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A Writer's Jottings

Returning and Remembering

Recently turning again to the beginning of my memoir, the part called "Providence," I felt a compulsion to return for a few days to the place I was born and grew up. It felt necessary once more to walk the city's old streets and to see its historic buildings. I had to be a girl reporter again, and gather more details about the place of my girlhood, in my desire to delve deeper and deeper into the past.

When I worked for The Providence Journal after college, the small New England city was struggling to get on its feet. Now there is a new vibrancy as department stores have become artists' lofts, and a bank building has turned into an art library and a dormitory for artists-to-be studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Much is different, but the essence of Providence is the same. As I worked at the Providence Public Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society--located in the old library where I fell in love with children's books--I did discover more and remember much more.

Now that I've returned home, I'm ready to settle down and write.  Read More 
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Do We Really Think Through Our Mothers?

The big purple bearded iris have started their annual blooming in my backyard, the ones my mother gave me from her garden, and the same ones she dug from her own mother's garden. Their genesis reminds me of Virginia Woolf's words in A Room of One's Own about thinking back through our mothers if we are women.

My mother, Adeline, was disinclined to give advice, and I got little or none from my three Rhode Island grandmothers, Helen and Persis, and my step-grandmother, Caroline. What did my mother's mother, Persis, learn from her New Hampshire mother? I looked up in a family history the given name of this great-grandmother, whom I had only seen in old black-and-white photographs, and was reminded it was Mary Emelina.

Searching for the names of female ancestors tells me how few of their words of wisdom are passed down from generation to generation. Although we are stamped with genetic memory, it is silent memory.

While working on a memoir, I still use the dictionary that Persis gave me at the age of ten. I re-read the few letters from Adeline and Helen that I managed to save, searching between the lines to learn what they knew. When we try to think back through our mothers, it is often a halting journey, but the blooming of the dark purple iris reminds me to try.  Read More 
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How A Writer Used her Guilt About Not Writing

Four Tenths of an Acre is a book I wrote out of, well, guilt. After moving from the city to the country, I spent many afternoons gardening in the yard behind my house instead of working on the biography I was supposed to be writing.

This gardening memoir grew, ironically, out of all those afternoons of not writing.

It was a time when I saw everything through a gardener's green glasses. As I taught myself how to grow perennials, I took detailed notes in one garden notebook after another about planting, weeding, deadheading, watering, and all the rest. Before long I had filled many notebooks, and I realized I had the makings of a book.

I am gratified that more than 700 readers tossed their hats into the ring for a chance to win a copy of the book during the recent Goodreads Giveaway, and I've been busy during the past few weeks sending books out to the two dozen winners.  Read More 
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Memoir or Fiction? Carol Ascher Answers

Carol Ascher, my friend and neighbor in Sharon, Connecticut, has written in the genres of fiction and memoir, and she answers my questions about the differences between them.

You've written a memoir about your father and two novels with a father figure? Why did you use non-fiction and fiction when writing about this topic?

My father was so important to who I am as an intellectual, aesthetic, and political individual, and since our relationship ended in a violent break shortly before he died, I've written about him three times.

The first time was in The Flood, about a ten-year-old girl in a refugee family in Kansas in 1951, an "autobiographical novel,"  Read More 
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What's More Meaningful? Biography or Memoir?

As my memory drives me deeper into the past, my mind circles around and into it, making discoveries and bringing insights and ideas back to the pages of my manuscript, and I experience little epiphanies. My memory seems like a bottomless well, as I again and again pull up fragments of feelings, and then the events that evoked them. Memory seems like a muscle that strengths with practice.

"The past is inside us in flickering and mysterious ways that can never be fully acknowledged nor easily represented," editors Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow have written in the introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project. Reading the fascinating anthology aroused many of my own memories from living in New York during the early years of the Women's Liberation Movement.

It was then when I began to write Portrait of an Artist, my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. I was in my thirties and had more questions than answers about how to live, and I learned a lot from examining her life.

Despite the demands of almost daily writing, I find in my seventies that my efforts to write an evocative memoir are more meaningful than writing another biography. As I go through my journals, the writing forces me to face the meaning of events that eluded me earlier. And if it's unsettling at times, I believe that writing a late life memoir is more rewarding.  Read More 
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Biography or Memoir? To Live or Not Live Your Own Life

In last week's Jottings post I wrote about the important of memory when writing memoir. Another way writing a biography differs from writing a memoir is vicariously living another life or vividly living his or her own.

The demand of researching and writing a biography--which goes on for years at a time--has made me feel I had abandoned by own. When working on my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, I sometimes felt envious of her adventures in the Southwest, while I sat at my desk day after day in Manhattan.

In contrast, writing a memoir is a way to live your own life again. "I suppose I write memoir because of the radiance of the past," Patricia Hampl has written in I Could Tell You Stories. "To write one's life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form."

As I read my old journals and work on my memoir, I initially experience events in the past the way I did at the time. Then on reflection I often begin to understand them as little differently, enlarging what I felt or thought then with the insights of maturity and the perspective of time. Memoir writing enlivens the present and gives it depth.

Do other memoirists experience this?  Read More 
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How to Use Memory to Enliven Memoir

People sometimes ask me about the difference between writing and memoir. The difference is the existence of memory, the possession of memory.

Remembering the emotion around an event enlivens it, illuminates it, and gives the memory its significance. The memory may be vague or even wrong, but it nevertheless possesses important power because of the way it is remembered.

"I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start," wrote Virginia Woolf, in "A Sketch of the Past."

I have never forgotten my childhood art classes given by an Italian-American artist because the bohemian atmosphere of his studio was the antithesis of my bourgeois home in Providence. In his cave-like basement, Gino Conti urged us to create anything we wished with vivid blue, green, and red watercolors, even with our fingers instead of a brush if we wanted. During those hours I expressed my desires and dreams for sunshine and flowers while sitting on a little chair in a smock while watching from the corner of my eye the rabbits, turtles, and other wild creatures roaming around the shadowy space.

Even then I was drawn to a kind of freedom, one I have searched for all my life. Read More 
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"memoir's invaluable shadow side"

The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life by Alexandra Johnson is a fascinating study about how writers try to make the transition from a private to a public written voice, making the transition from keeping a journal to publishing a memoir.

The author quotes May Sarton about the memoirist having "the temptation to romanticize, round off the corners, present a socially acceptable face of oneself and others."

Meanwhile, she says that the journal is "memoir's invaluable shadow side, exposing the darker, truer textures of a life." The challenge for a writer of memoir is to have the courage to reveal the truth, while crafting the raw language of the journal into polished literary form.  Read More 
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