Sunday, May 31, 2015

writing what disturbs you

I'm in the process of editing ten chapters contributed by friends and family that will appear in my WIP, titled "Ten Faces of Faith." All of them agreed to write out their stories for me, although none of them is a "writer" and I have asked them to do the hardest thing I know.

I have asked each of them to revisit a painful episode in their lives (the death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, the descent into addiction, among others) and how it affected their faith. It forces them to relive the pain, to describe it, and to interpret it for the rest of us. It asks them to re-examine their relationship with God and to reflect on the purpose and meaning of pain in our lives. Not an easy thing to put into words.

So now I'm sitting in the editor's seat for my own book...even though I don't have an MFA in anything. Nevertheless, I am aware of some of the literary conventions that hound contemporary writers, so I have been busy correcting the double spaces between sentences, and eliminating adjectives, adverbs, passive verbs, and exclamation points. I have been correcting spelling and usage errors. And I have been polishing the prose.

I hope they don't take offense when I hand them my rewrites. They'll have to learn to surrender to the new rules of writing the way I dideven though I may not have agreed with them at first. I had to train myself to avoid the beautiful, elaborate, flowery language I love. I had to retrain my ear to appreciate the rhythm and flow of a sentence in its crisp, clear form. I had to learn to show rather than tell. None of which they have the vaguest clue about.

I'll tell them that the changes I made were not my idea, that this is how it's done nowadays. Things have changed. If I don't do it someone else will...but they won't be as kind about it as I will be.

My greatest challenge is to restate their stories without misinterpreting their words, or misrepresenting their emotional/psychological/spiritual journey, or violating their trust. That's the hardest part in all of this, and it's the most important.

What is the hardest thing you've ever written? What is your story?
"Tell me your story,
show me your wounds,
and I'll show you what Love sees
when Love looks at you.
Hand me the pieces,
broken and bruised,
and I'll show you what Love sees
when Love looks at you."
~Mac Powell~
~from "When Love Sees You"~
People around here are starting to complain about the heat and humidity. I tell them I'm just happy to have thawed out...

Monday, May 25, 2015

stories that are hard to imagine and impossible to tell

Here is what my father told me about his experience in WWII:


He never spoke of it. Everything I know about that chapter in his life I learned in disconnected sound bites from my mother over the years. My father's story, in his own words, is lost to me forever. Still, imagining the details would make for an epic historical novel:

"At his family's insistence, but against his will, a bright, handsome young man from America travels to Austria to begin his studies for the Catholic priesthood. WWII erupts. The Nazi invasion of Austria forces him back to the states where he enlists in the army. Soon he meets and marries the love of his life. Not three months later he is deployed to England where he rises to the rank of captain in the Army Signal Corps. His unit is assigned to decode top secret messages that have been intercepted from enemy spies. Although spared active combat, he is among the first American soldiers to enter the concentration camps on Liberation Day. He returns a different man."

Charles Richard Formaniak

The horror of the camps silenced my father. He had no words for what he witnessed there.

This is not uncommon among traumatized individuals--soldiers, survivors of natural disasters, victims of violence, etc. Their stories are painful to relive, difficult to share, and impossible to imagine--which is what the rest of us are pretty much left to do. Their silence is a tribute to the unspeakable reality they survived, and to the inner battle they continue to wage in its wake.

I wish I knew my father's story. I wish I knew what persuaded him to pursue the Catholic priesthood, and then caused him to turn away from his faith. How it felt to fall in love and then to be swept away into war. What fear, despair and loathing he must have felt, and how it changed him. How he kept his silence about it.

He didn't behave like a tormented soul, nor was he angry or violent. He was a gentle, kind, hard-working man who had a special fondness for nature. He never let his emotional or psychological scars show. He never told us his story.

Memorial Day is as emotional a day for me as it is for many, especially those who continue to grieve the loss of a loved one, or those who still suffer the after effects of combat. For me it remains an empty chapter that begs to be written but can't be imagined.

Whether you observe this weekend at the beach, a barbecue, or a ball game, take a moment to salute the courage and heroism shown by the men and women who protect and defend our freedom.

Reflect for a moment on the silence they keep, and what it means.

Remember this: Whether you know the story or not, everyone you meet is fighting a battle of some kind. War rages all around us whether we know it or not. Memorial Day is for all of us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

what do you write?

This past week, I joined over 200 writers, agents, and editors in Pittsburgh for the 28th Annual Pennwriters Conference. This might be intimidating to those of us who are somewhat reclusive when we're at work, but in fact, this particular writing community tends to be cordial and inclusive making it easy to strike up a conversation with just about anyone.

One question is all it takes:

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, romance, short stories, poetry, nonfiction--the list goes on. They were all well represented among this group.

When someone asks me what I write I usually respond, "You mean, what am I writing this week?" This week I'm trying to finish up a nonfiction book about spirituality. Last week I submitted a short story for publication. Next week it might be a piece of flash fiction or an essay. Three novels are collecting dust in a drawer somewhere, and I'd love to try my hand at poetry. I can't seem to stick to just one thing...and the clock is ticking. Still, I hold on to hope.

Image result for stick to one thing quotes

I ask myself:

...and I remind myself:

...which is why I preach the fact that it's never too late to begin again...whether you're starting a revision, or experimenting with something new...because

What would you like to try? When will you begin?
"Do what you can,
with what you have,
where you are."
~Theodore Roosevelt~
The Pennwriters Conference was so much fun my new motto is: "Laugh and Learn." I'm still in Pittsburgh visiting the kids, but when I get home, watch out!

Friday, May 8, 2015

the happiest day of the year, or the saddest
A couple of years ago, childless friend of mine stopped me after Mass on Mother's Day. She confided to me about how sad she was because she couldn't stand up in church to receive the special Mother's Day blessing.

So...this post is for her, and for YOU...if you are a mother, will be a mother, or hope to become a mother some day.

This is also for you if you have been unable to become a mother, or if you have decided that motherhood is not right for you.

This is for you is you have lost a child through illness or injury, in military service...or, God forbid, through suicide.

If you are a mother who has been entrusted with the care of a child with special needs, this is for you.

If you have suffered a miscarriage...or opted for an abortion...this is for you, too.

If you are estranged from your children...if you wish you had done better...if your maternal heart is broken, this is definitely for you.

If you are trying to do it alone, this is for you.

This is for all the meals you prepared, all the laundry you washed, all the miles you drove, all the sleep you lost.

If you are a woman, this post is for the comfort, encouragement, patience, kindness, and love you have shown for any child, anywhere, ever...

It's for the frustration, worry, sorrow, anger, and sacrifice you have borne just for trying.

...because Mother's Day may be the happiest day of the year for you...or the saddest.
This year I get to celebrate her FIRST Mother's Day with my daughter and the man who made it possible:

Happy First Mother's Day Andrea and John!


Sunday, May 3, 2015

where the stories are

I've been dancing around the idea of writing a memoir for quite some time now, even though I don't know the steps. I do, however, know that Maya Angelou got it right when she said:

Image result for there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. page number

To this end I have been reading a lot of memoir to get a feel for what works. The list includes:
  • The Liar's Club by Mary Karr
Image result for Mary Karr quotes

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
  • A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson
  • Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  • Expecting Adam by Martha Beck
  • The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
  • Floor Sample by Julia Cameron
  • A Hole in the World by Richard Rhodes
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Image result for cheryl Strayed  quotes
  • A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
...and currently, Daring by Gail Sheehy.

Most successful memoirs, it seems, are written by people:
  1. who are already famous, or notorious, affording us a vicarious glimpse into their private worlds
  2. who have survived against overwhelming odds, perhaps an illness, or injury, or combat experience
  3. who have confronted abuse, addiction, mental illness, or violence
  4. who have experienced a transformative episode in their lives, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual
  5. who are daring and adventurous
In other words, best-selling memoirs are not written by people like me--average, middle class, Caucasian adults who enjoyed happy childhoods.

If I were to write a memoir it would be my father's story~~the story of a brilliant, handsome young man who was singled out by his mother to study for the Catholic priesthood in Austria. Who fled the seminary at the onset of WWII in order to enlist in the army. Who was one of the first US soldiers to enter the concentration camps on Liberation Day, and never recovered physically, emotionally or spiritually from the experience.  And never spoke about it.

It would be my mother's story beginning with her father's death following a car crash when she was sixteen years old, the incident that precipitated her mother's disabling emotional breakdown. It would describe what it was like for my mother when she was forced to quit high school in order to care for her mother. It would follow her struggle to hold down a job in NYC while she attended night school, a journey that ultimately led her to Fisher-Price Toys where she worked as the executive secretary to Herman Fisher himself until the day he retired.

It would tell my brother's story of a near-fatal case of rheumatic fever at the age of five. When he coughed up blood, he was sure he was going to die because no one said anything about it to him. He didn't know why it happened or what it meant. He suffered in silence, in terror, in dread because he was too young to ask. Even though he recovered physically, memories of the experience festered out of sight his entire life.

All this while I enjoyed a happy and uneventful childhood in the country. While I spent four wonderful years at the University of Vermont. Nothing dangerous, or comical, or especially unique happened to me, nothing exciting or entertaining.

No. Wait a minute. That's wrong.

I'm just finishing "Daring--My Passages" by Gail Sheehy, author of the ground breaking book "Passages" that came out in 70's, when the women's movement was still just a glimmer on the cultural horizon.

At the time "Passages" came out I was struggling with the patriarchy of the medical establishment. Women were not welcome in the hallowed halls in those days. I didn't realize it at the time, but my decision to study medicine was a radical statement in favor of women's empowerment. Reading Sheehy's memoir took me back to the days when women had few expectations for themselves except marriage, children, and perhaps a job as a waitress, nurse, teacher, or secretary. Before women had a voice. Before anyone thought to listen to them.

Oh yes. There are some stories there...
"You own everything that happened to you.
Tell your stories.
If people wanted you to write warmly about them
they should've behaved better."
~Anne Lamott~
Here's the latest:

Caleb~~one month old