Finding Starts in Personal Essay Writing: Part 1

[The following article appeared first in “The Heart and Craft and of Life Writing.”] It  might not be obvious that those of us who write personal essays can benefit greatly from not knowing what we have to write about.  That is surprising to people who think of the essay as researched knowledge with a professorial, … Continue reading
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Acknowledging the Value of Your Writing: Exercises for Week One and Two of Four

I have been teaching a class called “Writing is a Friend with Extraordinary Benefits” for a couple of years now through Women on Writing. I have been extremely engaged in what my students write and thrilled by the evidence that by writing from certain models the writers have reaffirmed their belief in the value of writing. After … Continue reading
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Writing About Painful Topics

My friend, the essayist Brenda Miller, wrote the introduction to my memoir A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief. “I understood then,” she wrote, “that grief can be a channel in which you swim alone, where you can also find your brethren as they flicker along beside you, their bodies gliding … Continue reading
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Writing the Eulogy

As my mother’s 90th birthday approaches, my husband and I have sorted through photographs from nine decades of her life. He is making a photo essay book to be given to her this Sunday and shared with guests at the party we are making.

As we sorted, I reached into a manila envelope and to my surprise, it wasn’t a photo inside but a record, the size of a 45 rpm, with a note, “Bert and Arline, March 1945” handwritten on the label. I soon went to see a DJ at KPTZ FM, the station for which I produce my program “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” The DJ kindly used the equipment the station has to play what turned out to be a 78 record.

Everyone there at the studio stood in the soundproof room waiting to hear what my parents, who were 18 at the time, said to one another in a recording booth they must have dropped into in NY six months before they eloped and probably just as my dad prepared to leave for Oklahoma having enlisted in the Navy. It’s a short recording. One of the most endearing moments for me is when my father says, “I love you so much” and then asks, “Do you love me?” My mother says, “Yes, I do.” My dad asks, “Why?” And she laughs, “God only knows.”

So, I am thinking of my dad a lot as we prepare for this weekend’s celebration. I have gone into my files to find the eulogy I wrote for his funeral services. I see that I employed anaphora, the craft form I wrote about last week. I am sharing the writing I read at my father’s funeral in the hopes that it may help you if are tasked with writing a eulogy or want to write one, even long after a person has died.

As you will see, repeating a specific phrase helped me keep writing and conjuring moments infused with meaning for me.

At My Father’s Funeral, 2001, The Words I Shared

When I think of my father, I think of the words he taught me: presentable as in his morning question those years he was climbing the corporate ladder, “Do I look presentable;” indispensable as in the mantra that kept him motivated toward excellence, “No man is indispensable;” and the one he taught us using the British pronunciation because the company he worked for had had research done there, “laboratory.”

When I think of my father, I think of the way he taught me to be conscientious, honest, forthright, and disciplined. Homework was to get done, goals were to be set and reached, and mistakes were to be noted and fixed.

I think of the gifts he most cherished giving my sister and me—copies of books like Treasure Island, a white football he tried to teach us to throw, a chemistry set we could only use with him as our proctor, money for college saved each week in the blue envelopes we brought to school.

I think of the things we took as gifts—riding his shoulders to play at great height in a swimming pool, his hand on the back of our two wheeler seats as we pedaled down the sidewalk learning to balance, his driving lessons and the degree of attention and seriousness he gave the task and his bravery sitting with us as we pressed the accelerator and learned to steer. He concentrated on helping us learn to make our way as well as helping our way be joyous. When I had my first job as an administrator and found the nonprofit I worked for was in the red, my father came to visit and sat for hours teaching me how to create, monitor, and control an organization’s budget. When my teenage son designed my husband and I a house, he donated the financing for skylights, an extra that would make all the difference to his grandson project. When I had a collection of poems that needed presales for the small press to make a print run, my father ordered about 50 copies and eventually gave them out like cigars when a baby is born.

When my dad’s health declined these past few years, I began writing poems incorporating my memories of his fathering. I would like to share one today because I think it best evokes his nature and what I will always treasure.

Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me

                                                            For my father

I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
he’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
and kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.

I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
at our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
he took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
on a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.

I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
when gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
with a scissors, showing my sister and me that chores get done.

I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water
underfoot, he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess;
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.

I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control.
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.

***

As a writer, repeating phrases helps me occupy and contain my abstraction-making mind so my image-making mind can deliver the details that bring my subject alive without me worrying about how to fit them into a narrative.

One of the beautiful things about a eulogy, in prose or in poetry, is the way that in honoring the dead with details and images, both writer and listener resurrect a life.

I do not know what memories my mom will find flooding in as we share my young father’s and young mother’s voices and the decades of photos with her and family members this Sunday. But I do know that whatever that reaction, it will usher in an occasion from which I will write. I know that the technique of anaphora will help me include more than I might otherwise be able to comfortably gather into one piece of writing.

Understanding Your Writing and Your Need to Write

How does one muster the courage to keep writing even when no one has asked for her to write? How does a writer handle restlessness and disappointment? The author Ralph Keyes writes in The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear that when he started out as a writer, he had no idea that courage … Continue reading
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My Sure Fire Methods of Self-Sabotage (and What I’ve Done to Turn Them Around)

We’ll soon be thinking about the New Year’s Resolutions we want to make for 2017. For those who write, at least one of those resolutions will likely be about finding more time to write. I know that’s what I’d like to find in 2017. It’s not enough, though, to resolve to find that time. I … Continue reading
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In Conversation with Meg Files and Jack Heffron

We have two new podcasts ready for you to listen to. They are conversations with Meg Files and with Jack Heffron. It was fun and informative having two of my favorite writing and teaching colleagues as guests this summer on my KPTZ FM radio program, In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.

Below are links to those two programs as well as links to previous Writing It Real articles featuring Jack and Meg’s writing and thoughts about writing. It’s a feast!

The Podcasts

Writing It Real Articles by Meg Files

Writing It Real Articles by Jack Heffron

Finding Form

Tarn Wilson delivered this paper for a panel on “Hydra-Headed Memoirs & Well-Connected Essays” at the 2015 Nonfiction Now conference. I am delighted to have her permission to post her words for Writing It Real readers. Tarn’s lovely memoir is The Slow Farm. She uses her experience writing it to inform other writers about her … Continue reading
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Clear the Debris of Abstraction and Sentimentality

As the Presidential candidates for nomination continue to gather followers with predictable phrases, and pundits attempt to predict who the will be the frontrunners, I am reminded of the importance of writing toward felt insight. We need to leave abstracting and sentimentality behind if we are to find insight and make deep connections with ourselves and others through our writing. … Continue reading
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Wash and Shine the Fruit of Your Labor

I believe that we write in three stages–we act as playful inventors on the page, move on to the task of shaping our experience, and finally edit what we have written. Although these stages sometimes overlap a bit, on the whole, they are best thought of as separate. Just as we must never short circuit … Continue reading
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Get Real Response to Your Writing from Anyone

We too often receive unhelpful, even harmful, response from first readers of our early drafts. We may feel our writing is being ripped apart or our readers are more interested in fixing punctuation and grammar than in our subject and feelings. Or we may hear, “That’s nice,” which is deflating and doesn’t really help us move deeper into our … Continue reading
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Cognitive Therapy for Writers: Behave Your Way Into Writing

When it comes to writing, we so often undermine our efforts by thinking that we are not disciplined enough, educated enough, smart enough, skilled enough, or wise enough to call ourselves writers. We must find ways to change that thinking if we are to allow writing an important place in our lives. It matters that we … Continue reading
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What Have We Here: A Conversation with Susan Bono About Her New Collection of Essays

For writer and small press publisher (Tiny Lights) Susan Bono, the last thirty years have mostly been about trying to stay ahead of a husband, growing kids, aging parents, and an eccentric old house, in spite of detours, deadlines, unexpected changes, and inevitable losses. But through it all, she’s been taking notes. In her collection of … Continue reading
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For Writers, “Finders Keepers” Can Mean “Finders Re-arrangers”

As writers, our ears are tuned for measuring the quality of the words we hear around us. Sometimes, our ears catch speech we think is pure poetry or could be if read that way. We find that with a little rearranging these words express more humor, more awe, more despair, or more of the irony and quirkiness of … Continue reading
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You Could Be Writing, Not Waiting to Write: Four Very Portable Short Forms

Before appointments, when a meeting hasn’t started, when a bus hasn’t come, when a friend is late, when you have finished something and still have time before the next thing in your day, when you arrive early to work — do you write or reflexively check your email or text a friend or leaf through … Continue reading
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The Interview: A Way to Write More Complex Characters in Your Memoir

Often when I try to write about my mother the same details surface. In my childhood memories she is always busy either working or participating on different committees; when she is home she is tired and does not like to cook. Now that I am an adult, my mother and I talk on the telephone … Continue reading
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Interview with Memoirist Tarn Wilson, Part III: Writing About Others and The Journey to Publication

Last week we posted Part II of my interview with Tarn Wilson about her memoir The Slow Farm. We talked about different ways of bringing back memories and how to write from a child’s viewpoint as an adult. This week, she shares the way she approaches writing about family members consciously and compassionately way, provides … Continue reading
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Interview With Memoirist Tarn Wilson, Part II: The Art of Remembering

Last week we posted the first part of my interview with Tarn Wilson about her memoir The Slow Farm. Tarn and I talked about how she used artifacts to reconstruct the past and how she structured her book. This week Tarn and I discuss the art of remembering. Tarn tells us about how she finds … Continue reading
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Writing Your Way in the Back Door: The Painting as Entry

Christine Hemp offers us her thinking about how we may find our prose and poetry’s true subjects followed by a writing exercise for practice and two sample poems. [This article and exercise were originally published in Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, from Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, edited by Sherry … Continue reading
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Interview with Memoirist Sue William Silverman

I am pleased to publish this interview with award winning memoirist Sue William Silverman about the writing of her newest memoir and her advice to those of us who write from personal experience. The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, follows two earlier memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I … Continue reading
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