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Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Stops You?

Yesterday I held one of my sporadic local meetings of The Writers Network. Having been on the board of the Georgia Writers Association for some ten years, I detest organizations with dues, rules, bylaws, limitations, board (bored) meetings, officers, and regulations. I also get overwhelmed by monthly meetings. The Writers Network, then, my own creation, has no rules, no bylaws, no officers (I call myself the director, to avoid pretentious labels such as president), and no set dates for meetings. Instead, when I feel like it, I organize a meeting at a lunch spot where writers can chew food while they chew on writing issues worthy of discussion with peers.

Yesterday's meeting proved interesting, when one attendee brought up the fact that she's studying memoir writing with Natalie Goldberg. Natalie is an award-winning memoirist who believes writers should get to the bones of their story and tell the whole truth. As a result, the woman said, she wrote a memoir about her personal medical challenge and how her family members reacted to her. One of her family members took exception with the fact that he was quoted as saying something that put him in a bad light. He felt betrayed and said he could never trust her with anything anymore.

Why did he object so vehemently? Because his words had in fact been accusatory and hurtful, and once they appeared in a form that others to see, he probably felt ashamed, embarrassed, and—let's face it—caught.

When people display anger, it often is the result of being called down for, confronted with, or exposed to their own mistakes. That family member had a right to his feelings, but he had expressed them in a cruel manner. As a result, when confronted with his own words, he exploded in anger and turned on the person who had revealed the words to others.

What is a writer to do in such a circumstance? The truth is the truth. As memoirists, should we write the truth, ignore it, or gloss over it? Should we let the truth stop us from writing down the meat of what influenced us in life?

Many opinions arose in the discussion yesterday. Some people said to write what you want and be prepared to lose the ones you love. Some people said to respect the loved ones and write about something else. I stand in the middle. I do like to keep peace among my family members, but I also believe writers should reveal the bare bones truth. Others faced with the same medical condition need to know how family members may react. I therefore suggested using the family member's quotation without specifically designating who said it.

The most important thing writers can do is keep writing. Nothing should stop us. We need to get around potential obstacles, rather than letting them impede us. Some of us have an obligation to write our stories, especially if our stories will help others. We must forge on!

Years ago, I tried to write a novel that began with the death of an alcoholic mother. After the opening, I backtracked and intended to write the story that led to her death. In novel form, I wanted to show how alcoholism affects each family member. I wrote one or two chapters and stopped. Like most writers, I had planned to draw from my own experience; my mother was alcoholic. My mother, however, had not died, and like many families, we had kept her alcoholism a secret, even when it had been difficult to hide. I allowed our family secrecy stop me from writing that book. What a shame.

Today I'm writing mostly nonfiction, and my current project covers my relationship memoirs. In it, even though I change the names, I expose many of the men I have dated. Even worse, I reveal some of my own sexual escapades. If the book gets published, I face public embarrassment and probably will never get another date in my life, but no longer can such fears stop me from writing. It's my life. I did things. Other people did things. Events took place. Embarrassments happened. Sex happened. I own it. I write about it. Nothing can stop me.

As a writer, be the warrior! Write on!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tribute to a Neighbor

Camellias bloom in her yard.
I saw them today, and all my memories of her returned.
My neighbor always waved when I walked my various dogs over the years.

 I watched her health decline
Until she stood on the porch each morning
Hacking up phlegm
With wracking emphysemic coughs,
Trying to get her weakened lungs
To clear out mucus they could not expel,
Just like my mother’s lungs ten years earlier,
Until my mother’s final breath.

For many years after my mother’s death,
My neighbor stepped out on her porch each morning
To stand in the sunshine,
Or should I say that she almost crouched.
Her malformed spine bent, she gagged and gasped,
Coughing, leaning toward her camellias,
Probably unable to appreciate their beauty,
When simply breathing took priority.

Am I the only one who loves the flowers in her yard?
Am I the only one with health enough to love them?

I’m sure that when her husband planted the bush twenty years before,
She cherished the idea that he added beauty to her life.
She told me once, after he died of a heart attack in his mid-fifties,
“Never a day went by that I did not feel loved.”

A few years later, she stood on the porch alone, without him,
Coughing up the residue she and he had inhaled for years,
And after she cleared her lungs, always she lit another cigarette.

I found it hard to muster sympathy,
When I knew she had brought on her illness,
Just as her cigar-smoking husband had brought on his,
Yet she always waved and wanted to talk,
And we had many cheerful conversations.

The year I collected funds for the March of Dimes,
She gave me a whopping fifty-dollar check.
The total I received from the neighborhood:
Seventy dollars.
Only two other neighbors donated, and they each gave five dollars.
I gladly matched the total and sent in the funds,
Wondering how wonderful it would have been if more had given more.

Her nickname always cheered me up,
Yet I could never quite recall it.
It was Candy or Cookie or something mouthwatering.
I hesitated to call her by name, because I never could remember it,
Even though she always waved me in and called me by my name
Whenever she saw me from her porch.
She could not come out to meet me; I had to go to her.
Her illnesses had limited her for years;
Her scoliosis and her emphysema
Made walking not only painful but also exhausting.

Her son and his infant moved in with her a year after her husband died,
And I thought that having a grandchild around would cheer her,
Keep her active,
But one day I overheard her son say to the garbage collector,
“My mother died last week.”

He moved out about thirty days later.
The house has stood empty ever since.
For a year I've picked up papers thrown in the yard,
Scattered around the mostly ignored For Sale sign
Amid the uncut grass.

I walked my dog past her camellias today.
Candy or Cookie may be gone, but her husband’s love blooms on.