Broken Sidewalks, autobio fiction

image(another work in progress–my first fictional piece ever)

Strange how I can still remember the feel and sound of the stroller wheels over the broken sidewalks.  Bernie had babysat me since I was a baby, so with this memory comes the image and sound of him—rambling and gentle and always there—a thick, crumpled figure in a blur of summer’s blues and whites.

Bernie had suffered from polio as a child, giving him a limp on the left side of his body.  I remember listening to him talk with my mother in our kitchen.  Through the streams of smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, I could make out his towering height at the table.  He spat out his t’s and licked his hairy upper lip.
“Yeah I’m a catch!  No, don’t nobody pay attention to me and that’s just fine.  My hair turned white when I was only sixteen.”  He smiled at me through ancient teeth.  “Yeah, girls never interested me much, ‘course they din’t like me neither.  But I think sex, sex is gross.  It says in the Bible about Adam and Eve and I just don’t understand that part–that part about the forbidden fruit Eve took, but they musta had sex ‘cause otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  My mother, oh my mother she always liked reading the Bible and to go to, to go to church and stuff like that, but I din’t.  I never liked church.  My sister, Peggy, now Peggy–she always went to church with my mother but told ME that it ain’t true.  She’ll burn in hell for that.  Where does she think we come from?  I just don’t get it.  Some people are just so stupid.”
He looked at me as he said, “But you ain’t no stupid kid, are ya, Tony?  My sweet little Tony!”  He patted my cheek and beamed.  I’m certain I was his favorite.   Read More

Catharsis and Literature

I wanted to share this chapter from one of my favorite writing books, Views From the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop (edited by imagesDaniel Slager) from The Loft Literary Center.  There’s a chapter called “Negotiating the Boundaries Between Catharsis and Literature” by Cheri Register.  It got me to thinking about my writing, working on the memoir, over and over, doubting what I’m doing and my reasons for it and why I’m writing it and what’s the point and all that jazz.  Writing about abuse and mental illness, yet making it literary–how damn tricky.  I’ve realized this is going to be a much bigger project than I’d already fathomed.  Yeah, way bigger.  I really need to think it through more.  What I’m thinking is how NOT to write it ABOUT mental illness and incest and abuse but focus on something bigger and more universal, and making the other issues just issues, adding to the theme or acting as motifs.  ?? Any thoughts, fellow writers?  Here are some citations from the chapter:

“..think hard on what makes an account of personal suffering worth reading?  Why write about suffering in the first place?…A writer who expects to transform catharsis into literature has to involve the reader in a negotiation of boundaries.  If work merely invites the reader to witness the catharsis, it may come across as a tedious display of the writer’s endurance.  …”There is no virtue in enduring hardship.”

“I have come to believe that all writing about suffering–or any emotionally charged personal experience–must initially be cathartic. …The first draft has to be an emptying out of all truths, some so closely held that we can’t see them until we get them down on paper.  If we don’t do this, uncontrollable revelatory outbursts or the tension of secrecy itself will impede the work.  That doesn’t mean we’re obligated to tell all, but that we can’t select the truths worth telling or find the best form in which to convey them until we’ve done an honest and careful self-examination.  …Writing it out also helps to contain the experience of suffering, to give it form and coherence.

…Making suffering coherent doesn’t by itself turn it into literature.  To move it from the private to the cosmic realm, we also have to find meaning in it.  It’s not so much WHAT happened but what we KNOW BECAUSE OF WHAT HAPPENED (quoted from Natalie Kusz).  The point of communicating this to others, Kusz says, is to ‘enlighten the real world and to help move it forward.’

What readers needs to know is NOT what I do, but what chronic illness does to daily life.

Having an experience of suffering doesn’t obligate us to write about it, however.  Choosing what use to make of it gets us into some tricky boundary negotiations.  Even those of us who accept disability or illness as the normal condition of our lives have trouble writing it that way–there are few writers who assert the normality of disability…” Read More

Humming Birds (memoir)

Amy, you’re gonna get it,” Nikki tells me.  I’m hiding between the lilac bushes, Barbie’s head in my hand.  It’s our weekend at our father’s house.

“What’d you use?”
“Daddy John’s knife.”  I’m not afraid.  My father is harmless, even almost afraid of us.  It’s hhhhhhhhhhhikkoojimy stepfather I’m scared of.
“I’m telling!” And off she runs toward the farmhouse.  I fish for the knife in the pocket of


my dirty overalls and slice at Barbie’s pretty blue eyes so they open.  I sit and poke little holes where her pupils are and then I saw at her ratty hair.  I lick my bottom lip, almost got it.  A pleasure fills me.

“Amy!  You get in here!”  It’s Grandma Helen, I can see her wiping her hands on her apron through the lilac branches.

John, Nikki, and Me
John, Nikki, and Me

The white house is blinding but filthy.  The shutters are falling off.  My Uncle Bob saunters up the dirt driveway and tosses a beer can near my hiding spot.  He doesn’t see me, I breathe.  His hands, I don’t like his hands.
I wait for him to get to the porch before I emerge.  I stuff the knife in my pocket and leave Barbie behind.
“Amy what are you doing?  Give your daddy his knife back, you don’t belong with that.  Come in it’s lunch time.”  I race up the stairs and into the kitchen where Grandpa Leo sits in his brown leather chair that spins and spins when you lay across it.  He’s next to the window, above the lilac bushes, watching the humming bird feeder as usual, sipping his Old Style.  I know it’s time to be a little more civilized so I toss the knife on the table and take my seat.  Nikki and Jodie are already eating their Spaghettios from the chipped blue China dishes I always loved to look at.

The kitchen is a dismal yellow place with large wooden silverware hanging on the walls.  There’s dishes and beer cans and paper baqs all over.  the floor is a brown linoleum that slants down into the next room where grandma’s organ sits.  My sisters and I sing church hymnals with her on Sundays.  There are old jelly jars all over, filled with old fashioned candy, and lilacs fill white bubbly vases.  The floor then rolls into the dark living room.  On my tricycle I barely have to petal around the rooms.  Grandpa’s torn, black leather chair sits in the corner against the gray paneling.  The first time he gave me a sip of his beer I was sitting on his lap in that chair, picking at the white stuffing coming out of the arm. Read More

The Road

boatMy mother never promised life would be easy.  There’s a picture of her on a boat with a red bandana on her head, the wind blowing back her hair and she’s laughing.  My early, early childhood was a beautiful thing.  Yellow light through my mother’s kitchen windows, listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Cat Stevens, Eddie Rabbit.  I remember dancing.  I remember my mother, how she bloomed.  I wanted to be like her.  Days at the farmhouse out on the dusty country road, the pink petals of the apple trees falling on the bright green grass, a plum tree, tractors, the pig out back, uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, dirty, some drinking, music playing.  Mama kept us in church.  Daddy was shy and sweet.  Grandpa Leo watched the humming birds from his window in the kitchen.  Grandma Helen with her apron on.  Playing and singing on the old organ with her.  Jelly jars full of lilacs.  Lightning bugs in jars.  Riding big wheels.  My heart was young then.  We were never promised anything, and I think that kept us strong for the years that would follow.  Riding in the old dirty car with my dad, he was probably drinking, sitting up front with Nikki and I was by the door when it flew open.  I remember a whir of green and dirt.  Nikki held me in.  Not a scary moment.  Nothing was scary back then.  Everything is warm.  My daddy’s hands holding me.  My mother cleaning my cheeks, keeping a tight, clean house.  We were so poor and never knew it.  Life was beautiful.  Things don’t always turn out the way we planned–life is hard.  It’s damn hard.

What’s Left (for Nikki)

(written October 12, 2011)

It’s the anniversary today.  I debate taking your grandchild to your headstone.  She names you in the sky at night.  I don’t feel grief or loss–those were my companions long before you died.  But there is this ache.  It’s in my chest and it warns memory.  The ache is, this year, something hard to identify.

This morning the house was dark and quiet and I pictured life with you in it.  A life without alcohol.  I imagined you would have prevented me from all sorts of things-things like heartache, lost trust, guilt shame, illnesses.  You were like a big child to us, even then.  Your slowness was what sweetened you.  You made your first born, Nikki, shine.  That was the last time she let herself be loved by a parent.  Your gradual rejection left in her a big empty space, and as she got older, that space filled with self-reliance, education, but mostly with the sense of life as an orphan.  Her ache for you and loss of you shook straight through her heart–cutting it in two and then clumsily stitching it back together, leaving gaps for it all to seep through.  I imagine it steeling itself to the love of many things.

When you died we all suffered different losses.  Mine was the beginning of a broken fever.  You left me to a monster and I’m scarred in crippling ways.  For Jodie, your youngest and by far the sweetest, her loss was unnameable and filled with a deep sorrow–it served as a reminder of not knowing love and protection and sanctuary.  But for Nikki–for Nikki your death made me angry.  Why had you left her again?  Why must she lose you twice and open up old wounds that, from childhood, really never heal?  When she was younger her love for you was fierce and without limit.  She knew you had no right to abandon her, and she didn’t give up easily.  She was persistent and faithful and resilient until, as time passed, her heart broke.  She learned loss and defeat too early.  When you died, her loss was like an old companion she’d tried to forget, only this time she had more control.  But I saw her face–she looked like a little girl again, learning you were never coming back.  I suppose, on the anniversary of your death, I grieve for her.  My heart feels young and fragile and sore for her.  She is the ache in my chest.

Writing Memoir, Quotes, and Books

Working on my memoir, I’ve turned to many, many (many many, too many) books with tips on how to get started, organized, and inspired.  I also read a lot of what other authors say about the process and will share quotes here, as well.  I’ll begin with my favorite quote, well, one of them.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love questions themselves like locked rooms or books written in very foreign tongues.  Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  –Rainer Maria Rilke

So here’s a list of the books on writing creative nonfiction/memoir that I’ve found to be the most helpful.  Sadly none of them are writing my book for me.

Memoirs of Mental Illness

*Update: here’s another great list of memoirs on mental illness, including Hurry Down Sunshine


Here’s a list of memoirs of mental illness that I have read and want to read.  As you all know, my aim in life is to write my memoir on Complex PTSD, Bipolar, Dissociative Disorder, and Psychosis mixed with faith and a little Mysticism and psychology.   Please feel free to add to the list in the comments, I’m always looking for more.

The Memoir Begins

Small Parts (rough draft/excerpt Difficult Degrees)

I trick myself into a stutter every time I think I’m going to begin writing this. It’s easy to do, because after all, how can I write a memoir when my memories are clusters and boils and sighs. There are the body memories from the post-traumatic stress, there are visual flashes, elegant lights, dark corners where I whimper, peaks on which I soar, voices in my head from the psychosis, and the enchanting scents of lilacs and motor oil on rusty tractors. There’s my mother in the eighties, vacuuming the patchwork carpet she made herself in our hazy, smoke-filled low-income house where I had my favorite purple striped dress and an Oscar the Grouch pillow case. There was the opening and closing of the front door where my drunk father stood in warm light, me watching him from the old yellow couch that had green swirls in it, wrapped in my mother’s brown and orange afghan. Pinesol. Bread, The Guess Who, Cat Stevens and Carly Simon. And then the hidden tracks that my mind seems to so desperately seek these days–the long droning songs of my stepfather molesting me. I don’t know what he did. But my body does. I see snapshots and clips of his jeans, the dreaded belt, the sound of the belt, and a video of his own children in child pornography, and I can’t tell if I’m actually there with them on that tire swing somewhere by a lake, being told to touch, or if I’m being forced to watch the video he made of it, him behind me, talking softly, guiding me. I was five. Late at night, when I missed my real daddy, I organized all my stuffed animals over and over and kissed them each exactly the same, and if I showed one too much affection, I had to start over and I’d cry. Then I’d sneak into the bathroom, roll up washcloths, and try to penetrate myself with them. That was how I could fall asleep.
I was the middle child, curious and I think a little wild, and I had to be brave. I wanted the tough role. I wanted to be held like a baby. I wanted to be saved. I wanted to be super and save myself. I know these things because I still want them–an opening into some unscarred part of my heart still wants them. To be weak–he taught me what weakness was. So did my mother. I interpreted weakness as backing away from danger, holding myself, crying, and shying away from instinct and fear. Fear was my instinct, it is now more than ever, but then, being just a girl, just a statistic, just a warm body, when someone takes away from you your core, your selfhood, you find it much easier to empty yourself again and again, to be rid of yourself, to destroy what’s left, for as long as you can, until grace steps in and you break.

My Memoir Progress