Today I provide the guest writing prompt at storyaday.org. This site is considered by Writer’s Digest to be one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers” so take a look at https://storyaday.org/ to learn how you can mine your memories for writing gold.
Apparently my high school superlative award is very important to me! My classmates thought I could eventually get something done so I keep a framed picture of this yearbook drawing near my desk for emotional support. I’d hate to let them down.
They should not be worried though because I don’t seem to be giving up on this project. My latest beta readers have provided feedback after I completed a major restructuring of the story this July. It took a whole year because I read three books on the craft of writing after a Simon and Schuster editor suggested I needed attention to the underlying themes. I took notes on each book then applied those notes to the manuscript, then rewrote and reworked and reconsidered. That editor was quite right and I am forever grateful to her for taking the time to comment. Now I have addressed those themes and my beta readers have noticed.
I paraphrase below what one of my recent readers said.
“You have a phenomenal resolution to the circumstances of your story, showing tremendous strength and courage as you face the dragons and giants of your life and try to connect with them. So many people would benefit from your story because it shows a person can come out of terrible circumstances and rise above them,offering hope while working towards reconciliation.”
So, for all of you high school friends out there who thought I was most likely to succeed, do not give up yet. I’m almost there.
I’ve heard that creative people are creative in multiple ways and so we should not be surprised to find that Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan also paint pictures. But when you are struggling to be the artist you imagine yourself to be, like me, writing a memoir and telling a story I very much want to share, finding that I have hidden talents is confirmational.
In cleaning out an old trunk in the spare bedroom I came upon this drawing I made when I was sixteen. I’d forgotten that I once believed myself capable of such creations because honestly, right now, I can barely play Pictionary. But possibly if I renewed that notion that I can draw and I put my mind to it, I might win a few rounds.
This sketch is the result of the one drawing class I had in high school, with Robin Burkhardt, who insisted it was about taking the time and seeing clearly. And voila, she was kind of correct! This Bonwit Teller department store ad is a direct mimic of one I saw in the newspaper at the time. The coloring-outside-the-lines I allow occasionally suggests a little artsyness!
Believing in yourself is half the battle.
When I was in third grade my teacher gave me this 525-page book as a gift. It’s tattered and broken now because I’ve read it many times and because it’s followed me through my life. I thought it was too hard to read and too long at first. I was only eight. But now I see that I loved it so much because it gave me hope and because it showed me how to have a voice.
I was afraid of Mrs. Rarick at the time, but now I wonder if she knew I needed this book, and was being especially kind. Maybe. Thank you, Mrs. Rarick.
I found a suspicious envelope in my mailbox Friday that threatened to be exceedingly convincing junk mail. It looked eerily authentic as something personal, but I’ve gotten this stuff before and I was not expecting much.
When I opened it, here’s what I found!
I attended the Philadelphia Writers Conference in June but left before the awards ceremony. Ah well! Foolish me.
Regrettfully, I missed the chance to hear my name called, hear a smattering of applause, hear anything they might have said about my writing, and missed the joy I might have felt for the past few weeks knowing I’d won a prize.
Happily though, it is here now!
“So even though it doesn’t sound likely, you can be lost and alone and not even know it”. That’s how I started my story Tuesday night when I stepped back up to the microphone at the West Chester Story Slam. The topic, LOST, was perfect for me, because I recounted growing up on an isolated estate just outside of NYC where it seemed no one was ever home, and I ended up arriving at adulthood unaware of just how lost I was.
As I told the crowd gathered at the Side Bar Restaurant, I love telling stories about my life because it helps me connect with people. Despite my unique circumstances, listeners relate to the depiction of isolation and insular thinking that was the hallmark of my childhood. I know because some stepped up to me afterwards to say they appreciated hearing my story. As they did I thought to myself wait, didn’t you hear me….I grew up surrounded by thousands of acres of trees. How can you relate to this?? But that’s what I’m talking about, sharing my stories has the power to connect me with people even though on the surface you might not think we had much in common.
Thanks to everyone there Tuesday night, but especially to Diane Yannick with whom I tied for first place. Because of this win we are both now slated to tell stories at the Grand Slam on November 1!
A few weeks ago I met with a woman I did not know, my first beta-reader for my manuscript of You’ll Get Over It, Jane Ellen, specifically to get her reaction. She, of course, knew all about my life and had opinions on it, and that was a shock. It was a surreal experience. Because I grew up in isolation one of my childhood dreams had been to have a witness, someone there to see it all unfold, so I wouldn’t have to live it alone. I used to tell the stories of my life to the trees, to the air, to no one, pretending there was someone there, and practicing in case someday someone would be there. Now that I have done that, told the stories to that nebulous someone out there, it feels pretty crazy.
She called the book “compelling” and “honest”. I was aiming for that! She said that the characters were living in her head even when she wasn’t reading the book. She even put in writing on my feedback questionnaire this: “It was also a powerful reminder of the importance of staying in touch with one’s feelings. From the standpoint of a writer, it was a strong example of powerful writing techniques.” When I asked what the theme was she wrote, “Finding one’s own voice, self, and sense of purpose in spite of great family challenges.”
She is a co-director at the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project whom I’d met at a writing workshop two years ago where I got her name and email address. So glad I dared to contact her recently asking if she’d be up for reading my story. I could not have asked for a better first beta-reader experience. Many thanks, Janice.
I always jump at the chance to read my work aloud. I just love doing that because I find it fascinating to see what people think of it. I also get to hear how it sounds out loud, for real. It’s one thing to read aloud in your dining room and quite another to do so in public with everyone looking right at you. This was a successful reading and folks came up to me afterwards to talk about the story I read, “Lots and Lots of Love and Kisses” an excerpt from my memoir.
Here are a few photos of me at the podium that night, May 18, 2015.
Have I already confessed to watching American Idol incessantly? I am serious, I collect every show on DVR and then watch it over and over again when I’m home alone.
But it’s more than enjoying the music. I want to see how the winning contestant/artist, who is new at this, gets there. That’s the part I like. I like watching people who are new at trying this thing of singing on television, in front of judges. And truthfully, anyone really good on this show has been singing for years because they indeed do love to do it. It’s that they are new at thinking of themselves as worthy of the opportunity to sing in front of influential people and millions of people.
I like watching this because there is a clear progression from people who are scared and trying it out in the beginning, to those same folks getting comfortable being themselves. I love watching this! I love seeing people get out of their own way to just open their mouths, get into their song, and let it come out. This is inspiring to me, someone trying to do the same thing that I am trying to do in my life, just not in singing. (Alas, I am a terrible singer.) I’d love to get more comfortable writing my story, hearing my own voice in it, being myself and not worrying about what others will think, or what will happen if I show who I really am. I am obsessed with trying to get there. Trying to let go of the hiding that has happened to me.
Growing up I was not allowed to be myself. There was always something wrong with that. I rarely felt I was doing the right thing, and I didn’t often inspire my parents into saying that they were pleased with me. They did not say they loved me and they did not say I was wonderful. I worried about how they felt, but I had no idea how they felt. I had no idea if they even liked me. It was terribly confusing as a kid to be constantly trying to get it right with so little information, so little feedback about anything I ever did that WAS good. I had little to go on about what I was doing right, and plenty of information on what I was doing wrong. I learned to be afraid of being myself. I was actively NOT doing things rather than actively DOING things.
So here I am today trying to figure out still how to be me!
Watching the folks on American Idol try to be themselves, which is what is needed to sing like a rock star, is fascinating for me. I see tiny developments when I watch the show over and over, that tell me the contestants are trying new ways of allowing themselves to ‘be’, as they do not stop themselves or worry about what others will think. Jena is the contestant I saw do this so well this season.
She came on singing music she wrote herself. She got better each week but you saw her stumble trying new ways. Once she even said that some things worked and some did not, showing us that she was challenging herself to try things and forgiving herself when not everything went perfectly. Yet in all that she never lost herself or her ability to sing beautifully. She kept going, kept adding new skills, and in the end she is fantastic! Always being true to herself and allowing herself to show through. I am so proud of her, and simultaneously jealous that she has people around her actively trying to show her how to do it. Encouraging her out loud, and kindly, to do this difficult thing.
I have always wanted that. So I live vicariously through the contestants on this show, not only because they get to sing so well, which I’d love to be able to do, but because they have people around them dedicated to lifting them up and showing them who they are and encouraging them to be bold enough to embrace that and share it.
In my family silence is a form of hiding. You know, kind of going off the family grid and not talking to anyone anymore, feigning disinterest in the ways of the family. Oh, I make it sound deliberate, but really it is a form of fear one can barely help indulging in. It is a form of hiding who one is from behind a wall, scared of being one’s true self, waiting for others to be in contact as some kind of proof that you are valued, even if, illogically you are willing to wait decades. But that’s okay. It is a form of coping that may be the best choice possible.
Paradoxically, I have noticed that the hiders seem to have a high degree of interest in what the rest of the family is doing. So although hiders are silent they are keenly attuned to the goings on of their relations. And it’s easy these days to Google the family member you’ve neglected to speak to for years, to see what they are up to, or follow blogs or Facebook pages or twitter. It is easy to keep tabs on who’s had a legal proceeding or a publication, a problem or a success, without ever having to admit to caring.
I know a little bit about this since my default setting for scare is to shut down and not talk, claiming to myself all kinds of irrationalities. Making all kinds of oaths to myself about what I will or won’t do next time. Convincing myself I am not worth shit. Telling myself words of hate and self-loathing, pressuring myself to do things that feel too hard or too scary. Carrying on the ways of my parents who taught me to regard myself this way, and in turn creating a kind of comfort in such practices. It actually feels good to hate yourself when that’s what mom and dad have taught you to do, be it deliberately or inadvertantly. And so it is hard to break out of such thinking.
And even though I am not guilty of searching for family members online, I know that is what happens. There is a certain kind of glee in being able to have the power of knowing what others are doing without revealing what you yourself are doing. Or what you care about or whether you are okay or not. In not putting yourself out there yet reaping the benefits from others who do.
It’s a form of coping. A way, learned in youth I am pretty sure, that keeps one safe from people who might hurt you with the knowledge of what you care about, of what you do, or where you go. It’s a way to protect yourself.
It’s a tough way to live, hiding all the time. Being out of touch and keeping silent to feel safe. But I understand. I really do. It’s what you have to do to get by.