Tag Archives: memoir

Ethel Rohan: My Fear, Revealed

A guest post by Ethel Rohan, author of the Shebooks memoir Out of Dublin.

 

Out of Dublin, my short memoir from Shebooks is just ten thousand words. Ten thousand of the hardest words I’ve ever laid down. I’ve felt similar pain, and fear and anxiety, when I published my chapbook, Hard to Say. Yet while there’s a lot of my past in those fifteen tiny linked stories, I wrote them as fiction peopled with characters, and with distance and imagination. Out of Dublin is a whole other beast. In Out of Dublin, there’s no where to hide.

That’s why I wrote Out of Dublin, though. I’m done with hiding, and with the unsaid. The unsaid has tormented me over decades. What price will I pay, though, for these ten thousand words. I’m frantic Out of Dublin will cost me family and friends, that some will criticize me for putting in print what they believe should stay private. I write, though. That’s what I do. I write about what matters most to me.

These past several months, the fifth commandment, Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, has breathed on the back of my neck, chasing me. My parents would hate that I’ve written this book. That’s what presses on my chest, makes me panic. I’ve agonized. For me, it comes down to intention. My intention is not to dishonor my parents. I love my mother and my father. My intention is to make the truth into writing that’s artful and valuable, because the truth alone hurts too much and does no good.

I’m often scared and confused. I often don’t know if I’m doing the right or the wrong thing. I always try, though, to do my best. Recently, when I felt most afraid, most anxious, and most confused about publishing Out of Dublin, I made myself sit in my garden, and close my eyes, and listen to the birds, and feel the gold of the sun on my face, and even though I got calm and still, I didn’t feel or hear or see anything that seemed like a sign.

I had to make up my own mind, and I did.

It’s easier to look away from the hard things, to stay silent.

Easier isn’t enough for me. I decided to keep scaring myself.

 

Out of Dublin cover

Read Ethel Rohan’s powerful memoir, Out of Dublin, only from Shebooks.

Anna Marrian: “My father has been in my head my whole life.” | Q&A

Anna Marrian, author of the riveting Shebook memoir Love Junkie: Getting High for Daddy, shares her thoughts on memory, transgression, and the literary spin cycle.

What prompted you to write Love Junkie?

My father has been in my head my whole life—he played such a prominent, albeit absent, role, which would inevitably become steeped in longing, fantasy, and transgression. For a long time, I wanted to get the Kenyan story on the page. One morning on a winter day, I started writing in bed after reading a story about a cancer patient who had to ride the bus to his appointments in his hospital gown, and his butt was always flapping in the breeze.  It was gutsy and inspirational.  I wanted to write like that.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they, and what is their origin?

The themes of longing, shape-shifting, and searching for home are ever present in my work. Their origin comes from a strong sense of distrust and disconnection from my family and myself as a child.

How do you define truth in your memoir writing?

There’s no such thing as truth in memoir, only memory, which is dreadfully colored and faulty. What I remember and what I think happened will be entirely different from what the Easter Bunny saw. Nonetheless, it’s my experience, which has meaning to me and hopefully resonates with others. I want to write to make a connection, to take the reader to the moment and transport them. That’s why I read and why I fell in love with writing. To be transported and affected and enter another emotional world that resonates with me in some way.

Is there such a thing as “women’s writing?” Do you hate the term chick lit, or do you think we should embrace it, as we have the term gay?

We live in a world where categories help us to identify ourselves, or not, with things, and that’s good for sanity, I guess. I think of chick lit as a fun summer beach read. “Women’s writing” considers a distinctly female perspective, just as “gay” writing considers the uniquely gay perspective.  Ultimately, when I write, I come from my own experience. I’m interested in what it’s like to be human and go through the washing machine of life. So what about a category called “human writing”? Or “washing machine writing”? Or “stories from the spin cycle”?

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Just tell the story. All the juicy parts, like you might tell your friend at the bar. Start in the middle, or end or wherever. Don’t worry about being organized, linear, or even rational for your first draft.  In fact, the more outlandish, the more oddballish, the more quirky, the more you’re going to get a reader’s attention.

LoveJunkie

Read Anna Marrian’s unbelievable true story of heroin addiction, family taboo, and remarkable resilience. Love Junkie: Getting High for Daddy is a must-read memoir, only from Shebooks!

Ona Gritz: “I don’t know what that edge is until I come to it and feel myself about to step over.” | Q&A

Ona Gritz, author of the Shebook On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, offers her thoughts on chick lit, childhood, and the challenges of parenting with cerebral palsy.

What prompted you to write On the Whole?

I started writing about my experiences as a mother with a disability in a monthly column for Literary Mama in 2005. I took on the subject largely because, while there were many memoirs coming out by mothers of children with disabilities, little had been written about what it’s like for a woman with physical limitations to take on the very physical job of parenting. It felt important to me to share my experiences, but at the same time, I worried that the subject might be too unique to me to strike a chord with others. To my surprise, the responses I got from readers, mostly via e-mail, told me the opposite. What I wrote about—fear, feelings of ineptitude, a passionate desire to be the best mother I was capable of being—were things almost all new mothers, disabled or not, could relate to. In a sense, my cerebral palsy shone a light on the inadequacy everyone feels at one time or another when taking on something new and deeply important. And so I decided to tell my story in a fuller narrative, as a memoir, and began what became On The Whole.

Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term chick lit, or do you think we should embrace it, as we have the term gay?

Yes, there is such a thing as women’s writing, thank goodness! Recently I recommended a memoir to a friend, and she told me, “That’s the first book you’ve talked about in years that wasn’t written by a woman.” I can’t help being drawn to books written by people who share my gender. Our themes, our deepest concerns, are so connected to our bodies and how we move in the world as women. And I actually love the term chick lit. I think it’s sassy and self-affirming.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greenstein, decided I was a writer before I did. On the last day of school, she gave me a book of funny poems and inscribed it: “To Ona, who will someday be a fine author.” I wasn’t too far behind her. When I was twelve, writing flowery poems in a purple-paged flowery notebook and signing them with only my middle name, Fawn, I thought, This is what I want to do with my life.

Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?

When it comes to myself, I don’t consider anything too personal to write about. In fact, I find the more I’m willing to reveal, the better the writing, and the more I learn from it. But I feel differently when it comes to my son. I write about him a lot, and quite openly, but there are times I hit a place as I’m working on a piece, when I tell myself, No, he wouldn’t want that story told, or That fact about him is private. I don’t know what that edge is until I come to it and feel myself about to step over.

How do you define truth in memoir?

For me, truth in memoir has more to do with an emotional accuracy than a factual one. Not that I don’t try to get the facts right, but I know memory to be both faulty and inventive, and I believe part of our job as memoirists is to embrace that. When I re-create dialogue, for example, I know I’m not getting the words right in terms of exactly what was said, so I aim to hear the person’s voice as best I can and capture that on the page. Any story we tell is filtered through us—our perceptions, the details we latched onto. Someone else who was in the room at the time would surely tell the same story differently.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

I actually have two e-readers, a Nook and a Kindle. Right now I’m reading Beth Kephart’s lyrical Shebook, Nest. Flight. Sky. Next on my to-read list is Make Me a Mother by Susanne Paola Antonetta. I like reading on e-readers anytime, but especially when I’m traveling.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have two books in progress: a longer, full-length memoir on mothering and disability, and a complex family memoir focused primarily on the brief life and tragic death of my beloved older sister.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

I wrote myself a message and taped it over my desk to help jump-start my writing days. It says, “Just get it down. You can always fix it later.”

OntheWhole

Read Ona Gritz’s beautiful short memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, only at Shebooks!

Ann Pearlman: on taking dictation from the universe

Best-selling author Ann Pearlman is out with a new mini memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, about a biracial couple’s “coming out (to her family and his) in the early 1960s. Here are some of Pearlman’s thoughts on luck, and death.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing?

Two themes recur in my writing, though neither one is apparent in His Eye Is on the Sparrow, except as harbingers of things to come. The first one is death. Many of my books, especially my fiction and memoirs, have a death as a significant turning point. The origin is in my life. About six weeks after the events of His Eye Is on the Sparrow occurred, my father died at 44 from a heart attack. I was with him when he died. Within the next decade, my grandmother and mother died. As well as two best friends: one from an allergic reaction to an anesthetic, and another was murdered. I was impacted by the knowledge that death strikes anywhere, at any time, without respect for age, or health.

The second is the sister of death, and that’s luck. Since I was a child, as soon as I understood the basics of reproduction, I wondered at the miraculous event of my existence. If my parents had made love a different day, if a different sperm fought its way to the ovum that was my other half, I would have been a different person. Maybe a boy. Maybe not loving art so much, or writing or dancing. I’ve always been grateful for the luck of my existence and my parents, who were able to nourish and encourage me.

But luck is a two-edged sword. Life is full of serendipitous events spinning into new directions. Some of the eventual outcomes cannot be predicted from the incident itself. For example, my divorce was a watershed event that I struggled to survive. But survive I did and later realized that my ex-husband had done me a huge favor.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

My family is Jewish. But not only Jewish as my grandmother was German and had a sister who was pro-Nazi in the ’30s. As if containing these diverse elements in a family was not already complex enough, my Jewish grandfather supported my grandmother’s German parents who were visited in his house by their pro-Nazi daughter. As a child, I was chilled by the knowledge that in Europe during the ’40s, some of my relatives could have killed other relatives, unaware they were distantly related to each other. History impacts individuals, but individuals impact history by their personal decisions.

I am a woman who married a black man during the civil rights movement, and I’m the mother of biracial children; the effect of straddling two different worlds is visible in my work. W.E. B. Du Bois writes about the double-consciousness black people carry as they deal with the white attitudes toward them, along with a sense of themselves as African. I, too, straddle these worlds, but in a peculiar way. My family and grandchildren are black. Yet, when away from my family, I’m treated as “white.” And yes, even today, that treatment is different. Yes, even today, after the wonder of a biracial president and the subsequent billowing vitriol prove the intransigence of our racism.

Although the biography Inside the Crips was a collaboration with Colton Simpson, I could not have written it without an intimate knowledge of black people and sharing life with them. Both of my novels, The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for My Sister, deal with the formation of a biracial family and the continued racism the two sisters witness. I suspect that my grandmother’s straddling of her own German and Jewish identity, though not as visible, taught me comfort and skills without my realizing it.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow examines that point in my life when this dual identity was forged.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?

Of course. Women writers outnumber men writers, just like women readers outnumber male readers. Maybe our great numbers make us less seriously considered. This is similar to social work, where men have more cache, garner more attention, and are promoted more often than women. Yet, it is not just the rarity that we struggle against. Men’s thoughts, words, attitudes, very bodies, are taken more seriously. As a result, we try to get our work on a level playing field. Many women write under gender-nonspecific names or pen names ( George Sand, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, etc.).

For women, there’s another issue: If we’re mothers, and working to financially support our children, the pressure of time and attention delays our writing. Yes, I wrote four books while I was still raising children, but dreamt of a time when I would no longer write while I was waiting for a child to finish soccer, football, rehearsals, saxophone lessons, etc., or would have to wake up so disgustingly early. I dreamt of a far-off “future” when my children were raised (or at least in high school). But there’s another discrimination that hits women harder than men: ageism. I have been told by an editor that they’d publish my novel, except that I’m now “too old” to build a career. Several others suggested that my characters were “too old.” I have even received a few snarky reviews about the age of my characters. Apparently publishers think readers are interested in young, fertile women; their lives still have significance. This seems to be more prevalent in the U.S. than in the U.K., where mature women are often the heroines of novels.

So women have two strikes against them, and it’s the same that we deal with throughout our lives: We’re women. And then we become postmenopausal women, and I guess, if we’re lucky, we’re supposed to simply drift away into grandmotherville.

Ironically, after The Christmas Cookie Club, I received a fan letter from a woman in her 20s who profusely thanked me. My book gave her hope for the future because she assumed her life would be boring by the time she was 40. My characters taught her life could be exciting and fun, even as you get older.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

I didn’t “decide” to be a writer. When I was in eighth grade, we were asked to write thank-you notes for a painting our school received. The painting was of two girls sitting on a beach; behind them the sea stretched to the horizon. While writing about the sea, I was transported into a sensation of taking dictation from the universe. The piece I wrote became a published poem. Re-experiencing that sensation propels my writing. I write because I love it; I write because I want that feeling again. I write to make sense of the world. Weeks later, when I’m editing, I cannot tell which prose was awe-inspired and which was written prosaically.

How do you define truth in memoir?

Truth when writing memoir is your truth. We now know memory distorts and shuffles things, especially for children who can be easily led into beliefs simply by the questions of adults. Yet, what we believe becomes our history, the narrative of our lives, establishing our worldview and propelling our actions.

When I write memoir, I try to check what I can. For example, in Infidelity, I related an incident that took place while my mother was giving a speech. I found supporting evidence on the Internet in a report of the speech, the venue, and her order in the program, all of which corroborated my teenage memory. Sometimes our memory is right on. However, during family discussions, it’s clear we each witness different aspects of events as a collage of stories that are created from our unique memories. All are right. All are pieces of the truth.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I have been a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in a private practice for several decades. I continue to see a few long-term patients.

As a social worker, I’ve had a number of fabulous, fascinating jobs: working with gangs, protective services, the poverty program, in schools, in a women’s prison, a child-guidance clinic. The craziest job I had was working in a science lab under a grant from NASA to ascertain if animals could grow in space conditions. When we started on the chameleons, I collected flies from the farms around Iowa City. Nonplussed and not curious, the farmers graciously escorted me to their pigpens, assuring me I could take all I wanted.

But it was not until I was a therapist in a women’s prison that I understood much about America. There you see the underbelly of our country and witness the failure of every institution in our society: justice system, schools, churches, families, and our economy. But in spite of the enormous trauma of many of [these women’s] lives, I was awestruck by the resilience, fortitude, hope, and desire to change. Prisons and our justice system are present in Inside the Crips, but also in Christmas Cookie Club and Gift for My Sister. Currently I’m working on a novel set in prison.

Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?

I resisted joining a book club because I didn’t want to “have to” read books others chose. A few friends wanted to start one and pestered me to join. Joining was a great decision. It’s scads of fun. I’m reminded how varied opinions and reactions are. My book club has helped me understand the reviews/comments I get from readers. How words are interpreted is only partly the writing, the other part is what the reader brings. Listening to fierce discussions and opposite opinions about the same book highlights the immense difference in tastes and interests.

My book club has also read my books and discussed them. The first time it was anxiety provoking. There was nothing anonymous about this discussion. Would my friends spare their criticism because of our friendships? But they didn’t, and I learned from that, too. They are intensely curious about how I develop my ideas to weave a story together, and they notice things about me or our city in the book.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

Follow your bliss, but consider others.

EyeOnTheSparrow

Read Ann Pearlman’s nail-biting short memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, only at Shebooks!

Kerry Cohen: “I write for myself. Does that sound selfish?”

Kerry Cohen, author of the Shebooks novelette Constellation of Boys, knows her subject intimately; Cohen carved out her current specialty as a relationship therapist through her own personal struggles with sex and self-worth.

 

What prompted you to write Constellation of Boys?

I was in college, I think, when I read Susan Minot’s short storyLust.” It was the first time I read something that captured the theme that I’d wind up grappling with as a writer for decades. Boys. Their power over me when I was growing up. I tried to write a novel based on that theme for many years, and one day I realized that Minot’s approach, the lineup of boys, one after another, would get at the material in a better way.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

The theme of complicated relationships to boys and men, to sex and romance, has long occupied my work. It is actually also my specialty as a therapist. It began, as most themes do I believe, with my own struggle. My first memoir examines this struggle directly, and since then, even if I’m writing about something else, the theme has crept into everything I write. This novella is the first book since Loose Girl that takes on the theme entirely in fiction.

 When did you first decide you were a writer?

So often we hear about writers growing up as voracious readers. But I wasn’t much of a reader throughout my childhood. Instead, I was busy with drugs and boys and friendships. When I was a senior in high school, however, I took an elective called Minority Voices with my favorite teacher. Mrs. Falk. I still remember her name, of course. It was the first time I ever read books and stories in which I saw myself on the page. The first book was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Then Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. My body broke open over those pages. I hadn’t even known before reading those women’s work how much I’d been holding myself tight, turned off like a bursting faucet. It was then that I knew I wanted to write.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

I write for myself. Does that sound selfish? I don’t mean it to. When I say “myself” I actually mean the collective me—the many, many humans I feel similar to, whom I share experiences with, who feel like I do but might not have the words to say it. Every single book I write is the book I most want to read. And all my ideas for future books are books I already wish were out there for me to pick up and get lost in.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

This is an ongoing challenge in my life. All of my writing seems to be upsetting for people, and sometimes those people are in my life. I wrote a novella for Shebooks, but much of what I write is memoir and personal essays. For whatever reason, I tend to hit on things that are triggering for people. For people close to me, however, it’s different. I try to take them into account when I write, but I also know that this is my life’s work. And I believe that my work is freeing, not just for me but for others as well. Sometimes the people I love wind up at risk inside that. It’s a constant dilemma and struggle for me that I have mostly come to terms with. I won’t let it stop me from writing what feels important for me to write—not so much for me, but for my readers. I have part of a Joy Harjo poem tattooed on my body, and I’m about to get another line from that poem tattooed as well. It says: “I am not afraid to be hated. I am not afraid to be loved.”

 

Need lit therapy? Read Kerry Cohen’s novelette Constellation of Boys, only at Shebooks!

ConstellationBoys

Beth Kephart: “I do things I’m bad at, just to keep myself alert.” | Q&A

Memoirist Beth Kephart opens up about her obsession with birds, her definition of “truth,” and her new short memoir Nest. Flight. Sky.

 

What prompted you to write Nest. Flight. Sky.?

I teach memoir at Penn, I’ve written about its glories, challenges, and consequences in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, I blog daily about life (Beth Kephart Books), and once, a lifetime ago, I wrote five memoirs. But it has been many years and many books since I’d dared to write the extended truth. By the time Shebooks emerged, I was desperate to speak. My mother had passed away. I had become obsessed with birds and nests, but I did not understand why. I believe that it’s only in writing toward questions that we find at least some of the answers. I wrote Nest. Flight. Sky. to find some answers.

Birds and nests have been a recurrent theme in your work. What is the origin of this?

Nest. Flight. Sky: On love and loss, one wing at a time is, indeed, about recurrent images. It’s about those birds, those wings, those nests that have entered into all the fiction I have written—one book after another, ever since my mother died. It all began with winter finches tapping on my windowpane in the months after her passing. It became a quest for hawks, for hummingbirds, for flight.

When did you first decide you were a writer? 

Do we ever decide that we are writers? Or do we just decide that we must write, that we will not be able to breathe if we do not? I’m not sure, even all these books in, that I am a writer. I think readers are in charge of that decision. I only know that, since I was nine, words and their melodies gave me a sense of being nearly whole.

How do you define “truth” in memoir?

Truth is a quest—not a juried conclusion, not a slate of “facts,” not a report, not a prettied-up-look-at-me guessing game. Truth changes with time; it changes photograph to photograph. It is never possible to be precisely, scientifically, indisputably accurate, but it is essential to bring an honest heart to the framing of questions and the searching for answers. Empathy—for one’s own self and for others—is essential to the quest.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? 

Most writers I know have job multiples. Me? I run a boutique marketing communications firm (Fusion Communications), producing annual reports, commemorative books, and employee publications for companies in the pharma, real estate, and insurance industries. I also teach creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, review adult novels for the Chicago Tribune, write about the intersection of memory and place for the Philadelphia Inquirer, write about publishing trends for a variety of publications, and do whatever else that is required to live a full life and write the kinds of books (never the best sellers, or at least not yet) that I want to write.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I do things I’m bad at, just to keep myself alert and alive to new vocabularies and challenges. Two cases in point: I take ballroom dancing lessons. I muck around in a pottery studio.

What is your favorite word right now? 

Muck.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now?

I do have an e-reader. I have a house full of books and an e-reader. I love to read the New York Times on my pretty little e-reader. But I also read books I just can’t wait to get in hand. Right now, that book is Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. (Love.) I’ve also read a number of Shebooks. They are excellent. I know you’ll agree.

What writing projects are you working on now? 

I am releasing, on April 1, Going Over (Chronicle Books), a Berlin 1983 young adult novel (but truly, it is a crossover young adult novel) that takes place on both sides of the Wall. In the fall, a book I published many years ago—Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River—is being released by Temple University Press as a paperback (yay!). Flow tells the story of the river in her own words, which is to say, it is the story of a woman stuck in perpetual middle age. Next year, Chronicle Books will release a new novel that takes place in Florence, Italy. I’m also at work on a book about my city, Philadelphia, and I’ve just begun another novel for Chronicle Books. I have a novel for adults in mind. I just haven’t found the time to work on it.

 

 

Beth Kephart is author of the Shebook, Nest. Flight. Sky.

NestFlightSky