Falling-apart photograph album I picked up for a few dollars. A lifetime of someone’s memories.
Memory, like the ability to breathe, is something we take for granted until we don’t have it any more. Memory loss in some form strikes everyone, particularly as we get older. We put our car keys in the refrigerator and forgot why we went into a room. Add memory loss caused by medication and you’ve got somebody who can’t remember squat.
My mother had a phenomenal memory. When I was supposed to be doing math homework, I’d ask her to tell me about the "olden days." Bare-boned details were fleshed out with who else was there, what they said, what they ate, what she wore (especially her shoes), what the other person wore, the weather, and if there was a cat present.
Me: [trying to multiply 170 by 1] Tell me about the time Daddy tried to drive through the restaurant window.
Mama: We’d been to a nightclub on D Street with the couple across from us. It was in the spring of the year. We lived on Maple Street back then and had that part-Persian gray cat. I wore my aqua tulle semi-formal and dyed-to-match ankle-strap sandals. And my emerald rhinestone necklace. Your father wanted to tip the cigarette girl a hundred dollars and I said no. Then he got in an argument with the man we went with over where to eat. We stopped at Payne’s Restaurant and your daddy got it in his head to drive through the plate glass window. Showing off. The woman we went with screamed. She had on a lilac dress that didn’t fit right in the neck and closed-toe pumps. Her feet looked like boats. Candice, the answer is 170. You’re gonna wear the pencil eraser out.
Because I was a watcher and not a doer, I developed the same kind of memory. This was fine for my work but embarrassing at parties, dull book-based affairs where no one tried to drive through plate glass windows.
Other Person Who Clearly Had a Life: You look familiar. Have we met?
Me: Yeah, at an ABA party in ’86. At the Javits Center, remember? There was a garbage strike that summer and the city smelled awful. You had on brown slacks and a cream-colored top and your hair was in a bob with a tortoiseshell clip. I wore a light blue Gunne Sax skirt with a Victorian-style blouse. You were drinking white wine and said the appetizers were skimpy–
Other Person Who Clearly Had a Life: Um, I see somebody I need to say hello to.
For years, my memory was like an ever-producing maple tree I could tap into year-round. When I began taking medication, I had trouble with word retrieval.
Me: What’s the word for the place you go pee on the side of the road?
Me: No, the legal place.
Husband: Rest stop?
Me: Yes! That’s it!
Word retrieval memory loss can be funny unless you happen to be on live television. Once I was booked on "Virginia Today." The guests waited in the lobby and were called back one by one. Finally it was just me and the Maggie-Moo woman, whose ice cream was melting. They called her back to set up and then me. I followed a guy through a dark maze of cables. Then he said, "You’re on," and gave me a little push toward a tiny, brightly-lit set.
The hosts started chatting. I was doing fine until I forgot a word. I couldn’t think of a word even like that word or any word. I stared blankly at the hosts, who made motions to cut to commercial when I finally blurted out something. Later I asked my sister, who had watched the show, if I looked scared. She said she could tell something was wrong but probably no one else could. Yeah, right.
The message on the postcard says, "Now I can say I have saw both Atlantic and Pasific Oceans. Staid in a big South Land hotel. Saw a big air port. All kinds of planes. Love, Frances"
The medication I take causes short-term memory loss: word retrieval, misplaced car keys, etc. Since my greatest fear is that I’ll miss a school talk or forget to write an entire book, I set up an elaborate system of memory devices: a huge dry erase board propped behind my computer, note cards taped to my desk, several calendars, Post-Its on my forehead. (Electronic devices are no good–I can’t remember how to work them). But then I’d forget to look at the board, note cards, calendars, Post-Its.
But when the medication began wiping out chunks of long-term memory, I was really afraid. Not only was I losing the very thing I needed to do my work–my mind–but without memories, I lost my identity. Not too long ago, my sister mentioned the salt-and-pepper Formica table and chairs I took when my mother died and how I later sold them. I stared at her. I would never sell that table. It was where I ate fried squash and did my homework and listened to my mother’s stories. But I did sell it, she insisted. I rummaged through the jumble of my brain–the neat file cabinet of memories had been replaced by a junk room rivaling anything on Hoarders–and realized I had no recollection of taking my mother’s kitchen table or of selling it. It had to be true because I didn’t have the table.
After my mother died in 1989, I started writing a memoir. I’ve been writing it ever since, different versions, many drafts. Early on, the stories came easily. Now I had to rely on my sister. At night before falling asleep, I forced myself to remember things. It was like squeezing titanium through a sieve. What would happen when my past was gone? How would I write my life’s story? How would I write any stories?
I hobbled along with my Swiss-cheese brain for some time. Then I stumbled on a way to remember, something I once did as a kid (but had forgotten). When I went to my grandparents’ house when I was little, I always looked through my grandmother’s photo album. I didn’t know the people in the black-and-white photos, but I made up stories about them.
One evening not too long ago I was rooting through my suitcase of ephemera–photographs, letters, magazines, scrapbooks, autograph albums. I picked up one of the orphaned photographs and studied it. Then I found an old letter and "matched" it with the photo. I imagined a story about this person. I quit trying to remember and my mind relaxed.
Like the ocean after a storm, my brain tosses odd bits from my life on the shore. I pick up those memories like shells and write them down. Now I believe the memories are still there, just misfiled. The key to remembering is to get outside of myself. I go inside other people’s pictures, walk around–I’m the person just beyond the lens. You can’t see me but I’m there. I think this works in part because I’m handling the items, not just looking at digital images on a screen. The crinkle-edged black-and-white photos, the punky construction paper of a child’s first grade art, the petal-softness of a greeting card opened countless times . . . we all know smells can take us back in time. So can touch.
In her book What It Is, Lynda Barry asks: When we remember something do we use our imagination? When we imagine something do we use our memory?
Items from a scrapbook of Dickie Ford’s first-grade art projects (1951). On the back of the crayoned heart, his mother wrote, "2nd thing he brought home from school." So precious–how did these memories wind up on a sale table for $6?
Her words give me hope. The imaginative part of me is still there, quietly nudging forgotten memories to the front of the line. I’m working on my memoir again. Instead of tackling it as a daunting, book-length project, I write journal entries as the memories come to me. Then I turn those entries into short essays, like quilt blocks. Later I’ll stitch the blocks together into a book.
As for my memory devices, I threw away the dry-erase board, the note cards, and all but one of the calendars. I keep a to-do list on my desk. Another list goes in my purse when I run errands. I may temporarily lose my car keys or miss a dentist appointment–it’s not the end of the world. More importantly, I’m no longer panicked about blocked memories.
On Wednesday, I will write about how an artifact from my own past gave me back my junior year in high school.
You see these necklaces all over Etsy shops: old wristwatches or pocketwatches with dangling charms. Most of the necklaces I’ve seen, either in Etsy shops or antique shops, start at $50. Last weekend I made my own. My watch necklace has personal meaning and cost a fraction of what I would pay for a ready-made necklace. You can do it too!
You will need:
1. An old watch. A wristwatch works best. If it’s missing it’s band, great. If the band is still attached, either leather or metal flex, remove it with pliers.
2. A pair of needle-nose jewelry pliers. You can get these at any craft shop. Years ago when jewelry-making first became popular, I fell down that rabbit hole and bought every tool, special boxes to store beads in, tiger tail, wire, findings, charms, and tubes of beads I could lay my hands on. When I closed my studio, I got rid of all my jewelry-making stuff, too, except one pair of needle-nose pliers. Now that I’m piddling with jewelry again, I keep my pliers, findings, and charms in a vintage glove box.
3. A chain. Any craft store has boatloads of these. Look for one that’s a bit sturdier than a regular necklace chain.
4. Findings. You can buy a package of assorted jump rings and closures in bronze, pewter, gold, or silver finish, depending on the metal of your watch. But it doesn’t have to match!
5. Charms. Raid your junk jewelry box for small earrings, lockets (children’s lockets are perfect), charms from bracelets. Or you can buy all new charms, as I did. Save up your Michael’s or A.C. Moore 40 percent off coupons and/or watch for in-store specials. You can save a lot even though the stuff is cheap to start with–my chain cost $2.99. I used a 40 percent off coupon and it was–well, you figure it out.
Split the chain in half by removing links. With jump rings, afix the chain to each end of the top of the watch, where the band was attached. Make sure the lengths of chain are even. Attach a large jump ring on the end of one length, and a clasp on the end of the other length.
If you take out several links to divide your chain, you can use the scrap on the bottom of the watch. (On mine, I used a different scrap of chain). Attach it with a jump ring to the left side of the bottom of the watch, where the other half of the band was. Stagger a few small charms along the length of the scrap-chain. Or just attach one on the end. Add a charm or two on the other side of the watch for balance.
Hearts, locks, and keys are huge right now (think Tiffany’s!) and you’ll find lots of them in the craft stores. If you use a pocketwatch, you can attach charms along the length of the necklace chain here and there and dangle a couple from the top of the watch.
When I finished making my watch–which took about 15 minutes–I was thrilled! The bandless watch had belonged to my stepfather. I felt a connection to him as I attached an initial "L," for his last name. And when I put the necklace on for the first time, the second hand, frozen for more than 40 years, began to sweep around the face of the watch.
Probably handling the watch jiggled something inside, but I like to think it was my heartbeat that started my stepfather’s watch again. Whenever I wear it, I can communicate with him.
Since 1982, when my first book was published, I’ve always had a book contract. Most of my career I wrote between four and six books a year. I squeezed in my own projects–things I wanted to write without a contract–on weekends and between contract books. It was normal for me to work this way and I was used to it.
But things began unraveling in the spring of 2008. A long-time editor who had published many of my books left the company. She championed my quiet books, but I suspected her replacement would not. Our last two books together were supposed to be my "break-through" novels, but without her, I was back on the bottom of the mid-list pile again.
At my nonfiction house, editors and imprints disappeared. I’d been doing books with this company forever and loved the people. But things were changing there, too, to keep up with economic troubles. After 16 years, I was no longer being given work. My picture book editor hadn’t contacted me in ages. My other nonfiction house seemed uninterested in further work as well.
Well, now I had more time to concentrate on my series. But one July afternoon as I was leaving to teach my class, my editor called and informed me the series was being halted at ten books. We were both devastated. The extension contract for additional titles (I’d already written one and was halfway through another) was canceled. This was a huge blow. I was building up a head of steam with that series and I loved the editor, the house, and my work there. But it was over. Poof. Gone.
When I came home from Hollins, I wiped off the fall deadlines on my dry erase board. Although I still had books in the pipeline, I had no more work. I looked around my messy office. For the first time in nearly 30 years, I had no book contracts, no editors expecting anything from me. It wasn’t the first time a string of books had been canceled. Back then I had the stamina to pull myself out of the pit. I’d always left a trail of breadcrumbs with all my publishers. But this time I was too sick and found myself lost in the woods anyway.
That summer I began developing odd symptoms. Hot flashes. The sensation of ants crawling on my legs. I was forgetful and scattered–I actually went to two appointments, one a hundred miles away, a week early. I slept less and less. I stumbled even when I was standing still. My hair fell out. My face broke out. I chalked up the symptoms to the stress of my crumbling career but they kept piling on until it all came to a head Labor Day weekend when I quit sleeping. Altogether.
After being up forty-eight hours, I was given a drug to knock me out but we still didn’t know the cause. My husband suggested my problems were side effects of the new medication I’d been taking most of the year. I found a web forum in which patients discuss specific medications. As I scrolled through comment after comment, I realized I had at least 25 side effects. Some annoying, like my face breaking out; some very serious, like insomnia.
During the day I wandered around my house like a boat without a rudder, unable to think straight. At night, even though I had medication to help me sleep, I was afraid to go to bed. Once before I’d had a less severe bout of insomnia. Back then I bought semi-precious stones that supposedly helped promote sleep. I kept chunks of amethyst, malachite, lepidolite, and chrysoprase in a Royal Doulton teacup on my nightstand. Before turning out my light, I’d touch the rocks and send up prayers to Morpheus and Hypnos and anybody else who could help me drop off.
In my journal, I wrote: Years ago, I prayed to the rocks in the teacup to let me sleep. Now I need to pray for my work to come back. I don’t have any rocks for that.
I moved into my office and slept on an Aerobed. With only a book light to push back the menacing darkness, for weeks I read a single book, Friendly Village, a child’s primer published in 1936. The simple story comforted me.
I know a village where you would like to live. I would like to live there, too. The streets run up and down hills. All the trees are big and beautiful. The houses have a friendly look. There are flowers growing in every garden.
I seldom wrote in my journal. This is the only entry from October 2008:
Last night I crawled in my Aerobed in total darkness except for the tiny book light. It felt like punishment to still be sleeping alone in my office.
I woke from this dream: someone I had thwarted wanted to get back at me. He clamped big earphones over my ears and thrust some machine on a spiraling cord in my hands. I threw the machine out the door but he said it didn’t matter, he had what he needed. I knew he was going to take my identity. I turned on my cell phone but there was nothing but gibberish on the screen. I ran through the woods in bare feet to get to my husband but when he opened the door of our house, he didn’t know me. I was too late. The person had already stolen my identity.
When I sat up, I realized my identity wasn’t stolen, but gone somewhere deep inside me. I’m not all pills and side effects. But soon I will be, I think.
I cry in my sleep because I wake up with my cheeks wet.
Clearly I had no place to go but up. And I did, slowly, when I let myself trust in a character named Iva Honeysuckle. Iva first appeared in 2007–she and her boisterous family boiled into my head one day. I knew she had a raft of double-first cousins and lived in Uncertain, Virginia. But I had no time for Iva then.
In the summer of 2008, I wrote four or five chapters on the Iva book. That fall since I had nothing to do and nothing to lose, I continued working on the book. Iva got me out of the Aerobed in the mornings. She gave me purpose. She was funny and great company. I loved the project but I was nervous. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever done before.
From my journal in November 2008:
Iva will lead the way, I think. I have plans for three books. And last night I figured out how to loosely use that year in Manassas Park and turn it into a funny mid-grade set in a trailer park: "Rebel McKenzie and the Purple Avenger."
I was starting to dare to hope again. Iva Honeysuckle took me by the hand and led me out of uncertainty. I finished the book and my agent placed it and an unwritten sequel with Disney-Hyperion in 2009. But I felt it was a fluke. I wrote Rebel McKenzie Will Never Wear Big Hair that year, again writing "without a net," with no editor or expectations. And when Rebel sold to Hyperion in 2010, I let myself believe that possibly–just maybe–I was finally on the right path.
In my long career, I have "reinvented" myself several times. For a while I thought I had reinvented myself again, this time into a writer of funny southern books. But as time passed and I gained strength, I realized this is what I’m meant to do (my agent knew this long before I did). Maybe I was always meant to do these kinds of books but I never had the opportunity or the market wasn’t right or I was too chicken.
I’ve given up the notion of being rich and famous. Ain’t gonna happen, not at my age. But that realization brings incredible freedom as I continue down this new road and I love it. It’s the work ahead that matters, not those 115 books or the fact I used to have my own series or once-upon-a-time traveled to all the big conferences. As far as my career is concerned, the unknown doesn’t scare me any more.
This is not to say there won’t be bumps in that road. It’s the nature of the business and life. I still have health issues and some medication side effects are with me forever, though I’m much better. When those problems come back–and they will–I’ll deal with them. Meanwhile, I’m working at my own pace on two new books.
Before I opened my eyes the last several mornings, I heard returning robins singing in the pear tree outside our window. With spring comes new projects, new hope.
Flowers growing in every garden.
Next week I’ll post about writing with memory loss; the week after that, writing with depression. Please note I won’t name or discuss the medications I was prescribed. I’m extremely drug-sensitive and meds that backfire on me work miracles on others.
My office back then, with the infamous dry-erase board that seemed to scream, "Deadlines! Get to work!"
Earlier this month Susan Taylor Brown posted on the topic of career stalls, which elicited a flurry of comments. Kimberley Little remarked that "nobody talks about it because it’s so awful and, well, frankly, embarrassing." She’s right on both counts.
The life of a children’s book writer isn’t all agents and editors, critiques and marketing. There are long-term aspects to consider, such as planning and managing your career. Three years ago, my career was flushed in the toilet. It’s something I rarely talk about because it was embarrassing and awful . . . and painful. But I came out the other end having learned valuable lessons. Here’s what happened.
By all accounts, I was successful in my field. I had over 100 books published, had earned two back-to-back advanced degrees after the age of 50, had my own series, taught in an out-of-state low-residency graduate writing program, and was a sought-after conference speaker. People told me I should be thrilled with my life, I should be proud, I should be rich.
I wasn’t any of those things.
On New Year’s Day, 2008, I looked at my calendar: seven books to write, three out-of-state conventions to attend, a major revision that included my own art projects, five or six other revisions, plus I had been asked to teach at Hollins University that summer. And that was my schedule on January first–as the year wore on, other projects, deadlines, and events would roll in.
I kept a journal most of that year. This is from the entry dated January 3, 2008:
I’m wearing myself out with constant distractedness which is why I had to work like a demon to finish the book and deliver it on New Year’s Eve . . . I’m supposed to be working at this moment on the next book, due Feburary 15. I haven’t started it.
From the January 23 entry:
I have a lot of balls in the air right now. I can’t afford to drop any of them. I need to figure out when I’m going to start in on those extra proposals. Get them on paper and start chewing through them. My days are eaten up with contract books, research, and e-mails . . . I need to write everything down, figure out what needs to be done, and schedule it.
January 25, 2008:
I need to sort out my schedule because I may have eight books to write this year and I could be in real trouble if I don’t get a daily schedule worked out. I can’t fit in the research and outlines without overlapping projects. Lord, how I hate to write two books at once. It’s grueling, but I think I’ll be doing it in about a month.
February 2, 2008:
February already! I’m behind, as usual. Each book that I do will have to be revised and the revisions will pile up. I need to make a weekly or even a daily schedule, not just the dry erase board that often looks deceptively empty.
I asked my doctor if he knew of any good self-help books for people who are overwhelmed. He gave me a few titles and said I should write my own. Of course! I stand in front of the self-help section of the bookstore, looking for just the right book for myself, but I can’t ever find it. When I’m going to do this, I don’t know, but I already have a title: Lessons from the Secret Garden: Managing the Rest of My Life Using Classic Children’s Books.
February 17, 2008:
Last night I dreamed I was home again, living in my old bedroom. Same furniture, except the digital clock on the nightstand is the one I have now. I had trouble going to sleep last night. In my dream, I was awake too. On my bed were manuscripts of books I was working on. I picked up the Williamsburg proposal and decided I didn’t want to do it. I was sick of spec nonfiction. I also counted the books I had left for the year, correctly–due in May, August, October, and December. I wanted the months of June and July to work on something for myself. I would be teaching at Hollins then, but I should be able to start a just-for-me project.
But then, still in my dream, I picked up something I had forgotten about. A book due January 15, 2009! It was a nonfiction book about California with photographs. It has Post-It notes all over it, indicating the book had been assigned to someone else and now my editor was giving it to me. How could I possibly do a book two weeks after my December 31st book? I felt so stressed. Then I looked at my digital clock. I couldn’t read the time–the face with crowded with other messages. I barely made out it was 3:10 a.m. and I still wasn’t asleep. I saw some Daddy Longlegs and other spiders on the floor and got up to stomp them. Then my real clock went off.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out I was on a train with no one at the controls. From my journal, February 28, 2008:
My thoughts are wrapped in cotton. My thinking has slowed so much, I have pretty much stopped talking. Instead of worrying about my creativity coming back, I have lost all desire to have it come back. Writing books seems like something I did a long time ago, even though I’m still doing them. When I read last night, the words on the page didn’t make sense . . .
The next day I went to my doctor. He told me to cut my work load in half immediately or I would be in worse shape than I already was. I couldn’t imagine being any worse (little did I know), but canceling contracts? Conferences? I’d never done that in my life! He also put me on a new drug to help me deal with stress.
I couldn’t cut my schedule in half, but I canceled a not-firmed-up school visit and one of the out-of-state conferences. I got a couple of deadlines stretched a bit. The medication began to work right away and I felt better.
By the time I was ready to leave for Hollins in mid-June to teach for the summer, I was doing great. By the time I came home in August, my entire career was in tatters and the train was about to crash.
Continued in Part II on Wednesday.
I’m delighted to report that my board book Hello, Virginia! has been nominated as a finalist for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. This award has been given for the last fourteen years.
The Library of Virginia has recently added a category for children’s fiction, ages 4 to 8. So John Grisham and David Baldacci can stop shaking in their Italian loafers over the thought of devastating competition from my board book.
I’ll know this fall whether that cute little red-haired girl won the hearts of the judges.
The first of an occasional series of posts–a "block" or "patch" to be stitched into my memoir-quilt:
On the morning of Valentine’s Day, 1971, I dressed for work in a deep funk. I didn’t have a boyfriend and my legs didn’t go together. My mother had just informed me of the latter.
"Your legs don’t go together," she said, turning me to the mirror. I had just yanked up my People’s Drug Store panty hose ("Coffee Bean," the only shade I wore for years) and stepped into my favorite ice blue pettipants.
"What do you mean, they don’t go together." I said. My legs were skinny, but I thought they matched at least.
"You shouldn’t see daylight between them." Mama stood beside me with the sides of her feet touching and hiked up her robe. Her thighs were pressed tightly together to the knee. Below the knee, firm calves swelled above her "racehorse" ankles.
My legs had three diamond-shaped gaps–at the upper thighs, at the knees, and at the ankles. While I could still catch a greased pig if it ran between my legs, you could definitely see daylight. I didn’t realize then that in my mother’s era young women aspired to be pin-up girl Betty Grable, with legs that "met." Black and white photographs show Mama at my age, perched on a car fender or a porch railing or a fence post with her skirt hitched up just enough to show off her legs from the knees down, her slender ankles wrapped in strappy peep-toed shoes.
I put on my Peter Pan collar blouse and hiphugger mini-skirt and slipped into my unsexy high school loafers. My mother probably wouldn’t be caught dead in penny loafers but I was going to work, not dancing at the U.S.O. I was a secretary at the new Fairfax County government building. Barely eighteen, I had already distinguished myself as "the girl to watch" after the time I single-handedly broke nine Xerox machines, one on each floor.
I left the house, depressed over my reputation for wrecking copy machines and my diamond-gapped legs. That afternoon my secretary "buddy," a newlywed who efficiently pounded her IBM Selectric at the next desk and whose chubby thighs rubbed crisply when she walked down the hall, received flowers and a big box of Russell Stover’s from her husband. The sprig of coleus I was trying to root in a glass of water looked anemic beside Mary Jane’s burgeoning bouquet of yellow roses. I wondered if Mary Jane’s legs gave off sparks when she went to the copy machine.
I hated being eighteen. I hated Valentine’s Day. I vowed to wear only pantsuits.
When I got home from work, my mother was in the kitchen fixing supper. I didn’t sift through the mail on the table. Who would send me a Valentine?
But in my room, unwrapped presents covered my bedspread. A giant plastic long-stemmed sunflower, a huge red plastic heart made of punched chips fused together (only in the seventies would kitcsh be elevated to such heights), a pink fuzzy cat, a four-piece Whitman’s sampler, and a great big Valentine card with Snoopy at his typewriter.
For one breathless second I believed I had a secret admirer. Someone who loved me, gappy legs and all.
Then I saw Mama in the doorway. She had bought these things. She knew how it felt to be eighteen and boyfriendless (though she had forbidden me to date until I was sixteen, which in my case was like forbidding me not to dig up too many dinosaur bones in our back yard). My mother and I seemed to have nothing in common, but I never loved her more than I did that moment.
Years later, I was engaged on Valentine’s Day. The following year I married my husband on Valentine’s Day. On our Valentine anniversaries, my husband showered me with romantic cards, beribboned boxes of Godiva, heart-shaped jewelry set with rubies and diamonds. We planned to renew our vows on our tenth anniversary, but my mother was sick. She died that summer.
One day I glanced in the mirror and noticed I had my mother’s legs, from the knees down.
Happy Almost-Valentine’s Day! Monday is a big day for me and my husband because it’s also our wedding anniversary. We try to maximize our celebration by stretching it out over a few days.
Today is "chicken soup" day–a trip down 301 to Hanover County. "Chicken soup" is our personal shorthand for a vintage junket that involves lunch at the Hanover Cafe in the hamlet of Hanover Courthouse. On Fridays, they feature my husband’s favorite chicken rice soup.
Tomorrow we’ll have full tea service at Pinkadilly. They aren’t open on Sundays or Mondays, but that’s okay. Two Queen Elizabeth teas is just as good on a Saturday!
A charm bracelet I made this week, with a photo of my husband in front of the pink Pinkadilly door.
Yesterday something clicked from my weekend at the AWP conference. Often the techniques I bring back from conferences sit in my writer’s toolbox a while before I’m skilled enough to use them. But sometimes a speaker will touch on a subject that will trigger something in my brain. In this case it’s the memoir I’ve been working on since 1989 (or my entire life) and have two "failed" versions to show for my efforts.
I am giving up the "whole book" approach. Writing a memoir is scary. Where do you start? What’s your theme? How much should you cover? What should you leave out? Where does it end? It’s enough to give you buck fever the second you sit at the keyboard.
At one of the AWP memoir panels, someone mentioned the mosaic approach–short essays that are tied together. I immediately thought of my book as a quilt. I can write short essays–the blocks–in any order, as memories come to me, and stitch them together later into a pleasing pattern.
From time to time, I’ll post some of my memoir essays on this blog. Monday, Valentine’s Day, will be my first. Hope to see you there!
Every year the AWP conference schedules more than 300 events. Like a kid whose eyes are bigger than her belly, I checked off more programs than I could possibly sit through.
A wonderful panel was titled "Story Within a Story" (I didn’t record all the presenters’ names). The panelists discussed the function of a story within a story, such as the straight "tale-within-a-tale," as in The Arabian Nights. There is the frame story of Scheherazade’s need to keep her husband entertained, and the stories she tells him within that frame. In Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher," the character Roderick recites a poem that tells a story within the main narrative.
One of the panelists discussed Peter Taylor’s story, "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time" (which I wrote down as "Venus, Cupid Falling in Time" and sort of like better) as an example of how to handle second-hand material. If you are told a story and want to use it, you must acknowledge the teller somehow. Taylor’s story is about an elderly brother and sister who live together (and are lovers) and who open their mansion once a year to the town’s teenagers. Taylor’s mother knew the real brother and sister and related the tale to him. Taylor wrote from the viewpoint of a teenager who’d been to the couple’s previous parties. By telling the story from a slightly distant POV, he acknowledged the material had been given to him and was his to use but not to own. Tip: stop the teller before they get to the end of the story so you can make up your own ending. [P.S.: After hearing the discussion of "Venus, Cupid," Taylor’s story was first on my list of must-reads!]
Next I attended a reading by alums from the Hollins Creative Writing Program. The famous undergraduate writing program just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Jill McCorkle, David Huddle, Madison Smartt Bell, Jeanne Larson (and two others–sorry!) read from their work, then read selections from past alums. I listened to poetry and passages of novels and short stories read in reassuring flat, careless Southern accents and felt I was sitting on a front porch on a soft summer evening while neighbors chatted about the fortune teller in the trailer park and the man burned in a factory fire.
"Narrative Speculation" covered ethics and techniques of speculation in narrative nonfiction and memoir. How closely do we have to stick to facts? Even in nonfiction, the writer can admit he doesn’t know some things by using such phrases as "It’s possible," "Some people believe," and even, "I don’t know…" By admitting early on in the piece what the writer doesn’t know, the reader is invited to come along on the journey with the writer as opposed to being told the story.
"No discovery in the writer, no discovery in the reader," one panelist said, paraphrasing Robert Frost’s quote, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Sometimes it’s good to know less, thus allowing room for expression and emotion. Write toward revelation–yours, not the reader’s. Art gives us the tools to help us know what we can’t know. When beginning a new piece, ask yourself what question are you trying to answer. Looking for the answer is more important than getting the answer. Don’t always write to "fill in the gaps." You may force a pattern on your text instead of letting your narrative align itself naturally.
My favorite panel was called "The Intimate Detail." As writers we are always prodded to use telling details, show not tell, etc. The right intimate detail can change the alliance between the reader and the main character. One panelist said, "These details allow you to take your character off life support and let them breathe for themselves."
Alice McDermott was the only presenter on this panel who did not read from her own work. Instead she read a page from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, about the narrator’s remembering his mother in a sleigh in St. Petersburg. McDermott read this excerpt slowly, lovingly. Her words fell like snowflakes in the crowded, silent ballroom. She pointed out individual details, how Nabokov layered them so the details would "step on time’s receding tail." Don’t pile on more details, McDermott advised, for the sake of adding adjectives and adverbs. It’s the way the perfect visualization leads the reader to the moment where physical detail becomes emotion. Then she read the same passage again. Slowly, lovingly. [McDermott advised writers to type or write out passages that you love.]
So how do we achieve this in our fiction? Looking for intimate detail (like Googling a particular fact to add specificity) is not the same as trusting your language to take the reader (and you) to the emotional moment in a scene. Often details can be thought of in advance but they don’t always fulfill their promise to spotlight the moment. If you’re having trouble reaching the right intimate detail, layer them on and edit later. Your emotional moment may be hiding. McDermott suggested this exercise: When writing a scene, ask yourself what do you hear? And under that, what do you hear? And beneath that sound, what do you hear? Apply this method to all five senses–this will get you to see beyond the obvious details that first come to mind.
I attended other panels and events, but these stayed with me. I came away with a refreshing sense of not writing to trends or the marketplace, but toward the unknown. I’m often handed stories but now know I must acknowledge the giver in some way. I learned not to jot the first detail that pops in my head but to search for the right detail to allow the reader to enter the scene.
Most important, I learned the value of close reading. When I was getting my MA in children’s literature, I kicked at the technique of close reading, disliking the tendency to assign an "ism" (feminism, multi-culturism, Freudianism, etc.) to every sentence, it seemed. Now I see the benefit of close reading for craft. It would be easy to skip over that sleigh-ride passage in Nabokov. But by slowing down, freezing sections of narrative to see the author’s intent, I can find my way to the emotional moment and hope I can do the same in my own work.
Of course I saved the best for last. On our last evening at the conference, I treated myself to a fancy dessert. Italian pizzelle cookies (warm and crunchy) topped with scoops of chocolate mousse and drizzled with mango and raspberry sauces. I worked my way slowly, lovingly through that treat, peeling back layers of different flavors until I reached the emotional truth of the moment: this dessert will settle on my butt forever.
The AWP Bookfair was always mobbed and it was easy to see why. Although I enjoy the exhibit halls of ALA, BEA, and IRA, this bookfair topped them all for its energy, courage, and ingenuity. Where else could you pose for a photo holding a stuffed rooster? That’s me (the one who looks like she’s going to spit out a wad of gum or burst out laughing) and Amanda Cockrell, who loves chickens and roosters.
So why was this bookfair so different? For one thing there were no big "mega-booths" manned by forces of smartly-dressed marketing and sales types. At BEA or ALA you get snarled in the aisles of the Random House booth or Simon & Schuster or Penguin, often unable to see the books. AWP had small booths or individual tables. No billboard-sized posters of book jackets. Many tables announced who they were with hand-lettered banners on kraft paper.
The handmade factor drew me in. In the above photo are letterpress books: one is covered with a vintage map and the poems inside are printed vertically and horizontally, making you turn the book as you would a road map. Below it, those cigarette-like tubes are scrolls of poetry and prose, packed in an old cigarette box sprayed with an ashy-textured substance.
This chapbook was beautifully presented in reclaimed book covers with a box to hold the chapbook and related materials. A cassette of the author reading his work is afixed to the other side.
Author trading cards! Instead of stats on the back, there’s a poem. The calfskin-covered books were supple and sensual to the touch. I longed for a journal bound in hand-tooled leather.
Every table or booth had giveaways. I took all the candy, of course, and basically noshed my way up and down the aisles. The above photo shows a sample of some of the swag. There’s one item in that group you probably won’t see on a table at ALA. In fact when I picked it up, I didn’t know what it was at first. The two young guys sitting behind the table must have had a difficult time keeping straight faces when I said, "What is this? Some sort of mood ring?" Well, it is. Kind of.
Here is my study in red, photographed on our hotel room floor. The fortune-telling fish in the upper left corner just lay there when Amanda and I placed it on our palms. I guess that’s a portent in itself. We had a blast picking up candy and buttons and trinkets, filling our bags like magpies. The buttons were interesting and often hilarious and our tote bags clinked as we bumped down the aisles.
Two of my favorites (seen below): the white button of four men marching lockstep with the slogan, "New Hope for Rodents" and the one with a hermit crab (just below the big red button) that says, "Have You Checked on Horace Lately?"
But what set this bookfair apart from the others was its sense of hope–for writers if not for rodents. Nowhere did I hear the word "e-book." Books and journals were lovingly and beautifully produced as objects of lasting value. No one was vying for the "big book" of the fair. At ALA and BEA you can cut the tension with a machete. The sense of competition is overpowering, like an acrid smell.
The lack of hype at AWP was enormously refreshing. The enthusiasm of young people working the booths made me forget about the demise of independent booksellers and of books altogether. The financial troubles of Borders and Barnes and Noble, the flap over picture books being ignored by parents who saddle their toddlers with Where the Red Fern Grows instead of Goodnight Moon, the tug-of-war over electronic rights–all drifted into the rarified air of the bookfair like balloons. I did not see a single zombie (however, I did see a transvestite).
My hat is off to those brave souls who run small presses and journals, who believe the written word is art and not just a commodity. I came away heartened and also itching to make a tiny little book in a matchbox.
Tomorrow I will cover the panels I attended Friday and Saturday, speakers so wonderful, I felt every single one was speaking to me personally.