Talking to Children II: Scaling Clouds

My son and I have been spending 24 hours a day together for the past couple months. It’s been wonderful, but also occasionally a strain, because we are creatures of habit who are not in the habit of spending so much time alone together. But here we are in a new place (Gozo, Malta), where we know very few people. So we’re stuck with one another.

And just when I could perhaps be forgiven for feeling a bit saturated by my beloved four-year-old’s constant presence, he reminded me of the beauty of language, and the fact that figures of speech don’t become dull and cliché until we are big. Much older than four.

A couple of days ago, Sebastian had a tummy ache and took one of those mega-naps in the afternoon that should have eaten into night time sleep, but didn’t.

“You were feeling a bit under the weather there, weren’t you?” I said the next morning when he got up.

“Yeah,” he answered, “but now I’m starting to climb up the weather.”

He said this without skipping a beat.

I laughed, because there he was, suddenly in my imagination, scaling the side of a dark cloud, hair plastered to his head from rain, and happy.

Kindergarten starts Monday. And with it, a return to old habits.

[Photo: kevin dooley]

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CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading “CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis”

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On Writing, Dreams, and Talking with Children

My son is now four. Often on the way to daycare, Sebastian tells me about his dreams. Or rather, he tells me stories that he invents as we drive, and calls them dreams perhaps because he isn’t sure how else to name what it is that he’s doing. They involve fantastical journeys down sewer pipes that, in his dream world, are called “dreanies.” He flies, floats, drives, grows giant and shrinks small.

Then one morning he says, “I’ve run out of dreams, Mummy. Today I need to play a lot, so I can make more dreams and get good ideas.”

So, even though he cannot yet read, it occurs to me that Sebastian too is a writer in his own way.

My favourite dream is something he calls “World of Game.” It’s so complicated he can’t explain or even understand it. “No one can,” he adds.

Yes, writing can be like dreaming. When we create texts or tell stories, we go deep into ourselves to examine the things we can’t explain or understand until we find or write our way through our own puzzles and riddles. Each in our own World of Game. Each trying to understand the incomprehensible, and to explain the inexplicable.

“I still have many bad dreams,” explains Sebastian in his quirky English that comes from being bilingual. “It’s just my living.”

Telling his dreams is a way for my son to make sense of his life.

I write to do the same.

[Photo: DeeJayTee23]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part I)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, won the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award, and was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared widely in Canada and the United States, and she is the recipient of several prizes and awards, including the Edna Award from The New Quarterly, the Brenda Ueland Prize for Literary Nonfiction, and the Prairie Fire Creative Nonfiction Contest. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she’s currently working on a novel and a second book of essays.

In these fifteen searingly honest personal essays, Susan Olding takes us on an unforgettable journey into the complex heart of being human. Each essay dissects an aspect of Olding’s life experience—from her vexed relationship with her father to her tricky dealings with her female peers; from her work as a counsellor and teacher to her persistent desire, despite struggles with infertility, to have children of her own. In a suite of essays forming the emotional climax of the book, Olding bravely recounts the adoption of her daughter, Maia, from an orphanage in China, and tells us the story of Maia’s difficult adaptation to the unfamiliar state of being loved.

Written with as much lyricism, detail, and artfulness as the best short stories, the essays in Pathologies provide all the pleasures of fiction combined with the enrichment derived from the careful presentation of fact.

Julija Šukys: Pathologies spans the greater part of your life. We read about your childhood and adolescence, a difficult relationship with your parents, and then the narrative settles into the subjects of mothering and writing. It feels like a life’s work. Is that so?

Susan Olding: It often felt like a life’s work. It took me about a decade to write it! But I hope I have a few more years—and more books—before I die.

I’m not a quick writer, and essays tend to demand steeping time. It’s enormously frustrating at times.

You take the title from your father’s profession. In the epigraph to the book you give two different meanings for the word: one has to do with the study and diagnosis of illness; the other (more surprising) is pathology as the study of passions and emotions. The word “pathology” contains within it the root “logos” (word). I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the links you see between a love for words, illness, and passion.

My love of words is an infectious passion? Well…I hope it’s infectious, at any rate!

Talk a little about the process of how the book came about.

The idea for the book came in a flash of intuition. I work at the Queen’s University Writing Centre. In one of the tutoring rooms there used to be an old copy of the OED. Waiting for a student to appear for her appointment one day, I opened the dictionary on a whim to the definitions you mention above. The metaphorical possibilities immediately struck me, and the idea for the book was born. I would put my own life and experiences under the microscope, as it were, to discover what might result from that experiment.

I had already written the first two essays. The rest came afterwards. But because it took so long to write, and because the essays are tied to life events, by the end I had included pieces that I literally could not have imagined at the project’s start. I also cast aside some of my initial ideas. So ultimately the process felt quite organic.

I later learned that this is how Montaigne’s work came together. It accreted. When he began his project, he knew only that he would use himself as subject, would question himself, would “roll about” in himself. But he didn’t know what shape his thoughts would take until he was finished writing.

By the end, he had invented a new form. I didn’t invent; I’m his lucky inheritor. But it often felt as if I were inventing, because initially, I didn’t have many contemporary models, especially in Canada. I had read and loved Virginia Woolf’s essays, and Orwell’s, and many other classics of the genre. But I hadn’t thought of them as essays, per se—I was just reading anything and everything by authors that I loved, which is what I tended to do back then.

I’d also read, and loved, the work of some contemporary American practitioners of the form—Richard Rodriguez, Adrienne Rich, Gretel Erlich, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker. And I’d loved Berger, and Benjamin, and Camus. But when I started to send out my own work, nobody in Canada seemed to be publishing literary essays. Not by unknown writers, at any rate. Since then, there’s been an explosion of creative nonfiction in the literary journals. But in the late 90s, the only place I could think to send my work in Canada was Event, during their annual nonfiction contest. I was lucky enough to be chosen a winner of one of those contests, for the first piece in the book, “Pathology,” and that gave me the encouragement I needed to continue.

There’s an anxiety that I felt traced through the book almost from the very beginning: namely, the right to write. It’s a question that I too struggle with. Indeed, perhaps anyone who writes about real people, especially loved ones, must grapple with a fear of exploitation or overstepping boundaries. At one point you ask if writing lives is “a gift or a lie,” and about the danger of “flattening” characters in nonfiction. I’m interested to know more about these ideas.

In some sense I had to write my way into permission to write. And that was a slow and painstaking process.

One barrier was the fear that writing itself was self-indulgent. Shouldn’t I be doing more important and socially useful things? And writing about myself, which for some peculiar reason I seemed to need to do, seemed even more self-indulgent.

The title of Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? lodged in my brain. Pathologies is my answer, I guess. Writing it has banished that voice, the one that told me I had no right to write at all.

For I discovered something in the process: it’s impossible to write well about anything, including and perhaps especially about the self, without humility. Anyone who aspires to art writes in the service of the work, not the self. So writing well is the best defence.

As for the second issue—the fear of flattening or misrepresenting or hurting or exploiting others—that arose very early in the project.  I remember when I finished the first piece, about my relationship with my dad, I showed it to two friends who happen to be sisters. One is a writer, and one a psychiatrist. The first friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you must publish it.”  The second friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you can’t publish it.”

What a perfect illustration of the different attitudes I’ve since encountered, both in others and within myself!

I don’t think it really matters what genre we choose. People have been just as hurt by fictional portrayals as by their appearance in narrative journalism as by their appearance in memoirs and personal essays and poems. So this question should occur to every writer.

And in the end, I don’t think there are any easy answers. We’re social beings. Our lives intersect with others. So if we write, inevitably we include others in what we write, unless we’re hermits, and even then we would probably include remembered or fantasized others.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to acknowledge the risks. To consider the power we hold, and what it might mean to our subjects to find themselves depicted as we have depicted them. To ask ourselves how we might feel, to find ourselves depicted that way—although that’s tricky, because I think as writers we’re generally sensitive to point of view and to shifting or layered narrative perspectives that might not be apparent to more naïve readers.

In the case of memoir, I think we also need to consider the truth. Naturally, there will be differences in how different people perceive and remember a situation, but if you claim that your mother regularly beat you when in fact she was meeker than a lamb and never raised so much as an apron string, that’s a breach of your reader’s trust as well as your mother’s. An extreme and easy example—but in the last few years, we’ve seen far wilder claims—and they give memoir a bad name.

But here’s the wrinkle: It’s entirely possible for someone to experience a meek mother as a monster. And that is humanly interesting. But the story isn’t about the monster mother, or even about that it is like to have a monster mother. The story is about how it is possible to experience a meek parent as a monster. It should be an exploration, not a melodrama.

The thing is…explorations are never simple. And people are sometimes threatened by complex stories. They want the simple version. The simple version is familiar.

Not only are we threatened by complicated stories, but we also struggle to express them. It’s much easier to tell (and sell) a beginning-middle-and-happily-ever-after narrative about How I Lived with My Monster Mother than it is to tell the story of your evolving feelings and your changing perceptions of your fairly ordinary mother, who turns out not to have been quite the monster that you initially thought.

But it’s literature’s responsibility and privilege and glory to tell these complicated stories and to explore messy truths—the kind that many of us run away from in our day-to-day lives. And ideally, in order to prevent simple narratives from driving out complex narratives, we need to find ways to incorporate our own self-doubts and confusions into the work. The essay is a perfect form for that.

One of the most instructive aspects of this book for me was the story of your daughter’s adoption. This was an international adoption, and you describe travelling to China to meet your child for the first time. But because this book spans such a large segment of your life, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, we follow you and Maia for several years as you struggle and work through the reverberations of what it means to have started life in the way that your daughter did (you describe the neglect and abandonment she was subjected to in the first ten months of life). Perhaps you could talk about the decision (if that’s what it was) to present Maia’s arrival into your life not simply as a happy ending, but, I suppose as a new chapter.

I like that phrase, “a new chapter.”

And you’re right, I did make a decision not to stop at the “happy ending” of adoption. This goes back to my answer to your earlier question. Having lived for a few years with our daughter, I felt the dominant narratives about adoption were overly simple. (Perhaps this applies to all parenting narratives, to some degree, especially narratives about the early years of parenthood.)

Anyway, I didn’t see our family or families like us represented in anything I read in the media or in the children’s books or even in the novels I had seen up until then. Typically, adoption is either sentimentalized as an answer to everyone’s prayers, or it is dismissed as an inferior way to form a family. I wanted to tell one story of what it is really like in all its messy wonder.

The anxiety of writing about others, and especially your daughter Maia, comes to the fore in the essay “Mama’s Voices.” This is such a strong piece of writing for so many reasons.

Thank you! And thanks also to Fiona Tinwei Lam, (http://fionalam.net/) who encouraged me to write this piece. She and her co-editors had already accepted a proposal for a completely different piece to be included in Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood, but when she heard the story about my experience at a writing conference, she urged me to switch tracks and write about that instead.

Click here to read Part II of the interview with Susan Olding.

[Photo: Susan Olding]


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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part II)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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This is Part II of a two-piece interview with author, Susan Olding. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: You describe leaving Maia for the first time– it’s not an easy thing to do, but necessary and desirable for your work. There, after having received positive feedback regarding an essay you’ve written about Maia, you decide to change course and run with the idea of writing a book about your relationship with her. When you workshop this idea, you find yourself harshly criticized by fellow writers and even a revered memoirist and mentor, who compares your project with her own unsavoury idea of writing a book about a pedophile. I recognized so many of my own anxieties and experiences in this piece. Please talk a little about your view and experience of writing and mothering. How did becoming a mother change your relationship to writing?

Susan Olding: In the short term, it made it a lot harder to get any work done!

But over time, it has been the greatest thing possible for my writing life. First, because our daughter brings enormous joy into our lives, and joy begets joy. Also, at times she’s been a muse. And she has taught me so much about myself and my limits, and also about creativity. She’s profluent and spontaneous in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such deep pleasure to share her in her quicksilver spirit. I’m so grateful to be her mother.

You point to how writing about one’s own life is sometimes seen as unseemly, solipsistic, narcissistic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. What, in your view, is the piece that sets successful autobiographical writing apart?

Successful autobiographical writing invites readers to draw comparisons to their own experience; it prompts and provides occasion for a kind of deep reflection that may be increasingly rare in our fragmented lives, and reminds us of where we stand in a historical or cultural context. Somehow, it affirms the possibility of making meaning. So it’s all about the author—and yet not about the author, at all! Strange paradox.

How does this work? Subtext, subtext, subtext. Language and structure create this subtext. Which is why Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” counsels that it is “no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless…you…know how to write.”

Adam Gopnick claims that the memoir and personal essay are actually the least self-indulgent of genres. You can’t get away with flourishes or padding if you are writing about yourself.

You have changed some of the names in the book and have retained others, like Maia’s. How do you decide when to do this? Do you allow the people you write about any veto power?

My decisions about retaining or changing names weren’t terribly systematic. I went with my gut.

I asked the people I’m closest to—my husband and my daughter. Of course I knew there was no way to get anything like “informed consent” from an eight year old, but Maia knew generally that I had written about our struggles, and her decision to go by her own name seemed consistent with her character. Right now she is pre-teen shy, and would probably balk, but in general she is a very open person and always has been.

I also asked several friends. Most chose to go under their own names but a few preferred to remain anonymous. I respected their wishes.

I changed students’ names and a few identifying features so they wouldn’t be recognizable and their privacy would be preserved. These people didn’t know I was writing about them; it didn’t seem fair to identify them by name; nor, for that matter, did it seem necessary.

As for my parents, I felt their privacy was already protected to some degree (among strangers) because I don’t share their surname. For extra protection, I changed their first names.

I gave veto power only once, to my brother, for  “On Separation,” the piece about my sister-in-law, and I also asked him if I should change her name. He generously allowed me to publish and encouraged me to retain her name because he felt she would have liked that.

Do you still worry about hurting those you write about?

Of course! Although “worry” probably isn’t the right word. I hope I won’t hurt those I write about. And I do my best to prevent that. But I have in fact hurt people that I’ve written about, and suspect I may do so again. And ultimately, I’m loyal to the work.

I want to touch on the issues of critique and courage. I found the description of your devastation and confusion in the face of you peers’ criticisms very moving. The workshop participants (fellow writers) told you that it would be unfair to write about your daughter, and that you risked ruining her life by doing so. After sometime, you came to the conclusion that, despite their objections, you had to or wanted to write about her anyway. I think that this essay tells some deep truths about the writing process: both about how vulnerable writers are, but also how fierce. Even when we are racked with self-doubt, every writer who manages to bring a big project like a book to fruition also needs to have a rock-hard belief in the value what she does. How has that moment of doubt, after you received such criticism for your plans to write about your daughter, shaped your subsequent work and way of thinking?

Such a good question.

The simple answer is that I have not written the book that I proposed to write at the conference. Because in a way—and this is the hardest thing to acknowledge—that teacher was right! It wasn’t the right time to write a book about Maia.

Not because I might ruin her life. Not because it would say something awful about me as a person if I chose to write it. But because I wasn’t ready. And on some level, I recognized this at the time, and my recognition made my peers’ objections and the teacher’s objections cut more deeply. For the fact is, if I had been ready, nothing they said would have stopped me.

I may never be ready. Strangely, perhaps, that possibility doesn’t bother me. The need to write that particular book has passed. I have sometimes mourned other “lost” books—the novel that I set aside 100 pages in, the book of poems that I didn’t manage to finish. But I don’t mourn the book about Maia.

Having said all that, although I may not have written a whole book, I did write about my daughter. And I published what I wrote. So in that sense, I ignored what my critics said. I also wrote about the conference itself. Did I say writing well was the best defence? It’s also the best revenge. [Insert evil chuckle.]

Seriously, though—I hope there’s enough irony in “Mama’s Voices” to suggest that while my hurt was real, and to some degree justified, I also see humour in the situation. The essay includes a parallel narrative about Lana Turner, queen of the melodrama. I had my own little melodrama going on in that workshop!

But “fierce” is such a great word; we really do have to be fierce. People will tell us that what we’re doing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or that we’re not good at it, or that it isn’t worth doing. And usually, we’re advised to ignore these critical voices. But I don’t believe we can ignore them. Or at least I can’t ignore them, so I’ve made necessity a virtue.

I say we need to learn to listen, for blanket criticisms can disguise meaningful objections, and we need to cultivate enough humility to recognize when that’s the case. At the same time, we need to hang on to some sense of the worth of what we’re doing. And we need to trust our own inner vision, and constantly measure our work against our felt sense of the beautiful and the true.

“My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,” said Keats— “and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”

But it’s an incredibly delicate balance—to remain open to critique while at the same time holding fast to the essential value of what we are doing. The test I sometimes use: Would I want to read this? If not, then I shouldn’t foist it on others. If yes, then I need to keep working on it until I get it right.

Last question: your form is the essay. Conventional wisdom in the writing/publishing community says that essays don’t sell and that the form is unsexy. Tell me about how you came to be an essayist, and what you think the form has to offer.

Conventional wisdom is right; essays don’t sell! At least they don’t sell when the author is an unknown writer. I was thrilled when Melanie Little at Freehand took a chance on this collection.

But why don’t essays sell? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s even a lie. Because they do sell, in anthologies. Look at how well the Dropped Threads series (and others) have done. Most of the pieces in those anthologies are essays of one kind or another, although typically they are less deeply exploratory than the best writing in the genre. Still, readers love them.  And readers also continue to respond to classic essays by Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and many more. So the form is very much alive, even if writers can’t make a living from it.

Is the essay my form? Actually, I write fiction and poetry, too. It’s just that, in general, I’ve been less satisfied with my work in those genres and haven’t published as much of it (see above). But you’re onto something, because I think I’m an essayist by temperament and inclination. A born questioner and self-questioner.

It’s arguable, but the essay may be our most intimate form. Reading one is a bit like reading a letter from a friend, and in fact, some people believe that Montaigne began writing his essays because he could no longer converse with a dear friend who had succumbed to the plague. Essays can be playful or deeply serious (or both at once); they can be concise or expansive; they can be lyrical or logical. Always, they invite the reader to share in an exploration of some kind. You never know where you’ll end up when you set out, or what you’ll see, but you do know that the author will show and tell, and you will think and feel, that no part of you will be left behind or set aside.

I love the form. I loved it long before I knew its name. That may not sound sexy to publishers, but it sure sounds sexy to me!

Visit Susan Olding’s site here.

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Louise DeSalvo’s List: Criteria of a Completed Memoir

One of my first Life-blood posts was a short review of Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “A Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” I came across that piece in my search for some frank and honest discussion by women about mothering and writing. My son was still very little (around two), and I was struggling to balance my writing life with the demands of raising a toddler.  I wanted to know what older, wiser mother-writers had to say about the matter. DeSalvo’s essay is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject.

Since, then, I’ve learned more and more about Louise DeSalvo. In her long career, she’s transformed herself from a Virginia Woolf scholar to renowned memoirist. Her books include Vertigo, Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, and Writing as a Way of Healing. She has long taught writing (specifically the craft of memoir) at Hunter College in New York.

This is all to say that DeSalvo keeps one of the best blogs I’ve seen on writing as craft, process, and a way of life. Her most recent post, dated May 3, 2011, examines the mechanics of memoir. In it, she recounts a conversation with a person she “does her best to avoid” who scoffs at the idea that memoir too has a form that successful writers must take account of. In response to this individual’s challenge (and scorn), she comes up with a list of twenty criteria of a completed (successful) memoir. Here’s a taste, taken from her list of 20:

1.  A good memoir tells a good story; it deals with the issue of cause and effect in life either overtly or covertly; when things make no sense, that is grappled with as well.

2.  A good memoir “puts you there”; it is vivid, and specific.  It is cinematic, in some sense – the reader can “see” what’s happening.

3.  A good memoir shows an awareness of time – the time during which the experience takes place; the effect of the passage of time; how time helps us see things in new ways.  There is emphasis on both personal history, and on the historical context in which these events take place.  The memoir keeps the reader abreast of when the events are occurring.

Visit Louise DeSalvo’s blog for seventeen more. You won’t regret it.

[Photo: miss niki chan]

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On Fragmentation, Springtime Energy, and Future Plans

I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that.

I got stuck in that place that we all know well: the fragmented, too-many-things-on-my-plate place.

First of all, it’s tax season here in Canada, which for a numerically challenged humanist like me, means it’s the season of hell. So far, it’s robbed me of almost three full days of writing. Second, I’m halfway through editing an issue of an academic journal, and though it’s good, honest work that I do every three months or so, it’s hard to write in a sustained fashion on editing days. Finally, there are the tasks of everyday life that keep us busy and make us tired.

But the garden is coming back to life after a winter that, for me, seemed tougher than most. The last of the snow melted only yesterday, yet brave tendrils have been fighting their way up through the soil. My son and I have been cheering on the tulips and daffodils as they get bigger by the day. He calls them “baby flowers,” exclaiming “I LOVE IT!” each time I point out a new one. “This is our garden, right, Mummy? We take care it.” Few things make me happier than witnessing my son’s love and respect for living things.

Texts are growing too: I finally got an essay off my desk and to the collection’s editor who likes it. Hurray! I’m now moving onto dreaming up a new one. And as soon as my taxes are off my desk, I’ll get back to the Siberia book properly.

I’ve been hearing from readers and colleagues who would like to take part in my new Creative Nonfiction Conversations. I’m working on some plans for chats about essays, books, and maybe even about a documentary film. Keep an eye out for upcoming interviews, and send ideas my way if you want to have a chat too. As soon as I dig myself out and return to the my usual rhythms, the conversations will begin.

I wish you strength if you, like me, are doing taxes. May spring replenish your energies, and may you return to writing, if (like me) your life has pulled you to pieces.

[Photo: Kuzeytac]

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Life-blood: Desirae Matherly

Desirae Matherly, “The Denser of the Two.” Southern Humanities Review 43:2 (Spring 2009), 129-39.

It could be that this sickness of mine is a type of shout from my body. My body groans with the stretching ligaments, the pressure of building gas against my abdomen, the swelling of my uterus. My vessel creaks. We swell together and I am unsure which is the denser of the two — the container or its contents. (136)

An essayist friend sent me “The Denser of the Two,” because he thought I’d like it, and because he found echoes of my work in it. After reading it, I can see why.

The piece examines all my recent obsessions: morning sickness, the process of growing a body inside you, the strange sensation in pregnancy of being both one and two simultaneously, the weirdly solitary and communal experience of labour, and the ways in which birth and death are  separated only by a shadow.

Desirae Matherly’s essay is brave and sophisticated. Impressionistic, poetic and enigmatic, the text resists the temptation to spell out its connections between ships and bodies, morning sickness and the totality of human suffering, and survivors of an Antarctic expedition and a growing fetus. Instead, it raises questions quietly and almost slyly by juxtaposing images and fragments of Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre and classic Buddhist texts.

The author asks: Where does one soul end, and another begin? At what point does a baby stop being part of its mother? What should we make of human suffering? What is a body’s worth?

There’s nothing like morning sickness to make you appreciate how fantastic simply feeling normal feels. And there’s nothing like pregnancy to remind you that, like it or not, you are a physical being.  And this, at least in part, is what Matherly’s essay is about: coming to terms with an ever-changing, destined-to-die body that nevertheless wants to go on and on and on. “If discussion of death alarms those who enjoy their lives,” she writes, “then we have become too convinced of our temporary vitality” (138).

The most poignant moment of the essay, for me, is when Matherly admits: “When I studied philosophy long ago, my body began to repulse me. Before that time, in high school, my body felt like an enemy. I always resented being born female, even back into my early childhood” (134).

Matherly, it seems, learns to accept the body that is hers, in its change and instability and even decline. She learns to want to live, despite everything, including incomprehensible suffering, for as long as possible: “[My son’s] unfolding and unmapped future signals to me that my own journey is not over, but that I have only now become accustomed to the motion of life, its series which surrounds me, as vast and changeable as the sea.”

“The Denser of the Two” is not for the lazy student. It requires its readers to work, but it’s a rare pleasure to read something so daring and original on a theme too often diminished by cliché.

You can find this essay in any good academic library, or follow the link below to get to the homepage of the the Southern Humanities Review.

[Photo: Ferrocarril Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – Lack Of Manhood (overlay); Originally uploaded by 3WME]

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Writing in a Time of Pestilence and Pain: A Few Thoughts in Anticipation of American Thanksgiving

La varicelle, as it’s called around these parts, or chicken pox to us English speakers. Our doctor confirmed it this morning. Despite my son’s vaccine against it, the virus has taken hold, though perhaps not as firmly as it might have otherwise.

As I write, my red-spotted boy colours beside me with his new markers, picked up at the pharmacy with his prescription. There’s nothing like sickness to make you appreciate your good health and the time you have to work under more normal circumstances. The coughing and sneezing of the past few weeks have been a good reminder to me that, when the body fails, a life of the mind is hard to sustain.

If I want my mind to function, I have to honour my body.

I’ve always had a bad back, and if I write for too long without taking the time to go to my yoga classes, it isn’t long before the pain takes over and saps all my attention. I learned this the hard way some ten years ago, when I sat at my desk from dawn till dusk, seven days a week, five weeks in a row, to finish my dissertation. By the end of it, I could barely walk. Poor me.

But recently, I’ve been trying to think about my back pain differently. I’ve started thinking of it as a gift.

I inherited my bad back from my father, who in turn got it from his mother. And when I speak to my cousins and aunts, we are all surprised hear that we have the same issue. Back pain binds us together in the present, but it also gives us a link to the past – to the grandmother who connects us all, and who inevitably had a whole different relationship to pain.

The fact is that my back pain is but a shadow of what my grandmother went through. Whereas I have the luxury of taking a break and heading to yoga class when I feel my muscles acting up, my grandmother had no such choice. Whereas I have the time to think about this pain, to manage it, and to turn it into a text if I can find the right words, my grandmother had to grit her teeth and keep going.

There were calves to feed, cows to milk, logs to chop, and there was no rest for her aching back. On the farm where she worked (for nothing), in a place she had been exiled to against her will, back pain would have meant something very different to her: pure suffering and an external manifestation of what must have been happening inside her.

This coming weekend (as long as the pox allow – our doctor is hopeful), my son and I will travel to meet with my cousins, their children, and my aunt. Darius, who travelled with me to Siberia to find my grandmother’s village, will come up from San Francisco to meet us on his holiday weekend, and has planned a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner for the occasion.

As I raise my glass to toast the harvest and the gathering of my grandmother’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the purpose of hearing stories about and looking at pictures of the place she was exiled, I will remember my minor annoyances. And I will be thankful for the pox and the pain.

Because my trials are so small, I know I am blessed. In this troublesome back of mine, I will always carry of piece of my grandmother.

[Photo: Sara Björk]

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Postcard from Siberia

Pictured above is one of my most cherished possessions. It’s a 1947 postcard sent from my grandmother in Siberia, addressed to her husband and children. It was sent to a town in Massachusetts where we had relatives, though at the time my grandfather and his kids (my father among them) were living in the UK. My grandmother wrote their church’s address from memory, I think, and sent it off as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to reach her loved ones.

Amazingly, it made its way out of Stalinist Russia and into the hands of distant cousins in the US. From there, the card found its addressees: my father, my two aunts and grandfather. It was the only moment of communication my grandmother had with her children between 1941 and 1955, when regular correspondence between Siberia and the West became possible.

The back of the postcard reads:

1947.II.16

My Dear Children Birutėlė, Janutė, Algutis and Antanukas [the latter, her husband, is addressed as one of her children, because she had told Soviet authorities her husband was dead],

It made me indescribably happy to learn that you were alive and well. I’m healthy, I work on a farm. In my thoughts and in my heart I am always with you.

The priest, my uncle, is still alive and lives in Liepalingis [Lithuania], as before.

Write to me, all. I await your letters.

Your mother,
Ona Šukienė.

After weeks of working my way through my travel notes from Siberia, I’m now back to my archives: reading my grandmother’s letters, and travelling in my mind across languages, time, space.

My grandmother wrote letters to her children from Siberia from 1955 to 1958, then from Soviet Lithuania from 1958 to 1965, when she joined her family in Canada. The above card marks the first step in their long process of return to one another. For me, now, it marks the beginning of my next stage of writing.

While working through my Siberian travel notebook over the past few weeks, I wrote a great deal in a very short span of time. It was going so well that I didn’t dare stop, question, or even re-read too much. In fact, I was working so fast that I  became uneasy, and started bracing myself for the other shoe to drop.

Well, crisis averted. With the complex tasks of weaving past with present and of melding my life with that of another back in my sights again, the familiar feeling of wading through mud has returned. Writing hurts again and the book resists.

All is well with the world in this regard.

Onward. (Squish.)

[Photo: J. Šukys, Ona Šukienė’s Siberian postcard from 1947, private collection]

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