Resurrecting Ghosts in Memoir

October 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

Cat photo for wvwBy Cat Pleska

The time had finally arrived: my first book launch. I’d worked on my memoir for fifteen years before a university press published it. I justified the long time it took to finish by saying sometimes you have to live a little longer and grow to understand what your life story is and what it means.

A few months in advance of my book’s release, I’d scheduled its launch at an independent bookstore nearby. Then a month before, I had a dream. In the dream I walked into the bookstore’s reading space. The reading table for authors was at the back of the room and there to one side of it stood my parents and my dad’s parents, shoulder to shoulder. Beaming smiles. I felt their approval for the book, their pride in me. I woke, haunted by the fact that these four people, who appeared prominently in my memoir, were all gone. They would never see me in this life-affirming moment.

The image stayed with me and an idea began to form in the back of my mind. Because I had previously portrayed historical characters, one for my state’s humanity council’s History Alive! program and another for the national Mother’s Day Foundation, I was accustomed to costumes and performances to become someone else. Two weeks before the launch, I hatched a plan.

In my local Goodwill, I found an old work shirt and in Cabela’s an orange hunting hat. From Ebay, I ordered a cigarette rolling machine identical to the one my grandfather allowed me to roll his cigarettes for him when I was a child. I borrowed my husband’s steel toe work boots. I found my old reading glasses that looked like the ones my grandmother wore and dug out one of her ashtrays. For my mother, I could find no costume items, so I decided to express her with stance and attitude.

The day came and I rounded the door to the reading space, half expecting my family to be standing as I saw them in my dream. Approaching the table, I sat a chair on either side then placed my props. It was show time!

ohio county photo 4 (2)

The Author, Dressed as Her Father

I drew in a shaky breath and prepared to let the audience know I had not come alone. In front of them, I donned the tan work shirt over my clothes and pulled on the boots. I rolled a cigarette in the rolling machine with tobacco torn from a borrowed cigarette (since I don’t smoke) and launched into a story my grandfather always told, copying his vernacular and physical stance. I drew laughs when I changed in front of them and switched chairs to portray my grandmother tapping her “ashes” into her hand— she usually ignored her ashtrays—as she told a story about me when I was a baby. Then I switched to a flannel shirt and hunting hat, cigarette dangling from my lip as Dad told his famous “Night on Cheat Mountain” wild tale. Again I switched chairs and took off any props to sit proper, legs crossed, and told a rollicking tale of my mother’s, her cigarette flashing in the air as she gestured.

Finally, it was just me, in front of friends and strangers reading from my memoir. Stories about growing up with these giants, these people who were wonderful and wonderfully flawed, who loved me, despite my own flaws. I remembered their stories and my own like the lines of a play.

In my imagination, with each reading, they would fill the back row of the audience. Over time, I imagined them less. Then they were gone. I became the lone character.

To my utter shock, I plunged into mourning their deaths again. No one had told me this might happen when you recreate and write about long-gone loved ones.

For the next few months, as I exulted in my first published book, I also felt the heavy burden of grief. This time, all four of them at once. The truth is that to write memoir, we must visit the good, the bad, the past, the present, and resurrect ghosts to convey to our readers the lived life.

In my memoir, I wrote their story, as they had asked me to over the years, and I boldly added my own. They showed up to let me know they were proud of me and to take a final bow.
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Cat Pleska is the author of Riding on Comets: a Memoir, (West Virginia University Press, 2015). Even though she lives in and writes from the heart of Appalachia, she is currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays titled The I’s Have It: Traveling in Ireland and Iceland. She teaches full time in the online Master of Liberal Studies Program, for Arizona State University.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading

February 1, 2016 § 55 Comments

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

I have a love-hate relationship with readings. On the up side, it’s awesome to get an audience response to work in progress, and it’s great to hear fellow students read at a conference, because we all bust out our best writing and often bring pieces outside our workshop genre.

But we’ve all heard That Person read. You know—the one who burns eleven minutes in a five-minute slot, or the one with the graphic sex scene that has everyone squirming in their seats (the bad kind of squirming), or the whispery reader no-one can hear.

Even with good material, some writers struggle. They may lack experience reading their own work aloud, they’re nervous, or they chose a piece that doesn’t make sense without a larger context. Sometimes a writer just got stuck being #26 on a list of 30 readers.

You don’t have to be That Person. Or even That Writer Who Was Probably Good, What I Could Hear Of It. There are Seven Deadly Sins of public readings, and every single one of them is avoidable.

 

SLOTH: Do your work, and do it in advance.

Have a specific, timed, chosen piece in a format you can see. If you’re reading from your phone, put it in airplane mode because your mother will call in the middle of your first sentence. If you need reading glasses, have them on your face. Try not to read from your laptop—on most podiums, the lid blocks your upper body, and it’s an old theatre trick that when the audience can see your chest, they feel more emotionally connected to you. Knowing in advance what you’re going to read goes double for workshop leaders—I’ve seen a fair number of teaching writers arrive at the podium with a book full of bookmarks and spend time leafing around. Really? You didn’t respect your students enough to carefully choose the pieces you wanted to read and in what order?

 

GLUTTONY: Don’t be greedy with your listeners’ time.

Know your time. Come up short. Nothing is more inconsiderate than taking longer than the allotted time—you’re saying “My work is more important than everyone else’s,” and you’re part of a domino effect that ends up screwing the last five readers. Most conferences are tightly scheduled, and even if people are polite enough to stay past the official end to hear the last readers, their brains are already at the bar. If you don’t know what the time limit is (or if there is one), ASK. If there’s no limit, assume it’s five minutes and be the saint who stops at four. This also means you must know how long it takes to read your piece out loud, so do that, with a stopwatch, OUT LOUD. It’s much longer than to read it silently, even mouthing the words.

 

LECHERY: Just don’t.

The sin of Lechery is often called “Lust.” But it’s possible to lust joyfully, to lust for one’s spouse, even to spend your springtime morris-dancing if that’s what you’re into. Lechery, on the other hand, is lust foisted on the unwilling. And believe me, your audience is unwilling. No explicit sex. No pedophilia. No rape. Detailed violence falls into this category, too. You don’t know who in your audience got raped last week, molested as a child, or is just plain squeamish. Reading graphic content changes the emotional feeling of the room in a way your audience didn’t ask for, and that penalizes the next reader, who now has to start from that mood. (God bless the reader at my most recent conference who cleared the air with a limerick after a particularly gruesome piece, and took that out of his own time.)

 

GREED: Read one thing, and only one thing.

Don’t think “oh my piece is so short and I get five minutes so I’ll read two.” If your flash fiction is one minute long, revel in the joy of your fellow readers that you’ve made the night run faster (and make the piece a knockout). Poets, you may read two poems if they are short. If so, announce at the beginning that you will be reading two so the audience isn’t surprised when you start up again. It’s better to start with the shorter one, as an appetizer. Keep the transition tight, so you end up with only one round of applause.

 

ENVY: Yes!

Revel in your envy of other writers’ pieces. Admire those who read well and make mental notes about their delivery—what can you copy? What makes their piece good? Use your admiration as a chance to start conversations by telling another writer you loved their reading (great for shy conference attendees). Clap enthusiastically for every writer as they walk up (if format allows), and again when they finish. It’s scary and hard to read your work in front of a group, and just standing up and doing it is worthy of praise.

 

PRIDE: Yes!

Pick a piece you love, that you enjoy reading and are proud to share. If you’re feeling like the writer struggling the most in your workshop (and we all are), this is a chance to show your already-polished work. If you’re choosing between two pieces, pick the shorter one. If you have an option to read something funny, go funny.

 

WRATH: Contain it.

1) This is not the time for paybacks. At one conference, the workshop leaders stopped attending the student readings after one too many “Well, Distinguished Writer hated this in class, but I’m reading it anyway.” You are showing your public face, so make it one people respect and want to spend time around.

2) Wrath will one day bubble up inside you, the listener. You will be at a reading where someone reads porn. Or violence. Or pedophilia. For eleven minutes. If looks could kill they would be eye-murdered by fifty restless listeners. It’s still your job to maintain a supportive and attentive expression, and yes, to clap when they are (finally!) finished. You may downgrade your clapping from “enthusiastic” to “polite.” You may mentally revise your own work; you may assume an earnest expression and write kill me now in your own journal as if you are taking notes; you may daydream with your eyes open and startle into applause as if you were lost in the world the writer has created. You may even (as I did last week) stand up at an un-hosted reading and volunteer to keep time and make gentle ding sounds to signal each writer’s last fifteen seconds. But you may not eye-roll or mutter. Just note the deadly sins, and resolve never to inflict them on an innocent audience yourself.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Shout-out to Katharine Bost, my classmate at Writers In Paradise, for “eye-murdered”!

Don’t Be Brave

November 3, 2014 § 20 Comments

self-confidenceWe’ve all been at that reading. The one where our fellow memoirist clears her throat, steps to the podium, and shares with us the graphic details of her sex life. Or molestation. Or domestic abuse.

We’ve all cringed that cringe. We’ve all felt I’m so sorry this happened to you, but maybe a roomful of strangers about to go eat dubious cheese cubes together is not the place. We’ve all thought, Can’t I just read this in your book, you know…later? We’ve all walked up after the reading and said, “Wow, that was so brave!”

And sometimes we’ve been that author. Possibly oblivious, possibly aware that suddenly the room has gone quiet in a not-good way and only our workshop leader is making supportive, professional eye contact.

But sometimes, that’s the piece you’ve gotta read.

So how can an author approach “difficult material” in a public reading, in a way that engenders applause and a wine-fueled craft discussion instead of people hugging you and offering their therapist’s number? Because “You were so brave!” is nice, but “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!” is better.

1) Make sure your piece deals with drama in the moment and not just drama of situation. The Holocaust is drama of situation. It was terrible, sane people agree. The Diary of Anne Frank is about a group of people who don’t like each other very much trying to live in a small space, plus something horrible outside makes them keep doing it. Pick an essay or section that shows an action or a choice, not just the existence of a terrible situation.

2) Even if your piece is very sad, try to include a moment of humor. It can be black humor or wry humor or cynical humor, but even a single reasonably-funny sentence lets the audience breathe and reminds them that you’re in charge, you’ve processed  this experience, you’ve crafted it into words and you can handle it.

3) Practice your intro along with your reading. Don’t thank everyone or you’ve effectively un-thanked the people you didn’t mention. Stay calm and positive in your intro to give the message, Don’t worry, I’ve got this.

4) Drill your reading until it’s a performance. Deliver it with power, with confidence, with eye contact. A vocally-weak or teary reading feels like a therapeutic confession. A strong reading–even with glistening eyes–ushers the listeners through your experience and surprises them on the other side with passion, joy, tragedy or enlightenment. Plan where to breathe and mark those places on your page. If you know there are parts where you choke up or tear up, plan to breathe right before them. If necessary, arrange with another writer in the audience that they will nod reassuringly when you look at them, for a mid-reading confidence boost.

5) End with power, not self-erasure. Choose a stopping point that shows your character making a choice or having taken an action that will lead (the listener hopes) to a positive outcome. Smile and say thank-you. Leave the audience with the message, I survived this and a lot more, to be here today–isn’t that amazing?

Writing our trauma can indeed be cathartic. Crafting our trauma lets us share it with strangers. And performing it with confidence and purpose helps us own it.

Don’t be ‘brave.’

Be amazing.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and a ruthless marketer of her own personal trauma.

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