“Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.

“—is that they exist?” she finished.

“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”

Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”

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the view of Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady Resort

The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”

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Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it. Continue reading

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January roundup: love and memoir

It’s ten degrees celsius in Vancouver and today I saw a woman drive through the alley behind my apartment in a sea-foam green convertible with the top down. Convertibles tend to stand out in a city where most people buy rain tires, but what made the woman particularly remarkable was her chinchilla fur hat and her passenger: a chihuahua in a chihuahua-sized baby blue Snuggie®. His erect posture and casual gaze made the dog look like he was accustomed to being chauffeured and the two of them made a funny picture idling beside the butcher-shop dumpster.

In my Vancouver literature class, my students and I have been talking about Vancouver as a postcard city, and the discrepancy between the real and the ideal. The woman in the convertible struck me as someone who somehow hadn’t noticed she was in the city of gore-tex and yoga pants and Subarus, a character in a story set in a different Vancouver than the one I live in. It was a few hours later that I wondered if anyone who writes about her own life can really criticize someone for making herself a character (even if said character purchases dog Snuggies). If nothing else, the book I’m writing is about my inherent tendency to narrate my life as a way of making some larger meaning out of it.

postcard city

postcard city

With that in mind, here’s your late January early February (I’m behind) round-up of love and memoir:

  • I really love this essay in Modern Love about the postcard kiss and the difficulty of letting a good story be nothing more than a good story:

He walked me to my car, and we kissed in the parking garage, under orblike yellow lights. It was a still kiss, a postcard kiss, a Disney princess kiss, the kind of kiss that makes blue cartoon birds chirp and swirl in the sky, their beaks holding garlands.

And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

(From “When the Words Don’t Fit” by Sarah Healy) Continue reading

27,766 words

I’ve been away. And for good reason. I’ve been writing, not quite every day but almost. All those strands of thought I’ve spent the past two-plus years collecting are weaving together into an imitation of an honest-to-god manuscript.

At present, I’ve got exactly 27,766 words. If we’re being technical, I’ve got about a bazillion more words than that, but 27,766 is the number of words that fall in order, one after another, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. In Microsoft Word terms, that’s about eighty double-spaced pages. And while I’m happy, thrilled even, about this sense of forward progress, the evolution of a bunch of disparate passages into a single, coherent thing brings its own unexpected anxieties.

Mostly, I worry about being a woman writing about love. I try hard to be smart and unsentimental, to be honest in a way that occasionally makes me uncomfortable. But I sometimes wonder about being dismissed as a girl who’s writing for other girls about their favorite girly subject. I am well aware of how writing anything that falls within the sphere of domesticity (or, even worse, romance) can relegate a women to the genre of chick-memoir or win her the label of myopic navel gazer.

And I worry about how slowly I write. I have, more than once, spent hours on a just few sentences. I’ve had the idea of this book for four years now, and have been writing it for at least two and a half. I try to think of Marilynne Robinson, who published her first novel (the truly excellent Housekeeping, which you must read if you are at all interested sentences) in 1980, and her second, which won the Pulitzer Prize, nearly twenty-five years later in 2004. In fact, each of her three novels has won a major book prize. She is not prolific, but profound, I tell myself.

Once I’ve got that Pulitzer nomination under my belt, I too can be less anxious about tangible productivity. For now, though, I am my usual, cautious self. I do not trust my sentences. I third- and fourth-guess them. It is better, I think, to trust in the writing process (that is, showing up at the computer every day for as much time as I can manage) than to trust in my own words. If you think something is good, give it a couple weeks. Things change.

An odd by-product of being cautious in writing about love, and of training yourself to doubt your initial instincts, to let them sit awhile before acting on them, is that you may also become doubtful of your instincts when it comes to love itself. Continue reading

on being young and in love–or on writing memoir and selling yourself out

Last week I was out to dinner with some friends when one asked me, “Does it bother you that J might read your blog?”

My first response was instinctive: “No. He knows what I’m writing about. He’s always known, since I started this project. And he’s read big chunks of it.”

But, as I let the question settle in, I wasn’t sure that was a good answer. I thought of Joan Didion, who I seem to be quoting often these days, and who famously said that “writers are always selling someone out.” I tried explaining what I’ve mentioned here before, that I don’t know how to write about love stories without writing about our relationship. So, despite the fact that, in the many years we were together, J was generously supportive of my writing, I think carefully about what I post here whenever it also implicates him. I said that I tried to write from a place of honesty and kindness, though I’m often not sure if honesty and kindness can co-exist that easily.

“No,” Jen said as we finished our sushi, “I mean, does it bother you that he can see, you know, what an effect he’s had on you?” No one had ever asked me this before, but in a round about way, I guess I have thought about it.

Cheryl Strayed, when asked at the recent Associate Writers Program conference about embarrassing her ex-husband in writing about the end of their marriage, said, “If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.” And I tend to agree with this idea about memoir. The memoirs I like the most don’t have an agenda or anything to prove. They’re motivated by genuine inquiry, starting with the self.

Jen’s question reminds me of a photograph I came across a few months ago. In it I am sitting on one of the leather couches at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC. When we lived in the city, J and I often rode our bikes to the Hirshhorn, but this photo is from our first visit, when I lived in Florida and he lived in Ecuador.

I remember riding the narrow escalator upstairs, standing on the higher step so I was eye to eye with him, and staring into his face as if I might die if I stopped looking. I remember thinking that the people around us could see how I was staring at him, and him at me, and that for the sake of decency, we ought to stop looking at each other like that. But we didn’t stop. We spent the afternoon whispering, and gazing at the art, and then at each other. That we would soon be apart again made the whole experience all the more poignant in my mind, because that’s how you think about love at twenty-two. Continue reading

some thoughts on the essay, the lifespan of facts, and street photography

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the ongoing debate about truth, genre, and the writer’s responsibilities to the reader, at the center of which is self-declared essayist John D’Agata. Well, the debate rages on. I particularly appreciate Dinty Moore’s lucid comments about D’Agata’s rather manipulative approach to what is, in the end, a really valuable conversation about nonfiction writing.

If you haven’t been keeping up, what you need to know is this. John D’Agata (lyric essay writer) and Jim Fingal (fact checker) recently published a book which contains their lengthy and heated exchange about an essay by D’Agata which was published in The Believer. The book quickly reveals D’Agata’s willingness to change the facts on what appears to be an otherwise-journalistic essay about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. The two men debate the merits of the facts in the face of larger aesthetic choices, with Fingal representing a relentless (and at times extreme) commitment to factuality and D’Agata interested primarily in aesthetics (the rhythm of a sentence is better, for example, when it says there were 34 strip clubs in Vegas, despite the fact that there were actually only 31).

Now, it turns out that even the e-mail exchange was a kind of exaggerated performance piece, with the each man playing his respective role in an attempt to make the conversation less “nerdy,” more “dramatic,” and ultimately, more publishable.

Because I cannot resist, I decided to chime in on this debate in the comments section of Dinty’s blog post and ended up writing a relatively-long response. So I thought I’d post it here as well, for anyone who might be interested in the larger conversation about fiction and nonfiction, essay writing, facts, truth, and the writer’s obligations to his or her readers. If you are a true nonfiction nerd, and interested in more discussion, check out the many other comments in response to Dinty’s post.

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts on the matter:

Etymologically speaking, “essay” once meant “to try” and also “to weigh” or “to test.” And one of the things I love about the personal essay is that it incorporates those historical definitions into its contemporary form. But “essay” as we use it today is a noun that contains the verb. And this noun also contains specific ideas about truth, which can’t be arbitrarily dismissed.

Continue reading

some sloppy and unrelated thoughts on love and writing

Today it took three presses of the sleep button combined with Roscoe’s cold nose on my shoulder to motivate myself to throw off the duvet and put my bare feet on the floor. I was forty minutes late to my regular Friday morning writing session, and even after employing  “the Klonsky method”–my friend Dave swears by a precise combination of caffeine and sugar (the mocha) to kick-start the brain–I still couldn’t direct my thoughts enough to put together a proper blog post. So I’ve given up. I’ve accepted that my mind, like most of downtown Vancouver, is going to be occupied by low-altitude haze today.

With that said, I have some assorted thoughts:

Number one, I got a nice e-mail from the folks at Folio last week, and I thought I’d pass it along to interested writers. Folio is a literary journal published at my alma mater, American University. Last year, in addition to poetry and fiction, they started publishing nonfiction, including a short essay I wrote called “On Love and Naming”. Now they’re looking for more nonfiction, so if you’re interested, submit. The staff is fantastic: supportive and easy to work with. They’re also running their first-ever fiction contest this year. So if you’re a fiction writer, enter! If you’re interested in reading, rather than writing, subscribe! It’s a steal.

In other–totally unrelated–news, I stumbled across an intriguing concept today: The Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is a touring exhibition of donated items: artifacts that remained after romantic love ended, what the curators call “the ruins of relationship.” From their website:

Whatever the motivation for donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony.  Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.  In the words of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theater.”

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book The Marriage Plot which quotes extensively from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. And now that Barthes’s book is on my radar it seems to be popping up everywhere. The idea of love–and particularly the breaking of a relationship–as something that contains an element of theater makes sense to me. One item from the online exhibition is an old Nokia cell phone with the caption, “He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.”

In my first year composition classes, I ask my students to write an analysis of an artifact somehow related to their education. The students who really invest in the assignment inevitably return good results: what the red engineer’s jackets suggest about the role of gender in the engineering faculty, how the ads the university uses to attract new students sell a lifestyle rather than an education, the conflicting messages student dining facilities convey about health and eating. I suspect my students would be pretty terrible at writing about artifacts related to love–they are a smart but often sentimental lot–but I love the idea of performing a similar analysis of love’s artifacts.

My favorite artifact from the online exhibition is a Slovenian bread bowl. The jilted lover writes,

You wanted me to bake bread. Because a woman kneading dough is so erotic, isn’t she? You probably thought I’d work up such a sweat that it would drip from my breasts directly into the bowl.

Continue reading

the power of a deadline

I decided to enter the CBC’s Canada Writes Nonfiction Literary Competition this week. Immediately, there were two problems with this decision: One, I first heard about the competition five days before the deadline. And two, the regulations included an unusual word count requirement: 1200-1500 words. Ordinarily, writing competitions or journals give writers a maximum word count, but rarely do they give a range. And if they do give a range, it’s rarely so narrow. A full-length essay usually falls between 3000-4000 words. A short-short–or flash–essay, an increasingly popular form of nonfiction, typically has an upper limit of 700-1000 words. Of course, 1200-1500 words is a lot like the length of a blog post, but blog posts–or anything self-published for that matter–were strictly disallowed.

Because I started teaching a new class this week (and, yes, because I needed to go to the climbing gym and to a movie and to a beer tasting event), I didn’t have the chance to start cobbling together a submission until about two days before the Wednesday-at-midnight deadline.

And this is the power of a deadline. I spent about five hours on Wednesday trying to turn a 900 word piece into a 1200 word piece and somehow, right at the last minute, what had been a pretty good scene became something bigger and more interesting. It was a scene that I thought might fit into my book, but probably won’t, a scene about the first time J and I talked about love. Adding another 300 words forced me to ask myself a lot of really useful questions:

What are the power dynamics involved in asking someone if they love you? Or in telling them that you love them?

How can I write about someone I spent ten years of my life with, a relationship that I still have lots of unresolved and complex feelings about, in a way that is fair to both of us?

And why do I keep coming back to this scene, to the two of us at twenty, lying on his old lumpy futon and talking about love? What is it that matters about that moment?

I really like this post by Shanna Mahin in defense of the memoir. In response to the criticism that memoir writing is some kind of misguided attempt at self-therapy, she writes, “If I can come from a place of honesty and love, I might be able to tell a personal story that resonates on a universal level.” And I like Jennifer Bowen Hicks’ argument that an essay should be like “an earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away thoughts of black lace and sordid secrets. The sort of whisper I mean can be about hummingbirds or athlete’s foot, an aging parent or eggplant. Its very purpose is not to show, but to say, and by saying to connect.”

I have understood for some time that when it comes to my own love story, my position is the more sympathetic one. I wanted it more. And when it comes to love, we identify with the one who wants the relationship more. The pain of the lover is always deeper, more acute, more compelling than the pain of the loved. Of course we were both lovers and we were both loved, but the story, as I cannot help but tell it, inevitably contains my belief that I wanted it just a little bit more. I was attracted to J for his independence. I loved that he was like no one else I knew. He was (still is) insistently nonconformist. I wanted to be someone who was unafraid to move alone to a village in the middle of the Andes. But since I could not be that person, I decided to fall in love with that person instead.

Continue reading