Tag Archive for memoir

The Benefits of Being Wrong

by Barbara Clarke

We were in Best Buy looking to buy a laptop. But first, we were looking for a geek in the familiar blue shirt. “Someone who looks smart and won’t talk down to us,” we agreed.

“Hey, how’s it going?” said a non-geeky looking young guy. We started to walk past him—too cool sounding—we were serious! But, given that it was a late Sunday afternoon and a sales-associate desert, we stopped. Tony, by name, turned out to be so knowledgeable, kind, and so many other fine attributes we couldn’t wait to get home to send off our five-star reviews of him.

Later that night, thinking about writing this blog on resistance, it hit me. Wanting to be right is really a form of resistance—to being wrong. Or that middle place where you are kind of right, but short changing yourself by closing your mind too soon. And then my own examples began to pour out of me. All of the times I had been so sure and had missed out on—well, life.

Here are a few of the costs and benefits of being wrong:

  • This is going to take too long or an even better one—a very long time—so why start? It can run the gamut of a long line for coffee at 7:00 a.m. to signing up to start a memoir. I’m 90,000 words into my memoir—thanks, Cami and classmates!
  • This is going to be too hard. I don’t have the skill set, the training, and of course, the MFA. Everyone in the class will be way ahead of me, right? Wrong. We are all there to learn, whatever our training. When I think I’m simply not good enough or know enough, I lose out. If it were just negative thinking, I’d be more lenient, but this is pressure from me on me to not be caught wrong.
  • I’d like to attend an RWB gathering on Saturday, but I don’t know anyone, and when I picture myself there, my heart races like those “wall-flower moments” from my teen years. What if no one talks to me? Wrong, so, so wrong! I found my tribe. And they are very talkative.

I’ve been wrong on these occasions and many others, driving home with regret as my faithful companion. Now that I am writing a memoir and doing a lot of digging deeper, I found these personal sources of my need to be right—or resisting being wrong:

  • I grew up in Missouri—the “show me” state. A blessing and a curse. We are given a finally honed bollox detector, passed down through the generations. My homeland favors black and white, right and wrong—not so keen on the color gray where more surprises, more choice, and fun reside.
  • I don’t “get those people.” This is so prevalent in today’s post-T_____ election world. I worked in the healthcare racket for fifteen years and can’t tell you how many executives and doctors refer to their patients—especially the ones they blame for their illness—as those people. So now when I see variants of this on FaceBook and in the harsh comments after articles and posts, I cringe.
  • Rather than feeling so right(eous), I’d rather try for understanding. I may not wind up having “those people” in my circle of friends, but at least I don’t want to think of them as the enemy?* Since I’m flawed, seriously so at times, why can’t they be?
  • Being right sometimes—well, it feels good. But, having to make snap or hard-edged judgments, even in Best Buy, to overcompensate for own my insecurities, close my mind and heart to all that lives in the gray area—these are my losses.

I leave you with my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, who, whenever I’m lost or at a loss for an open heart, reminds me:

“Becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.”

*One disclaimer to my compassion quest: my noble venture does not apply to so many politicians. They earn every bit of the resistance we can muster!


Author’s Bio:  Barbara Clarke works as a freelance grant writer and is extremely tardy posting to her blog www.thiscertainage.com . She is not tardy and working very hard on The Shape of the Brain, a memoir, and grateful for Memory into Memoir coming into her life. Her first memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. She uses Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as her mantra and writing guide. www.barbaraclarke.net

Managing Relationships with Family while Writing About Them

by Laurel Leigh 

What should come first? Publishing your memoir or preserving family relationships? Sometimes writers feel they have to choose—on occasion, they do. We’ve all heard stories about what happened when the family flipped out over a memoir someone published.

I am a rather reluctant memoirist. Frankly, it never occurred to me that I would at some point write memoir. That changed exactly on Tuesday, December 19, 2006, about ten o’clock in the morning, when my youngest sister called me from Idaho to say that the two-year-old son of our nephew’s girlfriend had been killed, and that the police believed that our nephew had done it. A few days later, our 21-year-old nephew was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

I was working on a fiction piece at the time, and over the next weeks I kept trying to write fiction, and the scene would turn into what was happening with my nephew, Anthony. After a couple months, I put the fiction down and worked on the memoir.

I didn’t tell anyone what I was writing about. For months, I couldn’t bring myself to even talk to anyone outside of our family about what was going on. My family was sending e-mails and making phone calls back and forth, and I would save all the e-mails to use in my project. It started to really affect me, because I was spying on my family. We would have a very personal conversation, and then I would go write about it that night. I began to feel very splintered, very two-faced, betraying my family by sneaking around behind their backs to write about them. I would sort of lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t intend to publish this story, that I was just writing it as therapy. But that was a lie, and I knew it was a lie.

What I was during this time was a first-time memoirist who lacked the coping skills for being a memoirist. When I write short stories, I often take kernels of memories from my life and use them as the basis for a story—but I push and pull those memories any way I want, and mix up different memories and people with made-up stuff and made-up people to come up with plot lines that often don’t come close to resembling what actually happened. But with this essay that I wasn’t admitting was a memoir, I couldn’t change any of the outcomes. I couldn’t write the baby back to life. I couldn’t write my nephew out of jail. I couldn’t write myself or my family back to any degree of normalcy.

The case dragged on for more than a year until my nephew accepted a plea deal. Afterward, with him now in prison, we had a family meeting in Idaho. It was time to tell my family about the memoir. I was afraid that they were going to hate me for sneaking around behind them to write about them. I was prepared to quit the project and not work on it anymore. I was trying to apologize at the same time I was explaining what I’d been writing about. I was scared that this might be the last time I would see my family, because they wouldn’t want to talk to me anymore. I told them about the manuscript, and they were like, “Oh, of course you’ve been writing about this. That’s what you do.”

After everything I had built up in my mind, it was this bizarrely anticlimactic moment, where not only were they not angry with me, they weren’t even surprised, and they were even casual about it. I kept telling them that I’d been saving their e-mails and writing down stuff they did and said in private, and they were like, “Okay.”

“We don’t need to look good in the story,” they said. “Just tell the truth, and maybe someone can learn from it.”

Not every family will react as mine did. It’s only this one experience I can tell you about. However, as my family placed their unconditional trust in me, I began to realize that it was my responsibility to take the highest level of care in writing about their private lives. I started to think about the spectrum of exploitation. Yes, I’m exploiting my family by writing about them. I’ve now been paid to do so. Yes, I have their approval to do so. Yes, I’m revealing facts about their private lives in order to tell our nephew’s story fully. But I can also decide as carefully as I can when something is an indecent violation of privacy. That for me has become a guideline to apply in deciding what to include and leave out of any memoir piece I write. That, I think, is the basis for establishing and preserving the integrity of a memoir project.

Of course I don’t presume that every family will support a memoir. Regardless of their stance, I do think that as a memoirist you have a responsibility to let your love and respect for other people guide your choices. That doesn’t mean you shirk away from hard truths, but it does mean you assess as best you can and with the best side of yourself what you’re going to reveal about other people’s lives. If you do that, even though maybe not everyone will be pleased with your final result, you can, I think, begin to sleep at night. 

Here are some questions I have found useful to ask and answer as I write memoir:

Write down the word “memoir.” What are three emotions that you associate with your memoir? 

Now write down the word “family.” What are three emotions that you associate with your family?

Was there any overlap in the emotions you listed?

What type of memoir are you writing? A personal memoir, in which you are the central figure? A family memoir, in which members of your family feature significantly? A mix? Friends? How far outside your circle of close family and friends does your memoir extend?

Write down the names of one or two people who factor heavily in your memoir. Now write down the first emotion that comes to mind when you think about that person.

Do you feel angst or even anger toward anyone about whom you are writing? Why? Is your anger creeping into the text to the degree that it obscures the credibility of the narration? How can you adjust for that tendency to yield a text with a less judgmental tone?

If you haven’t told them already, how do you want your family and/or friends to react to learning that you’re writing a memoir in which they feature. How do you think they will react?

Have you told anyone in your family that you’re writing a memoir and what it is about? If you haven’t told them, do you plan to and when?

Are their certain family members that you don’t care what they think, and are there family members whose opinions matter more to you?

Try to winnow down who in your family might be affected by this memoir and why. Who are you actually writing about? Aside from anyone on your list, who else in the family might care for other reasons, such as feeling family privacy might be violated or the family embarrassed by your topic?

Do you think everyone in your family will want to read your memoir? Do you think some people in your family won’t want to read your memoir? Do you want anyone in your family to read your memoir?

Who in your family will give you formal permissions to write about them. Who won’t? How will that affect what you include? (Expect a publisher to have permissions guidelines that will also affect what they agree to publish.)

This is a compound question. What particular parts of your memoir are you worried about having your family read. Why? Have you done your best to give an honest representation of the facts? Are you ready to show your material to your family? Why or why not?

Who do you think this memoir belongs to? Is it feasible to enlist your family in revising your memoir to more fully represent its truths? What compromises are you and they willing to make?

What is more important to you? Your relationship with your family or your relationship with your memoir? Which would you choose if you had to choose?

Of course, the answers to these questions will be different for each writer and for each project. I certainly don’t presume to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to keep asking the questions.

laurel_leigh-014Author’s Bio:  Laurel Leigh, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer and editor and the author of the blog Dear Writers. Her short memoir about her nephew was published in The Sun
(Issue #463, July 2014, “We Should Do Something”). Another excerpt of the story was published in Clover, A Literary Rag (Issue #10, Winter 2015, “Nursey”) and has received a Pushcart Nomination.

Writing for Personal Insight

by Laura Rink

This month I took a writing workshop with Andre Dubus III. He said just because something happened to you doesn’t mean you know what happened. You must explore, with authentic curiosity, that particular event, and your place in it. This piece of advice resonated with the insight I gained last summer while writing a memoir piece for the upcoming Red Wheelbarrow Writers’ memoir anthology, Memory into Memoir, being released this September. I had had an unsettling experience and writing about it freed me from a skewed sense of myself that I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding onto for thirty years. This kind of writing is not reserved for writers but is for everyone.

Writing about your experiences creates, at the same time, an objective distance and a subjective intimacy. The physical act of pen to paper or fingers on keyboard allows you to view yourself as a character in a narrative and be the person who had the experience. Writing gives form to the images floating in your mind, and the emotions coursing through your body. Writing is a way to capture that voice in your head and prod it for truth.

Logically knowing something to be true—I am a capable person, for example—is not the same as feeling it to be true in your body and in your heart. Writing can help bridge that gap. Put yourself back in an event and using all your senses describe the scene, the other people involved and especially yourself. Be open to whatever arises—write without judgment, without preconceived conclusions. Take your time exploring the sensations, questions and ideas that present themselves. Writing about an experience with a strong desire to understand is a powerful way to learn, to find meaning, to discover your truth.

A caution: if you’re not ready to write about a particular event, don’t. Sometimes time must pass, a lot of time. Some experiences you may never write about. That’s okay. Honor yourself. Pick an experience you are ready to write about. And remember this writing is for you alone—it is not necessary that another person read it, unless you deem it necessary.

You can also rewrite the story you tell about yourself to yourself. The science, solid and anecdotal, behind this idea is explained in the New York Times blog “Writing Your Way to Happiness.”

There are similarities between writing a good story and living a fulfilling life. Slapping a label on a character or on yourself is a sure way to limit both. You tell yourself you’re lazy or unlovable or even infallible. Write to get at the specifics behind those generalizations—the things you, or others, do or say that make you view yourself that way. The specifics may or may not support the label. Either way there is opportunity for change and concrete ideas on how to do so. Author George Saunders illustrates these ideas in this video, which applies to everyday life as well as storytelling.

Jane Fonda said she wrote her memoir so she could figure out where she’d been, so she’d know where to go. Writing about myself has allowed me to move forward along a more personally fulfilling path. I encourage you to write about your past to see yourself as you are now with more clarity and to discover where you want to go from here.

About Laura Rink:

LAURA RINKLaura Rink writes most days—dreaming up stories keeps her grounded in everyday life. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories, writing with authentic curiosity to find out who the characters are and what they want. Her website LauraRink.com features an occasional blog and a picture of her calico cat.

Entering Her Next Incarnation

By Susan Chase-Foster

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

—William Carlos Williams

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke

Jennifer Wilke and I are hanging out, self-medicating our chronic literary conditions at the writers’ table upstairs in Village Books. She’s a tall, handsome woman with a broad, inviting smile. We’re both members of SOLN, a stealth writing group whose exact name I’m not at liberty to reveal at this time.

I’m interviewing Jennifer as part of my own pre-grieving process. By Labor Day she’ll be moving back to Wisconsin, her birthplace, and I’m going to miss learning from her fine writing each week, especially, her sense of humor.

SCF: Jennnifer, Bellingham is such supportive literary community. Why are you leaving us?

JW: “To be close to my dad’s side of the family. They all have great senses of humor, even if some are Republicans. I’m going to miss all of you like crazy.”

Jennifer’s special brand of humor spills into her writing and inspires me to be more open to humor in my own. Here’s an excerpt from her soon-to-be published RWB anthology submission “Abaldyeno” about her1988 trip to the Soviet Union.

As the line inched forward, I remembered the Aeroflot barf bag I’d stolen from my seat pocket on the plane. Would the Customs officer ask me to empty my pockets? Would he accept my defense of innocently wanting a souvenir of the Russian language description of how to use a barf bag? Is a sense of humor allowed?

Jennifer has also taught me how to craft heartwarming scenes that connect readers with universal emotions and truths.

Ludmilla accessorized her running suit with a string of pearls. Her nails were clean and polished. Perhaps she didn’t know we would be camping. She touched my arm and laughed. “You are the first American of my life, Jenny. Camping is a small price to pay to meet you.”

SCF: What about the development of your writing life?

JW: “I was always a good speller and I loved writing and reading. In the 10th grade we read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. It shocked me every time I found words I didn’t know, like “motley retinue.” I loved the sound of that and still try to use it every chance I get.

At last, our motley retinue of 200 Americans descended Aeroflot’s push-up jet stairs and set foot on Soviet soil in Moscow.

“I think when I really started to write, though, was in the 11th grade. My teacher had us write daily, at least a paragraph. It was intense. I really liked that practice.

“When I started making money it was in Juneau, through technical writing, which I thought was fascinating. But I wanted to learn how to write for movies, so I moved to L.A. I studied screenwriting at USC, pitched some scripts to producers and worked in post-production preparing subtitles for Hollywood movies. After eight years, even though one of my scripts was made into a short film, I was ready to leave. I didn’t know how to schmooze enough to sell screenplays, and I hated parties. Hollywood was exciting, but also disappointing. The writer had no power. That’s when I moved to Bellingham.”

SCF: How has your writing changed since then?

JW: I took the first Red Wheelbarrow Writers workshop taught by Laura Kalpakian, Cami Ostman and Susan Tive. I’d been working on a novel set during the Civil War and related to my family. The class helped me to be a better writer. I also joined my first critique group around that time. It was a big deal because I had to audition, which meant going public, reading my work aloud, really coming out as a writer. Being part of the RWB community has inspired me to be bold enough to write memoir, which I very much enjoy.


Jennifer Wilke does seem unstoppable. She’s an engaging storyteller who knows how to pay attention to detail as she works on her current project, a memoir about peace and war, of which her marvelous RWB anthology contribution is a part.

I followed that trail over a slight dune to discover a curving sandy beach and the endless Black Sea. The vast expanse of water was velvet blue, not black. The faded moon was sinking into the watery horizon to let the sun take its place.

SCF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned, so far, about writing?

JW: Show up!

SCF: Any final words about Jennifer Wilke as a writer?

JW: I feel like I’m entering my next incarnation.

A bit about Susan Chase-Foster

Susan CFSusan is an award-winning poet who gathers spruce tips and shaggy mane mushrooms in Alaska’s boreal forests with her grandson, eats stinky tofu and steamed sweet potato leaves on exotic Taiwanese archipelagos with her son, and has deep conversations about art and kiwis with her husband in their own jungle of a backyard. If there’s time, she ignites her computer and writes a tsunami.


Kick Open the Closet Door: Write a Memoir

by Shannon Hager
Author: Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir

We all have stories worth sharing. Mark Twain advised, “Write about what you know.” Memoir writing requires a high level of self-exposure, risking disapproval, danger or pain. To me, the best memoirs are those I learn from and take place within the context of what’s happening in a society or a political climate which is not my own. Powerful memoirs like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier describes lives of war victims we may not even think about or be aware of as victims. In her memoir Do They Hear You When You Cry, Fauzuja Kassendja writes about her experience as an asylum seeker from Togo trying to escape the female genital mutilation common in her culture. Her story makes me shudder to know what we in the United States do to people we lock up in horrendous conditions when they flee from dangers in their home countries.

Social upheavals make memoir interesting. Just take a look at Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and her other books. White Africans living in Southern Rhodesia during change from colonialism to black ruled Zimbabwe do, indeed, have a unique story unknown to many.

Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land is a memoir about growing up in an abusive Christian youth center in the Dominican Republic. It reminds me of the writings of local author Pam Helberg who describes coming to terms with being a lesbian in an extremely religious family, the abuse heaped upon her by the religion in which she was raised, and the society in which she lives.

When I read Orange is the New Black, My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, I was reminded that not everyone doing time is black and poor. I learned a lot about the federal prison system reading her story of what happened to her as a white woman from the upper class.

Memoir writers are often accused of being self-centered egotists. “How do you have the audacity to think that anyone cares about your life?” Writing a memoir may be construed as “self-promotion.” In the culture in which I was raised, self promotion was seen as bragging and, therefore, frowned upon. To all this nonsense I reply, “Oh, get over it!”

My friend Maureen Kelleher is a private investigator who works on post-conviction death penalty cases, reinvestigating the circumstances surrounding the crime that sent someone to death row. Her self-promotion as a hard worker who is fearless in her efforts on behalf of the condemned, gained exonerations for three innocent people who left death row and went straight to freedom. Her work and her art are now the subject of a soon to be released documentary, The Courage of Her Convictions. “If you don’t spread the word about yourself, nobody will. Please get over that ridiculous faux humility,” she says.

I had apprehensions about opening a Pandora’s box, dealing with repercussions from writing about secrets, when I wrote and published my memoir Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law: Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. Since the book came out, people have thanked me for kicking open the closet door behind which so many families and loved ones of the incarcerated live. I know about the pain of separation, the frustration of dealing with prison systems, the stigma, hopelessness, expense, and fear millions of people endure just to spend time behind bars with someone they love. The readers who thank me know they are not alone in their trials of separation because my book shows them they aren’t.

Royalty checks are nice and greatly appreciated but the praise readers give me, especially those who have loved ones behind bars, make me know the five years I spent living like a hermit to write this book and having the audacity to think someone may be interested in my life, is ok.

And in that vein, I’m working on a second memoir. This one has to do with my life in Liberia, West Africa living in primitive conditions, through riots and civil war. And I have the audacity to think that someone would care about that.

Shannon (2)Shannon Hager is the author and publisher of the Chanticleer Grand Prize Narrative Non-Fiction 2014 award winning book, Five Thousand Brothers-in-Law; Love in Angola Prison, a memoir. She worked for more than twenty years as a nurse in South Louisiana’s prisons and jails, and on the streets and in the heath care systems of New Orleans. Her memoir reflects her multiple roles as a health care professional, a prison wife and an activist fighting the criminal injustice system. Her deeply personal story begins at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, and ends several years after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and its people.

In addition, Shannon served two stints as a Peace Corps Volunteer: Liberia, West Africa from 1978-1980 and Zaire, (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) in Central Africa from 1985-86. She specialized in public health, tropical medicine and infectious diseases.

In Liberia, Shannon managed vaccination programs, opened new rural clinics and taught a national health record-keeping system. Her second memoir, currently in progress, tells her story of living through riots in Liberia’s capitol city Monrovia, followed by a military coup and life under martial law.

In Congo, Shannon worked in a World Health Organization viral research project studying Monkey Pox and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola. As part of a mobile medical team, she participated in studies of HIV-infection in rural areas of the northern Congo’s Equateur Region.

After living in New Orleans for twenty-two years, she retired and now lives in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys a cooler climate and the boating culture. She writes articles for a local boating organization and is glad to still be alive!