Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths

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Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

Word Vancouver: From Comics to Kids Lit

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This year at Word Vancouver, I decided I’d go to sessions that I might not typically be drawn to, especially comic books and Kids Lit.

First stop was a panel of children’s authors. One of the authors walked us through the steps she takes to create an animal character as the subject of a rhyming poem.  I really enjoyed that. Four authors spoke about how much going into the schools and reading to kids is an integral part of what’s required of children’s authors. That sounds like a fun thing. And as always happens, which is why it’s important to attend events such as this if you write, my own ideas came bubbling up as background all throughout the talks. Think of it as creative mind mapping, silently but stealthily, a running commentary of possibilities mingled. Creative thought begets creative thought.

I listened to Caroline Woodward, who had worked in the publishing industry for 30 years. She was speaking about living at the Lennard Island Lighthouse at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound near Tofino. Being one half of a lighthouse keeper has enabled her to get back to her first love, writing. Her latest book, Light Years, is about her time at the various light stations where she and her husband, Jeff George, started as relief lightkeepers. George’s photographs in slideshow format were a nice touch. Woodward’s favourite lighthouse is Nootka because of its history and its natural beauty.

I didn’t even know there were still people working at lighthouses anymore. Apparently seven of the 23 people who are stationed at lighthouses in B.C. are couples.

I listened to John Vaillant whom, of course, I’d heard about but had never seen in person or read before. He gave a compelling  intro to his book  The Jaguar’s Children and the life and death crossing into the USA of an illegal immigrant.  His reading and the prose was so precise that it was a clear lesson in how a compelling presence mixed with vivid language does indeed go a long way towards selling books. He said a teenage boy’s voice came to him clear as day one day while he was working on something else. He felt compelled to carry that voice onto the page.  This happened while he spent nine months living in Oaxaca with his wife who is a potter. Perhaps the spirits visited him. Perhaps they knew he was someone who could do their story justice.

It was cool to hear the journey of The Flour Peddler by brothers Chris and Josh Hergesheimer. Their original focus on local grains and farmers’ markets in B.C. (starting in Roberts Creek) eventually took them on a global journey to South Sudan. Their bicycle-powered flour mill is adding efficiency to small farmers there. Chris is now in Ecuador doing Ph.D. work through UBC’s Land and Food Systems faculty.

I found it kind of sad to hear the trials of cartoonist David Boswell and the trajectory of his comic, Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman. What began as just a one-off, one pager for The Georgia Straight back in the day, developed a small cult-like following with a script eventually optioned for a movie at Warner Brothers Pictures only to be quashed at the 11th hour by the executives who just didn’t get the humour.  That’s funny actually! The script remains locked in the vault there, stuck in limbo, history.  Boswell showed a movie that one of his nephews made about him with guest appearances by Matt Groening and others who sang his praises and the genius of the character, Reid Fleming.

The last session I attended was by Michael Kluckner. The local artist and heritage advocate has put together a graphic novel, a love story, called Toshiko.  I was surprised to learn that not all Japanese families were interned during WWII. Some lived independently, specifically up in Tappen, B.C., and Squilax near Salmon Arm where they worked on a farm called Calhoun’s.

I really tried not to buy but resistance is futile when it comes to books. I have to laugh at my purchases though which are more a reflection of proximity and mood than a strategic plan since I didn’t actually end up buying The Jaguar’s Children. I bought The Flour Peddler, Toshiko and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life.  Boswell was selling his comic book, a signed copy for a Toonie, so I got one of those as well. Go figure?

Did you go to Word this year? What stood out for you?

A Gum Ball Machine that Spits Out Poetry

poetrycapsuleI went to WORD Vancouver on Sunday, another gorgeous fall day and when I came away, I realized that it’s true that when you go through The Writer’s Studio (TWS) at SFU, you do indeed become part of a community, even if that community is more likely to be woven across the landscape of the many writing events that dot the city than up close and personal in your living room.

As I walked around, I met up with Barb, a poet who was at TWS the same year I was. I hope she won’t mind me saying that she’s re-energized about getting back to writing poetry, hunkering down for the winter as the mood more easily shifts into a reflective mode but right now she’s working on a piece of non fiction.

Before then, I chatted with Andrew Chesham, publisher, writer and program assistant at The Writer’s Studio. He was asking me about a tweet I’d posted the day before in reference to some writing event I’d been to and my less than enthusiastic response to the famous author. Andrew was worried it may be something related to TWS which it wasn’t.

Barb and I put our Toonies into the Poetry Machine that was designed by Anne Stone, a novelist, editor and teacher, and Wayde Compton’s partner. I put in my Toonie and out popped a poem written by Anne Hopkinson. I was wracking my brain all night wondering why that name sounded so familiar only to realize that she’s in the book club of my friend, Anne Watters, who lives in Sechelt. How strange that I should get her poem, of all the poet’s words stuffed into the plastic containers inside the revamped gumball machine.

Barb had a bit more difficulty with the technology but eventually ended up winning a poetry book as a prize in the capsule that finally got spit out.

Wayde, poet, essayist and director of The Writer’s Studio was there with his six year old daughter. He was reading from his newly released debut work of short fiction, The Outer Harbour.  I missed Wayde’s reading intentionally because I’m aiming to attend the official release at the Vancouver Public Library on Sunday, October 19th at 2 pm. You should come too if you’re into that sort of thing.

I passed Elee Kraljee, Thursdays Writing Collective and as I was arriving I noticed Rene Sarojini Saklikar, children of air india, going outside.

I think I saw Karen Jean Lee, whose non fiction piece, Happy Hour, was published in Prism International’s Love and Sex, Fall 2014 issue.

Brian Payton, former non-fiction mentor from 2012, was there reading from his book, The Wind is Not a River.  I believe Lorraine Kiidumae was in the audience. Afterwards, Barb and I ran into Brian in the library foyer and chatted, briefly discussing his impressions of the new cover on the paperback version of his novel which was released earlier in the month.

Cynthia Flood, Red Girl, Rat Boy was seated behind the Joy Kogawa House information table. I didn’t know you could actually rent out that space for readings for 15-20 people.  Cynthia will be reading as part of an event to support the People’s Co-op Bookstore on October 10th at 7:30 pm at the store on Commercial Drive.

Coming up the stairs from the Alice McKay Room, Kagan Goh was leading the dragon procession going down into that area for reasons that weren’t clear, and then we had a nice chat afterwards about his recent engagement in a hot air balloon in New Mexico and thoughts about him and his fiance, Julia,  possibly moving to Mexico. As I write that it strikes me someone needs to write a gossip column focused solely on writers in Vancouver. There’s only one problem, I don’t know any really juicy gossip and even if I did, I’m not sure it would be the wisest move to put it out there.

Finally, just about to leave, Brian O’Neill who is in Wayde’s Master Class with me came up to say hello. It was his birthday and he was recovering from a party the night before. I wasn’t masochistic enough to ask how young he might be. How many candles on the cake? Just a baby.

I’m sure there were many others there from TWS throughout the day that I didn’t happen to run into or notice, but it was a really nice way to spend a sparkly Sunday afternoon. How could you not have a good time?

There should be a whole bunch of other familiar and new faces this Thursday, 8pm at The Cottage Bistro on Main Street when the feature reader will be Doretta Lau from her latest book, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

Looking forward to however the evening unfolds.