Where Metaphor Meets Life

             

              One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose                                                                                  sight of the shore for a very long time — André Gide

 

SJ #1I’ve been perennially in search of new lands—a metaphor for new ideas and new perspectives—since childhood. I’ve often had to lose sight of the metaphorical shore in order to find them.

Ironically, the most dramatic change in my perspective came when I had lost sight of the literal shore, a day when I was roughly a thousand miles out into the Pacific Ocean, heading west along an unmarked route. That day, my husband and I were two years into a planned circumnavigation of the world in a 37-foot sailboat, a journey that required me to abandon a successful New York career.

Throughout our cruise, we’d often had to trim our sails to unpredictable winds and set our rudder to compensate for erratic currents. We sailed as close to our intended course as we could, but all too often, we ended the day someplace other than where we’d set out to go. As good sailors on a well-fitted sailboat, not much could go very wrong, but we knew that if something did, we would probably die. Life and death were pretty much out of our hands.

That watershed day, a sunny afternoon with clear skies and calm seas, it struck me that sailing was a metaphor for life. I suddenly understood that I’d had no more control over my life and death when I lived and worked in New York City than I did while sailing on the Pacific Ocean. And it seemed obvious that if I couldn’t control my fate, I might as well spend my days doing something meaningful and satisfying, rather than wasting precious time and energy trying—all too often in vain—to meet the expectations of others.

It seemed equally obvious that if I hadn’t decided to sail away from the metaphorical as well as the geographic shore, I’d still be living under the illusion that I could actually control my life.

It is this last concept—that you grow the most when you step outside your comfort zone—that has been the leitmotif of my life as an author. My memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam starts with my decision to step out of my comfort zone from a professional and cultural perspective. It ends as I begin a new, more purposeful way of life that has sustained me for a quarter of a century.

But few people have the option of quitting their jobs and heading off into the sunset. I wanted to write a novel about “every woman,” to explore the growth that can take place even if you never leave home.  Just as sailing was a metaphor for a life out of control, “A Fitting Place” is a metaphor for learning how the pieces of one’s life fit together.

In A Fitting Place, Lindsey Chandler is hurtled out of her psychological comfort zone by the betrayal of those she most trusts. Her journey to emotional maturity finally begins when she begins to re-examine her entire value system, including loyalty, marriage and gender roles.

How has stepping out of your comfort changed your life?

 

 

A Fitting Place

My blog today is adapted from a piece I wrote for “Plain and Fancy,” Marian Beaman’s delightful website on the challenges and opportunities of a life that started in a Mennonite community and took her to a wide-ranging career in academia, with a stint as a neighborhood activist.

I will continue to blog on other aspects of universal human relationships in the weeks to come. I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.

If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at http://marycgottschalk.com/contact/

 

 

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Redefining Success

 

My blog this week is reprinted from “Live, Write, Thrive,” the website of Susanne Lakin, a West Coast novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach.  Her comments on the author’s effort to stay sane while trying to generate book sales offer a wonderful perspective on the broader human question of how each of us defines success.

 

Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lakbay 7107 via Compfight cc

Have you ever asked: “What on earth possessed me to want to be a novelist?” Are you starting to realize this journey of being an author is not a short sprint but a marathon—and often a grueling one at that?

When you hear of the numbers of novels submitted to agents and publishers each year (in the six figures), you sometimes think winning the lottery offers better odds than getting traditionally published. But then . . . you finally break through and get a contract, and months later are holding your brand-new brilliant release in your hand, feeling like you’ve finally arrived.

Not Even Fifteen Minutes of Fame . . .

Yet . . . if you’re like me, the flashbulb moment of that exhilaration lasts a very short time, only to turn into something akin to another stark, depressing realization—that the odds your book will become a huge hit or best seller is . . . well, about the same odds as winning the lottery, and you’re back to the same place (or almost the same place emotionally) as you were when you first starting sending out your first queries to agents.

I don’t mean to dive right into depressing statistics and start you into a tumble toward negativity. Quite the opposite. When considering that the novelist’s life is more a marathon than a sprint, I thought of the one thing that we all really need to focus on to keep going in this writing life, and that’s a fresh attitude.

The Desire for Success Can Wear You Down

In the twenty-eight years of my publishing journey, I’ve seen some authors who I would call plenty successful—with many wonderful published novels under their belt, having won some awards and getting great acclaim—suffer from continual disappointment, frustration, and even despair over their writing career. While I waited for my first “breakthrough” novel to go to press, I had foreboding nigglings in the back of my mind, telling me that would never happen to me. I would be on the NY Times best-seller list out the gate!

Yet, four published books later, I found myself crying for a week at the completion of my latest novel. Why? Because I knew it was the masterpiece and apex of my writing life and ability, and I knew the book would never sell big and get the acclaim I felt it deserved. Why? Because it was wholly imaginative, original, untraditional, and broke “all the rules.” I knew that I was risking much by writing the book pressing upon my heart, yet even a couple of years later, I don’t regret a second that I spent writing that novel. I wouldn’t change a word.

A Challenge to You to Change the Picture

So, where is all this whining and negativity leading to? I spent a long year stepping back and evaluating the writing life. And I would like to challenge you to stop and think a bit about your goals, dreams, hopes, and beliefs.

We have been programmed to believe many things that, I feel, contribute to our disappointments, frustrations, and feelings of failure as writers. I believe it’s time to redefine, truly and in our hearts, what success means and looks like to us. Rather than give you a list of practical things your can do like blogging, tweeting, scheduling your time better, and improving your writing craft, I’d like you to think about making this your primary goal for this day, this month, this year: to have a fresh, new attitude about your writing journey.

These are the truths I am learning to embrace, and I hope you will post these and think about them often:

  • Success is not defined by numbers or money earned. Instead of trying to be successful by worldly standards, think about significance. How can you deepen your writing and reach out to readers in a significant way? Believe that what you have to say through your words is significant and important. And put the care and attention into your writing that you and it deserves.
  • You are not writing to please the masses. You may never please the masses. And writing to please yourself is not the goal either. We write for an audience, and know the kind of hearts we want to touch. Write, then, for that audience in all sincerity and passion, and trust that from that place your voice will ring out.
  • Don’t validate yourself based on others’ opinions of you or your writing. Accept helpful criticism and critiques and keep improving your craft, but know you will never please everyone and it’s foolish to try. In my former writers’ group we used to applaud loudly when an author got her first scathing review. It’s a badge of arrival.
  • Find a few really supportive writer friends to be on this journey with you. Encourage one another, promote one another, critique for one another. One way to stop focusing on your own sense of failure is to help others. I find great joy in helping my editing clients get agents and publishing contracts, and their success brightens my day. There is nothing wholesome in jealousy, envy, or a competitive spirit. Believe your audience is out there waiting for your books and write for them. There will always be terrible writers enjoying incredible success with terrible books. It’s easy to want to throw your hands in the air and say “I give up!” when you see the awful stuff getting praised as great writing. Right, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Really. If you don’t, it will drive you nuts. I tell this to myself a lot!
  • Know that traditional publishing is undergoing radical changes. This is actually great news for authors, for now, with the trend of ebook publishing and social networking and marketing, any good author can get known, grow a true fan base, and connect with readers who love her books. And that’s what we need remember—that we are writing for that connection between writer and reader. The future never looked so bright to be able to accomplish these things.

So take heart and a deep breath and think about redefining success with a fresh attitude—one of optimism, enthusiasm, and a renewed dedication to write the best novels you can, knowing that your readers are out there and in time you will find them—and they will find you. To me, that is the only way to stay sane.

Any thoughts on keeping your sanity by the way you define success? How do you define success?

Redefining Success - Susanne LakinIn addition to being a novelist, copyeditor, and writing coach, Susanne Lake is a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things that she loves to write about.

Based in San Francisco, she teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats. She also enjoys guest blogging, and would be delighted to do a post on writing and editing.  To read Susanne’s blogs or make a request for teaching or guest blogs, click here.

Susanne is also on Facebook and Twitter

Stuck Inside Myself

stuck insideMy guest blogger last week used those words—“stuck inside myself”—to describe her spiritual malaise, her inability to “remain calm and at peace” in the face of the bothersome details of every day life.

I too have always found mindfulness hard to come by.  But living in the moment has been particularly challenging during the past year, as I labored on the final stages of my first novel, A Fitting Place.  Reading Joan’s essay, it occurred to me that I was stuck inside myself because I had allowed my life to take a wrong turn.

Don’t get me wrong. I gloried in the hours I spent writing my novel.  I loved doing the research that added complexity and depth to my characters. I delighted in watching my protagonist Lindsey Chandler mature, often changing in ways I had not anticipated, and changed me as I watched. I relished the many hours of insightful discussion with my writing partner Carol Bodensteiner as she worked on her novel, Go Away Home.

But as I transitioned from writing to publishing and marketing, I seemed to get more and more stuck inside myself. I resented the seemingly endless hours I spent on social media, garnering information about titles and book blurbs and covers and printing options and, of course, marketing strategies. All of it was information I needed, but I did not find it interesting.  I grew grumpier with every passing day.

My stuck-ness got worse once my focus shifted full-time to marketing.  The ever-growing list of tasks made it almost impossible to enjoy riding a bike or reading a book—assuming I actually got on a bike or picked up a book. The fact is I hated doing virtually every task on that marketing list, and was well on the way to hating pretty much every routine task I had to do, no matter what the purpose.

My distaste for marketing goes back a long way, to age 7, when I was the only one in my troupe who failed to sell her quota of Girl Scout cookies. I hated asking strangers to do something for me.

That pattern followed me throughout my career in finance.  I have strong analytical skills and can explain complex ideas in simple terms.  My career moved forward because someone saw first-hand what I could do, and was willing to open doors on my behalf.  I rarely had to send out resumes, and never got so much as an interview when I did; indeed, only once in my life did I have to provide a resume before my first day on the job.

What I realized as I read Joan’s essay, was that in the last year I’ve gone from a life filled with something I love—writing—to spending my days doing something I hate.  I was reminded of the bit of banal but nonetheless good advice that I give to the MBA class I teach each spring: You are more likely to be satisfied and successful if you focus on doing what you love and what you’re good at.

For me, marketing a novel fails on both counts.

I don’t like the idea of being a quitter, particularly after spending six years on a novel I believe to be of interest in a world still battling gender stereotypes.  I love the emails and letters from readers who experience a “shiver of recognition” as they follow Lindsey on her emotional and psychological journey.  But sometimes being a quitter is exactly what you need to do.  I don’t want to spend these precious years doing something that I don’t like doing—and don’t have to do—just to prove a point.

I want to live in the moment.

What choices do you need to make in order to live in the moment, to not be stuck inside yourself?

 

A Fitting PlaceMindfulness is one of the key themes in my novel, and I continue to blog on other aspects of universal human relationships in the weeks to come. I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.

If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at http://marycgottschalk.com/contact/

 

 

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Living In the Moment

Please welcome my guest today, Joan Z. Rough, an artist, writer and poet. In her comments below, Joan  muses about the challenge of living in the moment, a key theme in my recently released novel, A Fitting Place.

 

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right
                      now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant                                                    without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with                                                   the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this                                                                     way (which it won’t).”               James Baraz

living in the momentI love going out into my yard early in the morning to listen to the day awaken. With the first rays of sunlight, everything changes. Do you hear the woodpecker drumming on the old oak tree down the hill? There are baby crows nagging their parents to be quick about bringing them breakfast and the mockingbirds nesting in the cedar tree sound like they’re having an argument. Several robins are digging for worms and grubs not far from where I sit. A few houses down, a door slams and a child is whimpering. Traffic is picking up on Emmet Street, as commuters head off to work. The smell of eggs and bacon sizzling next door is making my stomach growl.  The huge expanse of deep blue sky is interrupted by a few fleecy clouds and the contrails of a jet liner going west.  Are the people on board sleeping or watching the landscape brighten with the sun below them?

Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?  It’s a meditation. An awareness of the space I’m sitting in, an understanding of where I am. It’s being in the moment, at ease, and recognizing the world around me without making judgments about it. It’s called mindfulness.

I leave my seat on the patio to go back inside. The television is blaring the morning news.  Headlines on the front page of the paper scream out about bombings in Iraq, who beat whom in the primaries a few states away, and why the loser can’t be gracious about his or her tough luck.  Lilly, the cat rubs against my legs and the dogs follow my every move, wondering where breakfast is and why I’m being so poky. The teakettle is whistling and I can’t decide which tea to choose. I’m slightly annoyed that Bill forgot to empty the trash last night. It’s beginning to overflow. Where do I put the banana peels and the empty dog food can?

Mindfulness is slipping away.

A few hours later I leave the grocery store and get stuck in traffic.  There is an accident up the road and there is no way for me to turn around so I can go home another way. I’m worried that the ice cream I just bought as a special treat will melt.  I’m supposed to meet with the plumber in thirty minutes. The laundry sink is plugged up. Traffic is still not moving and I know I’m going to be late.  I look for my phone, but it’s dead. I forgot to charge it last night. My head starts to pound and I’m frustrated and pissed off that the day is not going well. My gut is filled with churning rocks and a few tears surface in the corners of my eyes. My head is filled with words like unfair, how can I, I have to, and I can’t. This is not what I had planned for my day.

I’m not only stuck in traffic, I’m stuck inside of myself, worrying about what is going to happen if I’m late to meet the plumber. I’ve forgotten that the sun is still shining.  I don’t notice the homeless man standing a few cars ahead of me holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless and Hungry.  Please help. God Bless You.”  I can’t hear anything but the ranting going on in my head. I haven’t thought of or sent healing prayers to those who may have been injured in the accident just up the street. I rummage through my purse for something sweet to chew on, thinking it will calm my nerves.  I’m spinning off into a melt down and everything is about me, Me, and ME.

What happened to the profound peace, the sense of mindfulness, I felt earlier in the day?  Life doesn’t always provide us with a tree we can sit under and a chorus of birdsong.  More often than not, it sends us a traffic jam, a serious argument with a friend, a life changing injury, deadlines at work, and the overwhelming speed with which the world travels around us. It’s about what we label the good and the bad. It includes the beautiful melody sung by a wood thrush, as well as the gun shots I hear in the distance that send shivers up my spine.  It includes what I see, taste, smell, and touch. It includes my nasty thoughts about someone I’m not fond of and the delight I feel for the small boy I watch looking at a window display of toy trains. He is smiling and talking to himself.

I’m easily triggered by certain words, the way someone looks at me, or the sounds of a nearby siren.  As a small child I learned to be attuned to the way my father looked. When his eyes grew very dark, and the tone of his voice grew lower, I tried to make myself invisible.  When he hummed to himself and his eyes twinkled with mischief I knew everything was all right. When my mother had a glass of wine or a Manhattan in a restaurant at dinner, I knew we were in for trouble.  I was always anticipating or worrying about things I had done.

I’ve come late to mindfulness and find it extremely difficult to maintain. But when I manage to breathe deeply and pause before I react, being in the present moment keeps me in touch and in tune.  It’s a way to find ease in this crazy world and helps me to remain calm and at peace in whatever situation I find myself in.

The next time you find yourself worrying about tomorrow or something you said or did last week, take a deep breath, and be in the moment before getting caught up in the sticky web of life.

 

DSC_2659Joan Rough is an artist, poet, and writer of nonfiction.  Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and are included in the anthology, Some Say Tomato, by Mariflo Stephens. Her first book, AUSTRALIAN LOCKER HOOKING: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. She is currently at work on her upcoming memoir, ME, MYSELF AND MOM, A Journey Through Love, Hate, and Healing.

You can follow Joan’s blog on her website at http://joanzrough.com

Twitter:      https://twitter.com/JoanZRough

Facebook:   www.facebook.com/joanz.rough

 

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Learning to See the Other

 

 

You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb

 

See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?

 

Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.

 

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Finding my Voice – From Finance to Fiction

 

As with last week, my blog is reprinted from a guest blog linked to the launch of A Fitting Place.  This was hosted on February 17, 2014 by Susan Weidener on her website, Women’s Writing Circle.

 

images-1As a voracious reader, I’ve always known that the author’s “voice” is critical to making a story come alive. But for many years, I assumed that voice came from just the right blend of word usage, syntax, humor, and tone.  I saw it as a skill, much constructing a proper sentence from nouns, verbs, and grammar principles. Knowing that each author’s voice is unique, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that, but for many years, that analogy seemed apt.

This delusion was fostered by the fact that, as a scribbler since childhood, writing was how I communicated what was in my mind. Writing was how I connected the dots.  It was how I made sure I hadn’t left out some critical piece of data. It was how I avoided drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence.

From my perspective, writing was how I gave voice to the jumble of ideas careening around in my head.

By the time I finished college, my writing skills were substantial. Whether I was writing an essay for a college professor, a report for a financial client or a guest editorial for the New York Times, I knew how to pen an elegant sentence.  I knew how to explain a complex concept in simple terms, how to build a persuasive case for a particular point of view. Once I knew what I wanted to say, I always founds the words I needed to say it.

And so, when I sat down to work on the first draft of my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, at age 60, I expected the words to flow readily from my brain onto the page. Lots of words did indeed spill out, but I soon discovered they were not the ones I needed. “It’s your story, but I don’t see you on the page,” said one member of my writing group. “The woman in this story doesn’t sound like you,” offered a second.

Their message was clear: despite my demonstrable writing skills, I did not have a “voice.”

I tried a number of ways to find that voice, not least of which was mimicking aspects of my favorite contemporary authors—Kingsolver, Kidd, Wolitzer, among others. The result was stilted prose that yielded no insight whatsoever into two offbeat people who abandoned successful careers to sail around the world in a small boat.

In fact, the problem was not about getting the language and tone just right, but of knowing what story I wanted to tell. For all those years as a professional writer, I focused on the facts, on the logic of the case, on the information and evidence that responded to the needs of my audience. I had labored long and hard to remove “me” and any personal perspective from everything I wrote. It was an ideal role for an introvert who disliked being on center stage.

Unfortunately, I had left “me” out of the first draft of Moonbeam, emphasizing instead where we went and what we saw, as if the uniqueness of the places we visited was sufficient to make the story interesting. But readers of memoir and fiction are looking for new ideas and experiences, for unexpected perspectives. Even with stories that take place in unfamiliar settings, readers want that “shiver of recognition,” the sense that the author has connected with the emotions and values of the reader’s own life.

Through the questions and criticisms of my writers’ group, I discovered that my voice lay not in using just the right words, but in telling the story as I experienced it. It was exhilarating to watch my voice emerge once I began to give pride of place to my own personality and perspective, once I began to tell “my” story instead of “the” story.  It has been a different, but equally exhilarating challenge to find my voice in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place, which is not “my” story, but on an imaginary story as I might experience it.

But perhaps what is most exhilarating about finding my voice as a writer is that the introverted me—the one who tended to stand at the edges of most social situations–has also found my voice in every day life. Having learned to tell “my” story, it no longer matters whether I am telling it on the page or at the dinner table.

Have you found your voice?  How did you find it?

 

In the next few weeks, I will resume my blog on the universal human relationship issues that affect my characters in my novel, A Fitting Place.  I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.  If you’d like to contribute, please contact me here

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Memoir Vs. Fiction

 

Memoir vs. FictionIn conjunction with the launch of A Fitting Place, I’ve been invited to contribute to the websites and blogs of other writers who share my fascination with the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone.  

For the next few weeks, my blog will showcase these “hosted” essays.

The post below was published on June 3rd by Amy Sue Nathan on her thought-provoking website “Women’s Fiction Writers.”  

 

Memoir Vs. Fiction: Training Wheels for A Novelist

I am often asked which is the “better” vehicle—a memoir or a novel—for a story that has some basis in fact. As the author of both a memoir and a novel, I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for the reader or the writer. What I do believe is that for a newbie writer, a memoir is a much better place to start.

Unlike fiction, the outer boundaries of a memoir are defined before the first word hits the page. As a memoirist, you “know” where the story begins and where it ends, who the players are and what they’re like. As a memoirist, the number of your plot points and scenes are constrained by reality. Your job is to connect the dots, not make them up.

But getting the dots down on paper does not a memoir make. Knowing where the story begins and ends is not the same as having a strong story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that propel the story forward. Knowing why your story matters is not the same as having a sympathetic protagonist that readers will care about, a protagonist with a clearly defined desire line that creates tension and keeps the reader turning the page. Knowing the players and their personalities is not the same as having complex and multi-dimensional characters whose strengths elicit our admiration and whose foibles gain our empathy.

In other words, a well-written memoir should read like fiction.

Learning the Writerly Craft

One advantage of starting your creative writing career as a memoirist is that, when you get it wrong in your first draft, you have fewer things to fix.

As a memoirist, you can’t change the trajectory of events, so you have to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within whatever storyline you have. You learn, by trial and error, which events move the story forward and how it feels when your story begins to unfold organically. You learn that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose can heighten the emotional truth of your story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, as the author of a memoir, you can’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All you can do is focus on re-writing those that are flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. Your focus is on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. You learn that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say. Above all, you have some sense of what you’re aiming for as you try to repair a crippled story.

Learning to be a good writer is never easy, but it feels more manageable when you’re tackling a memoir than the bad first draft of a novel. With an infinite number of possible events, scenes and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in selection of characters, or some combination of them all. For a neophyte, sorting it out is all but impossible.

By the time I began my novel, I had some solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Without the memoir, there never could have been a novel.

Finding Your Voice

Another advantage of starting with a memoir is that it is easier for a newly-minted author to find her “voice” in a memoir than in a novel.

As a voracious reader, I recognized “voice” when I saw it, but I certainly couldn’t define it. When I turned my hand to creative writing, I had no idea how to find my own voice. That was hardly a surprise, as I’d spent many years as a writer in a business context, where I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view.

Looking back, I’m convinced the dreariness of the first draft of my memoir was due in no small measure to the lack of a distinctive voice. But as I re-wrote and re-crafted and re-organized my story around situations I had lived through and people I knew well—as I got closer and closer to a story that read like fiction—my voice began to emerge.

Could that have happened if I’d started out with a novel, where all the elements—story arc, scenes, and characters—were potentially in flux? I doubt it.

Priming the Pump

Writerly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

As the memoir unfolded and my voice emerged, however, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing on the open ocean was a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The lesson of that voyage, a lesson that changed my life, was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel.

It will not be my last.

 

I have loved the contributions of guest bloggers who resonate with the “relationship” issues addressed in A Fitting Place.  If you would like to be a contributor to the discussion, please contact me here.

Feather in a Hurricane

 

feather in a hurricaneMy guest today is author BC Brown, who explores the painful consequences of subordinating her own needs to her husband, a pattern she had in common with Lindsey Chandler, the protagonist in my just-released novel, A Fitting Place.

 

Feather in a Hurricane 

Three months driving between St. Louis and Indianapolis. Working all week and driving all weekend. Sleeping on waiting room floors and eating out of machines. My mother now recuperating after major surgery.

I was weary, leaden, and spent. Just when there seemed a light at the end, my husband of a decade calls.

“How quick can you come back?”

It’s ten p.m. I’ve been awake for more than 48 hours with only catnaps. Perhaps after a million hours of sleep. All I said was, “I don’t know. I have to pick up mom’s meds tomorrow, wait for the nurse, and do her grocery shopping. Why?”

“Can you be here by noon?”

An hour time change, a three-hour drive, and a mountain of errands beforehand. Uh, no.  “I could be home by two. What’s this about?”

A hesitation. “I’ll see you at two. I can’t talk about it on the phone.” Click.

I should have gotten a speeding ticket, a Driving Under the Influence of Fatigue ticket, but I was lucky. Despite my lack of sleep and my complete lack of focus, neither I nor anyone else was harmed.

I arrived home to have my heart ripped from my chest. My husband was leaving. What I thought was a happy marriage had been a sham. He’d had an ongoing affair. Within an hour, he’d gone.

I was left with a minimum wage job that couldn’t support the life we lived. I had no schooling, having supported him in school and helped work his business.

I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I called family.

My sisters drove from southern Indiana to St. Louis in almost the record time I’d done it only hours before, packed everything I owned, and took me home. Where things went from devastating to destitute.  It took more than a month to stop bursting into random tears.

The best part of it all? Expectations of job searching and of being an independent, strong person. With what skills?

My husband and I met at seventeen. The instant I was legal, we had the dream: jobs, one of us in school, a business, dogs, and a mortgaged picket fence. My life was very much ‘my husband’. With the exception of my writing and my love of karaoke, I didn’t have my own opinions, my own interests, or my own skills.

I was stymied when potential employers asked why I’d make a good fit for their company? I mean, I didn’t know if I made a good fit for me.

As a result, I worked a string of back-breaking and paycheck-puny jobs. I tried counseling. I tried job fairs. I trudged from one ad to another, touted my pitiful skills, trotted out every reference, accomplishment, and award.

It didn’t help. I was free falling. My elderly and ailing mother was financially supporting me, while one sister with kids fed and housed me and the other fed my gas tank and car insurance. I was broke and broken.

Enter the good friend.

My best friend for almost fifteen years, the same man who’d introduced me to my husband (but I couldn’t hold that against him), mentioned his old job was open again. The pay was crap, the job bottom of the barrel, and the hours long with mandatory overtime. But he’d put in a good word for me.

I walked in, seven months out of work, with a pathetic resume of retail, food service, clerical, and a smidgen of advertising experience. The HR manager asked why I wanted the position.

“I’m broke. I need a job; you have one that needs to be filled. No matter that I feel like a feather in a hurricane, those two things are true,” is all I said. Desperation is rarely the best form of self-presentation, but I was beyond desperation, willing to consider jobs that weren’t exactly the most flattering or self-respecting.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “You’ll hate this job, probably quit in a month. Everyone does.” Pause. “You start Tuesday.”

For the first time in half a year, my stomach ceased churning. I put my hand in his and shook. “I won’t quit.”

My feather had snagged something solid and stopped spinning long enough for me to get my feet. I spent the next three years in that job, moving from the entry position to a middling position. Even when I was offered a better, full-time position elsewhere, I continued to work there. See, if everything I’d tried and done on my own hadn’t helped, I sure wasn’t going to give up the one good thing that had happened.

I learned an insanely good lesson. I’d been raised with a ‘do it yourself’ mentality. But that hadn’t worked. It was when I’d acknowledged that I needed others that life straightened out.

I could pick up the pieces, build a new me. But it took someone else, a good friend, to show me who I really was all along. Just me. And I could do this.

BC Brown featherBC Brown is the author of A Touch of Darkness and A Touch of Madness, both Abigail St. Michael novels. Her work has been included in three, multi-author anthologies – Fracas: A Collection of Short Friction, Quixotic: Not Everyday Love Stories, and A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. She has published a dark fantasy novel, Sister Light, Book One: Of Shadows previously under the pen name B.B. Walter.

BC has upcoming work with the Abigail St. Michael novels entitled A Touch of Emptiness. More of her work will be released in a general fiction novella entitled Feather in a Hurricane and a dark fantasy novel, Of Shadows.

You can see more about BC and her books from the links below.

Amazon … Barnes & Noble … Facebook … Twitter … Goodreads

 

The discussion on the human condition will continue, with particular emphasis on the issues that complicate the life of Lindsey Chandler, the protagonist in A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in contributing a guest blog to this series, please contact me here  or at afittingplace@hotmail.com. 

Forgetting Memory – A Postscript

 

forgetting memories 1My last blog elicited comments from several readers on the impact of camera phones on memory.  Their comments were inspired by a recent NPR segment. After hearing it, I had to share it.

In case you missed it, last week’s blog examined the scientific rationale for the unreliability of memory—the physical and chemical reactions that create, store and modify what we recall of the events in our lives.

The NPR discussion suggested that using camera phones is actually impairing the formation of memory.

  • One hypothesis was offered by Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In her view, camera phone users are so focused on the process of picture-taking that they are not actually engaged in the event being photographed. Because they are not really observing the event that is being photographed, there is no information or data to go into memory.
  • A related hypothesis is based on research by psychologist Linda Henkel at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Henkel believes that when we “outsource” memory to a camera, we bypass the “mental cognitive processing” that allows us to actually remember.  In other words, we observe our surroundings, but the short-term memory is overwritten by new information before it can take root.

It does not follow that picture taking is bad. Rather, Henkel observes that “mindful” picture-taking—the sort that encourages you to examine specific details of the scene that you want to capture—does not impair memory formation.  And those pictures can provide “rich retrieval clues” when you go back and look at them.

Do you let your camera phone get in the way of memory formation?

Whether you do or not, check out the NPR segment. It’s fascinating. If by chance the NPR link doesn’t work, just Google npr overexposed camera phones.

Forgetting Memories

 

MemoriesOver the past year, I’ve used this blog to muse on the myriad ways in which our memories can be an unreliable clue to our past. Implicit in those musings was a belief that most of us (especially those of us who are writers) wish to keep our memories intact.

There are, however, those—victims of trauma from abuse, accidents or the horrors of war—who wish to forget their memories and the emotional pain associated with them.  In recent years, scientists have sought ways to treat those whose painful memories obstruct their daily lives. One approach seeks to preserve the actual memory but separate it from the negative emotions associated with it.  Possible treatments include drug interventions as well as “extinction therapy,” one type of behavior modification.

A fascinating survey of this research appears in a recent New Yorker article, “Partial Recall.”  It’s worth reading just for the education you’ll get in the neuroscience of memory.

  • every memory “depends on a chain of chemical interactions that connects millions of neurons to one another … they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them …”
  • synapses are affected by proteins, some of which strengthen memory while others weaken or interfere with it.  One track of scientific research seeks to identify and harness the genes that produce these proteins.
  • Short-term memories are formed from neurochemicals, while long-term memories are transferred over time to different parts of the brain, depending on the nature of the memory.
    • Procedural memory (baking cookies) is spread throughout the brain
    • Emotional memory (love, hate, anger) resides in the amygdala, a tiny bunch of neurons located behind the eyes.
    • Conscious memory (a lunch date) as well as contextual information (the artwork on the wall of the restaurant where you had lunch) is found in the hippocampus.
  • Recalling memories requires information to re-trace the original pathways.  Depending on the circumstances, the memory may be changed by the very process of trying to recall it.

As I digested this last point, I realized I had come full circle—to the unreliability of memory.  Understanding the scientific basis for lost or altered memories offers the potential to help trauma victims.  But it does nothing to get my lost memories back, or provide clues for how to stop losing memories in the future.

Do you have memories you want to forget … or memories you’d like to retrieve?

 

A Fitting Place

This week, I’ve taken a brief break from discussion of issues relevant to my novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to do a guest blog on one of the topics, please contact me here to obtain a copy of the guidelines.

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