Monday, November 1, 2010

Don't think of Oranges - Memoir Resources for Writers

It took years for me to actually trust myself enough to write, solely for the joy of writing.

Like many women, I felt compelled to write cogently and authoritatively when I had an issue or position to present for a practical purpose. However, writing about my own history, about my family memories, and about the many activities within my region of the country, felt less like an authentic life pursuit because, well, it was "fun."

In my upbringing and within my family of origin, "fun" was considered to be highly suspicious stuff. It implied that not enough of the real, "important" work might be getting done, like picking fruit, canning, sewing, learning the Catechism and declension of Latin nouns, and writing those ubiquitous, weekly thank-you notes we penned so often in the 1950's and 1960's. "Thank you for your thank-note. I really enjoyed it."


In the 50's and 60's "fun" meant that you were somehow getting into something that might have to be mentioned in Confession. The parents weren't sure what your quiet, soul-cleansing revelation might be on Saturday morning, but they knew it would be a negative reflection on their parenting, one way or another. Our parents worked hard, they were honest, and even they weren't happy all the time, so how could their kids possibly expect to be happy without some misguided wrongdoing involved?

Good, hard, sober work was highly valued on my mother's side of the family. "Work" consisted of those activities which, a) garnered a stable income but not so much cash that anyone else in the family might become too jealous or resentful, b) kept a boss consistently in focus because their opinion mattered much more than yours ever would, could, or should, c) led to regular promotions [for caveat, see "a"], and, d) gave one's parents bragging rights over the success of their child within the loamy family ecosystem, rife with the sprouting eyes of their own past successes and failures. 

Education was also valued, but only if it lead to a, b, c, and d. Too much education was considered excessive and self-promoting, especially for the women of the family. It distracted from time which could be spent, you guessed it, at work.

I should say that a counterpart to "d" above, was a certain Greek chorus of woe and heightened phone activity when I or my cousins experienced challenges within our work or personal lives. We were all responsible, we paid our bills on time, contributed to charity, volunteered selflessly, but our parents remained concerned and vigilant lest too much happiness lead us astray. 

"Why do you want to go to graduate school? Don't you have enough education already?" "Can you afford a vacation?" "Where is he taking you? What does he do for a living? He does what?" (All said with the look.)

I remember one widely-reported incident regarding the health of one of my cousin's, well, how should I say this, "private parts." This was a second-generation subject of morbid controversy for at least three weeks running, no matter how much my poor cousin tried to quell the topic among our aunts. I would rather not have known anything about it, or them. (Don't think about oranges. Please don't even talk about oranges. I don't even want to know you have oranges.) When I had a biopsy in later years my family never knew about it. I took a good friend and we found copious ice cream varieties afterward. No oranges were harmed in the making of my personal drama. I would like to thank the Academy.

So, we learned early not to report the truth when our lives were a bit shaky or bumpy. We were always winners. We always succeeded. We never told our parents the real truth of our lives, because it would explode exponentially beyond our control, like a an exquisitely hand-tied fly, cast high over a broad, fast-running stream. One which we knew we could never reel in and recast, for it would be forever lost among the reeds on a swift current moving ever forward, until summer's heat and a new year left it tattered and scorched, waiting to be rediscovered and reexamined. In our family, secrets and sore spots never died, they were reconstituted like enhanced gravy at each holiday meal and appeared nearly as often.


Our mothers and aunts were born into a family where a married woman did not have hobbies, which were considered to be too unproductive. Hence, whatever foolishness we had gotten into (or out of) each week became our parents' version of living reality TV. Tune in, take an aspirin, call your sister, and talk about the worst case scenario. My cousins and I were the Cuban Missile Crisis, Med Fly, Whip 'n Chill, "Duck, cover, and HOLD," "Can't get no satisfaction," generation. We chewed on sugar-stiffened doilies, we melted red licorice in the steam of our mentholated vaporizers, and we beat our parents at Gin Rummy but had to do the dishes anyway.

Our parents were more cautious, coming from a generation which had tasted wild abandon in the rhythmic flavors of Scat, Swing, and Jive, yet had it all suddenly yanked out of their grasp by the advent of war. They could remember a long, arduous climb out of the Great Depression with much deserved pride, so WWII was a secondary shock to their sense of trust in stability. Swing music, unfortunately, was now a pulsing reminder of the War years.

We loved them, we respected them, and we clashed. We tried to convince them that being happy had inherrent value. We no longer believed that if we collected enough psychic Green Stamps that some day, long in the future, we could finally redeem our filled, sticky books for that elusive free gift, happiness.

We watched the murders of JFK, RFK, MLK Jr., and John Lennon. We watched Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to love the Bomb, and tried to forget the Cold War, despite the constant drone of late-night flights into Moffett Field. We wanted some happy right now, because our future was not guaranteed, according to the lingering fears of The Greatest Generation. We wanted just enough happy to know that we were really alive today. Touch wood.

If we could, just for a few moments, feel the warmth of the sun on our Yardley-washed faces, feel it's heat though our tie-dyed t-shirts, and know that blissful release from winter's cold down to our Birkenstocked toes, we could leave this fragile life with not just a material legacy, fulfulling the dream of our parents, but with a life dream, a memory of having reached inside for a creative joy that grew out of our own intrinsic sense of value. We could finally be at peace.

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Here are some books which have led me back to the joy of writing and a creative mindset, when I have, at times, temporarily abandoned a lifestyle which included my art. (Titles of these books are linked to WorldCat, which will allow you to enter your zip code and find them in a library near you. WorldCat also finds these books for you on Amazon and other online book retailers, if available.)
  • For those of you who, like me, seem to get sidelined away from writing (or your own particular art form), I have found Julia Cameron's How to Avoid Making Art (or anything else you Enjoy) (Penguin 2005) to be a great kick-start back into living your writing dream and eliminating self-imposed distractions. Cameron uses simple, humorous, line drawings to illustrate concepts particularly appropriate for women who get too involved in others lives and find themselves with no time left for their own creative journey.

  • For women who tend to want to wait to write or live fully until they have achieved some inner laundry list of perfection, Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth (Scribner 2010) is a revelation of wisdom about coming to a place of wholeness, so your life may actually begin right now. If you are waiting until you lose 20 pounds, get your garage cleaned out, put your kids though college, or finally have your remodel done before you live your dream, this book is for you.

  • Sometimes changing focus from a busy life to a writing life can present challenges. We can't tell our children, our jobs, or our elderly parents to stop having needs or crises so we can have time to write. If you need help finding your writing voice within a chaotic life, Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away: The practice of writing Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 2007) has pages of prompts which can give unfocused and distracted writing a starting point. Her suggested exercises and themes are also helpful for blocked writers.

  • Lastly, and I say this truly in all seriousness, we all need a life-memoir tiara. Not a Burt Parks, Miss America type of thing, but a self-made crown which reminds us of the best of who we are and how far we have come on our writing or life journey. Build yourself a circular ode to your spirit, whether in chicken wire, pipe cleaners and old earrings, or an embellished, aluminum pie plate covered with old magazine photos, glitter, and old buttons. Let it remind you that you have a creative, inner life and a writing spirit which needs tending. For home crafted tiara ideas, I like Crowns and Tiaras: Add a little sparkle, glitter, and glamour to every Day (Sterling Publishing, 2007), by Kerri Judd and Danyel Montecinos. Wear it with pride.

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There are a wealth of classes and events available for writers of memoir and creative nonfiction in Silicon Valley. Here are some well-established resources:

  • Stanford Continuing Education offers classroom instruction through The Writers Studio, plus online writing instruction through The Online Writers Studio. Both sites list courses in memoir and other genre, including creative nonfiction. Stanford Continuing Studies also offers public events featuring notable writers. On November 18, 2010 the Speak, Memory series begins with readings from works by Jorge Luis Borges, Oliver Sachs, and Anne Tyler.

  • The Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University has presented some outstanding programs with notable authors. In 2011 E. L. Doctorow will be featured in a booksigning on March 23rd, followed by an onstage interview on March 24th, as part of the 2011 Martha Heasley Cox Lecture series.

---Catherine Denise Alexander, Silicon Valley Librarian