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How to Write a Memoir … “be yourself, speak freely, think small … writers are the custodians of memory”; old classic – William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”; “Mud Season Review” call for submissions

“I find that the writing of a memoir has two functions. One is to pass on, as much as you’re willing to tell, the fact’s and deeds of your life to those who might be at all interested. The other function is to discover a truth about yourself that you never had either the time or the courage to face before. You will never investigate yourself as vehemently as you do when you put one word after another, one thought after another, one revelation after another, in the pages that make up your memoirs, and you will suddenly realize the person you are instead of the person you thought you were. To force memory is to open yourself up to that which you have chosen to forget. It’s your RASHOMON. You begin to see all the different sides of your own story.” Neil Simon, The Play Goes On, A Memoir



William Zinsser (1922-2015), American writer, teacher, editor, literary and film critic, feature writer for the New York Herald Tribune
William Zinsser (1922-2015), American writer, teacher, editor, literary and film critic, feature writer for the now defunct New York Herald Tribune

Not too long ago a friend mentioned the wish to write a memoir. In the senior community in which I live there are several people working on their memoirs in a class called Personal Stories. I think this is fabulous. There are any number of reasons for writing a memoir and generally it’s not about publication. It’s about personal exploration and/or leaving a record behind for our children and grandchildren. Hence this post is for everyone, not just for pro writers or those with ambitions to be pro writers.

While searching for some material to share that might be helpful, I happened upon this feature by William Zinsser of On Writing Well fame in The American Scholar, Spring 2006. I think my friend and neighbors are not the only ones who would be interested, so here it is for you too:

One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?” MORE

RELATED:

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On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is not without problems. It does however have its virtues. Originally published in 1976, it was a book of the month club selection. In the early days of my career it was always recommended to young writers along with The Elements of Style. I believe On Writing Well is now in its twelfth printing.

At the time of Zinsser’s death in 2015, 1.5 million copies were sold.   If you haven’t read On Writing Well, you might enjoy and even benefit from checking it out. Newer editions are reworked to include contemporary concerns: technology, diverse cultures, and demographics.

If you are a mature writer still struggling to find your voice, it might give you hope and comfort to know that in his biography Zinsser said that he didn’t find his writer-voice until his 50s.


MUD SEASON REVIEW is accepting poetry, fiction and nonfiction for consideration through deadline November 1st. No submission fee. Paying market.  Details HERE.


ABOUT

Poet and writer, I was once columnist and the associate editor of a regional employment publication. Currently I run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers.

My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation Press, The River Journal, The Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman.

Brooklyn, In Memory Most Green, memoir … and your Wednesday Writing Prompt

Brooklyn Bridge, looking west from Brooklyn, July 1899

The courageous immigrants of the elder generations cast the shards of their hopes and dreams across the landscape of this continent as prophecy. They worked hard and long for their visions. These people included my Lebanese maternal grandparents with their first-born children. They arrived in New York in 1897 on a boat from Syria. They petitioned for citizenship in 1925. Included also was my Turkish father who arrived here alone in 1919. He was just seventeen, eager to make good and to earn dowries for his four older sisters. The distaff side eventually settled in Brooklyn. That’s where they were when I was born and that’s where I was raised.

These were people who came to America in “the days of sail,” as the great New York writer, Irish-American Pete Hamill, would say. Today’s immigrants can and often easily do visit their countries of origin. They connect with their families and their linguistic and cultural roots. This was something that was generally not available to the people of my grandparent’s generation and before. Among the many reasons for this was an often crushing poverty. In Ireland “American wakes” were held for the sons and daughters who left for the United States. Heart-shattered parents knew it was unlikely they’d ever see their children again.

The immigrants I knew growing up worked hard. The immigrants that I know today work hard, often holding more than one job. They make real – though generally quiet – contributions to their communities, work places and their new country. They serve in the military. They make sure their children are educated.

Because of parents and grandparents who were resourceful and brave enough to come to this country, we had as children, not just economic opportunity, but a wealth of artistic and educational resources. On occasion we went, for example, to the Leonard Bernstein‘s Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic. I remember Mr. Bernstein with his charming and contagious enthusiasm calling our imaginations to Peter and the Wolf. We didn’t have to travel far to have access to talents like Mr. Bernstein or to visit museums, cathedrals, art galleries, music venues, theater (movies and stage), parks and so much more. It was all right there, ready to be plucked and savored like so many sweet and juicy summer plums.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas. The J. Clarence Davies Collection, Museum of the City of New York. (Public Domain)

The schools were good, whether public or private. The libraries were ubiquitous. I will ever and always be in love with the Hudson River and the incredibly beautiful and historic Brooklyn Bridge. To my child-self, everything was magical, mystical, mythological and monolithic. Brooklyn’s proximity to Manhattan added to my enchantment. The Cloisters. Central Park. The magnificent Statue of Liberty, symbol of our highest ideal.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

I’m sure that had I been born in the mountains of Lebanon or in rural Turkey, these places would have offered their own joys and charms but I’m grateful for my Brooklyn, New York experience.

I too lived – Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Leaves of Grass

With a nod to Isaac Asimov for the post title.
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© 2009, text, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; Originally published in “Brooklyn.” Photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum and likely in the public domain. 

WEDNESDAY WRITING PROMPT

This week’s prompt is “immigration.” Write in prose (up to 750 words) or poem about your experience or observation. Your work doesn’t have to be about immigration to the US. It can address or illustrate the refugee experience if you prefer.

There are so many on the move – and on the run – right now, historic numbers, and the world is fraught with anger and meanness on this topic. It seems a good subject to tackle through Wednesday Writing Prompt, though please know that I won’t publish and will delete anything encouraging of violence or hate.

Leave your prose or poem/s or a link to them in the comments section below. All work shared on theme will be published here next Tuesday. If it’s your first time coming out to play for Wednesday Writing Prompt, please send a short bio in the body of an email and a photo of yourself as an attachment to thepoetbyday@gmail.com for use as an introduction. You have until Monday evening, 8:30 p.m. PST, to respond to the prompt. You are welcome – encouraged – to join in no matter the status of your career: novice, emerging or pro.


ABOUT THE POET BY DAY

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry … me and Walt …

800px-69stpier5bbtjehSundays, summer ferry rides,
crossing the rough wide Hudson
from Brooklyn to Staten Island,
from one brave shore to another,
stalked by a colony of seagulls,
the boat frothing white waves in
its habitual and deliberate path.

I’d collect the cold green spray in
my warm hands, framing the tidbit
of raw river in the cup of my palms,
a child-self awed by the pleasures,
by whimsy and an affinity, organic
and ecstatic, like spindrift whorling
as if a dervish from boisterous waves

“And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.” Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; Photo credit ~ the 69th Street Pier: before the Verranzano Narrows Bridge was built, a ferry service ran between this Bay Ridge pier and the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island.The photograph was released into the public domain.


In honor of Derek Walcott who died a few days ago, the recommended read for this week is The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013.  Walcott first poem was published when he was fourteen and this book was published in his 84th year. Never more than now has the world needed the grace, wisdom and universality of his poetry. This is a must add to your poetry book collection.  It doesn’t include the epic Omerosalso recommended, but it does include some of his earlier work that I have not seen included elsewhere.


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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (20): Terri Muuss, Over Exposed

American She-Poet, Terri Muss
American She-Poet, Terri Muss

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SCARLET LETTER

In fifth grade
my father’s secrets
start to breed under my red
confirmation dress—
dig deep in the tunnel of my inner
ear, cling to sentry hairs
on the nape of my neck—

his secrets: black bodies,
glassy eyes, squeeze
beneath my fingernails—
quiet as eggs;
they spin a red thread
that cuts me inside
out.

Over Exposed, the memoir of Terri Muuss, is at once painful and triumphant. It is an examined life that exposes the family of her childhood, the obscenities imposed on her by her father, her numbing with alcohol and drugs and her journey in therapy. All of this and yet she arrives victorious and accomplished with a healthy marriage, healthy sons and a multifaceted career, elements of which reach a hand out to those in trauma.

This is the story of how a child survived and became a woman who found herself and a writer who found her voice. The experiences of a lifetime form a collection of poems and prose vignettes that bespeak the possibilities of redemption and hold out hope and affirmation to those others whose childhoods have left them wounded. I recommend this book to everyone but, most especially, to those who have a history like Terri’s.

Lately, I feel a bull’s eye on me: on the street, the A train, in the fruit market. Men infect me with words, with smiles. Eyes snatch at breasts, tongues pin me to subway walls, mouths like a cold speculum pry open my inner ear. Their words pound, pound me, a worn head of drum. Voices divide and conquer, dividing me from myself—

Emotionally it was not the easiest book to read. I often found myself in tears.It is rewarding though, not only because its subject remains unbeaten but because the writing, pacing and organization have you moving through the pages anxious to gobble up each poem, each story, every nuance. Terri’s switches from child-voice to adult are smooth, her imagery clear and moving, her poetry well-crafted.

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There are two videos in this post. If you are reading this from an email, you will have to click to this site to view the videos.

INTERVIEW

JAMIE: Am I right that your first love was acting? If so, how did you transition – or what inspired – the addition of poetry to your artistic repertoire?

TERRI: Yes, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.

That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in 10th grade, my best friend Leslie was a beautiful person and poet who I admired greatly. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.

It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.

But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and came to see myself as a poet.

JAMIE: It is one thing to write about painful events in life and another to share them publicly. I think you are something of a hero for doing so. Where does this core of courage come from? What is the reaction from friends and relatives?

TERRI: This is a very interesting question that I get often–the question of the courage it takes to reveal my past. Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.

I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.

Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.

Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.

JAMIE: With two parents who are poets, do your children like poetry? Have they started writing themselves? Have they read your poetry?

TERRI: Great question! Yes! We have two boys, Rainer, 10, and Atticus, 7, and they have both had poems published. Rainer is by far the more prolific writer who really loves writing and poetry. Atticus is a drummer who dabbles in writing. They both had poems published in Skipping Stones, a journal for children ages 7-14. Rainer has also been published in Stone Soup, The Louisville Review (when he was 4), and the anthology, Holiday Word Gifts (JB Stillwater, 2011). Some of the things that Rainer writes take my breath away. It’s proof positive that as artists we are always trying to get back to that place where we were as children– where we can take risks and be playful and not worry about being judged.

JAMIE: You seem to have a gift for building a poetry community. What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?

TERRI: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.

I would also add that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!

JAMIE: You put together a lovely trailer for “Over Exposed.” How long did it take to put it together and what kind of tools did you use. Have you found it helpful in getting the word out.

TERRI: Dana Maddox did my trailer. She’s a brilliant filmmaker studying in LA right now. I came in contact with her through the mother of someone I directed in a show. We did the voiceover elements in the studio first and then she came to shoot the video at my house. It took about 10 hours of shooting and about two weeks of intense editing for her to put together the trailer. It’s not something that I could have done alone. Many people have that skill set but that’s not my wheelhouse. I can direct videos but editing is a different thing. She did an amazing job and I’m very proud of it. It certainly helps get the word out about my book. I think social media and online platforms always help books.

JAMIE:  So you have to my knowledge three books out: one on poetry as therapy, the recently published anthology, and “Over Exposed.” What’s next on the agenda?

TERRI: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. The other group you mentioned here is the Poets of Well-being (Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). I was the last member to join the group and so their chapbook does not include my work. It’s absolutely worth checking out. You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Susan runs a beautiful poetry event called “Poetry Street” out in Riverhead that is a fine example of great community organizing and art as a healing method.

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A tidbit on the light side and apropos upcoming elections in the U.S.: Atticus and Rainer Muuss on Ellen and at The White House with the First Lady.

©2016, portrait, poems, bookcover art and interview responses, Terri Muuss, All rights reserved