Author: Noreen Lace
I had the most unsettling experience recently.
Since I left home years ago, I’ve endeavored to rid myself of toxic people and toxic situations. When you grow up in such an environment, it’s easy to be drawn back to that because it feels familiar. In the past some years, however, I have relieved myself of all of those people and situations. My life is mostly calm and orderly, filled with lovely friends and amazing family. Life has it’s ups and downs and things happen as we can’t control the universe; But, overall, I am at the point in my life where mellow and positive is my normal and when someone behaves inappropriately it feels unfamiliar and toxic.
I’ve learned from the past. Let’s give a round of applause to everyone who has moved beyond their disturbing childhoods into something more beautiful and positive! Yay!
I had a situation last year wherein someone acted inappropriately; when I told them, they tried to blame me for the problem, began throwing accusations and trying to pull things from the past in an effort to hurt me. That is toxic behavior. I cut them off quickly and asked them not to contact me again. But toxic people don’t give up that easily. The person, of course, reached out again attempting to manipulate me. They had created the problem and were not taking responsibility for it. I do not need people like that in my life.
Of late, I have considered a course of action to help improve someone else’s life which will take my time and attention. My closest friends and loving family have known for awhile, and they have been incredibly supportive. Like the good people they are, they asked if I’d weighed the pros and cons. They know I don’t jump into things.
Recently, I shared this with another person. I did not expect the blow back I received. The very first comment was offensive; I should have left then. Yet, I was willing to listen and discuss. However, what ensued was not a discussion, but a 45 minute impassioned lecture containing every negative observation and thought of what could, might, and will go wrong. It did not stop there. The day filled with me changing the subject and them eventually bringing it back. It was told to a third party – a stranger to me. This stranger, and my “friend” set upon trying to “fix me.”
While I gave every signal to drop the topic: changed the subject repeatedly; said I hadn’t made a decision; agreed; said okay, let’s not continue. I was, obviously, not forceful or clear. Maybe that’s on me. But I’ve seen it before. When you try to tell someone clearly but nicely – this is inappropriate or making me uncomfortable – it’s gone vastly wrong. Or maybe that just happens with toxic people.
Offering pros and cons is what friends are supposed to do. Haranguing me for hours on end is not. I’m still shook from the encounter.
My peace of mind requires I walk away from all and any who disrupt my pura vida.
The Fine Art of Journaling
I’ve written about the healing power of writing, but haven’t mentioned it in the same sentence with journaling. Any type of writing will help, bullet points, brainstorming, I most often start with freewriting as that is what works best for me.
Freewriting is the act of writing without stopping. Many people begin with a set time, like 5 minutes, and they’ll write whatever comes to mind. If you’re unpracticed in journaling or freewriting, this might work if it seems starting might seem overwhelming.
Some people see journals as a way of recording the day’s events, certain thoughts or feelings, or even keeping track of accomplishments and to-do lists. It can be all or any of these things.
It used to be I’d read Sylvia Plath’s journals or Anais Nin’s diary excerpts and be intimidated – how did they create such lovely and thoughtful prose in their journals when what I scribble appears more like word vomit, thoughts and emotions all over the place in no particular order? and there certainly isn’t much poetry within it!
But then a friend pointed out a few things. First: some people keep a writer’s journal (as opposed to or in addition to a personal journal). This may be what I’ve been exposed to within the realm of famous author’s private thoughts. Second: These published journals have probably been edited, redacted, and only the best parts saw the light of day.
The Diary of Anne Frank, most people are unaware, was edited. Large parts of the original text were blacked out by her father who thought some entries to be inappropriate.
Hey – all the best journals have inappropriate thoughts! That’s why they are there in the secrecy of our journals.
But journals serve a number important purposes: Journal writing relieves us of our anxiety by releasing any thoughts and feelings that have been unexpressed or need to be re-expressed. Writing things down is a way to get them out of us, to say them aloud, and begins a process of working out the challenges we face.
Writing regularly helps with mental well-being, feeling more positive and hopeful. Journaling can help us heal.
Some writers do morning pages. Some people journal nightly. The best time is the time that suits you.
The fine art of journaling lies in putting the pen to the paper and doing what feels best for you without worrying what others will think. It is just for you. And we all need that – to do things for ourselves.
Nothing but the truth.. the whole… well.. wait a minute… Speculative Memoir
Memoir is hard. Reliving the past, reasoning with it, acknowledging truths, and attempting to put events into words is challenging, upsetting even.
Speculative memoir is not a subversion of the truth, but an aid in voicing our deepest pain.
Speculative memoir uses supernatural elements, ghosts, fairies; it uses metaphors, imaginative scenarios – whatever it takes to further the truth.
When I wrote Ghost in her Room (printed below) it felt right, good. It said what I needed it to say. But was it memoir? Uncertain how to label it, I sent it out with explanations. Explanations which were not needed as it was accepted immediately.
THE GHOST IN HER ROOM – Noreen Lace
I stand in the hall at midnight. The oak floor is cold, even through my socked feet. The night light from the bathroom filters the darkness as I glance toward the pale pink haze at the other end of the corridor. I hear the small creaks on the floor, feel something just on the other side of that door. It’s menacing, waiting, daring me to enter. Tonight, though, I decline. I’m not strong enough. I’m tired, and I’m chilled.
It’s been raining for days. The house shivers in anger, the wood popping and cracking in the shadows behind me. It’s shrinking. We all are. I turn and go to bed, shutter the passage to whatever lies outside my room.
I lie there drifting between alpha and theta; rainbows swirl inside my closed eyes before a child calls my name right next to my bed, next to my ear, and then giggles. I spring awake but remain still. There is no child, so I don’t search. If there’s anything in here, it’s a ghost and looking won’t help me see.
Years ago, I heard footsteps on the cheap linoleum of the kitchen. I wrote it off to an old house groaning with age in a succession of weakening boards under the plinth. That stopped when I had the floors redone; ceramic doesn’t cede. That was long before I was alone here in the house.
In the bright light of day, I sense nothing behind that door. It’s quiet, empty, needs to be cleaned. I have my coffee, toast, and go on.
Sometimes I find myself home in the middle of the day. I’ve forgotten something or took a wrong turn and ended up in my own driveway; I go in. There’s a light on in the kitchen. A picture’s fallen from the wall. A forgotten towel slung aside the wooden chair. “Is someone here?” There’s no answer, not even my echo calling back to me.
In the shadowed hall, I stare at the pale pink gate. Pause. I will it to chirr or clack, shimmy slightly in the weight of my presence. The light from the window seeps around the threshold and stretches past strands of dust toward my shoes, but the door doesn’t give.
I don’t know if there is magic in this world. I don’t know if people can see things or if they know things. I used to think I would know if she was in trouble.
Some days I ignore the door completely, disregard the space, discount the whirrs or whines.
I’m sitting at the dining table. Haven’t passed or gone in for some time. My house has one less room. But then, suddenly, the hall creaks, a shadow moves; someone, something is standing there watching me, waiting for me, challenging me to look up.
I turn and it’s gone.
Later, I glance at the door, not quite closed, an inch or so ajar. Inside I click the switch. The light is hazy; a bulb burns out.
I stand, fists to my hips, in the center of the room. “Move one thing,” I tell myself. “Just pick up one thing and fold it or move it or throw it away.” But I back out. There’s no menacing figure now, just overwhelming emptiness.
I consider nailing it shut. Losing it. There’s nothing I need, not the four corners of square footage, not the admonition of what is not there, and not that ghost reminding me of all I don’t have.
Before bed, I stand in the hall; that dark presence has grown and I feel it breathing just beyond her door. A not so gentle sweep of chilled air in, warm air out, hanging on to the sound of my footsteps, egging me on. I back down. Turn to my own sallow room.
When I fall into a deep sleep, my father puts his hands on my shoulders. I haven’t seen him in ten years, but he looks good. “You’ve got to let it go,” he implores. It’s the nicest thing he’s ever said to me. But not today.
The ghost in her room was once small and indelible. It grows greater every day. It fills the gloom, spills into the corners, and bends back upon itself, towering over the entryway. If I challenge it, maybe it’ll shrink, fade into nothingness. But, at night, as I hear it mooring toward my room, the creak in the floor, a rap on the wall, the quiet whisper at my door, maybe that’s enough to get me through another day.
Obviously, my mind has been on memoir.
It’s exciting, invigorating, curative even; however, it’s not – as some people believe – revenge.
Just as forgiveness is more about us than those we forgive, memoir is the same. It’s about the author, the writer stating their peace. While some memoirs may read like revenge, they are more about sharing, maybe even confessing.
While Anne Sexton wrote confessional poetry better than anyone else I can name, confessional memoir comes in different flavors.
When I think of confessional memoir, I used to consider Life on the Edge or Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher. Some people would think of Spare by Prince Harry – but these are celebrity memoirs which carry a very different weight in the market.
Confessional memoirs will offer insight, a new way of looking at life and understanding people. Consider Dirty River by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinna who writes about being a disabled queer woman and survivor of abuse. Not the only example – Lit by Mary Karr, Unspeakable by Meghan Daum will offer more mainstream insights into death, illness, alcoholism, recovery. But we will come away with empathy for the human condition as lived through these authors.
These stories that will hurt your heart instead of shock your eyes.
While I’m working on a few pieces of memoir right now, they may not shock your eyes but some parts may hurt your heart. Certain pieces will speak to some people and not to others. Some readers will wonder, others may doubt. A person or two may become upset – upset with me – but confessional or not – it’s personal, it’s mine. And their upset will be their problem.
Writing memoir is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for the shy or the scared – and maybe it’s not even for the “brave” – it’s for those who need to speak, who need to heal, who might be heard, and for those very souls who need to hear it.
Airing out the Demons
Allowing ourselves to recover, the body to heal itself, takes time and work. Sometimes we long for an instant cure, instant pain relief. But the pain is still there after the potion wears off.
If we don’t deal with our emotional suffering, it will work our way into our muscles, tendons, bones and cripple us.
Nothing worth having comes easy. And that includes healing.
In grief, we are told that talking about the person we lost helps with our healing. In abuse, we are also told voicing our experiences helps.
In short, Memoirs are healing.
Airing our difficulties, putting our secrets out there for the world to see may seem daunting.
Reading about challenges others have faced helps us – and writing back to the book, to the experience, to the author, in a private journal never to be seen by anyone but us – can still help us heal.
Your experience may help another; therefore, if you decide to publish it, it does not need to carry your name.
I met a published author who was writing a book about her son’s addiction, how it took years of her life as well as his life. She used a pseudonym for a few reasons. She wanted to protect her son’s identity. As well, her usual genre was not memoir. To publish a series of let’s say detective fiction, and then to publish memoir might confuse or dismay her readers. (Publishers rarely like genre switching anyway).
She felt, rightly so, that many people could identify with and be helped by her personal challenges. She found herself at book signings and conferences with reader after reader coming up to her thanking her for the book. They’d felt completely alone until they read her book, finally understanding others had similar experiences.
Memoir – airing out the demons – helps.
Read. Write. Heal.
Characteristics of a Successful Memoir
- A Relatable Experience – Many of us go through similar experiences and events; however, if you feel yours is not the run of the mill experience, that shouldn’t stop you from writing it. The emotions you describe can be the connection between the author and the audience.
- Drama. Drama. Drama – Keep the experience authentic, but many of us are going to choose a more dramatic event in our lives to share. Use the elements of fiction in your writing to keep the tension building.
- Story Arc – Whether it’s a longer memoir or a single experience, the story must have a beginning, middle, and end. A memoir must have a structure which keeps the audience engaged and an ending that offers some sort of resolution.
- Character Arc – One of the most important elements: We’re not just sharing an experience, we have learned from or taken something away from this event. Part of the memoir must show that the author has grown in some way from the experience.
In my last short memoir, Days of Remembrance, published by Memory House Magazine, the narrator attends a funeral. A relatable experience – everyone does, at some point, deals with death. It doesn’t start with the death, but the arrival to the service which isn’t quite the inciting incident, but it happens right after the arrival. The tension within the family serves as the drama as well as the rising action; the memoir features remembrances within the memory, a climax, and a resolution. The character has a realization and, in the end, has grown from the experience. These are the basic elements of story – fiction or memoir.
The Crucial Element of Memoir
The fundamental element of any memoir is authenticity.
This doesn’t necessarily mean every word needs to be absolutely correct. We all know our memory plays tricks on us, so we’re not going to remember every word that might have been said years ago under stress or in a moment of excitement.
This authenticity includes a relationship between the author’s character and an honest portrayal of an original truth through the reproduction of the essential elements of the event or topic. This truth must also extend beyond the author into a universal theme that speaks to reader’s hearts.
Let’s break down this breathy statement:
Author’s Character: their moral compass, not the protagonist or antagonist of the story.
Honest Portrayal/reproduction of the essential elements: Not a word by word or play by play re-enactment of the time, but gist of what was happening, the emotions, the actions, the staging of the scene for a reader’s understanding.
Original Truth: The tipping point, the learning moment, the meaning and or purpose of this piece.
Universal Theme: How the reader is going to connect and/or relate to the story, author, or event.
Authenticity in memoir is crucial to a successful connection to the reader. It is the element that makes memoir worth writing and worthy of reading.
About Getting Sued…
Someone asked me today if I ever ask people if I can write about them. I told the person, it never occurred to me to ask.
I rarely write about a person as a whole person. I take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I create a whole new character.
But even if I used the majority of the personality traits and quirks and characteristics, there’s little danger of them recognizing themselves.
The truth is people rarely see themselves as others see them.
So – when I have written about that rare person – name changed – they never even suspected.
And, if I’m not slandering, endangering their job, family, or life, or using their real name, and they can barely recognize themselves as I or others see them, there is little to no chance of getting sued.
The sad fact is that I’ve created characters who some people identified with and had the mistaken impression that it was a reflection of them. It wasn’t.
Creating characters and writing about people is art.
Understanding who you are and how others see you as opposed how you see yourself takes a lifetime of understanding misunderstandings.
Memoir vs Autobiography
Many people confuse autobiography and memoir. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably; however, there are differences between them.
Although it is written from the author’s perspective, as in memoir, an autobiography usually spans a person’s whole life. Examples of autobiography include Ghandi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth and I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai.
Memoirs, written usually in first person and from the author’s perspective, focus on an event or pivotal period in their lives. It contains in some instances, more narrative, more storytelling features including thoughts and emotions. Most importantly, the author writes it using their memory of the event, usually toward a certain end or point.
The Glass Castle is a memoir; while it does not cover Jeanette Walls whole life, it focuses on a significant period of her youth and upbringing.
Memoir is more intimate. Consider Memoirs of a Geisha compared to Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: Whereas an autobiography contains more facts, dates, and times, memoir paints a picture, drawing the reader into an emotional narrative.
Memoir was thought to have been invented in 397 A.D. with St. Augustine. Although his book spanned his whole life, the portions therein where written in a memoir fashion with pivotal events filled with emotional detail and his own point of view.
Memoir has evolved over time.
As a child, I remember reading autobiographies. I would sit enraptured in the corner of the library, reading chapters from presidents, actresses, and others. The librarians would point me over to the easy readers, but I wanted to read something real, something intimate and beautiful. I found a lot of dry stories that included people’s names and dates and facts, but I still found it interesting. I tried to go for the more intimate portraits of life that the librarians definitely guided me away from.
Later, I would steal my mother’s True Story magazines. Far too mature for my young eyes but, apart from the sex scenes, the secrets and innermost thoughts and feelings of the author and the actions of his or her friends or partners captured my consideration.
Ron Terranova’s The Red Wing Chronicles deserve a shoutout for mixing the two genre’s. It’s an impassioned look at scenes from his life, spanning most of his life.
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