Go Deep or Go Home

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One writes out of only one thing – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. ~ James Baldwin

Because I read a lot of memoirs, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. In the hands of a skillful writer like Baldwin, the personal experience the author conveys has to be squeezed dry for every ounce of meaning, otherwise it’s nothing but litany of events, good or bad. The memoirist or personal essayist simply must mine those experiences for the way they’ve impacted his life and his being, otherwise they are meaningless to the reader.

Does it matter if your father favored you over all your siblings, bought you everything you wanted while the others went without, praised your every accomplishment while criticizing them mercilessly? It only matters if that experience changed you or molded you into the person you are today. And how about your siblings? To what extent did your father’s favoritism change them or your relationship to them?

Describing all the ways your father treated you better than the rest of the children in the family doesn’t matter if you can’t give the reader a reason to care. And they will only care if they can relate your experience – and what you’ve learned from it – to their own life. To do that, you have  reflect  honestly and thoughtfully on these experiences. You have to go deep into your emotional memory, not just your incidental memory.

Memoir writing has gotten something of  a bad rap recently. Most likely that’s because memoirs often focus on negative circumstances in the writers life. Abuse, addiction, lost love, physical or mental impairments  - these undoubtedly have a profound effect on a human life, and thus become the subject of many books. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that “The current memoir craze has fostered the belief that confession is therapeutic, that therapy is redemptive and that redemption equals art, and it has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.”

I’m a fan of memoir, and I believe in it’s power, but I agree with Kakutani on this point: It’s worthless to expose your life experiences on the page without first examining them in your heart to determine how they might be meaningful to others. Of course that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Examining all those experiences in the light of day, doing the soul searching it takes to make sense of them?

But nobody said this writing thing would be easy.

Go deep.

Or go home.

Free Writing

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Most of the time we take this writing gig for granted.

We can pick up a pencil, sit down at our computers, and write whatever our little hearts desire.

Maybe it’s poetry that inspires thoughtful reflection. Or fiction that takes readers deep into a story and away from their own worries and cares for a while. Perhaps it’s prose that incites action or changes thinking.

Words are powerful tools, and yet we give them away so freely, especially now when we can toss words onto the internet and send them speeding around the world in a manner of seconds.

Of course it hasn’t always been that way, not even here in America where we celebrate free speech and a free press, both hard won by the men who framed our most famous piece of writing, The Declaration of Independence.  Imagine the hours of thought and feather pen scratching that went into that document before it was presented to the world.

Now, 236 years later, we enjoy the fruit of their labor – the ability to write and read freely, without fear of  legal recrimination. What a mighty opportunity that is, to share the written word with others.

Celebrate your freedom to write this Wednesday.

Use  your words thoughtfully, carefully, and then proudly set them free.

 

Write On Wednesday:

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The personal essayist takes a topic – virtually any topic under the big yellow sun – and holds it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective, fault, and reflection, in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant. The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all of the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write. Dinty Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I’m a huge fan of the personal essay.

Love to read them. Love to write them.

Like a good short story, they examine ideas and experiences in a unique way, condensing them into one scrumptious bite like a finely detailed miniature portrait.

Though I’m no artist, it seems to me that the painter and the  personal essayist have much in common. As Moore says, they take an topic (or an object) and “hold it up to the bright light, turning it this way and that, upside and down, studying every perspective…in an artful attempt to perceive something fresh and significant.”

My favorite personal essays – those that take slices of ordinary life and experience and reflect them back through the writers particular lens – offer that fresh perspective on universal situations which make them significant. Anna Quindlan, Joyce Maynard, Anne Lamott…some of writer’s I’ve counted on over the years to do that for me.

And of course, Nora Ephron (who died last night) with her wry wit and slightly edgy humor, could make me laugh out loud about things as mundane as reading glasses and double chins.

But in today’s information soaked world, does it matter what one solitary essayist has to say about life in general?

I think it does.

A well crafted personal essay opens a window into the mind of another human being, encouraging a deeper personal connection than a 140-character Tweet or three sentence Facebook status. Those are the kinds of connections that make us more empathetic people and draw us closer together in our human experience.

That always matters.

Rediscovering the Writer Inside, A Guest Post

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A few weeks ago, I asked my friend Rachel if she would write a guest post for my blog this summer. Rachel is one of a select few writer friends I know in the “real” world as well as in the online world, and I really treasure her for that connection we have with words. Like a lot of us writer-mama’s, Rachel’s love of the written word has taken a back seat to school and family and working and all the stuff that goes into ordinary life.

But in 2010 something happened in Rachel’s life that helped her not only  re-discover the writer inside, but embrace it. Here, I’ll let her tell you in her own beautiful words…

I wrote my first book when I was 5. It was called “R is for Rachel.” I became a writer in that moment, but I ran from my writerhood my whole life, without even realizing it.

I never considered being a writer as a child even though I was always writing journals, plays, and short stories. I first wanted to be a programmer, because my dad was. In junior high, I briefly considered becoming a journalist, but I was bitten by the performing bug.

I have always been a singer, but when I was accepted to a performing arts program in high school, I was convinced that Broadway was my destiny. I still kept journals and would often write short stories in them. In college, as a freshman theater major, I documented meeting my first boyfriend in a short story. I even illustrated it!

Theater wasn’t for me. I transferred and changed my major to psychology. There, my writing ability was finally recognized; my philosophy professor asked me to be his writing fellow. I immersed myself in the required Comp class—we met and shared our writing as we sat and drank coffee and tea. I felt so creative, so intellectual. My professor wrote on one of my papers: “I could get this published for you.”

That should have been the moment, right? The moment I figured it all out.

But it wasn’t.

A year later, my Social Psych professor raved about my term paper—not just the content, the writing. Finally, the light bulb went off, and I changed my major to English. I should be a writer. I mostly wrote for classes, which was a LOT. I wrote a little on my own, and had a poem published in the literary journal.

Since graduating, I’ve been an editor and a business analyst. I wrote for the job, but would rarely write for myself, largely because I didn’t think I was a “real” writer. But something happened that transformed me into a writer. My third son, Colin, was born on October 20, 2009.

We knew at 20 weeks of pregnancy that Colin had multiple Congenital Heart Defects (CHDs) and that he would face surgery very soon after he was born. He looked completely perfect at birth, but we knew there was a tiny, broken heart beating in that little chest. When he was nine days old he was taken from me in pre-op after a prayer with the chaplain in the hopes that surgery would go very well and that he would be on the road to recovery right away. But that’s not what happened.

He barely made it out of surgery. He had to be put on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) because when he was removed from bypass, his heart was beating at 250 beats per minute. ECMO would do his heart’s work for him and allow it to rest and recover. Then he went septic and nearly died, again. Then he seemed to rally. He needed a few more procedures and the hope was that all would be well. But it wasn’t. He fought, valiantly, for 109 days. On February 7, 2010, he died.

He had been in distress all day with increased respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. None of the usual tricks were working. There was nothing left to do surgically. He already had a brand new chest tube in from a few days earlier. We decided that we had to stop all measures and let him go. When his heart stopped within seconds of removing him from the ventilator, we knew that it had been the right decision to make.

It was the single worst day of my life.

But it was also the day that the writer in me, who had been lying dormant for so long, was reborn. I started to journal, to write song lyrics and poems, just to get it all out of me. I wanted to tell his story, our story, so badly. I started a blog  and posted my first entry on April 23, 2010. I wrote a few entries, and then set it aside. I continued to write, just not for other people.

Then, suddenly, opportunity knocked. I had been talking about starting to write again and had just completed a creative non-fiction class. Creative juices were flowing and I was ready to do it for real. An online friend from the CHD world mentioned to me that she knew someone who was starting an online magazine for parents who had experienced child loss, infertility, or some combination thereof (more common than you would ever imagine). So, I reached out, with a lump in my throat, and I offered up my services as a guest poster. She responded by asking me to be a monthly contributor! I now write two articles per month for Still Standing. I have written more blog posts in two months than I did in the two years prior. I have been asked to guest post on two blogs (including this one!) and I am so full of ideas that I am finding my current job frustrating because I wish I could just quit and write full time. My goal is to fully tell the story of our family’s journey with and without Colin.

It took me about 30 years to get here.

To become a writer.

I often wonder: if Colin hadn’t been born or if he had lived instead of died, would find myself where I am today? I can’t be sure. But I’m going to give him all the credit.

Thanks, Colin, for making your mama a writer.

 

Rachel Kain is a writer, musician and yoga teacher who makes ends meet as an IT business analyst. She’s also a wife and mother. Words are her passion and she is grateful to be able to write about the grief journey for Still Standing Magazine (http://stillstandingmag.com). You can find her blog, Writers Write, at http://bewriting.wordpress.com. She blogs about whatever comes to mind. As a lifelong writer who is finally sharing her work with the world, she is searching for her voice, join her as she finds it.

Day Nine: Connect

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Many creative people underestimate the power of networking. They think of it in the slick businessman sense, but it’s much deeper than that. True networking is simply connecting with people.

This week I’m wearing my musician hat more often than my writers hat.

This is a unique project because it’s bringing together many people with whom I’ve connected musically over the past 15 years. We’ve all worked together before, but never in this configuration.  Each of us is bringing other people to this party, and so the tentacles of our musical relationships have spread far and wide.

 The talents and abilities of all these people are converging to create something new.

These kinds of connections are invaluable in any endeavor, and I’m slowly beginning to create them in my little writers world.

But I covet more.

It’s fitting that tomorrow one of those newer connections will be guest posting here and also at Becca’s Byline. This young woman has a special writing story to tell, and it will inspire you and touch your heart.

I hope you’ll come back and connect with her tomorrow.

Day 6: Steal

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Good artists copy. Great artists steal. ~Picasso

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not happy with that word.

Steal.

Probably it’s my years of parochial school training (Keep your eyes on your own papers, boys and girls!) but the thought of stealing from other writers or artists sets my teeth on edge.

I understand the concept, and I participate in it all the time. Whenever I read one of my favorite authors, my fingers start itching to pick up a pen and write. When I hear beautiful music, I want to run to the piano and play. Cruising the internet sets my brain aflutter with ideas for blog posts and essays and who knows what all.

I call that inspiration, not stealing.

Semantics.

But we writers are all about the words, aren’t we?

And I just don’t like that one.

 

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