Chasing Ghosts—Memoir of a Father Gone to War
It’s always exciting to talk with an author you’ve admired for many years. Louise DeSalvo is the author of five memoirs, a scholarly book about Virginia Woolf, Writing as Way of Healing and several other books that explore the lives and works of literary giants like Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence. This year The Art of Slow Writing was published, and now a new memoir was just released last month Chasing Ghosts—Memoir of a Father Gone to War.
Throughout our lives, there are writers who make us reach—to think and reflect in new ways, who teach us something brand new or offer a perspective we’d never thought of before. We feel a bond between ourselves and the writer. I have kept returning to her books through the years for inspiration and found another book on the decades of her contributions to literature and ideas: Personal Effects—Essays on Memoir, Teaching and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo.
In the early 1990s, I read her scholarly and revealing research on Virginia Woolf in Virginia Woolf-The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. It was a brave book that used literary research as a way to bring forward a theme that was controversial at the time, but which deeply resonated with DeSalvo because of incidents in her own life.
In 2001, I eagerly read Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives DeSalvo explored how writing had helped many well-known authors to tell their emotional truths and release long held secret stories, both in fiction and autobiography. She was one of the first people to talk about the research by Dr. James Pennebaker’s about how writing helps to heal trauma. As a therapist I was excited by discovering this research, having used writing and literature in my work with my clients for many years. I shared Pennebaker’s research and my experiences of teaching therapists autobiographical writing in my book The Power of Memoir—How to Write your Healing Story.
DeSalvo’s memoir about her childhood, Vertigo, uses a reflective style to explore layers of consciousness and the hidden truths that reside in families, and show the importance of looking at our family stories through the lens of class and culture. In her book Adultery, she offers a nuanced view about the hearts and minds of lovers and married couples and questions the assumptions society has about punishment, guilt and shame in regards to desire and sexuality.
The Art of Slow Writing supports the idea that we need to take time to create, to weave our stories, to take time to reflect and absorb the stories that are coming from us. The idea that we interact with our stories and that our stories invite us to listen deeply to our inner self is inspiring. She shows how being immersed fully in the process of writing, and listening to what is coming from within us invites us to be active participants in the act of creation. Her own work explores the messy edginess of life, and she doesn’t hesitate to write about class, sex, and secrets. Her style of writing reveals how her thought process works, not just offering the reader her final conclusion. She invites us to go on the journey of exploration with her in her essays and stories.
Following her self-exploration is like being on some kind of psychic archeological dig, teaching us that we too may benefit from circling around our material, thoughts, and dreams to discover new aspects of ourselves and the stories we carry.
Her books have recently sparked a whole new beginning in my new memoir—allowing me to reveal the process of healing and searching for layers of truth about my family and look through the lens of class and culture. Inspired by her work, I discovered possibilities for layers of my story I’d not been able to find before. I recommend that you explore her work and see for yourself the many ways that your life can be mined for books and stories.
SHADES OF BLUE, Los Angeles
I’m excited to join Amy Ferris and other authors for the L.A. launch of her new anthology Shades Of Blue. I’ll be reading my piece from the book, along with Jennifer Pastiloff, David Lacy, Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, and Hollye Dexter.
The event is sponsored by The Depressed Cake Shop. This is a “This Is My Brave” event.
BARNES & NOBLE AUTHOR EVENTS
Panel Discussion with Writers on Suicide/Depression
Sunday, November 22nd at 2pm
Barnes & Noble Bookstore
5604 Bay Street. Emeryville, CA
Meet Betsy Graziani Fasbinder & Linda Joy Meyers, contributing authors of Shades of Blue:Writers on Depression, Suicide, & Feeling Blue
Meet Kevin Briggs, author of Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair
Present this flyer to cashier and a % of your sales will go towards AFSP (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention)
Bookfair # 11702404
BARNES AND NOBLE
Address: Bay Street Emeryville, 5604 Bay St, Emeryville, CA 94608
I’ll be joining Amy Ferris, editor of Shades of Blue, Brooke Warner, Founder She Writes Press, Author of What’s Your Book? And Hollye Dexter, Fire Season for a panel discussion about using stories to save lives.
October 23-25, 2015
Los Angeles Valley College, 5800 Fulton Ave, Van Nuys CA
Saturday Keynote Luncheon
October 24, 12:30 pm
The Heart and Craft of Writing a Successful Memoir
Ms. Myers will reveal how to dig deep into the truth of your life and examine the essential elements of craft to help you write the best memoir. Bring your heart — your past, your secrets and your challenges — to your work, and draw upon the craft of story to author a memoir that will keep readers turning the page.
Write Your Legacy Memoir
You have a story to tell—many stories that you want to share with your family. It’s a deeply meaningful act to write your story well so generations that come after you can learn about who you were, and where you came from. You are the only one who can tell your stories the way they need to be told. Learn how to use craft to create stories that your family will treasure forever.
Learn more here
The idea that you can get stuck in the “Muddy Middle” of writing your memoir came up in teaching Write Your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. We were talking about the place where suddenly there’s a lag in energy, where the forward motion of the writing slows to a stop. As soon as I said it, we both laughed with recognition. All writers experience some kind of breakdown/slowdown as part of the writing process, but it’s a challenge to figure out what is happening and how to move forward again. Naming the problem is the beginning of figuring out how to solve it. And it often involves that pesky inner critic.
How do you know you’re in the “Muddy Middle” of your memoir?
You start off with a bang, you’re excited and can’t wait to get to your writing, but suddenly something happens. Your energy level shifts when you have gotten into the story but there is so much more to write—and this might happen as early as chapter 2. Your writing doesn’t feel fun anymore and you’re slogging through each paragraph instead of feeling excited and ready to move forward in your story. Your writing feels like a burden instead of a joy. You start to hear voices of doubt, you worry about how revealing yourself the way you have to in a memoir will affect your life. You stop writing, and worrying takes up a lot more time, as does house cleaning and gardening.
It’s important to maintain a positive mind-set when we write our memoir, which means we have to manage the voices of doubt that start to plague us. Mostly we need to not believe them. As you may have discovered, there’s a powerful psychological element to writing a memoir. We’re exposing ourselves, sharing personal details that have been held as private until we put them on the page. Or try to. To write a memoir, we have to pull open the curtains that reveal subjects and information about ourselves and our family and friends that may never have been talked about before. We are faced with whether we should reveal these previously held secrets, we worry about how much we dare tell the private stories. While we think about all this, we re-arrange the spices and clean out the closet.
Like explorers, we venture into dangerous emotional territory when we write memoir. Beyond this place, there be dragons used to be written on maps to show the edges of the known world. This signifies a boundary of risk and danger. For writers, this is where we encounter protective scouts at these edges who come in the form of your inner critic voices.
Writing a memoir means that your inner critic(s) will inevitably show up. Some of you may have a “mild” inner critic, but others—and I’m one of them—have a deadly shaming inner critic. My critic comes from being criticized a lot when I was younger, and I’ve had to do a lot of work to get it to speak more softly and/or show up less often as I developed my voice as a writer. I had to learn how to separate that voice from the “reality” of what I wanted to write, my truth. My story. To help me not just run away from these scary voices, I’d write down what they said, argue with them, and reclaim my intentions to keep writing no matter how uncomfortable I felt. Each time I practiced writing past my nasty inner critic, I made more room for my own voice.
The inner critic makes you wonder if what you’re writing is important or if anyone will care about your story. The inner critics tells you all the reasons you shouldn’t be wasting your time. Whatever voice hinders your writing is your inner critic. Sometimes it’s nice and teases you to not stress yourself, to sit down and have a glass of wine. “You don’t need to write today,” it says. That may be tempting, but if you are not writing, your seductive inner critic is getting in the way. Many people don’t realize their “nice” inner critic is keeping them from writing—they’re on the lookout for the nasty one.
An aspect of the inner critic voices are what I call the “outer critics.” Those are the very real voices of family, friends—people who may indeed be afraid of what you are writing or critical that you are writing a memoir. These voices whisper, “How dare you write that. Your grandmother will roll over in her grave if you she knew you were sharing things like that. You’re shaming our family.” Or “this was my life too. I don’t want you to write about me.” I am not going to get into the legal and ethical decisions you may have to make before you publish, but in the early stages the voices that try to stop you are your critic. You don’t need to deal with family or being published until you write your book. We suggest that you use the first draft to get everything out, and decide what to share and publish later.
These are the kinds of things that I hear people say who are worrying in the Muddy Middle.
1. I’m afraid of hurting someone I love by writing my truth.
2. I know my xxx—fill in the blanks: ex-husband, friends, siblings, mother—will not agree with what I’m writing.
3. Some of my memories are traumatic—I know my family would be shocked.
Sometimes memoirists are tempted to leave out all the difficult parts, yet they know that the traumas and challenges are part of the core of their story.
Follow this tip: the more you want to leave something out, the more likely it’s something important. You need to write the stories you want to hide—they are calling to you to bring the light of day into the darker places. Writing the truth is a very powerful antidote to shame, to staying small, to hiding.
Here are some “anti-getting-stuck-in-the-muddy-middle tips:
• Write your first draft all the way. Put everything in. If the inner critic voices start, write them down, argue with them, and write what you are tempted to leave out.
• Tell yourself it’s your first draft, that you are practicing having a voice, that you will decide later what to publish. No one’s first draft is their final draft—EVER.
• Give yourself permission to say it all. With permission comes freedom, and the doors of your creativity will open once again.
• It’s important to offer yourself support during these tough writing challenges, and also to reach out to other memoirists. To create a memoir community, or join one. I have started the National Association of Memoir Writers as a way to offer something to memoirists they may not get in “real life.”
The upcoming Magic of Memoir conference in Berkeley October 17-18 is another opportunity to join a community of people who are struggling with their Muddy Middle, Beginnings, Writing the Truth, and all the things that memoir writers go through.
Stand strong with your memories and your stories. Defeat the inner critic, and write all the way to the end!
Do you love movies? To me, there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting down to immerse myself in a new story. The first few moments need to capture my attention so I can’t look away. I make sure my tea is nearby, and that my kitties are ready to settle down on my lap. Once the kitties are there, I won’t be getting up for at least an hour or more as the story weaves its magic around me. It grabs me with a scene, in a moment where I’m drawn into a world not my own. I’m inside the scene, inside the beginning moments of a delicious new story. Whether it’s the first moments of Downton Abbey or Star Wars, you know that you are being taken on a journey to another world.
Brooke Warner and I use the “write your story as a movie” metaphor frequently in our Write Your Memoir in Six Months workshops to make our point about how important scenes are in writing a compelling story. We have the writers we coach do a “scene check” to see if they are including the important elements necessary to weave the magic a good story needs.
Necessary element #1.
A scene is set in a particular moment in time presented by the narrator-protagonist—you.
Necessary element #2
A scene exists to immerse the reader in a significant moment where something important happens that creates change—a moment of dramatic significance that includes conflict or a challenge.
Necessary element #3
The scene is connected to the theme(s) in the book.
More necessary elements:
To create a powerful scene you need to paint a picture and offer sensual details that trigger a response in the reader’s brain. Include smell, sound, texture, colors, body language.
Dialogue—dialogue helps to create distinctive characters and advances the plot.
Vivid descriptions create the movie in the mind of the reader, in Technicolor.
More about Scenes
A scene is a building block of your memoir. At the beginning of your story, you’ll be introducing people, including yourself, as characters. You need to include action-there’s movement in a scene that propels the story forward. Sensual details such as smell, sound, taste, and colors create a picture in the reader’s mind and stimulate an emotional response. Include a kinesthetic sense, such as the difference between the way snow feels and the way a hot, humid day feels.
You can have a full scene that is narrated and without dialogue or interaction, but you know it’s a scene because it occurs in a particular moment in time and something important is happening. Cheryl Strayed uses this technique in Wild. The “now” narrative takes place when she’s mostly alone on a trail, but it’s full of scenes. In some scenes, she moves in and out of time and in others she’s still in the wilderness. She’s not interacting with anyone, but something meaningful is happening.
Weaving Narration and Reflection in your story
In a reflection, you’re musing about the situation just presented in your scene. Narration includes reflection, and it may also include action. Narration reveals something about the scene or the characters that show us how to experience or understand the scene. The narrative voice guides the reader into and out of specific scenes, and includes reflection.
There are two “I” points of view in a memoir. In one, the specific scene, let’s say you are five years old—you’re the character in the scene and see the unfolding moments through the eyes of who you were then.
And in a memoir, you’re also the narrator, reflecting on what happened and guiding the reader through time. “I remember, I thought that I would recover somehow…” There’s always the “I” character and the “I” narrator moving through time.
Reflection includes moments between scenes where the memoirist reflects upon what just happened and tries to make sense of it, or freaks out, or gets a new insight. These are internal moments where you tell the reader how you feel or what you wish had happened differently. Be sure to notice if your reflection is taking place in the point of view of your “I” character or you as the narrator reflecting now.
A reflection offers what’s called a “takeaway” for the reader—a universal connection that reaches beyond your individual story and connects with your reader. The takeaway a nugget for the reader of self-understanding. Takeaways are smaller moments within the narrative when you tap into something bigger than yourself, you reveal a universal human truth. In a takeaway, you’re and trying to connect to your reader in a way that’s bigger than your book.
from Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a takeaway:
“I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world around me hummed on.”
That’s a universal connection, how she’s changed. She’s already being changed by something and many of us have had that experience. We’ve all been alone in a strange new land, so we can identify with what she’s saying.
A flashback is a full scene—a new time and place where something is happening that takes you away from the time and place moment in the scene where you were. Be clear about: why and where you are going to pick up this other moments in time. The purpose of a flashback is to illuminate the present so the reader better understands the situation.
To learn more about memoir writing skills, sign up for the Write Your Memoir in Six Months newsletter, and join us at our first in-person Magic of Memoir conference October 17-18. Sign up now for the Early Bird rate and lots of bonuses!