Elegy on WordPress

Two days ago Daisy, a dear friend of the family lost her 7-year battle with cancer. This woman, my mother’s best friend, has been in my life since I started Kindergarten. She’d been at every birthday party, graduation, and religious ceremony I’d ever had. I could

Daisy and me on my wedding day
Daisy and me on my wedding day

describe our relationship to be of the aunt/niece variety, complete with plenty of adolescent drama.

When my husband and I decided to get married in September without the bells and whistles of a big wedding, she was one of the select few people who knew about it. And she was there, filming the entire ceremony on my Android phone while I said my vows under a tent in my childhood backyard. When I look at my marriage certificate, it is her scratchy penmanship that stares back at me from the witness line.

I had planned to visit her in the hospital on Wednesday night. I got the message just a few hours before leaving work that she was already gone. While I wish I had the chance to say goodbye, I’m almost glad I didn’t. The final image I have of her is the one from my wedding day, crying just as hard as my own mother was, and not the image of her wasting away in a hospital room.

Today I need to sit through her memorial service. I say “need to” not because I feel forced to attend, but rather because I consider the funeral to be the toughest part in coping with death. After this, I’ll have time to process the loss, maybe even write about her more in-depth.

I know this post is doing a poor job at describing who Daisy was, but I didn’t want to risk the cliche descriptions that people use like, “she was a good person” or “she could light up the room with her smile.” This post is more for me anyway, as selfish as that sounds.

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To Burn or Not to Burn: The Case for Journal Destruction

I read an article in Poets & Writers recently (albeit a few issues late) about successful poets and their usage of the personal journal. The women featured, Lisa Fay Coutley, Claudia Emerson, and Anna Leahy, were all in agreement that the journal is a helpful tool for writers. After all, it is both a means for practicing the craft while also giving an outlet for all of the things that we may have bottled up inside us. In many cases, the ability to journal in some form provides us an opportunity to improve our paper-623167_1280physical and mental health, which I wrote about on my other blog some months back.

I too keep a journal and have been doing so on and off since age 10. I suppose my need to journal was inspired by the Dear America Diaries, a historical fiction series where each book is meant to be the diary of a girl from some period in history. The books even have gilded pages and a ribbon bookmark, which added to my awe of them. Like the girls in those books, I wanted to be remembered years after my death because of what was found in my diary.

Obviously, I’m fully aware that each of those diaries was a made up work by a modern day author. Even so, the habit has stuck, and I continue to chronicle my thoughts about some of the more memorable things that occur in my life. But it wasn’t until I read the article that I ever considered burning my journals before my death.

The poets, who appear to favor Moleskin notebooks over the gilded pages I choose for myself, have gone so far as to burn 30 years worth of private journals. I felt a tightness in my chest upon reading that line, and the horrifying image of my own journals piled up and melting in my backyard fire pit flashed before my eyes. But then I went back and read the line they quoted from one of my favorite Joan Didion essays, “On Keeping a Notebook”: “So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”

So, that’s basically where I noticed the flaw in my childhood plan- 13 years after the fact. Did I want to be remembered by the emotional scribblings in my diaries? Do I want the world to know my demons, fears, anxieties, and most secretive opinions? Most importantly, do I want to be remembered by my edited and put-together published work, or be known as the chick with the loose screw? I haven’t been trying to keep a historical record: I’ve been writing my own, very biased viewpoint on things that probably aren’t so dire and tragic as I make them out to be in my head.

My journal is my place to be myself. I can let my guard down and not care about censoring what I have to say, which is not something I will always be able to do publicly. After all, if I wanted everything I wrote to be public, wouldn’t I just save myself some money and put it up here?

My husband keeps a journal as well. I discussed the article with him one night while we were both writing new entries. We have an agreement that should anything happen to either of us, the other is supposed to burn all of the journals. Like the poets, I want my husband to remember me not by what I wrote, but by my daily actions. Likewise, I wouldn’t want my lasting memory of him to be what he thought about me on x day x number of years ago when we were bickering about something. Even marriage doesn’t allow for total transparency, though I would never advocate dishonesty. Some things are meant to be turned into fiction or poetry or a personal essay. Other things really should die with their owners.

 

When Writing and Life Overlap

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photo credit: Vince Kusters via photopin cc

This past month I’ve been working pretty steadily on a book-length memoir. It was prompted by a medical memoir piece I had to write for a class I took this previous semester. The entire book revolves around my relationship with my mother and the autoimmune disease we share (I’m aware that this sounds boring, but it’s too early in the game for entertaining back matter anyway).

I’m used to opening up about my private life on the Web, but a memoir takes things to a whole new level. While it’s okay for me to talk about my writer-ly musings here or about my experience living with a disease on My Battle With RA, a memoir almost always involves other people in some way. Sometimes, the people who show up in memoirs aren’t always portrayed in the best light. Memoirs are chock full of skeletons and deeply buried memories. That’s what pulls readers in. I speak generally, of course.

I’m totally cool with putting my stuff out there. No shame. Problem is that I don’t know how well Mom or any other people I mention will take it. I’m working diligently to make sure that the information I give is accurate and focuses mainly on my childhood interpretation of things, because the last thing I want to do is humiliate my mother and piss off relatives.

This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot. My fiance is trying to break into standup comedy. As artists, we realize that our relationship and our individual careers are going to coincide more often than the norm. He’s going to want to make fun of me on stage, and for good reason. I’m going to want to base fictional characters off of him, include him in future memoir pieces, or write about him here. We both have the mutual understanding that we can never flip off the artist switch for the sake of the other’s feelings. It’s unfair to stifle art, especially when it’s another creative doing the stifling. We’re pursuing things that require life experience the same way a car needs gas.

We have an agreement that anything goes, but if it’s something of a sensitive nature, we’ll at least inform the other beforehand. There’s a scene in my memoir  where I write about a particularly serious conversation we had regarding our future, and I made sure he was aware of it. Still, I know he won’t try to stop me.

How does that translate with other people though? I’m not the first to face this dilemma. How many stories have been abandoned simply because others didn’t want them published? I don’t think I have to worry too much, but the thought hangs over my head like a black cloud whenever I sit down at the computer. I know my mother is supportive of my career and would never accuse me of intentionally trying to hurt anyone, but what if she tells me that my memoir makes her uncomfortable? Do I respectfully accept that it will never get published? Do I publish anyway and expect her to “just deal?” In my opinion, this piece is one of the better things I’ve written recently. Do I deny myself the opportunity?

Sometimes being a writer sucks with its many “what-ifs.” I try not to let too many outside influences dictate my projects, or I’d never get anything accomplished. I’m going to need to mention this project eventually. I’m deciding to wait until I’m finished with a draft. It’s like going into a board meeting with a fancy Powerpoint presentation and selling an idea. I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therapeutic Writing?

I went to work Tuesday morning and made it about as far as the office door before I broke down sobbing. I think I was about as shocked as my coworkers were. My Dad has been dead for almost six years already, so why would his birthday set me off now when it never did before? My friend and coworker Bryanna, my writing buddy, allowed me to lock myself her office until I could gain my composure again.

When I emerged, puffy-eyed and slightly horrified that I pulled this stunt at work, I sat down with Bry and told her about my confusion. “Why is this bothering me all of a sudden?” I asked. There are certainly potential triggers in my life. With college graduation and an engagement proposal looming on the horizon, I figured I was subconsciously thinking about all of the milestones my father was going to miss. But I’ve hit a ton of important milestones without him.

Bry had a very different idea of what the problem was. “You’ve been writing about him a lot lately. You said yourself that you weren’t allowed to grieve properly. All that writing is letting the grief bubble up.”

I’m going with her theory. Dad died when I was 16, but it’s only now at 22 that I’m able to write about him. I recently wrote a memoir piece about the day he died and how I felt seeing his lifeless body. I cried quite a bit throughout the writing and revision process, but that seemed normal. It was a depressing topic to begin with. I wrote a few poems about him recently too. For whatever reason, I was just compelled to keep writing about him.

Bry is right though; I never had the chance to really grieve. I had to be the emotional support for my mother and sister. I threw myself into work and school and my future, and I pushed down all of the emotions that might break me. Writing about those raw emotions that I suppressed opened the floodgates, and now I’m being forced to cope with all of the things I’ve been putting off for a more convenient time.

Just a few months ago I went to listen to Christa Parravani read from her memoir, Her, which is about coping with her sister’s death. During her Q&A session she said something that will probably forever stick with me: “Writing shouldn’t be therapeutic.” I agree. Good writing pulls up all of your demons. Those emotions translate into more memorable and poetic sentences, the kinds that stick with your reader and toy with their empathy. The act of finishing a piece like this  might bring some relief, but the writing process itself feels like an extremely emotional long-distance run. This run has left me exhausted and mentally drained, but tomorrow’s a new day and I’m gearing up for more.