Archives

Surviving the Memoir: A Writer Reacts to Amy Chua

I’m writing this post as a kind of self-courage builder. Let’s call it survival inspiration for myself.

I haven’t yet read Amy Chua’s controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I’ve just completed my own memoir, and as I begin to send it out into world to be read and judged by agents, publishers and eventually (I’m hopeful) readers, Amy Chua gives me pause.

I’ve been a writer all my life. When I was a teenager, writing was my lifesaver, the way I secretly kept myself sane. Although my three published full-length books are fiction, I surrendered to non-fiction in 2008, after surviving the latest in a long line of personal calamities, breast cancer (diagnosed just six weeks before my daughter’s wedding) and a surgical infection after a mastectomy that nearly killed me.  My book is (well, partly) an attempt to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” in my life, including for starters three miscarriages, serious family mental illness, and the worst of the worst, the 1994 death of my son, Michael.  

And here’s Amy Chua, who seems to be everywhere these days. I even caught her the other night on Colbert, who joked to his audience, “Get back to that Mendelssohn concerto before she drowns your bunny!” I admit I laughed, even though as a psychotherapist and mother, I do find some of what I’ve heard about her “Chinese” child rearing practice appalling and even abusive, even IF the Chinese are poised to overtake us.

As a writer, however, I find it painful to watch Chua deal with the craze of Chua-abuse sweeping the nation, even hate mail and actual threats, these being an unfortunate part of the American landscape these days. She’s been called everything from a monster to a wimp, the latter by none other than David Brooks, the conservative Times columnist, who claims, “Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.”

Some might look at the public reaction to Chua’s book as karma. The cynic or PR person might quote Barnum to the effect that ALL publicity, even really BAD publicity, is good for sales. Yet no matter how well Chua is selling, it still gets me in my writer’s heart to keep hearing her have to defend herself: “It isn’t a ‘how-to’ book, it’s a memoir. “

Many people, usually those who shout the loudest and get the most attention, simply lack the capability to understand nuance, the kind of emotional arc you find in most memoirs, such as the arc Ms. Chua points to in her own defense in eventually pulling back from her practices.

Mr. Brooks says he “hopes Ms. Chua’s daughters grow up to write their own books, and maybe learn the skills to better anticipate how theirs will be received.” Nonsense.  You never really know how people will react to a piece of writing.

In the case of my own memoir, these are some of my worries:  Some might be appalled at how candid I am. Certain relatives might call me a lying big mouth. Other people might object to my attempt to write a book that’s often funny and ALSO takes up the death of my son. Some might complain that exposing my brother’s mental illness is wrong, even though I attempt to disguise him by changing his name. Some might object to certain medical decisions we made for our son, even though one of the points of the book is to expose the arrogance of certain public officials who would presume to intervene in the horrendous PRIVATE medical decisions that people make everyday in this country, real decisions made by real people like my husband and me. (For the moment, research Terry Shiavo for further details.)

Writing is always an act of faith; the writer who doesn’t know that is doomed to suffering. The writer who thinks she’ll be congratulated for telling the truth is also doomed to suffering. I’m trying to keep in mind a great quote from David Sedaris: “Writing gives you the illusion of control, but then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff to it.”

I write, first and foremost, to make sense of the world (as Huxley says, to make order out of this disordered life), and so whatever happens with my memoir of survival stories, the project will have been worth doing.  As a writer, whatever the risks, you write because you simply have no choice. And this writer, in her faith, remains hopeful that most readers will find my book funny, moving and (God forbid) inspirational.

In an upcoming post, I’ll tell you the name of my book. My ex-PR man husband says I should hold off on that one. I always listen to my husband.

On grief, with “Codependent No More” author, Melody Beattie…Friends are invited to tell a story of loss

Okay, so it’s been months since I last posted, and I feel like a neglectful blog-mother, but a lot has happened that has kept me busy. Mainly, most importantly, I’ve become a grandmother! The daughter of my daughter was born on Friday evening March 5th at 9:06 PM. But I’m not writing about that today, because I need more time to process it, old-school writer that I am.

Today, I’m writing about an interview for “Bottom Line/Women’s Health” I did with a true pioneer of the self-help industry, Melody Beattie, whose book, “Codependent No More,” introduced the country and the world to the term “codependency” way back in 1986, and essentially spawned the support group movement, which has saved so many lives. (Wow! We were all wearing big hair and shoulder pads back then, and none of us had computers, let alone blogs.) Just to show the longevity of Melody’s ideas and work, I checked Amazon, and found that  “Codependent No More” ranks at #242 today. It is truly impressive and rare that more than twenty years after the book’s publication, it still enjoys that kind of sales. By way of comparison, I’ll admit that back in 2000, “Saving Elijah” got up to #730 the day after a wonderful review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but two days later sank like a stone.

During the interview, I discovered that Melody too had lost a child, a son named Shane, so we got to talking about grief. She is developing her own website about grief, which I am linking to. I sent her a copy of my essay from the Wellness and Writing Connections Anthology, “My Son’s Name was Michael — Not Elijah,” which reflects on the process and consequences of turning my own grief into fiction.  Below, I’m posting her response to my essay. (In bold are my comments and explanatory notes)

Isn’t that the beginning of a book?  I wanted to turn the page and read more.  A lovely compliment from Melody.  In fact, I am writing a kind of memoir in essays, which will include a version of “My Son’s Name.”

It took a long, long time to develop any compassion for people who say stupid things, and I still don’t have much of it, so I teach. I teach them what to say and more importantly, what not to say (and will have a section for them on my site).

I teach them what to do.

Step by step, paragraph by paragraph, I teach them how to write a comforting letter to someone in grief.

I teach people that grieving is not a “condition” nor is it wasted time. Our personal velocity changes and we move at a different pace than many other people in the world.

And the second year is worse than the first — it does not, as people enjoy saying, “get better with time.” The longer I don’t see Shane, the more I miss him, not less.

My AA sponsor told me after funeral that I needed to write out a check for each of the people who had helped me get through the week of his death so they could take a vacation, as I had “drained them.” And it would be a nice thank-you gift. Well, I didn’t feel grateful to anyone for anything, but I did as she said — and of course, the people who received a check (for $2,000) included her.

Nobody talks about how vulnerable we are.

I had a contract too — had to pay back the advance. (Here Melody, the author of 15 books, is referring to the section of my essay that talks about losing a two book contract for “Flight” and one other novel with Dutton in 1992, after Michael got sick, when I couldn’t produce a second book.

I started crying 30 days before Shane died, and couldn’t stop — and I wasn’t a crier. My soul knew what was coming, and my grief began before he left, when our souls started to say “see you” but in a different way.

And who in the hell says we have to let go completely and forever? In what book is that written? We don’t have to let go of someone when they move away, forget about them, or stop missing them.

People comfort themselves, not the person in grief. I want to help them to learn to switch that around. Here Melody is referring to the tendency of people say things that push the grief away.  People do this because it’s hard to sit with pain, very hard, it takes stamina and real compassion. My favorite quote in this regard is a Buddhist one, “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Your story got me going. There was a real taboo in the media about the death of children at that time. Producers, etc. didn’t want to talk about the idea that children die. The world wasn’t ready for it yet. But every year, in this country alone, 250,000 people die before they receive their allotted 70-90 years of life — die before their parents do.

And God does too make mistakes. The New York Times says that 88 percent of the people we hire for assistants steal. I think that statistic applies to people generally, and not just about stealing. I think about 9 out of every ten people we meet have the ability to love and care. In the Old Testament of the Bible, which covers both Jews and Christians, it says on the seventh day He rested. Well, I think that whoever he goes to handle things on day seven went by those same statistics, so only one in ten of his workers did a good job. The other nine made mistakes. They let our children die. That’s what I think, anyway. It’s the only way I can make sense out of something so cruel and senseless. God’s assistant’s messed up, and we (and our families) became the victims of their ineptitude. Interesting theory, this one, not one I subscribe to. I believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t intervene with individuals in day to day events.  Or, maybe I subscribe to the notion that we live our lives on earth to learn certain lessons, and my own lesson may have been related to losing one I love. Of course neither of these theories explain theodicy, or the existence of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a good God.  Events unexplainable include the Holocaust, slavery, natural disasters, terrorism, or other horrific, “evil” events of history.

I hope you keep writing.

I hope you had an affair. Because if you were touched, then you knew you were still alive, whether you wanted to be or not. Here, in her lovely, supportive way, Melody is referring to the way I open my essay, with an account of a women in my town whom I ran into at Starbucks after she’d read Saving Elijah and confused my fictional character with me, and who asked if my husband took me back after I had an affair. Quoting my essay, “I looked at her, speechless. Saving Elijah, to describe it as the aggressively sensational Putnam cover copy did, is about a woman named Dinah Galligan, who while keeping vigil over her comatose five-year-old son, Elijah, “meets a seductive spirit in the hospital corridor outside the pediatric intensive care unit, one with a startling connection to her past, who claims he can make her child well again—if she’s willing to pay the price.” Near the end of the novel Dinah has a brief, desperate affair, so the question wasn’t totally weird, but I still wanted to shake her and scream, “DINAH IS A CHARACTER, YOU IDIOT.” Luckily I was not only speechless I was paralyzed.” And then later in the essay, I say, ““The question I’m most often asked now when I confess that I lost a child AND wrote a novel inspired by the experience (depending on who asks, I might leave out one or the other of those facts) is why didn’t I write a memoir? I could have, I suppose. A carefully constructed memoir can give a reader unique access to someone else’s singular experience, possibly fostering empathy, learning, understanding, growth. But reading a memoir can also make us feel safe, even smug, in the essential “otherness” of the author’s experience. Like the millions who gawk at a celebrity’s all-too-human troubles, or hoot at bad behavior on Jerry Springer, the woman at Starbucks could think, “Well, I would NEVER have had an affair.” You wish, lady. You have no idea what you would do if your child died, let alone what I would do.”

Talking to, and receiving this response from Melody gave me an idea, which I shared with her. Expanding on the idea that everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it, it seems to me that it would be interesting to invite people (famous and not, anonymous and not) to tell a story of personal loss and discuss how it changed them, in, say, two or three paragraphs.

Any takers out there? Write me an email at frandorf@aol.com or leave a comment and I’ll post it.

Writing for Wellness Workshop

TO MY LOCAL FRIENDS, PLEASE JOIN ME:

WRITING FOR WELLNESS
A Six Week Workshop for Healing and Self-Expression
Tuesday’s 7:30-9 PM
December 8, 15, 22 and January 5, 12, 19
Jewish Community Center
1450 Newfield Avenue

Stamford, Connecticut

Write about: grief, loss, relationships, trauma, illness, spirit, life.
Exercises, prompts, and focused writing tailored to participant needs and interests.
Based on Fran’s experience as a writer, bereaved mother, and therapist.

DO IT FOR YOURSELF!

ENHANCE physical and mental well being
GAIN mastery over difficult emotions
LEARN or enhance literary techniques/craft
DEEPEN and clarify self knowledge
CREATE meaningful personal narrative,
memoir, story, metaphor and/or image.
STIMULATE your imagination.
EXPRESS and/or SHARE YOUR TRUTH

DO IT FOR FUN!

COST: $100 Members; $125 Non-Members
EMAIL: Frandorf@aol.com for more info
REGISTER at the JCC
reception desk, by calling
322-7900, or online at
http://www.stamfordjcc.org

On memoirs, reality TV, truth, exploitation, and “privacy as the new currency”

This morning, on NPR’s The Takeaway, I listened to a discussion about the riveting balloon boy hoax, specifically on whether bloggers too are exploiting their children by writing about them.  Mom 101, a guest on the show who uses her own children as fodder for her blog, made the following fascinating statement: “Privacy is the new currency. People are giving it away for free.” It’s a clever line that reminded of the old George Bernard Shaw story whose punchline is, “We have already established what you are, Madame. Now we are merely haggling over the price.” Mom 101’s statement may even be partly true, yet like so much else we hear and think clever these days, it makes little sense. How can privacy be currency if everyone and anyone can and does give it away?

As someone who actually lost a child, I am truly horrified by the spectacle of a father exploiting his child by simulating the boy’s death for the sake of publicity.  As a writer whose last novel, Saving Elijah, was inspired by my son’s death and who chose to write fiction instead of memoir partly for creative reasons and partly to protect my family, I feel compelled to say that the important issue of privacy is one that serious writers and many bloggers, myself included, struggle with every day. It deserves a more serious discussion by NPR, which I usually enjoy and which is one of the only media outlets where you can still find serious, unbiased journalism and intelligent, stimulating talk.

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of memoir in essays. Writers vary widely in their opinions on the extent to which one should use family as fodder for one’s writing. One friend says, “We write our truth, no matter who it offends,” while another says, “Always protect your family.”  I suspect that if I were to actually publish the memoir I’ve been working on, it would offend several family members, friends, and acquaintances, even if I see it as truth and/or art.  Yet I have I have so far resisted blogging in as personal or revealing a way as I am doing in the memoir.  Why?

I have spent quite a bit of my life “becoming” a writer, studying craft, honing a “voice” and attempting to make “art” that will illuminate life in some way. With few exceptions, I haven’t offered my blog readers (what few of them there are) intimate details of my life the way I am currently doing in writing a memoir, because I know in my heart that we value what we pay for, and we pay for what we value. I cringe every time I look at Amazon.com and see my last novel, very well reviewed but now out of print and obscure, offered by third parties at 99 cents.  Wow.  All my sweat and suffering now being given away for less than a dollar a pop. (Let’s leave aside the fact that the “process” of writing the book effectively saved my life after my son died.)

At the very least, people ought to at least understand the huge difference between a man who would creepily and willfully exploit his own child’s potential death just for the publicity; those who shout their intimate stories on Jerry Springer or reality television for the money or fifteen minutes of fame; those who tell their intimate stories for free or for whatever they can get out of it on a blog; and those who labor over a memoir that will possibly be published for say, a $25,000 advance. If they’re lucky.

Most people who offer their own lives for public viewing (balloon boy father excluded) may be telling their version of truth, even those who appear on Jerry Springer, but the difference between a memoir writer (and some bloggers) and the other examples above is not just in intent to tell truth, but in content, craft, art, motive, presentation, and in control over what to include.

Now here I may be showing just how out of touch I really am, since I recently received this rejection from a would-be agent for my memoir in stories.

Dear Fran,

I had the chance to read your stories this week and I really appreciate the chance. You are an amazing writer with an excellent voice. Having said that I really fear that I wouldn’t find the right editor for this. A few years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to represent this collection, but in these tough times it seems to require a huge media platform to convince a publisher. They want authors to have websites with 40k plus names and blogs that reach millions.

Now there’s irony for you.

Writing for Wellness and Healing

I just did an interview about my write to heal workshops for the terrific publication, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, so I thought I’d put a few exercises here, in case anyone reading the article is looking for more. Studies by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and many others have definitively shown that writing about trauma enhances physical, emotional and mental well being. My own personal and professional experience bears this out. The process of writing “Saving Elijah” saved me after my son’s death, I think. Creating narrative (and/or meaningful image or metaphor) helps us gain distance from and understand our trauma (including serious bereavement) by transferring and integrating emotional memories, which are primarily stored in the right brian, into the more logical left brain.  Here’s a quote from B. S. Van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher, “Traumatic memory is are primarily imprinted in sensory and emotional modes principally stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, as opposed to the left hemisphere, which mediates verbal communication and organizes problem solving tasks into a well ordered set of operations and process information in a sequential fashion.”  More about all that in a later post.

By the way, I’ve decided to change the basic name of my workshops from “Write to Heal,” to “Writing for Wellness and Healing,” to broaden their appeal, and because you don’t have to have experienced major trauma to benefit. Anyone who has experienced emotional upheaval can benefit from writing. (Or from any creative endeavor, for that matter.) And who hasn’t experienced emotional upheaval in life?

Here are some exercises to get you started.  Remember, with all deference to those who think our every waking thought and feeling must be laid out there for all to see, you don’t have to share what you write with anyone.  So tell the truth.

1. DIG WIDE, DIG DEEP EXERCISE 

Part 1. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories, and begin each with the words “I Remember.” Don’t be concerned if the memories happened five seconds ago or five years ago, or if they are memories about your lost child or your grandmother, a vacation you once took, or a kid from school. Don’t worry if they are happy memories or sad ones, big memories or small ones, important memories or fleeting ones. Be in the moment as you remember them and write them as quickly as you can without stopping. Try this for seven minutes.

Part 2: Now read over your list and choose one memory that speaks to you and write about it as a scene and/or in great depth, with sensory details (what did you see, smell, touch, feel). Really dig in. Seven minutes.

Part 3: Now write that memory as if it didn’t happen to you, but rather as if it happened to someone else. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to put it in the third person, instead of the first person. (Actually, this is a good alternate for many of the exercises in this list—write it in the third person.) Seven minutes.

2. DIALOGUE WITH GOD EXERCISE

For this exercise, imagine you’re walking down the road one fine day. Or you could be in your kitchen and there’s a knock at the door, or at your desk, or on the bleachers watching your child’s hockey game, or sitting down at your desk. You choose the setting, which I hope you will describe with as many sensory details as you can. And suddenly a person comes up to you whom you somehow recognize as God. What does God look like? Describe God’s appearance. I’m not necessarily looking for flowing robes, white beards and symbols of religion here, because presumably God can take any form. Choose one that has meaning to you: someone you know or don’t know, someone from your past or future, your dead child or sister, Morgan Freeman, George Burns, your long lost Aunt, a Buddhist monk. What is he wearing? What does he look like? You get to have a conversation with God. Don’t hold back. God can take whatever you dish out.

And you say to God, “Why me?” And God says, “Why not you?”

Write the scene complete with dialogue from there. Try to get past any nervousness you have about talking to God, and even consider challenging God. For example, if you don’t like God’s answer, say so. As always, feel free to write this from someone else’s point of view, either in the first person or third. Do this for seven minutes.

3.RIGHT NOW EXERCISE (MINDFULNESS)

Write about what you’re thinking and feeling right this minute. Start a list: My jeans are too tight. I drank too much coffee this morning. I feel jittery. The sunlight is pouring in the window. My arm hurts. I feel nervous. Something smells in here. ….Do this for five minutes.

4. FOUR SQUARE EXERCISE

One of the ways we can discover our writing selves is to discover unexpected ways of observing everyday objects. Think of an object. Perhaps it’s something you’re wearing, a bracelet, or a belt. Or maybe it’s a lock of hair, or a stuffed animal. Or maybe it’s something you see in the room. Divide a piece of paper into four squares. In the top left square, describe the object as specifically as you can, with as many specific details as you can. In the top right square, list all the feelings the object evokes. In the lower left, create similies of what the object is like or what it reminds you of. And finally in the lower right, put yourself in place of the object, take the voice of the object and write from the object’s perspective.

Once you’ve done that, see if you can use some of what you’ve written to create a poem.

5. WRITING PROMPTS

  • How satisfied are you with your life right now?
  • What thrills you?
  • What do you need?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • Where do you feel stuck?
  • What activities or practices help you in difficult times?
  • What do you long for?
  • What are the great sadnesses in your life?
  • What are you jealous of
  • What forces surround your life or work that are out of your control?
  • What fight or burden are you ready to give up for now?
  • What do you regret?
  • Write about a time you felt joy?
  • In what ways are you good at taking care of yourself?  What ways are you bad at it?
  • Write about a dream you’ve had.  What do you think the message is?
  • What do you hope for?

More soon.

Kissing Stanley

I’m pleased to report that Perigee, a respected online literary magazine, has published my essay, “Kissing Stanley.” This is “creative non-fiction,” and even though it’s about a very small event in my life that happened a very long time ago, I stand by its significance. I’ve changed some of the names to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the dead.  Here’s a teaser.  For the rest of the essay, follow the link at the end:

 

Perigee FictionKISSING STANLEY
                                          FRAN DORF

The biggest, baddest cooties in my whole high school belonged to Stanley Gluck, and I was simply not going to kiss him. I had turned seventeen that December, my friend Merry and I had spent the previous summer practicing oral sex on bananas, and I’d already had actual sex with one boy, but I had my standards. If I kissed Stanley Gluck, I’d be tainted with his cooties and no matter what the consequences of not kissing Stanley, I wasn’t going to do it.  

It wasn’t that Stanley was ugly, or fat, or smelled, or had obvious canker sores; he may have been a rather good looking young man, even if he had a cartoonish triangular head.  But it’s one of those unfortunate facts of high school that some get singled out for universal derision, often for reasons that aren’t necessarily clear. Other than the triangular head, Stanley’s main offense—and the reason I was so dead set against kissing him—was that he talked like a professor, and not just any professor, but some upper crust Wasp professor with a pole up his butt. We all spoke American teenage vernacular of the groovy anti-establishment era, and there was Stanley with his peculiar, patrician affectation, enunciating each syllable to within an inch of its life, using odd, formal sentence structure, and speckling his speech with ten dollar words that no one our age used, like “impertinence,” and “erudite,” and obsequious.” As in, “Mr. Shis-sler, Char-lie is sleeping in the back of the classroom. I simply cannot fathom why you would tolerate such impertinence!”

To continue, click here to go to Perigee, then click on “Non-fiction.”

 

 

On the lighter side: Molly Talks in June Cotner’s “Dog Blessings”

I’m taking a break from the election (Please!  Please!  When will it be over?) to announce that my poem immortalizing my beloved pooch, Molly, has just been published in June Cotner’s DOG BLESSINGS. See the poem below, and here’s the link to June’s website where you can buy the book and read bios of all the contributors. (You can also get the book in the usual other places.) This little book is a sweet compilation of “Poem’s, Prose, and Prayers Celebrating Our Relationship with Dogs.” Divided into sections including “A Dog’s World,” “Puppies,” “Our Bond,” “Devotion,” “Aging Gracefully,” “Partings,” “Reflections,” and “Prayer’s, Blessings, and Inspiration,” the book includes work by wonderful dog loving poets from all over the country. A great gift for a dog lover…. Really!  

Below left: This serious (although very cute) dog posing with the book is June’s.  

Below right:  Whereas that extraordinary dog below is Molly and her friend Huddie. (Molly’s the chocolate)

 

This very cute dog posing with the book is June's 

 

WHAT? YOUR DOG DOESN’T TALK?

Mine does. Mine talks a blue streak.

Has a full English vocabulary, colloquial and formal,

uses simple and complex sentences,

and muscular prose,

accompanied by a full range of gestures, tricks and expressions.

Grammatically iffy sometimes, but always deeply felt.

A fine sprinkling of Italian and Yiddish, too.

Here is a sampling:

·      Welcome to our house. I’m Miss Molly. See. It says so on my chair.

·      Mom, can you believe it? This guy won’t get out of the car. He thinks I look fierce. Ha. Ha. Ha.

·      I prefer THIS chaise lounge (chair, rug, hole) right now, and if I turn around three times first, it’ll be even more perfect. Ain’t life grand?

·      I’m really, REALLY sorry, Mom. I didn’t feel well.

·      Move over, would you? And by the way, I was here first.

·      I’ll come when you show me the goods.

·      Okay then, if I lie down and put my face on the floor between my paws, will you PLEASE give me some?

·      Are you upset, Mom? Here. Let me love you . . . put my head on your thigh . . . lick your face . . . rub your nose . . . put my paws around your neck . . . make you laugh with a brilliant antic. Or we can just sit here, if you want.

·      Are you talking AGAIN about what a great dog I am? Talk on, and I’ll listen and thump.

·      Ummmm. Get a load of these lilacs . . . carrion . . . goose (horse, dog, rabbit) poop . . . new mown grass . . . fish . . . birds . . . air . . . the weird smell in the hallway. Life is delicious, and smells SOOOOOO great.

·      Okay. If I can’t come, I’ll just wait here until you get home.

·      Oooooh! I just LOVE it when you brush me . . . tickle my ears . . . rub my belly . . . my hind quarters . . . that place on my back . . . no, not there! THERE!

·      Ahhhhhhh! This is the life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow up: More Guns, More Death, More Grief

Commenting on my post, “More Guns, More Death, More Grief,” “andthebuddhasaid” (love that moniker) said:

You make great points and are absolutely right, but you didn’t comment on Barack Obama’s support of the Supreme Court’s decision. Apparently he was in whole hearted agreement. Personally I don’t think that this is the decision to measure his stance on gun control, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Well, frankly, I was upset by Obama’s support of the decision, (which came after the post) but not totally shocked. I posted the piece on http://www.dailykos.com, thinking that that supposedly left-leaning community would mostly be in support, and found myself completely under attack by gun nuts, most of them claiming the right to defend themselves in their homes, and saying gun control laws don’t work, in no uncertain terms. Nearly four hundred people weighed in against me, I felt like a sitting duck. (And they call themselves liberals…for shame. Maybe they’re actually Republican plants.) Strict constructionists and others may argue about the original meaning of the Second Amendment and parse the placement of the comma in its words, and argue that such placement means citizens are allowed to own guns, INCLUDING assault weapons, but what I was primarily saying in that post was that two angry teenage boys in a school yard with loaded guns equals more death and grief than two angry teenagers in the same school yard without guns. Give a suicidal individual access to a gun (suicides account for a huge portion of gun deaths, way more than homicides) and see if a momentary urge doesn’t turn into a permanent condition. Compare the homicide rate in the United States of America with its weak gun control laws to other developed countries with strong gun control laws. I’m interested in grief, and more guns means more grief.

If this was about self protection, why not fight for non-lethal methods of self protection?

As for Obama’s position, my guess is that he’ll not appoint judges who are “strict constructionist” or judges obsessed with “original Intent” to the Supreme Court, and while whomever he appoints might agree with the current Court’s current decision on guns, they will not agree on so many other issues that are important to me that there is STILL no choice about whom I will support in this election. John McCain will be a disaster for this country, which has already endured eight years of disaster. Even a few of McCain’s own Republican party admit that he has too volatile a temperament to be President in this volatile world. Here’s a quote from the Huff Post on this:

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. “He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

If Thad Cochran is worried, so am I. Obama, in my opinion, has the kind of mind, focus, conciliatory approach, and even temperament that we sorely need in a volatile world. He is by far the better man. The Presidency is not only about policies; it’s very much about inspiration and vision. McCain has never met a war he didn’t like, and he’s chomping at the bit for more war. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. It seems to me that Senator McCain learned the wrong lessons from his time as a prisoner.

Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

As promised in my last post, here’s my interview with novelist Bernice McFadden, whom I met at a Book and Author Luncheon, and whose novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I found to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. (See my previous post for full review.)
Fran Dorf: Would you tell readers a little about yourself, your background, and how you came to be a writer?

Bernice McFadden: I am the eldest of four children. I was born, raised and still reside in Brooklyn, NY. I am the mother of one grown daughter. I was a shy child and books offered and escape from the real world. I dreamed of becoming a writer at a very early age. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to be. For a while though it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but back in 1999 the God’s smiled down on me and granted the one thing I wished for on every birthday and every star since I was nine years old.

Fran Dorf: Wow. I admire that. I was a “secret” writer in my teens, but even then I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. Question: I admit I found myself more enthralled by the historical story in “Nowhere is a Place” than the contemporary one, although they certainly worked together to tell a larger tale. I especially loved the scenes in which the slaves take over the household of their deranged master. It seems to me that owning slaves would deeply affect the sanity anyway, regardless of how much a society tries to deny the common humanity of people. Can you comment on the origins of this scene? Is this something you invented, or is it based on a real incident or incidents?

Bernice McFadden: When I sit down to write story I start off believing that I know what’s going to happen – I believe I have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve published ten novels to date and each and every time my characters prove me wrong. The characters control the story – I just write down what they show me. I do believe that that particular scene is a tribute to the ancestors that fought against the establishment.. ie. Nat Turner.

Fran Dorf: Well, it’s an amazing tribute. Question: One character, a Native American girl, Nayeli, who is given the name Lou by her master after his dog, takes a large role in the book. I didn’t actually realize that Native Americans were also forced into slavery in America, although I’m certainly not surprised that they were. I assume this interesting nugget is based on truth, but did you know this already or find it out through research? How much research do you do for your novels, and do you research while you are writing the first draft, or before you start, or both?

Bernice: Yes, I was aware that the English enslaved Native Americans in the Carolinas, using them on plantations as well as shipping them off to the Caribbean Islands. I do most of my research as I’m writing the novel.

Fran: Can you comment generally on the relationship of your fiction to your life?

Bernice: For me it is impossible to NOT include some real bits of myself in my fiction. Writing a novel is like a carrying a child – when it’s born it’s going to have your DNA.

Fran: I love the DNA metaphor. I’m always amazed when I hear writers and teachers of writing somehow disparage “autobiographical” novels, or deny that writers use their own lives in their fiction. Question: As a bereaved mother and student of psychology whose last novel was inspired by my loss, I have come to see human beings through a unique lens–the way they incorporate trauma and grief and loss into their lives. I’m always amazed at how deeply these difficult experiences influence personal psychology and one’s personal narrative. In this context, I’m talking about trauma, loss and grief that can be either personal or, for want of a better word, ancestral. I wonder if you might comment on this, whether it has any validity for you, how your own losses as I’ve just defined them affect who you are and what you write about.

Bernice: I’m very interested in grief. I study it in myself and the people around me. This interest is certainly present in my work. I feel that I do my best work when I’m grieving or have the bottomless sense of loss and sadness – I pour my emotions into the story and which in turn seems to lend a certain level of authentication.

Fran: Yes, I study it too, and I agree that emotional authenticity is key. We must always write from a place of grief and loss or what we turn out will be sappy or sentimental. Which is one of the reasons I call myself The Bruised Muse. Question: I’m fascinated by the myriad ways novelists go about writing novels. One novelist told me he wrote things down on cards and pasted them on his bulletin board. John Irving insists he always knows the ending. As a writer who never made an outline in her life and always writes (okay, wrote) fiction to find out what’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that. Can you talk a little about your process?

Bernice: The first time I ever outlined a book was a few months back. My agent suggested I do so because we were shopping a partial manuscript. I sent him three pages, which was of course unacceptable to him. Before it was all said and done I had cried, cussed and slammed all of the doors in my house in order to keep from breaking all of the mirrors! We went back and forth so much that I felt like I was writing a dissertation – but fifteen pages later I was proud of what I had done (even though the story is sure to take a different path) and grateful to my agent.

Fran: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What training or study did you undertake in order to become one? Do you think compelling storytellers are born, can be taught, or both?

Bernice: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. I took two writing classes at Fordham University back in ’95 and ’96. I do believe you either have it you don’t.

Fran: Actually, I agree, although I think you can learn to use the tools of the craft more effectively. Aside from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who are some of your favorite writers?

Bernice: Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Stephen King. Junot Diaz has a found a new fan in me as well as British author, Christopher Wilson.

Fran: I’m glad you love Stephen King. Me too. I love Diaz’s short stories but haven’t tried his novel, nor am I familiar with Christopher Wilson.
Bernice: Christopher Wilson wrote a novel called Cotton — unlike any story I’ve ever read — every one I’ve recommended the book to loved it. Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao– FABULOUS — I loved it — I felt like I was reading it on a treadmill — his rogue writing style left me breathless.
Fran: Breathless? How can I resist that? I shall have to read them, as well as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove, and the complete works of Bernice McFadden. Question: My last novel, “Saving Elijah” fit into no particular genre, and I always felt as a consequence that the publisher didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt the book and author luncheon was a great way to bring your writing to a wider (read: white) audience. Which leads me to the following question: I feel writers are nowadays compelled in this niche-driven world to appeal to particular audiences, whether the audience is “women, “African American,” “African-American women,” “Jewish women,” or genre based. Obviously, publishers want to exploit whatever natural audience there is for a writer’s writing, but do you feel you’ve been pigeon-holed as an “African American writer” and do you feel limited by that in any way?

Bernice: YES I DO!!! It’s terrible that publishers do not market AA writers across the color line. There are a few exceptions – but too few for it to trickle down and make a major difference for the rest of the AA writers. Which is why my attendance at the Ferguson Library Luncheon was so important – I understand that in all the years I’m just the 4th AA author participant! It baffles the mind that in 2008 so many people believe that we are more different than we are alike. A real lover of literature couldn’t care less about the color of the authors skin – they just want a compelling read – plain and simple.

Fran: Can you comment briefly on how the legacy of slavery affects African Americans today.

Bernice: Four hundred years of slavery and its afternath are not easily swept awy from people’s memory and culture. I don’t know if you are familiar with the infamous Willie Lynch letter, but back in 1712, slave owner Willie Lynch addressed a group of slave owners in the colony of Virginia, and read from a prepared document that outlined his fool proof method controlling black slaves. That method, whether the powers that be admit it or not, is still–not unlike the Constitution–in use today.

Note: The Bruised Muse was unfamiliar with the Willie Lynch letter, but found an enormous amount of information on it on the Web. About what subject isn’t there an enormous amount of information on the Web? As anyone who has emailed me one of those rabble-rousing, false letters about Obama being a Muslim, or Britain/University of Kentucky/etc. eliminating the Holocaust from its school curriculum knows, I try always to seek truth. Just so the reader knows, the Willie Lynch letter is purportedly a letter by a British slave owner speaking about the way to psychologically control slaves, by dividing them according skin color, age, hair type, etc. Here’s a link for the full text. I do feel compelled to point out that there are also debunkers of this letter as an urban myth. For that, check this link. Even if the letter is a hoax, I take its point as a psychological truth. I don’t think there’s any question that oppressed people adopt certain of the negative stereotypes and notions foisted on them by their oppressors, and that it is to their detriment to do so. I do believe a light-skin/dark-skin self-prejudice still rages in the black community, for example. Where did this come from? An oppressor will always encourage you to argue amongst yourselves while he picks your pocket and keeps his foot on your head. It’s an effective, psychologically sound (if Machiavellian) slight of hand.

Bernice’s website is: http://www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/

Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.