Category Archives: the writing life

The “ick” of writing memoir

Today, I spent time on the phone with the marketing team for Wailing Wall. November 10, 2015 is the official launch date, and we needed to do some planning about how to make the biggest splash. It was exciting and thrilling and then…I had a moment. A moment where the whole thing just seemed icky. Wrong. Scary.

I’m planning a strategy for how I’m going to spend a month talking about the book – ergo, talking about my Joshua’s death. And since (I hope) that Wailing Wall is not the last book, I’ll publish, I’m talking about building my “brand” as a writer on the back of losing my kid.

Icky, right?

How do people do it – write and publish and tell horrible stories about people they love and not feel at least a little icky about it?

I just looked back at a Facebook chat I had with Joshua a couple of months before he died where he asked me how writing was going. He was always encouraging, always positive about my aspirations to write something that the world would one day see. If he were here right now, he’d say, “Ma, you’re being ridiculous. Get out there and sell the damn book.” I know he’d be stoked about the book – especially the cover. I know he’d be proud of me. And he would gladly have given his story to me if it helped me heal, become more human, and live again. And still, it feels odd to be excited about the book launch, to be asking people to read it and review it or host a book signing. Odd. And icky.

Writing in my sleep

The first paragraph came to me in a dream last night. It seemed like the beginning of a new story. I wonder what Charles Oliver wants?

~~~~

The latch on the wrought-iron gate closed with a clang behind him. Charles Oliver came in uninvited. I was barefoot in the garden picking basil for dinner and had closed my eyes to breathe in the scent just a meditative moment before. His entrance having jolted me, I met his eyes on his way up the brick path to my house.

“Staying for dinner, Mr. Oliver?” I asked, sitting down on the painted wooden steps of my front porch to wipe the dirt from my feet.

“If you’ll have me, I reckon so.”

The stove hadn’t been lit for days or maybe weeks. I had, instead, been grazing on food that could be pulled from the earth and eaten with little more than a wash in my deep porcelain sink. Survival of summer in the Mississippi Delta required ingenuity, especially when the only mechanism for moving the hot air around the old farmhouse was the attic fan and open windows. But I didn’t mind. Food straight from the ground seemed closer to the way God intended it. My little plot of heaven was small enough that I alone could tend it and it returned the favor by providing enough food to feed my body and my soul.

Mr. Oliver sat himself down at my old pine table and traced a finger over the indented words left by children practicing their numbers and letters. Not my children, of course. The one marriage I had ended after only a couple of months when Mr. Jenkins fell under the plough, drunk on corn whiskey. Henry, the old mule, didn’t even look back when he pulled the blades bumpity-bump over Jenkins’s body. No, the children who had studied at this pine table were mostly me and my little sister, Amylee between harvesting and planting seasons when we were allowed to go to school. My older brother, Skaggs (God rest his soul) probably made a few here and there, before he was old enough to work. Mama and Daddy never learned to read and write, so I imagine they only accounted for the X’s that were left in the pine when they re-signed the share-cropping contract with Mr. B each year.

The thirty-five acres my family farmed was now mine, Skaggs having died in Viet Nam and Amylee having moved to Nashville when she got a job teaching history at Vanderbilt. For a few years after Mr. Jenkins died, I kept the land in cotton but after a while, it all got to be too much for one person to handle and I let it go fallow. Except for a few black walnut trees and a dogwood here and there, goldenrod and Joe-pye weeds  have grown tall enough to keep the neighbors out of my business and provide a wild turkey here and there.

That night when Mr. Oliver sat down at my table, I set it with sliced tomatoes and onion, cottage cheese and three cold fried chicken quarters I’d brought home from the church potluck the Sunday before. “Take these home with you, Sister Bess,” the organ player had said as she wrapped the chicken in aluminum foil and stuffed them into the plastic bag I’d brought the bean salad in. “It’ll save you from havin’ to light the stove this week.”  But here it was Tuesday and company had come so it only seemed right to serve the chicken and worry about tomorrow when it came. After one piece of chicken and some sliced tomatoes, Mr. Oliver excused himself from the table, washed his plate.

“I’d like to sit a spell on the porch, if you don’t mind. When it’s time to go, I can see myself off,” he said. “No need to stay up on my account.” 

“Of course. Whatever you need,” I nodded to him, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until I heard the gate close behind him.  But by the time I’d cleaned the kitchen and did my nightly Bible study, Mr. Oliver had let himself out the same way he came in.

How to piss off a grieving mother

In my travels through social networks, I ran across a book called, “Ten Easy Steps to Overcome, Cure and Cope with Grief.”  Far be it from me to disparage someone’s work that I haven’t read – or even work that I have read if it pertains to their own experience, but on this particular day, 380-some-odd days after the death of my son, the title hit me as simultaneously ridiculous and offensive. In fact, every word in the title save for the last three rub me raw and make me wonder whether Wayne Weeks is writing from his own experience.

Since I can’t make it past the title, I’ll take it one word at a time.

Ten Easy Steps –  Really? These ten things (are you sure there aren’t 13? Or 8?)  To suggest that there is a set number of tasks that if you do them correctly and completely will eliminate the moments you lose your breath in the grocery store when you look at the Sunny D? And those times when you hide and watch a kid playing hackeysack in the park a little longer than you should because you’re secretly pretending it’s your kid? Gone. Just follow this recipe.

But wait! There’s more!

The steps are easy. No more bloody knuckles from grating through your feelings of guilt, shame, regret. For just $19.95, you, too, can have all the answers!

Overcome: For me, this word sounds like there is an end-point to grief. No one I have talked to in this journey – and one woman from The Compassionate Friends lost her son in 1981 – has indicated this is true. I have said before that grief changes you on a molecular level. Once you’ve experienced it, it becomes part of the fabric of your being. To overcome it means to rise to meet it and then leave it behind, but I know I never will.

Cure: Do I have a disease? Granted, there are more complicated grief responses that require the attention of a medical/psychological professional. I’ve had some of those and dealt with them accordingly. It’s possible that they will arise again as I continue to peel this onion. But I am not ill. I am human. A mother, who grew another human inside her body, raised him in to a man and then had to let him go. I loved him so much that learning to live without him is painful. I don’t need to be cured.

My apologies to Mr. Weeks, but he would have come closer to convincing me to buy his book if he had stuck with the final three words of his title: Cope with Grief. There is no way out except right through it. It takes how long it takes. It’s not easy. You will never be finished. But you will survive.

~ D

 

Back to work!

Right after my son Joshua died, my plan was to become a hermit. To curl up in a ball and shut out the rest of the world forever. When that stopped feeling like the right thing to do, my plan was to keep bees and chickens and make butter and cheese and wear long skirts, Birkenstocks with socks and grow my hair out – a sort of homesteading crazy cat woman if you will. That stopped being any fun, too.

Turns out I can’t even go crazy the right way.

When I have nothing to do, I do nothing. I don’t take advantage of the time to relax or dream or create. I obsess. Ruminate. Fret. And, as it turns out, poverty is not character building. I had forgotten Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that when you are worried about having your basic needs me, you have no energy to be creative.

So, I’m going back to work. I’m going to put that expensive Master’s degree I worked so hard for to good use. For me, there is something to be said for having far more on your plate than you think you can accomplish, so I’m keeping my previous goal of publishing every year. You will hear me whine about not having the time or energy to write. But I’ll write on my lunch break. I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and write. I’ll pull over on the expressway to capture an idea. And it will be fine. In fact, I’m betting it will be more than fine. Shutting out the world – while quiet and peaceful – shuts out life. And I need input – my ideas are sparked by the things I see and hear and experience each day. This lack of input has my brain sort of atrophying. (Did you know there are 82 episodes of Man Men on Netflix?) When I am once again fully engaged in life, I’m counting on my muse to wake up, shake it off and turn out some amazing stuff.

~~~~~~~~~~~

So what’s up with Wailing Wall? I am in the line editing phase with my publisher which means someone with a passion for finding errant commas has combed through the manuscript. Yes, there are people who love this work and I’m damn glad of it. I’ve gotten the edits back along with a few suggestions for tightening up wording and I’ll be diving in to that next week. More exciting than errant commas is cover design concepts that will be coming my way in the next couple of days. A couple weeks ago, I spent an hour on the phone with a mysterious, artsy woman (at least that’s my fantasy of her) in NYC discussing the book and my vision for it. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for cover art.  I’ll post them here so readers can weigh in on your favorite ideas.

~ D

Categories & Labels

With Wailing Wall coming out later this year, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into categorizing my writing. When I started the crowdfunding campaign to fund the project through Inkshares, I casually said it was memoir. But now, I’m not so sure. Recently, I’ve started to use the broader category of Creative Non-fiction because there are a couple of scenes that are true, but not completely factual. The story of how my parents met, for example. Obviously, I wasn’t there and have no idea what the weather was like, but according to my mom, I was conceived on the Fourth of July, so I  created a scene out of my head about it. Does that count as being creative with my non-fiction?  My marketing team needs to know what shelf it goes on and I’m just.not.sure.

Then, there is my current work in progress. Got Down on my Knees started out as a way to keep my brain busy while Wailing Wall made its way through the publication process, but I’m having great fun with it. The central theme of the story is true, but the characters are totally made up – the exact opposite of what I did with the scene of how my parents met. And, I’m working harder to be true to the characters than to my own experience than in Wailing Wall. Does that mean it’s fiction?

I’ve always hated labels. No one label ever seems to fit my life exactly right. Why can’t I just mark “D – All of the above” (it worked on the SAT!)?  Alas, making enough money on book sales to keep writing full-time needs to happy, so I suppose I should play along.

Here’s what I know: I will always write about Southern life and the sticky parts that come with that – race, poverty, gender, addiction. My protagonist will probably always be a woman. And the women I write about will probably always come out more fully human in the end. That doesn’t mean they’ll always win the prize, get the girl/guy or move to Tuscany. It means they’ll cry when they feel sad. They’ll laugh when they feel joy. They’ll be more fully present in their lives and in the lives of the people around them.

I’ll leave the categorizations up to the professionals.

~D

Are white writers getting race right in their characters?

Earlier this week, I got involved in a conversation on social media with other fiction writers about race and fictional characters. The conversation was started by a white woman who had written a screen play about an African American Viet Nam vet in the Jim Crow South. Her play was getting great response from black theatre companies, but one comment she had gotten back stuck in her craw: “Nothing about this man sounds black.”  She had posted it to the group of writers to get their take on it.

Many of the reactions from other writers focused on the speech of the man, which I agree is a huge part of a character. Cadence, intonation, vernacular – all critical to developing the voice of your character regardless of their race. But I wondered whether speech was really what the original commenter meant. I though maybe he said “not sounding black” as meaning something deeper about how the person moved through the world.

So, I poked a little. Like I do.

I started a new thread and asked the group how they went about developing characters that were of a different race/ethnicity. At the writing of this post, most of the answers say something about not seeing race (being color blind). I even got a “some of my best friends are black” or two.  And so, I am rebelling. Emphatically. In fact, this post may smack of a rant.

If you are a writer and you try to be color blind to your characters, you are doing them a disservice.

If I were a male writer and I wanted to write a female character and intended to stay blind to the fact that she was a woman, wouldn’t that character lack the depth that comes with the female experience? And doesn’t that experience shape nearly everything about a woman’s life? I know it does mine.

Us white folks, we don’t think about our race often. But People of Color live their race in every business transaction, every job interview, every walk down the street they take. To ignore that and contend you’ve got a well-developed character is laughable. To use the example above, that writer is writing a male character and naming it Sharon. If you’re not intention about including race as part of your character development, you’ve written a white character, given him a name you think sounds black and probably thrown in some Black Urban Vernacular for good (bad?) measure.

We can do better.

As writers, we have an obligation to be part of contemporary social discourse. One of the ways we can contribute to the national conversation on race is to…well…talk about it. Be radical. Be brave. Consider that there are others who have a drastically different experience than we have and we can’t presume to understand it until we admit we don’t.

~D

 

Message in a Bottle

I was fortunate to attend the Midwest Literary Walk yesterday in Chelsea, Michigan. There were some amazing authors there but the one touched me most was Edward Hirsch. Not only because he read from his latest book, Gabriel, A Poem, an elegy to his son, but also because he talked about a question that has been bopping around in my head lately. When it concerns art, what matters more: Intent or impact?

I was talking to a young writer last week about racism and it led to that question. He held that the artist’s intent was all that mattered. That as artists, we produce our art to express ourselves. We don’t create for the masses, we create for ourselves. In one way, I totally agree with him. When I am writing, I have to write the story that I need to write at that time, masses be damned. I’m writing it because it is a story that needs to be told, not to please someone else. If I have done the best work I was capable of at that moment, my work is done.

But, there are people whose motivation to write is to sell books. Are they less artists than someone who writes because they have been deeply touched by life in some way and feel the need to express it? And, would anyone really ever go through the editing process if they weren’t writing for someone else to read? We’d just stuff it in a drawer somewhere if its only purpose was to express our feelings and spare ourselves the pain of seeing it marked up by an editor!

The other problem I have with his stance is particularly true for writing. I’ll let artists in the other media weigh in on whether it is true for other art forms. And that brings us to what Edward Hirsch said yesterday. I paraphrase: Poetry is like a message in a bottle. You create it, then toss it out to sea. But it’s not until someone finds it and opens the bottle that life is breathed into it. Writing requires a vessel – the reader – to reach its full potential. Like the message in the bottle, it’s written in hopes that someone, ANYONE will find it and set it free.

PS: A friend just reminded me that Edward Hirsch was paraphrasing himself! Here’s the reference:

“A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are under way: they are making toward something.”

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by Josh Felstiner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 115.

 

~D