A DIY Approach To Being A Sister

(This is a short excerpt from my just-completed memoir The Queen of Everything.  I loved writing it, but now the hard part – finding an agent and/or publisher!)

No one teaches you how to be a sister. There are entire shelves of books and magazines devoted to teaching you how to be a wife and mother. But being a sister is pretty much on-the-job training with no role models or how-to magazines. Just Mom saying, as she runs out the door to catch the bus to her waitress job, “I only ask one thing. Try not to kill each other.”

But, like every other time in my life when I’ve had no clue how to “be” (which has been a lot) I got much of my guidance from books.

I guess this could be seen as a sort of DIY approach to life, a life learned from books. Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder were my early mentors, with the sisters in Jane Austen’s novels nudging them aside later, until Seventeen and Tiger Beat took over my teenage brain and turned me into a narcissistic little bitch who would have traded all five sisters for the complete set of Bonne Bell Basics. Continue reading

Indian Summer

(Originally appeared in my essay collection Lake Forest Moments)

There are always those precious days in early fall when we are granted a few last glorious days of summer. Even though there have already been chilly mornings, and the pumpkins hang heavy on their vines, suddenly it gets hot again for a day or two, and everyone gets as giddy as though it was spring.

This is the best time to call friends and family together and go down to the lake for an evening barbecue.

We meet friends at the lake pavilion with footballs, beach towels, and coolers of food. Our collective children, seven of them between the ages of ten and fourteen, also sense that this will be the last true day of summer. The previous weeks of school are shed in a flash as they run with abandon, barefoot through the sand, whirling and laughing and calling out to one another.

In a few years they will all be teenagers and we will be lucky to get them to come with us at all. But for now we are envious of their freedom to jump and twirl, their ability to live in the moment. Continue reading

Keep It Real: Edited by Lee Gutkind

Here are some thoughts/notes on writing creative nonfiction, using Lee Gutkind’s excellent book published in 2008, on the subject: Keep It Real. I highly recommend reading it.

Keep It Real, a collection of writings on narrative nonfiction and memoir was compiled by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. The subtitle of the book is Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. I was intrigued by this title because I am very interested in the blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe this book would help me to see what those lines are in a way that might help me in my own work. Every time I read fiction I find myself wondering how much of the fiction is from the author’s own life and how much is completely from an author’s imagination. Does it matter?

In Poets & Writers, in an interview of fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, interviewer Nina Shengold notes, “She scatters autobiographical crumbs throughout her fiction.” What makes this autobiographical fiction writing different than creative nonfiction then? In Gutkind’s book he tries to address this, “…the anchoring element of the best creative nonfiction requires an aspect of reportage.” And, “…creative nonfiction…presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Continue reading

The Brain Is A Really Weird Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain for the past five years or so.  Something lucky, before I begin: My brain still works pretty well.  I do crossword puzzles, I am physically active, and I read and write all the time.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t care all that much about what you’ve done to stave them off.  To say nothing of brain injuries.

Here are some of the reasons I think about the brain – maybe more than the average person. First – one of my sisters suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago, and I have been very involved in her rehabilitation, and in her life since her accident.  This is a sister I never had a close relationship with, but who I would now kill for.  This is basically the premise of a memoir I just completed about being a sister.  Second, my father died of complications from dementia, a harrowing experience I wouldn’t wish on any family.  Third, I started writing a novel that was based on the premise that you could “freeze” your brain (or something like that), and “live” forever.  Or, at least your brain could.  I got well into this novel until I hit a wall and set the book aside for a while.  But in the meantime, I did a ton of research into the brain.

So, this is a subject I obviously find fascinating.  Just recently I read a brand new memoir called Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes On My Dementia by Gerda Saunders.  It is an amazingly raw and tender and sad and joyous story.  I had originally heard the author a few weeks ago being interviewed on NPR, and immediately went to the library to get the book.

A few out of many memorable passages:  “I write to remember, to inhabit for a while, my earliest self…”  And, “I convinced myself that shining light into the lonely and scary place of my mother’s dementia – and mine- could possibly be of value to other people who live with dementia, whether it’s their own or that of someone they love.”

I highly recommend finding the interview on NPR, and also reading the book.  And if you can bear it, and haven’t done so yet, read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and see the movie by the same name (with Julianne Moore).  I know it’s hard to talk about this, and read about it, but the more we face these issues with some type of understanding (and even humor and grace) the better equipped we might be to survive with our humanity intact, and maybe even enhanced.

(I also shared an essay I wrote about my father’s dementia in a post on 4/27/17.)