how to be kind

The problem with writing about someone you once loved—about someone you simultaneously wish never to be moved by again and to love forever (because you want to honor the part of yourself that used to love him and to remember the thing that fluttered and pounded between you)—the problem with this is that if you really want to be honest, you have to dive back in to that love.

About a month ago I submitted my final grades and set out to write every day—and that’s when I stumbled into this problem. I was trying to write about our best day: zipping around an Aegean island with the man I once loved. “Man, it must suck to be everybody else,” he said as we took the switchbacks up the hill toward our tiny studio. We agreed that we even felt sorry for the people we were before we arrived, with their busy lives that didn’t include riding a scooter past limestone cliffs in the long after-dinner light of late June.

More than once that week I woke up in a sweat, dreaming about house parties where, apparently, invitations were sent to anyone who’d ever broken my heart (and, oddly, one ex-boyfriend’s father…). Writing about the man you once loved means living with this man again. And living with the version of yourself who loved him, someone you know intimately, but might be better off forgetting for a while. It is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. And I wasn’t sure how to manage it. Continue reading

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The Next Big Thing: what I’m working on

One whole month ago—honestly, we’re probably closing in on six weeks at this point—my friend (and talented novelist and poet) Lisa Pasold tagged me in the literary-blog-chain-letter called “The Next Big Thing.” The premise is simple: a bunch of writers all answer the same questions about their most recent project. Though I don’t go in for many internet trends, I thought it might be a good exercise to take a big-picture look at this project, so I happily agreed to do it.

But I didn’t do it. I don’t know why exactly, but every time I looked over the questions, I felt myself wither under their expectant gaze. They wanted answers. I wasn’t sure I had any, especially after reading the articulate musings of my colleagues around the web. I wanted to read all of their books. But I’d spent the previous two weeks feeling slightly nauseous every time I opened my own project—how (or better yet why) would I convince someone to read something that was making my own stomach turn? So, in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, I postponed.

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A retreating glacier. Wait for it…it’s relevant.

Then last week something unexpected happened: a bunch of strangers started reading this blog. When I began blogging a year and a half ago, my only goal was to establish a small but public home for the book I’ve been working on. The surprising side-effect of keeping a blog was that my friends and colleagues began asking me about my writing. Their interest and curiosity was motivating, reminding me that the very solitary act of writing also has some community-minded goals. I write to understand something about the world, but also to connect with readers—both friends and strangers.

Until last Monday, most of my readers were friends, and, when I got an e-mail from WordPress saying they were “Fresh-Pressing” my blog post and that I should “get ready to welcome some new readers,” I didn’t take it too seriously. (When it comes to internet-ing, I tend to know only what I need to to get by.) So I was pretty shocked to discover, when I logged on a few hours later, that hundreds of people had visited my blog, and they were reading and commenting and subscribing. (!) It’s a bit strange and a lot exciting to see your audience quadruple over just a few hours. And while I’m with it enough to know that, in the wide world of blogging, these numbers are actually quite modest, I’m f-ing thrilled. I am.

The comments are thoughtful and kind. And the interest seems genuine. Isn’t the internet supposed to be more hostile and embittered than this? Reading the comments, I sometimes find I don’t always know how to respond in a way that seems genuine rather than hollow. I don’t know how to convey warmth I feel toward a stranger who is represented only by a few pixels and a few words. But I’ll say it again here. Thank you, good friends and total strangers, for making my writing world just a little bit bigger. If there was ever a time to buck up and answer a few questions, this is probably it. So here goes: Continue reading

“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

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

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