the middle of the road and start to cry, hoping Dad will notice.  Hoping he will pick me up and carry me for awhile.

The image is complete in itself.  I have no idea what happened before or after.  What I do know is that in my actual life my parents never left me crying in the road.  Never.

Yet the image persisted for years.  What was there about being five years old and wanting to be rescued?  Last week, as I was writing to a friend, the image returned. Only then did I realize it no longer applies to my life.  In fact, I hadn’t seen or felt the image in a long time.

From my armchair, I ponder and psychologize about such things. What is there about being five?  Did my growth get stifled at that age, for some reason unknown to me? If the image is not about my parents, it must be about me. The understanding took years to emerge.

Fathers can be great rescuers, but sometimes they allow children to learn their own lessons.  In my imagination I see my father stop and turn around when he hears my sobs.  “Are you hurt?” he asks.  I only shake my head. Words are not easily understood through tears.  Then he says, “We’ll wait for you right here.  You can get up and walk when you stop crying.”

And so it is.  We often hope someone will rescue us from our situation — but it’s only wishful thinking.  We sit back and wait, saying, “If only someone would….than I will feel better.”

The reality is I have to forge my own path.  I have to stop crying and whining and saying “Woe is me; life isn’t fair.” I have to stand up.  I have to take the next steps.

In my mind, when I finally reach my parents, they congratulate me on my walking.  “See, you can do it!” they say.  Their close hugs reassure me. Then we start out again.  They slow their pace a bit and I do my own walking.

A magical rescuer is not coming. The voice of wishful thinking needs to be silenced.

Our work is to take the next step, however small it might be. Step after step creates walking.

Until next Tuesday…

 

 

Changing the Image

I was going to change the beach photo on my blog site, but I’m not ready yet. I hope you don’t mind waiting a bit longer.

I took the photo in 2009 on a road trip from North Carolina through Alabama and Georgia with my then 97-year-old mother.  This boardwalk made it possible for us to walk the beach, feel the ocean breeze, and ponder our childhood memories in the gazebo swing.

I remember the rope along the boardwalk vividly. Partly because it looks so nautical. Partly because of its symmetry. Partly because it’s been worn by wind and sea. Mostly I love its continuity for as far as I can see.

When I pondered that grey, weather-beaten rope strung between uprights, I wondered

  • how it withstands the constant battering of storms
  • how it stays so even and steady and balanced
  • how its twisted fibers make it strong
  • how it keeps its connections with the posts
  • how long has it been here

The rope doesn’t sway much; it’s too thick and too strong.

I kept thinking about the rope long after we’d left the boardwalk and the ocean, driving miles and miles to other places. The rope took on meaning way beyond its simple existence.

In my early memoir-writing days, I began to notice several threads running through my work, threads I knew but had not identified as ongoing influences.  Pages and pages of notes morphed into a chronology, a bare-bones structure of themes twisted together and fleshed out by detailed events. Moments of impact, points of no return, dreams realized or not, were dots yearning for connection.

Storms battered me about,  winds tried to change my course, and the waves nearly drowned me. Still I stand, weather-worn, yet strong. Threads of perseverance, determination, truth-owning, of showing up and doing my work intertwine to create an uncommon strength.

And like the rope, I will continue to the next post, to the next touch point, and to the ones still unseen.

So, I’m keeping the picture a bit longer as a reminder of strength and connectedness for the length of my life.

Until next Tuesday…

 

 

Lesson of the Day

Last week I found a boring chapter in the middle of my manuscript.

If it’s boring to me, what about the poor reader?

Just because my memoir is about my life, doesn’t mean it’s inherently interesting. But, at the same time, I believe I have a story worth telling.

I went to bed that night thinking about my chapter.  Should I hit delete for this entire chapter?  Should I rewrite it?  Is the chapter critical to my memoir? Why is it boring?

I had questions with no answers

The next morning, I sat at my desk determined to try again, to relook at the chapter, to find the best parts, and rewrite the rest.

That afternoon Charlie and I met at Panera Bread for our regular critique session.  She knows my memoir well, word by word. I put my chapter on the table between us.  “This is just boring.  Even I’m bored with it!” I lamented.  Together we looked at the first few pages. After a couple of minutes, she said, “I think your chapter starts here,” pointing to a paragraph on the fourth page.  Then we looked at the chapter’s end and pondered putting some of those words at the beginning. We discussed the whys and wherefores of putting this paragraph here and that paragraph there, deleting this paragraph completely, and rearranging certain sentences while I wrote green-ink notes all over the chapter pages.

Bottom line: my chapter beginning was bogged down with details and information; the story was delayed too long.

Writing manuscripts and chapters is about beginnings, engaging the reader quickly. Back at my desk I begin again, but in a different place this time.  I now have two paragraphs, instead of four pages, setting the scene before the story begins.  The myriad of details are condensed and dovetailed into appropriate places; many are no longer necessary.

As I fixed the boring chapter, I thought perhaps I should check my other chapter first sentences. A spreadsheet is a tool I often use for analyzing and making sense of my world.  This spreadsheet, with chapter numbers and first lines, allows me to see all my beginnings on a single page.  Of thirty-one chapters, I have five engaging opening lines–a mere 16.1%.  A pitiful average for a serious writer.

I obviously have work to do. I’ve now fixed all the chapter beginnings prior to the boring chapter. Chapters from here on will have rewritten, more engaging openings.

Lessons of the day:

  • sometimes we bog down in the details, the mundane, the minutia
  • sometimes we forget the big picture and lose our direction and focus
  • sometimes we have to restart, with new vision, believing we can improve
  • our best is always emerging

So…re-examine what isn’t working for you. Seek another’s insight. Set your sight on beginning again.

Then do your work.

Until next Tuesday…

 

Writing Memoir

“Why,” I am often asked, “do you write memoir?”

“I write memoir because I have a story to tell.  It’s not dramatic like some.  It’s a story of a rather ordinary life, where a woman loses herself in a marriage, and decides to reclaim herself.”

“So it’s like an autobiography, where you write about your entire life?”

“I’m writing about part of my life — from my college years through my marriage and divorce — only twenty years.”

“Why those particular years?”

“Those are the years when I made several big decisions that changed the course of my life.  And I made a gazillion small compromises that eroded my identity.”

“Don’t we all do that?  What’s unique about your story?”

“There came a point of dissatisfaction with myself and my marriage when I wanted to know how I got to that particular place.  What decisions, both large and small, had I made that put me on my current path?  I was determined to figure it out, like a detective walking through my life.”

“How did you figure it out?”

“I read many books on feminine and Jungian psychology, spirituality, and writing.  And all the while I was journalling every day, filling stacks of notebooks with my thoughts and ponderings and discoveries.  My journal was the place where I asked myself the tough questions, where I dug until I confronted my own truth, as ugly as it was sometimes. I became brutally honest with myself and claimed the facts and truth of my own life. I was determined to be intentional about my life. I quit blaming others for my dissatisfaction.  I decided to stop being a victim.”

“So your journals are becoming your memoir?

“Story telling is way different than journal writing. The journals provide the background and research for my memoir. My decades of introspection help me see the similarity between my journey and the journey of other women.  The details are different but our decisions are often similar.  Perhaps my story will help others see themselves and the possibility for change.”

“So it’s like a self-help book?”

“Not at all.  My story shows the cumulative effect of peace-keeping compromises that, over time, caused me to lose sight and touch with who I was. Through my journals and reading, I saw how I had allowed my voice to be silenced.  I set out to reclaim myself and to re-examine my roles,  determined to live my life with integrity. I want to show others that even though we may nearly lose ourselves in pursuit of societal expectations, reclamation of our authentic selves is possible.”

“I know you’ve been writing your memoir for several years.  What’s taking so long?”

“First, I had to believe I have a right to tell my story, knowing it’s only my side of a marriage.  Second, I had to learn to write creatively.  Third, life sometimes gets in the way, often delaying the writing process for weeks or months.  And fourth, writing is a tedious, slow process of rewriting and rewriting and then rewriting again.  But I have the gift of persistence, so I will finish.”

“You’ll let me read it when it’s done?”

“Absolutely!”

Until next Tuesday…

 

Naked on the Table

Writing is a solitary process.  I alone can put my butt in the chair and words on my paper (or screen).  Nothing happens unless I show up and do the work.

Often that is the easy part.

The hard part is laying my words on the table for others to read and critique.  For me it feels like lying naked on that table, for all the world to see.  Warts, bumps, flab, and all.

But critiquing is necessary if I want to become a better writer.  I need to be open to the slicing and dicing, the excisions and amputations of my critique partners, even though they often “kill my darlings” along the way. I remind myself that their comments refer to my written work, not to me personally.  At the end of our session, mark-outs and margin notes and arrows indicating paragraph re-arrangements nearly obscure my neatly formatted text.

Each critique partner brings a unique and helpful perspective as we read and work and discuss together. However, if I present my work too early, before I have created my best story or essay, their comments can squelch my voice and silence my words.  Only when I have written and rewritten and then rewritten again, clarified my purpose and vision for this work, and studied the techniques of my chosen genre — only then do I have grounding and perspective for their comments.

After our critique session, I am back at work again, refining and polishing, until the excesses are gone, the awkwardness becomes satin, and the mundane is lyrical. I suture my words together into images and stories that only I can tell.

Learn to welcome critique from trusted writing partners.  They will help you grow.

Until next Tuesday…