June 05, 2011

Go home to discover your memoir

In May I had the great pleasure to guest teach Joanne Glenn’s class on “Writing Memoir” at the Vienna Community Center in Virginia. I was hoping more of her students would contribute to this blog post, but two extraordinary women did. I made this offer to everyone in the class: Do this writing experiment (I guided them through it as a guided imagery free write—and they did love it!) and I will post on my blog 100 words of whatever you write.

The experiment you’ll see in a moment, but first I must tell you about another extraordinary event in my life that occurred simultaneously with Joann’s invitation and my visit. I grew up on Grantley Road in Baltimore. As I say in my memoir (Re)Making Love

“I grew up in a Baltimore row house with stairs to the second floor and stairs to the basement and a view from the front door to the back door and the clothes tree outside the door. My childhood house didn’t have hallways or a foyer. There was no place to hide anything or to hide. I could hear the neighbors when they argued and everything that everyone said inside my narrow house was fair game for anyone in the back, the front, up or down the stairs.”


Across the street lived Maxine Kahn, who (or should that be "whom"? Do we care?) you will meet today. I had not seen or heard from her since she moved away when we were both fifteen years old, and we were best, best friends: never-ending hours of Canasta gave proof to our love of cards—I went on to Bridge that nobody seems to play anymore—and to our ability to be with each other. She was my safe harbor when I was a child. Recently for some reason she decided to “google” me, found my website and me, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. And it turns out, that Maxine dabbles in poetry. Well, that’s what she calls it. I guess we’ll see about that.

What I am about to prove to you is that if you want to write a memoir, go home first. Here’s how you do it.

Here’s how Achamma Chandersekaran did it, first with my comments and then with her rewrite:

A Happy Home Full of Life

 We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing.  My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin.   My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin.  My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists.   Oh, did we have fun! All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 

Achamma,

This piece is very close to being. I struck through only one sentence. The reason is that the reader knows this. You need not state what you have proven through the details.

Now as to those details. They are marvelous, particularly the way Joe gets identified as not wanting to sit. We see where everyone is. I have a sense that it might help to “see” the father’s chair. Here’s why: Take your suitcase, as I like to say, and turn it into a painting. You’ve unpacked. Now look at what you’ve got as if it’s a canvas that you’ve begun. Take your writer’s brush and paint in again and again the details, all the concrete, small observations that make story live. The story is in the details.

But I am happy to publish this on my blog as is. Let me know about the strike through—something I think you should do—or if you want to add anything. I would title the piece simply “Singing,” for the same reason I give you for the strike through, but again this is your choice.

Here is Achamma’s rewrite:

Singing

We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

We were a unique family in the village and we did the singing as a family.  Girls singing in church was very unusual during those days. My father was the choir master and one of the very few in the village who could play a musical instrument.  One by one, as we grew up, we all joined the choir. Singing in the church got us into singing for any function that took place in the village. So the word ‘family’ is special to me.

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing. My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin. My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin. My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists

All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 

And here is how Evelyn Caballero did it:

Married to Market and Cooking

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table.  She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast…

She never went to market and rarely cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years.

Here is Evelyn’s piece with my edits:

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table. They were married 65 years.[I moved this up because it is basic info the reader needs quickly so that she knows how long Mommy did this.She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast… .”

After he died, she stopped going to market. She didn’t cook. cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years. 

All the changes here are to give punch to the ending and an echo to the opening line. The key metaphor here is cooking. Even though “rarely” cooked is more accurate, the writer can choose the stronger, more emphatic choice. In essence—meaning, sure she had to eat, but “cooking” was gone with your father—I suspect my phrase is pretty accurate. If not, don’t use it.

And here is Maxine Kahn’s poem. She didn’t do the free write, but she did go home to find her poem:

 Summer Nights in Baltimore

I remember summer nights in Baltimore
We were ten back then in 1956
Boys in crew-cuts
And girls in swinging pony tails and short summer dos
From early light til dark
We ran up and down hot city streets and sidewalks
Escaping the heat on cool, wet summer lawns
We jumped and twirled
In and out of rotating sprinklers
And small round plastic pools
That dotted backyard lawns
Innocent and joyous
We lept about in shorts and skimpy shirts
Arms and legs poking out, lean
Brown as chestnuts
From long hours spent under the sun
We ran in packs then, into the twilight – til dark
Our feet snug in nifty blue Keds, and white PF Flyers
Carrying empty mayonnaise jars
With holes punched into their lids
Air vents for our future captives – lightning bugs
Like shooting stars – elusive
Speeding by in the night sky
Lightning bugs -
Our nighttime summer companions – our prey
Flashing on and off like Christmas lights
Disappearing and reappearing in a blink
As if playing hide-and-seek with us
Trying to outwit us
But for the glory of the hunt
We persist
Our voices rising into the night sky
One after another, claiming victory in the chase
“I see one, over there….no,  there its goes…it’s over there….I got it”
“And there’s another…..I got that one.”
Shouts my next-door neighbor,  Ronnie Aaronson
As he quickly snatches a set of lit wings
Out of the dark, and into a small fist 
Pulsing with warm yellow light
And carefully transfers each glowing catch
Into a jar
Then another and another, again and again
Two, three, four …
All blinking on and off
A light show behind glass walls
We are mesmerized by the sight of it
These flaming jeweled wings
Warming and lighting their temporary glass homes
We come together to compare, to see
Who has the best catch of the night
We huddle closer
To view the accumulated light from our jars
Now reflected onto our faces
Distant voices edge into our circle of excitement
It is our parents, perched above the street
Observing from railed cement porches
Connected to
The long stretch of red brick row houses
That lined our beloved Grantley Road
Our parents,
Sitting and rocking back and forth
On squeaky metal gliders
Sipping cool summer drinks
Calling our names out
Across lawns and into the streets
Waving us home for the night
We resist the calls
Wanting to stay in our huddle of friendship
But, as darkness falls, we give up our night chase
And head home
Our precious cargo in hand, lighting the way

More on Maxine and home and memoir in an upcoming post.

17 comments:

  1. Oh Mary I loved this post .. I also found it inspiring .. I love to write so much it fills a hole in me that otherwise, I can never satisfy.. I have been lost for sometime.. drinking too much.. working too hard on my building .. stress .. my kids.. no time for me.. The voice in my head, my narrative has been silenced ..
    You have unknowingly treated me to an appetiser that I thoroughly intend to work on.. maybe tonight before I sleep .. rather than trolling through Facebook to see what all my friends have been up to ... Thank you xx

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  2. At heart, Ruth, I am a teacher and I have begun to think of this blog as not only a place for me to write but perhaps more now as a place for me to pass on what I hard-earned have learned as I've been writing. I did this exercise as a 20 or 30 minute free-write some years ago and I journaled all my scribblings after I saw what had happened. I have been returning to pieces of that free-write in both my books and may do so again in the novel about memory that I am currently writing. It means so much to me that you took the time to comment here.

    Thank you and, more important, send me something from what you write for the exercise: the 100 word challenge is open to you and anyone else who visits this blog. My e-mail address is on my website.

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  3. Thanks, Mary! I enjoyed witnessing your teaching. You continue to inspire me in each life move you make.

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  4. As I say in the closing, the acknowledgments of my memoir, discovereuse, I have forged ahead on the sea of my reader's belief. Your belief in the memoir as it unfolded was consistent and sure and you are one of those who kept me afloat.

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  5. It's great to see your process of interaction with students & how you enrich one another. I hope you continue engaging blog readers in writing process and exercises. I know with my students a big issue is continuing to write after the class ends. An online community can actively encourage people to keep going, as I'm trying to in a slightly different way on my blog

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  6. helenqp,

    What a gift for you to comment here and encourage me and those who take the time from their busy lives to stop and read what the small moment can give to the world.

    I am in your debt for that moment in body and spirit when you showed up at my talk and reading at Rosemont College in Philadelphia, on the so-called "main line, and there you were, someone I had never met in person, present and whole.

    I thank you from my heart to yours.

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  7. Your gift for drawing out the stories inside shines through this post and the writing of the two women who were in the class. And I love the rich, sensual detail in Maxine's poem.

    Writing memoir is a gift to ourselves and to those who love us and to those who read our words, now and when we are gone.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading the guided memoirs. My friend Nina and I were talking about how much we can't remember. We are always amazed at the detail in memoirs: how did they manange to keep all that fresh in their minds? It's very hard for me to retrieve memories...I feel like whole chunks of my life are just gone. I look at artwork I did in my 20's and wonder: what was I thinking? Where did that come from? I honestly can't remember even doing it at all. Perhaps the key is to just start writing and see where it goes--surprise yourself. I'd be interested to know if your students were surprised.

    I was especially touched by the story of the father's death and the mother who stopped going to market and cooking. As your stories also tell, the preparation of food is so much a part of love and relationships with those you love.

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  9. Wendy, Thank you for this rich comment. I find that when I write, I can't recall how the writing happened. It's as if someone else did the work. I go away in this unbelievable, lovely way--even if what I am writing about comes from a place of loss. When I come awake, so to speak, the analytical part of me can edit. But I still don't know who actually did the writing. So "not remembering" is in this sense a bit like "not knowing": and that last is the key for the writer or artist of any ilk to invent. If you already "know" exactly where the work wants to go, I say, if you're a writer, write an op-ed. Story, whether memoir or fiction, is all about "not knowing," in a wondrous paradoxical way.

    I do hope these lovely ladies will comment on what you've said.

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  10. First off, I am so honored, Mary, that you have included my poem about Baltimore amongst the other writings about "home." It is true, thatI, too, didn't know exactly where this poem was going until I got there, that element of "not knowing" that you and Wendy mention actually helped me to search for the meaning and the heart of the poem. And I was able to go "home" to find it. Also, I really appreciated Cathryn Wellner"s comments.about my poem..it is quite nice to get feedback. Thankyou Cathryn.
    I was also struck by the writing of the other two women, both Achamma and Evelyn..the sense of and the presence of family in both and the intimacy that is revealed in just a short piece of the writing. I am inspired from what I have read here...and it helps me to keep on writing. Thank you Mary, for inviting me here and for taking me back home again, after 50 years, to that brick row house on Grantley Road, right across the street from you. I am so grateful. Love from your old friend and your new friend, Maxine

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  11. Maxine,

    It has been such a pleasure to be "found" by you. This blog and the Internet have been such a gift to my life. You found me through "Google," a new verb now, and Google owns Blogspot where I learned to blog and actually wrote my memoir _(Re)Making Love_ "live" here before I realized that I had a true love story and a miracle in my own life. Miracles get made, I think, through the connections with others and through the connection with our inner selves. As Martin Buber said in _I and Thou_, "All real living is meeting." Maxine, you exemplify his words. And now we are found again.

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  12. I was honored when Mary told me that she would post my "scene" on her blog and she did.

    I am starting to blog at http://AchammaChander.blogpost.com

    Comment on one of my blogs, please.

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  13. Get my blog via e-mail: see the upper right corner and follow me. See the follow button. I will then follow you back and I list who I follow through a link on my website.

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  14. Hi, Ahamma - I just tried to check out your blog and got one of those dreaded, "Oops!...could not find" messages. Then I realized you're a woman with fingers that trip like mine when they're speeding over the keyboard. I changed "blogpost" to "blogspot" and was blown away. The stories in your blog are so gripping.

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  15. Wendy, your journey into the heart of the poem and your openness to the meaning revealed through the act of writing it really resonate with me. No wonder the poem plucked my heartstrings.

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  16. Helen, Cathryn

    Thank you for stoping by and adding such lovely words.

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  17. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


    Row House

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