Trying On a New Personna

Have you ever tried to re-invent yourself? 

medium_3790890798In the last few months, I’ve read several memoirs by people who found themselves outside their comfort zone and tried, with considerable success, to make sense of the experience.  In most of them, there is a weighing of the familiar with the unfamiliar, the comfortable with the uncomfortable.  In most of them, the author learns to adapt to new and often-trying circumstances.  But few of them describe the experience of adopting a whole new persona.

I’ve had to create myself anew several times.  One of the most challenging came when I accepted a job in Australia, a country in which the shared language masked gargantuan cultural differences.  The day I arrived, I was newly divorced. For the first time in my life, I was completely alone and on my own, as my family, my friends and my professional reputation were half a world away. 

Re-creating my persona from scratch was, all too often, a lonely and frustrating business.  As a “cage-rattler” from childhood, I had to learn how to function in a society in which “fitting in” was a paramount virtue in both social and work settings.  

At the same time, that foreign culture provided an opportunity to break out of bad habits I’d developed over four decades of trying to live up to the expectations of parents, teachers, friends, bosses and a spouse.  I had a built-in rationale if my new persona fell flat (“It’s not my fault—they just don’t understand American assertiveness”).  But it also meant that if my new persona worked, I could take all the credit (“They like me even though I am assertive”).  

In that environment, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If I failed, no one would be disappointed except me.  If I succeeded, my kitbag would contain a whole new set of tools for managing the rest of my life.  And, mercifully, I did succeed.

What’s your story?


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Writing is Living Twice

I don’t know if I believe the old saw about “only going around once” but I know the life I inhabit now is the only one I have to work with.  And, as I chronicled in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I believe you live more fully when you dwell in the moment rather than waiting for the future or longing for the past.

DSC_0309So why did I resonate so strongly with a chapter title — Writing is Living Twice — in Susan Weidener’s lovely memoir, Morning at Wellington Square

It’s linked, I think, to the benefits of journaling … that by writing, we can access the deeper meaning of the events and emotions that swirl around our lives. Sometimes, that deeper meaning comes through recollections or insights that emerge as you write.  Sometimes, it comes from examining the unspoken assumptions we’ve made or contradictions we’ve ignored.  Sometimes, it comes from letting our imagination run free, from exploring what could be or what might have been.

I first learned that lesson, in a mostly intellectual way, during my 30+ years in the financial markets, where I often taught about complex economic or financial concepts.  I discovered early on that if I couldn’t write my idea down clearly, I didn’t understand it well enough to explain it to someone else.  

It was a lesson I learned again in writing Moonbeam, some twenty years after that voyage ended.  For many years, for example, I recalled my months in Panama as an unscheduled diversion from the main thread of my journey, a middle life coming-of-age story.  But in writing the memoir, I came to see that it was during those months in Panama that the seeds of my growth were sown and so richly fertilized.  It was the first time that I had to — and was free to — build a persona without the burden of other people’s expectations. That realization permanently altered the way I think about getting through the day.   

Has your writing changed the way you live your life? I would love to hear about it!

Do you prefer fiction or memoir?

IMG_7375My musing was triggered by Pamela Haag’s article, Death by Treacle, chosen by David Brooks for one of his 2012 Sidney Awards

Haag notes that more and more of daily life is absorbed by “attention-getting” devices—colored ribbons worn by family of cancer or diabetes sufferers, or makeshift shrines for victims of accidents or violence. Her objection is not to personal sentiment in public places, but to public sentimentality that panders to the sympathy of strangers. “The former,” she argues, “emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will change something. The latter emphasizes I tell you this story so that you will feel something.” [italics hers]

Memoir all too often satisfies Haag’s notion of an attention-getting device, a tale of personal misfortune that has no larger societal significance.  Thinking about the many personal details I aired in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I wondered if I too had been guilty of “pandering.”

But I think not. The theme of my memoir was much the same as the theme for my upcoming novel (A Fitting Place): the potential for growth as you learn to cope with situations far outside of your normal comfort zone. It is a universal theme, an opportunity as well as a challenge for most of us, most of the time. Moonbeam was not about “misfortunes” but about the vehicles of learning and growth.

So … why a novel instead of another memoir?  Several things come to mind.

  • A challenge of the memoir was drawing my husband and myself as three-dimensional people.  I found the process of “creating” characters to be exhilarating and I didn’t want to stop just because I didn’t have another personal story to tell.
  • I wanted a change of metaphor. In the memoir, travel was the metaphor: your route is poorly marked and often depends on the weather; all too often you end up someplace very different from where you set out to go.  In my novel, my protagonist never strays far from her geographical roots, but enters into a “rebound relationship” that takes her into unfamiliar social, intellectual, and emotional territory.
  • The dramatic challenge. With a memoir, you start out knowing the plot.  For a novel, you make it up as you go along, with no idea if the story arc really holds together.  But a good memoir has to read like fiction or the reader will lose interest, and it can be difficult to decide which life events are relevant to the story.  In a fictional format, however, you are free to create the events that will drive the story forward.  In both genres, there’s to-ing and fro-ing as you decide what’s backstory and what’s critical to the reader’s understanding. But it seems easier to jettison something that isn’t working in a novel than in a memoir where the event or the scene cannot be separated from the writer’s emotional baggage.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Which you prefer to write? Which you prefer to read?

Shiny Tin Cans on a Christmas Tree

What is it about a Christmas tree that brings back the child in all of us? 

Christmas treeThe question came to mind while reading “The Carpenter’s Gift” by David Rubel. The centerpiece of this charming story is a boy whose family has fallen upon hard times. I felt an unexpected ache as I read that they used shiny tin cans to brighten up their Christmas tree.

The image took me back to memorable Christmas trees of my childhood. The aroma of pine.  The glow of a candle-bedecked tree, lit only when you were there to watch the flickering lights across a darkened room. The dancing reflections of a lights on shards of a broken mirror, painstakingly glued to the branches. Strings of fresh cranberries and homemade popcorn.  It was a simpler world in which a shiny tin can hung on a tree could be a source of delight to a child.  

It has been decades since I had such a Christmas tree, as I too succumbed to the urge to buy pretty things to hang on the branches. True, I never flocked a tree, and I never used boxes of store-bought ornaments. I hung my tree with souvenirs of my travels or important moments in my life. But over time, as the intensity of the memories faded, those momentos morphed into inert things to be unpacked, hung, and repacked.

Last year, in an effort to simplify life, my partner and I gave them all away.  This year, our Christmas tree is metaphorical — a nine-foot tall ficus, hung only with plain white lights and bits of glass to magnify the reflection.  

It pleases me in a way that past trees, buried under mountains of things, never did. 

Am I the only one who longs for a simpler time?