Tag Archives: mother-daughter relationship

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

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 Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing