Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Evolving from Journalism to Memoir

Susan Larson starts our program at the Literary Festival.
Annually in September Carolina Mountains Literary Festival takes over the small town of Burnsville, our county seat and nearest commercial area. For two days there are writing workshops, authors reading from their books, and presentations on many literary topics in shops, galleries, the Town Center and other venues. This past weekend I spoke at the Festival as a part of a program on writing groups and how they contribute to a writer’s life. Our group traces its history back thirty-five years to a writing class which just kept going after the professor retired. Somewhere along the way we picked up the name Scribblers. In addition to sharing how the group helped us, we each read either from the “Toe River Anthology,” (a collection of poems, essays and memoir published in 1979 by the class) or some of our more recent work. Three of the presenters were in that original group. Our youngest presenter is a poet who joined Scribblers twenty years ago, and I have been a member since 1999. What follows is my description of the evolution of my work from journalism to memoir with the help and encouragement of the Scribblers. I was the last speaker so I also did the wrap up. Here are my remarks.

I wished we could call this program Four Golden Girls and a Baby Boomer but I was worried that you’d come expecting a comedy routine. In fact, although we have a lot of fun together, we are serious about our work. I find my greatest personal satisfaction in writing, in choosing words that exactly express what is in my mind.

I was schooled in journalism, first in my high school, where it was an elective, then later in graduate studies. During my years in the work force, I wrote constantly—either press releases and publicity, or grant proposals and program documentation and even personnel policies. With that kind of training and experience I had never thought about joining a group. So when my friend Liz Golibart invited me to join Scribblers, I told her I didn’t do fiction or creative writing. She replied, “Scribblers isn’t like that.  I think you should try it.”

 I did try it and it changed my writing life.

Briefly, I’ll tell you how. In Scribblers we meet in homes and usually the hostess sends out a writing assignment in advance. (But we always have the option of “Writer’s choice.”) After some refreshments we read our work aloud and there are many distinct takes on any assigned topic. Through that process I explored writing about different subjects and sometimes aspects of myself. I also learned  by listening to the different styles and noting my own reactions to the work of others.

The second impetus for change was the feedback both in how they reacted to my writing as I was reading it aloud, and from their comments afterwards. As you might imagine, over many years of sharing together and talking about writing and the work, the Scribblers have developed deep and lasting friendships.

So that leads to the third way it changed my work. After my husband Bill died, I decided to write a book about caregiving and I rather quickly produced a draft of about fifty pages, which I asked several of these good Scribbler friends to read. Their comments might have been ego-crushing if they hadn’t been such good friends. I realized right away the topic I had in mind was of interest, but the style of the writing was killing it. I understood that readers liked my stories but not the structure and formality and everyone said some variation of “Don’t write a how-to book, write a memoir.” I also got the message that I had to share myself—my feelings, what gave me joy, what caused me pain, and how I dealt with both. I needed more description and dialog, and less exposition. I started to read lots of memoirs and used a notebook and pen to explore my feelings with a stream of consciousness technique called Freewrites. Gradually I made a transition to the memoir style.

The challenge in journalism (my old style) is to be interesting, complete, and accurate but not personally present on the page as you pursue the five questions of Who, What, Where, When and How. A good journalistic piece tells a story and can even pull some heartstrings, but it is not about the person who is writing. I soon learned that while you may need the background found in those five questions, in memoir, it is all about the writer and the interaction with the other characters that emerge in your stories. I had to answer other questions: How did I feel? Which of my senses were engaged, and how? What was the long-term effect? How did I change because of what happened?

It had taken me a few months to produce that first draft—the one I threw away. Then it took four years to complete the memoir as published. It was a hard road to my new approach to writing and it was the Scribblers who took me there and gave me the courage and confidence to make the journey. If you have a writing itch, join a writing group or gather up a few like-minded folks and start your own. It might just change your life.

To illustrate the memoir style I developed, I read a short excerpt from my book, “Decrescendo: A Memoir of Love and Caregiving”. To begin a poignant chapter about Bill’s rapid decline called “Losses” I chose a context for my feelings that dated from the beginning of our relationship.

“A small oil painting catches my eye as I move about my kitchen preparing meals. It was given to me in 1952, before I knew I was in love with Bill, although he was already a commanding presence in my life. I had gone to Charleston, Illinois, to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with a DePauw classmate. The artist Paul Sargent had lived near her family’s home until his death in 1946. Thinking it would be a nice outing for me, her parents arranged for us to visit Sargent’s cousin, who had inherited the artist’s homestead.
The old farmhouse had a generous lawn and big trees. The conversation was lively and I was interested to hear all about this Midwestern painter’s life. When it was time to go, our hostess led us to a storage room, formerly her cousin’s studio, where there were dozens of framed paintings of all sizes. For half an hour we studied them, marveling at the color and detail. As we turned to leave, she pointed to a group of smaller canvasses and said that we could each take one. I had already been coveting a small painting that reminded me of Bill, so I chose it. She smiled and said, “I’ve always liked that one, too. I think that man was a hobo.” Maybe so, but I knew it was really Bill.
Although Sargent was primarily a landscape artist, he also did occasional portraits. My painting, dated 1928, depicts a man wearing a soft-brimmed shapeless hat, sitting on the ground with his back resting against a tree, patches of sun all around and a river flowing behind. I consider it a portrait of Bill because the physicality of the seated figure captures him so well. The man’s body is relaxed except for his arms, which are stretched out to his knees, wrists loose and hands dangling in the air. The painting speaks of living in the moment, of being adaptable, of connecting with nature.
Today it brings Bill back to me whole, undiminished. He is relishing the moment, at home in that place, at home in himself, comfortable but with just enough tension in those arms to suggest a readiness to move on when the time is right.”

Next post: 10/01/2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Daddy's in That Crowd

August 28, 1963, High Point, North Carolina

Let me set the scene: On the day that 250,000 people marched in Washington my husband Bill was there, and I was at home with our children. We lived in a small corner house on Gordon Street, a main artery from the Montlieu area to downtown High Point. The side street was one long block to a cul-de-sac, lined on both sides with bungalows. Behind the houses on the far side of the street was a chain link fence separating our white community from a sprawling black neighborhood. We liked our house with its large yard (front, back and side), and a small deck where we could catch the evening breeze.

I was the only fulltime stay-at-home mom on the block. Two of the other mothers were beauticians and all the rest worked shifts in one of the furniture factories; their husbands worked different shifts at the same places. This meant that most of the houses had a sleeping parent at home during the day. There were eighteen children on the block including my three, and during weekends and vacations I often had six or more playing in our yard. We were teaching our children about nonviolence, and no fighting or bullying was tolerated in our play space. I dispensed lemonade, Band-Aids, and a little tender care as needed. My eight-year-old son Kevin was a take-charge kid who often directed the games and was quick to call me if there was a problem. In June Melissa had broken her leg and just recently gotten off her crutches. She was an organizer even at four-and-a-half and convinced the neighborhood kids to pull her around in a wagon so she wouldn’t miss anything. The summer of 1963 was hot and exhausting, but peaceful in the back yard of 600 Gordon Street.

Bill was on the staff of the regional office of the American Friends Service Committee. His job involved coordinating work with high school students in nine southern states. In addition he was meeting locally with both white and black teenagers to prepare them for desegregation. During July and August Bill had been traveling to youth workcamps and conferences throughout the south. He was in Maryland directing a World Affairs Camp the week before the March and planned to attend it before heading home.  There was a bus going to DC from High Point ($10.00 round trip) and I wished I could go and join him .

Instead, I rented a TV, which made a bigger impression on the children than the March itself. However, it did underscore the importance of the event. We had it on all day to catch whatever coverage there was. I heard many of the entertainers and some of the speeches, and the children kept pointing to blond men with glasses, but a closer look never revealed their dad. When they got bored, Kevin and Robin went outside to play for awhile and then came back to watch again.

Melissa didn’t want to get dressed, and I let her stay in her nightclothes. At one point there was a marching band and she was bursting with exuberance. I turned my back, and she disappeared out the door and started running down the block with a little hitch on the injured leg.  Dressed in her nightgown and panties, she was yelling over and over at the top of her lungs, “My daddy is in the March on Washington.” I was torn between reveling in her joy and wondering what emotions it might stir up in my neighbors. A few months earlier Bill brought one of his black co-workers home for lunch, and we had gotten threatening calls from the people across the street. Rarely did anyone on the block speak to us, but they didn’t stop their children from playing in our yard.

I caught up with Melissa and brought her home saying only that she had to get dressed. I doubted that she understood what was happening that day but she had absorbed the excitement. Our children were familiar with demonstrations, and once we had taken them along to sing outside a jail where black college students were being held following their arrest at a sit-in. But what all three remember about that day is renting the television.

After the march concluded, Bill phoned to report and I made these notes, He said it was an amazing experience, and he was particularly thrilled by Martin Luther King. It was like a family reunion with people greeting people. He saw some from New Hope, some from our workcamps, some from High Point, and even an old army buddy. I remember that we talked for hours when he finally got home. He had tried to hang out near the musicians and had seen many of them up close. But more important the speeches gave him the courage and determination to keep on with his work and his personal participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the children I rarely joined him but I supported his efforts in every way I could.

The public announcement from our little town crier had the immediate effect of reducing the traffic to our backyard as a number of the neighbor children were forbidden to come to play in our yard. School started again and things soon went back to normal. A few weeks later one of the beauticians invited me to come for coffee. It was the only time I was ever inside one of the houses on our block. She was very pleasant and there was no reference to the March or our black visitors. Instead she said her son told her that I had a typewriter, and she wondered if she could come and look at it because she had never seen one. We chatted about our children, laughed at funny stories, and I asked her questions about her work. I told her that her children were well behaved at my house, and I enjoyed having them come and play. And of course, I invited her to come see the typewriter.

On Gordon Street, I learned first hand about the barriers of race and class, and the severity of life below the poverty line—not only for black families on the other side of the chain link fence, but also for my blue collar white neighbors, who barely scraped by on two meager salaries.

I recently asked my children about the day of the March and Kevin responded, “I only remember being aware that somehow dad had changed when he got back from DC.” The nation had begun to change as well, but today the food service workers are telling us we haven’t changed enough. 

Next post:  09/17/2013