Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflex Memory

All this week I have been having flashes. Memory flashes where I am suddenly reminded of something, and, then after another second, the flash is gone.

Like so much in life.

We had a baby, we had a little girl, we had this little tiny family. And then one day we are all on our separate paths. Maybe it is the holiday season that brings all this up.

I am remembering all the hub-bub and chaos of Thanksgiving and Christmas with a young child. You see things through their eyes. Or maybe that is romanticizing things a bit. At the moment all we feel is chaos. The memory filters out the stress and I am left remembering the wonder. The pure joy. Little elemental transcendent sparkles like snowflakes on rosy cheeks—but only for a second, before melting away, and disappearing altogether.

Each ornament, each stocking, each damaged school art project retrieved from the Xmas Decoration Bin pulled out of storage—each has a story to tell, some unintended spontaneous flash memory to give up.

This season take the time to sit down and write. Respond to those flash memories by jotting them down. There will be times, years hence, when you will be glad you took the time. When the babies are grown and the kids miles away, when the candles don’t seem to penetrate the dark night. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cracking Nuts

In my flash memoir workshops I exhort my students to work on their mnemonic impulses, to take paper and pen and jot down that niggling memory that pops into their heads and in the next instance is gone.

I had one the other day. Actually I get 6 or 7 in any given hour of the waking day, but they largely go ignored. But, this one, I actually wrote down.

Cracking nuts.

It begins smallish and then works on you. I asked myself: Who cracks nuts anymore? You see, it’s getting to that nut cracking time of year. And, on my counter I had a small bag of nuts given to me by a Polish man who said they were from his own tree over in the old country. This was around Marathon time when I was hosting. He also gave me 2 heirloom apples from his yard and those were the BEST APPLES EVER. So, I had high hopes for these walnuts.

Except I had to find something to bust them open. All the while remembering. Remembering how my mother used to force us kids to crack nuts like chain-gang prisoners consigned to the rock piles. We’d sit around newspapers spread out on the floor and crack until our fingers bled. Why didn’t she buy them already cracked? I now ponder. Maybe she was saving us money or supplying us with memories that will follow us around for the rest of our life.

Which then led me to feel sorry for kids these days who have no experience cracking nuts and pulling those meaty walnut halves out of the shell and trying to pluck that membrane out of the middle. They have no idea what this is like. So when I sat down one evening before a meeting in my living room to tackle the nuts, people arriving early for the meeting wanted to help. They all wanted to take a turn cracking the nuts. And, eating them. We managed to have the meeting—and make memories too.

Now years hence, maybe the young people in my living room will remember the time they came to my house and ended up cracking and eating these wonderful nuts from the Polish guy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Latest--Brown Sisters

The latest Brown Sisters photo has gone up!

It is the 41st, Nicholas Nixon started this on-going photo essay project in 1975 (the summer I was 16). Every step of his series I can relate to, the life stages of these wonderful sisters. I've blogged abut them before and continue to be fascinated by the 41 images.

I wish them 41 more years!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Peace for Paris

I was riveted to the refresh button Friday night, trying to catch each news update coming out of Paris. It was unnerving. My husband was just there 2 weeks ago. Not that has anything to do with anything—except that more than ever I felt connected to Paris. I just hosted a family from France—not that they were directly in harm’s way, but to say I felt concerned.

As I do sometimes on this blog I’ll comment on social media. For and against it, like most of us.

Did anyone else notice that they received a safety check from friends in Paris? I’m not sure how I feel about this feature. I understand the utility of it, but am disheartened by the necessity. On one hand when there is a disaster such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, friends and relatives bombard emergency services in hopes of locating and assessing the safety of loved ones. The “helpers” as Fred Rogers called them are overwhelmed and if there is an easy fix such as that loved one pinging or checking in on Facebook to relieve the concern of others, then yes thank you for this tool.

Yet, I shake my head, what a messed up world we live in. That an auto-generated message informed me that Bastien Pourtout, a gifted photographer, was “marked safe during the Paris Terror Attacks.”

I also don’t know how I feel about those capital letters—for Terror Attacks. Like the news crawlers and logos that splash across the screens I turn to for information in times of Panic. It feels like a commodification of some terrible event that is happening right now, this moment. And I’m not ready for that.
Such as the icon tweeted out by Jean Jullien, Peace for Paris. 162.2k shares later: “. . . The world embraced it almost immediately. And now, not quite 24 hours later, people are printing it on T-shirts, on posters, and on flags. . .” To be fair he had no overarching purpose with the design. From Wired,

Did you sit down with this image in mind?
No, to be honest. I didn’t do any sketches. It was a reaction.
I understand being almost ashamed of the traction this has gotten and the reach that it’s had. But at the same time, is it not the role of artists to give us symbols of strength and solidarity in times like this?
I agree. I just …

This is a difficult tension to balance. But in the midst of the chaos that evening, it brought many people together.

For a second. Before everyone started using the blue, white and red colors of the French flag as an overlay on their Facebook cover photo and critics turned up the heat—what about Kenya! What about Beirut?

Here is how a good and wise friend of mine responded:
Tiana Elaine Coleman
I think our hearts are big enough to grieve for many people, many countries, and many sad situations that we encounter daily.
I don't want to dissect anyone's grief ("why them and not them? ", "why that flag? " ...).
I don't want my grief dissected.
I want to grieve for a fallen and broken world that keeps choosing hate over love.
And after grieving I want to search for hope and healing, and be a part of bringing them to a world in desperate need of both.

And, yes, she had the French flag colors over her pic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blurred Autobiography

Because I volunteer for the Chicago Humanities Festival I am allowed a few free tickets. This time I chose to go hear Pamela Smith Hill who is the editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography and Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life

Hidden away since the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder s never-before-published autobiography reveals the true stories of her pioneering life. Some of her experiences will be familiar; some will be a surprise.

Hill clues us in. Laura worked outside the home beginning at around age 9.Her and her sister Mary (before her illness and eventual blindness) washed dishes at a hotel her mother and father, Ma and Pa, ran. There were times when Laura was not safe. Pioneer Girl includes dark material, details of domestic abuse, love triangles, alcoholism, and a near-sexual assault. This was LIW first attempt at memoir writing and had an adult audience in mind.

It was only later, with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane already a popular journalist herself, acting as her editor, proposed that her mother write for a younger audience, gear her writing for children and principally make changes that would give the books more of an arc. This would mean conflating some events and other changes to make it more readable. So in the end they would be novels. Not memoir.

Some of these changes are minor. Such as a scene from the railroad camp. Laura did not actually go with Pa; her observations were second-hand, as a railroad camp was not a suitable situation for a young girl--as there was rough language and rough men working there. But to make the story more interesting she wrote it through Laura's eyes. Other changes might be shifting her age around to make it more plausible that she might actually have vivid memories of a certain time period. Pretty much after On The Shores of Silver Lake the ages of the girls line up and also LIW self-editing of material not suitable for younger children was minimal, meaning she included more from the original ms Pioneer Girl.

One of my favorites of the series has always been The Long Winter, perhaps because of the struggle. It wasn't all Ma making do and making pies out of green tomatoes. There is a certain darkness to that story, where Pa stands up and shakes his fist at the blizzard winds and utters a curse and Ma has to hush him. 

In fact we learn from Pioneer Girl that Pa was a bit of a scoundrel, leaving town without paying rent in one instance. 

The real Laura did not live a sheltered life, but was hired out to other farm families to work and as revealed in her memoir Ma and Pa had an offer from a neighbor woman to take Laura off their hands. These were dark, lean times and perhaps they might have entertained that offer as there would be one less mouth to feed. But Laura also represented an income; she brought money into the family. In Little Town on the Prairie she is sent off to to teach in DeSmet County, she was not yet 16 and Almanzo was ten years her senior when he was allowed to drive out and pick her up. For today's helicopter parents this probably sounds CRAZY!

Anyway the Little House books are an example of blurred memoir, done successfully. The franchise has earned millions for the estate holders (a whole other story). Why not then you? Try setting down memories the Laura Ingalls Wilder way--give yourself freedom to finesse the memory and make it work as a story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doer

This was such a beautiful book. Every word, every word was just so. But then I read a beautiful review of this book by my friend BethFinke that I asked if I could link/direct my readers to her blog. Yes!!

Beth comes to her review from a very unique perspective and has also found Anthony’s writing superb because—well, I’ll let her explain.

"I usually avoid reading novels and short stories with characters who are blind. Too many fiction writers portray blind characters one-dimensionally — we’re either heroic or tragic, bumbling or, particularly lately, blessed with super-powers.

But Anthony Doerr isn’t like other authors . . . ."

CLICK HERE for the rest.

“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lost and Found, part 3

This week I’ve been writing about flash, particularly memoir. Saturday, Nov. 14, 1 – 3 pm I will be giving a workshop at Chicago Publisher Resource Center, 858 N. Ashland Avenue,

Memoir today is being written as fiction and much of fiction is comprised of memoir. Flash is about writing small and using bits of your life story. This workshop will teach you how to take bite-size memories and weave them into narrative. Participants will be given examples of flash, writing prompts, and also a list of places to submit their own flash.

When I wrote the above blurb I was thinking primarily of a new book out by Lily Tuck which I haven’t read, but have been intrigued by since I read a review about it in The Washington Post.

The Double Life of Liliane is essentially an autobiographical novel. Okay, there’s a muddle. Which is it? Fiction or non-fiction.

Life is all about compartmentalizing. Except not everything fits. There are times when fact and fiction are indistinguishable from each other. This is a writer who is very familiar with historical fiction; she is the National Book Award winner of The News From Paraguay.

From the review:
Tuck includes often segue into relevant historical information — about street names, for example, ocean liners, news stories of the day — lending an aura of even greater veracity. All of this is further backed up and given added authority by the inclusion of old photographs.

At times there is a point by point match between her life events and the narrative, then come deviations. But, then, isn’t this history. We’re always rewriting the past. Seeing things through new eyes, another angle. Or to our benefit.

I know many of the things I write about in the first-person could be my story, but I’ve actually borrowed from someone else’s life. Or I might re-cast my own history adopting a persona. We do this all the time. We’re writers.

Right now—write a flash memoir in less than a 1,000 words where you blend fact and fiction. Tell us what you think happened.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lost and Found, part 2

My last post was about a random bag of clothes close to 40 years old. Stuff no one wanted—except when they were returned to the former owner Patti Smith, she burst into tears. At the very thought, the memories the clothes brought back.

Consider other infamous lost items. There is a history of art stolen through the ages, later recovered. The current controversy concerns art taken and stored in Nazi warehouses eventually winding its way back to the original owners. Or whoever. Museums are full of objects “taken.”

I did some research and came up with stories of lost and found. Peter Frampton had an incident similar to Patti’s while on tour. His plane crashed—and his equipment in the cargo bay, or so he thought.

Another mystery of a missing musical instrument solved:

There’s a group that does nothing but scour old battlefields for lost bones in the hopes of, through DNA testing, returning the remains of missing soldiers to their loved ones.

Even a few days ago I thought I’d lost a file I’d been working on. I must have mislabeled it and it ended up in a folder called temp on my desktop. I’m not even sure how I recovered it, but I lost no time in renaming it and putting it somewhere better for the next time I needed it.

Poor Hemingway, he didn’t have the cloud. Or any other backup services. Really poor poor Hadley. You see she lost a valise containing every last piece of written work by her beloved husband.

It was 1922 and Hemingway was on the verge of a breakthrough. He’d been slaving away at his writing for months and months. He felt he was about to get a bite. Meanwhile he took a job filing a report for the Toronto Star as a foreign correspondent which took him away from Paris. And Hadley. After about a month he wrote to her to join him in Geneva. All on her own she decided to empty Earnest’s writing cabinet, even the carbon copies, and bring them with her on the train. It was her thought that Earnest could work on them during their holiday break. She stuffed them into a valise and left for the busy railstation.

We know this story does not end well. I cannot imagine what I would have done if I were Hadley—or Earnest Hemingway.

From: A Moveable Feast:
“I had never seen anyone hurt by a thing other than death or unbearable suffering except Hadley when she told me about the things being gone. She had cried and cried and could not tell me. I told her that no matter what the dreadful thing was that had happened nothing could be that bad, and whatever it was, it was all right and not to worry.  We could work it out. Then, finally, she told me. I was sure she could not have brought the carbons too and I hired someone to cover for me on my newspaper job. I was making good money then at journalism, and took the train for Paris. It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.”

Gone. All of it. All his Michigan Indian Camp stories. Every last shred.

BUT, and here is where I am giving you, both my readers, a prompt. What if that valise hadn’t been stolen? What if somehow today someone showed up on “Antiques Roadshow” with the aforesaid valise? Re-write history.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

That’s right—someone gave Patti Smith her clothes back after 36 years.

This blog is about memories. How many memories are stitched into the clothes we wear . . . or used to wear? The dress you wore to your son’s wedding, your favorite sweatshirt that always gets rotated to the front of the drawer, the mini-skirt that got you through your darkest days after the breakup, that sheer blouse that always makes you feel ravishing, that hopelessly out-of-date tie that you somehow cannot bring yourself to forsake.

Who is it that said we are the clothes we wear?

But, styles change. Yesterday’s punk is today’s conservative. Remember your goth phase when everything you wore was black. I wouldn’t be caught dead in an 80s dress with poof sleeves. The free bins are full of fuchsia jackets with padded shoulders.

Nevertheless, it isn’t the style or even the fact that we once were skinny enough or bold enough to wear a certain item. It’s about what it represents—that young renegade, that girl who never said no, but always YES!!!

Once I wore a thrift-store find, a beautiful paisley sari, over black leggings. I felt so beautiful and confident . . . until my husband and I had an argument. I never could bring myself to wear that sari again. I eventually sent it back to the thrift store with a sack of other things I no longer had a use for.

When Patti Smith was handed on stage a bag containing clothes stolen from her tour van in 1979, when she peek inside the bag, she was brought to tears.

Forget the numerous questions or the possible recrimination: she was flooded with memories of that 1979 kick-ass Patti. This Patti:

From the Guardian:

A clearly emotional Smith identified the top as the one she wore on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in July 1978, and the cloth as belonging to her brother and road manager, Todd Smith, who died in 1994.
“Before long, half the audience was crying with her … [Some] were asking where, how, why, but Patti just put her hands out and said she doesn’t care how, she’s just so grateful to have these priceless items back,” a witness described in an online forum. “The rest of the program, after she piled everything on the podium, she couldn’t stop touching them, eventually slowly slipping the bandana into her pocket . . and proceeded to do a ripping version of Because the Night with her son on acoustic guitar.”

Today—write a flash love letter to your favorite item of clothing.
Prompts, flash, memoir, Patti Smith

Monday, November 2, 2015

When Is It Safe To Text or Tweet

Just like many of you this past week I was sickened—yes, that’s the word I would use—by a video that went viral. Viral like a disease that’s infecting way too many in our communities. A good portion of our population.

I think it’s called racial prejudice.

The same disease that drives some of us to download apps like GroupMe meant to spot potential shoplifters, but which turned into racial profiling. The same hair-trigger reaction that caused a shopkeeper to fear a really large black man approaching his store (he wasn’t even in the store because they saw him coming and locked the door) who turned out to be an NBA player.

The young woman’s crime: She was texting. Obviously other kids had their phones out because there are SEVERAL videos of this incident on-line. People text in their cars and they don’t get pulled over and thrown to the pavement. (I wish.) We are a society used to live-blogging, simultaneously walking, eating, and tweeting. Congress does it when the President is delivering the State of the Union address. So what is the deal here? How is texting disrupting a roomfull of students—anymore disruptive than say an officer throwing a fellow student onto the ground and straddling her?

Which leads me to analyze and question:
Times Not to Text, Times Not to Tweet
1)      when you’re black
2)      when you’re a woman/girl or variations of
3)      when you’re young—especially too young to vote
4)      when you are dispossessed (see all of the above)
5)      just shut up
6)      lastly, not in a classroom

Times to Text, Times to Tweet
1)      when you are white
2)      then you can be any gender!
3)      when you are privileged (how is it possible to be anything else?)
4)      when you’re young (because the old tend to be invisible)
5)      especially when using emoticons
6)      lastly, anywhere!!!