WHY I WRITE

 

 

Why I Write

Let’s put it this way: I write because I must.  Sure, I get frustrated, bereft of ideas and self-confidence. Like someone in a bad marriage, I’ve tried to quit writing and move on.  I can’t.

They say you can’t give up the things you love.  (Well, something like that.)  And it’s true: I can say things on paper (Boy, that dates me, doesn’t it?) that I can never say out loud.  I can input thoughts/feelings on Word that I could never organize in the middle of a heated discussion.  I can’t always be funny or “quick” or articulate in the moment but can often get everything straightened out when I write.

I write because I want to hone my craft.  Every time I read a fabulous book by some thirty something author, I want to die and come back as, you guessed it, a writer.  I flip the tops of pages, underline, write notes in the margins . . . all so that I can learn from the “masters.”

Writing, like gardening, requires a willingness to change, to get rid of what isn’t working, to create new and fulfilling palettes.  Right now, I’m in the midst of planting a new garden on the south side of my house, a restful, peaceful space where I can relax, read, and “see” in the shade.

Similarly, I’m in the midst of expanding my writing style to include a subtle sense of humor just like my dad’s.  I’m no Irma Bombeck but a writer with a wry, understated style.  Not an easy task, but I’m up for the challenge.

I write because I love to put the puzzle pieces of words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, essays together and, along the way, figure out a little bit more about myself and universal experiences that affect us all.

 

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To Tell the Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Well, maybe in a court of law.

But what about in a memoir?  A blog?  A profile magazine/internet article?

If I followed Gloria Steinem’s lead, I’d move forward with the truth.  “If you don’t tell the truth,” she said at this year’s San Miguel Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico “your readers will see right through you.”

But there’s the question of omitting certain information, events, character flaws, conversations.  Or in telling too much.  Family members, friends, acquaintances can easily be offended or never speak to you again.

That’s exactly what happened when I wrote a personal experience feature about the dance teacher who infused the joy of movement into every bone, muscle, joint of my body.  A first-person article, the piece revolved around my experiences on the dance floor, what I’d learned about myself, and an in-depth exploration of my teacher’s past and how she’d changed the direction of her life.

In one of several interviews, she detailed her years as an alcoholic and as an unhappy wife locked in a dead end marriage.  She gave me license to write about all of this.

The article was published the day I was leaving for England.  I called her from the airport.

“I hated it,” she said.  “I wish you’d never written it.”

I was devastated.

I moped the entire flight from Chicago to London.  I’d written the piece out of love and admiration but got slapped in the face for telling both my truth and hers.  Better not to have written a word.

But that’s what I do.  I’m a writer.  A non fiction writer at that.  Often, my family/mentors/acquaintances are the meat of my writing.  At times, I even go as far as sharing an article or book chapter with those whose stories I tell. I didn’t do that this time.

Maybe I should go back to writing about “safe” subjects like monthly self breast exams or why people leave their jobs.

Maybe I should fudge the truth and write only what I’m sure the people who populate my articles and books will want to read.

No, I can’t do that.  If I don’t feel passionate and honest about what I write, I’d rather delete all of my articles and books and retire to Florida where I can ruin my skin even further and bone up on my shuffleboard skills.

This writing business can get tricky.

It’s one thing for Steinem, memoir writing instructors and other non fiction writers to push you toward telling your  truth. It’s quite another to have the guts to do it.

Meaty Memoirs

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I had the great pleasure of meeting both Patricia (Patty as she likes to be called) Volk and Sonia Taitz yesterday at ORT’s annual luncheon in Chicago. I arrived early, and the two authors were sitting in a corner of the large room at the Bryn Mawr Country Club where 300 women would eventually gather.

I had just finished reading Shocked for my book club and had been bowled over by the creative structure that Volk used to compare her mother (“the most beautiful woman in the world”) and the inventive fashion maven Elsa Schiaparelli. The author had never met Schiaparelli but had read her memoir as a young girl. She was smitten and reread the book many decades later in researching her own memoir about a daughter’s relationship with her mother and what set her mother apart from a woman like Schiaparelli.

So, I walked up to Patty, shook her hand, and waxed eloquent about how much the book moved me and how the structure blew me away. She seemed genuinely pleased, something I wouldn’t necessary assume from an author whose book was reviewed by the New York Times as “a meditation on the plastic possibilities of womankind and a very special treat.”

Maureen Corrigan, NPR Books, had this to say:

http://www.npr.org/2013/04/02/175585315/minks-perfume-and-beastly-beauty-in-shocked

“Did your mother read at least the galleys of the book before she died?” I asked.
“No,” Volk said. “I couldn’t have written it while she was alive.”
“That’s a problem I’m having. How do you write about family and friends when they are still around and risk offending them or ending the relationship? Maybe you can address that when you speak later today.”
“Yes, and if I forget, please ask me that question during the Q&A.”
There was no Q&A, but Volk began her talk by asking the woman who had asked her about writing memoirs to raise her hand.
I proudly raised mine. She’d remembered.
And even though she’d said earlier that she couldn’t have written her memoir while her mother was alive, she took a very different stance this time around. “Write whatever you want. Don’t care whether or not you hurt someone’s feelings. Tell the truth.”

Now I hadn’t read Taitz’s The Watchmaker’s Daughter but immediately plopped down my money before walking to her and Volk. I didn’t want to offend her.
I was honest. “I bought your book and am looking forward to reading it. Judy Levin whom I think you’ve met recommended that everyone in our book club pick it up.”
I handed her the book.
“Would you please sign it for me?”
Taitz picked up the pen she had at the ready and, having seen my name on my name tag, wrote “To Jane. Enjoy!”
And enjoy I have. I’ve plowed through half of the book and didn’t put it down later on Sunday when the Chicago Blackhawks played their third game against the Nashville Predators. And I’m a big Blackhawks’ fan.

Like Volk, Tatiz has written a mesmerizing memoir. Her parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors, came to the U.S. where Tatiz was born. Straddling the worlds of both the Old Country ad the New, Ziddish versus English, Tatiz manages to find her place while keeping her heritage alive.

I have a lot of work to do.