What Was This Farm Girl Doing at AWP?

Ellen, Brenda, and Jill  Members of my Writing Group

Ellen, Brenda, Elizabeth and Jill
Members of my Writing Group

The Association of Writers and Writers Program (AWP) had their annual Conference and Bookfair this past weekend in Minneapolis and over 13,000 people attended, including me.

I could have left after the first panel discussion I attended: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. I got my money’s worth in the first hour of the four-day conference.

I heard, “What is our truth and are we doing that on the page?”

I heard, “I allow myself to be a person who can change.”

I heard, “Let’s put out shit that matters.”

Those few words gave me the courage to own my story in its entirety.

When asked what I write it was easy for me to say, memoir, adopting infants from Guatemala, raising them with another woman, etc…but I generally would not say the whole of it.

Fear of how people would see me was part of that.

But, no one else can tell my story.

My completed memoir manuscript, House of Fire, uses fire as a metaphor for the dysfunction in my family of 14 growing up on a Wisconsin farm. I interweave the incest that defined my childhood and teenage years with how I healed. The book describes how my partner, Jody and I, intentionally created a safe healthy family by adopting and raising two infants from Guatemala.

I’ve spent over thirty years working on myself to have my past not define me.

And, to that end, I’ve been successful.

I contain multitudes: the Tae Kwon Do black belt who is a goof who loves to spar at the Dojang, the mother of two twelve-year olds, the police reserve officer, the human resources manager, the soon to be Assistant Scoutmaster, the writer and author, and the woman who married her partner last August.

I’m also the woman who suffered repeated sexual abuse, who had a hushed-up abortion after I was impregnated at 14 by one of my brothers, who was pregnant again within a year by another brother, who gave up a son and never saw him again.

What I wanted most in my early twenties was to know that people could not only survive what I did, but heal and live a good life.

Now, my book, House of Fire, will help me be that person for others.

I didn’t go home after that first hour of the AWP conference. I remained among my tribe of 13,000 writers.

I also have another tribe who I hope to reach through the printed and spoken word.

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Why We Read The Books We Do

f306a4206f3db95e9d87a8b4aaf37eb6[1]“Guess what I’m reading,” 12-year old Crystel says.

First, I try the vanilla genres, “Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, science fiction, fantasy?”

She shakes her head no every time.

What else is there?

“Dark Romance,” she says. Her eyes light up.

Oh, my, I think. “Books let you read anything you want,” I say, thinking of Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James and wondering what she IS reading.

I have a 1 ½ hour round trip drive to work thus my book reading has become books on tapes. Jody noticed Fifty Shades in the car. She raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t push Play when the kids are in the car,” I said.

Fifty Shades ended up too spicy. I returned the trilogy to the library. How much flavoring can one take? Jody’s happy if I hold her hand.

12-year old Antonio reads Pokémon from back cover to front. “I like reading different stories about Red the Trainer,” he said.

Recently, he’s been downloading the series onto his IPod to read.

I’ve not read a single page of Pokémon. I don’t enjoy graphic novels. It reminds me of the funnies. In my family of 14, the funnies were prime reading material on Sunday mornings. I avoided any tussling by turning my back on the colorful newspaper that would be shredded by noon.

I don’t read fantasy or science fiction either. Give me the real stuff. Memoir, non-fiction, and fiction based on truth.

One evening, Antonio held up a thick book. “Look what I’m reading,” he said.

The heftiness of the book surprised me. What could hold his interest that long?

He laughed. “It has lots of pictures in it.” He had found Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick in his school library. Not that he went to the libary on his own volition. He needed a book for reading prep.

“Ta dah!” I’m sure he exclaimed after perusing the pages.

I asked if the illustrations reminded him of his own pencil drawings. “Nope,” he said. There goes that elevated thought.

After finishing Wonderstruck he found The Invention of Hugo Cabret by the same author.

Antonio doesn’t know (or care) that the book won the 2008 Caledcott Medal, the first novel to do so.

With 284 pictures within the book’s 526 pages, the book depends as much on its pictures as it does on the words.

Selznick himself has described the book as “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”

“Guess what page I’m on?” Crystel says in the car, on the couch, in her bedroom, as she makes her way through her dark romance.

“How did you find this book?” I asked her.

“When I was on Utube I clicked a thing on Ellen and Twilight.”

“I learned enough about the characters that when I went to our school library and saw the series, I picked it up. They didn’t have the first book, Twilight but they had New Moon. I read a little from the middle and there were no words that I didn’t know. And this cat is so cute. I’m reading Eclipse now.”

The four Twilight books have consecutively set records as the biggest selling novels for children.

Even so, I’m not interested in reading the series. It’s not my genre.

Is the lesson here that parents can model reading but not the genre?

A Wonderful Dilemma for a Middle School Girl

Crystel and Natty

Apple Jack Invitational. Crystel and Natty after their first cross country meet – A one mile race.

“Go, go, go, dig, dig, dig.”

I hear my voice replaying on the video and cringe. I sound like a crazy woman.

It’s just my child running a 5th grade field day race for gosh sakes. In the scheme of things it doesn’t even count. The distance is approximately 50 (or is it 100 yards?) and none of the kids are called back for jumping the gun. Still, there I am, my voice reaching a high pitch squeal.

Here she comes, my girl crossing the finish line … first.

I wipe away tears, choke back a sob.

I’m sure it’s her strong body and competitiveness and has nothing to do with my out of control fervor.

My daughter is in for some rough years unless I get banned from her sporting events. I don’t think they can do that to moms. But if they do, maybe I can wear my police reserve uniform and sneak in. And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll go as McGruff.

Not that I screeched any less at her brother when he was running. “Go, Antonio, go. Dig, dig, dig.” He’s in for the same mortification.

When another mom, texted a photo of 12-year old Crystel and her daughter, following their first cross country race as 6th graders, it hit me that Crystel’s experience in sports will be very different than mine.

This year marks the 42nd anniversary of Title IX.

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty at the Apple Valley Cross Country meet

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty in the 2-mile race at the Apple Valley cross country meet

In 1970 when I was 12, Title IX had not yet passed. Although I could beat my older brothers at most anything and was the only one who dived off the cliff in Spring Valley, Wisconsin into the Eau Galle Dam, I couldn’t compete in sports.

Regulations on how to implement Title IX, signed into law, June 23, 1972, did not go into effect until 1975.

This past summer, Crystel was mulling over which activities and sports she was going to become involved in during middle school. “This is what you call a dilemma, Crystel,” I told her. “You have so many options that you will have to choose.”

Three weeks into middle school, she’s done what she can to cram in her interests: piano, dance, cross country, and Kor Am Tae Kwon Do. If she could she’d figure out how to add soccer and a number of other after school activities.

When Title IX was enacted, 1 in 27 girls participated in athletics. One in three girls participates in athletics today.

In the photo, Crystel and her friend are self-assured, confident, and have just run their first one mile race. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women who are active in sports have more self-confidence and are more outgoing than women who do not participate.

Most people think Title IX only applies to sports, but athletics is only one of ten key areas addressed by the law. Other areas include: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology.

Before Title IX

• In 1972, women earned just 7% of all law degrees and 9% of all medical degrees.

• In 1970, women earned only 13.3% of doctoral degrees.

• Women weren’t awarded athletic scholarships.

After Title IX

• For the graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimated that women earned 61.6% of all associate’s degrees, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees.

• Last year, 140 women graduated with a college degree at some level for every 100 men.

• By 2003, there was more than $1 million in scholarships for women at Division I schools.

1045198_1472771266320064_3137456199553566764_n1My WordSister, sister in writing, Ellen Shriner has completed a book-length memoir called BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during her first year of college teaching.

Her memoir portrays the challenges of women faced as they sought graduate degrees and entered the workforce.

On July 5, 2012, Ellen also wrote a blog piece about Title IX.

Thanks to Title IX, Crystel has the wonderful dilemma of choosing which sport she will compete in. Eventually when she joins the workforce, she will have more choices to her liking than women of previous generations had.

And, because of Title IX, Crystel and Antonio will have to put up with a mom that alternately shrieks and sobs at the finish line.

Writing Memoir Is Risky Business

Last fall I finished revising my memoir manuscript, BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, and I shared it with several friends and family members before I started seeking a publisher. All of them were familiar with the basic premise of the book: it’s a coming-of-age-in-the-workplace story that takes place in 1979-1980. As a young woman, I was unsure about how to apply my feminist principles to my own life—What did I believe? How far was I prepared to go in pursuit of a career? How much did having a relationship and a family matter to me? If I wanted all three, how would that really work day-to-day?

Sharing the manuscript is scary. I’m exposing my personal life. To judgment – (Your life is boring. Your experiences don’t matter.) To criticism – (The writing is amateurish. The book is poorly written.)

Writing about my own life means I’m also writing about friends and family in my life. Real risky business. They didn’t ask to be in my book or become part of my creative project. They may resent the intrusion. Hate how I’ve characterized them. Even if I don’t intend to, my words can hurt people.

There’s a risk that my family won’t like what I’ve written. A risk that goes beyond embarrassment or irritation about the portrayals. More like – “I don’t care for memoirs—all that emotional stuff. I’d rather read a spy novel.” OK, I can handle that. Tastes vary. Vampire novels may be great stories, but they don’t appeal to me.

But if someone dear to me said, “I’m worried that although I love you, I might not like your writing,” that would be hard. I’d have difficulty separating my relationship from my craft, which is my passion and my life’s work.

I’m exposing my innermost thoughts. Often they’re innermost for a reason—sometimes because they’re painful. Embarrassing. Unworthy. Or stupid. As a writer, I’ve learned that the painful and embarrassing moments are most worth exploring—they’re most likely to yield the material that others really connect with.

The story I’m telling is only as good as my craft. As a memoirist, I use my writerly skills to shape the stories I tell. I decide which incidents, feelings and insights will create a story arc and which are extraneous details and better omitted. I use my powers of description, write dialog, and mine my memory for details. I’ve learned to check facts instead of trusting my memory (The lecture happened in February, not November as I recalled) so I can present a scene as accurately as possible. My skills or shortcomings as a writer determine the value placed on my memoir.

Why take that risk? Some memoirists write in hopes that they can teach others. That’s not what motivates me. Instead, I hope others will recognize something about themselves – “That frustrates me, too.” They’ll enjoy a moment of reminiscence – “OMG, that happened to me!” Or they’ll realize that they’re not the only one – “Wow, I’ve thought that, too.”

Despite the inherent risks, I examine certain periods of my life to find and share meaning. My experiences are worth writing about, not because they’re mine, but because they’re human and other people will see themselves in some of the central truths of my life, even if the particulars differ. For example, other working women have worried about pay and workplace politics. Today, some young women still wonder about how to balance a relationship with a career, just as I did. Other middle-aged women are looking back and considering their legacy.

If you write memoir—what makes it worth the risk?

If you read memoirs—why do they appeal to you?

Yippee!!! My Book Is Done!

I just pressed “Save” and declared it done.

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.06.26 AMIt seems like a lightening bolt should fork across the sky. Or the aurora borealis should glow tonight especially for me. But nothing like that happened. If I’d ever pictured this moment, I might have thought it would call for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or champagne. But instead I’m just quietly pleased. And tomorrow I’ll get up and go to work.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the book may not be done, but I’m done with it.  I have written it to the best of my ability, and now I need to be done with this project begun in 1997. Wow.  Until I did the math I didn’t realize that this memoir (working title: Colette’s Legacy) has been part of my life for 16 years. First it was notes about a memory I couldn’t shake, next a sketchy first draft I set aside for years, and since 2009 (drafts 2, 3 and 4), I’ve made a lot of room for it in my life. I’ve worked on it nearly every weekend and on many of my days off. I’ve taken classes, worked with writing coaches, and shared it with my ever-so-patient and supportive writing group.

I’m proud of myself for finishing it, but I’m also relieved. In the coming weeks, it may feel odd not to have it occupying my thoughts and my time. But right now, I feel so much lighter.

After this last revision, the book is definitely better. But is it good enough? I don’t know. I can’t tell anymore. Some days, I don’t even like it. Other days, I think, hmmm. This is pretty good—better than I remembered. I do know that it’s as good as I can make it. Colette’s Legacy is a workplace coming-of-age story set in 1979. My memoir recalls a time when combining a relationship with a career wasn’t a given, and it honors the way Baby Boom women changed the world of work and family. What I don’t know is if anyone (besides 20 or so friends and family members) will be interested in reading it.

But whether or not to pursue publication is a decision for another day.

Today, my book is done and I’m really happy about that.