Saturday, June 21, 2008

Reaching out through memoir

Roger stood on the shore of the lake and dug a toe in the sand. He was a lifelong friend, a loving family man, and as a vigorous fundamentalist, was known to lose no opportunity to proselytize for Christ. It had been a year since my first husband committed suicide and Roger hadn't even sent me a card. I was pretty sure this was because he thought my husband had taken a shortcut to hell, but unlike some others he kept this sentiment to himself. He simply said, "I just didn't know what to say." 

I thought of the card his parents sent me, which in its first two words seemed to say it all: "Oh Kathy."

I suggested to Roger that an expression like "I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say" would have been welcomed, but that I understood. All death is difficult, suicide even more so. The suicide of someone you knew and liked calls into question everything you think you knew about life.

I'm glad Roger and I were able to have that conversation; in a few short years he would be dead at the age of 46 from multiple myeloma, a cancer rarely treatable. Experience had taught me not to put off my expressions of concern for his difficult situation. I kept up contact, and drove to see him at the beautiful home he'd designed and built for his family. When I got there he was lying on the bed in his room. He had tumors the size of walnuts on his cheek and chest. He was hurting; he and his wife were weighing the struggle of getting him down the stairs against the hope that more radiation therapy might shrink the ever-growing tumors enough to relieve some pain. I was able to reach over his bed and hold him in my arms and press my hand to his bald head just days before his passing. I'll never forget what he whispered in my ear: "Oh Kathy."

To date I have never known a writer to be struck dumb by tragedy. I think all writers have an appreciation for tough life situations, because they are the stuff of great story. I sensed this at the recent Philadelphia Writers' Conference, which offered a class on memoir. As fellow attendees asked questions, bits and pieces of our stories leaked out, creating a pool of compassion that connected us as a community. Stories of growing up poor in tough neighborhoods, of child sexual abuse, of difficult health challenges—we had all been dealt tough circumstances, faced them down, and carried on. After hearing that my boys and I had lived through a full day standoff at our farm the day Ron killed himself, more than one approached to say, "I can't imagine what you went through."

No one can imagine what we went through. That's why I'm setting down my story. Others imagine the horrors, but I can help them move beyond them—the way we did. We survived and are striving to create meaning and are reaching for glory. I believe in memoir because we create community by witnessing pain, but also because our healing journeys should be shared. 

I can't imagine what the others in that memoir class went through, either—and I can't wait to read about it. In sharing our stories, we feel less profoundly alone.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I can't think of any form of healing that doesn't make use of retreat. Retreat is not cowardice; it is a wise reallocation and renewal of resources. Let's face it: sometimes it's just too much to heal the body and feed the spirit while waging the battles of everyday life. Through retreat we can protect and restore the sacred.

I just got back from a solo writing retreat at our summer home in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern New York state. See the left-hand corner of the camp in the picture above—not the porch, but the corner behind and to the left of the porch steps, framed on the right and left by six-foot vertical windows? That's where I set up my computer—on a writing desk angled across those windows. Next to the window on my right was the wood-burning fireplace that kept me warm during my seven chilly days alone (the windowless vertical element is its chimney). I was working on a memoir about how my sons—just eight and ten at the time—and I healed after my first husband's suicide. 

It's been ten years since Ron pulled the trigger at the end of a full-day standoff at the pastoral farm where I still live. The massive police presence signaled the media to turn his personal hell into headline news, complete with a handy aerial map of how to find our house. I declined a reporter's request to comment at the time. I did not yet know what to say. Since then, events have accumulated that suggest a beginning-middle-end to the arc of our story, and I am ready to make public comment.

Why do that, when the scandalized memoir market is sagging, fewer people are reading, I have no celebrity to create interest, and the economy is driving the book publishing industry into a deeper slump? I write because I was a writer before it happened, and I am a writer still, and this is what writers do: we identify good stories and tell them. I cannot control commercial success, I can only show up to fulfill the purpose of my life. The alternative was illustrated for my sons and I all too graphically. I must sort through the chaos and find meaning; it is my way.

Work on the first draft hums along when I am into it, but once I break away, re-entry can be almost physically painful, and I can be quite creative in finding ways to avoid sitting down to the work. My solution was to get away for a week and dive in.

The total: I was able to write 39,329 words in seven days, roughly 143 pages. My highest daily total was 7,126 words—I've had higher daily totals in a former NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) contest, but never on a topic this draining.

The danger in immersing yourself so deeply in traumatic events of the past, of course, is losing touch with the buffer of time—and that's what made my location so magical. All I had to do was look off to the left to see a loon bob to the lake surface with a fish in its mouth or a mallard and his mate fly toward our beach and skid in for a comical landing; to the right I could see a great blue heron soar over the water with its crooked neck and six-foot wingspan, or watch a red-headed woodpecker shop for dinner on a majestic pine. Thanks to a new Adirondacks-happy cell plan, I was only moments away from all of my boys: the two college-age ones and my wonderful Dave, whose love and support for my life's work and healing allow such retreat.

Do you need to retreat? If so, add a comment. I hope to open this magical place to other writers by organizing Writing Partner Retreats on long weekends. I can already sense the fire-warmed camaraderie, smell the buttered popcorn, and feel the power of the amazing stories we'll share...