The pleasures of writing memoir

In my job I tutor all kinds of students, but most of the writing they show me is academic writing and their questions are about how to do it, improve it, and understand it.  Last week I was surprised by two students who were working in a border genre of academic writing meets creative non-fiction. It was such a pleasure to listen to them and read bits of their work. I was motivated to open up a document I wrote in 2014, a short memoir. I was guided in my writing by a book on women’s memoir. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or author, but I do remember that her suggestion was to write using topics, not chronology as a guide. One chapter, for example, is on “birth and beginnings” in your life. Another one is on “body language.” And so on.  I liked this approach, and I produced around 80 pages in a few weeks. I tucked it away and forgot about it until recently. Here are the first few pages. img_1451-1

Prologue

A sunny protected courtyard with high whitewashed walls. The courtyard is scattered with easels, and small children wearing paint-splashed smocks stand before the easels, brushes in their hands, intent on making marks in bright colours on the cheap newsprint. Dave Brubeck’s jazz is floating over the scene. Branches of a mountain ash tree, resplendent with clusters of orange jewel-berries, hang over the edge of the courtyard wall. The feeling is one of serenity and innocence, yet zinging with the subtle undertone of jazzy, creative energy.  This memory is lodged deep inside my bones, and I don’t even know if it is a memory of something that really happened in my life, perhaps at nursery school, or a dream, or a scene I imagined in waking life. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. It stands for the best of life to me—childlike open curiosity and freedom to create, the improvisation and airiness of jazz, sun on white walls, signalling the unlimited joy we can feel, the beckon of the blank slate that we mark with our spirit. I want this scene at the beginning of my life story, and I hope it passes before me as I die.

Chapter 1 – Births and beginnings

Birth—my story goes like this. My parents and two older sisters lived in Berkeley, but my mother arranged specially for me to be born at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek because they had “rooming in,” a fresh new concept in 1958. Your baby could room in with you instead of being relegated to the big nursery of Plexiglas cribs filled with pink and blue swaddled bundles.  Rooming in would make it easier for mother and baby to breastfeed and bond.  But the plan was upended. My father took my two older sisters, 18 months and three years, trick or treating on a rainy evening, October 31, 1958, while my mother, lonely, I imagine, and feeling unwell, laboured and gave birth to me. I was whisked away from her and she didn’t see me for 24 hours as she recovered from some virus they didn’t want me—the newborn—exposed to.  So best laid plans of women often go awry (with apologies to Robbie Burns).

Perhaps I should take that as important information about my life—don’t make elaborate plans, as they are sure to fall apart at the last minute?  I look at that blurry old photo of me, tummy down, in that nursery crib of acrylic glass, my face squashed, and I imagine the suffering there. No skin to skin contact, no bonding or gazing into my mother’s eyes. No breast at all, not even one suck. I was bottle fed from birth. I would like to call my mother and ask for some details, but there is a bruised quality to our relationship right now. I imagine her getting very defensive, touchy about those details I would probe for: What illness did you have?  Were you terribly sad when you couldn’t see me, hold me?  Did you feel the loss?

So I imagine a lonely beginning to my life and loneliness for her as well…no soft breast to suckle me, only the discomfort of rock hard engorgement. A new birth marked by loss. But there were two other children to see to, and not much time or money. So not a time of abundance. Rather, of scarcity. I have never thought of my birth this way before, as a time of loss, but perhaps this inured me to getting less than expected, to ask for less, to settle for less, and to pretend it doesn’t matter.

Many people remark with curiosity that I was born on Halloween. “What was that like?”  Perhaps my propensity to feel bereft and envious grew from that first night of my birth. My sisters were out getting candy, trick or treating, other babies getting the breast…I was getting nothing. No candy, no colostrum. Poor me. The night in the Wiccan calendar when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest…perhaps I feel closer to that mystery now, although my affinity for the metaphysical was well closeted for almost 50 years.

I had a turn toward the melancholy as a youngster. Photos show me looking sad or scowling, and perhaps I cultivated that persona. But why? When my smile was so brilliant and beautiful, and I could have plucked joy like plucking a low hanging fruit?  But it took me awhile to paste on that frown. It was not always so.

I love a photograph of me at the kitchen table in student housing in Berkeley, my first home.  I am sitting in one of those 1950s chrome and plastic high chairs—the simple kind you pull up to the table: no trays or gadgets or even straps.  The profile shot has me turning in the chair to face the camera, one hand grasping the side of my chair and my plump little leg and bare foot tucked under me. The other hand clenches the end of a piece of toast and brandishes it in the air, and the plate in front of me has a few crumbs of scrambled egg left. I have this big lovely open grin on my face. I look to be around one year old, my dark happy eyes gaze at the picture taker with love, my tongue is just at my lips which are slightly open and upturned. I have a thatch of glossy hair atop my square-ish head and my demeanor says I am joyful and ready for the day! I love to check out this picture of me to remind me that my sad-sack self that persisted through childhood and adolescence (and beyond) was a construction—that I am and was equally able to be joyful, present, happily alive in the moment, ready for anything, loving, accepting, energetic.

Write what you don’t know

img_1075

“The writer is someone, who, embarking on a task, does not know what to do.” Donald Barthelme

I am reading Station Eleven by Emily St. Jean Mandel. Although I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, I haven’t really been curious about dystopian novels. But this book has me turning pages hungrily. One of Mandel’s themes is the persistence of the works of Shakespeare after the collapse of civilization. This got me thinking of what I know and what I don’t know and what to write about for story number eight.

What did Mandel know, I wondered, in order to write this so-readable novel? She looks blessedly young on the book’s back cover (b. 1979). Yet she writes confidently about Shakespeare, Toronto, BC’s Gulf Islands, pandemics, the life of an aging artist, multiple marriages, paramedicine, the end of civilization… and I am only on page 77. She mustn’t have “known” all this to start. Into the cauldron goes the writer’s research, experience, and imagination. Boil them together with a bit of newt’s eye and bat’s wing to produce fiction.

The old saw about “write what you know” keeps the writer in the silo of lived experience, starved for oxygen. You need all of it—research, imagination, experience, serendipity—to thrive as a fiction writer. One way to write yourself out of what you know and into what you don’t know is to use Peter Elbow’s loop writing methods described in Writing with Power. I decided to use the one where you sit down and write everything you think you know about a topic, then use that as fodder for a story. Mandel’s novel starts with a production of King Lear, so I thought why not use that play? I proceeded with interest.

What do I know about King Lear? Well not much. I studied the play in the late seventies with the late great Northrop Frye. I still have my Pelican Complete Works of Shakespeare with my fish bookplate dated 1978, the year I took my sole Shakespeare class at University of Toronto, Victoria College. Frye was an eminent scholar, yet I remember little from the class. I do recall his long pauses as we waited with baited breath, our pens raised, ready to record his wisdom. And the only thing I remember from his lectures was not even about Shakespeare—it was about music. He said that Bach’s Mass in B Minor was surely the voice of God speaking through the composer. As for King Lear, well I remember only that I loved that play the best. A few of the most famous lines stick with me, and I notice as I page through the play that almost forty years ago, my twenty-year old self carefully circled in pencil any mention of nature, natural, and unnatural. I must have written an essay on that theme.

But really, what do I know of Lear? I remember my father joking with me, the youngest of his three daughters, that I was his Cordelia. A rather odd comparison, as I think of it now, but I loved his rueful laugh when he said it. Then there was my first husband’s favourite line from the play, “Reason not the need,” from Lear’s speech in Act 2, Scene 4:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—

My then-husband’s occasional invocation of that line has stayed with me these many years. When frugality became a constraint, he would implore, “reason not the need.” Let us not reduce our lives to need, to scrape by on the drab thrift store clothes, to make black bean soup again. Even beggars need a bit of splurge and splendor. Let’s treat ourselves. You only live once.

But there you go. What do I know of King Lear? A long ago reading for a Shakespeare class almost forty years ago. Frye’s wavering voice. A remembered association from my father’s mouth that cast me, in jest, as his Cordelia. A line spoken by my ex-husband that reverberates still. Reason not the need. And a bleak sadness when I think of Lear, a “poor, bare, forked animal” on the heath.

It was an interesting exercise. I really don’t know much about Lear. An embarrassingly small amount of material, in fact. But I was able to gather enough together to start. I wrote what I know, and that will lead me into what I don’t know. A few shoots that might sprout a story that is more interesting than my experience. Perhaps research will lead to a character based on Dr. Frye. Perhaps a re-reading of King Lear that may lead to something. Or another listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor that might be fruitful. Or perhaps I can write a story with one character who always reasons the need and another who resists that dictum. Or a contemporary father who sees his daughters as modern-day versions of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and those joking nicknames become more real than he ever intended. So many stories waiting to be written.

img_1077I do not know what to do, exactly (see Barthelme), but I know that limiting myself to writing only what I know is the equivalent of Goneril and Reagan’s telling their father, you don’t really need all that finery, that retinue. I join Lear in saying, “reason not the need.” Let me read, research, imagine. Let me grab from a cornucopia of ideas, thoughts, books, facts, art, beauty, and experiences to make stories. Here I go into story number eight. I’ll report back later.