Tag Archive | writing

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.

Storytelling and Reading with the MouseMuse troupe: Join us

I had a beautiful experience doing writing to heal last night with a group of courageous and wonderful people. Now it’s on to storytelling on December 6… Six of us on the same theme, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” for 10 minutes: Fran Dorf, Tom Finn, Josh Kaplan, Chad Kinsman, Hugh Samuels, Rebecca Toon plus 3 brave volunteers.  While my story is on its face about a car crash a few years, what it’s really about surviving all my “tsuris.”  All my stories are about that.  Join me.

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                                                                    * * * * * *

And for this one on December 11th, I’m getting back on stage to read a few bits from my memoir: “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories.”  Also, of course, about surviving “tsuris.”  Can’t help it.  I’m the “tsuris” queen.  Thinking about reading a relatively serious bit about breast cancer called “Plastic Man,” and a lighter bit about my Grandma Rose, she of the vast bosom and orthopedic shoes.  I don’t know….is a bar the best place to read this? Well, whatever.  It seems Ina has adopted me.   14381_494841040550674_311216169_n

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.

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/

The Inoculation Effect of Big Time Grief

I’ve been thinking for a very long time about the inoculation effect of grief. This is a term I believe has relevance to the experience of “high” grief, or as I call it in my novel “big time grief.” I’ve never read or heard anyone use the term. Here’s the general definition from the Oxford:

Inoculate: The deliberate introduction into the body of a micro-organism, especially in order to induce immunity to a disease; vaccination.

What does this have to do with grief? Here’s what. I think of the pain I suffered during my bereavement almost as a kind of inoculation against future pain. Not that I can no longer feel anything, just that I can handle it now. It seems to me that I became aware of this effect after quite a lot of time had passed, and I do think one has to have done the grief work in order to feel the effect, but the truth is, no matter what trauma I’ve faced–and there have been a few since my son died–I’ve always kept myself on a relatively even keel, emotionally. I’ve consoled myself by thinking that nothing could be as devastating as what I’ve already been through. What could? If I survived that, I can survive anything. I mentioned this notion to the group of bereaved folks I wrote with last night, and I saw recognition in many of their faces. Of course, we wish we had our children back, but life only goes one way and we are forced to learn those lessons that are given to us. I wonder if anyone else has felt that serious grief can inoculate us, so that we are able to face whatever else lies ahead.

Initially, a few of the bereaved parents in the group last night seemed somewhat resistant to the idea of writing as a way to help us explore, understand, and express our inner worlds, especially when I said I had written a novel. One man asked “Is your novel fiction or non-fiction?” I explained that all novels are fiction, and he said, “But this is REAL LIFE.”

Meaning, what can YOU–a fiction writer–possibly know about the REAL pain I’m feeling?

I explained that I too had lost a child, and that my novel had been inspired by the experience. That seemed to appease him, and I didn’t feel the need to explain that I would be employing exercises that used fictional techniques. Once I told him that I too had lost a child, he seemed willing to trust me. I was a member of the club that no one wants to belong to. I so well remember the feeling of being resentful, even suspicious of anyone who hadn’t lost a child, who hadn’t been where I was but would presume to tell me how to feel, what to do, how to act.

I want to share with readers a poem the group last night wrote. The group’s thoughts are listed in no particular order. They composed this poem after I read them a wonderful list poem by Elaine Equi called “Things to Do in the Bible” and we then composed:

Things to Do When You Lose a Child:

Cry – Get Mad – Yell at God – Cry – Pray – Yell at God – Try to Breathe – Freeze and shut down – Pray for help – Find your center – Look within for wisdom – Count your blessings – Comfort a wife – Cry – Bang the Steering Wheel – Cry Cry Cry – Find Spirituality – Figure out how to survive – Talk talk talk – Scream and swear at God – Listen for his voice – Fight with your husband – Get Back to Work- Honor His Memory – Resent everyone- Celebrate his life – Pray – Give to Others – Light a Candle – Hate Life – Cry – Look at Pictures – Eat – Cry – Spend time with a husband – Cry – Talk to friends – Get Help – Cry – Scream – Take a bath – Hug a friend – Swim a mile – Try to sleep – Walk in the woods – Eat your heart out – Go to Bed – Not get dressed – Rage at the moon – Hate everyone – Hate God – Swim upstream – Ignore your living children- Feel guilty – Write a book

The last one was mine, of course. Not everyone can write a book, obviously. But writing CAN be therapeutic, I’m convinced of it. Here’s a poem I composed at some point, among the first semi-coherent writings I managed. I think it gives a good idea of how grief feels. Or at least how my grief felt. A version of this poem appears in Saving Elijah.

I am a clobbered egg
ex orb exploded
white shard in your eye
it hurts.
There there.
This sweet yellow yolk
rots now,
threaded with bloodeous black,
glutinous maximus,
sweet rot drips
all over the imported linen,
sticky on the gold rimmed China,
soiled with the grotesque muck
of my child’s grave.
There with my child, so cold.
I sweat this stuff in your face,
all placid and complacent as a baby’s toes.
I yield up nothing you want.
No angel wings,
No down for your bed,
No meat.