Now, What Happened Again?

I feel a little bothered–maybe even disturbed–about something I noticed in reading memoirs.

When I go to write memoir reviews, I tend to remember them by their schtick. You know: the memoir about the father with Alzheimer’s, the one about the college-age woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, the girl from Texas with crazy gun-toting alcoholic parents,  the woman who secretly taught women Western literature during the Iranian Revolution, the man who learned gambling as part of Chinese culture while still a child, the young woman who had sex with her father, the girl who slept with hundreds of men. You see what I mean?

This is all well and good. After all, I am writing about the girl who lived over a bomb shelter and in front of the city dump with the garbage man father.

But does it mean that all memoirs have to have schtick to make them memorable?

I eagerly raced through New York Times contributor Alyse Myers’ memoir who do you think you are?, thinking, “Wow, this is a well-written exploration of a sad and horrifying mother-daughter relationship.” It seemed as though Myers’ mother resented her daughter (more than Myers’ two sisters). The narrator is almost a Cinderella character, her mother a wicked and cruel mother.

Myers becomes independent at a young age in response to her relationship with her mother. She is driven and successful. Finally, she finds the perfect man to marry. She is nervous for him to meet her mother. When they do meet, her mother asks him what he sees in her daughter. Yet the man is charmed by Myers’ mother, and the mother even tries to impress a little by baking a cake–something she didn’t do for her daughter.

How does Myers go from being the abused outsider of her family to “being there” for her dying mother? To even wanting her future husband to meet her mother? The book shows the path.  Excellent story.

But when I go to remember the story, it’s difficult. I have to reread the book. I don’t have that hook to grab onto and reel in the plot elements from my memory.  And why? Because the book has no schtick. Sure, it’s about a horrible mother-daughter relationship and there is much to be learned from reading the book. But many memoirs showcase bad parent-child relationships. Many take place in the 1960s as this one does. In New York City, as this one does.

Does that mean the book’s weakness is that it doesn’t offer a memorable image?

As readers, sometimes we make fun of the schtick that memoirs are made of, but when it comes down to it, is that what makes them books that live on in our imaginations?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

The Central Series: The Motif of Secrets

According to the book architecture method, after determining all the series (repetitions) in her book, the writer must decide which is her central series–the main storyline will rest on this series.

My central series is secrets. A secret can be a painful wound at the heart of a family. What happens to a secret that doesn’t get any air? It festers and infects the entire body of the family.

The other side of the coin from secrecy is privacy. Aren’t people entitled to their privacy?

In my story, the protagonist (me, of course) tries to exhume the family secrets, but is also desperate to hang onto her own privacy with the family. Sounds sort of hypocritical ;).

Photo by Marisha

To give myself inspiration on the topic of secrets, I searched for quotes. These spoke to me as meaningful for my story:

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
― George Orwell, 1984

Of course, it is impossible to hide a secret, once known, from oneself. The more I realize it’s a secret, the more it weighs on my mind. Therefore, one way or another, the secret will out itself.

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”
― James Joyce, Ulysses

I envision secrets just this way–heavy and controlling with their silent power. They want to be kicked out of their thrones, uncrowned, but we let them tyrannize us and those close to us.

“You cannot let your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.”
― Alice Munro, Open Secrets

I learned early to protect myself from my family by developing a thick wall. That was my way of secret-keeping.

“Secrets have a way of making themselves felt, even before you know there’s a secret.”
― Jean Ferris, Once Upon a Marigold

Although this quote doesn’t come from a weighty tome as do the other quotes, it is so fitting for my story. From before my birth the secrets existed, so I grew up under the weight, the tyranny, of the secrets long before I finally realized they existed.

Have you written about secrets in your family?

P.S. Those of you who were commiserating with me about my old cat Mac who has a bad heart and was diagnosed with diabetes: I got his glucose down with a diet change. So he doesn’t need insulin for now!

If you have cats, think about switching to high quality canned food. I did hours and hours of research and now wish I had done so years ago. If you want to know more about the results of my research, email me at writersite.wordpress[@]gmail[dot]com.

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Disney and Me:A Memoir

A memoir is usually focused on a specific thread or time period of a writer’s life, whereas autobiography is “my chronological life story.”

One of my favorite books is an autobiography that I would argue is a memoir because of its focus on the writer’s artistic life as an artist and writer. It’s a children’s book that is also a book for adults.

I’ve mentioned the book here in a previous post: Disney animator, illustrator, and writer Bill Peet’s Caldecott Honor BookBill Peet: An Autobiography.

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney's great illustrators, Bill Peet

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney’s great illustrators, Bill Peet

The book is 190 pages–longer than a traditional picture book; however, it won an award as a Caldecott Honor Book in 1990 because the book is fully illustrated–there is at least one illustration on each page, along with engaging text.

Bill Peet worked for Walt Disney on many movies, shorts, TV shows, books–even Peter Pan peanut butter. He wrote the original (1961) 101 Dalmatians, working from Dodie Smith’s book. Disney asked Peet to “plan the whole thing: write a detailed screenplay, do all the story boards, and record voices for all the characters. That had been a job for at least forty people on Pinocchio in 1938, but if Walt thought I could do it, then of course there was no question about it.”

Throughout the book, Peet’s desire to pursue his own artistic endeavors is constantly at odds with first school and then his job at Disney. If you are an artist or a writer, you will feel that, in some ways, his story is your story.

In many great memoirs, readers learn about other characters in addition to the narrators. Peet’s book presents a complicated and somewhat frightening Walt Disney. The simplest disagreement could cause Disney to put an employee “in the doghouse,” and then other employees would give that person “the silent treatment.” He even shows a scene where Disney comes in to Peet’s office and unburdens himself about his own difficult childhood. While there isn’t anything in the book that isn’t appropriate for children, there is enough texture–enough “teeth”–to the book that makes for a fascinating read for adults, too.

Pear Blossom checking out Bill Peet's book

Pear Blossom checking out Bill Peet’s book

The illustrations are all by Peet himself, and you will recognize the classic Disney look. By the story, you will learn how much of Peet’s creations are part of that Disney look and of the Disney stories you or your parents have grown up with.

Something about this book stimulates my mind and my heart. I think I have a crush on the book. I love chatting about it.

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Searching for The Holy Grail for Writers

I thought that there was a Holy Grail for writers: a list of all the “good” lit journals.  Once I found that list I could just cross off each journal as I sent them a manuscript.

You can find out if that list exists in my article, “From Creation to Publication: Finding the Submission Strategy That Works for You, published by The Review Review. In this piece, I describe how I changed my approach to submitting to magazines and journals.

Photo by Marisha

Photo by Marisha

I realized that I had forgotten to tell you about The Review Review. You can check out my article and the other helpful advice in the “tips” section, and you can read reviews of lit magazines and interviews.  You can also sign up to have the newsletter with links to articles sent to your email. I’ve been reading the newsletter for a while and have found a lot of magazines that interest me. Sometimes I print out the articles so I can read them later, when I’m less inclined to want to sit at the computer.

When I discovered The Review Review, I added the link to the toolbar on my computer!

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The Motif of Fear

I wasn’t surprised to discover fear is a pattern that repeats itself throughout my book. A twin of anger, the series I wrote about last week, fear controlled much of my childhood and teen years.

Although, for the most part, I learned to fear because of the anger of others, fear invaded all aspects of my life. In this rough passage that takes place when I am in first grade, I am almost “paralyzed” with fear of the dog that lived across the street from my house:

The chow wasn’t giving up, and my stomach began to clench as if it were pressed in my father’s metal vise. I sank onto my knees on the dirt drive, small stones digging into my skin, wedging between the lips of the cuts and scrapes I’d gotten riding my bike too fast. Dear God, make the lady call him inside. I bit the inside of my cheek and was soon sucking on iron, as the taste of blood flooded my mouth. Eventually time collapsed on itself, and I ceased recording it in my head. I sat and sat, alert to the barking.

Fear is something I know. As an adult, fear became anxiety, which comes with specific symptoms like tingling limbs. I know what makes me afraid. What makes me anxious is more mysterious.

Fear terror eyeHave fear or anxiety ever controlled your life? Do you find fear tied to anger or is it unrelated? Or are you a particularly fearless person? What made you so?

 

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A Woman Who Can’t Be Categorized

Paula Fox can’t be categorized–at least, not by me. She’s won awards for her children’s books like One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer. 

I’ve taught both these books. One-Eyed Cat is a particularly wonderful book which examines the complexity of emotions like remorse and guilt.

But she’s not “just” a YA or children’s author. She’s been called the greatest writer of novels for adults by Jonathan Franzen (read here), but I can’t vouch for those as I haven’t (yet) read them.Desperate Characters

She’s a memoirist, but I’m not sure Borrowed Finery (one of her two memoirs) is a memoir.

Borrowed Finery

 

I just finished reading the book last night. What a life! I was enthralled, following the details of Fox’s life, as she was moved about from person to person, city to city, even living in Cuba for a year and a half. Fox is 91 years old, and the book takes place up to the point that she is 21 years old, except for a short section at the end, so the book is not an exhaustive autobiography–probably why it’s called a memoir. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like a memoir. There wasn’t a strong MDQ driving the book. Occasionally,  it is even anecdotal. That said, I was fascinated, both by the events and by her exquisite sentences.

Her mother abandoned her at birth; she was a cruel woman who seemed to blame infant (and child) daughter for the loss of her “spring.”  Her father and mother were married, and the father complied with the mother’s wishes. He also seemed to be quite cruel and a severe alcoholic, although as a child Fox was obsessed with him. One of the first times Fox was with her parents, they asked her to order from room service. When the meal came, she realized she had forgotten to order milk and mentioned it. Her father took the tray of food and threw it out the window.

Many people are familiar with some basics of Fox’s life. For instance, when she was 21 she gave birth to a baby girl. Linda was the result of a one-night stand, although Fox had already been married to someone else. Fox despaired of being able to take care of her daughter and gave her up for adoption–only to almost immediately change her mind. She was told it was too late to change her mind (it wasn’t). Eventually, Fox was reunited with adult Linda and they have a good relationship. Linda is the mother of three daughters. Two of the granddaughters Fox has a great relationship with. The other granddaughter through Linda is Courtney Love, who Paula does not think is a good person. It does make me wonder if Love inherited a gene passed on to Linda from Fox from her own horrible mother.

Although I know that an unknown writer can’t publish a memoir that relies on chronology and anecdote in the way that Fox’s can, I did learn many things from her book. Just soaking up her elegant phrasing makes me aspire to write better. Then I also saw that she easily moved forward in time when she wanted to “tie up” an anecdote. With her graceful style, I really had to pay attention to even notice such a move.

One of the hallmarks of memoir is the double eye–the protagonist at the moment the events occur and the older, wiser protagonist reflecting upon those events. In that respect, Fox’s book is a stunning memoir. In one scene, her father spanks her for coming into her parents’ bedroom. In reality, he’s upset that she saw him with another woman in the bed. The African-American maid speaks up to defend Fox.

Years later, when I thought about her–and I thought about her often–about how much she had had to overcome in the way of an enforced and habitual discretion, how a sense of justice in her had outweighed the risk–I realized how brave she had been.

If you prefer books with a strong and fast-paced through-line you might find this book too lyrical. But if you’re willing to sit down and let a writer with a perfect sense of timing guide you, you will appreciate the story of Fox’s early life.

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The Motif of Anger

In my post A Baker’s Dozen, I listed my book’s series, or repeating patterns. Last week I talked about the motif of Scrap. Today the subject is Anger.

The thread of anger that is sewn through my story is often my father’s anger, but anger tends to spark anger, so I have had plenty of my own.

A famous quote by William Blake about anger goes like this:

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

What I take from these lines is that if we express our negative emotions, they can’t grow inside of us.

Writing has that same effect. I find that when I write about something difficult or emotional, once I finish the piece I am writing, I am relieved of the burden of the negativity.

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When you’re angry, do you find that writing or expressing yourself artistically helps? Or do you confront the person you’re angry with?

No point in photoshopping Tiger’s angry eyes

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