Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Most Difficult Book Review

I find it so hard to write a review of this book that I can’t help but wonder how Kathryn Harrison wrote it. It was a New York Times bestseller when it was originally published in 1997 and has been read by many. The Kiss is a very disturbing story. It’s about incest. And betrayal. And mental illness. And a “man of God” who was anything but. But mainly it’s Kathryn’s story* and how she negotiated growing up and learning how to be a woman. She accomplished it–painfully–in the midst of predation and neglect and without even a pretense of protection from anyone. The writing is hypnotic, reflecting the way Kathryn felt drugged or poisoned by events and by the power of her father’s personality. The tense is present, making the reader feel as if events are happening “right now” and “always and forever.”

One of the fascinating things about this book has been the response of critics and readers. It tends to polarize people. There are many who sympathize greatly with Kathryn for what she went through  and others who wonder why she was compliant. There are others who question her motives for making her family’s story public. People who despise the tell-all nature of many memoirs villify her for exposing a taboo subject.

My task, as always, is to see what I learned from the book. The book’s arc seems to take an odd twist. It begins with how the father developed as such an obsession in Kathryn’s mind. She grew up without him in her life, witnessing him in the house as if he were a ghost. The story continues by showing how Kathryn was caught like a fly in the father’s web when they met as adults. And, finally, it moves to how their relationship ended. But the twist is that, near the end, the relationship with the mother is made central. There is a forgiving and coming-together of mother and daughter when the mother is dying. The book is dedicated to the mother: Beloved 1942-1985.

Because the book was so successful, I have to conclude that it is possible to twist and tweak to give a story the sort of long-range perspective the writer desires. Nevertheless, I wasn’t persuaded. The mother was not presented positively. She abandoned her daughter to be brought up by a mentally ill grandmother. Is that forgiveable? Forgiveable enough to make the book about the mother?

Or is the forgiveness on Kathryn’s part because Kathryn realizes that as her father ruined her life, he had done so with her mother’s?

I don’t think there can be a satisfying ending in the face of the tragedy that occurs in the book. But I am wondering if the through-line of the book is damaged or distorted by trying to make it “about the mother” at the end.

Have you read the book? If so, what do you think about the storyline?

Flawed or not, it’s a book you will never forget.

* I purposefully rely on Kathryn’s first name here to give her a breathing presence because of all she went through as a child and young woman.

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Paper Hanging My Book

When we moved into our last house, I had a vision for my kitchen and family room. Those “two” rooms were a large open space, divided by a bar-height counter and a set of upholstered bar stools. Now keep in mind that this was the nineties.To coordinate with my rose and green plaid drapes and couches, I wanted an old-fashioned small print floral wallpaper inside two glass doored cabinets and on the bulkhead above. While I like to design, I am not very good at implementing projects like painting and wallpapering. So I asked around and called the paper hanger that was most highly recommended.

I can no longer remember his name, though “Jim” pops into my head. He was of retirement age with white hair and a nasty case of diabetes, but he was still working full-time. When he arrived in his rusted and dented panel truck, he spent some time examining the wallpaper rolls I had purchased. Then he began hauling out all manner of sawhorses and drop cloths and tools.  By noon he had converted my garage into an elaborate workroom.

By 5PM he had finished measuring and preparing the walls. I figured he would start pasting up the wallpaper the next morning. I was wrong. He did arrive by 8AM, but he still had more prepping to do. I asked him why it was taking him so long to prep. He said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. More’n forty years. If I spend my time prepping, the job will go quickly and there won’t be any mistakes.”

I probably rolled my eyes when I left the room. But once he started putting up the pretty wallpaper, I was able to watch him complete the room, even with a trim border, in an hour. One hour to wallpaper my kitchen. And it looked perfect, with invisible seams and absolutely no bubbles. Clean edges.

Later, I had him wallpaper my kids’ bedrooms, too, and he did the same excellent job by putting the focus on the prep, not on the final step.

Whenever I have a job to do, I tend to think back to Jim and what he taught me with his work technique. His method can be applied to many projects.

In fact, I was thinking today about how writing a book is turning out to be like paper hanging Jim’s way. By writing 200,000 words in scenes ahead of time, and by taking the time to really plan out how to structure it all, I suspect that when I put it all together, that will be the fastest part of the writing.

P.S. I’ve been super busy at work lately, so I am really frustrated that I don’t have time to work on the book, but when you let me chat about it on here, it helps keep me motivated, so thank you!

Have you ever worked using a method like Jim’s–heavy on the prepping, light on the final step?

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The Debt I Owe Bernard Cooper

Last summer I wrote a post about a memoir that had a positive effect on my book project: Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father

The title, The Bill from My Father, serves as a reminder throughout the book that there is a reason Cooper keeps his father at arm’s length most of the time–sometimes even farther, such as when he let a period of several years ago by without communication. The title refers to the father sending his son a bill for the cost of bringing him up. The father is a “character,” in the sense my mother means–somebody I would call a “piece of work.” His son tries to make sense of the man and of his own feelings about his father in this remarkable memoir.

Although I’ve learned something about writing my book from every memoir I’ve read, this book has probably been the most important to me–at least in pulling the book together into a narrative.

Let me break a big rule of writing and quote myself (from that post):

 [Cooper] sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death.  Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.

His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback.  And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.

What I plan to do is use “a present-day framework that moves to the past and then comes back to the present again.” Again and again. A weaving together of various time periods. Let’s hope it works.

Back to Cooper, the father seems to get progressively crazier as he ages. It eventually becomes clear that he has Alzheimer’s, but Cooper doesn’t have this context for his father’s nutty or dangerous antics until he comes to this realization. Since the father has always been a difficult person and the onset is so gradual, it seems as if his odd behavior is just part of who he is/was.

There is a scene where the old man attacks the DWP man with a potato peeler.  Twenty pages later, after his father has died and Cooper wants to open the packaging of a video (it’s a Christian video about Hell and was given by the father’s caregiver/girlfriend–the Cooper family is Jewish), Cooper accidentally picks up a potato peeler.  In this passage, we see him re-thinking his views on his father.  I love the way the action functions as a metaphor of sorts.  We are used to “things” being metaphors or symbols, but it’s Bernard’s absentminded grasping of the potato peeler that seems more potent because it echoes his father’s earlier action which was viewed as nutty.

If you have had a difficult parent, this book is a must-read. If you have a parent with Alzheimer’s or have struggled with conflicted feelings about an aging parent or a parent who has died, this book is a must-read. Even if none of those applies to you, the book is a must-read.

 

 

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Target My Structure

I’ve mentioned before that I have had many problems structuring my book. With 200,000 words of memoir already written, I was overwhelmed and confused about how best to structure the story. What to leave in and what to take out. Whether to organize chronologically or thematically.

So I was very happy to find the book, Blueprint Your Bestseller, by Stuart Horwitz. His “architectural” method is really working for me.

 

In following Horwitz’ plan, some of the first steps include identifying all the series in your book. You can’t know this until you have enough scenes written.  So if you don’t have 50,000 or more words, I would just write out your scenes first. Then find all your series.  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.

Series can be symbols or metaphors like the hat that Holden wears in Catcher in the Rye. They can be characters, objects, phrases, settings, absolutely anything. When I worked on this aspect, I was shocked to discover that many of my series are emotions, such as anger, fear, and shame. Of course, these emotions don’t exist by themselves. They are represented by tangible events or objects, such as locked rooms and guns.

In another early step in this method, I discovered the “One Thing” my book is about. Horwitz took me on a sure path to find this out through a step by step process.

Every time I work on a new step I experience an epiphany about my book.

This past week I accomplished the next step. I created a target for my book, putting my “One Thing” in the center bullseye location. Then I placed post-it notes representing scenes (pink), series (yellow), characters (blue), and settings (green) on the board.  Horwitz says, “The trick of the exercise is to put the narrative element closer to or farther from the bull’s-eye, or theme, depending on the strength of the relationship.” Doing this project, allowed me to see that certain scenes and settings were too far removed, whereas there is a close-knit relationship between everything else.

Caveat: I have so many scenes that I did not place all my scenes on the board. It would have been impossible. I expect to weed out scenes in the next step of the process.

 

The architecture method is supposed to work with any book, no matter the genre.

As a blogger or a writer, do you ever have problems with structure?

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A Lesbian in Mayberry

Remember idyllic small town Mayberry? Imagine a town even smaller and put it in Texas. Deep in the heart of Texas.

Imagine the small local school, a nice small town man its principal. The Baptist church where he sings in the choir. Now imagine his little blonde daughter who also sings in the church choir.

Slam on the brakes. Wait. Now imagine that his little blonde daughter is a lesbian, ogling the other little girls.

This is WordPress blogger Sheila Morris’ coming-of-age memoir, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing.

Sheila writes the blog, I’ll Call It Like I See It. Her rescued Welsh Terrier, Red, writes another blog, called Red’s Rants and Raves. I read both blogs, but I admit I have a real affinity for hilarious Red and his worldview–admittedly one low to the ground.

By reading Sheila’s book I’ve gotten to know her better. I was surprised to learn that she came from such a small town–one so small I can’t even imagine living there.  Even the food seems different from what I am used to.  Take Ma’s (her paternal grandmother) fried pineapple pies. They sound a bit like turnovers, and they clearly are delicious.

This book was a comfortable and enjoyable read. The main tension was young Sheila’s attraction to other girls in the midst of that tiny town and the Baptist relatives. Three of her grandparents had a big hand in raising her, and she was obviously doted upon.

I’m not saying that there aren’t other negative elements that occasionally pop into view. The racist viewpoints of one of her grandmothers, for instance. Her disconnect from her mother, for another. The beloved grandmother she shared a bedroom with losing the last part of her life to serious depression.  But she paints the story with a loving wash that makes her childhood seem as if it’s ideal (if only there wasn’t this huge secret that she carries and doesn’t understand).

The structure of the book is different. In fact, I’d call it a book of short stories–each one in the genre of memoir, but each one holding its own as a story. Frequently the end of a chapter (or story), brings that particular story to a conclusion, then the next chapter will zip back in time and pick up just a little later than the previous story began. I thought this was interesting because I have a chapter that necessitates a flash forward, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it in with the rest of my book. But maybe it takes another “rethink” about structure.

This book is as charming as life in Mayberry.

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It’s Spring in the Desert

I’ve been so busy at work lately that I haven’t had time to do any non-blog writing at all. I have a goal to complete Draft #1 of my memoir by August 1. Yikes.

I tried to take a few moments out this weekend to enjoy spring in the desert.

 

The hummingbird on her nest right outside my backdoor.

The hummingbird on her nest right outside my back door.

Pretty adorable, right? Look carefully and you can see that the bottom half of what looks like the bird is her teeny woven nest. I wonder what’s inside the nest!

A full-bloomingsaguaro cactus I drove by

I drove past a full-blooming saguaro cactus

 

Here’s a close up (sort of) of the cactus blossoms:

Saguaro blossoms

Saguaro blossoms

 

On my drive, I also saw this little guy trying to haul that dried palm bark (actually I’m not sure if it’s bark or frond–it’s the dried stuff that falls off palm trees) up the wall to the other side. It was quite an ordeal.

 

And it wouldn’t be the desert without our family protector, the King Snake:

King Snake - 6 foot long

King Snake – 6 foot long

 

What does spring look like by you?

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What If Your Father is Homeless?

If you’ve heard of this book, it’s hard to forget the title: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Nick Flynn’s memoir is about his father who eventually became a “homeless person.”

If you’ve read this book, you can’t forget the story. Or Nick’s father. Or Nick. Reading it is a life-changing experience. Amazing book.

Although the style is lyrical, experimental, poetic, the narrative is strong because the storyline packs a punch: Nick works in a homeless shelter and meets his father there. Here’s a sample of the writing style:

Even before he became homeless I’d heard whispers, sensed he was circling close, that we were circling each other, like planets unmoored.

Nick had been living a life very separate from his father. The man was an alcoholic con man, given to grandiose fantasies. He was a convict and maybe brilliant, but he wasn’t tied enough to reality–or to his son. Nick himself went through a period of alcoholic numbness, directionless. But he turned his life around.

The story isn’t told in strict chronological fashion. But through the weaving of memory and “current” events, the reader shares Nick’s intense emotional journey.

The writing is gorgeous, the story is fascinating, and Flynn’s ability to create the “feeling of being rained upon” (E.L. Doctorow quote, see below) is superb.

Nothing like learning from a master.

Throughout the book, we hear that Nick’s father always said he was writing the Great American Novel.  There’s no doubt that Flynn has written one of the Great American Books.  He’s accomplished a lot that his father was unable to do.

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.

E. L. Doctorow

 

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Why Wait to Publish?

We have a lot of book writers on WordPress–all in various stages of book writin’: thinking about writing a book, actually writing one, talking about writing one, with several finished manuscripts, publishing a first book, many published books on the shelf.

What I hear very little about on WordPress is publishing smaller pieces before the book is finished. Maybe because I started as a poet, this has always been my route.

Poems are arguably the smallest genre of writing, so it made sense to send a few out into the world and see how they fare. Eventually, I had enough poems written and published to pull them together into a manuscript, but it didn’t occur to me that it was time for a book. I had to be reminded about it by a mentor.

When I branched out into writing creative nonfiction, my goal from the beginning was to produce a book. The writers on WordPress and the writers in the memoir-writing classes I’ve taken have been as focused on The Book as I have been.

But my opinion is that it’s just as important to write smaller pieces or to take chapters or smaller portions of the book-in-progress and revise into stand-alones. These pieces can be submitted to magazines and journals. Maybe you are thinking, “Well, I am writing a novel, so there is no way to send out part of this baby!”  I searched Duotrope (search site for writing submissions) for “novel excerpts” and over 100 places are accepting submissions of novel excerpts currently. Once you weed through them, you might find only a dozen are a good fit, but hey, maybe that’s 12 more than you realized were out there!

What I am trying to do is figure out what kind of market is best for each short piece and then revise each one until it sparkles before sending it out to editors of the “right fits.”

I try to think of my short works as canaries in the coal mine of the literary world. Either they make it or they don’t.

Here is some great advice given by the character Christmas Eve in the Tony award-winning musical Avenue Q:

from a wonderful Tumblr site called “Things Musicals Taught Me”

 

Do you submit your writing in less-than-book-length form?

 

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An Unflattering Portrait

Rosemary Mahoney’s genre-bending book, A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman, creates a fascinating portrait of the famous writer at the same time that it tells the story of the teen Mahoney was in the summer of 1978.

Cover of "A Likely Story: One summer with...

Cover via Amazon

Mahoney was 17 and went to work as a housekeeper for Lillian Hellman on Martha’s Vineyard that summer. This book explores her experience with Hellman. Because Hellman was famous and a larger-than-life character, the book operates a bit as a biography, but truly it’s Mahoney’s coming-of-age memoir.

Her father had passed away, her mother was an alcoholic, and Rosemary needed a job. She was about as equipped to be a housekeeper as I would have been at 17, which is to say, not at all. She had read Hellman’s memoir An Unfinished Woman and idolized her.

If you thought you knew Hellman, you will soon learn that there is a lot more to find out. The picture Mahoney creates of the older woman is not positive or uplifting, but it certainly glitters with star power.  Under Mahoney’s pen, Hellman is not a nice person, and Mahoney grows to despise her; even so, there is some sort of attachment between the two women. After all, Mahoney was completely unsuited for the job and could (should?) have been fired by Hellman at any moment.  A very complicated relationship shapes up as the book goes on.

Reading what Mahoney went through with Hellman, made me think there is some truth to this expression: whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Mahoney learned invaluable lessons that summer–maybe most importantly, not to fear anyone else and to have confidence.

The question I ask myself about every memoir is: what did I learn?

The easy answer is that I learned about two women who have a lot more guts than I have–both Hellman and Mahoney. After all, look at the guts it took to take a job Mahoney knew she couldn’t perform.

The more difficult answer is that I learned about the soft and malleable boundaries of memoir. Memoir can incorporate other genres. It can have different textures. This book is thickly textured with public knowledge, the details of celebrity life, and a rich and lush setting of life on the beach. Most memoirs I read have textures that look and feel much different. I learned that memoir needs to look and feel and sound like the subject matter.

If you’re writing a memoir that involves a famous person, I would recommend reading this book to see how Mahoney handles the job. She’s a master at it.

If you want to read a nonfiction story that is a little bit juicy about a celebrity, head right to this book!

If you just want a good read, this is it.

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If you want to look at Mahoney’s other books, check out her website.

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