Remaking Ourselves Through Writing Memoir

My last memoir workshop at the Fromm Institute will be this Thursday, and I’ll be sorry to leave the cocoon we’ve created there. For those who aren’t familiar with the Fromm, it’s an institution for older adults and features lectures from outstanding Bay Area emeritus professors on a variety of subjects that include psychology, literature, philosophy, science, theology, history, art, music, politics and creative writing.

This term, I was hired for the writing portion, “Reminiscence: A Creative Writing Workshop.” Years ago, I had taught a weeklong autobiography class for what was then Elderhostel. It was an enriching experience, diving into the past with these older adults and returning with gems from their depths.

alphabet-2242161_640The Fromm class has been similar. I’ve structured it so that students who haven’t done much writing can still benefit. There’s a great freedom for them and myself since I’m not grading their assignments. Nor am I focusing on grammar and punctuation errors. Content leads, and their submissions all focus on different aspects of writing an engaging narrative based on prompts that help them focus on important times in their lives.

We’ve looked at character and how to make the people who inhabit our memoirs come alive for readers that don’t know them. But characters don’t live in ether, so my students have also written about places that have nourished them in some way. Neither character nor place would be vivid without incorporating details that appeal to all of our senses. Sensory detail also sets the mood of a writing piece (exciting, happy, cheerful, gloomy, frightening, depressing, suspenseful, calm, peaceful). Since we apprehend the world through our senses, it’s essential that we include the kind of description that evoke them and also capture our imaginations.

I’ve been impressed not only by the quality of the writing I’ve seen from these mainly inexperienced writers but also from their willingness to reveal themselves during small group critique sessions. They’ve been generous in their praise of one another’s work and skilled readers, making helpful suggestions for improving the writing. But most important, they have been transforming themselves through recovering these experiences and recasting them. As James Longenbach states in Modern Poetry After Modernism, “…any account of the past, whether private or historical, is an act of personal making.” What a privilege It’s been to be present at all of these mini-births!





I’ve just read a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.

But Blair also points out that “Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, …. and W. G. Sebald” (70). As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other kind of narrative. I haven’t read Knausgaard, but I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. He incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism into the narrator’s perspective: often a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

Vertigo was the first of Sebald’s books that I read. In order to enter his world, I had to disregard most of my preconceptions about what a novel should be. Initially, I was attracted by his playfulness and the tongue-in-cheek tone, as well as by the sly humor and wit. I also felt there was something else lurking there. Just as the narrator has a paranoid fear of being watched or followed, I felt followed by something in the book that I couldn’t quite identify, some truth or knowledge, as often happens with good poetry where meaning emerges from around the poem’s borders. Sebald’s approach explodes for me the myths I’ve created about novels needing to incorporate dramatic scenes, etc., all of the various workshop admonitions about narrative arc and development.

Though I haven’t read Cusk’s work, and only have this review to go on, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nighty dramas. What a loss!

As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He goes on to say that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.

If our novels are limited to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.





On Writing Memoir

I opened the I Ching at random this morning and came up with #38, K’uei / Opposition.   The commentary says it is common for two opposites to exist together, needing to find relationship.  I realize an opposition is being set up just in the act of writing Drop Out:  my inner writer will be observing everything I do closely and recording what she finds valuable.  I’m reminded of a review of Journey into the Dark:  The Tunnel by William Gass that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:

Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course.  That’s one of the reasons for writing them:  to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire.

….The reason for this is that making copies of ourselves and setting them in motion in imaginary space is built in to the way minds work.  We do it all the time—when we plan for a future event, when we relive the past, when we daydream.  (July 13, 1995)

I like the idea that I’m daydreaming myself into existence, that day and night dreams, which can be in opposition, work together to make a creative entity.  I’m actually making a fiction in my memoir, just as we all are fictions, walking around.  I can’t possibly capture my whole life in these pages, so in making the choices I do and recording them, I’m altering my experience, describing a fictional “I,” transforming my life and my experiences.  They are both mine and not mine.

In fact, the act of writing these things and reflecting back on them alters that period, transforms it, just as the moon’s reflection changes what it touches, causing us to see a landscape differently at night than in the day time, under the sun’s glare.  The moons softens surfaces, embraces them.  The sun brings out an object’s hard edges and distances us from it.  It makes an object seem farther away than the moon’s light does.

In a way, I’m creating a character named Lily, just as other writers recreate themselves when writing memoir.  By organizing our pasts as we do, we eliminate a good deal, including only what fits the page limitation and what we’re willing to reveal.  Of course, this is how we give shape to a self, anyway, by uncovering/discovering it, bit by bit.  All of our personality doesn’t show at any one time.  Maybe over a long period, the different parts of ourselves will come forward and be exposed.  But we are always selecting, choosing.  When I had my sessions with A., my therapist/analyst, there were many dreams and experiences she never knew about, yet that didn’t make our work any less effective.

It’s similar to what happens when we photograph someone.  So much is left out, and we end up with an idealized (or sometimes extremely revealing) image.  If we took a dozen photographs of the person, while there would be a recognizable self in each picture, what’s captured in celluloid changes.  Usually, we only see a posed image, not a full-blown experience of another caught in natural motion.  I suppose it’s why many people prefer to choose a photograph of themselves that projects their best features, leaving the viewer with a romanticized picture of someone.

I think Proust was pointing to a similar phenomenon when he claimed that the narrative “I” is much different from the writer’s self/I.  The writer is creating another fictional self to speak through, and it isn’t exactly the same as the writer’s self.  I believe this happens in all writers.

It’s very useful to be reading Proust at the moment.  I’m interested in his ideas about memory, how we’re so caught up in the moment that it’s difficult to understand our experiences.  But by revisiting them in memory, we make sense of our lives.  I feel that’s what I’m doing here, trying to sort through inner and outer experiences, to understand them, to uncover their meaning.


Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.