Talk Like a Writer

There’s nothing worse than when a non-writing friend or relative asks what you’ve been writing lately. That’s on the rare occasion when they ask at all. Regardless, you excitedly relate you’ve just finished that story, the one you’ve been struggling to find the perfect ending for. Or you proudly mention publication of an essay in that literary journal you’ve been trying to get into for years.

First, they get that far away, confused look. They seem uncomfortable.  You feel awkward. They don’t have any idea what to say next beyond the perfunctory “that’s great.”  You feel bad the subject even came up. They have the best of intentions; they want to come off as interested and supportive. But they are visiting a foreign land.

Writing is a sub-culture, complete with dialect, norms and mores, rituals, rites of passage and ceremony. For writers, we feel right at home; for non-writers it’s a maze that’s incomprehensible. I know well that feeling of not belonging because at the beginning of my writing life, I felt pretty much the same. Was I really a writer? How will I know when I really am one?

It’s been a long journey and one that started at age eleven when my essay was published in a student magazine.  I received $25.00 which was quite lot back in 1957. I wrote it in the voice of a book, asking students to treat me and my friends well. It never occurred to me that I was a writer. It was just a school assignment. Thinking of myself as a writer would come much later and be done in fits and starts.

I dipped in a little bit at a time and through the years I’ve learned the lingo and built myself a nice writing community. As years passed and especially in retirement, I’ve come to think of writing as more than a hobby but less than a job. I felt I’d really arrived when I set up my own website that now holds nearly two hundred of my pieces. I revel in the comments and likes from my followers.

Every summer I attend a week-long writing conference at UW – Madison. I call it my annual spa retreat. The instruction is top-notch and I always come away energized. It’s also great to be immersed in campus life and to make the most of the leisure built into the schedule. But the best thing is to spend time with other writers, writing, talking and thinking about writing. That’s only one of the opportunities that enhance my life.

There’s nothing like the din, the laughter, the chatter on the first day of any writing conference when everyone is getting to know each other. All you have to say to a stranger who happens to sit down next to you: “what are you writing?”  And off you go.

There’s nothing like the animated conversation that often ensues in writing group. These are the people you’ve shared your deepest secrets and yearnings with as you work out together the details of a story or essay. They sometimes become more of a family than what you have at home.

I recall attending my first poetry workshop.  I wasn’t sure I could call myself a poet. The class introduction said ‘bring six poems.” I counted. I had six, only six. I assumed that meant I qualified. Imagine me in a room with twelve life-long poets and an instructor who was a former Wisconsin poet laureate. They were kind and encouraging. Treated me like one of their own.

I now belong to a poetry group that meets once a month for reading and critiquing over breakfast. Out of that I write and post a poem every month on my wesite. I’ve learned the language and know I belong.

Writing is just one of many sub cultures out there. For example, I have a friend who belongs to a national chair caning organization. They have a board and regular meetings and everything. And language all their own. Also, think pottery, genealogy and barber shop quartets.  They’re everywhere. So, I no longer feel bad when a non-writing friend seems awkward. That’s because there’s probably somewhere in their life with some group of people where they belong, where they know the language and I don’t.

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Writing for Myself

I’ve been writing for most of my adult life. Except for a few published works in anthologies, newspapers and magazines, my writing languished in forlorn folders on my computer. No one saw it but me.  The new age of blogging and self-publishing got me thinking this might be a way to get some exposure.

It was while thinking about blogging, I happened upon the movie, Julie and Julia.  It’s the true story of how writer, Julie Powell, blogged about her adventures, cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The result was a book deal (2005), a movie deal (2009) and being launched as a writer. My goals were less grand but her experiences helped me in some surprising ways to find my own path.

In the movie, Julie let the whole experience unravel her life. She worried about who was reading her and was she disappointing them; she had self-described “meltdowns” that wreaked havoc on her life, her work and her marriage. This insanity was something I knew I wanted no part of.

I was sure of only one thing. If I was going to do this it had to be for me. I wanted my writing out there and thought this might give me a sense of accomplishment. Writing friends reminded me that once a piece was on the blog it would be considered “published.” I decided I could live with that. Actually, that fit my goals perfectly.

Lastly, I found help. I searched for someone with computer skills and her own blog. I chose WordPress because I liked their layout and choices. We met once a month as she constructed my site. In between sessions, I began to post my writing and become more comfortable with the program. It was money well spent.

But I don’t think of what I do as blogging. I consider my site a website. My pieces are essays, personal and memoir. Each piece is complete on its own. I pay no attention to word count; I’m just interested in telling the story.

I have over a dozen pages on my website so that my stories can be posted into the appropriate category.  I have a page for family stories; another for retirement essays. Work, girlfriends, health, poetry and even a page about writing. I’ve been doing this since 2015 and have nearly 200 pieces posted.

For any piece that was previously published, I’ve included the date and place of publication at the beginning of the post. This process has me writing nearly every day and I’m always working on something. I’m energized and motivated to write all my stories because now have a place to put them. That’s the payoff when writing for myself

 

 

Less Is Better

At my annual writer’s retreat in Madison, this year I took a class that was unusual for me: short fiction and memoir. At first, I thought those two don’t really go together. But the common denominator was short. The instructor handed out a large packet that contained many published pieces of short fiction, memoir and prose.

Each day we analyzed the six or eight pieces that had been assigned the night before. We could also give the instructor a short piece we’d written of under 500 words and he would critique and return it the next day.

At the end of the five days, I had four critiqued pieces and had become a better reader which leads to being a better writer. I learned that it is possible to tell a great story in fewer words than I’d ever thought possible. The instructor stressed that we not underestimate our readers. They will get it; we don’t have to explain every little thing.

Success of such an experience is when you come away different. And I did. I’ve applied lessons learned and give an example below with two versions of the same story.  You decide which one you like the best.

We Made Another One (484words)

When I moved into my apartment four years ago, residents were adjusting; the building had become intergenerational instead of fifty-five plus which was difficult for some who cited safety issues. To others is was no big deal. Angie and Vern took it in stride.

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their late eighties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner. Angie reserved a table for themselves and their selected friends; a printed card with the names of the deserving few appeared on the table well before noon the day of the dinner.

I wasn’t one of the chosen but that was okay since I had my own dinner companions. But I enjoyed watching from afar as they held court. They knew everyone and gave a warm hello to all as they entered the room but were clear that the empty chairs were taken and there was no bending the rules. Don’t get me wrong. They weren’t snobby or anything like that; they just liked things a certain way.

Actually, I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active, going out to lunch each day and shopping too. I’d most often see them as they were returning from their daily outing. And that’s how I became accustomed to their familiar greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding their plastic bags of groceries and left over. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, changes were inevitable. Attendance at the weekly meal declined until the building administration canceled the dinner. Then, I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Our hallway encounters dwindled. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily as her own health declined. She was confined to a wheel chair for a while after a stroke until rehab got her back on her feet. She remained frail but managed pretty well with a walker.

It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie and often wondered  she was doing. Then one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should do it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one“ I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie was silent only for a few seconds. Then I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

 

We Made Another One (260 words)

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their late eighties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner in my building.

I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active and I’d most often see them as they were returning from their daily outing: lunch and shopping. That’s how I became accustomed to their familiar greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding their plastic bags of groceries and left overs. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, attendance at the weekly meal declined until the building administration canceled the dinner. Our hallway encounters dwindled. Then, I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily and her own health declined. . It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie until one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should say it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one“  I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie’s silence was only for a few seconds. Then for a short moment I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

 

 

Words Fly Away

Writers work hard and are pretty serious when in fact, every thought known to man has already been put down on paper. Still, we labor away. Writers feel they have something unique to say that must be expressed and the world is incomplete until that’s done. But what happens to our words is another issue.

Recently, I learned an important lesson about writing and about life. A member of my writing group, Jean, died and it caused me to ponder. Jean had faithfully come to the group with the latest chapter of the memoir she was writing for her children. She explained she wanted them all to understand the whole story of her marriage to her first husband of twenty-six years who was an alcoholic.

She further explained the importance of the story because some of her children were from her second marriage and might not fully accept or understand what she went through. And what she put her children through.  We group members anxiously awaited the next chapter of this riveting story.

As the weeks went on, Jean was clearly experiencing the stress of bringing up these long forgotten thoughts and feelings probably buried deep until now. Her writing was clear and direct, her story told chronologically.

At first the group applied our usual critique methods but Jean was sure why she said this or omitted that or used a certain word. When we said maybe something she’d talked about in the group but hadn’t written might be a good addition to the story, she explained that her children already knew that part.

And after a while we realized that Jean had her story to tell and critique was not what she wanted or needed. We then became attentive and grateful listeners. Jean felt such peace when she gave the finished memoir to her children. After that, she took a break from the writing group and shortly thereafter she died. Jean made a great impression on us and we will miss her smile and quiet demeanor.

What Jean taught me was to respect the work of others. Not to be so sure that my suggestions might help the work be better. Maybe the writing is just the way it’s meant to be already. I’m as guilty as others in being a bit aggressive in critiquing.

Where do our words end up is an important question. Jean’s words have flown from her computer to wherever her children are preserving the memoir she sent them. We can’t look her words up on the internet and re-read them. We have to be satisfied with our memories. Her words have flown away.

And that’s why it’s so important for writers to do what makes them happy. So many get caught up in what they should do or become overly concerned with what others will think of what they’ve written. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. All our words will fly away.

 

A Million Little Memoirs

Originally Published in Wisconsin Writers Association Newsletter, Vol. 58; No. 2 Summer 2009

Everyone’s life includes many stories worth telling. Perhaps it’s this belief that has spawned the increased interest in memoirs. Or maybe it was 2006’s fact/fiction controversy surrounding the admission by James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, that’s he’d’ fabricated some of his story.

That’s what made me want to better understand writing memoir. In my search, I found Modern American Memoirs, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley, a collection of memoir excerpts by American writers published from 1917 to 1992.

The editor’s introduction describes the typical writer of memoir as:

a single, composite American of any heritage or gender, who appears in a             family, grows up somewhere, and somehow watches, learns, falls in            love, works, and perhaps has children and grandchildren.”

I guess that covers anyone alive and breathing. They also seem to be saying no story is too small or unimportant to be written.

Memoir can be a writer’s frank recollection of a painful interaction or of a slight that cut to the core. It can be the laugh out loud recounting of a trick played on an unsuspecting parent. Or, how about a descriptive profile of that memorable funny/sad relative who can be counted on to act outrageously during holiday get togethers? Memoir is any writer’s opportunity to tell their story no matter how small. I’d always thought, someday, I’d write about my own very ordinary life.

The dictionary defines memoir as “a memory” and as “a narrative composed from personal experience.” Memoirs offer a fixed point of view, an analysis of ideas or dramatic scenes; the narration can be intellectual or intimate across a wide range of characters and events.

The memoirist can confess, eulogize, reflect, inform or persuade. The tone can be confiding, scholarly, funny or any combination of these.  Some writer’s feel they need to be seasoned to write a worthy piece but the editors say “writing memoir early produces results before the writer smooths off the edges of his characters.”

They tell how Edwin Muir, poet and translator of Kafka, wrote two-thirds of his Autobiography before World War I, thinking he’d be killed in the war. When he returned, he quickly wrote the final third before being sent off to the Second World War. Again, he survived and his memoir is thought to be one of the most vivid and thoughtful because he wrote about his early life while he could still remember it.

Sometimes the object of much attention is what’s omitted. Henry Adams left out his twenty-year marriage from The Education of Henry Adams. Martin Van Buren left his wife out. Alfred Kazin omitted his sister and Loren Eisley excluded his wife because she prized her privacy. The memoirist must always be prepared to endure the wrath of someone either forgotten or included since the reaction can be pretty much the same.

In the nineteenth century, nonfiction had more literary respect than fiction. So many writers, Poe, Melville, Twain peddled some of their stories as memoir; this was to distinguish them from a mere romance and therefore attract more serious readers. In the 20th century it was the opposite and some of its finest works of fiction have strong autobiographical elements. Think Ernest Hemingway.

While some memoirs cover whole generations of American life, they can also cover one short span of time. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir, Wait ‘Till Next Year, chronicles her and her father’s love of baseball during one memorable World Series competition. Russell Baker’s Growing Up focuses upon his relationship with this newly widowed mother trying to survive in Depression times. These touching and heartfelt memoirs include an interesting view of early 20th century American life.

The writer usually has the onus of labeling the work though it can be seen by others differently. An example is Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere. He tended to call it fiction but various editors have called it poetry, fiction, fable or essay. Best Essays of 1988 reprinted one chapter. The book won the 1991 PEN/Faulkner Ernest Hemingway Award for fiction.

The controversy generated by James Frey was such a big deal the publisher took back the book and Oprah demanded an apology.  Poor James Frey really took the rap for loosely defining a literary form that, over the years, had been defined rather loosely. Frey said he just wanted his readers to feel his pain and thought he had to embellish to get the point across. Instead he’s paid a very high price and perhaps delivered a valuable lesson to all writers.

Frey’s book probably would have been a best seller no matter what it was labeled. But the wrath of the reader was invoked. I had put a hold on the book and when the story broke then cancelled it. Reading friends defended him and said they’d read it anyway. I guess I just thought it wasn’t cool to lie. I would hate to think that all the wonderful memoirs I’ve read were just made up fiction designed to sell more books.

Looking at the long and interesting history of the memoir only raises awareness of the freedom writer’s have in telling their story and leaving a legacy for future generations. As long as it’s the truth! We all have a million little memoirs swimming around in our head. We simply need to recognize them.

 

 

Minding My Mindfulness

I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness lately. In February, 2018, I completed a three week Mindfulness Meditation workshop and was trying hard to stay focused on my breath. I learned that there’s just plain mindfulness and then there’s mindful meditation. The instructor said that it is possible to be mindful without Buddhism but you can’t be a Buddhist without mindfulness.

Since I call myself a secular humanist with Buddhist leanings, I thought I’d better pay more attention. And that’s the crux of it. Paying attention. Being present. I’ve absorbed the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodrom and I love the Dalai Lama. I get that it’s a journey and mine has been one of peaks and valleys.  And no matter how long this journey, I seem to always have to go back to the beginning and relearn the basics

The definition of mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.  The instructor also said mindfulness makes us kinder. The world needs more of that these days.

All this reminded me of Fall, 2017, when I’d attended a Mindfulness in Writing workshop. It sounded intriguing and I was at an impasse. I had gotten away from my writing and thought this might help me refocus.

The workshop was held at a non-profit wellness center outside of West Bend. I checked maps on the internet just to be sure I knew where I was going and then put the address into my GPS. Off I went, looking ahead to a peaceful day of writing and learning.

I was fine until the GPS said I should turn off the highway one exit before the internet map had indicated. There are times I follow what the GPS says and then there are times I don’t. Whatever my decision, I’ve always reached my destination.  So, this day, I decided to let the GPS be my guide. Perhaps I was trying to be more mindful.  I decided to consciously put aside my obsessive tendencies to always be in control and enjoy the ride.

It’s hard to believe that just a few miles north of a large city there are mile after mile of winding roads, rolling hills and green, sumptuous farmland with not a building or person in sight.  It was a mild, fall day and the colors were in full display. I was enjoying the experience.

I became concerned when the country road I’d turned onto, in a leap of faith, became quite narrow with no painted lines down the middle. Spots on this roadway became a hardly paved trail that couldn’t have accommodated a car passing in the other direction. I got more anxious when I saw a sign that said I was on a ‘bridle path.’  Here I was, driving to a mindfulness workshop and feeling less mindful by the minute.

As is my style, I began to fret that I’d never find this place or worse that I’d be late. One of my cardinal rules of life is to never be late. Three minutes before the workshop start time. I glimpsed hope ahead. The clearing revealed a road. A regular road with pavement and painted lines down the middle. The GPS said turn left and there it was. Within 50 feet, I’d arrived. The instructor was waiting at the door and I joked to her that my ride might have been a lesson in being mindful.

The workshop was small with the instructor and five writers. We started with mediation and then several forced writings that have since yielded a poem and two essays.  After lunch we had a purposeful time of personal reflection. Just spending some time on our own and taking in our environment.

The afternoon began with another meditation followed by more deep writing. Several of the exercises involved simply observing and writing about our surroundings. Noticing what we might miss in the busyness of our regular activities.

All in all, it was a good day. What might be the best thing is that we slowed down. And that’s the essence of mindfulness.  Since the writing workshop, I’ve been more aware of the stories that are right there before my eyes; the tiniest observation can provide material for an essay or a poem. My new but small daily meditation practice has helped keep me balanced.

On my way out of the center, I stopped at the front desk and asked for directions to the county road I’d originally intended to take. I followed those directions and was back on the highway in minutes and home in no time. All on paved and marked roads! I wonder if taking charge and breaking the rules is part of being mindful too. Namaste.

 

 

Dabbling in Poetry

I’ve spent years writing memoir and essays which were comfortable for my left brain. I like real stories about real people and my reading habits mirror my writing. Give me a memoir or historical biography and I’m happy. Poetry seemed almost mystical and a little intimidating.

While living in a remote, rural area I had no choice but to dabble into poetry; I took a couple of poetry classes at a local community center because that’s all that was offered. From that first poetry teacher, I learned poems don’t have to rhyme which was a big surprise.

Then, my book club read Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor. We were each expected to pick a favorite poem and read it to the group. Of course that meant we had to read the entire book and that exposed me to all sorts of poems.

I found I liked those that were straight forward and that told a story, a story I could understand. I didn’t like the poems where I had no idea what was happening.  I wondered why I wasn’t insightful enough to realize that the leaf dangling from the tree limb was a symbol of life. Or death. Or conflict. Or whatever.

Then, when I moved to an urban area where there were many more choices, I became involved with a monthly group called Poetry Breakfast. Truthfully, I joined because I was new to the area and was looking for social opportunities. At least this group had to do with writing, I thought. Since I wasn’t a poet and had nothing to read, I searched the Good Poems book and brought what I liked to the group.

But, I was inspired by the restaurant where Poetry Breakfast met and where the service was quirky beyond belief. Suddenly a poem jumped out of my head that was equally eccentric, sort of Billy Collins-like. I got up my nerve, read it and was happy with the group’s response.

I began writing short poems for the group. I found a Robert Frost compilation in a used bookstore. Now, there’s a story teller. I knew something was happening when I drove three hundred miles to attend a poetry workshop given by a former poet laureate.

The class announcement said to bring six poems. When I counted what was in my poetry folder, I had just six. That meant I qualified. Twelve poets, the instructor and I spent four hours together for three days workshopping each other’s poems.

I marveled at how different the critique of poetry was from my other writing group experiences. In poetry, it’s common to spend ten minutes, sometimes more, debating the use of just one word over another. Then there is the heated debate between the minimalist view and the more flowery, expressive poet.

It was an energy inducing experience to have these prolific, life-long poets acknowledge my work and treat me as a peer. One even said she thought I was a humorist. This has led to other workshops including yet another former poet laureate’s class that focused on the many forms of poetry. There’s a lot more to this than I’d originally thought.

A turning point came when I’d written a 2000 word essay about an emotional incident in my family. I was uncertain I even had the right to put this down on paper in the detail an essay often requires. It took some time and deep thought to express the same feelings in a three stanza, thirty-two line, 138 word poem. I’m sold on the concept that less is often more.

In the recent movie, Paterson, I understood the creative yearnings that fueled the quiet determination of the main character (named Paterson who lived his uneventful life in the town of Paterson). He dabbled in poetry while working each day as a bus driver, walking his dog and visiting a local bar for one beer each night. The blank book given to him by an un-named character in the final scene spoke volumes. Pardon the cliché.

These days, I still dabble in poetry. Certain new words have become common to my vocabulary: alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, revision. In the midst of observing the oddities of human nature that occur in my day to day life, I often stop and think: there’s a poem in that. Sometimes, I actually write it.

 

Blogging: To Thine Own Self Be True

Published as a guest post on Connect with Diana, January, 2017.

The first thing I did when thinking about blogging was watch the movie, Julie and Julia.  It’s the true story of how writer, Julie Powell, blogged while cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The result was a book deal (2005), a movie deal (2009) and being launched as a writer. My goals were less grand but her experiences helped me in some surprising ways to find my own path.

In the movie, Julie let the whole experience unravel her life. She worried about who was  reading her and was she disappointing her readers; she had self-described “meltdowns” that wreaked havoc on her life, her work and her marriage. This insanity was something I knew I wanted no part of.

I was sure of only one thing. If I was going to do this it had to be for me. I wanted my work out there and thought this might give me a sense of accomplishment. Writing friends reminded me that once a piece was on the blog it would be considered “published.” I decided I could live with that.

Lastly, I found help. I found someone with computer skills and her own blog. We met once a month and she constructed my site. In between sessions, I began to post my writing and become more comfortable with the program. It was money well spent.

There are several different programs for designing and maintaining a blog with comparable options for layout and easy navigation. The programs keep statistics to check such things as number of visitors and an on-line support network for questions.  I chose wordpress because I liked their layout and choices.

But I don’t think of what I do as blogging. To me, blogging is short off the top of your head musings. And that’s much different from what I do. I consider my site a website. My pieces are essays, personal essays and memoir essays. Each piece is a complete story. I pay no attention to word count; I’m just interested in telling the story.

I have over a dozen pages on my website so that my stories can be posted into the appropriate category.  I have a page for family stories; another for retirement essays. Work, girlfriend, health, poetry and even a page about writing. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years and have 135 pieces posted.

For any piece that was previously published, I’ve included the date and place of publication at the beginning of the post. This process has me writing nearly every day and always working on something.

I was curious about Julie Powell’s life after her blog and her follow-up story has an interesting lesson for all writers. Julia Child’s editor says that she, Julia, didn’t appreciate the expletives and other personal matters Powell included on the blog; Child would not endorse the book or meet her, saying Powell was doing this as a joke and seemed “flimsy.”

Julie Powell is now famous enough to be on Wikipedia. But perhaps she’s more importantly an example of why it’s imperative to know yourself and your goals before putting your material on the internet in whatever form you choose.  I’m energized and motivated to write all my stories. Now have a place to put them. I keep doing it because it fits my writing goals. But I’m also careful of the impression I’m making.

 

 

 

The Tor-Mentor

Patty and I sat across the room from each other at a party ablaze with talk and laughter. I sat near the Christmas tree, satisfied to quietly observe the activities. I looked over at her and realized she was doing the same. Then I realized why. We were writers and were busy taking in the scene and thinking about how to bring it to life.

For several years, Patty and I have gone back and forth about writing; she wasn’t sure she was one or even wanted to be one. She hadn’t written a word but said there were thoughts and ideas in her head all the time and was curious what she could do with them.

Whenever we saw each other, she always had a tentative question. How do I get started? How do I know if it’s what I want to do? I tried to be helpful and kept my responses low key. Told her about my website. Recommended an on-line writing class. I stressed that even though hard work, it should also be enjoyable. I was unsure our talks would ever amount to anything tangible.

Then without warning, a week later, she sent me something she’d written and asked for my comments. It was written in the point of view of a fictional character Patty called “a soap opera diva.” Her piece was short, pithy and well done. The narrator bitterly complained about the entitlement attitude of her friends and neighbors while revealing salacious tidbits of her own life. Very funny.

I checked with her to make sure she really wanted critique. She said yes and so I made a few minor suggestions including that she had some interesting plot points that could make this the start of a book. Chick-lit or a beach read. Or her character could be the author of a blog and those plot points could be individual posts providing back story for her character.

Patty’s response was giddy and led to our talk about how critique really helps a writer improve their work. That began a whole different discussion.  I recall when we talked at that party how we both agreed that no one else in the room understood what we were really talking about. And I wasn’t saying that in a judgmental way. It’s just a fact.

Writers talk to other writers in a way that non-writers don’t understand.  We laughed a lot when she jokingly called me her mentor; that swiftly evolved into her saying that maybe I was also her tor-mentor. And there is some wisdom in that; though critique is helpful it can also be tormenting.

Since then Patty has submitted a second piece for my critique. This time I told her I thought she’d written a prose poem and sent her a link so she could see what thast was. Patty says she feels like a new born baby and still isn’t sure where all this is going. All I know is, I’m enjoying our writing talks and looking forward to the classic role reversal when she’s my tor-mentor and I’m her tor-mentee.

Literature’s Lavender-Scented Little Old Lady

Fall, 2016: First honorable mention in non-fiction category of Wiscosnin Writer’s Association Jade Ring Contest

 

The personal essay has long been one of the most misunderstood genres of the writing world. Everyone has an opinion and the discussion has reached over many decades. In our fiction dominant domain, writing that deals with thoughts and feelings rather than character, hooks and action is seen as lacking.   So it was wonderful to see Joey Franklin’s article, entitled The Critic as Artist that appeared in a recent issue of the Writer’s Chronicle.

It compares the essay to art. Citing the critical ideas of Oscar Wilde, it focuses on the importance of personal impression, contemplation and self-consciousness. But since the essayist critiques, most often about themselves, they are thought self-centered.

Franklin lists many examples of how non-fiction writing has been thought to be literature’s inadequate step child. Disparagement of the essay goes far, far back. In the 1870’s, Montaignen was considered by many as father of the genre. He called the essay a foolish attempt and warned readers not to waste their time “on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Samuel Johnson called essays “loose”, “irregular” and “undigested.”  G. K. Chesterton referred to them as “a joke of literature.” And John Waters, in a disapproving tone, called the essay literature’s “lavender-scented little old lady.” A. C. Benson branded the essayist “a lesser kind of poet, working in simpler and humbler materials.”

But most recently, Carl Klaus a well-respected defender of the essay said: “the essay….is a highly complex and problematic kind of writing—-an enactment of thought and a projection of personality that uses language dramatically ……and that thereby calls for literary interpretation.”

Phillip Lopate, an ardent defender of the personal essay, can’t say enough about the segues and twists the essayist can employ as he winds his way around and through their own dramatic tale. Oscar Wilde would agree, judging the essay as the only civilized form of autobiography because “it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.”

Wilde calls it “the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague.”

In this form of writing, it’s the essayist who is the main character and it’s their duty to tell their deeply personal story with as much interpretation as they can muster. When they’re true to themselves, the universal appeal shows through.

Maybe that’s why the essay is so controversial. In telling their most personal tales, the essayist bares their soul. They don’t hide behind the words or behavior of a fictional character. Instead, they come out as themselves. They say all the tough things and take  full responsibility for their thoughts and feelings. That’s hard. That’s risky.

Indeed, the personal essay deserves respect, Those who view it positively, and there are many, need to become more vocal in their praise. That seems to be changing as memoir has become a more accepted genre. Further proof is in looking at current movies. For each of the last two years, half of the Oscar-nominated movies have been based on a true story. Perhaps the personal essay is coming into its own. Once again.

Also, maybe it’s time for all readers to critically look again toward this genre and give the essay and all non-fiction writing its due. Then, perhaps more writers will show courage and reveal “the record of one’s own soul,” reaping the benefits of telling the rich and meaningful stories of their own lives.

 

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