Friday, September 24, 2010

"Blog, Interrupted" and other pet peeves

All writers have pet peeves.  We generally try not to talk about it because then no one will write us love letters or send us emails.  Some of us cringe at the sight of dangling modifiers or the word "your" where "you're" should be. 

Here are two of mine:  1) Blog Posts that begin with "I'm sorry it's been so long." I always think of a fourteen year old writing "Dear Diary, I am so so so sorry I haven't written since....I've been so so busy what with cheerleading and all and  I didn't tell you--again, so sorry--but John Boy and I split up."

But, then again, blogging is a bit of conditioned response in action.  Ideally, bloggers should post at a certain rate and readers come to count on that. And, if suddenly there are no posts for a while, it's weird and akin to abandonment, which brings me to my next pet peeve demonstrated with the title "Blog, Interrupted."

2) Titles That Are Rip-Offs of Other Titles (and yes, I've done this).  I can only think when Susanna Kaysen thought of the title Girl, Interrupted she ran around her office doing a little Rock the Casbah dance (that's actually my victory song, only sung in moments of extreme triumph). It's a freaking fantastic title. Other rocking titles include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men, Fear of Flying and The Sound and The Fury.  Of course, we want to steal them, and if it's something inconsequential like a blog title, ok.(I admit my This Milltown Called Denial is a bit derivative, and last week I came this close to naming a post "Of Mice and Milltowns.")  But the other day I saw a book that was titled Faith, Interrupted, and I'm thinking, you wrote a whole book about something as serious and searching as a loss of faith and you can't think of your own title? Whatsa matter with you?

Which brings me to "Blog, Interrupted" (again):  I'm having a blast writing this blog (a little too much fun as thoughts of mill town have been competing with thoughts of the book I'm working on), and I'm taking a break for about ten days.  Next post will be approx. October 4th, which sounds further off than it is.  

Until then!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

This Milltown Called Denial

I guess one of the things that drew me to Tanya is that she talked about the stuff that no one else was saying.  Instead of just enduring the racism of milltown, she called it out.  If she had a problem with someone, she told them. She called herself and Shirley "us colored girls." All this was the opposite of everything I was--not deep down was--but who I was to survive.  I think deep down I was as feisty as Tanya but to be in my family--white, Commonwealthy, Depression era-tight with a recurring theme of loving drink over all else--I had signed up in a silent and unholy pact to be The Good One.  I'm sure more than a few of you are good ones too. Maybe a lot of good ones grow up to write memoirs, which makes us not-so-good anymore, let me tell you.

Being good meant not making connections between things even in my own mind, let alone in snide remarks the way that Tanya could.  That winter my mom and my stepfather were determined to quit smoking and attended a Smoke Enders meetings every Wednesday night. I don't remember making a connection between my sister's cancer and my parents quitting smoking. Every person over the age of 12 in my family smoked and there was a perpetual blue cloud that hovered over the family room.  I never made a connection between whatever drove my family to smoke and to drink and the fact that as soon as my parents drove out of the Spanish-arched carport, I whipped up a batch of brownies, ate them, washed the pan and had everything back in its place by the time my parents returned at 9:30.  If they caught a whiff of warm chocolate when they came in or spotted a splotch of batter on the counter, it was never mentioned.  The weight I put on silently and steadily was our only solid evidence that things were not okay.

It's always a tenuous position to point back to our upbringings for the answers to the question of who we are.  But, it's impossible for me to look at that Winter and not see the root of my desire to write, and also why the type of writing I wanted to do would be so long in the coming.  All the things never mentioned seemed to get stored away in an account, expanding with interest, and finally demanding to be spent.

Yep, that's the one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Frank, Crank City, and the art of telling the truth

One of the most genuinely fatiguing aspects of teaching memoir in the post-James Frey era is the topic of Telling the Truth in a Memoir. The conversation is inevitable, and, of course, necessary, but it is also tiresome in its absurdity.

Somewhere between the argument that a memoir should read with the veracity of a court report and the David Shields/Vivian Gornick-type argument that the barbed wire fence that runs along the DMZ between fiction and non should be torn down (forgive me, David, for reducing your argument so simply. Vivian, you don't care what I think,I'm sure)and the inmates of the two camps should be allowed to run amok, somewhere in here is the territory where most memoirists live. If the book has the word "memoir" stamped on the back, we don't get to make up characters or say stuff happened that everyone knows didn't. We really don't need to spend class time, air time, or pages of the New York Times talking about the contract between the reader and the writer etc. We are civilized, we know the rules.

And yet--and this is why all the above having been said I myself really wouldn't care if a writer were to have made up a few factual details--the truth that really matters in a story is the truth to which no one can hold us accountable, because it is the truth of the story that only we can know for ourselves and it has nothing to do with did we spend a few days in jail or not.

And this takes me back to that conversation I had with Frank McCourt about how honest is a story. Like I said to Frank in that conversation, there's an honest story we can tell and there's a story we only dare to tell ourselves that tugs at us as we write and whispers, yeah, but what about that?

In "Part Huit," I talked about how the Alienated Youth story of being a debutante (god, how embarrassing) transplanted reluctantly to a milltown was in its essence true but that there was a truer story--it feels truer to me--that I hadn't written, the story of three strangers living together and calling themselves a family. I never sought out not to tell this story. I didn't even know the story was there until I started to write the milltown story. And this is why, I think conversations about the "truth" in memoir are a bit of a diversion from the real story. If we sit around worrying about whether a story's factual details are correct, we don't have to worry about whether we told what it felt like to lie to our parents about who we are or to carefully arrange ourselves in order to hide our depression.

As I've been writing the story of Alienated Youth, I realized that I've skipped over a very important part of the story, not initially because I was trying to hide the truth but because it would have been a distraction in the story I was telling about class differences. But, as the story deepened, I realized that the despair I felt living in this town was caused only in part by being an outsider, and the "real story" couldn't be portrayed without backing up a bit.

A few months before we moved to Mill Town, my 23 year old stepsister was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. From the very beginning, we knew she would die, even though we also knew that she would try every available option before she could die. As sad as I was about my stepsister, the hardest part of this diagnosis was seeing my stepfather miserable. I wanted to turn back time to when he was happy but I couldn't. Barring that, I wanted to do everything I could to show him that I knew how he felt and that I would do what I could to help him.

When the news of the transfer came, my parents realized that it would mean me missing out on what should have been my fun-filled senior year of high school in the city. My mom suggested that maybe I could live with a friend for the year, my parents paying the family room and board. And, briefly the thought thrilled me. I could have the independence that I longed for. But, besides the fact that I loathed the idea of "boarding" with another family, the main reason I wanted to go to Mill Town was to telegraph to my stepfather the message that I was there for him, that he wouldn't lose me.

But, it wasn't long after our move to Mill Town, that I realized how helpless I was over my stepfather's happiness, that being good and doing the right things--my fallback tricks for keeping the world happy--were quite useless where life and death were concerned. So there we were: the three of us in a town where we didn't belong, in a house that wasn't quite right, in a family that wasn't quite one, getting ready for a long rainy winter.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Giveaway


I'm hosting a book giveaway for followers of Writing is My Drink! I will be drawing
two names Friday, September 17th at Noon. Two prizes: a signed copy of King Size and a not-signed copy of Angela's Ashes, in honor of Frank McCourt who's been the topic of my last three posts. To enter, go to my facebook fanpage (there is a link to the page on the upper right side of this page just above the King Size picture), "like the page" and make a comment. You must be a "follower" of Writing is My Drink to win.

Link to My Facebook Fanpage

Good luck!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Gift (real, not metaphorical) from Frank McCourt

In the cozy, faux-intimacy that is a writers' conference, Frank quickly became a central figure in my world that week in the summer of 2003. There were several things that led me to feel like I knew Frank better than I actually did--the fact that he could have been a voice-double for my stepfather, that he told us such intimate stories about his defeats as well as his triumphs and just his general Frank-ness: he was--or at least he seemed to me--an authentic type of person who feels very familiar almost upon meeting.

When I walked into the cocktail party/book signing with my Angela's Ashes under my arm the third night of the conference, I was relieved to spot Frank across the room with his collar askew and hair rumpled. Well, there's Frank! I thought, as if I'd spotted my uncle across a crowded train station.

"Hey, Frank!"
"Theo! How are ya? Do you want me to sign it?" he said, gesturing to the Angela's Ashes' under my arm.
"Oh, yes, yes," I said and fumbled the book into his hands.

He took a moment and scribbled something. I remember thinking, Hmm, that's more than a signature and reminded myself to not read the inscription in front of him.
"Thanks!" I said, retrieving the book and then I realized that, in fact, I didn't have anything else to say and didn't want to seem like an idiot or the sycophant clinging to the famous person, so I made some excuse to head for the other side of the room.

Later, back in my cinder-block dorm room, I was relieved that my roommate hadn't yet returned. I pulled out the Angela's Ashes and turned to the title page, and there it was:

For Theo--
To a hell of a writer!
Frank McCourt

I might as well have been handed a lightening bolt for the reaction this set off in me. Who knows what he was thinking when he wrote this--for all I know this is his standard greeting, maybe he walks down the street saying, "Good Morning, you one hell of a writer, you!"--but for me, I might as well have been little Simba held above my father's head being promised that I would inherit all I could see before me.

A writer, a real writer, oh for God's sake, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had called me a writer. Of course, that in itself would have been enough, but the impact of this was exponentially increased by the fact that it was a male writer who reminded me of my stepfather. All my adult life I'd sought out mentors and found them, but they'd always been women. It wasn't that men wouldn't have been willing to mentor me but I'd never dared to seek them out of fear of being turned down. Just before my stepfather died, he cleared the hospital room to tell me "You've made me so happy," and I'm ashamed to say that even then all I wanted to ask him was, "But are you proud of me?"

I know it sounds crazy and weird but that summer night in 2003, I felt like this other Irish guy gave me the answer I'd wanted.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More Lessons from My Week with Frank McCourt

Returning to the premise that writing is my drink and that my literary thirst is a legacy of my parents' thirst for something stronger, let's just say I was on a bender the summer of 2003, the summer I was Frank's student.

It's not so much that I was writing a lot. I wasn't. It was that my literary ambition was at its height, transforming me from a human woman to a walking craving. I had a manuscript I was certain was about to burst into the world if my big-name agent ever finished her extended beach vacation. Restless and irritable, all my thoughts lined up around my solitary desire: get the book published, a desire that blinded me to much of the ordinary life around me, including to the very obvious fact that my husband was also caught up in a web of his own, the details of which would come forward six weeks hence in the day that ended our marriage.

So this was strung-out state that I entered Frank's class that summer. But--part of me--I tend to think of it as the self-effacing Canadian part who is thoroughly repulsed by bald displays of ambition--knew enough to keep my desire to my self. But, maybe I'm just kidding myself that I did.

Within an hour of our first class meeting, I realized I was taking a class from my stepfather. Also from Ireland, my beloved stepfather, would've been about the same age as Frank, if the smoking hadn't killed him in 1997. My stepfather loved to tell stories and I'd often been held captive hours past dinner, still at the table, while he smoked white-tipped Peter Jacksons, sipped his gin and tonics and held court. Frank's class was pretty much like this without any food to push around my plate. As he told us about his life as a teacher in the NYC public school system, a divorce, family entanglements, what some priest back in Ireland thought of 'Tis, I anxiously waited for class to start, for him to tell me what I needed to do to become published in a big way.

At some point, I think during class two, I realized: this was it. Frank was a storyteller. Angela's Ashes was a the stellar success that it was because Frank knows something--everything--about how to tell a story. Sometime during that class, the lion of my ambition found a shady spot to collapse and just listened as Frank taught us everything he knows about setting, dialogue, pacing and theme by laying his stories down before us one by one.

By day three, I was about nine years old, my cheek pressed against the cool desk, listening, listening, now Frank's wasted another summer he said he'd write, now it's another summer off teaching and he finally is writing--long hand in front of the fire, the characters of Angela's Ashes coming alive before him, now Frank's going through a divorce.

There's so much from these stories that's come to revisit since that week. But, one of the stories I remember most vividly is the story of Frank as a young and then not-so-young literary aspirant. He knew he was a writer and knew he had a book in him wanting to come into the world but yet he hadn't written it yet. He was on the outside wanting in. Just like me.