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As a life writing mentor I’m often asked who are my favourite memoir writers. So, I’m creating a list starting with five of my old favourites. I’ll eventually post the list on Skeletons & Dirty Linen
After a lifetime of reading it was quite hard to narrow down my choices, and it was only after I made my selection I realised every writer I had chosen has their own unique voice. This showed me where my heart really lies when it comes to reading. I’ve included some examples so you’ll see what I mean.
Let me know your favourites so I can add yours to the list. Tell me why if you have the time.
1. Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
“Greece is not a small country – it is impressively vast. No country I have visited has given me such sense of grandeur. Size is not created by mileage always… Greece could swallow both the United States and Europe. Greece is a little like China or India…”
2. Amos Oz
“The city, Jerusalem, where people schlepped along the streets: “If we picked up our foot someone else might come along and snatch our little strip of land. On the other hand, once you have lifted your foot, do not be in a hurry to put it down again… time and time again we have fallen into the hands of our enemies because we put our foot down without looking where we were putting them.”
3. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
4. Janet Frame, Angel at My Table
“From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.”
5. Austin Burroughs, Running with Scissors
“My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek. “Damn it,” she says, “something isn’t right.”
Building a Cathedral or Weaving a Basket?
A One Day Advanced Writing Workshop
Sunday June 2, 2013, 10.00am -4.00pm
$120.00 including lunch
Story and meaning are embodied by structure, but does structure serve story or the other way round? Whether you have begun your story with a clear idea of structure or you intend to weave your narrative into a shape at a later stage, each method comes with its own particular difficulties.
Structure gives shape to the tangled emotional, character driven, tonal and thematic lines of our writing. Stories can rise and fall in gentle curves, plunge and leap wildly, or explode into chaos. Our aim should be for any shape but straight.
This workshop will take you through the pitfalls and benefits of these different approaches.
For more information contact me on email@example.com or 0416 181 645.
Last week I met with a former workshop participant to talk about the memoir she is writing. Her research has uncovered a cast of very interesting characters and stories. Her writing is also quite advanced, but she now finds herself struggling to integrate her story into a structure that works. Most memoir writers find themselves in this situation at some point in their writing journey. Life itself is incredibly complex, which means writing about life is likely to be just as complex, or even more so.
By coincidence the same day I went to a friend’s book launch. Kris Olsson is a beautiful writer. Her previous book The China Garden won the 2010 Barbara Jeffries award for the best novel written by an Australian author. Kris’s new book Boy, Lost, her long-lost brother’s story, is awash with complexity. Her brutal first husband snatched Peter from his mother’s arms, and it was 40 years before mother and son were reunited. This book is a brilliant depiction of individual grief and suffering, and of the fallout a terrible incident like this can have on generations of families. We are also left to ponder the wider ramifications of a system that still fails to protect the rights and needs of children who are stolen, abandoned or neglected.
Boy, Lost is also a perfect example of how to manage structure. I tread this path almost daily, so I am in awe of what Kris has achieved. She manages to switch back and forth from time-frame to time-frame, from character to character, and point-of-view to point-of-view without ever losing you. I understand the amount of work that must have gone into creating a structure so seamless it is the meaning, not the effort that finally shines through.
Story and Structure will be one of a series of one-day advanced Skeletons & Dirty Linen workshops I will be announcing shortly. Please let me know if you are interested in finding out more details.
I used to be a very poor time manager. Managing multiple tasks under pressure was a nightmare. I’d leap about so much from task to task I never seemed to get anything done properly. Then I discovered a secret weapon to deal with this ferocious enemy called time. This weapon is incredibly simple to implement, but produces really amazing results when it’s used consistently. It’s brilliance is it’s instant and ongoing effectiveness. Above all, I swear it makes self-discipline a piece of cake, and it’s free.
This weapon is called the POMODORO. The creators claim it eliminates the anxiety of time and, more importantly for me, enhances and focuses my concentration. By using the Pomodoro I am always able to create order out of any chaos. It’s a complete mystery to me how something so simple actually works every time. I find this mystery quite magical.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and will help you accomplish what you want to do by transforming time into a valuable ally. The Pomodoro Technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that was first used by Cirillo when he was a university student.
The Pomodoro is completely free, easy to use, and, most of all, it works! I have introduced it to students and writing friends who love it. Put simply, before you begin your task you set a timer for 25 minutes. During this period you focus only on that task. You don’t look at emails, go to the bathroom, or make a telephone call. You allow nothing to distract you. The timer on my mobile phone is switched on right now. If my husband comes into my office right this minute, I’ll say ‘Pomodoro’. He has learned that this means I won’t stop so he just slides away.
Because I believe that too much structure is an anathema to creativity, I implement the technique at its most basic level using these five basic steps:
1. Decide on the task to be done
2. Set the Pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
3. Work on the task until the timer rings
4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
5. Every four “Pomodoros” take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
If you run out of time you have to stop, even if you are in the middle of a sentence when the bell rings. There are so many times I have been really annoyed by this ‘interruption,’ but because I am now disciplined I really do stop instantly, then I can’t wait to get back and finish my sentence or task. So the 5-minute break actually creates a renewed impetus to get going again.
On the other hand if the task finishes before 25 minutes, you get the opportunity to go over what you have been doing instead of just getting up and walking away. The extra time can be used for polishing whether it’s editing or the furniture. This is also the time when really interesting ideas can pop up out of the blue.
I find the Pomodoro useful for the simple and onerous tasks, not just for writing. It’s amazing how quickly you can clean up the kitchen using this technique. This is such a great tool for time-management; I often plan a busy day by first assessing the number of Pomodoros each separate task will take, and then scheduling the tasks according to their priority. Because I work from home this is usually a mixture of writing as well as household chores. Generally I make sure I use the 4th Pomodoro to do a domestic task so I can give my head a break.
Another support tool you can use in tandem with the Pomodoro is an Internet blocker. I use a productivity application that shuts down your access to your email and locks you away for the Internet for selected periods of time up to eight hours. Freedom.
Every time I find myself falling back into my old chaotic methods I soon realise it’s because I have stopped using the Pomodoro. If you do decide to give this a go I’d really love to get your feedback.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Next time I’ll tell you about my own flying lessons.
Skeletons & Dirty Linen
For years I’ve had a pledge to write at least five hundred words’ a day. You might think that’s not much of a goal. Colleen McCullough claimed she wrote twenty thousand words a day. Graham Greene religiously wrote five hundred. If it was good enough for him then it’s good enough for me. Any way five hundred works out to be nearly two hundred thousand a year, – the length of a very long novel. With such a low target you might think it would be a breeze, but I confess it isn’t.
There are times when I go for days, weeks even, without writing a single word of the book I am working on. All manner of things get in the way. For a start there’s the chores I simply have to do before I sit down to write. This is my typical daily routine – empty the dishwasher, check my emails, fill the dishwasher, check the news headlines, put on the washing, check Facebook, pay some bills, check twitter, hang out the washing, check my emails, make the doctor’s appointment. Oh dear suddenly the morning has gone, and I haven’t even opened a word document let alone written five hundred words. Now I’m too tired to even think about writing.
I guess I’m not the only writer with this problem. Writing ideas can hit you anytime, whether you’re lying awake in the middle of the night, or you’re sitting on a bus or going for walk, you suddenly can’t wait to start putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. The words are about to pour out of you and you won’t even think about your goals as you charge past the five hundred mark. But as you walk toward your desk - alarm bells ring. You hesitate for a second. You’re sure there’s something you ought to be doing. You remember your sister is coming to visit and you need to change the sheets. You’ve run out of milk. You need to get a quote for new tyres. Your writing can wait for an hour, and anyway there’s always tomorrow.
You’re tricking yourself aren’t you? You know there’s nothing more important in your life than writing. You know it’s so much bigger than washing or car repairs or twitter. Of course you know that. You also know all too well that later today, or tomorrow or next month of next year you’ll be kicking yourself for your lack of output. You will eke out the rest of your days in misery and guilt. So why don’t you stop reading and starting writing this minute? So why don’t you just start?
My husband is a very keen golfer, well actually he’s a bit obsessed. He practises a lot, which is probably one of the reasons I have so much housework to do. When he’s at the practice range he hits his golf balls out of sight. When he shoulders his bag for a casual round his scores are quite often terrific, but he rarely repeats this prowess when he plays in official competitions. It’s what most of us do when we have to stop rehearsing and face the real thing. It’s called self-sabotage, and I do it to myself over and over.
Yet I’ve also proved I’m capable of being much more prolific. When I was given the deadline to write my memoir Ursula, I wrote 80,000 words in twelve months, and I was working full-time that year. So why can’t I manage five hundred words a day without a deadline?
In his inspirational guide to overcoming personal barriers, http://www.stevenpressfield.com/do-the-work/ prolific novelist Steven Pressfield argues no matter what we set out to undertake, whether it’s a creative pursuit, starting a new diet or health regime or overcoming an addiction, our main enemy is RESISTANCE.’ He says ‘We’ll hit every predictable Resistance Point along the way – those junctures where fear, self-sabotage, procrastination, self-doubt, and all those other demons we’re all so familiar with can be counted on to strike,’
So now I have name to call it that low level ache under my ribs that comes with the very thought of words going on the page. It’s called resistance. Pressfield ‘says resistance is lying and full of shit’. My theory is once you name something it’s a lot easier to fight it. I also know once I start anything is possible. Crikey, I’ve just realised I’ve exceeded today’s goal by over two hundred words. Easy isn’t it? Now there’s just tomorrow. I’m going to keep a tally of my daily output over the next month. Anyone want to join me? I’d love to get your feedback.
Next week – The Pomodoro a Magic Time-Management Method
I came across a fascinating interview with American writer Maya Angelou in my collected Paris Review Interviews. Angelou is the author of the bestselling memoir, The Caged Bird Sings. She has some serious things to say about the beauty of language, about melody and the extraordinary events of her life. However what stood out for me was the working environment she had created for herself. The excerpt below clearly demonstrates it doesn’t matter how and where we write as long as it helps us to keep writing.
If you are really interested in memoir writing you must read the rest of this inspiring interview Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119
You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible….
And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination?
I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.
When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work?
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.
Recently I came across my diary notes for October 2nd last year, a birthday shared by two of my favourite heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and my beloved stepfather. I read a Wall Street Journal review of a new biography of Ghandi that claimed, among other things, he was a bisexual misogynist. The review said this biography “obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that [Gandhi] was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist — one who was often downright cruel to those around him.”
I have lived long enough to see so many of my childhood heroes bite the dust. Churchill just loved fighting wars ; Martin Luther King committed adultery; Abraham Lincoln was a racist. I’m no longer surprised by such revelations. But the question I always ask myself is, whether these flaws actually undermine the greatness of their achievements?
Which leads me to TS Eliot, who has been my favourite poet since high school. At sometime in my twenties I actually went off him for many years because I read somewhere he had his first wife, Vivienne, committed to a mental asylum. She died in this institution nine years later, and during this time he never once went to visit her. I was so appalled by this apparent callousness, I couldn’t even bring myself to open a book of his poems.
The trouble was his Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock had always been my very favourite poem. I had read it so often I knew much of it by heart. Over the years these lines kept coming back to me unbidden. I might have rejected the poet, but, try as I might, I could never quite turn my back on the work itself.
In truth history reveals Eliot and Vivienne were already separated when her brother, not her husband, placed her in the asylum. Yet this is not the point either. Even when I thought Eliot had been a cruel husband scorning the mentally ill woman who loved him, why did his poetry continue to hold me in its clutches?
Theirs was an incredibly complex relationship. They were two extremely vulnerable people who became more damaged as the years went on. Eliot’s incredible tour de force The Wasteland, one of, the 20th-centurys greatest poems, arose, in part, from the wreckage of this marriage. You see his work is so powerful because of his human frailty, not in spite of it. His true gift to us was his ability to offer up his own fear and struggles in a resounding reflection of universal human suffering.
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.’
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Od’ und leer das Meer.”
My Skeletons and Dirty Linen blog has been silent since the beginning of May, but my life is now on an even keel again and I am about to publish some new pieces very soon. Make sure you subscribe to my blog so you can be notified when these happen.
We had a great get-together of the Sydney Memoir Writers Meetup Group on Sunday August 4 at Berkelouw Books Paddington. Lots of interchange of the ideas and experiences from the ten writers on theme of the insecurity we all experience about the quality of our writing. Most of us read a two-minute piece that had been written since the last Meetup. What didn’t surprise me was the writers who had the most reservations about the own work had actually written some of the best pieces. In my own experience fear of failure inevitably forces us from the shallows to the deeper places where the truth is more likely to lie.
We also discussed Gore Vida’s memoir Palimpsest He opens his book with a suggestion that A Tissue of Lies would have been a more persuasively apt title for a memoir. He boasts at having gone ‘mano a mano’ with some of the great liars of his time, and whether we should draw any lines between fiction and fact. This led to a great Meetup discussion on where and when it is ok to make stuff up.
Several people described the success they had to managing their writing time using the Pomodoro technique we discussed at out last Meetup. The Pomodoro is a simple and clever time management system that splits everything you do into 25-minute modules. I use it for everything including cleaning the bathroom. It’s inventor, Francesco Cirillo, claims it eliminates the anxiety of time. It is a mystery to me why it works, but this is exactly what it does. Have a look for yourself if you’re interested. www.pomodorotechnique.com/
This month’s issue of Vanity Fair features a review of a new biography BarackObama: The Story by David Maraniss, and centers around his relationships with a fellow college student, Alex McNear and the letters she kept during the period. Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss
As a TSE fan what really interested me was an excerpt from a letter he wrote to her discussing a paper she was writing on the ‘The Wasteland.’ Beyond anything else his writing reinforces Obama’s intellectual strength and broad vision even at this early stage of his life. Imagine George Bush or Romney… no I won’t go there.
Here’s the excerpt.
‘I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?’
“I needed something that was going to really challenge me, and a course which specifically examines family relationships is exactly what I was looking for.” she said.
The Genogram, a sophisticated family tree, helps to explore family relationships and to quickly identify various influences in a person’s family history. Using specific symbols these patterns clarify the nature of emotional and social relationships, living conditions, and recurring disorders such as alcoholism or depression. Used as a memoir-writing tool, a Genogram helps to place the really confronting issues into perspective.
The first of six 2-hr weekly workshops is on May 24, 2012 at 6.30pm at Newtown.
More information send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 0416 181 645