Love in the Time of Ourselves: Reflections From a Memoir Teacher

March 30, 2020 § 11 Comments

joelleBy Joelle Fraser

The other morning, like tens of thousands of parents, I woke to a message: our children would not be returning to school after spring break. It almost felt like old news. The threat of change had been in the air itself, as real and invisible as the virus that caused it.

I’d taken stock of my situation, the way one does from shore as a storm approaches: single working mother—wildly fortunate to already be an online teacher—of an 8th grade boy with two anxiety disorders and a speech impediment. I imagined the two of us together, sheltered in place, for weeks, maybe months, as the world shuts down around us.

*

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a memoir about my childhood in the late 60s and 70s, those freewheeling days in San Francisco and across the bay. I had several stepdads and father figures along the way, and I wrote about the bone-deep ways their lives had marked mine.

But one day, while working on the last chapter, I realized it was my mother and her choices that the book was ultimately about. I had written it because of her.

I’m now a mother myself and a memoir teacher and editor. For five years, every spring, fall and winter, about 20 people take my course, the “Thirty-Minute Memoir,” which I teach through an online school.

What strikes me is even when the memoir is about a year in Andorra, or retiring on a farm, or a life as a jazz musician, the writer’s mother will still be there, her presence moon-like, a faraway pull on her child’s life even when that child is 70 years old and her parents had died decades before.

Sometimes I can see the mother’s presence even if the writer doesn’t, and I might suggest in my comments, Can you go deeper here?

And when they do, I read of mothers who soothe and hover, cook and clean, lie and drink, work and cry; who lament their appearance but are beautiful to the child. They write of women who told stories and sang songs, who protected or looked the other way.

The memories are bright and swift as falling stars on the body. They describe the smell of a wrist, the sound of a car door and whether it signals calm or chaos, the taste of powdered sugar laced over Swedish pancakes. They write of morning rituals, of hummed melodies—and some create the image of arms forever, it seems, folded in anger.

For others, like me, the mother becomes the focus of their book. Many times these mothers will have secrets and mysteries, and some will write their entire memoir about that secret

These writers become detectives writing letters to distant relatives and co-workers, searching ancestry and DNA trails and making pilgrimages to childhood towns and homes. Always searching for more connection, more clues.

And of course fathers will matter, too, profoundly, and many of the writers are writing about them in similar ways. But their imprint is of a different hue.

More and more, I wonder what my son would write about me. From the participants in my course I have found some answers, but only some. He may remember that my patience had its brittle moments, and that I loved to bake but the muffins and breads came from a box. Would he write about the Beatles song I sang to him before bed until he was 13, and how when he hears it as a man he thinks of me and the blackbird singing in the dead of night? Will he remember my love of candles, my curses for tailgaters—the dazzling, summer night skies I woke him to see as we peeked from our warm tent?

Now, home with my son during the reign of the virus, as both teacher and parent, I feel the pressure of my influence even more. But I also sense the wondrous opportunity.

As a reader of others’ memories, I have little advice for mothers, for parents, just this: you will be remembered in ways you cannot imagine. Whole books could be written about how much you mattered, and how deeply you were loved.
___

Joelle Fraser has two published memoirs (The Territory of Men, 2002, Random House; and The Forest House, 2013, Counterpoint Press). Her essays have been published in several journals, including Crazyhorse, The Hawaii Review, The Iowa Review, Zyzzyva, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives with her son and five rescue pets in Reno, and is working on her third book. She teaches online at Creative Nonfiction.

National Writer’s Work Day

October 9, 2019 § 15 Comments

m fraterrigoBy Melissa Fraterrigo

During the polar vortex last winter, when the middle school and the college where I adjunct was cancelled for two whole days and delayed for the other three, I sat my twin 10-year-old daughters on the couch and read to them the first chapter of my YA novel-in-progress. “Just tell me what seems interesting,” I said, and began to read. E stretched her nightgown over her knees and rocked back and forth. When J pushed her hair back, I glanced at her face for signs of boredom.

Outside minus-twenty degree winds whipped the brick façade and snow curled up tree bases. The walls moaned in response, but inside we were cozy in pajamas and slippers. I came to the end of the first chapter and looked up. E immediately darted, said she had to go to the bathroom.

“Wow, that’s good,” said J.

“Should I read more?”

She shrugged. “If you want to.” Of course I wanted to only J said, “maybe later?”

The swings at the next-door park wagged back and forth as if weighted with invisible bags of cement, and the other twin, back from the bathroom, went to find the Monopoly board. I sat there and watched them scurry off and released the breath I didn’t know I had been holding.

I never participated in National Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day when I was my daughters’ ages in the 1980s. My dad worked as a hospital pharmacist and switched jobs on average every four years. He’d accept a position in an ailing facility, whip it into shape, and then leave for another pharmacy where he’d offer this same service. Now I see this trait continues in me, where on the page I am drawn to the thrill of a new idea and sometimes lose energy when the process overwhelms. Unlike my dad, who needed his job to keep my brother, sister, and me in shoes and cereal, I could choose to stop writing and sending out work. I could simply teach. On bad days, the temptation to let it go gleams as bright as a trophy.

“It’s really good,” J said pausing beside me. “I like how in your book you have that school assignment,” she said. “It makes the story seem real.”

The heater kicked on, a warm pulse striking from above. With their postures from that morning during the Polar Vortex in mind, I continued to work on the novel’s opening the rest of winter.

I write on a slanted desk in our basement, books towering beside it. Once this winter I glimpsed J hovering in front of my desk where I had fixed the manuscript inside a three-ring binder. Seeing her standing there, reading my writing inside the confines of our home thrilled me.

Later, when I picked up her empty cereal bowl from the table she blurted, “Questions of a Warrior reminds me of something I’ve read.”

“It does?”

She shook her head. “I mean it reads like something that should be published.” I thanked her, delighted by her words, but also concerned by them. As a child I felt the weight of my dad’s displeasure when he’d return from work frustrated by hospital administrators. I’d crack a joke when he seemed sullen. I tiptoed around when the hook of his jaw set. It took years before I was able to see how I’d tried to absolve him of his anxieties and somehow, forty some years later, I worry the same cycle repeats.

For a writer, the power of Take Your Son or Daughter to Work Day is to share with one’s progeny our deepest selves. For there is no doubt that when I began reading my novel’s opening aloud that I hoped my daughters would be as motionless as the ice-glazed light posts outside.

What is it about writers that make us crave affirmation?

If I had a day off school, Mom might take us to Lincoln Elementary, where she worked as the school nurse. She’d charge us with filing papers or cleaning peak flow meters for the asthma support group. I’d only go without complaint if she promised us lunch at McDonald’s. I had little interest in being at the nurse’s station. But now, as a parent, I crave my own daughters’ understanding and approval of my work.

At the end of the day, it is difficult for me to demonstrate the results of my efforts. Words and pages accrue and now, after more than four years, there are 77,000 of them in book form and yet that work guarantees little.  Reading to my daughters from my start of my novel, listening to their reactions, I was bringing them into the dark uncertainty of writing. This place is my office, the bricks and mortar of my occupation. I am writer and teacher and parent. And there is no water cooler that brings together all of it.

Imagine an actual suite where all writers work. Tiny offices with desks and solid wood doors, a bright open space with a long table where writers could heat up their leftover soup and ask each other about that morning’s progress. Once a year, the entire office would host Take Your Son or Daughter to a Writer’s Work Day, and then I’d show my daughters where I wrote essays and revised stories. Maybe there would be an office coordinator who would lead all the children on a scavenger hunt so we writers could write. That night, during dinner, when my partner asked the girls about mommy’s work, I’d feel electrified—to be seen as a professional, for them to have seen me as more than a maker of scrambled eggs.

A few weeks ago, while tucking J into bed, I told her I loved her. “You’re my favorite author,” she said. I touched the end of her nose.

“Thank you. But you don’t have to say that.”

“I know,” she said. “I wanted to.”
__
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days  (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was named one of “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from storySouth and  Shenandoah to Notre Dame Review, Sou’wester and The Millions. She teaches at IUPUI in Indianapolis and is the founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches classes on the art and craft of writing.

On Writing, Mothering, and Slouching Towards Fulfillment

October 5, 2016 § 18 Comments

author-photo

Sarah Curtis Graziano

By Sarah Curtis Graziano

Recently, I was talking with a writer who told me that she’d enrolled in an MFA program years ago, when her teenage son was very small. The experience taught her a simple lesson, she said, one still applies to her life today: that she is a better mother when she writes.

“Because you’re fulfilled,” I said, nodding in solidarity. It seems like a no-brainer —  happier people make better parents, right? Though in truth, her sentiment made me feel guilty because I could not fully share it. It’s not that writing doesn’t make me happier; unquestionably, it does. Returning to the page after ten years in the trenches raising my daughters has been surprisingly liberating. I find that a solid day of writing can swoop my brain up and over the muck of adult life, with all its petty schoolyard dramas, its apocalyptic news cycles, its constant thrum of low-grade phoniness that seeps into every corner of our social media feeds until it either turns us or breaks us. When I write, I don’t care about any of that.

But does writing fulfill me? The word “fulfill” denotes that a need is being met, but writing has always left me wanting more. It’s like continually taking a lover to satiate a longing, only to discover that intimacy triggers a deeper longing. Desire begets sex which begets desire. The urge to write begets the act of writing, which begets a deeper urge to write.

And therein lies the problem as it relates to my life as a mother. It’s jarring each time I have to leave my writing behind to pick up the kids from school. Hours spent spinning life into language leave me feeling hollowed-out, usually with a headache. Some days, I’m distant from my daughters, my brain still stuck on the page. Or I feel resentful — resentful that I can’t make a simple phone call to say that I’m working late, resentful that I have no support system like the one I provide for my husband — but unsure who is to blame for any of this. My husband? Myself? The Man? (Answer: D. All of the above).

Finding fulfillment in writing means giving up other fulfillments: those micro-satisfactions of having the laundry folded, the dinner bubbling on the stove, the children bathed and read to. As a feminist, I’m aware that some of those urges have been culturally threaded into my fabric since birth. But some are also the natural urges of a human who wants to see her world organized. There’s no shame in craving domestic order, only shame in genderizing its production.

On days that I write, those home comforts fall by the wayside. And what am I left with at the end? Mere words, a castle made of vapors suspended loosely in the air, visible only to myself. There is much to be said for the tangible: a spreadsheet, a meal, a paycheck.

A Gandhi quote hangs above my desk that reads, “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant. But it is very important that you do it.” And so I write, slouching towards fulfillment, chastened by stories of mothers completing novels during children’s naptimes. I struggle to write in short bursts, lacking the freedom to, as Adrienne Rich so perfectly phrased it, “enter the currents of my thought like a glider pilot.” I barely manage to get off the ground each day before the clock shocks me into action at 2:30 p.m. How can the day already be gone? I never made it to grocery store and I still can’t find the right synonym for yellow!

Later that afternoon, I lay down the rules for the 100th time. Please don’t disturb mommy for one hour while I write, just one hour. Barely ten minutes pass before one of them opens my office door to peek in at me, always to ask a ridiculous question. The answer doesn’t matter. She only wants a visual of this mother, so different than the one she used to know, with her hundred-yard stare, her finger repeating a tight circle on her temple as she works on something that steals her away like a boat sweeping her off toward the horizon. What is it? my child wonders, reaching out her hand to pull me back.

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Sarah Curtis Graziano is a former newspaper reporter and high school English teacher who is slowly finding her way into the writing life. She grew up in the South but now lives with her family in Michigan, where she is at work on a musical biography. Her writing has recently appeared in Literary Mama, Parent.co, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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