Grief Memoirs

I handle grief by writing. I handle stress by writing. I handle many things by laying a line on paper and allowing the dark moments to flow out. Image and rhyme and memory and magic blooms and appears sometimes in chaos, other times in patterns however rarely symmetrical.

People all handle grief differently and all the ways are valid. Many people don’t understand those who don’t bawl and post and praise. Other people don’t understand the public display.

After my brother passed last year, my mother followed him in a matter of days. It took me a bit, but I wrote. While I’m working on a longer piece about my mother, I’m proud to say Memory House Magazine out of Chicago accepted the piece about my brother.

“Days of Remembrance” is a mystical memoir of my brother’s passing, more specifically the days following his death. The print version will be out soon. They’ve invited us to read their digital version at https://chicagomemoryhouse.wordpress.com/

Setting Your Baby Free

I was in conversation with someone who works for… let’s say… a certain network about Our Gentle Sins. How Exciting!

But, she warned, “Once they get their fingers into your story, it will no longer be under your control.” She went on to intimate that they would twist and change and do what they wanted with it.

I’ve heard many writers get upset about this. Some writers in my own circle were offended for me when an editor from the Chicago Tribune’s Printers’ Row Journal asked if they could change a name in my story. The editor felt the nickname would confuse the readers. I responded – please change what you feel is confusing. My writer acquaintances took me to task on that – how dare I give them permission. I should fight for my story.

There are things I would fight for, things I have fought for. When the editor publishing West End wanted to change a slang Midwestern term, I didn’t agree. I argued that it made it more authentic and we had to trust the reader to figure it out in context. But small things like a nickname or a comma, I have no problem with those. Some writers do, however.

One publisher asked me to take one of my short stories and turn it into a long style poem. My first response, no, no, it can’t be done – but then, I was intrigued by the task! Picasso was once challenged to change one of his paintings to a negative – black and white inverse – he took that challenge and ran with it, changing the colors in multiple ways! The results of which line the halls of his museum in Spain. Sometimes change is not the enemy.

However, I do know what producers, directors, movie studios, and television does to novels and stories. They interpret into their own little idea. They change things for dramatic purposes, for comedy, for whatever reason may suit their purposes at that point in time. But – isn’t that what they’re paying you for? They are taking your characters, your setting, and they’re bringing new life to it. This may be a very different life that the writer intended. But that happens anyway.

Many people have misunderstood “The Ghost in her Room.” However, it didn’t stop them from enjoying the story. They just had their own interpretation of it. It brought something to their lives that I hadn’t intended. It didn’t make it wrong. I think that means I did something right!

When a reader engages in your story, identifies with your character or event, aren’t they changing it into their story or their idea of your story? Once we set the baby free in the world – that baby becomes something else and we have no control over it. It takes on a life of its own. It affects the world and the world affects it.

There are certain things I hope Our Gentle Sins will carry forth – the message of hope, of recovery, of leaving the mistakes of the past in the past, and building the strength as an individual to move forward in this world. We can only wait and see!

I like words…

I like sentences. Big, beautiful sentences so long and thick you can wrap them around yourself and keep yourself warm in the winter. Yeah, those. But I like words too. They go together, you know, words and sentences. I like to make them move with rhythm, sing and dance in a way that you fall into them as if you’re hypnotized by them and you never want to leave them, you just want to sway back and forth and keep reading until you slip off of your seat.

It takes time to create those. They start small, like these. Then you have to let them sit, like yeasty bread, and let them rise. You leave, come back, lift the towel, pinch and poke at them, and leave them again thinking, “I know it can be better than that.”

Then you have to sit down with them, you have to get to know them, talk to them, talk through them, try them on, and break them then mend them, try this and try that. It’s frustrating too, I know. You fight with them, want to give up on them, want to trash the whole thing and sometimes you might leave in tears with hopelessness tearing at your soul, but then you come back on another day, maybe an overcast day that holds the threat of rain, and you sit down and talk it all out once again. Maybe this time, this time, it works. Someday it will.

Then you’ll move on to the next sentence.

This is writing. It hurts. It cuts giant gashes filled with jagged edges through you. It scars. It gives you nightmares and makes you curl up in a ball and rock not so gently back and forth.

But it’s also the only thing that pushes you forward, fills the empty spaces, gives you purpose. It keeps the dark shadows at bay and protects you from the harsh world.

Love and Boundaries

Since we’re talking about love, let’s talk about Love’s bestie – Boundaries.

I suppose Boundaries are besties with Respect which, as I’ve said, goes hand in hand with Love. Maybe these guys are more than besties; they’re all in the same family, like kissing cousins.

I said in my post on UNCONDITIONAL, that I love my kids unconditionally. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that. I would die for them. No questions asked.

But even unconditional love comes with boundaries.

I had a friend whose son was having some troubles with alcohol. The son would call her up at 2am (after the bar closed) and start blaming the mom for everything that had gone wrong in his life – based on what his mother had done wrong in raising him.

My friend asked, “what should I do. I have to work. I can’t get up at 2 or 3 am and talk him down from whatever trip he’s on.” I suggested my friend not answer the phone. She thought that was a horrifying prospect. How could she neglect her son like that? I suggested that she pick up, make certain it wasn’t an emergency, and say, “I will gladly talk to you about this tomorrow” and hang up. She wasn’t certain she could do that either.

Her son was 30 years old. He was a grown ass man. He should have known better than to call his working mother in the middle of the night.

If it happens once in awhile… If there’s an emergency… If her son was really distraught and needed to talk – that is totally different.

My phone is open to anyone who calls and is in need of help – any time. However, when my Australian friend calls at 3am, knowing full well that in my time zone it’s 3am, I am not up for a chat about the weather or to shoot the shit and he has gotten an earful.

The very next time my friend’s son called, which happened to be the very next night, my friend answered the phone near 4am, and asked her son if he was safe, if he was home, if it was an emergency, then told him to call her at a more appropriate time.

The son was pissed. The son didn’t talk to her for a week. But he also never called her in the middle of the night again. And, when he did call, he was in a less inebriated state and they were able to have a real conversation.

Sometimes we have to show others our boundaries. Tell them we love them – and I love my Australian friend – and remind them we have our own ideas of love, respect, and boundaries.

As parents, we need to teach our children these things. As adults, sometimes we have to remind those we interact with as they may have learned something different.

Jack’s father loves him. He loves him with his whole heart and soul. He spent his life protecting his family and his community. But there were times he couldn’t deal with Jack. He couldn’t deal with the choices he made or the pain he caused – so his father enacted some boundaries. These boundaries hurt Jack but, in retrospect, they also helped him.

We can’t allow people to hurt us just because we love them.

Unconditional

Unconditional love exists! You wanted to hear me say it, I know. I love my kids – UNCONDITIONALLY!

BUT…. if they started acting like a-holes, some boundaries would be enacted.

Maybe – it’s all romantic love that is conditional. Some familial love is conditional.

I’ve been thinking, obviously, about love and not love.

I had a friend, many years ago, whose husband knocked her around. One day, he slapped her, shoved her backwards over a chair; she ended up in a flip that messed up her knee. When she cried out and told him she couldn’t move, he said she was faking and left her there, sitting on the floor crying. She had two kids to take care of, one still in diapers. She told me how, when the baby started crying, she dragged herself over to him. She had to count on her daughter, only two and a half, to go get her some diapers, to bring her bottles and formula, to push the chair over to the sink and climb up for water so she could mix the formula and feed the baby. She sat like that, on the floor, with two little ones, unable to get up for nine long hours until he got home that evening. And even then, he wouldn’t take her to the hospital.

She was too afraid to call anyone for help.

I made a number of suggestions: call the police, call her family, leave the guy. She had a quick response to all – the police would put her kids in foster care, her family would not help, she couldn’t leave him because… here it comes…. I LOVE HIM.

I’ve heard toooooo many stories like that.

I know, even now, some of you want a counterargument. You want to hear… yeah, he probably loved her, but….

BUT I’m not going to say it. There is no excuse in the world to treat someone you supposedly love the way he treated her. That is not love.

People who abuse you do not deserve your affection or attention. You can love someone and not be with them.

Do you think Valerie will figure that out in time?

All Love is Conditional

Before you declare this crazy, take a look at the reasoning.

I know we all really want to believe and wrap ourselves in the warm fantasy of unconditional love – but hear me out…

Love is born out of respect and/or it goes hand in hand with respect. Respect is not, nor is it ever expected to be, unconditional.

If someone does not respect you, they do not love you.

If they do not respect you, it doesn’t mean the love you may feel disappears; however, that love is tested, and if the disrespect in the form of cheating, lying, abusing, or other continues the love is damaged.

Maybe some love is unconditional – the love between parent and child. But if one continually disrespects the other, it is possible to love someone and break with them. Sometimes it’s the only way to save oneself.

Continual disrespect is abuse. Allowing oneself to be abused lands people in hospitals with injuries, illness caused from stress, or mental illness.

Love should be conditional based upon that mutual respect.

Once in awhile, people fight, they neglect each other, they say things they shouldn’t have – but that’s not continual and damaging disrespect if they are dedicated to working on it.

There have been times when I have chosen to love someone from afar because they did not respect me and I, therefore, lost respect for them. I would not allow myself to be abused. It didn’t mean I hated them or wished them dead – I just couldn’t be with them anymore.

Love is not simple. It’s complicated. But respect is pretty clear cut. And once you realize that, love doesn’t seem so overwhelmingly uncontrollable.

This is what love stories are really about, aren’t they? This is what break up stories are about – right?

Maybe it takes us all a little time to learn these things.

The Limits of Memory – and the Liabilities of Memoir

Think of a memory from childhood. What images do you remember? What stories do you tell?

When you take out a memory – do you or can you connect it to something more current? Why are you thinking about that? What brought it up? What did you learn from that memory? Or why do you enjoy it?

When you just take out a memory out and connect it to something present – you played with it, worked with it, in some way, possibly made it mean more or less, you colored it in, or made it pale in comparison.

Many Psychiatrists say every time we take a memory out – we change it, we try to make sense of it, we add details may have come from somewhere else. Many, many experts believe we have no pure memories. That they are all, in some way, corrupt.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Professor at UCI who has published twenty-four books and more than six hundred papers, believes memories are reconstructed, not replayed.  “Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,”… “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-­like creature.”

How many of us know someone who remembers something different that we do?  My sisters and I used to walk in the cool night air; one night, the middle sister saw a jaguar – the car, not the cat – and pulled the little ornament off. We started to walk away, and she instantly felt bad, so she turned back and placed it on the car near the windshield hoping the owner would see it and be able to repair it. Hey – we were teenagers – don’t hate us.

Now, when my sisters and I get together, my youngest sister remembers it differently, she remembers jumping up on the car and ripping it off and bringing it home. She laments losing it and wonders where it went. My middle sister and I just look at one another because that does not match up with our memory.

When writing we can change little things, play with the memories. But how much of the changing and playing with can we do to memories or memoir before we need to change the label from memoir to inspired by actual events?

And… I think the answer to that is – how much have you changed? Who is reading it? And are you going to get sued?

I have a piece coming out that I originally labeled as memoir – but I fought with myself about that label because it’s about my dead brother. In this memoir, I’m talking to him. Obviously, I’m playing with memories of our conversations, of who he is and what types of things he said. I had a conversation with the editor about this who said – do you want to make it clearer you’re talking to a ghost? 

My brother, sadly, can’t sue me – he’s passed. No one can sue you from beyond the grave, but their families can sue if the memoir defames any of the family. This piece does not defame my brother, but is it memoir? Or is it “inspired by an actual event”?

The memoirist’s first line of defense is: The first amendment of our us constitution guarantees us the right to free speech –

EXCEPT – there are some exceptions like you can’t yell fire in a crowded movie theater, you can’t say bomb at the airport…  and you can’t say Johnny Depp abused you without valid, verifiable evidence.  

The first amendment does guarantee that we have the right to our opinion, so when we’re writing a memoir, mostly, that is what it is – our opinion of events as they happened. Therefore, in most cases, memoirists are safe from prosecution.

The two biggest issues writers of memoirs face are defamation and right to privacy lawsuits.

Say you’re writing a memoir about your experience. You and your friend had a wild night of partying,  you’re say 17,  did somethings that you didn’t even put in your diary for fear someone would find out – but you’ve decided to write about that night – for whatever reason, you learned a lesson from that experience, it’s passed the statute of limitations for prosecution – ideally, yes, that is your story and you can write about it – but, wait, your friend swore you to secrecy. You guys had a pact. If you write a memoir or personal narrative or op-ed with a character that has your friend’s name, some variation of that name, character traits, walks like or dresses like your friend, was in the same place as you and that person can be identified, you can be sued.

If you want to write that story, change the names, change the locations, change your friend’s character traits, age, or leave your friend out completely.

Or – get your friend’s permission – IN WRITING!

Augustun Bourroughs, author of Running with Scissors, wrote a memoir about growing up – he changed the names, but the family brought a lawsuit against him and the publisher alleging defamation and invasion of privacy. The author maintains that it was and is his opinion and he kept journals throughout his childhood, and even some public facts supported some of the author’s claims, but the family alleged that events were changed to make them more dramatic – the lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The publisher had to change the label from memoir to book. And the author had to add a note – stating that he hadn’t meant harm and that the family’s memories are different than his own.

If you look at the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls the youngest sister Maureen has the least written about her. She was at a friend’s house for most of the West Virginia portion – there is some verifiable facts of her time in New York – she tried to stab her mother, she was institutionalized, and then she’s off to California, and in the book, nothing else is stated about her.  She had her right to privacy. So whether the author didn’t get permission or she was being respectful or her sister threatened to sue her – who knows. You can find information about the sister if you google – I did, but there seems to be limited information about her.

Our Gentle Sins has a character who is a recovering drug addict – I know a few. One of my friends asked me if he was the inspiration for the character of Jack. It’s actually fiction, but it is inspired by experiences of many people I’ve known or talked too. I felt it was an important story, but I would never use someone’s personal story who dealt with such personal struggles.

Drug addiction is a serious issue. Recovery is very personal. I admire those who are successfully maintaining their recovery. Jack is my tribute to them.

If you’re local – stop by and talk with me! Enjoy Our Gentle Sins – a fictional novel with inspiring characters recovering from whatever life has thrown at them!

The Writer’s Brain – Handle with Care

I’ve had skunks on my mind, mostly because they’re in my yard, successfully being trapped by a professional who seems to have gotten skunked recently. Beyond that actual getting caught in the crossfire of a skunk’s ire and ass, I think the odor is akin to smoking; after awhile the scent adheres to the clothes, hair, skin and, even though every one else can tell, the smoker or in this case the skunker can no longer detect the scent that has seeped into their being.

Therefore, my dreams of becoming a skunk skank, earning $$$ for hauling away critters who are relatively harmless other than their last method of defense which renders the person if not friendless then at the very least dateless, have been set aside.

However, I wonder about the skunkers and their lives. Do they have dates? Do their spouses get used to the smell? I read something recently that said we are attracted to people with similar scents. Are there skunkettes? Ladies who have taken to catching and releasing the cute little critters with the stinkpot defense? Or are there people who prefer the rough and rugged smell of burning brimstone and smoldering sulfur?

I’m more of a lavender and eucalyptus person myself.

The skunk and skunker smell lingered so long and loud in my yard and on my front patio, that I worried that it’d adhered itself to more than just the fine hairs of my nostrils, so I asked a mere stranger at the shop if I smelled like skunk. He laughed and said, “no or else I would have put on my mask to be polite.”

When a writer’s brain starts asking questions – handle with care – whatever happens next can spark, igniting a blaze of ideas.

Later that night, I was walking in the cool breeze with my dogs pondering the skunker’s plight. I returned and stood in the shade of a big sycamore tree when a homeless man approached my trash cans that lie in wait of the garbage truck. The recycling had been collected, so most of those persons who collect the recycling had come and gone. This man, however, reached into the black can, the real trash of old food and cat litter, picked up a bag, and carried it over to the emptied recycling can and upturned it. I stepped forward and said, “don’t do that,” to which he responded by grumbling incoherently before launching into a low growl similar to that of the Howler Monkey, then he rambled off to the neighbor’s trash and did the same thing.

Click, click, boom, boom – something sparked in my brain and a story began to form. 

More tidbits – the neighbor appeared; sticks – a cat curved around the corner; leaves – a car backfires somewhere in the distance; fuel for the fire. My mind has been set ablaze.

I love when that shit happens.