Reposting this wonderful blog by Julija Sukys on the anxiety writers face when sharing their stories with family–via From the Desk of Julija Šukys: The Anxiety of Publishing Family Stories
Grief is a subject I return to again and again. her is my tiny essay “On Old Grief,” just published in #TinyEssays #grief #memory #friendship #mourning
You look at your plants, and notice one is dead. You forgot to water it.
She would have been fifty-seven this year. You left her, like you left Sicily. She died thirty years ago. Her death anniversary comes and goes unnoticed while recent sorrows assail you. You are thinking of another friend, who died three weeks ago—an older friend, the friend of your wiser years. You never left her.
Today you also think of your mother, aging and ailing an ocean away. You watch the political horror show on MSNBC. You share some shit on Facebook about the republicans in Ohio who want to make motherhood compulsory. You put away the white china with gold lines from Thanksgiving dinner. You sort the laundry. You argue with your husband. You call your mother and try to tell her you love her, but she’s tired and wants to hang up. You facetime…
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The story of my body is dark and painful. It is a story filled with secrets, suffering, and oppression. It is a story of gains and losses, both physical and mental. You see, my body, this sacred body of mine, has been through hell and back. You see, I’ve starved my body, my mind, and my soul from the simplicity and ease of both food and life for the past six years. I am Sofia Madrid and I struggle with an eating disorder. I blatantly chose to not identify myself as an anorexic or a bulimic. I hate those two words with a burning passion. I struggle with an illness, but I am not this illness. I struggle with anorexia nervosa, but I am not an anorexic. For years I identified myself through my illness. The eating disorder let me to believe that it was all that I had. I’ve…
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“This was great. I got a lot out of it.” Louise said. I enthusiastically agreed as I looked at the notes I had typed, feeling inspired to return to my writing tomorrow. “I can’t wait,” I thought, feeling really grateful for my wonderful writing partner of so many years.
Louise DeSalvo and I have been writing partners for almost twenty years. I have learned a lot from our writing relationship. It has been foundational to my writing. The fact that we do not read each other’s work on a regular basis, but only at key moments in our writing (and even then, we may do so only selectively) makes the relationship really freeing. We do not get distracted by having to read each other’s work regularly. We just talk about it—which is actually very useful, as it forces each of us to describe our work and the challenges we are facing with clarity and focus.
We feel fortunate to be able to have this writing partnership, which is part of a rich relationship. Louise has written about it in her blog.https://writingalife.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/writing-partners/
Today, I realized something else about this rewarding ongoing experience that has made me a better writer and editor—and a happier one, too. As in writing, the practice matters. It makes the difference. It makes good things happen–when you least expect it.
Louise and I talk at least once a week about our writing, though our writing finds its way through our almost daily conversation, even if only with the question “How’s the writing today?” But on Mondays, it’s different. We take turns describing where we are in the writing, what issues we are dealing with, what we want to do next. We listen carefully. We offer suggestions. We take notes. And we get out writing plan for the week.
Most of our Monday conversations are useful but not always earth-shattering. An insight here, a suggestion there, the much-needed encouragement and support in moments when we feel dejected. But some days are special. They are rare gifts. Like today.
Today we talked for longer than usual, and we had a lot to say.
Louise helped me see how using a section that is currently buried in the middle of a chapter as my opening will transform the core of this chapter. She also helped me realize how digging into and building my character, as I have been doing during this last round of revision, has expanded and deepened the scope of my memoir, moving the narrative from self-blame to empathy. When I said that I have discovered that my narrator is getting smarter, Louise urged me: “You need to write about the process of realization that the writing itself has made possible.” And, of course, I will listen.
Then we turned to her writing. First, we talked about adjustments that she needed to make to her writing schedule. She apologized for going on for too long about such a trivial matter, but I reminded her that I learned from her that attending to the practicality of structuring your writing time is essential. We talked some more until she had a solution that required some compromising but might just work. She is working on a collection of essays that are closely related to some of the books she has written. She has been thinking about the introduction. We plunged into a conversation on the relationship between memoir and essay, which is so central to her work, and some of the ideas she could use in the introduction to frame the book. She took notes.
A few other ideas, and then we were done.
It was as fulfilling as one of the delicious meals I have eaten at Louise’s house.
I cherish my writing partnership with Louise for so many reasons. And here is another one: it has taught me that, like the writing practice, a writing partnership has its own rhythms, and you never know when the great revelations, the brilliant insights, the answers you could not find on your own will happen—but they will, if you show up, week after week.
To my memoir students, who have just started working on their final projects and have chosen their writing partners, keep that in mind as you learn about and share each other’s work ideas. Develop the habit, the practice. Show up for each other–and you will be showing up for yourself.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911 occupies a special place in my life and in my teaching–for years, I have been committed to finding a place in the curriculum for the Fire, and my students have always responded well. Here is a piece I just wrote about the Fire. I have an essay in me about teaching the Fire. One of these days…(although there is a section on the Fire in Teaching Italian American Literature, Film, and Popular Culture, a book I edited with Kathleen Zamboni McCormick).
It’s the last day of classes and the students from my memoir workshop are working on the final draft. They are self-workshopping. They have brought their draft and I offer them guided editorial tips: Circle your best phrases—is one of them your title? Find three key scenes and revisit them—what is missing? What is the memoir’s central insight? Where does it appear? Go to your last line, and then the penultimate line, and figure out whether that is your last line. A few students nod and smile, as they delete that last line. “How did you know?” They ask. “Oh, I am a witch,” I say. We like to be playful in this class, but we are deeply serious about the work, the craft, the commitment.
In spite of the seriousness of the editing work and the contents of these students’ memoirs, many of which deal with traumatic experiences (death, domestic violence, cancer), there is a relaxed atmosphere, a sense of trust and camraderie that we have been working hard to build over the last fifteen weeks. Periodically, I ask the students to get up from their chairs and find a classmate they have not worked with previously and to share their editorial findings. I am moved by the reciprocity and trust that rule in this classroom.
We have been working for about an hour and it’s time to turn to the “jugular.” The dozen faces in the magic circle of the writing workshop are turned towards me. I want their attention now: “Go for the jugular: this is what Natalie Goldberg encourages writers to do.” I used to tell my students that too but, over time—I have been teaching memoir for seventeen years—I have learned to qualify my statement. “Yes, go for the jugular,” I repeat, “as long as it’s safe, as long as you know how to handle what Louise DeSalvo calls in her memoir Vertigo ‘the scalpel of language.’” I encourage my students to tackle difficult issues, to revisit past memories, but I also urge them to remember that memoir writing is not about telling it all now—it’s about telling the story you are ready to tell, and that you feel safe to tell.
Now, I am not a teacher who preaches comfort and easy work, but safety, when working with beginning writers who do not have years of writing practice and proven writing discipline, is of the essence.
“Look for discomfort,” I say, “and push for that. Do not run away from discomfort in your writing.”
“Look for the edge. Find that place in your writing where you are pushing yourself into new territories, whether through voice or story (not that the two are so easily distinguishable).”
The heads are now bent on the paper. The faces are serious. The sound of pages being turned, pens circling lines and scribbling notes.
Finally, I guide them through a writing prompt. “What is your edge?” I ask one student. “Being betrayed by my siblings,” the student says. I turn to another student, and then another. “What about you?” Someone declines to share—and that is fine. One of our guidelines is that no one is under the obligation to share what they write in class—this way they are free to explore, to tap into the unknown, and to differentiate between self-exploration and self-exposure. After hearing from a few students, I turn to the class. “Now, place your edge in a sentence, something like ‘my edge is leaving my mother’s home because….’ Finish the sentence and keep writing until I tell you to stop.”
I am a big fan of guided prompts short, self-contained exercises that both “hold” and free the writer, allowing him or her to bypass the fears, the censors, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. For today, I hope the prompt will help these writers to approach the edge safely, to move through fear towards fearlessness, to understand that fine distinction between the tell-it-all narrative, with very little if any sense of how one has to process memory work, and the finely crafted memoir narrative in which one taps into the unknown, the unexplored, and constructs a new self through writing.
MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR
A key component of my memoir workshops is reflecting on the creative process. I encourage my students to befriend their process through writing (in their process journal and in-class writing prompts) and class discussion. So I was thrilled when Joanna Clapps Herman invited me to participate in My Writing Process Blog tour. Joanna is one of my closest Italian American sisters. Twenty years or so of friendship, developed over telephone conversations, minestrone and good Italian wine, a baby shower she and her wonderful–and much missed–husband Bill Herman gave me and my husband before the birth of our son Matteo, Easter dinners and New Year’s Eve parties, birthday parties, book parties, weddings, and deaths, too—the shared work of mourning. We have sustained each other–manuscripts, writers’ gatherings, conferences, book publications, anthologies I edited, anthologies she edited. Joanna and I have grown to know each other’s work and processes intimately. She has a special understanding of the parts of my writing life, divided between editing and writing, and my constant struggle to bridge the two–to relish their connections, but also to recognize the limitations that being an editor necessarily place on a writer’s work–from time and energy to the dilution of the single focus that writing requires–and ultimately to know when it is time to let go. Even though I have published a single-authored book (Writing with an Accent: Contemporary Italian American Women Authors; Palgrave, 2002), and many other single-authored writings–scholarly essays, personal essays, memoirs, poems, flash nonfiction, translations, reviews—I have, for most of my writing career, devoted the bulk of my time to editing. Apart from coediting Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy for six years and, over two decades, taking on the editing of various other projects—from conference proceedings to special issues of journals—the Italian American anthologies—five in thirteen years—have clamored for every bit of my writer’s time, and I have given it willingly. Sometime in late 1992, I committed myself to doing whatever I could to promote the recognition of a literary tradition that I was passionate about and that was virtually unknown at the time—and so came the first anthology, The Milk of Almonds (edited with Louise DeSalvo; The Feminist Press, 2002), and while I was still proofing the copyedited manuscript, I was already at work on Italian American Writers on New Jersey (edited with Jennifer Gillan and Maria Mazziotti Gillan; Rutgers University Press, 2003). I wanted to bring the writers together. There is power in numbers: 54 in one anthology; almost 40 in another. I think it worked. But now, as my last two anthologies (Embroidered Stories, edited with Joseph Sciorra, University Press of Mississippi, and Personal Effects, edited with Nancy Caronia, Fordham University Press), are in the final stages of production–both due this year–I am shifting. I am letting go. I am saying farewell to editing. It’s time.
WHAT I AM WORKING ON
On the screen saver of my computer, there is a black and white photo of a young woman. She is smiling, her eyes are semiclosed, her hair is covered by a kerchief, peasant style. She is holding a camera. She is nineteen. She is Sonia, beloved girlfriend of my youth, who died of breast cancer at twenty-seven. In between the teaching and the editing and the scholarly projects, over the last few years I have found pockets of time to begin writing a memoir about my Sonia, the girl I loved so deeply, and lost even before she died. In the months preceding her death, I vanished from her life. I did not find out about her death until years later. It has taken me many years to be ready to go back to that younger self, to the young woman who participated with Sonia in feminist marches in Catania, and felt, for a half-Sicilian, half-Swiss girl, that exquisite kind of girlfriend love that I still find myself craving over thirty years later.
HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRES
I am a scholar. My memoir writing is shaped by my scholarly self. I am fascinated by the processes that lead to the discovery and use (in writing) of the forgotten archives of memory.
I am also a Sicilian woman, born and raised in the Italian language (though as a toddler I spoke Sicilian, visceral language of my people, loved and loathed at a time in which Sicily was trying to become Italian). I am a woman who speaks with a thick Sicilian accent and writes only in English. Even though I did not come to the United States until I was twenty-five and already a college graduate, I resist writing in Italian. I cherish the foreignness of the English tongue, the separateness I feel in my relationship to these alien words through which I tell stories I dig out of myself with the care and trepidation of an archeologist—actually no, not an archeologist. A tombarolo, one of those tomb raiders so familiar in the landscape of my island—that’s more like it. Tombaroli have an intimate knowledge of archeology without the academic accoutrements. These men, often barely literate, find ancient tombs from Greek and pre-Greek times and sell their contents, or keep them, or give them away as gifts. It’s all done in secret. They operate outside the bounds of legality.
Here I am, returning to Sonia after I left her, wanting to witness after walking away from the site where I should have stayed, unmovable. Love, grief, betrayal: I am interested in this knot of emotions, how it gets played out in the act of remembering, how it becomes writing and story.
My yoga practice, which came late into my life–about six years ago, although it became so important that in 2011 I became a certified yoga teacher–also shapes my memoir writing. Bypassing the ego, the practice of non-attachment, singular moments regarded as inhalations and exhalations—these are some of the ideas that have helped me define and understand my memoir vision and practice, as a writer and a teacher.
WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO
I write of Sicily, its geography and myths; I write of family, of things I barely remember or do not know at all. I am drawn to write about loss and separation, and that is partly a function of my being an immigrant and a Sicilian. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia has said that “Sicily is a dream, and if one doesn’t have imagination, how can one dream it?” Writing is how I dream of Sicily.
I don’t choose what to write. I believe stories and subjects choose you and you have to surrender to them. This memoir about Sonia, for example, came at a time when I was in the midst of a cross-generational family memoir about the women on the maternal side of my family. I resisted for a while, but this story kept prodding and nothing else would come. I did not have a choice. I had to begin following Sonia. I like what Victoria Nelson says: writer’s block is the result of trying to get the unconscious to do what it does not want to do.
HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK
My writing process is systematic and chaotic, deliberate and accidental. I am constantly striving to maintain a writing routine, which has been difficult in the midst of myriad scholarly and academic commitments. I produce larger writing chunks during those times when I forcefully cut out writing time to devote solely to memoir. There is something about meeting yourself at the desk with regularity that allows for good writing days to occur relatively predictably, alongside the not-so-good days (although I am always surprised by the fact that, in retrospect, bad writing days often produce good work). I also can be very productive outside the usual writing space/routine situations. For example, when driving long distance (my husband at the wheel), I will take a chapter to read and edit. It always works. I get some of my best insights in the car. There is something about being in motion, in flux, in between places, that allows me to tap into a particularly lucid and insightful writing self. Going over a manuscript during a weekend away from home–like last summer at the Jersey shore–will lead to meaningful revelations about a scene, the structure of a chapter, or a writing issue that has been plaguing me. I also find the process journal very helpful as it allows me to think aloud and put into words writing problems that have been nagging me. Possible solutions often emerge through the flow of the ink on the lined pages of marble composition notebooks—and then they trickle almost effortlessly into the work. While I keep a designated notebook for my process journal, I also love the Notes app on my phone to jot down ideas as they come, in the most unexpected moments. Talking about writing with fellow writers and writing partners also sustains me as does teaching memoir. I love to work closely with my student writers and I always try to work through the challenges I set for them in my own writing.
HOW DOES MY PROCESS NOT WORK
When I judge the outcome of a day’s work in the moment. When I am too attached to the outcome instead of focusing on the task at hand. When I spend more time talking about the writing than writing. When I feel so anxious about a writing problem that I look for distraction, any distraction, rather than contemplating the problem and befriending it.
Learning to stay, which is at the heart of meditation, is key. If I am gone, if I do not stay, then I cannot be in the flow of my process.
Henriette Lazaridis Power‘s debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine in 2013 and was a Boston Globe best-seller and a Target Emerging Authors selection. Power has degrees in English Literature from Middlebury College; Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar; and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught English literature at Harvard for ten years. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, New England Review, The New York Times online, The Millions, Huffington Post, and elsewhere, and she was the recipient of a 2006 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. In 2010, she launched The Drum, a literary magazine publishing exclusively in audio form. A competitive rower, Power trains regularly on the Charles River in Boston. www.henriettepower.tumblr.com
Tiziana Rinaldi Castro was born in Italy in 1965, and came to New York in 1984. She teaches Ancient Greek Literature at Montclair State University. In Italy she has published a book of poetry: Dai Morti (Ed. Tesauro, 1992) and two novels, Il Lungo Ritorno (EO, 2001) and Due cose amare e una dolce (EO, 2007). The latter is to be published in France by Cap Editions, Paris. She has completed two other novels in Italian, which are presently awaiting publication, and is currently working on her first novel in English. https://www.facebook.com/tippiblue?fref=ts
Born in the twin isles of Trinidad and Tobago, Krystal A. Sital immigrated to the United States at twelve. She’s been writing since childhood. In 2010 she won the Walter Glospie Academy of American Poets Prize. She received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Hunter College, where she was a Hertog Fellow, was awarded the Memoir Prize and the Audre Lorde Award. Her poetry, memoirs, stories, book reviews, and interviews have been published in The Caribbean Writer, The Tottenville Review, Vine Leaves, The Review Review, 100 Word Story, Underground Books, and elsewhere. She is the Assistant Editor and Book Reviewer for Vine Leaves Literary Journal. kasital.wordpress.com