Letting Go

Last week I attended a luncheon hosted by author Leslie Johansen Nack who spoke about her newly published memoir ‘Fourteen’.

Having already downloaded her book to my Kindle, not only had I read it, but my mother and my husband had also read it. We all agree…it’s a gripping story. The title’s byline leads you to believe that ‘Fourteen’ is primarily a coming of age story, but I think that’s the least of it, quite honestly. Beginning well before she was a teenager, this is about the unfolding determination to find the wherewithal to conquer circumstances no young girl should have to face. Climaxing in 1975, aboard a sailboat with only her sisters and her bizarrely controlling and sexually menacing father aboard, this is a story about courage as well as survival as they navigate clear across the Pacific ocean, from San Diego to the French Polynesian Islands… and then back again. Whether or not you know anything at all about sailing, the journey of this family unfolds in a way that is meant for the big screen of a movie theater.

Although Leslie and I had become acquainted two years ago through an online class called ‘Write Your Memoir in Six Months’, we’d never met in person until last week. I know publishing wasn’t without an emotional toll, and I admire her all the more for her bravery to take it public. She’s been traveling around the country on a book tour, and I got the sense last week that although she is extremely appreciative of the solid reviews and favorable attention her book is getting, she feels uncomfortable speaking so openly about it in public.   Thus is the dilemma of writing memoir.

From the get go, I had no interest in publication for my own memoir. My interest to write had been purely to leave a documented explanation of family history, which was already complicated long before I was born. I wanted my children to understand the circumstances and complexities that shaped not just me, but in part how it also shaped them.

As I was approaching the home stretch I already knew I’d be ditching and re-writing most of it because that online class inadvertently taught me an invaluable lesson; writing to appease someone else changes the tenor of my narrative, which in turn caused me to lose my own voice. Now it’s my firm opinion that family therapists who are unable to stop analyzing every situation have no business teaching and mentoring writers who are navigating memoir.

I actually got quite close to finishing that shitty first draft of my memoir. But just a few weeks shy of that six-month finish, the reemergence of cancer abruptly brought a screeching halt to my memoir efforts and immediately redirected my priorities.

We all know that the seconds, minutes and hours of our lives don’t ever move in reverse, just like the sun never sets in the east. Statistics prove out that life is short when you’re living with stage IV cancer.

For me, the only way to move forward is to simply let go. Hanging on only to look back serves no purpose. Whatever the future holds, I’ve let go of what was, and I live with what is. Because the ‘here and now’ is my future.

What Makes A Writer Write

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 5.22.15 PMLast evening I watched the film documentary ‘Salinger’, which is the biographical story of the very reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye.  Although the film was somewhat lengthy, I found it to be an interesting account of a very complicated life.  A graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy (his parents sent him there when he floundered around in local schools), Salinger went on to take some college classes in New York where he began to focus seriously on writing.   But WWII changed the trajectory of his life, as it did for most young American men at that time.  Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was shipped off to France where he fought in the Normandy Invasion, and then in the Battle of the Bulge. Surrounded by the atrocities of war, he began to write and carried complete chapters around with him into battle. A troubled young man named Holden Caulfield was at the center of his story.

The film is worth watching, if for no other reason than to get a more complete picture of what makes a writer write.  In Salinger’s case, he was considered to be a literary genius, but only after he received rejection after rejection after rejection from the publishing industry.  He’d had a few things published prior to serving in the military, but he didn’t feel successful because what he really wanted was to become published in The New Yorker magazine.  For Salinger, THAT was success.  In all, J.D. Salinger spent ten long years writing Catcher In The Rye.  When he submitted the completed manuscript for publication,  his work was rejected again and again.  Finally, he found a willing publisher but the offer came with a mandatory re-write, and he refused to do it.  Salinger refused to allow any changes whatsoever, not even for punctuation.  So he walked away.  Until Little, Brown and Company came along.  They agreed to publish the book EXACTLY as Salinger wrote it.  The year was 1951. Over 65 MILLION copies have been sold, and over 250,000 copies continue to be purchased each year, according to the film.

I’ve begun my 2014 writing challenge, which is to complete my memoir in six months…by end of June.   I have writing deadlines and accountability to a writing mentor, a woman who has taught memoir for fifteen years now, has published memoir herself. By day, she is a psychologist.

So far, I’m right on schedule with the deadlines and word count goals (actually I’ve surpassed the word count goals). Part of the requirement (class structure) is to submit 2500 words every two weeks for her review and commentary. I’ve sent in my opening chapter, with a scene that shows a tapestry of raw drama amidst family dynamics that took decades to unfurl.  Now, having twice received feedback from my mentor, I’ve drawn a few conclusions…which were strengthened after watching ‘Salinger’.

I am writing my personal story.  I lived it.  I experienced it. My emotions as I navigated that journey are my emotions. Although feedback from a reader perspective is highly valuable and I am grateful for the guidance on outlining, scene and narrative delineation, and a host of other things, I am most intrigued by the comments from my mentor over the ‘situation’ of the story.  Comments such as ‘I don’t understand how this could have happened,’ and ‘Maybe that’s just the family therapist talking here, but so far, how this came to be isn’t clear to me.’

These are comments that lead me to believe I’ve already done my job as a writer…In just the first 5000 words or so, I’ve left the reader wanting to understand how a situation like this one possibly could have happened.  She is asking me, the writer, to help her understand.

If I could do that, I wouldn’t be writing a memoir.  There’d be nothing really to write about.  “Oh, this happened, but it makes complete sense.  End of story.” 

Salinger had stopped submitting for publication in 1964, becoming famously reclusive. The film quoted a phone interview that Salinger gave to a San Francisco journalist in 1974.   “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

I am writing my memoir.  Whether or not the reader can neatly fit round pegs into square holes isn’t for me to instruct.  Every reader has to come to their own conclusions and whether or not they approve of the ‘situation’ is irrelevant to me as a writer.  I’m not writing for their approval and I’m not writing for publication.  I’m writing to record the experiences that molded me into the woman I am today.

Each one of us got launched into adulthood via our own custom built springboard.  My board may have had a few unexpected bounces, but that’s what memoir is. Holden Caulfield was revolutionary for a reason.  He was the writer.  And when it came time to submit that finished manuscript, J.D. Salinger knew that story was his, and his alone.

Leaning In…at my own table

Sit at the tableI love Sheryl Sandberg for helping today’s professional women pursue their goals.  Her book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead‘ has been inspirational to so many, including my own daughter.  ‘Lean In’ is the phrase she’s coined to suggest that all women have a valuable contribution to offer…our ideas and our experiences are equally as important as those offered by our male counterparts. With encouragement to ‘sit at the table’, she encourages women to ‘seek challenges, to take risks and pursue goals with gusto.’  I’ve long been out of the corporate world, but her message is one that certainly resonates with me. I’d often found myself as the only woman sitting at a conference table surrounded by men.  It was intimidating, I won’t lie.

As this last holiday season approached and 2013 was seriously winding down, I’d already made the decision to lean in at my own table.  After attending a meeting of the  California Writers Club as a non-member (because I don’t consider myself a real writer) I listened to several panelists, all published authors, speak about their personal writing experiences over the years and the importance of perseverance when it comes to the journey that all writers embark upon.

After attending that meeting, I became excited about THE END.  In the weeks that followed, I began to give serious consideration to the commitment of completing my big writing project within SIX MONTHS.  That’s a huge undertaking for me, because this project has been going on now for… well, for way too long.  It’s not because I want to be dragging my feet, but it’s because the emotional pain of writing it has been such a burden that it’s weighed me down for months and months at a time. And, I’ve allowed that personal pain to intimidate me…because why else would it be taking me this long?

I know that it must be the same for everyone who struggles to write about difficult times in their lives.  I’m not unique, and I know I’m not alone.

And, I’m not at all interested in publication.  Which is why I know it’s time… to simply get on with it.  It’s my history, the fabric from which I’m made, not perfectly ironed, but solidly formed.  I can’t wait to type the words THE END.  The personal sense of accomplishment will be incredibly gratifying, and finally, I’ll be able to put that part of my life back inside the emotional vault where it was securely contained for so many decades, until something unexpected happened that simply blew the lid off.

I’ve signed the contract, I’ve made the official commitment to complete this manuscript in SIX MONTHS.  June 2014.

That’s my table…and I am LEANING IN.  Who’s with me?

Memoir Music: What’s In Your Playlist?

IMG_0385As the holidays approach and the year winds down,  I’ve created a ‘memoir playlist’ on iTunes.  It’s all the music that I became immersed in as a twelve year old after an incomprehensible loss.  These songs will once again comfort me as I embark upon a six month intensive writing curriculum, transporting myself back for one last microscopic journey into the life that was mine. I will come full circle, as I finalize the narrative to the broadest circumference in the ripple effect that was launched by the careless toss of somebody else’s pebble.

Do you have a memoir playlist that transports you to a pivotal time in your life?

GOLF! (Flash Fiction)

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Using dialogue, write a 5 minute (1 to 2 page) essay that begins with something true but quickly becomes fictional.


As we walked down the first fairway, I was pondering my tee shot.  Had I left all my skills on the driving range?  Was it pointless to practice beforehand? It seemed so.  As I lugged my clubs along, I was noticeably quiet, or at least my husband thought so.

“How’s your cold?” he asked.

“About the same, and not to blame for that lousy drive off the tee” I responded without glancing over at him.  His drive was straight down the middle of the fairway and hundreds of yards further out than my short and wonky shot.

My yellow neon ball was off in the knee-high weeds somewhere to our left, and as I approached the general vicinity, I veered off to take a look.  Figuring it was likely unfindable, I’d already put a spare ball in my pocket ready to drop and hit if need be.  I grabbed my 7 iron and used it to bat the growth out of my way, while leaning down towards ground level to get a better look.  It was not only tough to see below all this stuff, it was also very damp.  With each step I took, I could feel the moisture seeping around the soles of my golf shoes.  I took a few more steps in, carefully placing my feet so that I could avoid anything that looked obviously muddy.

“Let me help look” I heard him say.

“It’s a goner, I think.  I’ll just hit another one.”  But instead I continued to use my 7 iron to push weeds from side to side, looking for that wildly belligerent golf ball.  I hate losing golf balls more than recording a double digit on a hole.

As I worked my way along, I finally stepped back out onto the edge of the fairway.  I dug the spare out of my pocket.

“Found it!”  I looked around me to see where my husband was.  “Over here!” he yelled.

I looked back behind me and there in the middle of the weeds, he was bending over to retrieve my ball. But instead of coming up with it, he stood back up and looked at me.  “It’s hittable,” he said.

“Huh? Isn’t it out of bounds there?”

“Of course, but since you don’t keep score anyhow, it’s hittable.  These are the kinds of shots that are fun to practice…if you get yourself in trouble when you ARE keeping score, you’ll be more confident hitting the trickier shots if you’ve practiced on weird ones like this.”

I stared at him for a moment.  Okay, fine.  I pulled my pitching wedge, my 9 iron and my 8 iron from my bag, and I hung onto the 7 iron too.  Until I was literally standing over that ball, I wasn’t sure which club I’d want to use.

I picked my way over to where he was, noticing that my socks were now absorbing the mud that was already seeping over onto my shoes.  There was really no way to avoid it, no matter how carefully I placed my feet.

He backed off as I approached.  When I got to the ball, I studied it a moment.  He was right…it was hittable.  There was just enough space around it to get a club head in there…but it was also very muddy so I’d have to be careful not to drive it in further…or just pop it up and land it a few inches away, maybe to be lost forever.

“Hold these.” I said, as I gave him three of my clubs.  I kept the 7.

“The 7 isn’t steep enough to clear the weeds,” he said. “Use your pitch.  It has to pop out high”

“The pitch will pop it up, but it’s gonna leave it well short.  I’ll just bury it again in a new crappy spot”.  He gave me that expression…the one I know so well.  The one that says ‘I’ve played this game my entire life.  Don’t be stupid.’

I gave him my own look.  The one he knows so well. The one that says ‘I hear you, but I’m doing it my way.’

I carefully got into position, placing each foot so that the ball lay squarely in the middle of my stance.  I took hold of my 7 iron, and glanced at my husband.  “Heads up,” I said calmly.

I gently placed the club head into position.  Deciding I might need to blast it with a launch normally reserved for rocket ships, I bent my right knee ever so slightly to give me more leverage in my swing.  Without further ado, I worked that club as I’d never done before, driving the ball like a bullet out of the mud with a ceremonious spray for my cheering squad.

“JESUS!” I heard.

“Where’d it go?” I asked.   I couldn’t see it, but because it wasn’t still sitting where I’d last seen it, I assumed it’d gotten airborne. My husband ran to watch the landing, having first to clamber through the weeds to get out to the fairway. By the time I got back out there myself, my feet were soaked, my shoes ruined.  I squinted to see how far my ball had gone.  I couldn’t see it.  “Where’d it go?” I asked.

He was just shaking his head, with that other look I know so well.  The one that hates to admit that occasionally I can do things my way, and it all turns out okay.

Walking along side by side once again, I soon spotted my ball. It was not only out of the crap, it was well down the fairway, coming to rest in a sliver of sunshine…and just a few feet short of his own stellar drive off the tee.

“Where’s the scorecard?”  I asked.


That was a fun writing assignment.  And, yes…it was fictional (well, except for the golf and the hubby part. Good thing my hubby has a sense of humor!)  Writing fiction is a good challenge for me and forces me to use my imagination.  Even more challenging is to come up with a fictional story QUICKLY.   Now there’s a skill that remains elusive.  I’m participating in a new writing group that meets a few times each month…primary focus is fiction.  This has been a good thing for me, but beginning in January I will be pushing even harder on my memoir project with the goal to have it COMPLETED (and COMPLETELY completed) by June 2014.  I’m so excited to be working with Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers, who will be coaching me throughout the next six months.  Finally, the HOME STRETCH!  It may never see the light of day for publication, but quite honestly that’s never been my objective in the first place (for background, you’ll need to read my post titled ‘About being a writer‘).  Simply having my memoir completed will finally put the past back into the past, where I’d kept it emotionally locked up for decades. Until something unexpected happened that blew the lock wide open…

Frankie Valli, where you been?

Picture 4Absorbed in my computer work this evening, I’ve had the television on for background noise.  It’s tuned to the results show for American Idol.  (I already spoiled it for myself by glancing at Google news, inadvertently seeing a headline about the winner…darn it!  Why must they report that stuff when the program hasn’t even aired yet here on the west coast?!)

At any rate, I was typing away when suddenly I heard a familiar voice…one that instantly shot me back in time to those years that are the subject of my memoir project. Holy cow… Frankie Valli on American Idol.  Riveted as I watched Frankie sing, sounding pretty darned good after all these years,  I was a bit startled to see how he’s aged.  But, then again, I’m always a bit startled to see how I’ve aged, whenever I glance at that stranger who resembles me in the mirror.

Now that he’s done singing, my mood has shifted.  And it’s dawned on me that the only thing I really need in order to truly settle in during my next writing block is to listen to Frankie.  He’ll take me back in time, bringing every emotion out for full bloom.   Sherry, Rag Doll, and most especially Big Girls Don’t Cry, which was THE song I played endlessly when that baby disappeared from my life. I listened to it over and over again, for hours at a time, while locked inside my bedroom desperately trying to understand.  I wasn’t a big girl at all.  But I turned a corner on that day.  Big girls come in all ages.

Where you can just get into your own head…

tahoe garage

I’ve been driving my Chevy Tahoe for 12 years now.  With 108, 098 miles on the odometer, it still runs like a top.  I take it for service every 3,000 miles like clockwork. While having it serviced yesterday,  I expected to be spending my time in the waiting room of the service department by catching up on emails.  I’d brought my laptop specifically for this purpose, but turns out the internet service in the building wasn’t working.  After initial irritation, I decided to plug in my headphones and hunker down with my writing.  Not my blog writing, but my writing…the memoir project that has been looming over me like a cloud.  It hovers above me, a shadowed reminder that it’s ready to be unleashed.

The problem is, the emotion of getting it pounded out into words creates sudden halts in my progress. As my vision clouds with tears, I find myself jumping up and walking away in an effort to get an emotional grip.   But, surprisingly enough, sitting in the Chevy service department yesterday with folks coming and going, mechanics clanking away just on the other side of the large window that looks into their service  garage,  I got so sucked in that I missed calls on my cell phone, stopped just briefly to respond to text messages, and only finally snapped out of it when the service agent tapped me on the shoulder to tell me my vehicle was ready.  I glanced at my watch…several hours had elapsed.

Who knew that a busy service department smelling like, well.. like a GARAGE, would be the place I could finally push beyond my emotionally gated entry into the next segment of the story? Although I’m sure this hurdle was just one of many more yet to come, I feel like I have crossed that big threshold at last, allowing me to finally just get on to the heart of it.

Maybe by the time my car has 200,000 miles on it, I’ll be coming down the home stretch.  I just hope the writing journey smooths out and carries me along dependably,  just like my Chevy Tahoe, no matter how many miles accumulate.

I guess the best writing places are those where you can just get into your own head.  I challenge you to find a list anywhere in this world that suggests an auto service department might be the environment to consider when looking for that special spot all writers actively seek out.

Who knew?