Monday, August 20, 2012

More-than-memoir and the co-arising of a book

The day before my writers critique group (we meet about every other week) I always feel a little edge added to my work. What I have been sharing these past many months is what I call my "more-than-memoir," using the multi-generational story of my family to open up some deeper reflection on the culture and the many layers of impasse and crisis at which we have arrived.

In this story of my parents and their ancestors, and what was passed down to my generation, I think I have found a key to why it is so hard for us to look at the mess we have made of our world - and change how we live accordingly before things really get out of hand.
My parents, Mary Rose & Steve

The mess is getting pretty serious now, as we know from two years of weather extreme after weather extreme, the infernos in the West, the deepening drought that is sadly only herald of worse to come, the changing economy that has thrown more people permanently out of work, depressed wages, and brought millions more of our own people into poverty, to join the hundreds of millions around the planet.

Can writing serve the purpose of helping us take an honest look at ourselves, how it is we have arrived at such a moment?
And is there something in that old immigrant-to-success story of the American Dream that has led us to this breaking point - a breaking point at which multiple crises are converging all at once?

The day before the writers group, I have to think about what I want to share. We have a 2,000 word limit, 5-6 pages, and obviously I am writing a whole lot faster than 5-6 pages every other week - right now more like 1-2 chapters. But what energizes me as I ponder the selection is the chance to share this project outside of myself and that solitary space at the computer screen, and find out if and how it resonates.

As I have taken this time in my life to make writing my deepest commitment so that I can get this project done this year, I have really immersed myself in that isolation that belongs to the writer, for good or ill. It is a wild and crazy thing, counter-cultural in the extreme, to spend so much time alone. The paradox of course is that what is being created in solitude is meant to be sent out into the world, to be shared in the extreme, strangers sitting alone with your book, or in a book group, their reactions and responses completely unknown and out of your control - which makes memoir especially laden in all sorts of ways.
Aunt Kathryn, favorite ancestor

The critique group becomes a font here of life and energy for my writing. My first reason for signing up was for the sake of the critique, to get feedback, to find out if my idea was working, if it resonated, and if the writing was any damn good. Fine reasons, all. But now there is something else going on - I feel the book being birthed outside of myself there. I feel it already going out into the world, but now enriched, sometimes altered or rethought, by my fellow writers. Already it feels like this book is no longer only mine. Already it is oozing out of my solitude and beginning to interact with the world.

Will it serve the purpose I set for it? I write hoping that is so, but with no guarantees. Sometimes I wonder if it will get me thrown out of Milwaukee. If it stirs up a little controversy, that would be a good thing. I don't aim for this more-than-memoir to reveal my family for its own sake, or to be narcissistic, or even dramatic. I think our stories can be revelation if they are opened up not as narratives unto themselves, but shaped by and shaping the world around us.

Engaged Buddhism reflects deeply on this notion of dependent co-arising. None of us are islands unto ourselves. All of us are in a constant state of flux and all things co-arise. Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the term, "inter-are." I like that. In essence, even alone at my computer, I am not alone. I can never be alone. I cannot possibly write a book in isolation, as a being separate and apart.

My Croatian grandparents
This for me is very hopeful as I have worked these months, years really, with ancestors crowded all around, within, and through me eager to get out from the page into the world where they can still and forever inter-be. Nothing is lost, and I am only trying to shed a little light of these beings back out into the world where they have so much to teach us. I'm the channel, and then I am being channeled. Same for the other still-living beings within these pages.

And if we get real, real honest with ourselves, if we listen deeply, we might just learn something essential to our survival...


PS: With a deep bow of gratitude to my group at RedBird-RedOak Writing.

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