I had three major passions in mind when I retired: to have the freedom to be with my grandkids and the rest of my family as much as possible; to study Italian; and to write either fiction or memoir. I have pursued all three vigorously and it’s been wonderful. I’ve documented in a previous post my challenges with learning Italian and I happily soldier on with that. I must say, though, that writing has been most elusive.
It’s become such a cliche to want to write in retirement and as I’ve talked with people, I’m impressed with how many of us have a secret wish to write imbedded within us. Maybe some of you reading this now have that urge.
I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell. We do it every day, throughout our day. “You’re not going to believe what happened to me yesterday!” “My Uncle Harry was the most amazing person.” “My mother-in-law left her beloved family and everything behind in Italy to follow her GI husband back to America after World War II.” Or the improbable true story of two industrious mice who eat the main dish of a family’s Christmas dinner. We all have fodder for cute, compelling or heartrending stories.
I’ve always been a voracious reader. And I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. But, unlike my favorite book of all time, To Kill A Mockingbird, during my workdays, my writing was not the stuff of Pulitzer Prize or National Book Review awards. I wrote, with considerable clarity I’ve been told, to hospital or health insurance senior executives about the strategies and rationales behind my managed care negotiations, or, in my patient relations days, about patients’ perceptions of the healthcare experiences. It was technical writing, to be sure, and it had to be factual, concise, and crisp. There was no embellishment or spinning of a yarn. Given my technical writing background, when I began to write creatively, I found that the practice of describing an incident or a lifetime in a novel or a memoir can quickly take on a quality of ‘this happened, then this happened and then this happened.” Yawn! In fiction or non-fiction writing, the reader doesn’t want a list; the reader wants the poetry, the jam of the story. The goods! That’s what grabs the reader, that’s what resonates.
Just look at a book of history told by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough or Jon Meacham, amazing history yet also fascinating, entertaining reading. It’s in the skillful depiction of the imagery, the rage, joy, or anguish, of the moment or of an incident when the writer leads the reader into the essence and vulnerability of a situation that the story comes alive. Until that happens, you’ve got more work to do.
So while storytelling is universal, doing it well is another thing. As I set out to write, I approached it as I have done with almost any new undertaking in my life: by trying to educate myself in the skill required for whatever endeavor I was taking on. In this case, the desired skill was to tell stories creatively and interestingly. Rather than a strict university setting, I wanted more of a workshop environment taught by instructors with expertise in the field, with some experience in getting published, where I could learn and immerse myself in the creative process. So I googled “the best writer’s workshops in Chicago” and was provided a list of the top five that was developed by a local CBS survey for a piece they were doing on the news. I chose the top two and eventually enrolled in one of them for my first class in early 2014, a few months after I retired.
All in all, I have taken about five different eight-week courses at the workshop plus some single-day classes here and there with local authors. The courses had topic titles like “Truth Be Told: Writing Creative Non-fiction.” and “Writing Your Life.” Stephen King asserts in his book on writing that there is no magic bullet to learning the craft of writing and I believe he’s correct. He particularly finds the idea of “workshopping” a bit tedious and not especially helpful when you get back comments like “I liked the tone.” You certainly get those types of comments, non-specific and unclear. But in my experience, I actually appreciated the aspect of workshopping of my writing by the instructor and many of the other students in my classes. I was fortunate that in most of the courses I took, the class size was about 15 students who represented a cross section of age groups, writing genres and interests. Much of their feedback was useful, some immensely helpful.
I had a story in mind. It is estimated that between 1942 and 1952 over 1 million women from over 50 countries married American GI’s, according to the World War II War Brides Association. I think theirs is an compelling account of how wartime changed the destinies of so many in unexpected ways, and that the telling of their story adds so much to what we know about that generation. My mother-in-law was an Italian war bride who came to America shortly after World War II. She is still very much alive and we talk often about her coming here. Using her experience, against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy, my telling of her story begins with meeting the American GI who would become her husband, fighting the resistance of her family, and proceeding with her eventual marriage, leaving Italy and her home, and the span of her life in America. I presented excerpts of the story to the class. The students were reading it cold for the first time. They asked me questions about her and her husband that familiarity made me overlook and the answers to which would enhance the story tremendously. “How did they communicate and fall in love when neither knew the other’s language?” “Was she rebellious?” “Why did she leave this family and country that she loved so much?” “I’d like to know more about her first impressions of America.” One very insightful student offered that for parts of the story that I may never know, – for example, dialogue in actual conversations – I could imagine it. She told me of a novel she had read called “The Gathering” by Anne Enright in which the first person narrator imagines her grandmother’s first meeting with her grandfather and goes on to imagine additional scenes from their marriage.
But that leads me to another dilemma. Is my war brides story historical fiction or a memoir? Does fictionalizing parts of my mother-in-law’s story give it the honor it deserves? Do I write it as historical fiction, fiction “based on” her life within the backdrop of historical facts, or literary nonfiction, making personal observations and employing a variety of literary techniques to communicate facts? This quandry, folks, is a large part of why this book is not yet completed!
In the realm of memoir, I, like Mary Karr, am pretty much of a purist. In her book, The Art of Memoir, she says, and I love this: “If after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.” Likewise, If you tell me that what you are writing is true, at least the speaker’s truth based on his or her recollection, then I want to believe that. If the writer sticks in little embellishments here and there and the reader doesn’t know where they are, then the reader can feel bamboozled. That’s not what I plunked down my $30 for and what I intended to read.
I made the usual rookie mistake with my initial attempt at writing about mother-in-law’s experience in that it is a very big story and I tried to tackle all of it in one gulp. The depth and breadth of it was so overwhelming to me, the novice writer, along with the genre problem noted above, that I have set it aside for now. While I believe that the writing courses and workshops that I have taken have been of benefit to me, I have come around to Stephen King’s point of view: “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed.”
By writing I’ve become a much more aware reader. I’m in awe of an especially beautiful or poignantly written description, of realistic dialogue, of the use of seamless techniques done well that move the story forward. For example, in The Invention of Wings, the author Sue Monk Kidd goes back and forth between Handful, the slave, and Sarah, the abolitionist, as the narrators to tell the story. It worked so beautifully.
In addition to more formal education through classes, I started reading about writing. A friend, a writer herself, sent me a favorite book on writing by Anne Lamott called “Bird by Bird,” which has become one of the staples in my library of books about writing, and one that I go to for encouragement when my writing hits a block. In her book, Lamott quoted E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s why right now I’m concentrating on short assignments, the genesis of this blog. Lamott tells the story of her brother when he was ten years old and overwhelmed by needing to write a report on birds which was due the next day. He was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by his notebooks and books on birds and was close to tears when her father sat down beside him and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” I will eventually pick up the war brides story again and try to heed that advice.
Over the course of time, I have also added to my writer’s reading list “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr, mentioned above, and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen King’s books, if you’re interested in writing, I think you will find his book informative and nurturing. There are many others but the Lamott, Karr and King books are my top three.
Finally, I want say that my evolution as a writer has a long way to go but I love that I’m doing it. I grapple with the audacity of even calling myself a writer. At first it sounded so pretentious to me. But I’ve come to believe over the three years that I’ve been doing it, that if you write, you’re a writer. Period.
See you next time…..