A Few Ideas to Get You Writing

I’m a writer. Yet during this coronavirus shut-down, I don’t find myself writing much about the immediate world around me.

Instead, I’m writing about my life with an invisible disability; writing that will eventually become my memoir-in-essays.

I’m writing in response to calls for submissions.

But the bottom line is, I’m writing.

And I’m also reading.

I recently finished Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.

Whether you’re a writer, or someone like my dad who, during this unprecedented time has begun keeping a journal for the first time in his life (he jots down a couple of sentences about each day), here are a few writing prompts from Ms. Goldberg’s book I’d like to share with you this week:

“What have you waited a long time for?”

“What do you no longer have?”

“What I can’t live without – “

“Where did you always want to go but didn’t?”

“Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. What is it you love and are willing to give to the page? It’s why we write memoir, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves.”

 

Connecting With ‘The Pretty One’

The latest book on my “just read” list is Keah Brown’s The Pretty One. 

I first saw the book at Target and was immediately intrigued by the author’s smile and subtitle – “On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons To Fall In Love With Me.”

Keah Brown and I are different.

She is in her twenties; I am in my forties.

She is black; I am white.

Her disability is visible; mine is invisible.

However, her book proves a very common theme – the more specific you can get in your writing, the more you’ll find it relates to so many different people. You don’t have to be like Keah Brown to read this book. In fact, maybe it’s better if you’re not. Because then you’re forced to go along with Ms. Brown for this ride; to get a sense of what it is like when most of the movies you enjoy watching don’t feature a character that looks like you. (Although, like Ms. Brown and her sister, many of my friends did refer to my younger sister as the “pretty one.”)

Here are a few takeaways I’d like to share with you this week:

“The loss of control is where the true manifestation of my anxiety begins: the fact that you’re put under and you have no idea what is being done to your body, but you lead with the hope that it is the right thing, as strangers cut into your body in an effort to make it better. The reality is that I frequently cut myself open in the figurative sense when I share bits of myself with readers and audiences, but the idea of being cut open in real life will never not worry me despite the many experiences I have had.” 

“The pain is still there when it wants to be. The pain is one of the factors of disability that I cannot control. All I can do is try my best to take back the narrative about what living with disabilities is like.”  

“I like that my journey has not been easy, because then I would not have my stories to tell. Getting to that place of thought was hard, but so much of my life makes sense in these terms.”

“Imagine if we gave ourselves the same sort of love, attention, and understanding we give the people we love. If we allowed our vulnerability to fuel us to be better people, to say and do more, to feel in and navigate a world that champions tears as much as it does strength, to see tears and crying as signs of strength, even.” 

“I have always believed it is imperative that we learn from the experiences and histories of other people to better understand each other and ourselves.”

 

Finding Parts of Myself on the Page

There were so many parts of Mary Laura Philpott’s collection of essays, I Miss You When I Blink, that felt like she wasn’t writing about her life, but mine.

That’s part of what makes a good book. You get lost in the story. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Whether it’s based in the past or the present, or even the future.

And I got lost in this story. I saw myself on page after page. At times it was unsettling. At times it was reassuring.

“When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you.” 

“If you’re twenty-three and twenty-one and you tell me you’ve just gotten engaged, I will tell you that you’re insane and too young, because when I look at twenty-one- and twenty-three-year-olds now, they look like babies. But at the time, when I was twenty-one, I could not foresee any reason not to marry him. I pictured the timeline of my life ahead of me – inasmuch as a twenty-one-year-old can look at her future life, which is to say in hazy, imaginary terms – and saw no circumstance in which I’d want not to be married to him.”

(Side note to my readers – when my husband and I were married, he had just turned 23, I was a few weeks shy of turning 23.)

“I felt like vapor in need of a shape to contain me. Who was I if I wasn’t that person busy with a hundred tasks and a dozen phone calls to return every day? Who was I if no one needed me to make their lunch anymore? And what good was I – what quantifiable measurement could be there of my worth – without these value systems to calculate it?
These questions didn’t excite me. They terrified me.”

“That’s one of the strange things about life: Even when we know how much worse it could be, everyday pains are still pains.”

“But one person’s more-sad doesn’t cancel out another person’s less-sad. The fact that an earthquake took out a whole city block doesn’t make it hurt less when you trip and snap your ankle.”

“You wish you could take a break from carrying everything. It’s all so heavy. You are so fucking tired.”

“What I can say is that my early forties are ticking by at an alarming rate. The idea of making my days count makes me feel like I’m not wasting them.”

“Children hold you accountable on their own. They keep a tally, and they remind you. There’s no dodging these little accountability officers. They report for duty – and report on my duties – every day.”

“But maybe the trick isn’t sticking everything out. The trick is quitting the right thing at the right time. The trick is understanding that saying, ‘No, thank you’ to something you’re expected to accept isn’t failure. It’s a whole other level of success.”

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas

 

Why a Roundabout Path Is More Than Okay

From fourth grade until about my junior year of high school, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I proudly answered “Astronaut.” 

My goal changed. During high school, I took a class called World of Education. We spent four days a week, about two hours a day, assisting in a local elementary school classroom. That’s when I fell in love with teaching. And that’s when I changed my career goal.

That’s not how it worked for Leland Melvin. 

Leland Melvin isn’t like most astronauts. 

He didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut.

In fact, he’s the only astronaut who was also drafted by the NFL. 

He has had a variety of different experiences, and set-backs along the way, but still maintains a positive attitude and a desire to encourage others to reach for their dreams. You can read more about him in his memoir Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances. 

From a writer’s perspective, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. Certain parts felt like they were missing something – a lack of introspection, personal reaction, and depth. 

From a reader’s perspective, the part of the story that stands out most to me is the circuitous path Mr. Melvin took to becoming an astronaut. In fact, he had never really thought of “astronaut” as a career possibility. 

It’s an important reminder, for me, and an important lesson to share with my son.

We don’t always know what path our lives will take. 

You don’t have to travel straight from point A to point B. It’s okay to take detours, to go in circles, to lose your place and start again.

Because you just may wind up among the stars.

An Essay Collection for the Panini Generation

Do you remember the “Cathy” comics?

The famous comic strip “ran in newspapers 365 days a year from 1976 to 2010.” Now, the creator of Cathy has written a book. And it was her title, Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, that first caught my attention.

I read through this collection of essays and while I didn’t enjoy them all, I did find several to be both amusing and relatable. 

This week, I’d like to share just a few of the “stand-out bits” that resonated with me.

From the essay titled “The Build-A-Boob Workshop”: 

Yesterday, the Build-A-Bear Workshop. Today, the Build-A-Boob Workshop.” 

(You’ll have to read the entire essay. It’s entertaining and rings oh-so-true!)

 

From the essay titled “Infidelity”:

“I woke up with the exhilarating urge to cheat on my Fitbit fitness tracker.”  

(Which made me think about my own personal essay about “breaking up” with my Fitbit. You can click here to read it.)

 

And the one that just screamed “Wendy,” from the essay titled “I’m Flunking Retirement”:

“They call it the ‘sandwich generation,’ but it seems much more squashed than that. More like the ‘panini generation.’ I feel absolutely flattened some days by the pressure to be everything to everyone, including myself.”

Who Else Looks Up Words While Reading?

 

While reading Anna Quindlen’s Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting, I couldn’t stop thinking about a book in my son’s collection – The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds. 

Perhaps you’re wondering why I chose to read a memoir about being a grandparent.  After all, my son is only 11 years old.

The main reason – I was studying the book’s structure.  As I work on my own memoir, I struggle with knowing how to end it.  When is my book done? 

While a completely different subject matter, Ms. Quindlen and I have something in common – she will not stop being a grandmother.  I will not stop being a woman living with an invisible disability.  I wanted to see how she handled it in her own memoir.  (Spoiler alert – with the announcement of grandchild number two on the way.) 

However, while reading the book, looking at her organization, and enjoying amusing grandparent anecdotes, I also felt like a “word collector.”  I read a lot and yet, I found myself jotting down words that were unfamiliar to me. 

Let me share a few with you:

Homunculus – a very small human; the human fetus

Carapace – the hard upper shell or bony covering on the back of turtles, armadillos, and crustaceans

Chassis – the base frame of a car

Purview – the range, as of operation, activity, or concern; scope; extent

Usurious – related to the practice of usury (the lending of money at an extremely high rate of interest)

Anodyne – a painkilling medication; anything that soothes

But now those words are a part of my collection too.

Readers, I’m curious. Any new words you’ve added to your own collection lately as a result of your reading?  Share in the comments section below.

5 Inspirational Books

Did you know Friday, August 9th is National Book Lovers Day?

To celebrate – the day; the power of books; and those of us who find comfort, knowledge, and entertainment between their pages; I’d like to share with you books I have found helpful, inspirational, and just plain good.  Books I have turned to (some of them more than once) as I navigate this journey of living with an invisible disability.

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan.  You can click here to read my blog post citing some of the passages that most touched me.

Chronic Resilience by Danea Horn.  This is one of the few books I ordered from Amazon without ever having seen a physical copy of the book.  I’m so glad I did.  I’ve read it a few times now.

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes.  You can click here to read the blog post I wrote while in the middle of reading this book. I will tell you that this was one of those books that started conversations among people I didn’t know, people who saw me carrying this book and reading this book and felt a connection to it as well.

Everybody’s Got Something by Robin Roberts.  This book came recommended by a friend of mine (you can read my blog post about it here). 

And that led me to:

From the Heart: Eight Rules to Live By by Robin Roberts.  You can click here to read my blog post, gushing with praise for this book. 

 

 

Readers, I’d love to learn about the books you turn to for help, for guidance, for strength, or just a plain-ole-good read!  Feel free to share in the comments section.

An Inspiring Life

I recently completed reading John Glenn: A Memoir.  This hardcover book has sat on my bookcase since I bought it and read it when it was published in 1999.  I re-read it now because, twenty years later, I didn’t remember much of what I had read the first time around, and I wanted to see if this book should continue to remain a part of my permanent library taking up valuable shelf space.

From a reader’s/writer’s perspective, the book showed me what not-to-do.  I found myself skimming through parts that contained too many details, felt like too much information, and only served to delay the story.

But I’m still glad I read it. 

John Glenn, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, could have easily lived his life resting on his laurels, boasting of his accomplishment as the first American to orbit the earth.  But he didn’t.  He continued living and learning.  He served as an executive for RC Soda, and later, served more than twenty years as a United Sates Senator.  And then at the age of 77, returned to space as a member of the crew of STS-95 onboard the shuttle Discovery.

I think the biggest takeaway I got from reading the story of this special man’s life is that you don’t have to let one thing define you.

That’s the message I want my son to know and truly believe in his heart.  That he doesn’t have to choose just one thing to be “when he grows up.”  There aren’t limits to what he can achieve and there should be no limits to what he aspires to try.

 

My Backbone

Last week, I wrote about my similarities to a frog and specifically this line:
“… and when the going gets tough, you show your backbone.”

So this week I’ll write about another Backbone.

I recently completed reading Karen Duffy’s memoir, Backbone – Living With Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One.  There aren’t many books out there by and about people living with chronic medical conditions (though I’m working on my own) so I was instantly intrigued to discover this one.

Generally, I read to learn, to gather information, or to be entertained.  With Backbone, I read to find comfort and solace that someone else out there “gets it.”

This week, I’d like to share with you some of the take-aways, the things that stood out for me while I read:

“I’ve learned a lot from my illness.  In some ways, it has been a gift.  It’s not a gift I would have picked out for myself, but when things were easy, I didn’t realize how tough I was.  When you live with a chronic illness, you get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

“Millions of us, people with cancer, lupus, MS, Parkinson’s, sarcoidosis, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s, cystic fibrosis, and many other diseases will live for years with invisible but persistent illness.  Whether it’s the miracle of modern medicine or the luck of the draw, we are fated to have to find a way to live for decades with an incurable condition.”

“The ability to walk without pain is a gift that we don’t have anymore.  Being able to walk with pain and not give up is a superpower.”

“I would not wish a life with chronic pain on my worst enemy.  A painful life-altering event is one of the top fears for most of the population.  We who are chronically ill deal with what most people fear every single day.  We know our complaints are not moral weaknesses.  We find resilience, we adapt, and we figure out a new way to live.  We have guts.”