Three Little Words From A Silenced Voice

Yesterday was a lousy day. My 16-year-old cat, Mac, was diagnosed with diabetes. The vet wants him to have two shots of insulin a day. I have no problem giving a cat a shot–my cat Pear needed allergy shots for years. But Mac has been very irritable in the last year. While he gives me face kisses on a several-times-a-day schedule without a problem, he most likely will not want shots.  Just a guess on my part, but everybody who knows him agrees.

That was my memoir sound byte of the day. Now on to the review of the week. It’s sort of a retread review, but a book you can’t miss.

In February 2013, on another blog, I wrote two posts about a memoir by a voice that is rarely heard: the voice of someone who grew up a ward of the state–a foster child. Here are excerpts from my posts:

Last night I finished reading Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s memoir Three Little Words.  The book, published in 2009, tells the story of how Ashley survived in Florida’s foster care system. Eventually she was adopted by a family with two adult sons, and she began a battle through the courts to seek justice and help for other foster children.

On Rhodes-Courter’s website, the synopsis is described this way:

“Sunshine, you’re my baby and I’m your only mother. You must mind the one taking care of you, but she’s not your mama.” Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes, living by those words. As her mother spirals out of control, Ashley is left clinging to an unpredictable, dissolving relationship, all the while getting pulled deeper and deeper into the foster care system.

Painful memories of being taken away from her home quickly become consumed by real-life horrors, where Ashley is juggled between caseworkers, shuffled from school to school, and forced to endure manipulative, humiliating treatment from a very abusive foster family. In this inspiring, unforgettable memoir, Ashley finds the courage to succeed – and in doing so, discovers the power of her own voice.

. . .  Ashley Rhodes-Courter . . .  was a foster child who lived in over a dozen foster homes and a shelter.  She was abused and neglected and lost in the system.  But because she eventually got a wonderful guardian ad litem to advocate for her, she ended up in an adoptive home.

In Ashley’s story, she describes how Gay Courter, her final foster mother and eventual adoptive mother, discovered that nobody had ever read a bedtime story to 13-year-old Ashley.  After that, Gay began to read Ashley “Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are.”

I took special note of the book choices because when I used to teach children’s literature, the picture books I used for in-depth analysis were Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are.  What phenomenal stories to introduce to Ashley.  They both are centered on images of the moon and the mother hovering in the background of the house.  The moon can be synonymous with the mother figure.  In this way, it could be seen that the mother in the house with the child is the adoptive mother and the moon overlooking, but at a distance, is the child’s birth mother.

. . . Ashley began babbling in baby talk and Gay responded by playing along.  Ashley declared that she wanted a baby bottle because her mother took hers away too soon.  This can also be “read” as Ashley losing her mother too soon.  Gay bought Ashley a bottle the very next day, and Ashley drank out of the bottle with relish.

I’m not a psychologist, and I’ve always pooh-poohed more “radical” ideas like the notion of taking somebody back to their babyhood.  But in Ashley’s story, she clearly initiated these actions herself, and it sounds like it was short-term, but helpful to her.

Some excellent reviews have been written about Three Little Words.  I won’t try to re-invent the wheel here, but I paid attention to some things that were mentioned almost in passing, but which I felt were important.

One of these passages was when Ashley went to her first event at the White House, an invitation she received from the Dave Thomas Foundation.  She was blushing with excitement and confesses “that it was as if my childish fantasies about accidentally being lost in foster care, while I was really meant for another, grander life, had come true.”  In literature, we see the “Cinderella” story being one of the most prevalent story types there is.  Harry Potter is a Cinderella character–an orphan raised by mean relatives until he goes off to Hogwarts and discovers that he is destined for greatness.  What a powerful fantasy to keep one going in the worst of times, to know that one deserves much more.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book is a treasure to foster children and to a system that needs fixing so badly.  Every person who reads this book will feel a desire to advocate for these kids and to see the system change.  As a teen, Ashley herself sees the movie Erin Brockovich and decides that she will be like Erin and stand up for what’s right.  She will help other children who are enmeshed in the foster care system.  Today she is a public speaker on this issue and a foster mother.

When I read Rhodes-Courter’s book, I wasn’t looking at memoirs as a writer, but rather as an adoptive mom who cares about the plight of children–especially those without “representation.”

What do I find when I look at the book as a writer? I was transfixed by Rhodes-Courter’s story and surprised at the story-telling powers of a writer so young (Rhodes-Courter was 24 when her book was published). What I really learned from this book was not about writing, but about living. I learned how important it is to listen to the voices of those who often are not heard, how there are ways to help foster children without being a foster parents (becoming a guardian ad litem will give a child a voice in court!), and what it’s like to be a child caught up in the “system.”

This book should be read by teens, as well as adults.

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The Motif of Memory

This week the series is memory. 

Memory is an obvious necessity for any memoir, but it takes on a particular function in my story.

Memory, and its enemies denial and forgetting, is at the root of what my story is about–discovering what has been denied and repressed.

Following the book architecture method, I wrote a sentence about the role of memory in Scrap: 

The protagonist’s memory and curiosity are irritants and counterpoint to the father’s secrets and the mother’s denials until the father’s memories are released and the central secret revealed.

 

 

To complement the discoveries my protagonist makes, in some scenes I am experimenting with a style that shows the process of memory recovery.

To what extent do you use memory in your writing?

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The Truth-Teller’s Club

How long have I been examining memoirs to see what I learned?

I just went and looked up the answer. I started these at the beginning of January of this year. It feels as if I have been doing it longer, but that is still over a half-year. So I must have written at least 26 memoir review posts!

How is it that I haven’t yet written about Mary Karr’s books? I will admit that my omission has been on purpose. I find it so daunting to talk about her books. She is the memoir writer I most look up to, both for her first memoir The Liar’s Club and for the trilogy (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit). 

When I first started reading memoirs on purpose, I read Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. They were both stories with narrator voices that appealed to me and both about the experiences of little girls growing up in trying circumstances.

These two writers unintentionally persuaded me that I had a story to tell, as well.

Mary Karr’s book is a great one to use as a model for a coming-of-age memoir. If I were teaching a course in that type of memoir I would certainly use The Liar’s Club as a text.

To say that Karr’s story is that of a girl and her older sister growing  up with alcoholic parents would be to greatly simplify and reduce a great work of art.

Since I could spend days writing this post (and I can’t do that and you wouldn’t have time to read it anyway), let me focus on a couple of points.

The book opens with 7-year-old Mary being questioned by her family doctor in her family home. Something is terribly wrong. He’s very gently asking to examine her, but she’s formed her nightgown into a protective tent. Karr’s descriptive powers and use of figurative language create scenes for the reader to actually inhabit with the narrator/protagonist. She knows just how to suck the reader into her life in a small blue-collar town in Texas, circa 1962. She goes on to use this method, as well as flash forwards and flashbacks, to tell her story. She also centers the narrative around certain years in her life, rather than trying to cover her entire childhood. And she introduces her father’s storytelling to add texture and an enhanced viewpoint to the story.

Karr also plays with tense in this book. For example, in the middle of the book, she describes her mentally ill mother as looking on one particular day like Anthony Perkins in the movie Psycho. But she’s not content to just make the analogy. Instead, she says:

Mother’s back to me in that rocker conjured that old Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho she’d taken us to in 1960. In the end, the crazy killer was got up like his nutty old mother with a gray wig. He rocked in her personal chair. Mother turned around slow to face me like old Tony Perkins. Her face came into my head one sharp frame at a time. I finally saw in these instants that Mother’s own face had been all scribbled up with that mud-colored lipstick. She was trying to scrub herself out, I thought. Sure enough, the scribbles weren’t like those on an African mask or like a kid’s war paint. They didn’t involve the underlying face that much. They lacked form. No neat triangles or straight lines went along the planes on the face. She looked genuinely crazy sitting in her mother’s rocker with the neatly ruffled blue calico cushions in front of that blazing stove with the smell of charcoal fluid and her own face all scrawled up bloody red.

And from that moment on, Karr switches scenes and tenses at the same time, “Then we’re in the lavender bedroom I share with Lecia.”

If you don’t watch for the tense shifts you won’t notice them, but they add intensity as if a camera is zooming in and out of the subject.

If you haven’t read The Liar’s Club, what in the world are you waiting for?!

 

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The Motif of Scrap

Last week, in A Baker’s Dozen, I listed my books’ series, or repeating patterns. I plan to take a brief look at one pattern each week. Today is one of my non-emotion patterns: SCRAP, which happens to be the title of my book. The motif of scrap(s), trash, theft, salvaging, and re-use runs through many scenes. Scrap represents destruction and chaos until scraps can be salvaged and re-used.

On the more positive side of trash and scrap, when I was a kid, my father sold teepee burners to dumps and then started his own garbage business. I wrote about the teepee burners here. When he had his own business, he used to find all kinds of usable trash. He brought me boxes of books and costume trunk clothes that had been thrown into dumpsters.

When my grandmother entered the nursing home, she left behind with my parents a Victorian crazy quilt, made of irregular scraps. I think of it as a guiding image for my book. I wrote about it on Anneli’s blog here.

Like most crazy quilts, the scraps are velvet and satin and embroidered with designs. Many of the designs are floral.

My father uses scrap metal to make art:

The metal flowers are my favorites.

I use scraps to make scrapbooks, and I used to make stained glass out of glass shards, but I had to quit when I moved years ago. You have to have a designated work area because the tiny glass fragments get all over and can be dangerous. Now that I have the room to work on my stained glass I no longer have the skill to break the glass.

The project I was in the middle of when I quit stained glass: a Mizrah which is hung on an eastern wall to point in the direction of Jerusalem

The project I was in the middle of when I quit stained glass: a Mizrah which is hung on an eastern wall to point in the direction of Jerusalem

Does the image of scrap as I’ve described it above show up in your writing or your daily life?

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Lit Journals Again

Last week I posted a poll on Does Short Form Memoir Count?

Although the results are limited by the few numbers taking the poll, I was heartened to see that the highest percentage was for people who subscribe to at least one journal. But when you add rarely and never together, you get the same score.

So why don’t more of us read lit mags? And I put myself in that category because I haven’t been consistent. More often than not, I would skim a new magazine and end up not reading it because I turned to a book instead.

Now that I’ve been reading literary journals again, I feel so energized, enthused, and educated. I think my writing will be better for reading them. So I plan to continue.

How about you?

 

Photo by Marisha

Photo by Marisha

Next Thursday: I (sort of) review an iconic memoir.

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A Baker’s Dozen?

In my post called Target My Structure, I talked about how Stuart Horwitz’s book Blueprint Your Bestseller is helping me organize my memoir.

One of the most important steps of structuring a book, according to Horwitz, is to identify the series in your book. As I mentioned in that post, “a series is anything that has ‘iterations.’ Repetitions, a pattern. But not just any pattern–a pattern where the series “undergoes a clear evolution.” It happens or shows up more than once and changes a bit? It’s probably a series.”

There is no set number of series a book should have, but 12 is a reasonable number.  By happenstance, I have 12 series. Most of mine have to do with emotions, which is something that surprised me a great deal. I like imagery and metaphorical language, so I kind of thought I would find series with certain central metaphors or images. But when I did find iterations (repetitions) of an image, I would see that the image fit squarely within certain emotions that repeat throughout the book.

For instance, the image of a gun shows up in several scenes. In one scene, it’s a rifle. In another, it’s a pistol. In yet another, it’s a shotgun. But what is more important than the guns is that they represent the emotions fear and anger. Fear and anger are represented in different ways in many scenes. Guns are just one way they manifest themselves. But these emotions also show up in verbal arguments, physical abuse, and hiding/secrecy.

Once I had a list of my scenes in hand, I noticed that they correspond fairly well to the major emotions as identified by Pia Mellody.

ANGER

FEAR

PAIN

JOY

PASSION

LOVE

SHAME

GUILT

I also have a few other series in addition to these emotions, but I might add a 13th.  And it would be called THERAPISTS ;).

 

Do emotions show up often in your writing?

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Does Short Form Memoir Count?

Lately I’ve been reading shorter memoir pieces in back issues of literary journals, rather than book-length memoirs. I’ve noticed a few things by reading stories in journals:

  1. I don’t know what I’m going to get ahead of time. These pieces are usually listed until the category of “nonfiction.” A story might be a memoir, but it also might be a political essay or a lyrical essay. I’m more likely to find an experimental piece than if I read a book. Whether that matters or not is another issue. But I have long suspected that the reason we have “genres” is that we know how to “take” something when we read it.
  2. The piece is more likely to have some contemporary slant to it than if it were part of a book. These essays tend to be more “timely,” but sometimes that feels like a magazine trying to be trendy.
  3. I don’t become as obsessed with any of these short stories as I do when I read a book. I am less invested. Are the writers less invested, too? Nevertheless, some of the short pieces are thrilling in their brilliance.
  4. I am exposed to a wider range of thoughts and emotions by reading a variety of essays by a variety of writers.
  5. By reading many writing styles, I learn more about writing at the sentence and paragraph level. By reading books, I learn more about structure.
  6. I can read one short piece at each sitting, so I feel as if I’ve accomplished something.
  7. BUT I am not drawn back to the story as I am when I have to take a reading break during a book.
  8. I can learn a lot about where to submit stories by reading the journals.

 

Click on this link to order back issues of Plougshares

How often do you read literary journals?

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