Find Yourself in My Story

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not an autobiography

As important as what a memoir must be is what it cannot be. Memoir is not autobiography. By far most memoirists are not people whose lives compel them to write a full-blown autobiography. If you are the first Black woman to become Vice-President of the United States, readers will want to know about your childhood, your education, and even how you manage to get dinner on the table while being the Vice-President. Thus, you will need to write an autobiography. And you’ll call on professional writers to help you craft memorable work.

The rest of us who wish to share part of our stories with the wider community have a humbler purpose. Everyone has fields of expertise. That doesn’t necessarily mean an ability that takes years of school or practice, like playing the piano well or teaching grade although those certainly are important and interesting skills. An area of personal expertise can be as simple as developing a satisfying relationship with a rescue dog. Yet, these smaller-scale accomplishments offer opportunities to develop compelling narratives that will hold readers on the page from the first word to the last.

finding myself in your story

The reasons I would read your memoir differ fundamentally from my motivation for reading Kamala Harris’ autobiography. I’ll read her book to learn about Kamala. When I read your book, I’ll be hoping to learn something about myself.

That’s right! The kicker of writing a memoir is that it isn’t “about” the writer. It’s about his/her/their field of expertise that can have meaning for you in your life. If, as a memoirist, I stray into simply drafting my own story just to tell you about me, you aren’t going to read it. Even if you thought you’d like it and bought it, you wouldn’t finish it. Reading must nourish us in a way. When a memoir does what it is supposed to do, the reader learns something they can apply to their own life. What they learn may even be a universal truth they already knew, but the memoir heightens its value for them.

finding the universal

The claim I make here is one of the seven principles of memoir writing, developed by Marion Roach Smith. She calls it the “Need for the Universal.” https://marionroach.com/?s=need+for+universal

As I continue the challenge of writing my memoir, I must find a way to universalize my argument. Where in my story would others see themselves? Six drafts of my memoir imprinted themselves on my computer screen before I finally discovered the four-leaf clover, the universal factor in the story I wanted to tell.

the way I was

In the early years of mothering my children who struggled with progressive myoclonic epilepsy, a rare brain disorder, I became overwhelmed with the effort to find a remedy for their illness and to care for them completely on my own. Eventually, however, I realized I needed to step back from their full-time care and share that responsibility with others more experienced than myself.

what i became

The universal exists in the tension, what Roach Smith names “the gap” between the two. https://marionroach.com/?s=create+the+gap  What stood between me and the best possible life for my children? It was the dread of a word freighted with misunderstanding, “institutionalization.” I needed to move from a place where no matter how tremendous overwhelmed I became; I was never going to be “one of those parents who put their children away” to realizing that good residential care for children and adults with developmental disabilities can be an exceptionally good thing.

a better understanding

The right place not only provides a happy, productive life for the residents but also involves their families in a wider community of support and engagement, which empowers advocacy and nourishes friendships. If a family is fortunate enough to find a genuinely good residential situation for their challenged family member both that child/adult and the whole family will lead fuller, richer, more satisfying lives.

As I write and construct this narrative, I must keep in mind that there is a full range of residential options for persons with developmental disabilities. We were lucky to find Misericordia. But there’s a larger principal at work in my argument. It is that a broad supportive community of some kind is a necessity of life for any parent but most especially for parents of children with special needs. It’s not easy to find that community but it does exist and it’s worth seeking out. More than anything I want my memoir to say to other parents:

don’t do this alone

 You deserve to be happy. You can find joy in parenting your special child who brings unique blessings into your life. But it won’t happen if you’re exhausted by their care. Help is out there. If you don’t have time to look for it, ask for the help of your family.

Our children need our advocacy, and we can only bring that to the table if we nourish ourselves as well as them.

 

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The Value of Community

Together
Idea of community

Everyone’s support system looks different. Thus, what defines ‘community’ for me may not at all resemble your idea of community. We do, however,  share a common need for a community of some sort. We cannot survive without it. Sometimes our community can be as small as one other caring person who sees us through a particularly tough, but very private time. At other times, we need the support of a much broader group of people.

seeking support

Ironically, many of us believe that we should be able to cope with life’s challenges on our own. We hesitate to look for help or seek group support.

community of mothers

That was true for me through many of the earlier years of caring for my children with special needs. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the value of community. In fact, I totally immersed myself in the community of La Leche League, an international association of breastfeeding mothers.  We supported one another by gathering together and sharing information via phone calls, letters, books, and a formal newsletter.

Within that group my awareness of how important peer support could be grew and solidified. Many of the mothers I knew in LLL would never have been able to breastfeed without the help of the group. Others would have felt isolated by their choice to breastfeed at a time when most babies were bottle fed. Instead, they found comradery and a sense of purpose.

without community support

Yet, this dependence on community did not, for me, carry over into coping with the multiple challenges I encountered as I tried to provide the best life possible for my two children with increasingly serious intellectual disabilities. I never sought out a support group of other parents with the same challenges. In that endeavor, for reasons I cannot explain, I felt compelled to handle my struggles on my own. I did my best to present to the world a picture of a mother who had it “all together.” Yet, every day the weight of my responsibilities sunk my soul in a sea of overwhelming despair.

community finds me

I did not drown, however, because even though I didn’t seek community, it found me and saved me from isolation and alienation. At first, those who reached out did not have children with special needs but all the same, they empathized with me because every parent has struggles and times they cannot cope. Even when I didn’t ask for help, they offered it because in the real world people have no choice. We are compelled to build community because we are survivors.

two-mother community

So many people gifted me in this way along the way, it would be impossible to name them all, but some folks stand out because they threw a lifeline at a time I might have otherwise disappeared below the raging waters.

First in line are the many young women who took time out of their own life to join our family as second mothers to my children. They made it literally possible for me to get through the day without collapsing. Beyond that, as strong young women not afraid to take on the hard task of caring for children with intellectual disabilities and seizures while at the same time they pursued their own important goals, they provided a myriad of role models for my daughters as they grew up. My heart sings today because several of those women now mothers, even grandmothers, themselves remain in touch with me.

lessons in community

Although our middle daughters, Betsy and Carrie, did not have to cope with intellectual disabilities, they did have the challenge of growing up in a family with siblings with special needs.  My openness to the help of these young women showed them that asking for help is okay, a valuable lifelong lesson.  I have seen as they grew into capable women that they not only know how to ask for help when they need it but they are also very attuned to helping others when they see those people struggling.

neighborhood community

Neither my wonderful mother’s helpers nor I would have thrived as well as we did if we had not lived in the wonderfully tight-knit neighborhood, the Seminary Townhouse Association. Within the heart of Chicago, this enclave of fifty-two homes functioned like a small village. We knew all our neighbors and they knew us.

The neighborhood had long-standing traditions of group festivities that included a bike parade and a talent show. Neighbors welcomed our entire family at these gatherings. These gentle folks understood Kristin and Johnny’s special needs and accommodated them without a fuss. The alleys of the association were more like village streets and in the center of our enclave was a huge green.

Up and down the alleys and over the green, children of all ages played together every day at every hour.  Mothers gathered on porches with mugs of coffee to watch the youngest kids. Jay’s walk every evening from the “L” stop at Fullerton Avenue to our home at the opposite corner of the complex often took him a half-hour because he chatted with almost all the neighbors over their back fences. Only in retrospect, I am able to truly appreciate the emotional protection living in the “Seminary” cocoon afforded me.

supporting the community

Being a part of such a strong community not only created an ongoing sense of support for me, it also made it possible for me to provide support for others. I didn’t need to always be the needy one. I could care for a neighbor’s child after school. Providing meals for a sick neighbor was an ongoing mission for me.

Being a part of the committees that planned our group events let me use my creative and organizational skills. In La Leche League I helped to plan and direct their twenty-fifth-anniversary convention. Because I could see how important these contributions were, they enhanced my sense of my own value at a time when our struggles to find a remedy for Kristin and Johnny’s increasing medical needs had hit a brick wall.

most important community

As the years went by these opportunities built strengths and skills. For which we were grateful when we participated in our most important community, Kristin and Johnny’s adult home, Misericordia.

Exuberant play
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You Need a Cosmic Graph

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An Author’s Idea of Hell

No one publishes the first draft of any piece of writing. At least, they shouldn’t. Not if the writer wants to be read.

Rewriting makes their work better. Important truths get honed. Images brighten and sharpen. Your ideas begin to POP off the page. Rewriting is also the author’s hell!

if only this was it!

That first draft – the vomit draft – it just spills out. Sure, it’s challenging work sitting down at the computer day after day, mining your memory and your research for the information you need. Then constructing those thoughts and facts into a literate narrative. But it’s honest work – like solving math problems. Simple. You put in the effort. You spend the time. You get results. But for the solution of the problem to mean anything, people need to be able to use the answer to solve concrete problems, not just abstract mathematical ones.

there’s a problem?

Even before we come to the solution, in fact, we need to identify the problem. That’s where a memoir must begin, and it is most likely not where the vomit draft begins. As an example, my draft begins with s school director calling Jay and me home from a Florida vacation to manage a family emergency. Nowhere in that first chapter do I identify the seriousness of the challenges facing our family. Nor do I let the reader know what a rare thing it was that we were on a vacation on our own. I simply started with an interesting scene (at least to me), but I don’t really name the problem. I don’t identify what is at stake.

In the final stages of editing my memoir, I need to become relentless. That will require four to five rewrites. Each time the argument will be stronger and the universal appeal more engrossing. By the end, useless adjectives and adverbs, overly long sentences, and awkward phrasing should be gone.

razzle-dazzle

Those are, however, the last parts of this memoir-writing journey. Long before I arrive at that point, I must reconstruct the overall project, break down the “vomit draft,” mine it for its best parts, lay them out like a deck of cards, choose the best, and rearrange them for the best impact. One card must be a dazzling opening scene that leads immediately to the next one, but also ultimately to the final scene of the book.

a cosmic graft

Close on the heels of this opener needs to come, what Marian Roach Smith calls my “Cosmic Graph.” This is the moment where I, as a writer, pan back from the moment like a camera pulling off into the sky. This must show up by the fourth paragraph of the first chapter. It contains four elements: what the memoir is about, what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, and what values I need to learn or acquire.

I try and try to do this, but conciseness eludes. Wordiness dogs me. But without a Cosmic Graph, I cannot chart my way through the morass of material I have accumulated. Still, my star vision blurs.

adjusting the telescope

Help, however, is on the horizon. I signed up for and took Roach-Smith’s “Constructing Your Memoir” class. What I learned there helped blow away the clouds that obscured my vision. It turned out I had used the wrong lens. My focus was out of kilter, but I didn’t yet know how to use the telescope. The class gave me more of the skills I needed. A new beginning and a new ending for my story emerged. I began to lay the cards out in patterns that worked together.

it’s only just begun

Piles of cards remain in the unshuffled deck, but increasingly of them are making their way either to the recycle bin or their deserved place in the structure of the memoir. The next blog post should be able to let you know if I’ve discovered my Cosmic Graph. But I’m paying attention to Roach-Smith’s warning that I may have to rewrite the introduction over and over as the ending unfolds itself. In the words of my dear friends the VanderVoorts, “We’ll know more later.”

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Dylan: Nothing’s That Easy

Dylan: Part 3, “Nothing’s That Easy”

A few minutes after Dylan’s Sunday school class began, Bro-Bob stuck his head into the classroom door. Their teacher, Miss Anne turned, smiled at him, and nodded.  She came up to the table where Dylan was coloring a picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  “Reverend Pilcher would like to speak with you.”

Dylan could only stare at Bro-Bob.  Fear held him in his seat.  He was in big trouble, he knew it. Yet, the big guy’s face lit up with a grin and he tipped his head over his shoulder in the direction of the hall.  Around him, the other students didn’t seem to notice. Finally, Dylan jumped up and followed the minister down the hall. Bro-Bob turned to him, “How about if we go up to the dining room.  The ladies are getting after-services hospitality ready. You and I could have first pick of the doughnuts.  Dylan’s stomach twisted into knots. He loved donuts, but right now he didn’t think he could swallow even the best of them.

In the cafeteria, he couldn’t focus on the array of pastries. Instead of looking delicious, they smelled sickening sweet, not the least bit appetizing

“Go ahead, choose as many as you want,” Bro-Bob urged. When Dylan didn’t move, he asked, “Aren’t you hungry?”

“No. I mean yah, sue, but there’s so many different kinds I don’t know what to chose.”

“That’s never a problem for me,” said Bro-Bob.  “I always go straight for the jelly donuts with the icing on the top because I know they’re filled with yummy raspberry jam.”

“I like chocolate better than anything,” Dylan said, “but chocolate ones sometimes have nuts inside. I hate nuts.”

Bro-Bob reached over and handed Dylan a rich brown donut with chocolate sprinkles on top.  “No bad surprises inside this one.  Just plain chocolate through and through.”

He then poured himself coffee from the big stainless, steel urn, and Dylan took a paper cup of orange juice. Bro-Bob led them to a corner of the parish hall near the multi-colored window that showed Jesus surrounded by children.

As they sat down, Dylan’s palms got sweaty.  Was the minister going to kick him out of Sunday school? Tell him what an awful thing he’d done to his brother?  He took too big a bite of donut and chewed it, focusing on keeping his mouth shut.  It wasn’t easy.  His mouth was so dry the gooey topping stuck to the roof of it. He grabbed his juice and gulped it down. That made him choke and cough. Bro-Bob took the glass from his hands and gently patted his back. Dylan felt his whole face heat up.

Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “Why did you want to talk to me?”

“Well, it’s part of my job here at Three Crosses to get to know you, seeing as the children of the parish are my special ministry.”

Oh, there was that word was again.

“What do you mean ‘special’?”

“It means while God called me to serve all His people. In this time and this place, it is my particular mission to minister to the children of Three Crosses.”

“So special means particular?”

 

“Sometimes. Special is one of those words it’s hard to pin down.” Bro-Bob took a sip of coffee and put his cup down, “I bet you wonder about that word a lot, don’t you?”

“Why do you think that?  Did somebody say something about me to you?”

“Yes, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you.” Bro-Bob took a bite of his donut and jelly oozed down his chin.

Dylan watched while he wiped it off, feeling suspicious and confused.  Wasn’t this about the family picture he had drawn, about how he’d made Nick so mad?  Not knowing what to say, he knocked some sprinkles off his donut and licked them off his finger.

Instead of talking about Nick, Bro-Bob nodded quietly.  “Before I tell you all the fine things your teachers have told me about you, I want to tell you a story about me.”

Dylan took a careful bite of donut.

The minister pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and slid a photograph out of a slot inside. “My story starts with a picture.”

He held it out and Dylan saw a tall, chubby guy who looked something like the minister.  But he had curlier hair and lots of freckles, more than Dylan had ever seen on a grown-up. “Is that your brother?”

“Yep, that’s my big brother Edward.”

Big brother? Dylan looked again.  The man in the picture couldn’t be older than Bro-Bob. He looked like a teenager. “Is this an old picture?” he asked.

“No, I took that photo last month.”

Dylan stared again at the photo.

“You think he looks a lot younger than me, right?”

“Well, yeah, sort of.”

“That’s because in many ways Edward stayed very young. He has trouble learning and with knowing how to act around people. When he was little, my family didn’t know why he wasn’t learning things or why he didn’t respond in typical ways.  Now we know he has developmental disability called Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

“What is that exactly?”

Bro-Bob sighed heavily. “The thing is it’s very different from person to person. It takes time and involvement to understand these kids. It’s something we can talk about as we get to know each other.”

Light exploded in Dylan’s head.  “People say that Edward’s special, don’t they?”

“You got it. My mom has a poem she hung up in his room at home.  It’s called “Heaven’s Special Child.”

“I thought you wanted to talk to me about what I did to Nick in Sunday School last week?”

“You’re right, of course. Paster Adams thought I might be a good one to handle this ‘special’ ruckus” Bro-Bob winked at him, “given that you and I face similar sets of challenges at home.”

Dylan’s stomach clenched, “Like what?”

“For instance, the crazy word, “special.” Why do people call kids like Nick and Edward “special?” just because they have developmental disabilities?”

Dylan’s head bobbed up and down, “Right. It’s weird.”

“I agree.  According to the dictionary, special means ‘better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual.’ That’s so vague it’s no help.  After all God made each of us uniquely ourselves. We’re all ‘different from what is usual.’”

“So why does everybody make a big deal over anything Nicholas does, but expect me to do everything perfectly.”

“It probably feels like that a lot of the time, but my guess is your parents and teachers really only expect each of you to do your own personal best.”

“I am trying.  They should know that.”

“You’re right.  If you feel like it’s unfair, it’s because it really is in a way. The things you achieve match well with the hopes and goals that your parents have for you. When life goes the way we expect it to go, we tend not to notice that – sort of like, we don’t get up every morning and say, “Hey, the sun rose today.” On the other hand, when something happens that’s much better than we expected, say the sunrise is especially spectacular, we stop and to “Wow!” It’s sort of like that with Nick. When he was born with Down Syndrome, your parents didn’t know what to expect. They knew he couldn’t achieve everything a kid without developmental issues could, but didn’t have any idea what he might be able to do. So, now when Nick does really well, it’s like an exceptional sunrise. It’s a wonderful surprise that makes them go “Wow!”

Dylan felt a shiver raise the hairs on his neck. He remembered his grandmother looking at Nick and whispering, “I thought he’d die young.  That had made Dylan furious. But now he asked, “They’re just happy he’s alive, right?”

Bro-Bob’s chin jerked up and his eyebrow pulled together. “Every parent is, of course, grateful for the gift of life for their child, but they also want each child to have a life worth living. Just like you and me, Edward and Nick need to accomplish goals that make them feel good about themselves.

“Nick sure does get happy bringing home those art projects.”

“And he has a right to be. Creating them was much harder for Nick than you or I could ever imagine.”

Dylan chewed on his lower lip. It sound right somehow. Yet…

“Still, it doesn’t seem fair to you, does it?” Bro-Bob said. “Seems like Nick gets an easy ride while you have to work hard.”

Dylan looked up and examined the minister’s face.  It creeped him out when grownups knew what you were thinking. It was like they had some superpower that went along with being bigger.

Bro-Bob smiled.  “I didn’t read your thoughts.  No one can read your thoughts. Whatever is in your head is your own and can only be known by other people if you actually tell them. Otherwise, we’re guessing.”

“But how come you knew exactly what I was thinking?” Dylan asked.

 

Part 4:

Nobody’s “Normal”

 

“Well,” Bro-Bob said, “It’s what I thought when I was your age. Grownups were always telling me that I had ‘to make allowances’ for Edward. I hated that.”

“So, you kinda guessed I was thinking the same thing?”

“Right. But I couldn’t be sure. It could be different for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“That not no one, not even people that know us well, can guess what’s in our heads. Just because we both have brothers with learning challenges doesn’t mean we feel or think the same way about it.”

“That sounds complicated.”

Bro-Bob’s deep laugh came right up from his belly. “You’re not making it easy on me, kid. Let me try an example. Do you ever get car sick?”

What did that have to do with anything, Dylan wondered. But he’d better answer. “Nah, I love riding in the car.  My mom does, though.  That’s why Dad has to drive me and Nick everywhere.”

“Right on. Same experience – same car ride. One person feels like upchucking, the person right next to her is just having a pleasant ride.”

“But what’s that got to do with me and Nick?”

“Just that some kids have a harder time dealing with sibs with disabilities than other kids.  Just because I have a brother with autism doesn’t mean I get what it’s like for you and Nick.”

Bro-Bob leaned back. Dylan nodded. “When we were littler, it didn’t bother me as much.  Nick was pretty good at playing with the other kids – just went along with everyone, you know.”

“Now it’s harder?”

Dylan’s whole body stiffened. What could he say? How could he explain? He bit his lower lip and blurted out. “A lot of times Nick really can’t keep. We can’t always include him. I feel bad. He looks sad. It’s not my fault, though. I can’t fix it.”

Bro-Bob’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “These years will be toughest for both of you. Everything about school and sports is getting harder for Nick at the same time it’s getting easier for you. You’re walking a tight rope and balancing is scary.”

“You’re right. It is. Can’t Mom and Dad see that?”

“I think they do.  That’s why they make a big deal when Nick does something well. They’re trying to keep his world right side up.”

“But what about me?”

“You’re not going to like it, but I have to be honest with you, Dylan. Nick’s not the only kid in your family who has to grow up differently from other kids. You do too.”

“But I’m normal!”

“I might like to debate that word sometime, but right now I want to help you stick out your chin, put your shoulders back, and face reality. Nick with all his extraordinary challenges is your brother. He’s your family. That means you are also different than most kids.

“That’s it, that’s all I can do – just face it, just tough it out?”

The big man smiled softly and shook his head. “I’m willing to bet it’s not all ‘tough.’ Nick has gifts that he brings to this world, gifts he shares with you. I’d like you to make an effort to notice those. We can talk about them the next time we meet.”

“Nothing’s good about having Nick for my brother.”

“Prove it to me then. Really try to see the good in Nick.  If you can’t find it, you can tell me that when I see you next Sunday.”

Dylan felt a little trapped.  “Okay, I’ll try.  I’m not sure I’ll find much, though.”

That hearty laugh again. “I think you’ll surprise yourself,” the pastor said.

Part 4: “Nobody’s Normal”

Monday at lunch as Dylan and Harley compared the amount of jelly on each of their sandwiches, Harley’s big brother George came along and slammed the back of Harley’s head. George didn’t hurt Harley but did call him “Dickhead” which made all a bunch of fifth-grade guys walk away snickering.  Harley scrunched up his whole face in fury but just hunched his shoulders over his lunch. When his brother was out of earshot, he said, “I wish I could get back at him, but my parents would be mad at me cuz they never see all the stuff he does to me.”

After school, Dylan thought about Harley and George all the way home. While he gobbled down the cheese chunks and apple slices Mom put out for them, he pulled a piece of paper from his school bag and wrote, “Nick never hits me for no reason and never calls me rude names.” As he finished, he felt his mom standing behind him. He swung around just in time to see her smile as she ducked for cover.

On Tuesday evening, Grandpa came to dinner. Afterward, he and Nick took turns playing checkers with their grandfather. Like always Grandpa let Nick win. That usually made Dylan mad because he didn’t think it was fair. Grandpa often beat him at games and never let him win. But that night he beat Grandpa fair and square. He saw how proud that made Grandpa and it felt good.

By Sunday Dylan had five things to tell Bro-Bob. Five, wow! Maybe things weren’t as unfair as he thought.

Once he and the pastor settled down with their donuts, Dylan handed over his list. He didn’t take a single bite. His eyes never left Bro-Bob’s silently moving lips as the big guy read.

He knew the list by heart and could almost hear the words aloud.

  1. Nick never hits me just to be mean or call me bad names like some other big brothers.
  2. I get to read to Grandpa, something Nick might be doing if he didn’t have reading problems.
  3. Nick is happy to play board games with me even though I don’t let him win like Grandpa does.
  4. Mom is so worried about Nick getting the right foods, she never nags me about what I’m eating.
  5. Nick tells me all the time that he loves me and he really means it.  I used to think this was embarrassing, but now I realize it’s a good thing.

 

Dylan put down the donut which was melting in his sweaty palms. “Is it too short?”

The pastor took a big bite of his jelly donut without answering and reread the list while he wiped the jelly off his chin. “It’s a good list. Short or long isn’t the point.  You made the effort to look at things in a new way. That’s what counts.”

“Are they the right answers?”

“There aren’t right or wrong answers, Dylan, just answers that help us deal with our challenges or ones that don’t.”

Dylan smiled. “I should have added that I can always talk Nick into walking our dog for me when it’s my turn.”

Bro-Bob smiled right back.  “Look at that. You’ve made a habit of noticing more good things about your brother.”

“But I still wish sometimes that he wasn’t my brother.”

“I get it. I felt about Edward that way sometimes.”

“Really?”

Bro-Bob crossed his finger across his big chest, “Absolutely, did. Lot of times.  I just wanted our family to be normal.”

“You mean like other families, right?”

“Yep. But there’s no such thing.  All families are unique.”

“That doesn’t sound right. Somethings must be ‘normal’.”

“Not really, Dylan.  It’s a word that’s misused way too much.  It’s really an idea that only works for arithmetic; it’s not a good way to describe human beings.”

“But people say it all the time.”

Bro-Bob pulled his bushy eyebrows tightly down across the bridge of his nose. “So, they do, but that doesn’t make it true. I think you’re smart enough to get it if I give you an example.”

Dylan didn’t feel that sure, but he said, “Okay.”

“The norm means the average.  For instance, if you have 100 boys and you measure how tall each of them is, add that number together, and divide the sum by 100, you get their ‘average’ height – or the norm.  But that doesn’t mean that any one of those boys is actually that tall.”

 

“So, you’re saying we can’t say one kid is ‘normal’ and another isn’t because we can’t measure them?”

“Not exactly, but I like that way of putting it.  People come up with all kinds of tests for measuring kids and grown-ups, but it’s true that those tests aren’t all that reliable.  Certainly not like measuring height.”

It was great that Bro-Bob talked with him just like they were friends. “Can we do this again?” he asked.

The big man nodded. “Anytime. If something is bothering you and you feel like you need a good listener, tell your parents you’d like to meet with me.  They’ll arrange it.”

That surprised Dylan. “Did they know we’d be meeting today?”

“Yes, Miss Anne suggested it to them. She and I have been friends since we were kids so it came to her that you and I had an important connection.”

People did notice him. They did care.  They didn’t fuss over Dylan like they did Nick, but his parents were watching out for him just the same.

“ I want to try to show my parents that I can work at be a good brother to Nick.”

“It sounds to me like he’s always had a great brother in you. Just remember there’ll still be times he annoys you and you wish he lived on the moon. That’s okay, too. I’m sure he’d be happy for any extra time you want to spend with him.”

Dylan looked down at his unfinished donut.  Maybe he’d take it home and share it with Nick. He wrapped it carefully in his napkin and stood to leave. “Yah, I know. See you around, Bro-Bob.”

“See you around, Dylan.” The pastor struck out his hand. Dylan like the strong firm feel of the handshake. Like they had a pact. They had each other’s back. That made Dylan feel very special!

 

The Vomit Draft

brown and white bear plush toy
the end is just beginning

Last month, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, I bragged (and there’s no way to put a kinder word there) about having completed a draft of my memoir. I felt darn right proud of that “accomplishment” because I had attempted to complete a memoir four other times and never got to “The End.”

Then I read Marian Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project in which she firmly states, “self-congratulatory is very bad.” She would add that this is especially true than when one is talking about a “vomit draft.”

My husband gagged when I used that term. “That’s a terrible thing to call your demanding work,” he told me. But I really get what Marian is saying when she writes, “It’s called the vomit draft because it will both sink and be pretty much everything you’ve got in you.” (p. 86)

digging deep

Writing a memoir, I’ve discovered is like mining for diamonds. Before any actual mining even takes place, prospectors need to locate the diamond sources first. If I choose to write a memoir, I hope will be worth reading, my first step is exploring my life experience to determine whether there may be sharable value there. Do I have something to offer readers that will enhance their lives?

man in orange polo shirt and blue denim jeans sitting on brown wooden round stone in near on on on
Photo by Sheku Koroma on Pexels.com

Anything and everything are mine to explore. But just as diamond seekers often follow second sources that never lead to “pipes,” or deposits where the diamonds will prove true and profitable, not everything I dig up from my life belongs in a memoir. I need to locate a primary source.

When prospectors are certain they have found diamonds, shanks are inserted into the ground at the ore-bearing “pipes” and vast amounts of soil are extracted. I knew I wanted to write about parenting my children, especially my two children with an extraordinary neurological disorder. That, however, covered forty-five years of my life. As I dug into my memories I retrieved copious numbers of incidents, funny, sad, delightful, challenging, discouraging – piles of memories.

the wheat from the shaft

Diamond miners typically do not examine the raw rock and soil on-site. Instead, conveyor trucks transport the composite to special plants which process the ore and extract the rough diamonds. This is where I stand in the memoir-writing process. My “vomit draft” is the huge pile of rock and soil from which I need to extract the “rough” diamonds. What pieces of the narrative I’ve captured on the page can I dole out in the final story? What have I learned that I can share in a meaningful way? Which of the “rough” diamonds, I sort out of this pile now, will work to build an argument for me, one built upon what I now know about the human condition because I lived this life? Which of these scenes best illustrate what I learned?

shallow focus of letter paper
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In diamond mining, there is no assurance of fortune. Three hundred tons of ore might be sieved just to produce a single carat of gem quality rough diamonds. I may have written 100,000 words. It would be fortunate if a third of them are still standing when I finish my work.

not there yet

Even after extraction, the rough gems are a long way from the jewelry store. In heavily secured facilities, workers sort rough stones into various gem-quality categories and industrial-specific grades. To get from here (staring at my “vomit draft”) to there (the finished manuscript) is mind-boggling arduous work. Each paragraph even of the “rough diamonds” needs to be reevaluated. Is it necessary? Does it help the argument? Did I make the same point elsewhere? Am I falling asleep? If I am, so would my reader would be. Does this sentence help to show that I moved forward? If not, either it shouldn’t be there or it needs to explain the stagnation. Not until I’ve evaluated the “gem-quality” of each scene can I feel free to move toward the next draft.

brightly shining

In the ultimate step of its violent transformation from rough stone to exquisite gem, the roughs are sold, cut, polished, and commercialized. As I work toward a final draft, I’ll be doing four or more cuts. Are my sentences overly long? Break them up. Have I used a phrase where a single apt word would work much better? Did I just skim over that sentence? Get rid of it. To shine as brightly as an engagement diamond, this memoir needs to be perfectly cut and polished. It’s a long and violent transformation process for “gem,” but you wouldn’t give your beloved a diamond straight out of the ground. And I don’t dare offer you my vomit draft.

“Parents would be much better off if, like defense attorneys, we knew the answer to the question before we asked it. Except we never do, which makes a very nice place to write from.” Marian Roach Smith, The Memoir Project. 

a child playing with her mother
Photo by Barbara Olsen on Pexels.com

Tikkun olam: Restoration of the World

yellow bokeh lights
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
a continuing resolution

In September, which is always the real beginning of a new year for me, I vowed I would write a memoir.  I promised I would see this project through to completion. The focus of the memoir is that part of my life I devoted to parenting four extraordinary children, two of whom suffered from a progressive neurological disorder. While I drafted this work, I used my blog as an online journal to share my writing journey with you.

many mentors

Along the way, I’ve gained a range of knowledge from several “how-to” sources for memoirists.  These were often quite helpful. More inspiring by far than these guides, however, were the enlightening memoirs of authors who walked before me.  These brave ones lit my way. One of the most illuminating of these was Ellen Blum Barish’s Seven Springs. In this memoir, Blum Barish shares the ancient Jewish belief that humans are called to tikkum olam, “the restoration of the world.”

Then in lyrical prose, she offers us a wonderful narrative that does just that. As Blum Barish sets out to break the silence that locked an event from her past away in the darkness, she sheds light not just on that incident, but on her whole life. In seven beautifully interlocking chapters, representing different phases of her life, she leads the reader through a series of riveting discoveries to a climax that frees not just Ellen but others who had been bound by the same silence. In the end, the reader sees the power of persistence, the beauty of light, and the impact of breaking unnecessary locks. The story calls us to ask our own questions. It inspires us to push away past fears and uncover our own truths.

meet ellen

Because I found the book so inspiring, I approached Ellen and asked her to share with me the story of her writer’s journey.  I share her answers with you here today.

 When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was 6 or 7 but was only able to call myself a writer 10 years ago!

In elementary school, I began with awful Dr. Seussian poetry and later began to journal. But by seventh or eighth grade I ran into a reading comprehension issue that was impacting my test scores. My parents sent me to a reading tutor which helped me pass tests and make a B average in high school English but like liked reading and writing so much that I minored in English in college. It wasn’t until I was two years out of college, working as a travel writer for Mobil Travel Guides, that I decided to go back to school for a master’s in journalism. I loved 60 Minutes -still do! – and wanted to make a change in the world. But even after earning that degree and working as a reporter, feature writer, and editor, I still didn’t call myself a writer until many years later when I was accepted for a writing residency at Ragdale in 2012. That’s when I knew that I was my best self, my happiest self, writing. It’s also where I began to write my memoir.

What drew you to writing as an avocation and/or profession? Why is it important to you?

Now I can see that I reached for the page as naturally as a painter reaches for a brush or a musician to an instrument. Once I connected with it, it became as essential to me as breathing.

Anne Frank wrote that paper is more patient than people, and I agree. The page has always been my best listener, the place where I feel the calmest and the way I make meaning from my life.

What are the top three challenges you face as a writer?

I continue to struggle, like most writers, with navigating rejection, trusting the process, and managing ego. But in recent years, I’ve come to understand that there are no wasted words. I believe everything we write leads to the next thing – our words build on each other – even if that first thing doesn’t leave our desk.

My challenge now is clarifying my mission with words. What is my goal? Am I writing for self-discovery? To teach other writers? To entertain? To promote? How can my words help bring people together? Unify. Heal. I want to do more than put more words out into the world.

I want them to work harder now than I did before.

What is the best thing that’s happening for you currently? How does it feel? What do you think it will mean for your future endeavors?

I am savoring this year of my memoir’s release. It has felt incredibly satisfying, gratifying, confirming, and surprisingly healing, not just for me but for some of the people I write about in the book and readers who have written to say so. This experience makes me want to write even deeper pieces – words that move people to feel something powerful and act on that.

If your writer’s life laid just the way you’d like it to, what would that be like? What’s the most important aspect of this dream? Why?

Writing pulls me in two directions. My writer self – the ego – would certainly love to see continued press coverage of my memoir, Seven Springs, more book sales, and a writing award or honor. I have ideas swirling for two more book-length projects and a TEDx talk idea, so I’d love to get these in motion.

Ellen Blum BarishBut my teacherly-coaching self focuses on coaching writers who want to improve their craft and get their work out into the world. It feels important to me because I know the potency of the healing that can come from getting a powerful story from one’s life onto the page – whether it is for self-discovery, legacy, or publication. Returning to my childhood trauma and finding words to write it released something and made more space available inside me. I have more energy, resources, and experience to share with others. And doing so fulfills a desire for tikkun olam in my spiritual life – the desire to do better and help repair the broken parts of the world.

 

 

Christmas: Lost & Found

Our 2021 Christmas tree
Best Laid Plans . . .

A holiday-themed blog post was the last thing on my mind when I planned my post for this week.

In keeping with my blogging premise for this year, I had intended this week’s post to continue chronicling my journey toward writing a memoir. In fact, this would have been the triumphal post in which I announced that I had finished a complete draft of the memoir after five separate attempts.

Versions one through four next got past ten chapters, but now I had finally pushed through to the end of the narrative. Yes, I would admit, the really challenging work came next – “Killing my darlings,” the dread of every writer, but a particular horror for memoirists. Her “darlings” are real people and the way things “truly happened.” Unfortunately, that by itself does not justify putting them in a memoir. Time to edit. Now, however, I had an actual document to edit.

This time, last year

Before I could begin that worthwhile endeavor, however, our family Christmas fell apart. It feels so much worse than last year. For months before it arrived, we knew that Christmas, 2020, would be a “no show.”  As elders, isolated from the world at large and our family, in particular, my husband and I convinced ourselves that Christmas for just the two of us could be “romantic.” We lit the fireplace, dimmed the lights, and exchanged gifts (okay, I gave him a gift; Jay is not that good at gift-giving and usually relies on the kids to fill up my stocking.).

At mid-morning, we tuned in to the Portal and had an “online” Christmas exchange with our children and grandchildren. We felt grateful for the technology that brought their faces and voices to us – if not their presence. We then settled down to watch “Mary Poppins (the original one) on television, a movie we had first viewed on our honeymoon. As we turned out the lights that night, we congratulated ourselves on making the best we could of an unbelievably tough situation and went to bed convinced that Christmas, 2021 would be a much better and more traditional experience.

deja vu, all over again

It should have been, but it was not. Our daughter Betsy and her family arrived in Portland from Boston a week ago Monday to join her sister Carrie’s family as well as my husband and me for a week of Christmas celebrating. A small cloud hung over them as they arrived. Our grandson Bryce had only just found out he had been exposed to Covid-19 the night before.

Our daughters immediately canceled plans for a full family gathering until Bryce could be tested three days after exposure. We all were sure he would be negative, but the theme of “keep the elders safe” prevailed. Our certainty was ill-founded. Bryce did, indeed, contract Covid. He had to isolate himself from the entire family. Even worse, because they had all been with him until his test, our daughters, sons-in-law, and granddaughter now felt compelled to avoid contact with us.

the breaking point

To add a cherry to this unsavory sundae, they also begged us not to go to church. Being able, this Advent to celebrate the sacred season once again with the community of faith had been a boundless joy. Now, once again, we must remain at home even though our parish would be celebrating three Christmas Eve masses. Isolation is a terrible scourge for seniors in our society during the best of times. During this pandemic, it has wracked havoc with our mental and emotional well-being to the breaking point.

In August, Jay and I lost his brother to the pandemic and could not at that time have a memorial service. Now once again we were losing the rituals and traditions that sustained us. It was hard to find a reason for rejoicing. But God did not abandon us. When I sat down to write this post, Misericordia, the home that cared so well for our disabled children for years, sent us a message.

o come, o come, emmanuel!

Father Jack’s would have Christmas Eve Mass at the Home broadcast that evening. Jay and I could join an important part of our family, the folks at Misericordia, to celebrate the essence of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of light and hope into darkness, a light that shines as brightly tonight as it did over 2,000 years ago.

“Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”

The New Jerusalem, Ch. 5https://www.churchpop.com/2014/12/03/g-k-chesterton-on-christmas/

jesus christ figurine
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

The Notion of “Fixes” and “Cures”

Together
What is normal?

In her intense, impassioned, compelling memoir, Sitting Pretty, Rebekah Taussig, who has used a wheelchair for mobility since early childhood, tackles among other hard issues concerning disability, the notion of “fixes” and “cures.” She asks why we are so obsessed with fixing ourselves. She suggests, we ought to let ourselves be, take pride in our identity, be the self who is rather than struggle always to be a “better” version of who we are.

We can discover, she notes, that when we accept and dive deep into the unique challenges that every one of us lives with, we will also find in that same place joy and abundance. The rich conversation and dialogue that can follow taking this approach can lead us to a whole new way of seeing and understanding not just ourselves but the world.

looking for a “fix”

Tausig’s questions bit sharply into my memories. Had I wanted to “fix” Kristy and Johnny? Those children, my oldest and my youngest had lived their whole lives with physical and developmental challenges that required consistent care and supervision. Neither developed past the toddler stage although they both lived into middle age. Both had had hundreds of epileptic seizures. Wouldn’t it be natural for me to have wanted a different life for them? Who, in their right mind, would wish to give birth to a child with so many “problems?”

Yet, in Hausig’s perspective, Kristy and Johnny do not have to be seen as problematic. Those of us, who “pathologize and fix some bodies and accommodate others,” (pp. 74-79) present the true problem.

a really brave new world

I find myself swept up by Hausig’s vision, a world that was not full of roadblocks and bends, a world so full of wells and shady places that all find a place there. In that world, no one would construct a building that could not be easily navigated in a wheelchair. All schools would tailor their programs to the learning styles of the students who filled their classrooms, not some idealized “average” student. What she demands that we understand is that “average” just does not exist in the real world. Average is a theoretical mathematical mean as ethereal as the shape of a cloud.

medical magic?

At the same time, I must be honest and admit that I did wish that I could wave a magic wand and make Kristy and Johnny’s seizures go away. Was not that what we were after with all the different changes of anticonvulsant medications that the doctors prescribed, and we tried over the years. And that does not even count the time we kept poor three-year-old Johnny on an impossible ketogenic diet. He could not understand its purpose. I found myself wavering from its strictures and then blaming myself for his seizures. If I had been able to keep to the letter of the diet, would he have become seizure-free? Was getting rid of epilepsy worth losing my sanity? No, I cannot deny that I fell in line with the search for “fixes” and “cures.”

people are not math problems

Not all of that was wrong-headed. Seizures can be dangerous. They come on so suddenly that injury often follows. Usually, cuts and bruises are the worse that can happen, but once Kristy broke her collar bone. But behind the struggle to conquer the seizures was the hope that if we could stop the seizures then their brains could function more “normally.” Maybe then they could lead “normal” lives. Once again, I applied mathematical notions because that is what a “norm” is, to a human child.

parents love to dream

Let us face it, as expectant parents await the arrival of their new child, they most often dream of the future they will provide for the beloved little one. Most parents when asked what they most want for their children will say they want them to be happy. We have, however, measures for happiness and they do not include disability. They do include intelligence, achievement, love, beauty, and goodness. Most of all, even though we do not want to rush it, we do want our children to “grow up.” When that does not happen, the world feels out of kilter.

who are the grown-ups?

Yet, people with developmental disabilities do “grow-up.” They just do it differently. As parents, we must shift our meanings not “fix” our children. As a society, we can note as well that some children who have no apparent “disability” don’t seem to “grow-up” in the common sense of the word. They do not become financially independent. They never find a life’s work. They never partner successfully. Do we stop loving them? No. But we do often try to “fix” them. It often means the very happiness we wished for them becomes that less possible.

rethinking our culture

This brings me back to Tausig and the importance of her book. She is calling on us to rethink “some of the most deeply ingrained beliefs we carry as a culture.”

Can we do it? It is asking a lot. I, for one, am going to try. In my memoir, I will not hide how hard it sometimes was to meet my children’s needs.  I will, however,  point out that many of the challenges came from the roadblocks our culture placed in my way. I had to push those aside to enjoy the privilege of living with the unique, wonderful people who were my children – all of them.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” -Francis of Assisi

Kristy dressed up with watering can
Kristy at her most beguiling

Make Them Pop Off the Page

Johnny thinks a sculpture is a fort.
keeping a promise

Last week’s blog post, “Memoir as Smorgasbord,”  I promised to tell you the most enlightening moment of the memoir writing course I took this autumn from Ellen Blum-Barish.

two heads are better than one

Every class contributed immensely to expanding my understanding of memoir creation. All the discussions were lively, supportive, and inspirational. But the shining moment of the class for me was the one-on-one hour that Ellen spent with me. As a component of the course, Ellen scheduled a one-on-one hour with each student. She encouraged us to choose whatever aspect of writing we believed was giving us the most trouble, that we found the most discouraging.

I told Ellen I struggled with how much of my story of parenting two children with profound disabilities to share. The narrative covered so many years and so many different challenges as Kristy and Johnny’s needs and capabilities changed and shifted. The work felt encyclopedic. Where did I begin? Where did I end? What could I leave out and still be authentic?

caught in a maze

I knew my obstacles were not unique but did not see an effortless way through the maze. Ellen asked one question. That question turned out to be the key to the locked gates between me and a finished draft. “What,” she asked, “is your mission in writing this memoir? Are you hoping to inspire or help other parents of children with similar disabilities?”

“Absolutely not,” was my immediate response. “I can only tell what happened to us and how we muddled through. I can’t pretend to have the answers other parents might be seeking.”

seek your mission

“That’s totally valid,” she replied. “I completely understand, but there must be something driving you to tell this story. You need to be able to name that very clearly. That’s the only way you can discern the parts of the story that must be written.”

I knew why I wanted to write this memoir. But I had not thought of it as a “mission.” “Kristy and Johnny were such special kids,” I told her. “And I mean that in ways that go beyond their special needs. They were unique and wonderful, and they gifted the world with their presence. I do not want the people in our family to forget them. I’m writing this story so that their niece and nephew, cousins, and the many other folks in both our families and among our friends can remember them as the extraordinary human beings they were.”

there’s your focus

Ellen’s face crinkled in a big, bright smile. “Wow, that’s a mission for sure. It also definitely tells us where the focus of the memoir needs to be.”

“It does?” Her claim perplexed me. It did not sound like it limited the span of the story very much to me.

“Without a doubt,” Ellen stated, “You have to tell the stories that make them come alive. You need to make Kristy and Johnny pop off the pages of your memoir. Choose to tell the things about them that were unique and stood out. Let the reader really know them.”

still caught in overwhelm

“I see how this theme could be a good guide, but it still feels like a lot of material,” I objected.

“That where there’s a trick of the craft that comes in,” Ellen explained. “Limit yourself to a certain number of scenes – much like you were writing a play. Then choose the action that would bring those scenes alive.”

Ellen noted that this is how she was able to bring clarity to her own memoir, Seven Springs. https://ellenblumbarish.com/tag/seven-springs/

That work covers forty years of her life, yet she focuses on seven specific springs during those years to tell the whole story. I knew and loved Ellen’s book. Picturing how it laid out, I could envision tackling my own project in a comparable manner.”

mythic numbers

“Sometimes,” Ellen said, “certain numbers have a particular meaning for us spiritually and emotionally. Working within the confines of such a number can inspire and enlighten us.”

She advised me to sit with that notion and discover my number. Once I knew it, I could start working out what the “scenes” of my “play” might be.

This approach has galvanized me. I have plowed ahead – not creating scenes just yet but recording down all the best information I can about Kristy and Johnny. Once I have that in mind, I will let the contemplation begin. I’ll let the number emerge. When it happens, you will be among the first to hear about it.

“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.”
― Shannon L. Alder

Kristy with rag doll
The older Kristy got, the bigger her rag dolls became.

Memoir as Smorgasbord

Newborn immediately after birth
beginnings and endings

I announced in this space on August 30, that before the year is over I will complete my memoir.  It’s an ambitious task because, in that narrative, I attempt to cover all the years I shared with my two extraordinary children, Kristin Margaret and John Brophy. That journey began on May 14, 1969, the day my Kristin was born, and ended on February 3, 2015, the day she died. Forty-five years.

Birth and death do not necessarily make satisfying beginnings or endings for a story. Life’s meaning is not in the coming and the going, but in what happened in between. Yet, there is so much! It all feels terribly important, but an impactful memoir needs to be succinct. A long, rambling narrative loses readers long before they learn the important things you need them to know.

looking for a life raft

By the time I had written halfway through the fifth version of my memoir, I knew I required serious help. I signed up for a writing class. Rather than a course on how to write a memoir, author/mentor Ellen Blum Barrish offered a “smorgasbord” of topics. Each was designed to help potential memoirists dig deep into their own inner experience. I wasn’t entirely certain that the class was what I needed, but I trusted Ellen and I couldn’t go it alone any longer.

What a good decision that was!

defining truth

The very first week, we dug into the conundrum of truth in memory. We dissected Amye Archer’s searing essay, “Writing Truth in Memoir,” in which she adjures writers to give up hidden agendas they uncover as they write. “It is more important to be honest than vengeful,” she warns us. We are not writing to make the reader “be on our side.” For our story to be visible to our readers, we have to pull the lens farther back than that.

Amye made me realize I had to watch out for my own hidden agendas. I wasn’t after revenge, but I did tend to “protect” my characters.

what is a family?

Week two’s topic really excited me. “Writing Family” was exactly what I was trying to do. I looked forward to hearing about the other writers’ struggles and triumphs with this topic. At first, the evening’s reading disappointed me.  It wasn’t about “real” families. The essay poignantly recalled the writer’s early days in the funeral industry and how the personnel at the funeral home formed a close-knit and caring “family” so that they could better support the grieving families whom they served.

No, that wasn’t exactly what I hoped for. Yet, when we talked about all the different ways people form “family,” I began to see our story, mine, Kristy’s and Johnny’s, against a backdrop of a family that extended beyond biological connection.

No, not that funny

Our focus for the third week, “Writing Humor,” had me cringing. I have no idea how to be funny. When I was a professor I would hear students in other classes laughing uproariously and a sharp, green slice of envy stabbed me in the heart.  My studies never laughed in my classroom.  Maybe I should have been grateful, but I wasn’t. I took heart, therefore, that as our group discussed Amy Poehler’s “Take Your Licks,” a humor piece about a job she had as a teen, I found out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it funny.

I felt kind of sorry for Amy. After all, she is a comedian. She has to be funny to earn a living.  I don’t. I gave up worrying up hope to entertain readers by showing them the funny side of my story – there wasn’t one.

writing loss

“Writing the Lost Loved One,” the theme of week four most likely was the one that made me sign up for the course. My memoir focused not on me, but on two beloved lost children. They say be careful what you wish for.  The reading that Ellen chose for that week ripped my soul apart. I could hear Jaqueline Doyle’s voice cry out from her essay, “Dear Maddy,” “Talk to me, Maddy. Tell me what it was like. Rise up from the depths of twenty years in all your shadowy splendor. Tell me.”

We do that, those of us who have lost a loved one. We don’t want to let go, especially of someone yanked away from this world “before their time,” whatever that is. Doyle’s abrasive honesty made me question myself.  Did I dare put the searing blaze of my own emotions into black and white and offer them as a sacrifice? Was, perhaps, my whole project a mistaken quest?

perspective can be everything

We examined writing about trauma in the fifth week of class. We read both a touching testament to the moment a woman realizes her marriage is over and a horrifying witness to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The latter, Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” might appear to be the more “traumatic.” After all, it depicts people jumping from window and hitting the pavement transformed into a “pink mist.” That is only one of many tragic images Brian presents.

Yet, we found ourselves equally engrossed in the pain of the woman in the first piece. Our assessment of the two different pieces reinforced my conviction that how well a writer crafts their tale can determine how well the story will grip their readers.

always more to learn

Every week of the class continued to build my understanding of what it means to write from the very core of one’s being.  It was my one-on-one session with Ellen, however, that answered many of my most troubling questions about my memoir. She also gave me a whole new perspective from which to view my life. That tete a tete will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate constructionWilliam Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Cemetery angel
Photo by Tim Mossholder