Books to Heal Our Divide

 

Nearly fifty years ago a church in Pittsburgh chose to integrate one of the most segregated hours of the week—11:00 on Sunday morning. Three Presbyterian churches merged, two White and one Black. I’ve been a member for almost 48 of those years. The Black members of the church are teachers, doctors, professors, principals, post office workers, bankers, prison guards, sales people, assistant administrators, social workers, military personnel, musicians, ministers, unemployed, retired, parents, grandparents, young, gay, straight, hearing impaired or disabled in another way. Almost all of the men have experienced some hostility from the police. Most every Black member has experienced discrimination. Yet, I’ve never heard hate or anger, just some sighs at times. Frequently, we’ve found commonalities in our membership in minority groups, such as stereotyping. Most often my Black friends give honest accounts of their days, often spiced with humor, and show a willingness to do good in their small circles.

This week marks 22 years since the suffocation death of Jonny Gammage, a 31-year-old man driving his Pittsburgh Steeler’s cousin’s jaguar. Five suburban Pittsburgh police officers held him down, applying so much pressure to his back and neck that he couldn’t breathe. Although the coroner’s jury recommended a charge of homicide for all 5 White officers, the D.A. chose only involuntary manslaughter. Although there were two trials, both juries deadlocked, the latter in an 11-1 decision. The vote to convict came from the lone Black member of the jury. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by New York White police in a similar manner. This week in Pittsburgh a jury declared a mistrial in the paralysis of Black motorist, Leon Ford, after being shot by a White police officer. He misidentified Mr. Ford, despite his license and car registration showing that he was who he said he was. Apparently, the officers were looking for another Black man named Ford who was an alleged drug dealer. The all-White jury deadlocked.

The issues around race that have surfaced over the past year trouble me more than I can say.

Several authors have written beautifully on this subject: Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, Kekla Magoon, How It Went Down, and Reynolds and Kiely, All American Boys. These are young adult writers and their novels, but I’d also recommend the adult novel by Jodie Picoult, Small Great Things. Picoult has done a tremendous amount of research for this novel, and though parts are not always nuanced, I think she could appeal to a very large audience who might be moved by her characters. The words of these authors will surpass any I can offer about the heartbreaking divide on racial lines we are experiencing.

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Seeking control in this publishing world

 

 

My Tuesday night writing group spontaneously decided to have a celebration of one member finishing her novel. One person brought champagne and all the makings of a champagne float (highly recommended), and another brought yummy lemon cupcakes. I provided apples and honey in honor of the Jewish New Year. One member laughed and said, “At least celebrating is something we can control in this publishing business.”

One other thing within our control that all the writers in that group adhere to is reading and learning always about their craft. The August Writer magazine has an excellent article on writing memoir, which I also recommend. Read it with a champagne float. But much of the advice in the article seems to refer, also, to fiction.

So many of the subjects in memoir are overdone. Publishers are saturated with them, just as with various fiction subjects. So the trick, then, (not so easy, of course) is to think of something new.

Short of that, we must write beautifully…not necessarily with flowers, but with strong, individual language. Have voice. How often have we heard that? But the article pointed to voice and language and art as some elements that make memoir stand out.

So often books, whether nonfiction or fiction, lack depth. It’s not enough for memoir to be about one’s life, even if one is a celebrity. There has to be a theme, some substance—at least for most publishers.

Writing fiction or memoir is truly exposing ourselves…autobiographies sneak in even if we aren’t intentionally using our experience. But one writer says to be sure to write from our scars, not our open wounds. Perspective is key to accomplishing universality. So, too, is brutal honesty. But what truths to tell about ourselves or use in fiction? Physical or sexual abuse, alcoholic or addictive parents blur with repetition. Honesty doesn’t have to be massive disfunction or criminal. Sometimes I find the pathetic needs and the petty motivations the most interesting disclosures, and I think they often strike the heart and brain of the reader, making him say, the “me, too,” the response we aim for, according to the article. One writer says to write what you don’t know yet about yourself and your experience.

Finally, in writing memoir, just as in writing fiction, we have to develop characters that sweep up the reader and carry her through the pages. The first 30-50 pages have to hook the reader so that he cares.

Think how often we speak to friends or family and begin telling something burning that happened to us, and they don’t hear us and change the subject. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader care.

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Adding History to Memoir

 

 

In the last month I’ve been adding some history to the memoir I’m writing—i.e., history of blind people, natural history of dogs, etc. I’ve wanted to broaden the book, not to “kick me out of the memoir,” (the title of a nonfiction workshop a friend attended) but to put my experience in a context. I just read Hillbilly Elegy by Vance, a very interesting read. But at times I wanted less memoir, less of Vance, and more of social commentary.

Adding history to a part of one’s autobiography is not without challenge. Writing history generally, I imagine, is always a huge project. But adding nonpersonal history to memoir has taught me a few things.

First, the struggle comes from making the information from at least two books on each topic concise.

Second, readability is a challenge. Memoir is full of personal specifics. The hope is that a voice comes through in those sections. But continuing that voice in the informational parts and avoiding the accusation of dryness pose challenge.

Third, how much history and what events should be included?

I’ve come up with a few “dos” for my book that might apply to others:

  • Give the highlights and point the reader to books that give the comprehensive accounts.
  • Keep the information linear, i.e., chronological.
  • Keep the history compressed in one section of the chapter.
  • Set off the chapter with the personal connection to this material, give the history, and conclude with the personal.

Hope this helps.

 

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“The Summer Before the War” and characterization

 

So many writing texts tell us to detail biographies of our characters in order to make them authentic. “In Magic Words” Cheryl Klein suggests that we ask a myriad of questions about ourselves (and I mean endless questions) at various ages and save that in a file. She recommends that we analyze our lives at picture book age, at elementary school age, and at our teenage. Although I truly believe in this advice and offer it to others, I’ve never taken the time or pain to do this. The closest I came was in a workshop with Susan Campbell Bartoletti where she asked us to remember our most important house growing up. Then she suggested we think of something important that had taken place in every room of that house. Frighteningly, I remembered nothing but very negative scenes, the stuff for a Mary Carr memoir, maybe, but so far not for my personal work. I certainly entertained good memories then, after being self-shocked. Compared to many in our country, I didn’t suffer, and I know my parents were better parents than their own. So part of my resistance is that I don’t want to whine and especially don’t want to trash family members who tried their bests.   But I think I resist, too, out of laziness. I write memoir, but confine myself to disability issues. The characters that surround me are real people, which may be easier to fledge out than fictional ones. Of course, I’ve often changed names (with a disclaimer at the beginning of the books) and if they were (in my mind) really villainous, I’ve thought of ways to give them metaphorical small penises, so they won’t get litigious.

But in reading Helen Simonson’s second novel, “The Summer Before the War,” Random House I think, 2016, I’ve been so enthralled by the characterizations of her large cast, by the nuance of many. The book has the character foibles of a Jane Austen novel, but also includes the astonishingly cruel that we’ve come to know in contemporary authors’ work. It also deals with war with a reality that brings tears at times, so it’s not escapist fare.

I’ve been reading it every chance I get and am now into the last 50 pages or so. I’m reluctant to read with the same avarice because I don’t want to come to the end. So much of this is because of the wonderful characterizations.

The book has inspired me to try the character sketching drudge work. Some of my darker experiences could be varied a bit and given to fictional heroines, and that might lead to a kind of Beatrice Nash or Hugh grange from the simonson book. At least it’s worth a try.

And if I’ve motivated anyone to read this novel, I should say that her first book, 2010, was “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” which I think was made into a movie.

 

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Metaphor and Simile

 

 

I learned years ago that metaphors and similes had to be precise. Several of my students have heard the story of my metaphor about sidewalks, “the skeletal frame that defined my world.” My editor deleted this phrase from my ms Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness. But I wanted to keep it. I was writing about having had the final retinal hemorrhage that had eliminated all residual sight. I woke to this major loss, freaked out, then dressed, and went outside to wait for my boyfriend at the time who was driving me to work.

Six inches of snow had fallen overnight, concealing the sidewalk from street and from grass shoreline. I walked to a short-cut so that he wouldn’t have to turn a corner and I got lost. My cane couldn’t detect the sidewalk. Pretty traumatic and pretty important in explaining life for a blind traveler.

“But a sidewalk isn’t skeletal,” my editor argued.

We settled on “the solid structure that defined my world.”

Recently I read Ted Kooser’s take on these terms. He claims that they have personality. Metaphor has certainty, while simile suggests uncertainty. In the sidewalk situation, I realize now that everything about that scene was overwhelming and obscured. What traffic there was spun its wheels or hardly moved, giving me no help. The sidewalk offered my only clue, the only certainty, and it was hidden. Metaphor was the right choice in that instant.

In the book, I’m writing now about the guide dog/human partnership, I describe an average day in the life with Dave. I say that he is as much at the front and center of my schedule as my grandkids are to my daughter’s. Of course, there are enough differences in the demands of dog and children, so that simile seems to be more effective than metaphor: Dave, the preschool human equivalent, or a similar metaphor, seems overblown.

Kooser also says that choosing metaphor or simile shows the author’s personality. Smile. I know writers who are definitely metaphor types. I think I’m more the simile sort: “well, it’s kind of, I mean, pretty much like…ah…”

 

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Lessons from a favorite teacher

 

Today I thought of my favorite high school teacher, Miss Harry, who taught 11th grade English. During one class, she chose to read aloud the assigned descriptive essay I’d written about my Mom’s lovable, colorful cleaning lady. My classmates laughed and sighed in all the right places, so the singling out of my work ended positively.

But Miss Harry’s simple critique affected me more than I understood at the time. “You have a knack, Sally.”

From then on, I fell in love with words. Innocent that I was, I took Readers’ Digest vocabulary quizzes and tried to use those words in my writing. The results were mixed, at best. The ones that pain me most even to this day are “the cursory purgation,” used in a note to my episcopal minister after a meaningful talk we’d had. He couldn’t restrain himself from laughing with my dad about it, and the affectionate ridicule I endured is still a vivid memory.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to words and Miss Harry’s class. But the water ballet’s show was coming up Thursday and the chorus final production the next night and endless rehearsals beforehand, and all our short story summaries for Miss Harry were due Friday. She would choose only one of ours from each row. I feigned illness that day, a huge accomplishment with a nurse as mother, only to learn that so many others did the same that Miss Harry wanted everyone’s collection of summaries on Monday. Saturday and Sunday, I hardly slept. I read and wrote. On Monday morning, I still had one story to read and review.

“Lee,” I whispered. “May I see what you wrote for the last summary?”

I skimmed it and used my own words.

At the end of class a week later, Miss Harry stood at the front of the room with a pinched face and our reviews in her hand. “I was very disappointed at the cheating that has taken place in this class.”

“What can she be talking about?” I wondered, trying even to fool myself.

At the top of my paper, she’d written, “Sally to Suzanne to Lee.”

Turns out that Lee had misunderstood a plot point, and Suzanne, who had also borrowed from Lee, and I had penned the exact mistake.   Pretty transparent cheating.

As the students exited the room, all murmuring, I sat stricken in my seat. I somehow stood and headed toward Miss Harry’s desk, but my Civics teacher had come in to speak to her. I trembled and fought tears so conspicuously the man stopped talking and hurried out of the room. I managed to confess my crime before giving way to hysterics.

Miss Harry said, “Ah, Sally. You’ve done something wrong,haven’t you?”

I nodded.

“But you’ve admitted it. And, for that, in my estimation, you’ve gone up a notch.”

And that was it. No harping. No punishment. In my two most important interactions with Miss Harry, she’d used monosyllabic words, “knack” and “notch.” But she’d shown me that brevity, freshness, precision, tempered with warm regard cut through all the B.S.

At the time I didn’t realized I’d just had a mini-lecture in writing well. I only understood that I’d been caught up short and vowed never to cheat again. But years later I came to know that Miss Harry had a profound influence in my teaching, writing, and all my relating to others.

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Delayed Post

 

 

As you can see I haven’t posted in nearly two months. My husband and I have been helping our daughter and son-in-law with our grandkids in Philadelphia.

Our daughter has been suffering again with endometriosis, a very common problem for women that is neither researched nor talked about enough. She was very ill with it seven years ago and had surgery, but it has now returned. Endometriosis has been rampant among the women in my family. My sister and her two daughters were young sufferers.  One month before my wedding 43 years ago I had surgery because of the disease and lost my right ovary. Though I never experienced the debilitating pain that many like my daughter feel, I still found it difficult to live richly and fully with the sharp needle-stabbing pain to my right side.

If you or anyone in your family has struggled with endometriosis, and you are moved to help with research dollars, here is a link that may interest you:

https://www.motif.me/collections/trending-the-endo-co/products/the-endo-co-bracelet-10001497

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