June 30, 2011

What I Didn't Write (For Weeks and Weeks)

Like the book title says: I could tell you stories, man.  I could fill your head with my busy busy tales of  end-of-school class parties and field days, and planning a summer vacation and then going on said vacation.  How four weeks (already!) into summer break, we are lazy-lazy most mornings, the daughter and I both waking and reaching for our eyeglasses and books on respective night-stands, long legs in shortie pj's tangled in the sheets.  And also: swimming at the neighborhood pool, blueberry picking, a lemonade stand. Etc., etc. 

Excuses, excuses, all.  I have so many for not writing.  Remember a few months back, I very ambitiously announced a weekly post featuring a snippet of what I'd written that week? Yeah, that. 

Well, here is the truth of why I stopped writing. It has nothing, nothing to do with my busy busy days.  It has everything to do with a thought. One thought.  Or two.

First thought:  I pictured a family member reading my memoir.  No matter that my nascent memoir is literally years from ever reaching publication stage.  The family member wasn't my mom or sister (although that thought is scary, too).  No, it was the image of another family member reading my someday-memoir, their lips pressed tight into a thin white line of anger and disapproval, that scared me silent.

Second thought: the second thought was more of an issue than a lone thought -- but the issue is that I wrote far enough into one section, that I ran smack up against one of the "Big Events" that affected my childhood.  Big event, big repercussions for my and my family's life...and reader, I was sore afraid. 

So, in a word: Fear.  I became afraid to write any more, any further, any deeper into the story of my childhood and my family. Fear of family reaction, and my own fear of writing it all down, even for myself.   I'm working through it: I have my trusty The Artist's Way on hand, and I'm trying to stay grounded in the present, and not fill my head with (too many) dark imaginings.

I Could Tell You Stories, by Patricia Hampl, has been illuminating in ways both helpful and cautionary.   I think that Hampl is just terrific, one of the best memoirists around. A couple years back, I wrote about her book, The Florist's Daughter, here I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of essays about the memoir form, and I immediately connected with how she describes the compulsion toward memoir for the writer, as opposed to fiction:
"Memorists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to "tell a story."  They want to tell it all -- the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself.  That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence.  Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story."
Yes! Precisely! This was the illuminating part, putting words to why I feel the compulsion toward memoir right now: to tell it all, not just the story, the "this is what happened" part.  But then, in the last essay, "Other People's Secrets," Hampl writes of the people she has lost from her life over the years, because of her career devoted to "telling it all."  So here is the cautionary word about memoir: people will get angry. People will be hurt, surprised, betrayed even.  And usually, it is the people you least expect.  In a sort of plea to the jury, to those who have left her, Hampl writes:
"I never understood the fury my desire to commemorate brought down upon me. The sense of betrayal --- when I thought I was just saying what I saw, drawn into utterance, I truly believed, by the buoyancy of loving life, all its strange particles.  I didn't have a dark story of abuse to purvey or even a horde of delicious gossip.  I was just taking pictures, I thought.  But then, doesn't the "primitive" instinct know that the camera steals the soul?
And a few paragraphs later:
"I've lost quite a few people along the way.  And not to death.  I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of private conversation, this one, that one. Gone, gone.  Their fading faces haven't faded at all, just receded, turned abruptly away from me, as is their right."
 Oh, crap. So yes: fear. For me, who shuns conflict and dreads confrontations, I have reached a rather thorny bridge. I'm determined to cross it, but perhaps I won't be displaying the process as publicly as I'd planned. No more "What I Wrote," with accompanying photos.  The kids have five more weeks left of their "summer break" (how I hate that they return to school on August 10th, right when the heat really starts to bear down the worst here) and I admit, I won't be working on any "real" memoir writing during these lazy weeks.  But by the end of August, I intend to get back on that horse and cross that thorny bridge and extend my awful metaphors for all they're worth.

June 19, 2011

Father's Day with Willie

A Father's Day tribute to the two biggest male influences in my life: my daddy, and my Grandpa.  They were not very much alike at all, and their relationship was uneasy at best, especially in my early childhood: one was a hard-working family man, father of five children, and reliable as a gold watch. The other, my daddy, did not take as naturally to the role of husband and father, mostly due to his own inner struggles and issues. He loved me and my younger sister dearly though, and he did the best he could for both of us. Which is all one can really ask.

But one thing both of these men had very much in common was a love for travel and hitting the highway for the next road trip.  Both of them had campers on the back of their pick-up trucks. (I think one had a Chevy and the other a Ford, but I'm not 100% sure of that.)   Some of the best days and memories of my childhood were spent in the back of their respective campers, on the road to the Kern River, or Sequoia, or even, once, Vancouver, Canada.  (My dad took the family to see the World Expo up there in '86. I was 17 and didn't want to leave my friends, and spent a good chunk of time up in the above-cab sleeping area, pouting and listening to The Smiths on my headphones.)  (Which was a pretty good soundtrack for the cloudy and chilly Northwest summer coastal landscapes.)

Both my grandpa and my dad died four years ago, within four months of each other.  Neither of them got to travel much in their last years, but in those  years they did get along better.  My dad shared a lot of his old books on the Old West and Native Americans with grandpa, and they had some times reminiscing about old travels and forgotten back roads. 

I heard this song on the radio the other day, and it made me think of both of them: how they loved this song, and how they were both happiest on the road. One did a lot of careful preparation ahead of time, and the other was a lot more spontaneous. But they each enjoyed some good, good times.

On the road again/Goin' places that I've never been/Seein' things that I may never see again/And I can't wait to get on the road again....

June 6, 2011

The Books of Diana Abu-Jaber

A few months back, an acquaintance asked me what I get out of reading fiction.  First, let me say that the breadth of the question kind of left me flabbergasted -- I mean, really?  She asked in such a way that implied that IF I gave her the right answer, she just might want to start reading some fiction, herself. The pressure was on for little-'ol-me to justify the existence of libraries crammed full of made-up shit. 

Well.  I guess she asked me because I do declare myself a bookworm, and thus am supposed to know things about books and reading and  such. And I do.  Lots and lots of things. Really!  However, I am famously inarticulate about talking about these things.  When someone asks me what I like to read, I draw a blank: white noise and static fill my head, and I say, "um...literary fiction?" And then draw another blank on naming just one such "literary" book or author.  Jeeps.

The answer to why I read and love fiction is as basic as any of those cute posters pinned up in the children's sections of libraries.  It's the whole "discover new worlds" thing, of course. Travelling without leaving your couch, etc. etc.  And (most of all, probably) being reassured, over and over again, that I am not alone in my weirdness.  (It occurs to me that you can do these things by reading quality non-fiction, too.  So I guess a better reply still needs to be dredged up regarding "why fiction?"  A quick answer is the intimacy to characters.)

Recently I read the first three books by Diana Abu-Jaber, and what I "got out of them" was pretty much what I listed above: the chance to visit other places, peek inside other homes, and be assured yet again that humans are weird, in so many fantastically unique and specific ways.

I read her first novel Arabian Jazz.  
A sort of coming-of-age story, about two grown women still living at home with their widowed father. The father and his extended family are from Jordan, and the family has all kinds of plans for marrying off these sisters to eligible strangers from the home country.  It's a little too long, a little messy in the plotting, but I liked it -- maybe for those very reasons.  I also liked the clandestine affair between the protagonist and the greasy loner who works at the gas station -- a romance with descriptions ripped right out of about five Bruce Springsteen songs.

Reading about the family dynamics and the specifically Arab culture that Abu-Jaber describes in her first book made me want to know more about her, so I was glad to find her memoir, The Language of Baklava.  It details her mixed race childhood growing up in upstate New York and the pressures put on the family by her very emotional, traditional father.  For about a year, the family moves to Jordan, and it was fascinating to experience the shift from American suburbia to an apartment in a dusty Jordanian village, surrounded by a close-knit Arab family.  And the food! Lots and lots of descriptions of food (there's lots of food and eating in Arabian Jazz, also).  I've never been that interested in Middle Eastern cuisine (except baklava, which I thought was solely Greek), but reading these books made me very interested in trying lamb kabobs and stuffed grape leaves.  The descriptions of a Bedouin feast under a tent in the desert, and a hot summer night's drive to the coast of the Dead Sea were wonderful and vivid.

Finally, I read her second novel, Crescent. (Finally, because even though it's a few years old, the book was always checked out of my local library.)  Crescent is again the story of an Arab-American young woman, working as a chef in a restaurant on the westside of Los Angeles.  Like her first novel, Crescent is a little messy, a little too long, but again, I didn't mind.  This plot is a love story, but there's also some world & gender politics thrown into the mix. And again with the food!  People are always eating in all three of these books, and they're the type of people who always have interesting, good food on hand.  Unlike me, who reads the meal descriptions and gets hungry and rummages around in the kitchen, only to come up with Triscuits and low-fat string cheese.

With summer upon us, hopefully you have some fun vacation plans. Road trip? Amusement parks?  The beach?  But if you don't have the means or desire to go anywhere soon, I advise one of Diana Abu-Jaber's books.  For me, they were a great trip away from my white-bread suburban scene, and a little taste of the exotic. (Although I imagine the author probably cringes at that word.) And after reading them, I remembered my acquaintance and her  "why fiction?" question, and thought to myself: yeah, THAT.  Like, duh.

'Cause I have a graduate English degree and am all articulate and stuff.

Oh, by the way, I've also read Abu-Jaber's most recent novel, Origin, which is probably her least autobiographical work, and could also count as "staycation" reading --  because freezing winters in Buffalo are pretty damn exotic to this California girl.  I briefly mention Origin in this old post.
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