Tag Archive | memoir

Reading with Sari, Sachi, Linda, and Randye

1A couple of months ago, Kimberly Wilson, an incredibly talented actor and singer, asked me if I would be part of a “theatrical reading” with other members of the Theatre Artist’s Workshop in Norwalk,CT, where I am a member.  I joined this professional theatrical workshop about a year ago, and it has turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for myself, mainly because it’s helped me reconnect again with my own creativity, which I believe is the source of all healing.  I’m proud to be on the bill with four remarkably creative and talented women, Sari Bodi, Sachi Parker, Linda Urbach Howard, and Randye Kaye.  Next Sunday, November 17th at 3 PM, we’ll all be reading from our books, and telling the stories of how and why we wrote them. It’s free to the public, although a donation to TAW is always accepted. Here’s the link for info.

 I haven’t read all of the books yet, but I’d guess that for most if not all of us, harnessing our creativity in order to write these books was a huge step forward in our personal healing journeys. Certainly this is true for me.  As the readers of this blog surely know, my novel, “Saving Elijah,” was inspired by the devastating experience of losing my son, Michael, in 1994.  It’s strange to contemplate reading once more from a book I published thirteen years ago and wrote fifteen years ago, inspired by something that happened twenty years ago. Here’s why: I’ve always maintained that writing “Saving Elijah” saved my life, but life, of course, doesn’t stand still, and just as I was a different person when I wrote “Saving Elijah” than I was when I lost my son, I am a different person now than I was when I wrote it.  I hope the book is still compelling, and I stand by it as a novel, as a true representation of the process of grief, but I think I created a terrifying book because I was still very close to the depth of those terrifying feelings when I wrote it. I hope the book still compells readers, but the truth is that I have moved beyond that terrifying place.  Well beyond.  I hope to bring this perspective to my talk before the reading.

If you’re in the area, please come.  We are:

Sachi Parker, Actor/Author of “Lucky Me: My Life with–and Without–My Mother, Shirley Maclaine.”  This is Sachi’s account of her childhood; it was co-written by one of the other TAW writer members, the brilliant Fred Stroppel, and it is truly fascinating and eye-opening, especially if you were a fan of Shirley Maclaine.

Sari Bodi: Author of the young adult novel,“The Ghost in Allie’s Pool” I’ll give this one to my grandaughter when the time comes.

Linda Urbank Howard:  Author of the novel, “Expecting Miracles.” Sounds interesting, a novel about what happens to the woman “who has everything when she is denied the one thing that all women take for granted.”

Randye Kaye: Actor/Author of the memoir, “Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope”  I’m looking forward to reading Randye’s book, which is an account of her son Ben’s descent into the terror of schizophrenia and back. This one had to be a healing project for her.

I’m looking forward to doing this.  Please join us, if you can.

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The Healing Art of Writing Memoir or Fiction

 

Isak Dinesen, writer

Isak Dinesen, writer

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story,” said Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa,” and “Babette’s Feast.” This quote beautifully puts into words why I went to the Westport Writer’s Workshop last Saturday to teach a class called “The Healing Art of Writing.”  My goal? To help people who’ve experienced grief, loss, illness, abuse, violence, addiction, or other trauma try to turn those difficult emotional experiences into compelling fiction or memoir.  I decided to teach the class partly because I know that to do this is healing, since I drew upon my own traumatic experiences to create both a novel and now a memoir. I also journaled obsessively before conceiving my novel, “Saving Elijah,” and used pieces of that journal in writing the book, so I know from experience that expressive writing is healing.  But I’m also convinced that the discipline of creating a narrative or “story” out of the chaos of emotional experience is healing from the first draft to the last. I think most writers would to some extent agree.  I know Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) would.

Here a bit about why I think so, along with steps to help you see if this might be for you:

Expressive Writing Practice: Journaling

Begin by developing an expressive writing practice such as journaling, three or four times a week, for ten or more minutes a day.  Tons of research shows that just writing about trauma, loss, grief, or illness without any regard for the writing “product” has a healing effect and improves mental, emotional and physical well-being.  This is because traumatic or emotionally charged experience is stored in the right brain as all chaotic sensation with no logic or language. When you bring language or narrative to any emotional experience as you do when you write, you bring this experience, or perhaps the memory and associated emotions of the experience into the logical, analytical left brain.  This helps integrate the two and lessen emotional reactivity, a big part of healing. In doing therapy and facilitating workshops, I’ve even seen writing help to heal people who aren’t even particularly literate.

When you do expressive writing, knock the censor monkey off your shoulder, and express your feelings without thinking about the writing “product.”  Bring it up from your guts. Don’t think about grammar, form, or appropriateness.  Don’t worry that anyone will read what you’ve written. Banish all thoughts of I wouldn’t want anyone to see this, or This isn’t any good, or  My eighth grade teacher—or my mom—told me I stank as a writer. Also banish all thoughts like, Nothing I could ever write could communicate how I feel. Write as if you were going to burn it.  Don’t burn it though, since you’ll later find gems you can use to great effect when you write your memoir or fiction.

Even after you begin writing fiction or a memoir, begin each writing session with a few minutes of journaling or other form of expressive or free writing.

Expressive Writing Practice: Exercises

Take a “Write to Heal” workshop like the one I offer.  Many individuals, hospitals, and healing centers around the country are offering these now. In my workshop, I provide exercises to help people express themselves without regard for the writing “product,” or how a reader might react, who might read it, or who might or might not be interested in reading it.  Although sometimes write-to-heal writers produce beautiful writing, I facilitate these exercises primarily for their therapeutic value.  I take the therapist’s “stance” in this setting. I empathetically accept and embrace whatever is produced., there is no literary criticism, and I make no attempt to teach the “craft” of writing, let alone the art. Sharing is optional of course, but there is also some therapeutic value to being “witnessed” and to “witnessing.”

Also, do the exercises on this website, or the exercises in books like Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” Bonnie Goldberg’s “Room to Write,” or Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Again, make this a practice, several times a week.

Blogging: Is this expressive writing?

Nowadays many people blog episodically about their feelings and experiences around personal trauma, loss, or illness.  Blogging can of course be healing too, in the sense that all writing can be healing. However, I suspect most bloggers do at least some selecting and revising before they publish, and so blogging isn’t true expressive writing in which no attention is given to the product.  I hope so, because some blogs of this sort gain huge readerships.  Readers actually read ONLY because they feel moved, entertained, instructed, or compelled to READ ON; readers, even readers of emotional blogs, don’t take the therapist’s stance of empathy and compassion and acceptance of feelings whatever they are. (You can certainly see this in some comments.) Which means the blogger who has made no attempt to process or intellectualize experience, distance herself from it, and prepare it and herself for the reactions of others can find herself retraumatized as readers who don’t empathize with her feelings react to or criticize the writing.  I think publishing unprocessed emotional writing even in this confessional age can be VERY be psychologically risky. Oh my goodness, it was psychologically healing to give voice to my anger in my own journal after my son’s death, but publish that journal?  No way.

On the other hand, it is also true that no matter how many revisions and how much processing you do before you publish any piece of writing, readers are going to bring their biases, craziness, projections, interpretations, and misinterpretations to it.  David Sedaris put this brilliantly when he said:  “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize that it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.  But even the “illusion” of control can be a good defense. Where would we all be without our illusions?

Write a memoir or fiction

Obviously not everyone can write a novel or a memoir, or would even want to, but the twenty women who came last Saturday to my class, each of whom has experienced trauma, illness, abuse, or loss, presented themselves as wanting to learn how to turn their experiences into stories in the literary form of fiction or memoir.  I treated them like writers.

Yes, it’s hard to speak candidly to someone who’s experienced something awful that lies at the pit of her soul and who lives and breathes this thing every day.  It’s hard to tell someone who’s gotten used to simply writing her feelings that there might be a more effective way to present them to help readers want to hear them. First of all, she’s been writing and knows how healing it feels to write, which is probably one of the reasons she’s decided she wants to bring her writing into literary form. Another is that she feels she has something important to share with others, some lesson learned, some hurdle crossed.  (Therein, of course, may lie the arc or even the plot of her story.  How DID she overcome that awful thing?)

I think some, although certainly not all writing teachers would find it hard to tell someone who, for example, is writing about the profound and devastating experience of losing a child that some of her words don’t compel the reader to turn the page, don’t communicate effectively, confuse, or even turn the reader off.  I am of course sensitive to this, but I am tough-minded too because I know that learning craft and bringing it to your writing helps you intellectualize and separate from traumatic experience in a very unique way.

I know that even if feedback at first feels hurtful or invalidating, it’s actually the opposite.   A reader or teacher who offers honest feedback actually validates your experience by showing she cares enough about it to help you express it more effectively, say by helping you learn the components of a scene, or by pointing out that you’ve “told” something rather than “shown” it.

And I know that every time you hear and tolerate criticism about what you have written about your trauma, and every time you decide (using your analytical left brain) to accept or reject that criticism, you distance yourself from the emotion of that trauma.

“Kill your babies,” Faulkner said about writers and their words, and the would-be memoir or fiction writer must learn to tolerate hearing that she must kill some of her babies. (You should pardon the pun.)

Yes, it’s a long grueling process, but…

  • We heal as we learn and apply writing “craft,” which after all is a discipline that comes out of left brain thinking.
  • We heal each time we rewrite or revise, because when we rewrite we rethink, re-remember, and re-imagine our experience, memories, even our whole life. Psychology and neuroscience have proposed many different models of memory, but one truth is: We do not remember our experiences, we only remember our last retrieval of our memory of our experiences.  As we gather our short and long term memories to write a memoir or fiction, we revise those memories to fit them into the emotional arc (or plot) we are creating.  Often this is a new vision of ourself as hero rather than victim in our own life story.
  • We heal each time we turn chaotic emotional experiences into work that fits within an accepted literary form, uses language in an evocative way, has narrative drive, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Doing all this involves intellectual, logical left brain thinking and tamps down emotional right brain thinking.  No one wants to read about a victim, or at least not a victim all the way through.
  • We heal as we learn to self-observe, as we discipline ourselves to make the hard choices about which elements of lived experience to include or exclude, and how best to organize and express material in order to compel readers to READ ON.

Compassion Roundup, Part I: Who cares if your surgeon is a jerk?

Huckabee at the Republican National Convention

A few weeks ago, Mike Huckabee, making a medical analogy about the alarmingly jerky Mitt Romney, told Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast: ““The sicker the patient, the less important is bedside manner.  If you’ve just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, you honestly don’t care if your neurosurgeon is a jerk.”  Now I admit that Mike Huckabee is a personable, often funny, natural, and authentic guy, sort of the un-Romney, even though I disagree with him on nearly every political idea he ever expressed including this one.  I disagree with this one so much that it’s been stuck in my head for the last three weeks. Reason? My own personal experience with jerky doctors

Most commentators, including Gail Collins of the New York Times, commented on the weird “damning with faint praise” aspect of that quote, since presumably Huckabee meant to praise (if faintly) our Presidential candiate, who has proven himself even more jerky this week by among other things commenting on an ongoing violent international crisis before knowing the facts, and by suggesting that a statement put out by the American Embassy in Cairo condemning a hate film undermined American values.  Coming from a man who would be President in a highly dangerous, complicated, and non-black-and-white world, this was so misguided and jerky in so many ways that I can’t possibly mention them all in a blog in which I want to comment on Huckabee’s medical analogy.  So for the moment, I’ll simply wonder why Romney, or anyone, thinks it’s not an American value to ALWAYS condemn hate speech, counsel calm, tolerance and compassion, and support the forces of tolerance, understanding, and compassion in every situation and society.  To me this is among the highest of human values.  More about that in my next blog.

So back to Huckabee’s analogy. After endlessly fussing I’ve finally shipped off my memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories, to my adorable new literary agent.  While I’ve met many amazing and wonderful doctors during all my medical woes, the memoir details my experiences with some incredibly jerky doctors, including my late son Michael’s neurologist and the surgeon I call only “Plastic Man” whom I encountered during my breast cancer experience.  I think their jerkiness made them less rather than more skilled, that’s for sure.  I won’t talk about the neurologist here, but Plastic Man was jerky mainly because he lacked compassion, and I suffered mightily at his hands, not because he isn’t or wasn’t a skilled cutter. I assume he is, he certainly has a good reputation on that score. But bedside manner? The man was rude, stiff, abrupt, aloof, childish, petulant, and defensive, and became even more so when I developed an infection and became quite sick.  As I detail in my memoir, his jerkiness may have increased because he was afraid of being sued.  This doesn’t excuse it, of course, and in any case research shows that doctors who tend to the doctor/patient relationship lessen their risk of being sued. This makes perfect sense, of course, since people tend to give back what they receive.  The most important thing is, he made my situation even worse than it probably had to be, thereby affecting his skill not just as a cutter but as a physician, who after all should be a healer.  I say this not just because I was terrified and needed reassurance when I was so weak and sick and vulnerable, but because if that surgeon had LISTENED to me, his patient, as a good compassionate, non-jerky physician would do, he might well have been able to spare me all or at least some of that suffering, both mental AND physical.

So I say yes, I guess I’d prefer a jerky surgeon who’s a skilled cutter to a compassionate, non-jerky surgeon who isn’t a skilled cutter, but like almost all things in life it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an either-or, black-and-white choice.  Why wouldn’t we want physicians—and politicians, and filmmakers, and everyone else–to think of having compassion for the weak (ie non jerkiness), as an important part of their skill and to be BOTH compassionate AND skilled?  As Gandhi and others have said, “The measure of a civilization is in how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” Substitute the word “doctor” for “civilization” and “patient” for “member,” and I think you see how this applies to the medical situation on which Huckabee is commenting, in my view utterly incorrectly.

So here’s a survival tip I learned the hard way.  I put it in my (hopefully soon-to-be published) memoir, “How I Lost My Bellybutton, And Other Naked Survival Stories”:

Survival Tip #17:  Compassion and empathy aren’t luxuries for a doctor, they’re prerequisites. Especially if things go wrong or you’re really suffering and really need compassion and empathy. So if you have a choice, find one who has some.

Mr. Huckabee, I know your analogy was meant to suggest that Mr. Romney has the skill to fix the economy, thereby lifting all weak boats in the trickle-down sense, but I think that the weaker and more vulnerable the patient (or the citizen, for that matter), the more I need and want to be tended to with compassion rather than jerkiness.

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

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 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.

Political Surprise: Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama is a real person and a real writer

For many months I’ve resisted the urge to read either of Senator Obama’s books, particularly the first, “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir written before he became a political candidate. Why? Because I had thrown in my hat, such as it is, with Senator Clinton, and was afraid that I would be so moved by Senator Obama’s memoir that it would undermine my support of Senator Clinton.

Fifteen years ago on the eve of publication of my second novel, in response to a moment in which I expressed grave self-doubt, an editor at Dutton named Michaela Hamilton kindly reassured me that I was a “real writer.” I think I suspected that I would find in Senator Obama’s memoir akind of kindred spirit, a “real writer”, to use Michaela’s words, someone to whom the “‘real writer” in me could truly relate, someone who understands what it takes to search one’s own soul honestly and carefully and accurately, and put that search on the page. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I find that my concerns were well founded. I have discovered not only a “real writer,” but someone who by breadth and depth and force of his personality and background, and by brilliance, honesty, clear thinking, and sheer talent, has rendered my past support of Senator Clinton, an admirable person in many respects, irrelevant.

The memoir is remarkable, and not only because it was written by a politician. The man is a real person–authentic, self-aware, probing, searching, honest with himself and with us, willing to be vulnerable, and most important, able to offer us a big piece of his interior life on his journey of self-discovery, not some made-up, faux patriotic, self-serving, self-deluding version of his interior life, but the real thing. Given the ghost-written pabulum served up by so many other politicians, “Dreams From My Father” is a revelation, a call to action, a sanctuary of hope that this man really can begin to build bridges across cultures and countries, and change the world. At the risk of sounding like I’ve bought into a cult of personality, I’ll say that I believe the country and the world needs such a man. How refreshing and different and hopeful it would be to have him as President.

What politician has ever, or would ever write these words?

“Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come into say she was going to sleep, and those same words–white folks–would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.”

Or report the following outburst out of the mouth of a young friend, chastising the future candidate for sucking up:

…All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.’ It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the fuck outta my face.”

Or present us with this wonderful paragraph?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place–don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.”

The contrast with other “political” memoirs is, of course, astounding. I won’t dwell on that, however, except to point out the most compelling disparity, the one between this man, Barack Obama, and our current President, George Bush, who is revealed in Scott McClellan’s new book, “What Happened.” Continue reading