I’ve been fascinated with memoir of late. I’ve written and published a number of short pieces and am working on a longer text now.
What separates memoir from autobiography is usually the length, the sharper focus on an event, situation, time period or even a person, and the creative lens through which it is expressed.
A few of my memoirs have featured spirits. It has some readers believing I am haunted; however, living with ghosts is not what any of the stories are about.
Long ago, I heard another writer describe memoir as revenge literature, But that’s not it at all.
Memoir is about remembering, reclaiming, clarifying, and having something to say about an event or situation that carries a universal message so others can identify with it.
Memoir for me – is about remembering me – reclaiming me – and renewing myself. It’s about reconciling and separating myself from the past and moving forward.
When you escape your roots, those roots, the evil, the hardship, the habits, and the others still attached to those roots try to drag you back, bring you down, and won’t let you go.
It has been years since I lived within those roots – since I’ve looked back – but sometimes I can feel those creepers winding their way around my shoulders reaching for my throat – they’re trying to drag me back. They’re angry because they have never even looked for an escape route. They have only ever lived that life and they’re crazy mad because I got out and never looked back.
I don’t give them energy. My energy is laying the past on paper as I see fit and moving forward.
Emerging from clouds between theta and delta rises the envisage, the essential nature, our souls. Words and ideas and dreams become stories in the writer’s mind.
Lying there, just a little longer, stories grow and take on life.
Horizontal in a chilled room before the first brushes of daylight: creation.
Before the eyes open, before the needs of the day press on, before the lists and media and people of the world take away the single small moments where stories spark –
I wish so much to remain there, just a little longer, in the moments just before wakefulness, eyes still closed, brain sparking connections, tiny fissures of light like small static flares against the blankets, feeling the contented pressure under my spine, the warmth of the down in the darkness, life all around is comforted and quiet.
I occasionally envy those who don’t need sleep, the man who gets only 15 minutes, the man who never rests, but that is some strange day-time illusion of getting more done, being more, having more, more more more. Their lives are shortened, their victories less sweet somehow, as if this time here in the bed in the darkness of deep night for reflection and creation are robbed from them.
This here, the first creation of life, happens in the dark, just before the light,
And, if I could write with my eyes closed, somehow pick up the pen or click the computer keyboard with my eyes closed, I would.
The vestiges of day – light and sound – are thieves making away with quiet thoughts that would have become life – story.
Just a moment longer here, then I’ll be there, with you.
Have you ever wondered what it was like – the 1830’s/1840’s – when Poe was alive and walking around the streets of Boston or Richmond?
I’ve imagined the dark nights with gas street lights to guide the people at night. I’ve thought about his mother rushing him home after her show at the theater in the billowing cold of a frosty October, as she burned with fever, desperately fighting for breath.
Or Edgar, as an adult, leaving the pub on a similar cold winter night.
in the 1830’s, there were 12 million people in all of the United States. Now, there are 10 million in LA County alone!
In the 1840’s, the latest medical invention was a mechanical leech – let that sink in for a moment.
Boston grew phenomenally – from 1830 to 1840, the population grew from 60,000 to over 90,000. Today, Boston has nearly 700,000 people.
Poe lived in a town (Richmond) with 16,000 people. It was a growing metropolis with plans for paved streets (paved with wood, by the way). Richmond now boasts over 200,000 living souls.
He stumbles from the pub, slips and falls on the iced over bricks of Boston’s November streets. Save for the muddled voices beyond the closed door, the street is quiet as his body thuds to the ground. His breath billows in front of him as he gasps and grumbles and struggles to his knees, then to his feet to regain his drunken balance…
I wanted to tell an imaginary tale of Edgar Poe the night he nearly took his own life… what saved him? what changed him? But the details needed to support the time, to place the reader in the 1800’s with a sick mother, a dying wife, a bottle of poison. When I read this at the Poe Museum in Virginia a few years ago, the employees complimented the personal grasp on Edgar’s life.
It serves still as a source of pride. And I come back to it – I want to write more about Poe, his life, not the dry biographies, but a more personal investment in a man who is still very much admired for his literary accomplishments in the face of his personal challenges.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Naming characters, for some writers, is a complicated process. They want an original name for their original character. Perhaps they want something that describes strength and power, or maybe they want something that will tell a reader this person is a nerd. Maybe an old name, from their grandmother’s era, to say something about the character or their family.
For other writers, they log on to baby names and search through for the perfect one. The perfect one might be based on sound, consonants and vowels, rhyming, colors, meanings.
For me, sometimes, characters name themselves. The character develops and the name comes. For Our Gentle Sins, Jack’s name came to me like that. But some of the other characters were actually named for the students in the class that I mention in my acknowledgements. I was inspired by that class.
it was January 2017. The world was changing and people, some of my students, were afraid, others were angry. That semester, I was asked to teach the History of African American Literature. The students were expecting another teacher. When I walked in – they weren’t certain what to make of me or what this class might become.
I said – I love literature and we are here to learn together. If I say something or do something you don’t like – you tell me. Later, I was evaluated by our expert in African American Literature. He said, “never have I seen a class so open to talking about gender, race, culture – and being respectful about it!”
That was my rule – we don’t have to agree, but we should learn how to respectfully disagree.
It was a wonderful class.
Our Gentle Sins began just before the semester, I was so inspired that I would write before class as the students walked in and after class as they walked out. They asked me what I was working on – I told them. At one point, they asked me to read them a section. I agreed.
What I told them is that I’d been so inspired by the class that I’d named some of my characters after some of the names in class. Not after the students themselves because I didn’t match up characteristics between real person and student, just their names. They loved the idea.
Many, many times, I’ve had people think the story was about them or that the character was somehow inspired by them. I had, at least, one person (maybe more) stop talking to me because of a character name. I didn’t realize it right away. It was only when I looked back on our messages that I saw the dates and the topic – the story they were about to read. The name had NOTHING to do with them or the friend they believed the character to be named after. It was just a name and it felt right in that place.
The truth is – if I really disliked a person, I would never use their name, not for good guys or bad guys, not for the character who might die or a stray dog gracing the pages. Why would I want to be reminded of someone I disliked? The name might be similar – but it was never about them. It was a character.
Although my students appreciated I used some of their names, none of them felt I’d used them personally as the inspiration for the character.
Our Gentle Sins is about people finding their way in life – recovering from past mistakes. Aren’t we all?
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