The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

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Welcome! SheWrites Blogger Ball Redux

Ballroom in Viften, Rødovre, 12 January 2019

Hello SheWriters and non-SheWriters!

Welcome to my blog about creative nonfiction, the essay, biography, and lifewriting. Here you’ll find thoughts on these forms, contest announcements, calls for submissions and mini book reviews (under the heading “Life-blood”).

OK, so as part of the blog tour, some of you are posting 10 factoids about yourselves. It’s not generally my kind of thing, but I don’t want to be a party pooper, so here goes:

1. I’m very good with small creatures and plants. Stray cats and tomatoes thrive in my care.

2. I have no sense of direction, but do OK with maps.

3. I love listening to wedding speeches.

4. I spend the majority of my days alone in my study, yet I’m rarely lonely.

5. I love red wine.

6. …and tea. But not together.

7. I’ve become a horribly light sleeper, and need earplugs to feel rested most of the time.

8. I’m alarmed at how much my hands suddenly look like my mother’s.

9. I always dreamed of writing novels, but it turns out that I’m actually a writer of nonfiction. (Working on book #3).

10. I’m not that old, but already I have to do math to remember my age.

Stay a while, enjoy and explore. I’ll come visit you too!

Julija.

 

[Photo: Jan Jespersen]

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On Writing Workshops: What’s the Process? What’s the Point?

I’m a very solitary writer, and don’t generally give my work to anyone to read until I’ve sat with something for a very long time. In part, this is just the craft (we all write alone), but in part, it speaks to a fear (that I suspect we all have) of not living up, of not being as good as I hope I am, and of being rejected.

Nonetheless, some years ago, I decided to be brave and to begin to foster writerly communion in my life. This resolution led me to the world writers’ workshops.

It turned out to be a really interesting journey.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ workshop, you can read a good description of what they’re like at Suite101.com. But here’s what happens, in a nutshell.

1) Participants distribute work to be read by their peers prior to the workshop.

2) The workshop leader sets the ground rules. I went to one recently where only the critic was allowed to speak, while the writer whose work was being critiqued listened silently and took notes. Only requests for clarification were allowed on the writer’s part, and each critic had to wait his or her turn to speak.

3) The workshop leaders usually speaks last, and reflects on whether or not a consensus has been reached among readers, and perhaps offers insight into issues raised.

4) The writer may or may not respond to the critiques, though sometimes it’s best simply to thank your peers, take notes, and give yourself some time to reflect on what’s been said.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken part in workshops offered through writers’ associations, fellowship programs, observed them in an MFA context, and participated in writers’ retreats complete with meditation and dream interpretation.

I’ve observed that the success of a workshop depends both on the talents of its leader and on the quality (in terms of reading skills, ability to analyze narrative structure, and receptiveness to critique) of the participants.

The good news on workshops is that, for a writer, they can be a great way to figure out what’s not working in a text and to get ideas for possible solutions to problems (though often, it’s best to figure out how to fix things on your own).

The bad news about workshops is that they can be stressful for both writers and readers: readers feel pressure to say something intelligent and helpful, and sometimes are left feeling dumb; writers often become defensive and hurt by criticisms or their readers’ confusion. Getting over both these problems takes time, maturity, and humility.

In workshops you sometimes get contradictory advice. Sometimes you get bad advice. Sometimes your readers are mean. Sometimes the leader loses control, and participants are allowed to ramble, taking up valuable time, and boring everyone.

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there’s anger. These are the risks of workshopping, and sometimes you just have to ignore all that and listen to your instincts as a writer.

So, what is the point of this complex and emotionally charged exercise?

Workshops teach you, as a reader, to think about the mechanics of writing. Rather then responding to a text simply on an emotional level, the task of critiquing a work-in-progress forces you to analyze how narratives are put together and how storytelling works. In this way, reading the work of others can make you a better writer.

One of the workshop leaders I observed recently put it succinctly: workshops give writers what so many of us lack — readers. Specifically, readers who are not your friends, not your family, not your fans, but others who have though seriously about the craft, struggle with it as you do, and who (if they are good workshop citizens) should be able to offer you a fresh perspective. This is the reward of workshopping.

What are your views on and experiences with  writers’ workshops?

[Photo: Merlin1487]

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2011: A Few Thoughts at the Dawn of a New Year

It’s quiet in the house for the first time in days. No feet pounding up and down the stairs, no pleas for more tv, no guitar strains floating up from the basement, and no more hacking cough or sneezing from the nasty cold that visited us. The holiday’s over, and we’re back to work. Sean’s in the classroom today, Sebastian’s at daycare, and I’m back at my desk. Normally, I love a silent house, but today it feels a bit melancholy, so I’m taking a few minutes to readjust and reflect.

2010 was a good year for me as a writer. It was the year I finished and sold my second book — that manuscript that had been so difficult to complete. It was the year of my breaking into newspapers with personal essays, of my trip to Siberia, of winning my second Canada Council grant, and of the appearance of a hard-fought essay. I read some wonderful books over those twelve months, and found a clarity and momentum in my work that sometimes surprised me.

Finally, 2010 saw the birth of this blog. I began it timidly and almost apologetically, but soon found myself enjoying the platform and the discipline it required.

Personally speaking, 2010 was the year my son was three, a magical in-between-baby-and-personhood age, where children say and observe the most amazing things. In this regard, it was one of many beautiful linguistic and emotional gifts. Of course, it was also the year I lost my beloved maternal grandmother, so there’s a sadness overlying that time too.

But I made some very good friends in 2010: writers, poets, and wonderful women whose presence I’m very grateful for in my life. And it was the eleventh New Year that I celebrated with my husband, and for that too I am thankful and a bit humbled.

For 2011, I hope for continued clarity, continued productivity and maybe even a completed third manuscript. Certainly a good essay or two, maybe a few more friends.

As for my personal life: parents around here call the period of childhood we’re about to enter the “f**king fours.” Hold on to your hats. We’ll see how it goes.

Happy New Year.

I wish you health, happiness, productivity and twelve months of beautiful linguistic and emotional gifts.

[Photo: Brian Wilson]

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