About a year ago, I was spotted outside one of my favorite hangouts.
I was teetering up the path to the public library with a stack of books when I ran into an old pal from graduate school. She asked what I was doing and I explained that I was studying materials to begin a blog about health and cancer. We laughed about the typical sight of me with an impossibly tall stack of books.
I think I’m predisposed to hit the books with each twist and turn in my life. I spiral back to study topics of life-long interest, again.
Writing is one of those subjects that sometimes consumes me. Writing consumed me thirty years ago when I was a journalist, and it’s doing that now.
I received no formal training in journalism. I learned by reading and emulating writers and researchers I admired. By my late 20s, I had my first book contract and my first job teaching investigative journalism at UC Santa Cruz.
For years, I had a writing regimen I loved. I’d do research, interviews, note-taking and outlining throughout the day. But I wrote my best stuff first thing in the morning. I’d start at 7 a.m. and sit in my chair until I had produced on average two publishable pages of writing each day. On a wall calendar, I noted daily content and quantity, marking progress on articles and chapters of books.
Now, by 7 a.m., I’m on my way to my day job. Writing is a luxury I sneak in at in-between moments and on weekends. I have no deadlines and my subject matter has changed from political writing aimed at getting readers to “wake up and smell the coffee” to personal writing with a more modest mission.
And, I’m a student again.
In January I took two thought-provoking classes at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. One, on writing personal essays, was taught by Laura Fraser. She’s the only person I know who has made her living solely as a free-lance writer. She’s written two memoirs about her love life and is now publishing “she-books,” short, digital works of fiction and memoir by women. The other class was taught by Julia Scheeres, a journalist-turned-memoirist who wrote about her harrowing time in a fundamentalist Christian reform school.
I came away from both classes feeling that I have a ton to learn and practice before I can write my own spiritual memoir.
Both Laura Fraser and Julia Scheeres emphasized that writing personal essays and longer memoirs takes literary techniques, such as scenes, dialogue and dramatic tension, to tell a story about a central protagonist: yourself. But if it’s just about “you,” that sounds like narcissism, and who cares? Good memoir speaks to common, even universal, sentiments and experiences that readers relate to. In a short personal essay, the writer reveals something sweet or difficult or maybe even embarrassing and demonstrates how an experience changed her. A memoir is longer and involves survival of some sort. In both long and short form, there’s an intention to share a slice of life with compassion, maybe offering a bit of inspiration.
This kind of writing is not for the faint hearted. I find that it is in some ways harder to write about my own experience than it was, years ago, to write about what the bad-apple right-wingers were doing to our country. The consequences of the latter were, of course, way more significant, but the mission was clear.
Julia Scheeres stressed the need to think about why one is writing. When I was a journalist and academic writing articles and books about right-wing movements, there was no doubt. At first my agenda was to inform the general public about the country’s shift to the right. By the time my first book came out in 1989, I knew there was no stopping the right-wing juggernaut. I shifted my focus toward writing for the sake of history, so that when people would look back on the 1980s and 1990s, they would find some cogent analysis and documentation of how right-wing ideology and organization took hold of our political system.
What’s my purpose now? I started writing this blog in order to share my cancer experience, what I’m learning about health and wellness, and to connect with others going through similar experiences. That’s still my mission.
But I have also had a long-simmering idea for a spiritual memoir. It’s partly about processing this particular life. It’s also about representing a certain time and milieu: the spiritual counter-culture that grew out of the 1960s and 1970s, so that readers may understand our experience. I think we need a literature by and about ordinary spiritual seekers, not just the big-name teachers who publish lots of books.
I started pieces of a spiritual memoir nearly 20 years ago when I was in a women’s writing class. At the time, I joked that someone ought to be over 50 before writing a memoir. This may not be true for all subjects but for a spiritual memoir, a long view gives perspective.
Julia Scheeres suggested just writing it all out to find out what exactly one’s story is. She told us to ask old friends what they think are the key themes and events of our life’s story. I’d like to do this.
Last week, I went back to the public library to pick up another stack of books. I’m studying writing how-to books and exemplary memoirs.
I am also a bit of a pack rat. I have boxes of journals and excerpts from that long-ago writing class. I have memoir pieces about childhood, dream journals, and notes written during 17 years of psychotherapy.
It’s a lot of raw data. It will take time and work to make it into art.