Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Heart of Memoir

I had the good fortune, last week, to attend a book talk by my memoir hero, Mary Karr. Her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, opened my eyes, back in the 90s, to what’s possible with the form, joy and pain in the unvarnished truth, through the eyes of a child.

I began to devour memoirs back then (Nabokov, McCourt, Welty, Woolf and Wolfe), developing a quiet aspiration to tell my own story someday.

The other night, at Busboy & Poets, amidst a packed house, I devoured the author’s nuggets of wisdom on the craft, a few of them harder than others to swallow, washing them down with sips of mojito.

Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
First and foremost, she told us, find your voice as a memoirist, the most interesting version of yourself. And yes, she clarified, it’s made-up.

I haven’t found that voice for Mexico yet, though I have heard it in fragments here and there.
Write (even the people you hate) with as much love as you can, said Karr.

For me that means the corrupt mayor, Don Bruno, the paternalistic Peace Corps bosses, the machismo engineers, the gossipy, dismissive Consejo. The whole cast of characters with love?

She also said: From the second you choose one event over another you’re shaping the past’s meaning. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility.

She went on to say that sometimes you have to write a ton to get past the pages that don’t belong, like I did the first 100 pages of my Mexico book. But that’s nothing. Karr told us she had to lop-off 1200 pages of her memoir, Lit, before it set right. The DELete key is my most important tool.
During the Q&A, I forced myself to raise my hand. I stood-up and posed a question into the microphone. I had a million, but the one that won out was about my challenges writing and completing the story of my Peace Corps Service. ‘I got back in 2013,’ I told her. ‘Do I need more distance from the events?’ Here was my chance for some answers. (I mentioned, incidentally, that I had my Kickstarter backers – like an agent collective – waiting for the finished product.)

‘Oh, that’s tough,’ she acknowledged, and graciously thanked me for my service. Then she answered my question with a question:

‘Is there some way in which you were meant to change through the experience and didn’t OR some way you changed and aren’t ready to claim? Explore that.’

‘Yeah, do I have to?’ I grumbled under my breath, feeling my face turn red hot, and sat back down like a kid who’d gotten the answer (or in this case the question) wrong.

Okay, I admit, there’s stickiness there, like dried soda pop on the kitchen floor, and I keep stepping in it. I’m the President of SeeChange, for godsakes. I should have known better, done better, if not in changing Mexico, at least in changing my self.

What pops to mind is an infamous line of my mother’s, worn in to grooves of my record so it keeps repeating: ‘I have great things in mind for my daughter and I don’t want you fucking them up.’ Back then the you was a man. Now it’s universal, anyone (including me) that might get in my way.

Then I think of my wise and concerned friend, J, who tried coaching me through a rough patch in my service when the local board of sustainability to which I was assigned turned on me and the Peace Corps threatened to throw me out. ‘Has it occurred to you,’ J posed over Skype at about my six-month mark in Mexico, ‘that this experience could be doing you more harm than good?’

No, no, no, he didn’t get it. My friend was in development, yes, but a policy wonk, a diplomat, jet-setting around the world to negotiate treaties and wine and dine with the powers that be. On the ground work was a different ball game. He just didn’t get it.

But in the end, had he been right? I had (hidden) aspirations to change the world, at least a small corner of it. I had stuck it out, two years and three months. But what had I accomplished? Returning home to DC, I was back in the same old place, maybe I’d even gone a few giant steps backwards.

I don’t want to tell that tale, a story of disillusionment. But it’s there. Ways I hoped to change and didn’t. Ways I changed and don’t want to see. Can I face them? Can I handle the truth with tenderness? Can I see beyond the parternalismo and machismo and corruption, and my own getting in the way, to recognize that I did do some good, maybe even some ‘great things’?

F. Scott Fitzgerald says the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing truths simultaneously. When I’m there, I’ll be ready to write. Or perhaps I write to get there.

Mary Karr's new book is called The Art of Memoir and can be found on Amazon or her website http://www.marykarr.com/books.php.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Writing Through the Doldrums

‘Mom and N, is that you?’ My voice awakens me from a dream, the image of them plain as day.

The elevator door has opened – a man gets on and his back is too me – but I could see Mom with the baby in her arms. She looked so happy. They both glanced over at me smiling, then the door shut and the elevator arrow dinged for down. They were going out to play in the park.

‘But I missed them and miss them,’ I think, coming out of my sleepy stupor, rubbing tears from my eyes.

I saw a close-up of my nephew on Facebook the other day, his first day of kindergarten. ‘Where has the time gone,’ my sister-in-law wrote, and I could hear her dry, Texas lament in the post on the screen. N wore a striped polo buttoned up to the top. He had a big boy haircut, a little punk, no more blond bowl, shaven close on the side and a shelf of mousy brown bangs combed long to the side. A sly cat ate the mouse grin hid a hint of trepidation. His faced had slimmed and his eyes had become decidedly his mother’s since I last saw him, Scandinavian wide-set and slightly slanty. Exotic-looking.

It’s been two years, a third of that kid’s life, since I’d last seen him, at my mother’s funeral, when the weight of the sibling shame and blame and rivalry was too much for the worn connections to bear. My mother was the hub in a hub-spoke relationship and once she was gone we were nothing but a warped and useless wheel.

So on that hot August day in Peoria two summers ago I lost all of them. The elevator door closed and went down without me.

In the Doldrums today, I’m breaking ‘Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate or speculate while in the Doldrums.’ It would carry a heavy sentence, off to the dungeon for Milo, of Phantom Tollbooth fame, if he didn’t stop at once.

But I bend around the rule and write.

I have a tummy ache that reminds me of being back in Mexico. A water main broke on the block and the last trickle drained out at dawn. Now every time I pull the handle in the kitchen I’m reminded how dependent I am.

I awoke way to early this morning for my own good and fell into writing about Mom’s cancer. ‘Change it up, let the Muse lead you by the hand,’ though sometimes she takes me down some pretty dark paths.
This ain’t no Dictionopolis. (That’s Milo’s first stop on his journey out of the Doldrums where he and his dog Tock learn to play with their words.)

When Martin, my handyman, arrives around noon carrying his massive tool box, ready to install my new ceiling fan, I am just arriving at my aunt’s house in Peoria. There I find my mother a shadow of herself, honestly like part of her had already left the body and was hovering above us.


I dropped my bags at the threshold and dropped to my knees before her, grasping around her legs to keep her on this earth. When I rested my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and said: ‘I’m glad you’re here, Annie.’

Is that the moment I started to call her Mama?

No, not yet.

The doctors had said three to six months which we collectively took to mean six months, still not much, but we wanted all we can get. Though the moment I’d entered the room and saw her sitting, back to me in the easy chair, her once broad shoulders narrowed and frail, a halo of lamplight illuminating silvery strands of hair, I knew it could only be weeks.

My aunt didn’t seem to notice a thing. Then again, she’d been along with Mom on the chemo ride from the beginning and maybe she couldn’t see the decline in the gradual day-to-day.

‘Doesn’t she look good?’ Aunt M called down the spiral staircase that led from the open kitchen and living space down to the guest suite of her converted coach house. ‘She took a shower and got all cleaned up for you.’

‘Yes, she does.’ I got up from the ground, having resisted letting tears fall onto the knees of Mom’s drawstring pants. ‘Hair looks nice, Mom.’

She smiled back weakly, unconvinced. ‘M blew it out for me, what’s left of it.’

I muted the damn TV, another ISIS ambush on a town called Mosul, and took in my surroundings. The slight scent of cigarette smoke in the air, a habit all the sisters but Mare had been able to kick. This aunt, a retired art deal, had an impeccable eye. Every inch of the place was perfectly appointed, a combination of antiques and moderns, books and tiny lamps and Persian throw rugs on the wood floors – tiny succulent plants and pots of herbs perched on the sills, classical music wafting down from the living room stereo – Bloody Mary’s being concocted on the circular marble bar above us with stalks of celery and generous wedges of lime on rim.

I loved coming to Peoria, even though it was a ‘podunk town’ according to Mom. It wasn’t our family home and it wasn’t Washington, but Peoria had become a hub over the years of visits, especially since Mom had invested in a little house around the corner from her sister in the historic Moss Avenue district.

‘Or you could have a Bloody Maria, you know, with tequila,’ my aunt’s voice called out over the Bach.
Aunt M, with her socialite gene, knew how to make even the dying days festive.

‘What about you, Ro? A Clamato on the rocks.’

Mom nodded, her eyelids resting shut, and I called up for her.

‘Annie,’ Mom whispered, gray-blue eyes fixed on me. ‘It’s the only thing my body seems to tolerate these days. Craves the lycopene for some strange reason.’

Mom was talking about her body as though it were already separate from her.


The workers are still working, the break is serious, the hole is deep, I’m out of the Doldrums.