Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Writing beautifully about painful things isn’t easy. Just ask  Lorraine Ash, whose memoir Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing examines an experience of almost unimaginable pain: after a picture-perfect pregnancy, Lorraine learns that her daughter Victoria has contracted an infection and died. Life Touches Life walks readers through her experience–and does it in engaging, accessible, and honest terms.

Read an excerpt
or buy the book here,
at NewSage press, or at Amazon.
Photos courtesy of NewSage Press and Lorraine Ash.

Full disclosure here: I first heard about Lorraine’s story from Maureen Michelson, publisher at NewSage Press. “We’re going to be doing a book called Life Touches Life,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough book, so we’ll need to do everything we can to make it beautiful without distorting or trivializing the topic. I’m editing with the needs of a grieving audience in mind–keeping chapters short, stuff like that. The design’s going to need to do the same thing–we’ll need to have larger type, more white space–we just really have to make this book as easy to read as possible.”

So it was as a designer that I first confronted the question that I now face as a writer: How do you write honestly about things that most of us would prefer not to think about–and do it in terms that pull your audience into your experience, carry them along through the hard times, and somehow keep your story from becoming overwhelmingly painful? Journalist, writing teacher, and author Lorraine Ash manages to do exactly that. Even better, she knows how she did it–and she’s talking.

Lorraine Ash. Photo by Bob Karp, www.bobkarpphotos.com.
Lorraine Ash
(Photo by Bob Karp, www.bobkarpphotos.com)

We’ll be starting the conversation Wednesday night; and Lorraine will be in and out to answer questions on Thursday. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Lorraine, you can do it here, at her website.

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A few days ago I wrote about how the seeds of my memoir lay in my journals, which I wrote for two contradictory reasons: to forget, and to remember. I’ve been working on writing a memoir for a long time. I thought I had a rough draft done ten years ago. Then I showed it to my good friend and all-around smart editor Maureen.

“You’re not ready to write this,” she said. “You’re still in the middle of the story.”

And so I waited for a couple years, and tried again.

That time Maureen said, “I don’t know what the story is you’re trying to tell. You’re a great story teller, and you’ve got lots of stories in here–too many. You’re shooting off in all directions. Pick a story, any story. And edit.”

I didn’t understand. Also I was irritated. I had worked darned hard telling all those stories–there were almost a thousand pages of them. They were the stories of my life. Shouldn’t a memoir be exactly that? I decided I couldn’t write, put the manuscript away and got out my paints instead. But by then it was too late; I was a word junkie. I found myself mulling over what Maureen might mean over cups of coffee, as I was making art, as I was skinning chicken for supper, first indignantly, then sadly, and at last, thoughtfully. And slowly, slowly, I began to understand.

My memoir needed to be more than just dumping my life on paper. I had to pick one part of my experience, and not just recount it, but examine it. I had show my audience not only what happened, but why it was important, how the event played into my development–or lack thereof–in a given area.

I had to be willing to dig deep, to be honest. I had to be willing to take a step back and take a hard look not only at my life, family, and circumstances, but at myself. What was it about me that made the events I was recounting significant–or even possible? Did I grow? Did I triumph, or did I take refuge in victimhood?

I realized then that Maureen was right the first time; I wasn’t ready to write a memoir yet. The events in question could still provoke anger. I wasn’t yet ready to let go of self-justification. I hadn’t gained the distance I needed to be objective about my life. I was still struggling.

I set the memoir aside again. I wrote a couple novels. I wrote several picture books. I hung a few art shows. I moved. I grew. And all the while, I reflected on what parts of my life seemed significant, interesting, and thought-provoking enough to warrant sharing. I stopped looking for the stories, and began looking for the patterns behind them. And I discovered that I needed to think in terms of writing not one, but several memoirs. And then I began to sort.

Stories that shed light on my spiritual development went in one file. Stories that dealt with the subject of work and how it shaped me went in another. Stories that traced the evolution of abuse in my family went into another. Stories about walking through my dad’s terminal cancer went into another. And stories about how I learned to be a mother, how mothering changed me, and how my views of what being a mother means have evolved went into yet another. And at last, having gathered everything together and then sorted it, I felt ready to begin examining my life.

And now, at long last, I am ready to write a memoir–about some parts of my life, not all. I’ve chosen a part of my life with which I’ve made peace–my growth as a young, single mother. This memoir draws from that immense stack of stories that I first thought of as my memoir. But this is more than just a collection of stories about doing stuff with my son–it is an examination of the forces that shaped me as a mother, the challenges I faced in making the transition from single woman living alone to single mother living alone with a baby. It marks the evolution in my character, and charts my growing appreciation for the diversity and richness not only of my experience mothering my son, but mothering others who come into my life needing. It traces a trajectory.

And in the end, if I do my job right, it will invite readers to trace their own paths through the jungle of motherhood, making note of flora, fauna, and pitfalls along the way–and honoring the strengths and scars the journey writes on our souls, marking our passage.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about memoirs lately, and why people write them. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about why I feel driven to write them. And I do. But why?

When I first began exploring my life in words–the precursor to memoir for me–I did it in conjunction with therapy. The theory was that in writing about my past, I was acknowledging it, dealing with it, and ultimately, moving past it. Writing as catharsis.

When I was pregnant I started another journal, this time not to forget, but to remember. As I recall, I began it by saying that I was writing because I wanted to hold onto every moment of the experience. That journal wasn’t about forgetting at all; it was about remembering. Writing as memorial.

The odd thing is that both approaches worked. Writing that first journal was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and as I wrote I laughed and cried. And then I forgot. I have an extraordinary memory. Writing that journal taught me just how extraordinary it really is. I captured incredible detail.

And then, having locked it safely on paper, I began to forget. I read that journal and I know those things are true, but I know it in a rather distant, “Oh, yeah…that did happen…” way. The sights, smells, conversations–and pain–of those days has been captured on paper. It no longer fills my present.

Likewise, my second journal worked. I wrote to capture the experience of pregnancy, and of motherhood. And I did it. I read that journal and I find myself experiencing details that would otherwise be lost–the image of my newly-born son flying over my belly and into my arms while the doctor fights to halt the blood pouring from my body; the unmistakable, unique scent of a newborn; the wonder of lying on my bed with my son beside me, watching my Siamese cat curl around him, purring. I wrote that to remember, and it works.

And so the question, as I begin the process of writing a memoir: Am I writing for catharsis, or am I writing to capture? How about you?

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Here at the doghouse we’ve been busy the last few weeks. Two great writers, sci fi author Marian Allen and novelist, nature writer, and memoirist Brenda Peterson, will be stopping by to talk books–primarily their own–with us. This might seem like an unlikely pairing, but the books we’ll be discussing, Eel’s Reverence (Marian Allen), and I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth (Brenda Peterson) both explore some of today’s most controversial issues–the uneasy relationship between private spirituality and organized religion, between religion and humanism, and between a society and the cultural groups it finds alien and threatening. And they do it in the context of some cracking good writing.

September 17–This will be Marian Allen’s last stop on her blog book tour for Eel’s Reverence, so if you’ve got a question you’ve been dying to ask please do plan to stop by.

September 20–Magic Dog weighs in on Aunt Libby, Loach, reaver priests, and the whole idea of the male of any species having to carry babies.

September 22–We’ll review Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth. Brenda gives us as look at her remarkable family, and at the challenges growing up in a family both nature-loving and fundamentalist. If you don’t understand the inherent conflict there, Brenda’s book is a must-read. We’ll give you a little taste of it here, though, to whet your appetite.

September 24–We’ll talk to Brenda about her book, her life, how she came to write I Want To Be Life Behind, and baby-sitting seal pups.

September 29–We’ll talk a bit about the issues that Marian and Brenda raise in their books, and consider how those issues play out today. Mostly, I suspect we’ll be asking questions, and giving you a chance to weigh in with your thoughts.
So that’s the rest of September! Stop by often–lots of good stuff here this month.

Please plan to stop by and meet these two great writers.

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