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.
On Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner an hour or more from my house. There would be family and friends and I was excited about going.
Already stressed from running late, I ticked off my checklist of things as I tossed them into the car, hopped in, turned the key, and …. click.. click…click.
Uhm. No. I must have been hallucinating. I didn’t depress the gas. I didn’t turn the key completely. Confidently, I tried again. Click, click, click my car responded to each and every try. Not one hint of the engine igniting.
I called my daughter who had arrived ahead of me – stress and disappointment overwhelming me. She said it was probably just the battery and she arranged for someone to jump my car.
They arrived, hooked up the cables, and said – turn the key. Click… click… click. Okay, wait a few minutes and try again. But with each and every try the click, click, click even seemed to get weaker.
Not only was I missing the dinner that I was already late for, but my baby – my car – my very dependable, has never let me down was ailing. I assumed since the battery couldn’t be jumped, there was something very wrong with her. I imagined the costs, the time, began to wonder how I would get to work.
Too late for dinner. Too late to make alternative plans. I donned my big sunglasses to hide my tear swollen eyes and took my dogs for a walk. I returned home, ate a bowl of fruit (I hadn’t shopped for heaven’s sake, I was going elsewhere for dinner!) and cleaned out my closet. What else might one have done?
As I thought of the dinner conversation missed, what are you grateful for? I had to consider what I was and am grateful for. Of course, I am blessed.
As with the immediate circumstances, the car with the suddenly dead battery, spending Thanksgiving with my dogs instead of a table filled with food – I was still grateful.
I’m grateful the car didn’t die anywhere else! It died here, in my own driveway, leaving me safe at home and not on the freeway or the supermarket or an hour away from my house on a chilly holiday night.
I’m grateful for the amazing family I have. I may not spend every holiday with them because they have a father, in laws, friends, but I see them all the time. As I walked the dogs around the neighborhood, I saw my neighbors enjoying their family – some of whom only visit on holidays. I am bless to have family who want to hang out with me, want to be here with me, and don’t just come on holidays.
I’m grateful for the beautiful souls I’m fortunate enough to call friends. In the last some years, I’ve attempted to align myself only with those who glow with positivity. They are people who I can count on, people who care about me and I care about. I probably could have even called them on Thanksgiving for a ride, but I didn’t want to disturb their holidays.
I was fortunate enough to have my daughters recreate Thanksgiving on Saturday – which, somehow, was better than the original could have been.
Psychologists believe that memory is fallible. We don’t really remember everything correctly. Every time we take out a memory, we add to it, subtract from it, try to reason with it – which, essentially, changes the memory.
People are highly suggestible. Their memories can suffer from suggestions from others, from pop culture, from their own emotional instability.
We all have those stories when we’re wrapped around the holiday table reminiscing and someone misremembers something – or remembers it differently than others. They swear they are right and the other is wrong.
Remember that scene in Scrooged with Bill Murry when he’s in the taxi and he’s recalling a memory: “I was running down a hill, and there was this beautiful girl in pigtails.” The taxi driver grumbles – “That was Little House on the Prairie!”
I used to know someone like that. Her misremembering took on a life of its own. It’s a wonder she’s not the fiction writer.
I find memoir exciting. Not because of the fictional aspects of the things we fill in. I completely accept that memory, and thereby memoir, is corrupt, but the exploration is enlightening. In memoir, we discover who we are. In my search for my sacred parts, in the healing of my broken parts, I strive for authenticity.
“Days of Remembrance” is an effort for me to come to terms with my brother’s passing. I didn’t get to say goodbye, so this is my goodbye to him. I think he’d appreciate it in the same way he appreciated when others reached out of their comfort zone, as he was trying to do in his last year or so of life.
“Days of Remembrance” was published in MemoryHouse Press. A lovely little journal of which I am proud to be included.
My friend believes creativity is a gift direct from the powers that be.
I believe everyone is creative in different ways.
My friend feels when she is ill, she is unable to write. The body, she says, is recreating itself, creating health from illness.
I think of the great minds in our society – Mozart’s last work, although incomplete was powerful, was written on his deathbed. Einstein was working on his next great theorem as he lay dying. Howard Hughes, burned and bleeding, after a plane crash left him near dead, redesigned the bed he lay in, redesigned the plane in which he crashed.
My friend is not completely wrong. When I’m not well, the last thing I’m thinking about is how my character will move forward.
But maybe that’s exactly what we need when our body is focused on healing, that our mind needs to be occupied with our passion in life. Maybe there is something to the creation – the connection between healing and writing – that makes magic.
We know that, already, don’t we? We heal though creativity. We are fully present when involved in our purpose.
I wrote the first draft of Our Gentle Sins during a stressful time. It came out fast and easy. The flow was beautiful and powerful and made me feel better, more in control, and hopeful.
When I think of the book now, the characters hold a special place in my heart. Jack and Valerina are the epitome of hope
In dusty, breezy classrooms I stand for eight, sometimes ten hours a day, depending on the day. I’m one of the fortunate ones. I don’t have a single classroom, or even a single location. I move from city to city, even on a single day, from school to school, walking across hot blacktop and behind dusty construction. All for the beautiful souls.
I love students, young people, for all their awkward, wonderful, perfect imperfections.
There’s the brave souls who seem to know themselves and push forward in original dress or make up, the shy ones who cower at the back of the class, the jocks, the nerds, the quiet and boisterous, the bright, bouncy, round, and rolling. The variety is marvelous to experience.
There’s the one who know what they want to do every day for the next thirty or forty years of their lives, and the ones who wander lost, stumbling through their education, and the one who thinks they know their sexual power, and the other who hides behind their hair.
They’re all so amazingly beautiful – without really knowing it.
Beauty lies in their movements, in their anxious thoughts, their mistakes and missteps and goals and exceptional struggle to achieve.
Many people are concerned that our future, the future of our planet or mankind is in trouble; but there is hope.
In their clean, fresh faced, pimpled, freckled beautiful souls – earth’s only fountain of youth is our youth.
I sometimes believe I became a teacher by chance, but maybe it was always my fate. In either case, I’m fortunate. One of my professor’s suggested I join the TA program. I didn’t know if I had the time, could afford the low pay. I was certain I’d flubbed the interview. I walked away believing that I would never hear from them. But I did.
And even now, all these years later, I get to stand in front of the class and watch these young people grow and flourish before my eyes. I watch them struggle and see their eyes brighten when they’ve met the challenge. It’s a gift.
I occasionally complain, shake my head. The pandemic and now post pandemic has not been easy. The lack of appreciation. But – the students.
They are not perfect, they are not fully formed, but they are lovely humans just trying to adjust to life. There’s a lot on their shoulders, and they’ve seen so much darkness. Let’s teach them kindness, let’s encourage their open minds and praise their open hearts.
Imperfection, struggle, growth, change, and challenges met create the beautiful souls – and I get to witness that miracle!
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.
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/
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.
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!
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