March 2010

Turning back to writing after a weekend away, I decided to continue the orchestra saga by writing of my decision to return. I opened my manuscript file (after accruing a folder of a couple of dozen single story files, I decided to keep them all in one massive file), scrolled down to the end, and typed a working section title: Going Back. I began to type:

I felt miserable that …

I stopped. That week? I’ve forgotten how many days we were at All-State. In fact, I’ve forgotten just when it took place. In fact — I’m not totally sure I rejoined orchestra second semester of my freshman year! HELP! Well, I’m pretty sure.

Fortunately, I don’t have to guess. I have three resources to turn to for help. The first took mere seconds. As fast as I could type New Mexico All-State Orchestra into the search bar, I confirmed that it takes place in January, at least now, and that squares with my memory that it was cold and gray.

The second and third will take a bit more time. I think I know where the brown envelope is that holds my old report cards. That will confirm when I took any given class. Finally, I’ll haul down a box big enough to hold a pair of hiking boots and find all sorts of high school memorabilia, including All-State concert programs for for my sophomore, junior, and senior years.

If I didn’t have those resources, I’d probably just wing it and do the best I could, relying on the symbolic truth of whatever memory I did have. I’m glad I still have tangible evidence for maximum accuracy.

Oh my! I just spent eight hours in the car riding home from a couple of days with my mother-in-law in her tiny apartment while Hubby did her taxes, and I ‘m tired. Then I checked my e-mail and found a link to a blog about the pros and cons of self-publishing, and now I’m really exhausted! This ongoing debate is so controversial.

Seriously, When I finish this project, my inclination is to self-publish, using one of the Print-On-Demand (POD) options. There is one small press I may run it by, maybe two, and if neither of them bite, I’ll definitely do it POD. My attitude may be a little different from most authors. I’m not writing this to prove anything, except perhaps to prove that I can keep my commitment to myself to finish this with no external deadline. Of course I want to do the best job I can, and of course I’ll give it all the due care I would if someone else were publishing it. After all, this is my story.

One thing I know for sure is that I’m not going to invest thousands of dollars in bringing it to press and promoting it — not even hundreds. That’s not what it’s about. I’m writing it for the experience of writing it and the insight I derive from the process.  The result will be of interest to my family, many friends from back then, and hopefully others in the general public. Those who are intended to read it will find it. I’m not writing it for critics or book reviewers, though I hope they’ll find it a great reading experience. That is one part of the project I am crystal clear on. End of story.

I realize this may be a slightly deviant attitude, and isn’t it a wonderful world it is that we can still have it both ways: those who think like I do can make our book available with little or no investment, and those who want a traditional publisher are still able to keep looking. I’ve already worked with a traditional publisher on two editions of Meetings: Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts and The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Been there, done that. A serious self-publishing experience maybe in order now.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of words and untold revisions lie between now and the final decision.

Yesterday I read my freshly written story about quitting orchestra to the Monroeville Library Life Writers group I meet with twice a month. I love reading to groups, no matter who wrote the story. My third first grade teacher (I had four. We moved a lot that year) had the advanced reading group “read with expression”, and I was hooked for life. I flatter myself by thinking I’m taking on the voice of the authors, reading as they hear their own work in their minds.

Anyway, I read my story, giving it the drama I heard as I wrote. They liked it. And they were keenly aware that this segment was ripped from the middle of a longer story thread. They want to hear the rest, the beginning and end. They picked up on my despair and sense of betrayal and helplessness. They understood my stubbornness.

I was happy with the story to begin with, and the feedback that others heard what I wanted them to hear was made it even better. It is a bit of a tender story, with admissions that I lied to my parents, that I was too stubborn to admit a mistake, that … lots of things. Even though all that is in my past, and I long ago made peace with it, there is still something affirming about declaring it all in public and being accepted, of having others realize that yes, I was so very young, grappling with life and trying to find my way through the woods without a clear map.

How odd. I just realized that I’m beginning to look at my fledgling self with the same sort of distance I view my granddaughters. I’m cheering myself on, and giving myself pep talks. And at the same time, I can step back into that little girl and be there again, be her again, in a way I never could with my granddaughters. How many parallel universes can one person inhabit? How many realities can we hold in tandem?

I’m exhausted. I got three dark scenes out of the way, all at once. It’s good to have them visible, on the page. I covered heavy stuff: a couple about The Bomb and quitting orchestra because my friends said they were going to. I was able to get to one “light” conclusion of The Bomb story, at least one part of it. The other loosely connected part will hang as a loose end to carry forward into the future and (if I get around to it) a later volume. I’ll pick up the orchestra thread when I write again tomorrow — or probably the next day. I have yet another eye exam tomorrow and must endure more dilation. Yet another reason not to write?

I’m fascinated by the way reliving these scenes on the page is so powerful. As I wrote about unexpectedly facing Mr. Pinkerton, the orchestra teacher, after he learned that I’d dropped out, my eyes filled with tears at the strong feeling that I’d let him down. I knew it then, and felt it even more deeply now. I don’t think I cried at the time. I don’t remember ever crying as a girl. I kept it all inside.

When and how did I learn not to cry? I never thought about that. I’m going to let that question simmer and float around, and I’ll bet that in a day or few, the answer will bubble to the surface. As I think about the question, I hear Franke Valli and the Four Seasons singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” But for sure I didn’t learn it from that song. It came out in 1962 when I was about to graduate. If you want to listen, click here. It comes on loud, so check your speakers before you click.


They say we bring our problems on ourselves, or something like that. Was I so desperate to avoid writing last night that I trashed my computer? I decided to install the OpenOffice update that’s been nagging me for weeks. That shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes… It shouldn’t. It didn’t. What took more than the couple of minutes was the melt-down. The upgrade to 3.2 wouldn’t install. “No changes have been made to your system.”

They lied. Now 3.1 didn’t work. System Restore didn’t restore it, not even when I went back two weeks. Without OpenOffice on the laptop I’m using to work on this project, I’m dead in the water.

Morning came. I won’t bore you with details, but after googling (I’m making an aribtrary editorial decision that when used as a verb, google is not capitalized) the error message a couple of times to fine tune it, I found a trail to a Windows system file that was causing the problem and learned how to obtain permissions (this is truly arcane friends) to rename this file. That did the trick. The upgrade slid right in, in less than two minutes. Problem solved.

The bonus is that I now know how to get permission to do brain surgery on my ‘puter, and feel a certain euphoria for having solved the problem.

But my story is still not written. I’ll get there. I suppose in the account of this memoir writing process, the current event is a Tension Event.

There’s a lot to be said for writing by hand, on paper, with a pen or pencil. It may be faster in the end, when you factor in all the technical garbage and distractions we now deal with as part of the “modern” writing process.

A few weeks ago I jotted story starters on a pile of sticky notes. I thought I’d arrange them in some sort of preliminary order for compiling into a manuscript as I wrote. That didn’t work, so I stacked them back together. The beauty of sticky notes is that they stay in order. Over the last several days I’ve been peeling them off, one at a time, and writing that story. Today I got to the one about Indians. “Indians — knew how to live on this earth and survive w/what’s on it. ‘No tech!’ ”

Yikes, how will I ever turn that into a story? Writing about the Indians will be a huge challenge. A single story can’t begin to do them justice. To me, they were as pervasive a feature of Los Alamos life as pine trees. I didn’t see them so often, but their spirit was everywhere. In my thinking, they really owned the land. No, that isn’t right — they didn’t own it in the sense that we think of owning it. They were one with it. Or so it seemed to me. They were as natural a part of the land there as the deer and chipmunks.

I’ll write a few vignettes about going to San Ildefonso pueblo to watch dances, and seeing squaws sitting with jewelry for sale along the portico in front of the Governor’s Palace along the Santa Fe plaza. Stories of picnics at Frijoles Canyon in Bandelier National Monument where we hiked to the cliff dwellings and I sensed ancient spirits. Memories of Indian awareness will add depth to descriptions in other stories. Thoughts like “I wonder what this canyon looked like when Indians lived here?” or “I wonder if Indians ever came up here? What did it look like then?” belong in canyon stories.  Much of this will be composite memory, and detail overlay. How else could I get the sense of a sense?

And there were Mike and Eddy, the janitors at Aspen school. Mike was officially named Armando Martinez. He and Eddie lived in an apartment under the gym at Aspen school during the week, and on the weekends Mike went home to assume his duties as governor of Picuris Pueblo in Peñasco. Mike was my friend even after elementary school.

Yes, I have many things to write about Indians.

Lured by all the buzz, I just finished reading Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, Devotion. As usual, I was reading on two or three levels. First comes the story. For the most part our stories are entirely different, and I was fascinated by this inside glimpse inside the secret life of a blond Jew raised Orthodox, nearly a generation younger than I.

Beneath the surface, perhaps they aren’t so different. I relate to her sense of not quite fitting in anywhere. I relate to her patchwork, grab a little here, add a pinch of that spirituality and constant search for answers. I won’t tell whether she shared her answers or not — I don’t want to give away her plot.

Perhaps I should say, what little plot there is. That takes me to the next level of reading, exploring her structure. The 243-page book is divided into 102 chapters, some as short as half a page. Many are fully developed scenes, replete with dialogue, description and tension, more are not. Reading it is much like a conversation with a friend — it jumps across time and topics like a grasshopper. Perhaps  the structure can be seen as a metaphor for the recurring Monkey Mind phenomenon that constantly asserts itself during her yoga and meditation practice. A few times it seemed as if she should have mentioned things much earlier. For example, she tells of events occurring near the time her son was preparing for his bar mitzvah and a couple of chapters later she writes of something else that occurred when Jacob was three.

Conversation is like that, full of “Have I ever told you about the time …?” topic changes. The difference here is that we can’t ask her questions to ease the transitions.

I love that the book is warmly and intimately written without a trace of arrogance. I love its ring of Truth. In spite of the jumping around, it does fit together like a finely crafted puzzle. I like the simplicity of giving each vignette, no matter how tiny, its own chapter rather than trying to clump them together. I like that she didn’t limit herself to a formal story flow. And I admire that within this seeming chaos, a certain story thread does emerge. Recurring themes do become apparent and develop. I have a hunch that it may be even more challenging to weave together this casual sense of organized chaos than to use a narrative approach.

There is no way to use her book as a template, but I am encouraged and motivated by her unstructured structure.

I’m back to writing fee-standing stories again.

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