Thursday, December 31, 2009

Memoir, Art and What It's Good For

I hear it a lot in our memoir-writing groups. “This is better than therapy!”

Yes, it is. Which, to my mind, is not saying much. I think “therapy” is way overrated and I can't wait for it to be thrown on the historical pile of things-that-didn't-work.

But my response when people talk to me about the therapeutic wonders of writing real memoir is a response I got from Fred when I first brought it up with him many years ago when I was brand new to the Authentic Writing workshops. “Is this art, or is this therapy?” I asked him, suspiciously, looking, as always, for something to be wrong.

“Making art is therapeutic,” he answered calmly. Of course it is. How could it not be?

But a lot of people claim art therapy. They have theater groups and painting groups that claim to be therapeutic and I bet many of them help. But they are different from what we do in the Authentic Writing workshops and I want to see if I can distinguish how that is. I want to talk about the relationship between the type of writing that we do, its healing effects, and what art is. Because these are all big words and everyone uses them and means something a little different by them.

Take the word “memoir.” When people ask what type of writing I do and what type of writing the workshops focus on, that's the shortest answer: memoir. But I don't like that word much. I wish I could come up with something better because “memoir” covers all sorts of things that we are not.

At the extreme end of the scale there's memoir “as told to” -- you know, when the celebrity sits down with a writer, has a few long chats over drinks, etc., and the professional writer gets their story down on paper. That's called memoir. Let's get that off the table quickly. We all know this discussion isn't about that kind of memoir.

Then there's the broad swath of pedestrian memoirs in between the two extremes. And for the most part they are only boring because the people who write them aren't that interesting. You know, you can only write good memoir to the extent that you are plowed and irrigated as a person. If you haven't dared much, if you haven't looked inside much – no amount of “instruction” is going to make your writing – your expression of yourself – very complicated or unique. So the memoirs in this category all kind of sound like they were written by the same person even though the stories are different. One way to quickly identify them is that they depend on what they are about, rather than the voice of the writer telling the story. Let's get these off the table too – though where you draw the line is up to you.

So now I'm at the small group at the far end of the spectrum – those of us who are simply daring to write without thinking about it too much, writing as a means of discovering something about ourselves, writing without a model in mind – except maybe Van Gogh. Now we're talking about what I mean by art. Ahhh. I'm feeling better already.

I want to stand amongst the Van Gogh's of this world – those who are creating for its own sake, creating to forge new territory that – for the artist – is desperately needed to survive.

That's where healing lies. What is this word “healing” anyway? So prevalent it makes me a little carsick to hear it – like too much sugar. I prefer the word “strengthening.” Writing memoir – discovering and saying distinctly your version of the facts – not through the disguise of metaphor, but in unmistakable scenes and concrete details -- makes you strong. To choose the stories that are important, not have someone tell you what they are. To write without obligation to family, schoolteachers, grammarians, or bestseller lists. And in that list, family is by far the most powerful. The loyalty to family is at the root of all other loyalties that restrict a person, rather than permitting them to blossom.

As I write we've just come through the Christmas season. Almost everyone I know spoke of family obligations they had to abide by, and how exhausting those were. I saw adults – people with not that many years left in their lives -- still enslaved by family. I saw people not allowed by their so-called loving families to do as they wished, sometimes to even know what they wished.

Writing is a powerful tool that can loosen this knot of love, oppression, obligation that keeps people trapped and unable to blossom. To write your own stories in your own voice, to choose them and recreate them in a way that appears exquisitely accurate to you, is invigorating. It gives you independence. Frightening but life-giving.

I can't offer this as a system, as a one-two-three process. You write: you become liberated. It doesn't work like that. But if something here in what I have written inspires you to write that's all that's needed. Writing will take care of the rest.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Another Recommendation

A wonderful memoir, INKLINGS, by Jeffrey Koterba, just published this year.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Very Good Read

If you have an interest in good memoir and finding out more about the invisible world of Afghanistan, I suggest this great book, East of New York, West of Kabul by Tamim Ansary. Ansary was born in Afghanistan with an Afghan father and an American mother. He left to live in the States when he was about 10. He is anchored in Afghanistan, understands it, can convey its mystery, and yet he does not come across as a "foreigner." He's an American. It is very good reading from both a literary point of view and an educational one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Worthy Quote by Mary Karr

And you have to make a distinction between literature and sound-byte memoirs. The sound-byte memoir is only worth reading in an airport. I want to create a whole world, like a novel.
-- Mary Karr. Author of the memoirs, The Liar's Club, Cherry and Lit.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Words on Memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg

"I felt a sense of frustration and outrage that people started to look for newspaper reporting when they picked up a memoir. The form has never been that -- it's deeply impressionistic. And isn't that what we look to artists for? A new rendering, a unique voice in a common conversation. Art should always give us something to see that we couldn't have defined before. At the beginning of Speak, Memory Nabokov describes his "awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold." He acknowledges that each consciousness is acute and unique, in possession of its own "bright blocks." And he's going to write them down. I also love memory's fallibility implied in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, which is memoir: He writes, "I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." Thus, the two versions are both true and untrue at the same time. I guess I felt that I needed to make absolutely clear how deeply I revered the form of memoir, what a fascinating, personal expression it is. By definition, memoir is eccentric, to use your word." -- Susanna Sonnenberg, author of Her Last Death

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony. It is a legitimate method of self-defense. ‘Look how absurd I was when I was young’ forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when we felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age? I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then, without irony.” – Graham Greene, from his introduction to his memoir, A Sort Of Life

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Is It Done?

I don’t like that word, “finish.” When something is finished that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting. I just stop working on it for awhile. – Arshile Gorky

Fred wrote this quote down from the exhibition we just attended in Philadelphia, a full retrospective of Gorky’s paintings.* “Here,” he said later, bringing out his notebook, “you’ll like this.” And I do. Very much. It echoes what I have said about writing.

When I was in my teens and first awakening to literature and how a writer could speak through writing in a way you can’t speak any other way, I thought that the words I was reading in Virginia Woolf’s book or Jean Rhys’s book or Kurt Vonnegut’s book were the chiseled words they had firmly and finally decided upon and that in no way could they be changed or improved upon. When you wrote, I thought, your job was to line up the best words and get it right.

I have submitted The Guru Looked Good to many people under different circumstances, and each time I polish it up, and each time I think that’s the best it can be. I think it’s done. And then the next submission time or performance comes around and I see many places where I can sharpen the focus, and I make changes.

I came to realize that when something is published it’s a snapshot of something in motion – you’re catching the work at a particular moment. Writers don’t usually return to something once it’s published, but that doesn’t mean it’s “done.” Nothing’s ever done. The writing – the art -- is alive.

Which could bring me to the subject of getting someone to edit your work. A sore subject with some.

Recently, I was on a panel of mostly memoir writers and someone from the audience – a well meaning writer -- asked us if we recommended having someone edit your work. Two people on the panel, in unison, answered immediately, “Yes.”

I had to chime in. I had to fight this automatic yes.

There is a place – somewhere – for outside editing, but it is a relatively small and insignificant place when we’re talking about writing and especially about memoir which is the most personally demanding form of writing. So much of writing – and the pleasure and effort of writing -- when you’re thinking about putting your work out in the world – is about revisiting your creation and seeing what occurs to you as you read it through again. So I sometimes do plenty of editing when I’m preparing something for presentation.

But editing is the easy part. Kind of like coasting after you've biked to the top of the hill.

I am much more interested in those first grabs for material, when you really have to take risks and reach into yourself and choose what images you are going to go with and what trail of crumbs you are going to follow. That’s what we do in our workshops and it is the most difficult part of writing.

Back to editing since those two writers who said, “Yes!” so effortlessly later took such umbrage with my contrasting point of view.

Very very very few people are capable of editing your work. Certainly not some random professional. A good professional will most likely, at best, tell you how to get your work to conform to some standard. And if that’s your goal, well good-bye and good luck.

Writing and art are about escaping standards. So if you have someone who knows you and your writing deeply, someone who you think is also a good writer – they’d be a good choice to read and respond to your work and make suggestions if they have them. Suggestions. That’s all an editor can make. Writers must always have the last word.

The last thing a person in the process of or beginning to write needs to hear about is getting someone to edit their work. Because beginning writers will be tempted to get their work to Point A and then submit it to a professional for the supposed “fixing.” Then, like a butterfly, the professional will pin the thing to a board and the vulnerable, unsupported artist will assume that that’s the end product.

No. Don’t give your work to a professional editor unless you know them very well and you have a clear vision for what you are going for in your writing. Hold onto your work. Revisit it. Let it mature. Don’t race to have someone else deem your work publishable. Remember, Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.

*Go see the Gorky exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. You will see the work of an artist giving himself over to his inner vision, voice, mystery.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Favorite 2009 Memoirs

I have two favorites and I just finished the second.

When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh and Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg.

For anyone who has a real interest in current memoir -- or memoir at all -- these two are musts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Writer's Block & Other Things

Last Saturday I was in Soho, waiting to meet for the first time the memoirist Said Sayrafiezadeh. He wrote my favorite memoir of ’09, “When Skateboards Will Be Free” and he had suggested we meet at McNally Jackson on Prince Street, a bookstore I had never heard of. Walking down from the Bleeker Street subway stop, I realized that it must have been a long time since I'd been down this way. I didn't recognize the blaze of new stores and all the pretty people filling the sidewalks. One place that claimed to be a “deli” had an open-air swath of tables, filled on this warm-enough day, and I swear we could have almost been on Rodeo Drivc.

I arrived at the bookstore first and went straight for “New Nonfiction” and within minutes had found a new Alice Miller, reason to celebrate.

Alice Miller first came to prominence in the eighties with her first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I wasn't in the States then and missed it, and missed all her books until just a few years ago when I discovered “The Body Never Lies” and “Pictures From a Childhood.” Now I think of her as someone doing absolutely individual work. I find her work immeasurably supportive and it is the only thing that makes any sense to me, that helps at all, when I find myself down in the depths of depression when nothing looks good or hopeful.

Someone asked me about writer's block yesterday. I think of writer's block as a form of depression, the form that hits writers when they want to write and can't. I advise anyone who wants to write real memoir, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred memoir to read Alice Miller if you want some support. And you're crazy if you don't want support.

Alice Miller is a true ally of a person's individuality. She doesn't give a flying fuck for your parents. And that's unique.

Everywhere I turn I see people doing more or less what they want, but reserving a corner of themselves for their family, especially for their parents. When it comes to family they give in and follow the rules. I see it all the time. People out there supposedly having their own lives, but as soon as a parent gets sick, or a parent has a birthday, or a child is coming home for Thanksgiving – everything is overturned. Real life is put on hold, because, after all, “it's family.”

You can't write memoir if you're going to hold onto that stuff. Or you can, but your writing will be compromised to the degree that you are willing to bend it to fit family values.

Okay, well a bunch of people have stopped reading by now, so now I'm just talking to my fellow hardcore writers. Here's Alice: “Many impressive rituals have been devised to make children ignore their true feelings and accept the cruelties of their parents without demur. They are forced to suppress their anger, their true feelings, and honor parents who do not deserve such reverential treatment, otherwise they will be doomed to intolerable feelings of guilt all their lives. Luckily, there are now individuals who are beginning to desist from such self-mutilation and to resist the attempt to instill guilt feelings into them. These people are standing up against a practice that its proponents have always considered ethical. In fact, however, it is profoundly unethical because it produces illness and hinders healing. It flies in the face of the laws of life.”

Strong stuff. I love it.

I didn't mention Alice when I answered the man yesterday about writer's block, though I could have. Instead, I talked about what works for me in the moment, and Alice has much to do with this. When I am not writing – when I am driving to work, or in a meeting, or out in the woods – when I am thinking about the writing I will do, and then when the moment comes – finally, I am in a workshop or here at the local coffee shop with my new laptop bought for a song – and instead of the release I’ve been looking forward to I feel resistance, suddenly there is nothing to write, no story to tell – in other words, when writer's block rises up, this is what I do.

I rebel. I fight back. I can't see my enemy. Can't see the force that does not want me to speak, that wants me to feel small and insignificant and ridiculous. I know that's what's at stake. It has nothing to do with my true value or abilities. It may take a moment or two of hesitation, of capitulation, but I pick up the pen, I will not be deterred or convinced that there is no point to writing. I know there is. Because I’ve been through this many times. I know I must overcome this. And I get the first sentence down and then the second and then the third. And I damn well keep going.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Saturday workshops in Manhattan

I will be offering three Authentic Writing workshops in Manhattan on Saturday mornings -- if you want to do some writing, this is the place to be.

All the writing will be from life -- spontaneous and personal. The workshops are for people who have written for years, people who have wished they were writing, people who write in their heads but don't manage to get it down on paper and everyone in between.

These are studios more than workshops, a place for artists to come together and practice their art -- without competition or comparison.

I do almost all my writing in these workshops. The Guru Looked Good was almost all written in workshops.

You may take one or more workshops, or you can sign up for the series of three.

We will meet at:
TRS, 44 E. 32 Street (between Park and Madison), 11th floor

Dates and Times:

October 10, November 14, December 12.
10am - 1pm.

$75/workshop (please specify which date)
$180 for all three workshops

To register:

You can use PayPal
email me at:
call me at: (845) 679-0306

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I just like bringing this one to the top of the pile every now & then...

I think that writing memoir is the most potent action I can take in this world.

When I sit down to write – not an easy place to get to – I feel all my energies and abilities come into one focus, one laser point – I feel like a bird, pausing in mid-air, then plummeting down into the waves, intent on that one fish that will save it.

I write, then come up for air, then look at what I have unearthed. It usually looks like just a handful of dust, not worth much. I could easily toss it out and forget about it. But I don’t. Not anymore. I add it to the pile. I am not sure what I am building, but this is all I have. For some reason, it is my most precious thing, the one thing that feels purely my own.

(from Experiments In Memoir ~ but relevant here)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

After Seeing Natalie Merchant

I came to Natalie Merchant late. I missed 10,000 Maniacs, for instance. But once I got out of the cloister of ashram life, I picked up on her pretty quick and even bought Motherland (I say “even bought” because I have an age-old poverty-related tic that makes it hard to buy records/tapes/CD's) – an album that I have consistently loved now for years.

I was excited to see her perform in person last night at the women’s conference at Omega.

Natalie is a small woman in person, petite, dressed in black, long dark hair and I’d be surprised if there was any make-up.

She opened up her book of music murmuring something offhand like, “I write them and then I forget them,” then something like “Not sure if I can get through this one without crying.” She began with “Tell Yourself” – perhaps my favorite of the songs I know -- a version of the song perhaps slower than I am used to, every word clear and aching. The tears did not come until perhaps the last line “And there’s just no gettin’ round the fact that you’re thirteen right now” -- when I heard her voice crack just a little. The tears came right into my eyes too. In that moment especially I was the girl in that song.

Then came about 3 more songs, all of them pensive, exploring, searching for meaning. They didn’t have regular rhythms of verse-verse-chorus. None of that. All of them moving like rivers of piano and lyrics. You knew, listening to this music, that Natalie was singing about herself every minute, that this was an inner exploration of a life.

One song she began and then quickly stopped and laughed and said, “Oh, I know this one,” and she took down the book and played by memory.

“It’s wonderful and terrible to be here,” she said at one point. “Wonderful because of this great gathering, and terrible because it has been a long time since I have been out.” She noticed someone holding up a camera – “Oh,” she pleaded. “Are you filming me? Please don’t film me. This is just for us.” And went back to playing.

She played a new song, one of those meanderings of words and music and when it ended at perhaps an uncertain point she said, “That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”

“It’s good to come out of the forest sometimes,” she said later almost as if talking to herself.

And after the final song she simply, gracefully, walked out. There was no standing before the audience either when she came in or when she departed, no standing and taking in what would have been a long standing ovation, a great wave of appreciation.

I am left with the belief that Natalie is even more complicated and interesting than I already suspected. I said to my husband later that night (he’d been there too), “I felt that Natalie was so completely herself tonight on stage.” She wasn’t trying to please anyone. She was living her life. Unexpected and wonderful. She didn’t make it look easy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ice Breaker

So many people use the word memoir, especially these days, and I wish there was another word for what I mean when I say memoir. I am determined to find a new word and am sure that I will, but it may take a long time.

I say I’m a writer and people ask, what do you write, and I say memoir, and then they think I’ve written a memoir and that's it. Why would anyone write more than one memoir, right? Or they think that I want to write a memoir because I’ve done something interesting like climbed Mt. Everest, or lived with a smart animal.

In the same vein, I hate it when, in response to hearing that someone has done something unusual, people say, "Now he should write a memoir!" As if that's what memoir were about. As if a good memoir is about something interesting that someone has done. That's a mistake that's easy to make: writing memoir that assumes what has happened in a person's life is more interesting than the person themselves. It's as wrong as someone saying, "Why should I write memoir? Who'd be interested in what I've done?"

I was walking with a friend a few days ago, someone I like a lot. He had just finished his manuscript about a very intense period of his life with a dying parent. “But who needs another book about a dying parent?” he laughed, even though I knew this was one of the saddest, darkest, most definitive times of his life.

“I don’t read a memoir for what it’s about,” I answered. “I read a memoir for what it tells me about the writer.”

Every memoir – every good one – is a self-portrait, and the more blatant and honest it is the better.

Yeah, but what about the quality of the writing, I hear my critical friends asking. It’s not enough to be blatant and honest. Actually, it is.

There are other memoirs that claim to be blatant and honest just because they spatter blood and guts all over the page. I'm not talking about that, though it works sometimes. I have found from writing that honesty is a pretty slithery thing. It is subtle. You have to really find ways to look at yourself, your past, where and what you came from to really start to draw a self-portrait that has any meaning. This is much scarier than revealing the simple fact that your father fucked you, which is scary enough.

My favorite memoir I’ve found this year? When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh. We have invited him to present at the Woodstock Memoir Festival this year and we are thrilled that he has said yes.