Repost: “The Perils of the Perfect Past. The New Past, According to Social Media”

Loving this post by Daphne Strassmann

Like most people these days, I willingly deposit bits of myself online every day, through shopping, commenting on friends’ photos, posting pithy quips, and engaging in my newly found hobby of reviewing recent purchases. Isolated, these activities are disconnected material; woven together, they make me part of a new, vast community of casual storytellers. Despite their careless, seemingly ephemeral character, however, these stories have a new flavor of permanence, and material has never been so easily accessible to writers. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram remind us and our followers where and how we have been, all the while creating parallel universes through our daily posts. The vast and specific nature of our online information has the capacity to behave as a spontaneous external hard drive to our own memories. We can have—increasingly, can’t escape having—instant access to our past, seemingly bypassing the natural remembering process. Our hippocampus, it seems, can live on the web.

Of course, future accessibility to the information we etch online, especially on social media, will vary depending upon who does the archiving. Yet as data storage becomes less expensive, the capacity capabilities grow and so does the amount of information held online. After all, in order to serve our needs, the web must have infallible and non-perishable memory.

Certainly, this trove of online information will be a tantalizing and highly useful resource for future biographers and narrative nonfiction writers. And yet, for the memoirist, a source of indelible online information could be problematic.

Digital omnipresence shortens and stunts the distance to remembering—the crucial engine for memoir. Molded in the narrative nonfiction writer’s hands, memory creates stories and feeds a compulsion to reflect on, understand, and validate personal experiences. The organic experience of remembering is still enveloped in mystery. Memoirists have a soft spot for that mystery, but we should concede that digital content will make the past, in some ways, less mysterious.

Some, like Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, see the infallible memory of the web as a big problem: “Because of digital technology, society’s ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.” Alas, memoir informed by perfect memory would, I fear, lose its sensory appeal. Web memories might alter the memoirist’s process, not only by providing infallible instant memory but also by usurping our own natural recollection processes.

Mayer-Schönberger also argues that that our online interactions make us feel watched and that, even if we are not in fact under surveillance, the sensation of being watched leads us to self-censor. In fact, writers online are often being watched—or, at least, seen—by readers. This, too, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, social media, in particular, can help writers find a wider audience—that “platform” publishers are always talking about. Ideally, this audience will be invested in the work—but it could also be dissonant from it. For better and worse, the web arms us with accidental connections.

Of course, if you’re writing about your contemporaries, odds are good they’re hanging around online, too, and maybe also watching you. Those characters—who in an earlier time might have been lost to us—travel across oceans and different decades to engage passively with our own recollections. They can disagree with our memories, question them, and, over time, even change them. They are unwelcome guests on e-mail, Facebook, or through the dream-like images of Instagram. We know what our college roommates, from thirty years ago, ate for breakfast this morning, and it can be difficult to gain distance from a character when she is still right there, hoping you’ll “like” her handmade inspirational posters. These people, our characters, are persistently with us—and not just in our memories.

And, of course, they all have their versions of stories. That’s always been true, but now the bar for commenting has been lowered significantly. That story you’re telling about your halcyon days can become distorted or commandeered—tainted, even—as it passes through what we might call “the Facebook fact-check.”

As it happens, I have some experience with this. I have an unpublished cultural memoir set in the Dominican Republic and Texas, concerning events that happened in the 1970s and ’80s. In it, I piece together, much in the way my memory works, vignettes that touch on both the traumatic and the mundane. In great detail, I describe my aunt’s palpable grief—she went from catatonic to howling in pain—on the afternoon we learned that my father had died piloting an air force plane. I mention how an uncharacteristically blonde, blue-eyed Dominican classmate derided some earrings my mother had brought back from a trip to Venezuela. If I had published this book in the early days of the web, and especially before Facebook, and if, through a freak act of nature, a copy made it back to the Dominican Republic, someone might have quibbled about the narrative, recognized him- or herself in the story and related to or separated themselves from it. Maybe I would have received an e-mail or two with pointed questions: “Hey, did I really hurt your feelings when I said your earrings should be worn only by classless maids?” Or “Why would you write about your aunt crying like that?” By contrast, that same interaction on Facebook or any other social media platform would be instantaneous and, for me, a huge distraction from my work. The mirror social media holds up to my work, so far, has intimidated me enough to keep me from publishing. Not because I have startling revelations that cast people in my life negatively, but because in my writer’s mind, my past has its own past. I can’t get lost in the reverie of recalling that past when so much of it is so present every time I update my Facebook status.

And yet, perhaps there’s hope. I take heart in knowing that although social media supplies us with instant memory on steroids, the content itself can be ephemeral. The moment a corporate institution goes down, so does the content and so do your memories. Our data could be one hack or natural disaster or bankruptcy away from exposure or deletion. In many ways, the steady storytelling we’re imprinting on the web is no different than jotting an idea on the back of a napkin and misplacing it.

And perhaps that’s for the best. We shouldn’t rely too heavily on external digital memory. The noisy interactions on social media distract at every level, and the illusion of perfect recall is a siren’s call. It’s hard to resist since it’s omnipresent in daily life, and so usable, but even the most assiduous curation of interactions on social media has a cost. If our postings on social media and the web keep giving us perfect recall, then the story is authored for us; we become transcribers rather than storytellers. As writers, we delight in that moment when memory becomes story. We need to forget in order to engage in the essence of remembering.

– See more at: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/perils-perfect-memory#comment-45317

A simile a day could keep boredom away…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I just finished reading Mary Karr’s memoir Lit.  This is the third of the three phase memoirs that pretty much revolve around the fallout from her childhood traumas. Lit details the events of Karr’s life as a young woman, wife, mother, and writer who for many years battled alcoholism and the demons of her past. It also develops into a story about how the author unexpectedly gains a deeper self-awareness and faith in a higher power. It begins with an open letter to her son as part apology and part explanation for what she feels she cost him. Yet, I believe all three books are loosely dedicated to her mother who often appears as nemesis or heroine in her memoirs. Karr’s mother also battled alcoholism but is sober for most of this last installment.

What works in this memoir is what works in all of three of Karr’s memoirs. She has the ability to write a tragedy like a shameless comedian, and her writing voice is generous with metaphor and simile. This keeps the reader entertained while she has to relay necessary information. Background sections of memoir could get stale, but Karr avoids this with the use of figurative language. Her Texas colloquialisms also add texture to her rich and colorful prose. For example, when she realizes she has to check herself into a hospital to avoid suicide, she writes, “It’s a relief to place myself before the staff person on duty, asking him to call my doctor because   I’m fixing to off myself.”

After finishing the book, I went back to re-read the first fifty pages and counted over a dozen similes. My favorites: “My head pitches back like a Pez dispenser.” “The suds swirled down my torso like chrysanthemums in a Japanese wood-block painting,” and “Mother’s yellow station wagon slid like a Monopoly icon.”
Karr also has a gift for telling a story in a way that is entertaining for the reader even though the subject matter is gravely serious. This is not to say that she makes light of the seriousness of her experiences. It is just to say that she is able to inject humor at just the right moments in her narrative to stay true to how she was taught to communicate and move in the world. Language was how she learned to cope with dysfunction.

A great memoir should make readers think, feel, understand, and relate on one level or another. I think Karr’s animated comparisons allow the reader to get closer to her and her past in a way a simple straight forward retelling couldn’t.  She takes you on a wild trip down her memory lane, and her style of writing makes it worth the while.

The Memoir Dilemma


post by litsense

My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

What writers have on their bedside tables

A fun project from author Shannon Huffman Polson, author of North of Hope. It’s called The Bedside Table Project. Below is the description from Shannon’s site:

Part voyeur, part inspiration, every Monday you get a glimpse into the lives of authors and other thinkers who share a picture of their bedside table, a view into what matters to them right now, the things that inspire them, that occupy their minds.


Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

 

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus

 

 

Author interview-Shannon Huffman Polson, author of “North of Hope”

Several weeks ago, Shannon Huffman Polson’s book North of Hope was featured on Why The Writing Works. Today’s post is an interview Shannon kindly agreed to, taking time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions.

North of Hope

WTWW: Your memoir North of Hope A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is a very personal story through grief. How difficult was it to not only write this book, but then release it out into the world?

SHP:Writing memoir is a funny thing in that you may include some memories that are so intimate you may only have shared them with a spouse, but I think it’s this willingness to be vulnerable to write toward the truth of the work that is the heart of writing, what allows a book to connect to a more universal human experience. This connection is the whole purpose of writing a book. It’s also important to remember that a book has limitations; 250 pages is not the same as an experience or a life. One of the most difficult things is crafting the narrative, deciding what must be included and what (no matter how important it seems) must be left out in service to the story. I think it’s important for both writers and readers to remember the possibilities but also the limitations of a narrative.

WTWW: Your web address is A Border Life (dot) com and on your website your state you “write about the difficulties of navigating borders.” Why borders? What other borders do you hope to explore?

SHP: The idea of edges and borders has always held me. The idea of “a border life” comes from Thoreau (“with regard to nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays…”- Thoreau, Walking) When I first started writing seriously, one of the tensions I felt most strongly, and still do, was that of life in the city, where work has required I, and now my family, live most of our time, set against life in a more rural setting, the strengths and weaknesses of both. I think a third book might look at this more deeply. I am also aware of borders of life and death, of self and other, of women and men, as those that we are forced to live with every day. I love the idea of the ecotone as well, the border between ecosystems that is a transition area, a place where two ecosystems integrate. Borders are infrequently as hard and fast as they are drawn on maps or held in arguments, and I think this area on the edge, this requirement of integration, is where the possibilities for our own growth lie.
WTWW: You end your book with an afterword about the dangers the fragile ecosystem of the coastal arctic plain face from development. What do we stand to lose if this ecosystem is developed?

SHP: We would love one of our very last wild places, and that part of us that can hold a place as sacred. There is only a tiny percentage of the Alaskan coastline that is undeveloped, and it’s a tragedy that we can’t agree to protect it. Now, of course, the threats are much more complex, from the rapid changes occurring due to warming in the Arctic areas which changes this fragile landscape in unimaginable ways, both on land and in the sea where there is no longer sea ice (where even I experienced it in 2006.) This puts whole ecosystems and the animals and birds that rely on them at risk. What we don’t seem to see is that in our connection to wilderness, it puts us at risk too.

Wilderness is so much more than a place on the map; it is a place in our consciousness, a place that allows us to understand the fullness of potential and possibility, and love in all it’s terrible and beautiful forms. I am afraid of the way our culture seems to be losing the ability to see the sacred, in wilderness, in each other. Our connection to the wilderness, felt or not, is both body and soul. When we destroy the wilderness, we are destroying ourselves.
WTWW: Any other writing projects you’d like to discuss?

SHP: The book I’m working on now is exploring ideas that come from my experience as one of the first women to fly attack helicopters after the combat exclusion clause was lifted in 1993. I’m not yet clear what the key themes will be; certainly connection and aloneness, narrative inclusion and exclusion, and men and women, though I’m constantly surprised at what comes up as I do my work, so I’m not yet prepared to give a full answer about it, but it’s both terribly risky and exciting. Stay tuned!
WTWW:  What are your interests outside of writing?

SHP: I‘m an avid chorister, and sing with an incredible group in Seattle called Seattle Pro Musica. I love to hike, backpack, and ski— nordic, alpine and backcountry. I love spending time outside in Washington and Alaska, or anywhere, with my family, my husband and two happy active boys. That’s most of it!

WTWW:  Anything else you’d like to discuss?

SHP: Thank you for having me visit your blog community!

Thank you, Shannon!

Connect with Shannon:
Website

Twitter

Pinterest

Facebook

If you wish to read more of her writing, Shannon also contributes to Image Journal’s Good Letters blog.

 

 

North of Hope-A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

North of Hope“The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska… Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky…Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Artic Coastal Plain…The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk…

As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece…It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule” (19).

These paragraphs begin Shannon Huffman Polson’s memoir North of Hope. It’s a paragraph full of information and questions. Polson is in an airplane battered by its circumstances—the windows are difficult to see through and the stairs are of questionable stability. She’s in a small Native village “at the end of the world.” The airstrip is dirt and the cold knifes through her clothing. Boundaries blur. Its obvious Polson has traveled to a place far off the usual Alaskan tourist path; this is not a place for the casual visitor. It’s a hard land; a desolate one.  All of these details lead the reader to a question: why is she here?

Polson answers that question throughout the rest of her book. She is here to repeat the last journey her father and stepmother started a year ago, but never finished; they were mauled to death by a rouge grizzly bear. Her memoir is also a story of her journey through grief; a journey she started by singing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony “every Monday…after Dad and Kathy’s funeral” (43).

Polson’s writing brings the reader alongside as she undertakes her parents’ last journey through a harsh, fragile, and beautiful land; a place most people will never experience. Her memoir is about loss, the difficulty of grieving as she chooses to embrace the pain, and hope as she finishes the journey—both down the river and through her grief.

I took this book on vacation with the intention of reading it, but then my husband, who is not a reader, picked up North of Hope, and I didn’t see it again until he was done. It’s a book that has stayed with both of us.

Read the first two chapters here.

Polson, Shannon Huffman. North of Hope. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2013. Print.

 

 

Writing Advice-Voice

Voice-as defined (sorta kinda) by wikipedia-states “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

For more thoughts on voice, check out these blog posts:
Ten Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice
How Can I Find My Writing Voice?
What Is Writer’s Voice?

Still Searching For My Voice

How To Craft a Great Voice

Develop voice by Listening

Finding A Voice

Know of any posts/articles/advice on voice? Post the links in the comments. (links not contributing to the discussion will be deleted)

The End

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Coming to the ending of a piece of writing can be challenging; no matter the subject, genre or word count.  I remember in elementary school every one wrote, “The End” to signal that his or her story was finished.  We learned this from the fairy tale stories we often read or heard. Yet, as I matured as a reader and writer, I noticed that the best books I’ve read always concluded a chapter or the book in a way that made me re-read or reflect for a few minutes. The endings often led to a new connection or a new appreciation of what writers and language could do.

I recently finished Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It is a story about how Schwalbe and his dying mother maintained a book club of two during her visits to the hospital for chemotherapy.  The book is definitely about the power of books and about what happens for readers at the end of them. In fact, each chapter is titled after a title of a book and includes a synopsis, quotes and sometimes a informal review. Yet, the book is mostly about the journey to the end, in this case, the end of the extraordinary life of Schwable’s mother.

I think each writer goes on his or her own journey to the end as well. Writers must make careful choices about what they want to leave behind for their readers. A writer may choose a quote, an anecdote, a strong declarative sentence, or maybe a combination of styles to connect the reader to the story and its characters. Endings should provoke thought or emotion, allow reflections, spark debate, or echo a theme or idea a writer wants to share. For Schwalbe’s book, he consistently uses a reflective strategy for the end of his chapters.  The end of each chapter is an echo of the beginning or to the theme of the book presented. This works to connect the books being presented to the main storyline and allows his readers to reflect on and connect to the experiences of the main “characters” in the memoir.

In his chapter titled, The Uncommon Reader, named after the novella by Adam Bennett, Schwalbe laments that his mother’s grandchildren would miss out on “the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.” At the end of the chapter, however, he reconciles that he could help them learn more about his mother by sharing the books she read and loved. Then they, like her, “could all become readers, and maybe even uncommon ones.” (130)

Just as the end of a life well lived can lead to a combination of sorrow and admiration, the end of a great chapter or book can sometimes lead to a bit of sadness, but it should always lead to satisfaction and admiration for a job well-done.

The End

 

Schwalbe, Will. The End of Your Life Book Club. New York: Vintage Books.2012. Print

 

History and Humanity in Summary

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

Gary Fincke’s, The Canals of Mars is a memoir mostly about Fincke’s childhood during the fifties and sixties where he was expected to fiercely avoid weakness of the mind, body and spirit at all costs. His grandfather’s drunkenness was a public embarrassment, so his parents worked hard to force a habit of hard work, morality and spiritual righteousness into their children. Besides learning about Fincke’s family life during this time, the reader also learns about the educational, social, and political climate of the time through well-crafted summary.

 When telling a story with so many characters, so much history and so many connections to a larger story and universal theme, the nonfiction writer has to rely on summary.  Fincke summarizes numerous scenes in summary to impart information and provide a new thread to his rich layered tapestry.  Summary is an art worth practicing in order to avoid getting bogged down with so much relevant material.  

In one paragraph he writes about three-hour church services but on the same page, he informs the reader about the Captive Nations Resolution and Nixon’s trip to the then, Soviet Union.  He writes, “I didn’t care about Nixon’s trip, but I worried that my father would announce there were evening church services to ensure the community’s compliance with prayer. That the government edict would end up with me enduring a week like the one before Easter…” (55). 

Fincke covers so much in 229 pages. Through short summary, the reader also learns about how danger seemed to be all around him as he grew up through radiation and bomb scares, polio outbreaks, and threats of rape and even murder by boys who were much bigger and stronger than he was.  His father, who tries to force perfection on himself and his family represents the struggle to avoid weakness. This is what much of the book’s theme centers around, the idea of human weakness and how no matter how we pray or work to find ways to avoid showing weakness, we live in a world where there is always something or someone much bigger or stronger than we are.
After reading this story, I found there were so many things that have changed since the fifties and sixties, but so many things were familiar. We still have bullies, diseases, wars, and we still fear the effects of radiation.  And people still use religion to instill fear or to control the minds and behavior of others. 

Fincke shows the reader one unique childhood in a unique time in history but his use of summary shows us so many other things that allow his story to work as a reminder and warning to all who think that they can avoid the things that plague us all.

 

 

Fincke, Gary. The Canals of Mars. East Lansing: Michigan University Press, 2010.