The Memoir: “Cut a Path to the Writer’s Past and Rediscover It”

memory-laneIn some of my last blogs, we’ve looked at the Memoir and evolving perspectives on what they should contain and who is most likely to benefit from them. Well, yet again I’ve found an interesting article that brings me closer to understanding the Memoir as an art form that addresses people’s present as well as past. In the September 17th issue of The New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews poet/novelist/memoirist Mary Karr’s latest book titled The Art of Memoir. While there is much to make a writer and reader think about in terms of “latest” books, “how to” books, and influences on a writer’s choices of subject in this article, ultimately, here, I want to discuss process and inspiration.

One of the first things that jumped out at me as a tutor and professor of composition is that Karr draws from the syllabus she uses at Syracuse University for this book’s ideas and structure. That is much like I am doing with my blog. I am letting these small sections and themes to become the basis of a larger work. It’s kind of my syllabus. She is drawing from experience in terms of success and failure in application. I am offering insight and philosophy based on my own successes and disappointments or failures. She’s observed aspiring memoirists in action in her classroom and can draw not only from her own works, then, but the results of other “would-be” writers. I work to include both aspiring writers as well as those who have found their voice and their way.

So? Perhaps your own scattered notes and ideas are actually not languishing ideas without focus, but building blocks to assemble into a guide for others or a foundation for a larger work you had not considered writing.

But let’s get back to Memoir in general and Karr in particular. In the article she calls herself a ‘passionate, messy teacher.’ It’s the passion in her work that draws people to her as a guide as well as an author. I like the idea of “messy” because many would-be writers think of the drafting or even teaching process as something only heavily organized or type-A people can do well. Or maybe the artist/author has an an assistant to make it all go smoothly. But getting messy is what it’s all about—especially with truth. But the mess must be organized into parts that translate well to the reader who has no ability to “see” or “remember” the past as you can. Embrace the mess and sweep and arrange it into a coherent narrative. That means edit and rewrite as needed for as long as needed but don’t throw out the edgy or uncomfortable things. These make you human and honest.

I’ve talked about imitation and emulation as a tool as you find your own voice. Karr addresses this as well. But then once you’ve studied the likes of Nabokov, McCourt, Maya Angelou, and others, including Karr, do you see a rhythm or truth in their work that affects you or do you have a voice that does not align with frameworks of resentment, affection, glamorizing, philosophizing, humor, or tattling that may dominate some writers’ themes. Karr looked carefully at her own life and her own voice was what made her work, fiction and nonfiction, engaging. She says to be ‘aware of [your] sensory impressions.’ I teach my students to engage in affecting the reader with vivid imagery even in nonfiction. The senses are what connect us all and if you don’t address what a stranger may be able to comprehend in the use of these, you are not truly able to connect to him.

As the article so well states: “Readers will love you for your imperfections.” So get messy, take chances, and, perhaps, read Karr’s book. What’s to lose?

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We Are All Movers of Obstacles

Meditation does not guarantee peace. It is very much the job of the mind to encroach upon our precious moments and deposit obligations, regrets, great plans, and worry any moment there is a chance of quiet or calm, and our consciousness often acquiesces to these distractions because they are so incredibly strong and very important to us. After all, they design and direct our goals and create a structure for our behavior.

imagesThese obstructions, like many others, are possible to move aside given that you have the right fulcrum. There is no certainty of the existence of a chant or theory that will be the catalyst for your “aha” moment, but, what is certain, is that you can create it for yourself. You are the foundation of your quieted mind.

I came to agree with this ideology—as I often do come to understandings or even questions—as I lay upon my yoga mat after an especially vigorous class. On this day, the outside world and its cares were rather easily forgotten. Like many of us, I do have a tendency to let shopping lists or big ideas flow around when I should be savoring my down time. The darkness was let in and welcomed and the familiar horizontal streaks of insistent daylight played in front of my lids. As I let go, images and lights flashed around incoherently. As they gelled, I had a vision that each of my fellow practitioners was sitting upon her mat in the form of Ganesha and each had a flame over her head. The room was not fully formed, so the background was a general haze of pale yellowish light. I was mesmerized and fascinated and happy and still disengaged from interpretation or analysis. As the voice of my teacher, Alison Levine, gently enticed us back to the moment, I held on to the feeling of wonder.

When I discussed this with Allison, neither of us really knew what to think of this. Obviously we knew it was Ganesha and I have a fondness for that deity, but that did not help me understand why he was manifested as a student and topped with the tongue of a flame as you’d see in relation to the Holy Ghost in Christian scriptures. I was raised Catholic so it’s possible some of the love and beauty from these teachings aligned with this deity, and being blessed with the Holy Spirit is much like being filled with the confidence of the Mover of Obstacles. But Ganesha is related to wisdom and intellect–a guide for those who prefer more active engagement with spirituality. I see the Holy Spirit related to surrender rather than action.

Interestingly, Ganesha is also associated with writers and a writer must remove any obstruction that impedes the creative or analytical process. Inspiration is really not an outside force, but an inner movement motivated by openness to possibilities. Upon reflection I felt a sense of surety that I was identifying each student present as their own mover of obstacles if not in life, in practice on the mat. We were all capable of embodying the idea of challenge and the flame was a reiteration of being infused with this potential.

This idea of possibilities in yoga crosses in to my teaching and writing often. The end is not always what I am concerned with , but the process and what coming to the mat, computer, or notepad may ignite. Your initial intention may very well be moved aside to make room for more or different experiences and output.

As you know, there is much out there on how to remove negative mantras from our thinking patterns, and the term “mindfulness” is becoming a mainstream catch phrase. But do we always find a personal connection to these pieces of advice or terms? And what about those who are interfered with by outside forces rather than internal and who may not have the spiritual resources, yet, to circumvent or fully remove these human or financial trees from the path? I find that when people say “get rid of excuses” or some such maxim, there is insight lacking in their statement. Excuses are formed of matter that bad experiences (perceived or real), low energy (spiritual or physical), and poor self esteem merge to create. An excuse is a symbol of much deeper concerns, not a generic barrier used to casually avoid change. BUT, once the platform for the excuse is restructured or razed, the practiced rationalization is no longer so dear or poignant to the person’s personal rhetoric. The obstacle has been removed or reworked and a new story can be written.

What is your obstacle? Is it a tangible object or a thought that impedes your forward momentum? As a practitioner, do you find any particular impediment to your practice or your quiet mind?

 

Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

Memoirists: My Educators

I was so pleased to read the comments and see the “likes” that appeared in response to my last post. I am always trying to stay in learning mode and keep from atrophying intellectually or creatively, so the feedback I get is always of interest and importance.

Through my newfound colleagues in the blogging community, I have learned even more about the Memoir.  I find myself enlightened as to the fact that a Memoir’s value should be gauged by each reader and their preferences or needs rather than by a preconceived idea of who the Memoirist should be or what their “qualifications” are.

Because I focus my blog content on the pursuit of inspiration for writing in general–rather than in one particular genre–and because I frame my work in relation to the principles and patience of yoga, I cannot remain inspired if I don’t investigate my stubbornness or even snobbery about the varied aspects of these disciplines. To look critically at the place the Memoir holds in my academic background is the first thing I needed to do. The Memoir or an Autobiography, in my literature studies, has always been part of a larger pattern of investigation that helped me to understand a particular writer’s process in life and art. The texts brought to me an understanding of their methods and moods as well as their social or historical influences (I’ll not argue theory here). I adore the work of Edith Wharton, but, without reading about her, I don’t feel that I could claim to begin to understand her work and I would be more passive in my engagement of her books. How is it that she so adeptly censures the suffocating world of the New York aristocracy of her time? How does she so aptly understand the poor or extreme choices one makes when in love or in need of status?

But what about non-academic studies? What about the study of the immediate world around me? What are other people doing with their lives right now and what are the events that shaped them or that must have been navigated to survive or thrive? Can’t they be of interest? Can’t they be included in the Humanities? If I am going to be a reliable teacher of writing, I must understand the modern reader and not just my literary predecessors of both fiction and nonfiction. This is where the modern Memoir comes in to play and takes me out of my institutional sense of propriety. This is where I continue to learn: By letting the discussion or debate happen around me and letting the new voices, the current thinkers and writers tell me about their standards. Let’s face it, unless I need to get a grant or need to gain tenure, do I really have to subscribe to one way of approaching my studies? Yes, this is going to be related to yoga but only briefly: There is no one way to practice. There are many ways of learning and progressing. It’s only up to you if you choose one path of study. That is fine. But do know it is a choice and that there are other paths for other people! Maybe a stroll down one will bring you closer to your own goals!

The Memoir: A Saturated Trend in Publishing or Beneficial Genre for All Readers?

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In last April’s edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison defended the Memoir and other forms of published personal reflection as being effective tools for readers to use in order to understand or investigate ways of being. She argues that books in this genre need not be trendy and vacuous or narcissistic and confessional outlets. Alongside “Self help” or “How To” types of texts, the Memoir connects the audience with a journey or a path that someone else has followed and that the reader may be about to embark upon or is in the process of experiencing in some form. For many, to sit quietly and privately with another person’s viewpoint on an odyssey through an illness, a pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, or a path to success or failure and redemption is enlightening and empowering. The reader is anonymous. The reader does not need to ask questions or share their own experience. They can simply be with the words.

I must say that I have, for a long time, been skeptical of the current popularity of the Memoir. Of course, someone who has had an impact on the world or in their field is someone who should write a Memoir or an Autobiography. Scholars and fans alike want the inside story in the individual’s words. Even if rhetorical authority is in question, the entry into this person’s world is at least a lead that can direct you to other research or leads. But what about the Memoir that is from a person who does not seem to have accomplished anything substantial except that they were published? I hear Terry Gross from NPR often interviewing someone whose just published their Memoir. Someone who may not have written anything previously and has been obscure otherwise. Or, perhaps this person has not been writing long enough or prolifically to have much to offer in the way of life experience yet. Why in the world do I care what they did or when or how? Jamison enlightened me.

We can take from these writers’ reflections what we need or want to know. We can adopt for ourselves a person’s approach to life or feel less alone in our own dilemma. Overall we engage and respond rather than just coming to their texts as voyeurs or passive audiences. Jamison writes that “[l]ife is evidence. It’s fodder for argument.”

I still choose to read about someone who has lived at least 50 years or who has been in a business or discipline for at least a few decades, but that is my preference. I want to read about long-term events and experiences. Someone else may need timely events mapped out and have access to immediate answers. Ultimately, I am converted. The Memoir is of value and the wider the variety of authors and discussion points, the more people who can benefit from the wisdom imparted.