Writing like Dancing

A memoir that entranced me for years was not written by a writer, per se, but by a celebrity, choreographer Agnes DeMille (1905-1993).

DeMille was a groundbreaking and significant reshaper of modern American dance and shaper of contemporary American dance.  DeMille’s influence is evident by listing just a few of the dozens of dances she choreographed:  the musical Oklahoma, both on Broadway and on film; the Broadway musicals Carousel and Brigadoon; the original and uniquely American ballet, Rodeo; Obeah, or Black Ritual, the first full-length ballet created exclusively for African-American dancers; Fall River Legend, a ballet representing the life of Lizzie Borden; and A Rose for Miss Emily, a ballet based on the William Faulkner short story.

In addition to developing choreography unique to the history of dance, DeMille also wrote exceptionally well.  She published memoirs and other non-fiction works, as well as a two-volume autobiography.  Dance to the Piper (1952) and And Promenade Home (1958) read like engaging novels, but are DeMille’s perspective of her childhood, young adult years, and initial Broadway successes.

My favorite of her books is Where the Wings Grow (1978), a memoir of childhood summers in the country.  DeMille’s memories are sometimes idyllic, sometimes shocking.  She observes racism and other bigotry with a relentless eye.Where the Wings Grow

The writing style is beautiful and evocative of those relaxing times. You can almost envision girls and women in white lawn dancing through the woods. DeMille’s voice is distinctive and “of her era.” For awhile after reading the book, I felt compelled to write poems based on various scenes.

In this video you can get a feel for her voice. Also, she talks about how her father kept standing in the way of her ambitions.

A couple of important issues come to mind when thinking about DeMille’s memoir.

The first is how close she was to her mother, even as an adult. Although DeMille’s father was a playwright and her uncle the famous filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille, DeMille’s creativity stemmed in large part to her mother’s artistry with a needle.

Anna George, DeMille’s mother, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf.  Anna was born in 1877, Woolf in 1882–five years and an ocean apart.  Anna had no financial means independent from her husband.  Her own father was famous political philosopher Henry George.  Throughout her life, she tirelessly campaigned for her father’s Single Tax theory.  Yet, unlike her “scribbling” husband, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer, never tried to write herself.  She did not have 500 (pounds) a year or a room with a lock on the door, to paraphrase Woolf.  She ran the household in the days before refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

Anna was regularly accessible to her children, her husband, and the other people who were temporarily or permanently a part of the household.  Yet Anna managed to produce art from the creativity welling within her, the product of which lasted beyond her husband’s mediocre plays–art which, when she was producing it, wasn’t considered art–merely a woman’s menial labor.

Another important portion of the memoir describes Anna’s aunt and how she and her family lived near DeMille’s family during the summer. The aunt married a Japanese diplomat. This intermarriage was quite unusual for that time period, as was their transracial family. DeMille’s family seems to have accepted the family without question.

Maybe this book will most appeal to nostalgia buffs and those who love women’s history. If you love costume dramas, you might be thrilled at this peek behind the scenes of an intellectual and artistic family in the 1910s.

Forget all that. The reason you will love this book is because of DeMille’s charismatic personality.

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The Motif of Origins

I’ve always been fascinated by origins. In college, I double majored in marketing (to make a living) and history (motivated by that fascination).

When I was a kid, my own origins seemed clear enough on my mother’s side since I grew up in the same town her people had lived for a few generations. On my father’s side, “far away” in Chicago,  there were so many gaps and distortions and puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together.

As I finished my undergraduate degree and entered grad school, I realized that I didn’t really know nearly as much about even my mother’s family as I had thought. I focused my study on local Kalamazoo history and, ultimately, on my family’s history.

More recently, I’ve been writing my family history blog and trying to find answers to the many questions that arise.

  • What branch of the family was made homeless by the fire mentioned in a newspaper clipping I found in my grandmother’s papers? (Answer: the George Paake family–and I’ve made an acquaintance of a shirttail relation and been given copies of many family photographs and documents)
  • What happened to my great-great-grandfather’s sister Jennie when she left Kalamazoo? (Answer: she moved to Seattle with her two adult daughters. A kind stranger’s father found their scrapbook at the nursing home he worked at 20 years ago. After reading my blog, she has now passed that scrapbook on to me so I have beautiful photographs of these women in Seattle)
  • How many Van Liere siblings were there?  (Answer: 8–see photo below)
  • How many DeSmit siblings? (Answer: I don’t know yet!)
A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

The VanLiere boys

Surprisingly, people who have found my genealogy blog have shared many photos and enthralling stories of my family.

My very first blog post on Writer Site, “The Study of Faces,” was about my feelings of connection to my ancestors.

While the search for origins in my book has nothing to do with the genealogy I focus on in The Family Kalamazoo, it is also motivated by a curious nature and a search for identity. Issues of inheritance, genetics, and rights to our own stories are part of the subject of origins.

How is it with you? Are you ambivalent or uninterested? Do you care about your origins? Are you obsessed with them?

 

 

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How a Novel Can Be Like a Memoir: Guest Blogger SK Nicholls

I read the novel Red Clay and Roses by blogger S.K. Nicholls. In addition to its engaging, well-told story, the book intrigued me with its historic detail and accuracy.  When S.K. and I discussed the real life story behind the book, I saw that the line between a novel and a nonfiction genre, such as memoir, is not always that well-defined. In this case, thank goodness!

So I asked S.K. to talk about the historical nature of her book, without using any spoilers–and here she is!

By the way, you’re going to want to check out her book for yourself!

***

The lovely Luanne has invited me here to her very neat and pleasant blog to tell you a little bit about how writing a roman à clef relates to writing a memoir. I’m a little disorganized. I’ll try not to mess things up too much while I’m here.

A roman à clef is a fictionalized true story. Not quite a biography and not quite an autobiography.

French for novel with a key, it is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. Historically, the original works had a key included that was often mailed out to people who followed a story. The key identified real life people whom the stories were written about so a select few who were privy would know the truth (as the author told it, which often amounted to gossip and was flavored with the author’s own ideas).

Why was that necessary?

The roman à clef (pronounced: romana clay) was written about stories that were considered scandalous. The reasons an author might choose the roman à clef format include satire; writing about controversial topics and/or reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to charges of libel; the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone; the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject; avoiding self-incrimination or incrimination of others that could be used as evidence in civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings; and the settling of scores.

Where a memoir is more like a true story of the author’s life experiences, more like an autobiography, the roman à clef may be colored with more biographical facts and fiction about others.

  • Both recall facts.
  • Both involve real life experiences.
  • The memoir is a genre of its own.
  • The roman a clef is akin to historical fiction (only ordinary people become characters rather than famous people).

While most all fiction is inspired by real life situations, a roman à clef goes one step further and records actual history. The names and locations may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty) but the basic story actually and factually occurred. How is that possible? Then it would be nonfiction, right? Wrong.

I will use my book, “Red Clay and Roses” as example.

Part One was written in first person. The nurse interviews a couple of people who tell their stories and she relates those stories through development of the characters, as in fiction. Ms. Bea, the good doctor’s wife, and Moses, the good doctor’s handyman, were two individuals that I, in real life, had the pleasure of meeting. I valued their stories and wanted to retell them. How they were involved with the good doctor was very significant. The good doctor was a chiropractor who had an abortion clinic in the basement of his home back in the fifties when abortion in any form was criminal.

Through Ms. Bea and Moses (in 1992), I was introduced to people I had never met: Moses’ wife, Eula Mae, his son, Nathan, and his daughter, Althea, Swamp Witch Wilma…and of course, the good doctor. I developed their characters for the story through what I had learned about them through these other folk and told their stories. Names were changed, but the events actually occurred as best as could be recalled.

In 2012, I was reintroduced to an eighty year old cousin, Sybil, and learned so much more. She was a white woman deeply enmeshed with Nathan, the black handyman’s son in the 1950s-60s during the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement. Again, that was scandalous in the Deep South!

Part Two, written in third person, was born to tell their story.

While all of these stories were true, the ending was less than satisfying to me so I took the liberty of the roman à clef to create what I felt was a more satisfying ending. “The opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone.”

So, while a memoir and a roman à clef both tell a history, the memoir is a true to life experience of its author, while the roman à clef is more of an imaginatively creative endeavor that reads more like fiction than non-fiction.

“A novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction.” The events that prompted the writing of “Red Clay and Roses” actually occurred. They were true stories based on my own experiences, or were shared with me by those close to me. Some of the people I never had opportunity to meet were described to me and their personalities were developed from those descriptions. That being said, the characters were imaginatively created to tell their stories. Likewise, although I drew on my experiences as a nurse, Hannah is a fictional character.

The historical events in “Red Clay and Roses” were pulled together through exhaustive research from old newspaper articles (primarily the LaGrange Daily News in GA, the Troup and Meriwether County Archives), and online research. The character’s real life participation in these events was factual.

Have I thoroughly confused you?

Would you like to read more?

Thank you, Luanne, for allowing me to ramble about on your blog :)

 Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00016]

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The Motif of Curiosity

An important series in my book is curiosity. In fact, the 230,000+ words I’ve written (yes, I know it needs a lot  of cutting) and the dream of the book itself would not exist without curiosity–namely, my curiosity.

From the time I started reading Bobbsey Twin  books (like Nancy Drew but for younger kids) at age 5, I realized that curiosity was a constant flame inside me. If you aren’t familiar with these old books, the detectives are two sets of twins in one family–Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie. This series is so old that I grew up reading the books that belonged to my mother when she was a child.

My Bobbsey Twins collection

As a kid, I practically inhaled all the mystery series books I could get my hands on–mainly from the school and public libraries. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, the Khaki Girls.  On and on.

In my early twenties I read every single Agatha Christie mystery.

Today I still enjoy mysteries, but I also am working on genealogy and my family history blog. The great thing about genealogy is that when the past gives up some of its secrets, it presents the genealogist with many more! The genealogy bloggers I’ve met are incredibly curious people.

All of this has been preparing me for writing my memoir, of course. Only I didn’t know it until recently.

When faced with secrets and unknowns, my recourse is to–well, what else?–PRY.

Are you a curious person? How has your curious or incurious nature affected your life?

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I Contradict Myself

If you read my review of the Augusten Burroughs’ book Running With Scissors, you know I’m conflicted about it. I feel differently about the prequel A Wolf at the Table–the story of his frightening father.

a wwolf at the table

In this book Burroughs captures my attention up front by saying that for years he couldn’t remember much from his childhood about his father. When it all starts coming back, it’s almost too much to bear.

He also presents himself as a sympathetic character, one that I feel a deep empathy for. One of the ways he does this is by showing how his father treated one of their dogs–and how it bothered Augusten.

They had three dogs, and Burroughs loved them all. The two larger dogs were allowed inside the house by the father. The smallest, “a little black elkhound with a curlicue tail” named Grover, was not allowed in the house. The reason was that the father, for no apparent reason, considered him an “outdoor dog.” Grover “practically never left the deck where he slept, pressed against the sliding glass doors.” Burroughs writes: “Like there was a special breed of dog that might die if exposed to a sofa.” This upsets Burroughs (and me). The last two paragraphs in this passage are especially poignant:

Even on the coldest winter night when Grover was no more than a black, furry mound curled into himself and pressed up against the house, my father wouldn’t let him in.

Sometimes, I let bad thoughts linger. Like, if my father made Grover sleep outside in the cold, what stopped him from locking me out there, too? He had two sons; what if he decided to make the younger one the “outside” son?

And, in a way, that is exactly what does happen to Burroughs.

One of the strongest threads in this book is the secret that Burroughs’ father shared with him. The question is: did it happen or not? But it’s Burroughs asking the question this time, not the reader.

If you look up reviews you will see that some critics don’t like this book. They might miss the humor they found in Running with Scissors. But this book has real heart. Some readers say that Burroughs couldn’t possibly remember the mobile above his crib. I don’t know what they are talking about because I remember a vivid event from when I was still in a crib–less than two years old. I remember my room in detail, especially the shadows and lights and special objects like my music box.

In reading reviews of this book, I noticed that Burroughs’ brother, who has Asperger’s, says he has trouble reading behavior in other people and that he believes their father had some of his own “autistic traits.” This is a controversial subject because many of us love people who have Asperger’s or are autistic. Their condition doesn’t make them cruel to children or animals.

If you had a very difficult parent, this book might break your heart.

 

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Remember My Poetry Manuscript?

Won’t you join me for some virtual champagne (or sparkling juice) today?

I know I’ve been chatting about my current project, the memoir I’m writing, a LOT lately. But this is about another project close to my heart: my poetry manuscript Doll God.

Well . . .

In 2015, my first book, Doll God, is being published by the Alabaster Leaves imprint of Kelsay Books.

Did I mention I’m so excited that I have a tummy ache? Or is that the champagne?

Next year looks like a good one!

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Running from Lawyers

I haven’t seen the film Running With Scissors. But this trailer looks similar to the book.

I’ve read the book.

Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running with Scissors is the weirdest one I’ve read. According to this story, Burroughs had a horrific childhood. His father was a terrible alcoholic, and his troubled mother abandoned him to her psychiatrist. But it gets worse. The psychiatrist was wildly inappropriate and his household was in chaos. Burroughs was molested by the psychiatrist’s son.

What I found most disturbing, though, was Burroughs’ light rendering of this tale of his childhood.

The reviews mainly focus on this humor and how it makes such a dark tale palatable. Sometimes I found myself being taken in by this humor, but most of the time I felt odd being complicit (by reading) in making light of what Burroughs went through. It’s his choice to coat the events in that tone, but it demeans the events for other people who have gone through similar situations.

Running with Scissors

So what did I learn from reading this memoir? That you need protect yourself from being sued as much as you possibly can.  Because he was. Sued. By the family that raised him (Turcotte in real life; Finch in the book).

This article tells how the lawsuit was eventually settled.

Author Augusten Burroughs and publisher St. Martin’s Press agreed to call the work a “book” instead of “memoirs,” in the author’s note — though it still will be described as a memoir on the cover and elsewhere — and to change the acknowledgments page in future editions to say that the Turcotte family’s memories of events he describes “are different than my own.” It will also express regret for “any unintentional harm” to them.

Here’s an article in Vanity Fair telling the point of view of the psychiatrist’s family.

In this article, you can meet Burroughs’ mother.

The more I read about this case, the more I am uncertain who to believe. The story seems fantastical to me, but what if it all really happened?

The Turcottes say Burroughs made up many events (including the name Augusten Burroughs as his real name was Chris Robison)–and that he embellished most of the rest.

I am not going to presume to be a judge and jury. All I can do is take the book on the book’s own merits. For me the tone wasn’t right for a memoir with the events and characterizations that are included in this book. But if you can get past it being a memoir and think of it as fiction, it seems more like a John Irving novel, like The World According to Garp (RIP Robin Williams).  And I love John Irving novels.

Maybe I’ll watch the movie. Should I?

 

 

 

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