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.

 

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.

 

 

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist

Stick the Knife In: Then Twist (a new essay about writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s no mystery why my thoughts keep going there – I’ve been writing a memoir about being a sister for the past two years. Naturally I would feel vulnerable writing about family, right? After all, the funny/but not funny joke in nonfiction and memoir writing classes is: “I want to write about my family, but I have to wait for them all to die first.”

That’s a bit extreme. But it does show the depth of vulnerability many writers experience when even considering writing about personal topics. And family is often one of the most personal. Of course there are many other subjects that are also personal, and require a writer to be vulnerable. Illness, physical or mental trauma, experiencing some event (either painful or joyful) out of the ordinary – all of these have their place on the vulnerability spectrum. Writing about any of them requires the writer to go inward, excavate, examine, and then turn that into engaging prose.

So much easier not to even go there. So much easier not to probe.

Continue reading

The Cheering Section

I was trying to think of a way to announce that I just signed with a literary agent this past week, who will represent me and my brand new memoir, The Queen of Everything, without sounding like I was bragging. That’s the weird thing about social media (for me, anyway): whenever I “announce” or “share” publication news, or news like this – that I have signed with an agent – I feel like I am “tooting my own horn.” The fact that I am using so many quotation marks, by the way, shows my ambivalence about this.

Most writers I know are pretty solitary creatures. We can socialize at cocktail parties just fine, and I think I even make a pretty good dinner partner; but I can also go for huge stretches of time alone with my laptop and books and notes. I normally take time every morning for walks with friends, and I spend dinner and evenings with my husband. But during the time when most people are either at work or golfing or playing tennis, I am happily alone. For hours.

At the end of all of those long hours, sometimes a book is born. Along the way, short stories and essays and poems also get birthed. The shorter pieces get sent out and published, submitted by the author herself, and today you can even publish a book on your own. But most professional writers I know dream the dream of having a book taken on by a literary agent, who will then sell the manuscript to a publisher. I myself have been dreaming this dream for many years. I myself have had several false starts on books that went nowhere.

But now I do have a book. And an agent. I have not met Liz Parker of Inkwell Management in person yet, but she sounds really nice on the phone, and she has a good sense of humor. She must, if she loves my book, because my book is pretty funny in parts. In other parts it’s pretty sad though, but that’s pretty much what a memoir is – like life, it has funny and sad parts.

When people ask me what my book is about, I say it’s about being a sister. The funny and the sad parts. Liz said, about my sister with a brain injury – who is the fulcrum of my story about being a sister – that my sister is a “rock star.” I never thought of my sister that way, but I am so happy that she just naturally came across like that in my book, and that Liz saw that she is a rock star. That made me want Liz to represent my book.

Because in life we all need a cheering section, whether we are writers or not. Or if not an entire cheering section, at least one or two or three people who wish you well and are cheering you on to do better.