Putting It All Out There

I used to think that talent and technical ability were the most important thing in writing. That was when I was writing primarily science fiction and hiding behind abstract ethereal poetry. Now that I have plunged headlong into the creative non-fiction deep end, I am finding that I can't fall back on technical tricks anymore. Because the stories I am writing are taken from my own experiences, readers can pick out a technical maneuver used to avoid being completely honest in a minute.

Since I do want to find the most honest point of origin, I thought I'd share a list of questions I am beginning to ask myself before I even think about putting anything on the page.  This is certainly not an exhaustive list just a few things I try to think about as a first step.

1. Why do I want to tell this story now?

If the story is purely for a cathartic experience I may not be able to get out of my own way in order to make this a really good story. Although a well written story can be cathartic for the writer, there needs to be more than just a big emotional spew in order to make it a well-written, interesting story that accomplishes something.

2. Is this a story that is only about a raw emotion that still stings?

If this story is still such an emotional hot-spot, I may not be able to see the whole picture.  If I can't see the whole picture, my reader will be left out of the most important parts of the story and just won't get it. In cases like this, I may have to write a complete emotional spew, set the draft aside for a while and then revisit it when I have some perspective. This could be a day, a month or, sometimes, even years before I am able to approach it in a way that will do justice to the story.

3. How is this story relevant to me now, as an adult?

While stories about childhood memories or past traumas can be enlightening, emotionally charged or entertaining, there must be more to it than merely recalling a memory. There must be some lingering quality to the story. Some sort of impact on my current adult life in order for it to be a story that is relevant to me now. There must be distance and an arc of understanding or some sort of wisdom to set against the initial story in order for it to remain relevant, not only to me as a writer, but to the reader as well.

4. Is this a story that I can be completely honest about?

This may be the most important question I ask myself when dealing with memoir, because if I can't be honest about all phases of the story, including my own character or actions, then the story won't ring true and readers will be running around screaming that my narrator is "unreliable" and not to be trusted.

5. Can the narrator in the story stand back far enough so that the reader can make up their own minds about who the protagonist, antagonist or anti-hero might be in the story?

If I cannot create a narrative voice that can allow the reader to make up their own mind about all of the characters in the story, my story will have one-dimensional  people that just lie flat on the page. Any drama, tension or hint of an arc of understanding or wisdom about why I wanted to tell the story in the first place may be lost on everyone.

How Do We Portray Violence When We Are Writing About Violence?

There has been such an outcry about Eminem's new video. I Love The Way You Lie.  People are concerned that this glorifies domestic violence or is going to tell young kids that beating each other up is "cool" or "okay." People are also upset because Rihanna, after her experiences, is singing lyrics like "I like the way it hurts" but, much to my own surprise, I see this video in a much different light.

As most of you know, I write a lot about growing up in a violent home.  I also write about my experiences in a very violent marriage that actually ended with my ex-husband trying to strangle me one night.  I have not written about many of these things just totally balls-out honest because, these are the "secrets" we are taught not to talk about it. 

I didn't talk about how violent my marriage was when I was going through it either but, come on: did people around me really not know? Three weeks of turtle necks? Moving out without furniture or enough income to support me and my daughter? Three times? Really? No one saw the finger bruises that went all the way up to my jawbone? No one put it together with having no voice for weeks because my larynx was bruised?  Just like no one saw the bruises down my arm and down my back when I was in eighth grade because my mother had a manic episode and I was the only one home so I became her target?

Well, you know what, I think that's all bullshit.  Because  people asked what happened.  In the eighth grade when I didn't say "oh I fell off my bike" or, "I fell down the stairs" but instead said, "My mother beat me" because I needed help. My friends and teachers  just shook their heads and gave me sad, helpless looks; but no help. 

And, later, when friends and co-workers asked what happened and I said, "He tried to kill me last night" in a hoarse, whisper while drinking only warm liquids and chain smoking because I couldn't swallow solid food for weeks.  All anyone could say was, "he's an ass" or, "you need to get away from him." But no one could help me do that.  No one had a clue.  And neither did I. It was easier for everyone to walk away and not see it.  Not see the violence; not get involved.

One of the most embarrassing things anyone ever said to me when I was a teenager was: "We know what goes on at your house." I wanted to crawl into a deep pit and never come out.  And that was the last time I shared a lot about my childhood.  I became fearful that people would find out about what happened to me.  I continued to be a victim because when people found out, they couldn't deal with it and they left my life.  So I kept silent and didn't get close to people for fear that they would find out and think less of me.

So when I see someone have the courage to just put it out there, just as it was: with all the ugliness and violence and "politically incorrect" images that look like they could have come out of my life, I kind of feel a little satisfaction. Because when you live it, and I mean REALLY live it; not overhear it; not  see a newscast about it; not know someone, who knew someone, who once might have had a black eye;  you see it differently.  Because if you don't fight back; if you don't become as violent as they are; you are dead. Period.

So my question to you, as a non-fiction writer is this: How do you depict this violence without being violent? And, how do you write about this knowing that somewhere someone is going to tell you that you are glorifying violence. That you are telling it wrong.  That maybe you shouldn't be telling it at all. Or, maybe that it just shouldn't be so violent. That you should make these characters sympathetic for your reader.

Well, you can't. Not and be true to the story and what you lived through.  I've spent my life hiding these things.  Not wanting anyone to know that this is where I came from.  That this is how I lived. And when I do tell it, it's as if I was the one that has done something wrong.  As if by telling it exactly how it was I am still doing something wrong.

So I will leave you with a quote from Tobias Wolf, from his recent reading at Ashland University, on the subject of how he depicted his step-father in This Boys Life:

"If he didn't want me to write about it, then maybe he shouldn't have done it."

Post MFA Session Quandaries

After spending 14 days going to workshops, listening to readings, doing my first reading of a creative non-fiction piece, meeting writers like Natasha Tretheway and Tobias Wolf (just to name two of the amazing guest writers) not to mention the tirelessly available MFA instructors for Ashland University, I find myself slightly off kilter.

I am strangely drawn, at 11:45, to walk over for lunch and talk to people about our morning session.  I am a little lonely when 5:30 rolls around and my dog, Odessa, could care less about the breakthrough I've had or the frustration I am having reaching down deep enough to get the image just right.  I remember what the large screen box sitting in my living room is and find that the shows recorded on my DVR hold less interest than they did before I left.

I'm happy to be home but am already missing the people that graduated whose company and encouragement was so valuable to me over the past year.  I miss our suite-mates Barb and Gregg who have been so much company and such a source of laughter over the past two summers.  I even miss all the new students even though I didn't get to know many of them very well. I miss all the tension, angst, and revelation that comes from over-stimulation, over-tiredness, over-eating and the giddy silliness that follows.

I miss Kim and Kerry who have become my confidants and closer friends than I ever expected would happen when we met last year in our first workshop together. We are an unlikely trio, Kim finding her native voice which is soft, gentle and seems to be connected to mother earth herself.  Kerry, who is strong, enduring and whose poetry speaks to me like a Norman Rockwell painting. And me, trying to bridge the gap between worlds and not only write about the hard, unhappy, violent things in life.

I miss the instructors who were so gracious and so willing to listen, help and suggest places to go deeper, ways to see the image more clearly or just break out and write without restraints.  But I must confess, of all these things, I think I really, really miss the brownies.

Updated Website

Thanks to all of you that have commented and responded to poems and various postings that I have been putting up for the past year.  They have helped me so much to redefine and reorganize my thoughts as to where my poetry is, where I want it to go and how to get it there.

I won't be posting poetry on my blog as I begin the looming task of rewrites, reorganization and writing new poems for my thesis.  I need a rough draft ready by January and the poems I am working on look nothing like what I was posting in first drafts here for feedback and other input from all of my fellow writers and friends out here in internet land.

Thanks again for all your input, comments and encouragement!

I will however be posting about my poetry and my progress and/or the ensuing thesis writing nervous breakdown. Either way, I hope it will be interesting or at least mildly entertaining.