Writing Family Memoir: Finding the Guts

A link to my new essay –  just published today… (I will also copy the text below.)

https://brevity.wordpress.com/2020/06/08/writing-family-memoir/

FINDING THE GUTS

“What are you working on?” This is probably the question I am most often asked, after forced to reveal (at a cocktail party, to a random seat-mate on the train) that I am a writer.

I always experience a bit of imposter syndrome, even after these many decades of writing and publishing. After all, I know that when I answer the next question: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” a pleasantly vacant facade will settle onto the face of the questioner, when I answer, “Mostly, I’ve published essays. Hundreds of them.”

A look of dismay – or is it panic – then settles onto the face of my seat-mate. Their only likely life experience with “the essay” might not have been since school days, when they were asked to write any number of three to five-paragraph essays in order to satisfy English curriculum requirements. “The essay” does not have a great reputation.

At this point, even if they are moderately impressed by and slightly curious about my credentials, they are also not eager to take a selfie. (Here I am with a famous essay writer I met on the train!)

I try to steer the conversation back to them, but they always want you to answer that first question (what are you working on?) I mumble something vague about writing a memoir about my family, about being a sister – and here there is an even longer pause, followed by genuine puzzlement. “Wow,” they usually say. “That takes guts. I mean, writing about family.”

Yes, it does take guts. Actually, what I would like to say is that one has to have any number of questionable personality traits to write anything longer than a few pages about one’s family, and expect it to hold together in a way that other people (not your family) might want to read. Especially when you are writing memoir. Writing your truth – which memoir requires – requires bravery. It demands audacity. It calls for some skill. And, indeed, it requires guts.

Sometimes I feel like the word “bravery” is too strong a word to describe the act of writing memoir. After all, isn’t memoir just remembering how things happened, and then writing those things, and your interpretation of them, down on paper or on your laptop? It’s not like you’re going to get a writing medal for your bravery, or a commendation for courage. It’s not like you ran the rapids or scaled the sheer face of a cliff.

Nevertheless, it is pretty brave and audacious to reveal your truth, and trust that that truth will resonate with others. Many would-be writers are stopped before they even start by voices in their upbringings that whisper (or maybe even scream) that it’s not polite to talk about yourself, or tell family secrets, or assume anyone has the slightest interest in anything YOU might have to say. (You get the idea.)

Audacity isn’t something often discussed in polite company. But if you don’t have a certain amount of audacity as a writer, you might as well keep writing those first bland twenty pages over and over again until the end of days (which doesn’t sound so far away right now…)

Audacity itself might be described in many different ways. Audacity might range from such spirited traits as “impudence” or “pluck,” to what I seek in my writing: boldness, backbone, chutzpah, daring.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Or, for our purposes, the guts. Because the two are linked. The heart and the guts.

The guts are the more energetic and visceral of the two. Okay, so the heart does its pumping thing, and obviously we would die if the heart stopped doing its job. And the heart gets all the lovey-dovey Valentine bling. But the guts… The guts imply your innards. Literally, intestinal fortitude. And what does that imply? Yes – the aforementioned pluck, along with confidence, mettle, tenacity. Nothing sugar-coated or wrapped up in a pink heart-shaped box.

You know the difference, even if you can’t explain it. It’s the need to express something in your heart, yes – but maybe it’s also the need to write something you feel in your gut. Or maybe you need to express that thing that bypassed your heart completely and started in your gut. You took that gut-thing, wrestled it into a heart-thing, then added the narrative to give shape to it. And, presto – you have a piece of writing. A real, organic, living-on-paper story made of heart and gristle and sweat and guts.

 

Betting On The Come (an essay)

I was just looking through my essays about writing, and I realized I had never posted this one that was published on the Brevity (Creative Nonfiction) blog – an excellent resource for writers and readers. (I will also paste it below.)

https://brevity.wordpress.com/2019/05/31/on-playing-cards-and-literary-rejection-betting-on-the-come/

Betting on the Come

I come from a family of dreamers, wishers, horoscope readers, and gamblers. Which turns out to be the optimal background for a writer. When Dad went to the track on Saturdays (if he had the day off from one of his three jobs) my five younger sisters and I never knew if he was going to show up at home after the last race with a carful of groceries, a new bike for one of us, or for that matter – a new car. Or, conversely, nothing at all but a hangdog look that meant we were going to be eating grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches on the thinnest of store-brand white breads until the next payday.
I also come from a family who loves to read and write. Teetering stacks of library books could be found in nearly every room of whichever rental home we happened to be living in. Even when we lived up at the top of Lookout Mountain, just west of Denver, we had access to books, thanks to the big blue bookmobile that lumbered along the winding hairpin turns. (Dad even drove the bookmobile one summer when he needed extra cash, probably for the track.)
My sisters and I wrote elaborate plays and stories, mostly featuring princesses, or pioneer girls captured by Indians. Of course, as oldest, I was the director, the final editor, and always took on the role of Queen – my sisters existing only to do my bidding.
Neatly folded and annotated stacks of Racing Forms and glossy past copies of Blood Horse magazine were stacked neatly near my dad’s easy chair. The Racing Forms were a crucial part of Dad’s “system,” a system that we understood had been calculated by Dad to pick winners. He and his race track buddies refined and compared these sure-fire schemes to outsmart the other system – that of the owners, jockeys, track conditions, and horses themselves.
One day, my dad got an idea in his head to write a story. He loved to read, and he had this idea for a story about a tout, which is someone who will share solid tips on upcoming races for a portion of any winnings. He called his story “The Tout.” I have no memory of the story’s plot, and am not even sure if I ever read it.
But what I do remember about it is the dramatic impact it had on our lives. Suddenly we were all invested in “The Tout.” My mom typed it up, and off it went in the mail to Playboy. If Dad was going to write and sell a story, he was going to sell it to the highest-paying market. Which, at the time was Playboy magazine. I don’t recall ever seeing a Playboy in our house, but obviously Dad had some inside knowledge about such matters.
We all waited for the acceptance letter and check in the mail, with a hum of excitement that thrummed through our family like a low-grade fever. Once Dad got this first acceptance and check, he would write more stories, and the Big Money would be rolling in. He started buying newspapers from Phoenix and Los Angeles to check on jobs and home prices, because if he was going to be a writer, he wasn’t going to suffer through one more winter in Colorado, damn it.
The inevitable rejection did come, and as far as I know my father never wrote another story. He did, however, continue to gamble. Always the horses, but also casinos, which my family loves for their “free” slots cash and buffet meals featuring crab legs.
Later, in my thirties, when I started regularly publishing my own work, I often thought about (and still think about, now in my sixties) how with writing I am betting on my own version of “the come.” In card playing, betting on the come is betting on cards that may come in the future. This can be based on a bluff or a calculation, and can involve odds, probabilities, and strategies. Sending my work out to various publications and literary agents often reminds me of a gamble. I’ve done my best to calculate the odds, and even though I often come up short, I have enough wins in the plus column to keep on trying for the Big One.
Urban Dictionary defines betting on the come as, “You don’t have what you want or need at the moment, but you are betting or hoping you will have what you want or need when the time comes.” Synonyms like wishes, daydreams, fool’s paradise, and pipe dreams are also offered up.
Oddly enough, any one of those phrases describing a gambler’s life, a life that I wholeheartedly rejected, could accurately describe my life as a writer. And, also oddly enough, I wholeheartedly embrace that life.

Sheltering in Place: A Family Drama

SHELTERING IN PLACE: A FAMILY DRAMA  (This essay originally posted on the website for WHYY in Philadelphia as “Snow Days.”  Just substitute “shelter-in-place” for winter storm warnings and snow days, and you have the same idea.)

The Day Before – Hello.  This is The School calling to inform you that, due to the upcoming winter storm warning, school will not be in session tomorrow.  Please do not drop your child off at school “accidentally,” on your way to your Pilates class, and then claim later that you never got this call.  You know who you are.  And so do we.  This message will now repeat.

Day One a.m. – What a rare treat to have the little darlings home for a day.  I will use this unexpected gift of time and make it a special day.  Outside the weather may be frightful, but our day will be quite delightful.  First, I’ll make everyone heart-shaped pancakes, then we’ll snuggle up and watch a family movie.  Or two movies – after all, we have all day!  We can bake cookies later, then maybe a few games of Monopoly.  Just some good old-fashioned family time.

Day One p.m.  – The school called again with one of those damn robo-calls.  Blah, blah, blah winter storm.  I mean, when I was a kid we didn’t have “snow days.”  And that was before global warming, when we used to have real snow.  Hubbie was telling the kids the story of how he used to deliver newspapers on his bike in snowstorms worse than this.  Then he got all grumpy because they walked out of the room during the part where he had to dig in the snow when he dropped his dime tip from Mrs. Gianetti.

Day Two – Slightly hung over.  I didn’t think I drank that much, but the recycle bin doesn’t lie.  The day I start hiding bottles is the day I will admit I have a problem.  But I know I don’t, so what’s the big deal.  Hubbie is home today also, because no one can get anywhere.  I can’t think of the last time we were all together with no chance for escape!  We have decided today will be “Puzzle Day.”  That is because no one will play Monopoly again with H.  I didn’t know this when I married him, but he has an irritating tendency to gloat when he has one over on you.  He actually cackled with glee when he bankrupted sweet little J.  She cried and asked, “Why is Daddy being so mean?”  I said I didn’t know.

Day Three – When the school message came in again last night I wanted to take the phone and smash it to a pulp.  No wonder our kids are lagging behind third world countries in education.  Today I will insist on everyone (including H) leaving the house to get some fresh air.  I don’t care if it is a wind chill of ten below.  Maybe they can build a snow house and all go live there.  Just kidding.  Not really.  Only eleven hours until cocktail hour.  I will not lessen my personal standards just because the city is in crisis.  Things could be a lot worse.  I just saw a news report of a couple stranded in a Best Western with no heat or food.  Uncharitably, I thought to myself, at least they’re not with H!

Day Four – Saturday, and the sun is finally out.  Unfortunately, the snow is now blowing sideways, and due to drifting, no one can get anywhere.  I told H that maybe he could get his trusty bike out and cycle on down to Whole Foods, just like when he had his paper route.  Luckily I bought the 1.75 liter size of Bombay Sapphire the day before the storm hit.  A stroke of brilliance, if I do say so.  Gotta go – I’m the Bingo caller for the family Bingo tournament, and quite possibly the only person in this family who doesn’t cheat.

Day Five – I never realized it before, but in certain unfortunate ways, my children seem to have inherited many of H’s family’s habits and personality quirks.  Nose-picking, slack-jawed staring off into space when being asked to help with chores, the aforementioned cheating (even at Candy Land, for Christ’s sake), nervous throat clearing, and an inability to tell when they’ve worn an article of clothing too many days in a row without putting it in the dirty laundry.  I really don’t know how much longer I can take it.  I had to stay on the Elliptical from noon until six o’clock just to keep myself away from the liquor cabinet.

Day Six – Just saw a news report that nine months from now there will be a big blip in the population with a whole lot of  “blizzard babies” being born.  I glowered at H as he sat playing video poker in his ratty bathrobe.  The gin is gone.  Don’t know if I can go on much longer.

Day Seven – Yippee!  Everyone back to school and work today.  Little J asked why Mommy was so happy, and I said because I love you and your brother and Daddy so much.  So, so much.