Monthly Archives: March 2013

Memoir Gaps: Filling in the Blanks

I have always carried a lot of clear and strong memories with me, especially from my childhood.

But when you go to write a book-length memoir you need more than those memories–you have to remember what happens between those vivid images, to recreate the glue between them, in a way.  Sometimes searching backwards for the hazier recollections and the forgotten events seems as if I’m trying to get into a boarded-up old building.

E. St. JamesSan Jose, CA

E. St. James
San Jose, CA

William Zinsser, in Writing About Your Life, says that the way to write a memoir is to start with those vivid memories, writing up one each day.  Then he makes a giant leap to the assumption that by writing those recollections the writer will discover her own writing style, as well as what is important and what is less important–in fact, that the writer will discover what her story truly is!

Hmm, that’s great, but then he dumps us off at the curb, without any directions on where to go from there.

That’s the place where I began to flounder and, although I’ve worked very hard at finding my structure, my story-and my direction–still have difficulties.

After many efforts and revisions, I have the beginning chapters of my book and a rough idea of the rest of the structure.  But as the story moves on, I need to work on the glue between the vivid memories.  This is true more of characterization than anything else.  Particularly since in my childhood memories I was . . . a kid.  I didn’t see the adult characters in my life as the round and dynamic* characters people they are.  And I didn’t see myself as a round and dynamic character either–not clearly.

That’s why I am using other methods to try to fill in some of the blanks.  One of these methods has been studying psychological aspects of the characters, such as the HSP and Myers-Briggs analysis I wrote about.

Writing Prompt

Another method is to write an imaginary scene which shows a reason why someone did something.  For example, when I was in 7th grade I was sat on and beaten by a fellow classmate.  I was imprisoned underneath her because she outweighed me by more than 100 pounds.  I have no idea why she would do something like this, and I remember feeling the unfairness (actually, I felt squished, too).

To get insight into her personality and motivations, I wrote a scene which results in the beating.  The scene is fiction, and I can’t use it for the book (and don’t want to share it ;)), but in writing it I learned more about the girl and myself as characters.  It’s when I do research in this way that I frequently have little epiphanies, where I learn or remember things that I didn’t know I knew.

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* round characters are seen as fully-dimensional human beings, whereas flat characters tend to be one-sided

* dynamic characters change as real humans change in life, whereas static characters remain the same

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Meaningful–Or Otherwise–Spring Moments

I’ve broken out with Spring Fever and don’t want to work on characterization now.  In fact, I’m being downright cantankerous about it.

It’s not the sort of spring I used to wish for when I lived in Michigan. I couldn’t wait until the dirty snow and slush had dried up and disappeared and the green spikes of the bulb flowers were pushing up out of the ground.

You can tell when spring arrives in the southwest when you notice the snakes have woken up from their long winter naps and by the blossoming of the Sweet Acacia trees.  These events are accompanied by dirty desert air which coats my throat and sinuses.

We go all winter without having to worry about whether a snake in the yard means danger (the rattle alarm) or not.  Then one day in March there is a snake lying there on the ground, and I flinch until I know for sure.  King snakes are our friends; they eat baby rattlesnakes.

The Sweet Acacias don’t look much different from Palo Verdes or Mesquite trees, but their yellow blossoms smell so sweetly they make you feel sick.  So sweet they almost smell like garbage.  But I could tolerate that if they didn’t make my sinuses flow like Niagara Falls.

The allergist says that the reason the standard skin tests don’t include the Sweet Acacia is because it isn’t a specific allergen; instead, everybody is sensitive to it.  It’s partly to account for the high incidence of hay fever in the valley.

Here are the Sweet Acacia blossoms, which my husband calls puff balls, up close and looking innocent.

Still, it’s our spring, rattlesnakes and allergies aside.  And there are always the baby bunnies :).

4" long baby bunnyhiding in plant

4″ long baby bunny
hiding in plant

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A New Look at Boredom . . . Sort Of

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part III

I’m still on this HSP kick that I talked about on Monday.

Elaine N. Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, suggests:

This greater awareness of the subtle [on the part of the Highly Sensitive Person] tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way.  . . . This is that “sixth sense” people talk about.

That’s right, I have ESP.  Sometimes.

This intuitive introvert stuff is probably why I am an INTJ in Myers-Briggs terminology.  Introverted.  Intuitive.  Thinking.  Judging.  That is someone who is an introvert (duh) and intuitive (see above).  It is also someone who values logic (thinking), which I might add is because I view it as “fair.”

Then everyone either uses judgment or perception.  People who rely more heavily on a structured lifestyle use judgment, whereas people who rely on a flexible lifestyle rely more on perception.

I do like a structured lifestyle because otherwise I would be overwhelmed with new stimuli coming at me every day, and I couldn’t handle it.  My body and my mind begin to shut down when they are inundated or, as Dr. Aron would describe, overly aroused.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I am rarely bored.  The littlest thing can amuse me.  Well, let me adjust that a bit.

Stick me in a room with nothing to do but listen (I am not an auditory learner) for hours on end, and I will start to go nuts.  As a kid, this situation used to result in me “talking in class.”  You know how that turns out.  In first grade, I had to sit in the corner, and freshman year of college I got the lecture about how the professor didn’t care if I talked, but that the kid I was talking to was failing so I needed to take pity on him ;).

Recently, I was in a situation where I was stuck in a chair for hours, listening.  So I counted bricks on the wall and calculated distances between objects using typical brick and mortar measurements.  I memorized all the distances.  This kept me busy for at least an hour.  My mind worked like a computer, and that’s because I was the opposite of overly aroused, but actually leaning toward boredom, so my mind wasn’t overwhelmed, but working sharply.

Anyone need room dimensions and don’t have a tape measure handy?

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The Highly What Person?

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part II

When I was growing up my mother called me names–well, at least one nameThe princess and the pea. It was quite a mouthful.  I hope it gave her a lot of pleasure because it certainly made me feel lousy.

She was referring to a story in my fairy tale book by Hans Christian Andersen where the prince’s mother tests the new girl by hiding a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds.  The girls wakes up black and blue.  That little pea underneath all that bedding was too much for her.  So the name “the princess and the pea” is meant to be a metaphor for ridiculous sensitivity.

It wasn’t just that I cried when people made fun of me, though I was talented at those tears.

“Look at the baby! She can’t do cartwheels.”

“Those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.  Don’t your parents love you?”

Boo hoo hoo.  I didn’t usually cry in front of people, but at home, in the privacy of my bedroom.  Until I could make my getaway, I would get very quiet, melt, and spread out thinly over the nearest wall.

Mom would call me “princess and the pea” for other reasons.  If I felt sorry for a shivering kid and gave her my sweater, if Mom found out, she would be mystified when she heard my reasoning. If my father snapped at someone else, and I thought it was unfair and told my mother I found it upsetting, she would look at me in wonderment–as if she were wondering where I had come from and who I was.

“You’re so sensitive.”

“Nobody else would be bothered by that.”

“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

After a time, I learned to tame the tears, and how to harden my heart when it was absolutely necessary.  And I began to think I was no longer a hypersensitive person, as long as I guarded myself.

But there were other mysteries about me.

Then two months ago I found a book and my entire vision of myself changed.  This book is the first to theorize this specific personality type.  Once I read one page of the book, I knew I was reading about myself.  I didn’t need the initial quiz, although when I took it I wasn’t surprised to tally a dramatically high score.

The book is called–drum roll, please–The Highly Sensitive Person, written by Elaine N. Aron. Please don’t laugh.  I can hear you laughing.

No?  Well, if you’re not laughing, maybe it’s because you, too, are an HSP, a highly sensitive person.  Dr. Aron suggests that this inherited traits occurs in 15-20% of the population, to varying degrees.

Instead of viewing our sensitivity as a flaw, something to be overcome, or as a reason for failure, she argues that once we understand the personality type we were born with (and in some cases which has been enhanced by our environment, such as our families), we can reframe our past in light of this characteristic.  We can heal and we can learn how to live a life that is right for us, rather than one that is right for non-HSPs.

Another mystery about myself is why I get so over-stimulated when I am around other people and in new situations.  Why do I find it so difficult to drive a car and talk to a friend sitting next to me at the same time?  Why can I read a map so well and yet get lost every new place I go?  Why do I love people and want to be part of their lives and yet avoid social situations?  I thought I had social anxiety, but that didn’t seem to fit.

It all has to do with being an HSP.  Dr. Aron presents us with two facts:

1. Everyone, HSP or not, feels best when neither too bored nor too aroused.

2. People differ considerably in how much their nervous system is aroused in the same situation, under the same stimulation.

HSPs cannot handle as much stimulation as non-HSPs.  So when I drive the car to the grocery store, I am handling a lot of stimuli: the turns and dips in the road, the trees and other vegetation, cars, people in the cars, the dog walking on the side of the road.  All these things crowd and confuse my mind and body.  Now if you add in my good friend sitting next to me–someone I trust and love and enjoy talking with–she is also a huge stimulus.  The conversation we are having is exciting, but also I have to weave together listening and speaking with when to stop at the light, turn at the sign, watch for that dog by the side of the road.  It all puts me on overload, and I need three days locked in the house, working quietly, to recover.

You might be thinking that this sounds like a completely crummy personality type to be stuck with.  But hold on.  There is a positive side to it.  There is a pearl in the slimy oyster, so to speak.

Aron says:

What this difference in arousability means is that you notice levels of stimulation that go unobserved by others.  This is true whether we are talking about subtle sounds, sights, or physical sensations like pain . . . .  The difference seems to lie somewhere on the way to the brain or in the brain, in a more careful processing of information.  We reflect more on everything.  And we sort things into finer distinctions.  Like those machines that grade fruit by size–we sort into ten sizes while others sort into two or three.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  This is an ideal trait for a writer.

Also, Aron goes on to explain in her book, this is a good trait for some people in society to have.  HSPs use their traits to benefit society in all walks of life, but they also tend to be heavily found among “scholars, theologians, psychotherapists, consultants, or judges.”  We are not the “warrior class,” but the “priest class.”

I believe that HSPs use their sensitivity to see the world more finely, more precisely, and can benefit society by reflecting back that detailed image to others.

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That Character I Ought to Know Best,

Or Investigations into Developing My Own Characterization, Part I

A few years ago little quizzes kept popping up on my Facebook home page.  They all guaranteed self-discovery.

What Jane Austen character are you?  Emma?  Elizabeth?

Which Sondheim musical are you most like?  A Little Night Music?  Company?

For some reason I really had to find out if I was an Elizabeth, as I suspected, and if I was Into the Woods because I certainly couldn’t be Sweeney Todd.  I felt the quiz results might lead to some greater self- knowledge.  If not a deeper understanding (okay, so that’s a little tongue-in-cheek), at least I could step back from myself and look at the whole picture and therefore see myself with more perspective.

For while I have developed comfort with myself over the years, and I understand my own feelings and thoughts, I can’t really see myself as that complete package others do.  And if I don’t see myself that way, I can’t expect readers to see a fully dimensional character as my book’s protagonist either.

The irony is that I also have to develop that deeper understanding of myself to see my reactions in their entirety (both positives and negatives) and to recognize the hidden subtexts of my actions.  Without becoming bogged down in regrets for the past, I have to understand where I contributed to situations, even when the truth makes me look much less than perfect.

For this latter investigation, excavating memories, writing, and re-writing–and all done with an open mind–are the best tools.  When I think I can’t pull out one more memory, that’s just what I have to do and that memory will open up new truths about the past and, therefore, the present.

Tristine Rainer, in her handbook of memoir writing Your Life as Story, devotes a chapter to “Portraying Yourself: You Are Your Hero.”  She urges writers to see themselves as dramatic heroes with flawed personalities.

Ask yourself what your character weaknesses were at the time of a particular event you are writing about.  How did your flaw or flaws affect what transpired?  And writers can’t neglect their heroic traits, so you should identify those as well.

She also recognizes the need for the inside and outside views of the main character:

“In order to get a sense of yourself as the protagonist of a story, you need to see yourself from the outside as others might, as well as from the inside.”

Rainer suggests that writers discover what others want to know about them.  “‘What is it that people always ask you?'”  The answers to that question can lead to some great stories which will engage others.

Knowing that I have to learn more about myself from the outside and from the inside has clarified for me the task at hand.  As I learn more about myself, my scenes are becoming richer–more layered and shaded with meaning.  My character is becoming more likable as she becomes more flawed and takes more responsibility for herself.

It’s all relative.  I’m sure I still have far to go, but my writing improves with practice and research, and that keeps me moving forward.

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So . . . what is it that people always ask you?

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A Minor Character in My Book, but a Major Character in My Life

For the past 2 1/2 weeks I’ve been out of town for business.  I missed my cats and my home computer.  Right now one of my cats is curled up next to the computer, so I am more content than I have been in a long time.  Still, I have suitcases to unpack, laundry to do, and lots and lots of work piled up.

I want to keep working on characterization in my memoir, but I don’t have time right now to write a new post.  However, I remembered that I have actually written pieces which were not for the memoir which still could inform my book.  It’s good to pull together as much material as I can.

Maybe you remember my maternal grandmother who I wrote about in Grandma and the Purple People Eaters.  Her girlhood dream was to be a writer.  She did get a couple of pieces in the newspaper and Reader’s Digest, but didn’t end up considering herself a writer.

Years after I had gotten my MFA in creative writing, and after I had been sidetracked by raising my kids and teaching, Grandma said to me that she didn’t want me to give up being a writer as she had.  I made a promise to Grandma that day that I would never give up writing.  That promise is always in the back of my mind and the bottom of my heart.

For my book Scrap, Grandma will be a minor character.  For my life, she’s been a major character.

So for today’s post, I am going to re-post a piece I posted about her on my family history blog The Family Kalamazoo.  It was called “Who Put the Ring Stain on the Scrapbook.”

00000001This is the scrapbook which my parents gave to me.  In it my grandmother (Lucille) Edna Mulder (later Edna Zuidweg) recorded the events of her high school graduation from Caledonia High School (Michigan), as well as a few clippings from her first year at Western Normal School in Kalamazoo.

In 1929, my grandmother graduated a year early, at age seventeen, along with her older sister Dorothy Mulder (later Dorothy Plott).  Grandma earned the 3rd highest GPA at 93.85% and thus was honored with the title “class historian.” Her sister was salutatorian. Grandma’s best friend Blanche Stauffer was valedictorian. Clearly, grades were not inflated in those days at Caledonia High School.

Grandma was the 2nd oldest girl in her family of three girls and two boys. When I was young and reading my mother’s copy of Little Women, Grandma told me she always thought that she was just like Jo, the 2nd oldest and the writer of the family.  Her sister Dorothy was Meg, and her younger sister Alvena (called Vena, later Vena Stimson) was Amy.  It makes sense to me that “Jo” would have been placed a year ahead so she could go to school with “Meg,” and that she would earn class historian to her sister’s salutatorian.

Salutatory

The scrapbook contains wonderful photos of Grandma, her friends, classmates, and teachers, but it doesn’t solve the mystery of who put that drinking glass ring on the cover.

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My Practical Father (Not Always)

My father was born in 1928, and the memory of the Depression is imprinted on his decision-making.

When he has a color choice, he goes with “brindle brown” because it’s practical and doesn’t call attention to itself.  Until I actually looked up this color, I thought it was a term unique to Dad.  And I figured it meant something like “shit brown.”  Now I see that it really means spotted or streaked like an animal’s coat or like the word piebald.  I suspect that my father’s meaning is closer to what I had originally thought, rather than a dog’s sleek brown fur.

I’ll go a step further and assume Dad probably picked up that term in the Army.  Since he was raised by a single mother, Dad’s true “finishing” came from his fellow soldiers in the Korean War.

Dad’s always hated the color black.  It’s impractical–shows dust and lint.  He doesn’t like lavender either.  His mother wore the widow’s weeds of black and lavender, so maybe there is an emotional terrain underneath the practicality.

When I was younger, men owned small leather grooming kits for travel.  They were sometimes called Dopp kits, although Dopp was a name like Kleenex, an actual brand name.  My father’s was brown, and if somebody gave him a black one as a gift, he wouldn’t use it.

His brief case was brown, not black.  So was his squeeze-type coin purse, back in the days when men carried those.

For the past thirty years he’s carried a brown leather magnetic money clip.

images (2)His belts are brown and not black.  And certainly not khaki canvas or burgundy leather and they don’t have a big turquoise-studded buckle.

My father looks practical and shops with a practicality born out of that Depression upbringing.

But don’t be fooled by how he looks.  When a friend or an acquaintance would show up with something to sell, Dad would buy it, no matter how impractical.  He bought things like:

  • An old non-working violin he was told was a Stradivarius (it was not)
  • A silk Oriental rug (beautiful, but impractical)
  • An old motorboat much too heavy for the motor that fit the boat (it never worked right, but I was still light enough that I could water-ski slowly off the back of the boat)
  • An abacus when I started 4th grade (so I could do division on it)

You get the idea.

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My dad is sick in the hospital right now, and the doctor isn’t quite sure what’s wrong.

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Do any of your characters (or real life relatives) contain contradictions?

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Memoir and the Cast of Characters

On Saturday I posted my plan to work on characterization for my memoir Scrap during the month of March.  One fellow blogger, Mike from Fugitive Fragments  wrote an interesting comment:

“It occurs to me that in writing the character for self in a memoir one risks sacrificing truth and honesty. Surely it is more authentic to use your own voice?”

I wrote back a rushed answer:

“Mike, thanks for a great comment! I actually think it’s just the opposite. People don’t often present a really truthful portrayal of themselves when they begin to write memoir. It’s only when you really know yourself well enough that you can be honest. And if you’re writing a story which occurs over a long period of time, you have to know different versions of yourself, depending on your age. I have been working on this book for four years and am still digging into things, especially myself!”

It seems like a good idea to explain a little bit about how I see the genre of memoir and the role of characterization in memoir.

Memoir is a crafted story about one part of the writer’s life.  If you write creative nonfiction, you probably know that it’s not like autobiography which is meant to be a chronicle of the writer’s life from birth or family origins to the present moment, generally told in chronological order.

The story can be focused on a certain thread or element of a major portion of the writer’s life or it can be about something which occurred over a short period of time, such as a trip to Singapore, or a dramatic event, such as a personal story about 911.

The writer tells her story through the viewpoint of the narrator who is a portion of the writer herself.  The complexity of a human being cannot be re-created on the page, and in order to keep the focus on the story being told, only those elements of each person which are important to this story are incorporated into the character.

For example, my book is about my relationship with my father, how it has affected me, and some elements of his life and his mother’s life which are intertwined with my own story.  The fact that I have a doll collection and can place my hands behind my back in prayer position (reverse namaste) probably will not come up in this story because they have little to do with it.

Iowa_archaeology_edgewaterMike is right that in memoir it is important to be truthful and honest, writing in an authentic voice.  My ideas of how one does that probably differ from Mike’s.  By just “writing in my own voice” (quotes are mine) and seeing where that will lead me is not crafting a story that is true to my experience.  I first have to be my own archeologist, excavating or digging deeply in order to understand myself, my reactions, and to see the connections of my life clearly.

When I began working in the genre of memoir (my genre had been poetry) four years ago, I didn’t really understand the difference between the events of the story (what happened to me in the past) and the practiced, reflective mind of the present day narrator (me in the here and now).  Both these aspects of the story are important to memoir.

Through work on this project my understanding of myself has increased.  My understanding of my father and grandmother has increased, as well.  The result is that I am processing the destruction of the past (point A) and allowing the appreciation for the blessings to permeate the damaged tissues of our relationship (point B).  My story shows how I got from point A to point B.

The creation of the narrator’s character–the sifting through and selecting what personality traits and experiences to include–is similar to the creation  of the rest of the cast–the other major characters.  In addition to the narrator, also known as the protagonist, there can be allies and adversaries.

This is the cast of characters for my book:

Narrator—an introverted, inquisitive girl who loves books and comes to believe she hates her father.

Daddy/Dad—an emotional, enterprising man who grew up in a household headed by his single mother.  Unfortunately, he is controlled by anger larger than himself.  This major character seems to be an adversary (another adversary is the Secret).  Can he also be an ally?  Only time will tell.

Mommy/Mom—a fragile, incurious woman who marries and has children too young, she struggles to become her own person.  She is a major character.

Grandma—a stern and hard-working single mother who has bravely and rigidly raised her children through the Great Depression and into the 1950s.  She is not herself an ally or antagonist, but she does represent a non-human antagonist as she is the keeper of the Secret which the protagonist needs to discover.

Husband–a major character who is a helper and confidante for the narrator in her struggles.  This character is a strong ally, but is not a fully dimensional character as he is in the book for his role in this story, not as the complete person he is in real life.

There are a few minor characters, such as brother, son, daughter, and friends.  Many will be dimensional characters, but not as complexly presented as the major characters.

If you write about your own life, what does your cast of characters look like?  Can you identify the adversary and allies of your story?

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Studying Real People

Thanks for keeping me company while I did research for my book throughout the month of February.  This month I’m going to work on characterization.  Because it’s a memoir, the main character is yours truly.

My parents also figure prominently in the book, as a significant part is about my child and teen years.  Since I’ve been with my husband since we started going out in high school, he’s another character.  My grandmother shows up in the book, both as the elderly lady I knew and in a younger, imagined version.

While we are all real people, we will also be book characters.  For me to have enough understanding to successfully capture these characters on the page, I want to study more about characterization in general and about these particular characters in the specific.

I started by reading up on characterization in my favorite creative nonfiction how-to books.  I like what Jennifer Traig writes about being the main character in a memoir in The Autobiographer’s Handbook:

It may be helpful to think of it as a novel with a protagonist who shares your name and life history.

That’s good.  It gives me some distance with which to write.

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Do you have any tricks for making it easier to write about yourself and your own life?250px-Playign_cards-biju

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