Saturday, May 31, 2008

How Do You Write About Your Own Life? On Writing Memoir...

"As I write, there rises something in my head that

queer and very pleasant sense of something which

I want to write; my own point of view..."

~ A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf ~
Edited and with an introduction
by Leonard Woolf

"Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story."

~ Patricia Hampl ~

My first hydrangea to bloom,
just turning blue...

This piece has been rolling around in my mind for days. I knew exactly what I wanted to express, but I didn't know the best way to say what I meant to say. Like waiting for an answer to come up from the bottom of one of those "8 Balls" we had as kids, where you would ask a question and a very mysterious answer, "Yes, No, Maybe..." would float up through the murky depths. At first you could see nothing, and then you could see something but it wasn't clear, and finally you could read the word. Your breath was held in anticipation while waiting, getting ever more and more excited as the word rose and rose and rose. And then the answer. It didn't matter to your tender young heart if you didn't get the answer you had hoped for, it was the mystery, the magic of it all. That's what writing, for me, is like.

Then I come to the book I am currently writing, The Road To Dragonfly Cottage. It will cover one decade of my life, not anything that came before, for this period, itself, is the period of the greatest transformation of my life, the decade when I went into the womb again and am coming out a completely different person. I don't care if it takes 2 years to write, or five years, because one must come fully into one's new self and have time to ruminate upon the life lived, and everything that came together to create the outcome.

What people don't realize is that Dragonfly Cottage is not just an actual place, the place where I live with my animals and plants and garden and books and fiber and so much more. Dragonfly Cottage is a state of mind, a way of being, more aptly put, a way of being true to myself. I am 54 years old. It has been a long time coming...

So how to isolate a decade? And one really can't help but have shadows, fleeting moments of the past creeping in around the corners at times, as that helps fully flesh out the human being as she was at the beginning of the journey. And yet I hope for those moments in the book to be transparent, something you feel but can't quite touch. Something you walk through, understanding something better, without understanding really, almost, a sense of déjà vu. A feeling of familiarity, yet not quite knowing the details of my life that I would rather keep private. It is a writer's dance, telling a story without letting you see the holes in it.

For example, the first couple of decades of my life were full of dark shadows, but I don't care to discuss them in the book, and yet they left me marked and helped create who I am today, and I don't even want to go into that. Diagnoses, medications, doctors, they have no place in this book.

Too, I am not the kind of writer that could ever write a tell-all book. I am very open about my own life, but I zealously guard those that I love. You will rarely ever hear anything about my children but the most fleeting things, you will never hear about the one I love. I tell no secrets that belong to anyone else, and wherein those people, those secrets, those circumstances not only affect me, but are often part of me, if they are not fully mine, you won't be reading about them. But, somewhere, somehow, you will feel what you need to feel about it all. You see, I am a Metaphorist. For many long years my business cards had my name, and the singular word, Metaphorist, under it, and my studio number. That was it. And I was not being facetious. I was letting people know that I would clearly write the truth, but if my writing sometimes verged on allegory, if I anthropomorphise, I am not making light of the situation, and often, you have to look underneath or around the corners to reach the answers you are seeking, but they are the hidden treasure that I myself am looking for, and you are with me, along for the ride, when you read my writing. Sometimes we both discover the truth together.

The only good memoir, in my mind, and in the mind of one of my special heart-teachers, a friend, and comrade the last few years of her life, May Sarton, was to be as transparent as possible when writing memoir. To write as truthfully as you dare while still laying the words out on a clear pool of water so the reader might both read the words and dive through into their own life. A good read, one hopes, and a journey into the reader's very own life. The circumstances are rarely the same, but the heart of the situation is often similar. Sometimes, as writers, we light the path for a reader so that he or she might find her own way. At other times we are on a singular journey to find out the truth about our own lives which we don't really know until they come straight out of our fingers onto the words of the page.

And as it all comes together, for me, writing about the elements of my own life -- the animals, the garden, the seedlings on my kitchen windowsill, the crystals and stones around me, wool being spun into yarn as I sit meditatively letting my mind rest, well, they will follow along into the book too. The simple joys of life are at the heart and soul of my writing, and when push comes to shove, I am simply a woman finding her own Walden in her own little cottage and her own back yard. It is actually a lovely way to be, to think, to live, to write. And yet...

And yet, Patricia Hampl, (Click on her name to go to her site and read about all of her books, interviews, and more...) one of our finest memoirists today, her books, Virgin Time, A Romantic Education, and more, are so stunning they take your breath away, and, too, the quote at the top of this page is perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of what writing memoir is to me than anything I have ever read. "Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story."

And this is the exact truth. At least it is for me. My non-fiction has always been a journey around the interior of my own mind, and the facts, the true things in my real life, are what anchor me, ground the writing, create interest for the reader, and some of the rest is taken in almost subliminally. Sometimes, I think years later about something in a book and I finally get it, or it was sitting there waiting for the right time for remembrance to wake me up to the present moment, and help me there. I read, mind my own business, and let a book have it's way with me. It is why I read and reread my most loved books, and after awhile, if I am depressed or down it's like slipping into an old flannel nightgown and fuzzy slippers. It is comfortable, comforting, it feels good. And new layers of the book, deeper levels of understanding, open up all the time.

I can even see the great leaps of growth I've made from when I read the book maybe 15 or 20 or more years ago, and you can see the many times I've read it, underlinings and notes in the margins in many colors, but, the marvelous thing is that I find myself thinking, "Why did I underline that, and why didn't I underline this?" And the truth is that in earlier readings I was in a different space, getting what I needed from the book at that time, and the fact that I find something so stunningly on for me in a current rereading, when I really look at it, shows me that the earlier underlinings were written by a younger woman, raising babies, struggling, wanting to be the best mother and writer and feeling, often, that I didn't do the best that I could for either, but happy at what I was able to accomplish at the time. Now, I am single, my children grown, I am a woman in midlife, a woman in transition, and whole sections of a long loved book hit me between the eyes, catch me where I am right now. I think that that is marvelous.

So, I can tell you that the wonderful planter below was given to me by my middle daughter, the most delightful birthday present ever, when I turned 54 on April 30. She went to an arts and crafts fair at my little 4 year old grandson's alternative pre-school that is just an amazing school, something between Montessori and Waldorf. Anyway, there were some young teen girls that had made these magical planters and Rachel said she nearly fainted when she saw that this one actually had a little wooden sign in it that said, "Dragonfly Cottage." (Not to mention a woman alone in her garden.) It is truly one of the most magical things I have ever received, and as a couple of the things have passed I have filled the planter with nasturtium seeds and will add a little of this and that along the way to keep it going. I am simply in love with it.

Or I could tell you funny stories about the puglings. The below two pictures I took just two nights ago and the quality of the pictures is kind of hinky because it was pitch dark save one tiny light on my writing desk, so I had to do a shot in the dark with a flash, and Coco, the pudgy, pokey little puggie, had gathered a number of stuffed toys around her bed, and was settling in for the night. You have to understand that this is a very reserved, near 12 year old pug, who does not play with toys, and when I saw her carrying them over to her bed I was dumbstruck.

In the second picture, which I took maybe 20 minutes later, my darling little Sampson had gone off for a drink of water and was coming back in to curl up under my writing table when he stopped and looked askance at Coco, who is not actually a very playful dog, with stuffed toys all around her bed. Sam actually looks like he is giving her the raspberries, and I had to try to take a picture. The flash caught the photos but they turned out kind of ghostly, and yet marvelous.

And so you see, I can write about my life here, the enchanting planter, the funny pugs, the grey parrot who is almost always on my shoulder, a book I'm reading, a yarn I'm spinning, or about an early morning walk in the garden, but what I'm really doing is taking you, gently, by the hand, into the life of a woman artist living alone, a woman who, having survived a painful, frightening childhood, grew up to live a secluded life where she created a magical world of her own to survive, and further, it no more feels sad or hard or lonely, because, you see, part of the metamorphosis that I spoke about at the beginning has to do with the fact that at 54, I am happy, most days, content, almost always, I love my life and wouldn't have it any other way. If my life looks odd and a little peculiar to the outside world, it works for me, I am not hurting anyone, and from my own little cottage I work hard every single day to try to spread peace, love, compassion, and gentleness to the world around me using the pen that I was born with, gripping it as if for dear life as I entered what would be an uncertain, frightening, and lonely world. Now, today, I use my pen to celebrate. And every single thing that brought me to this moment doesn't need to be named, the only thing that matters is that I have survived, I am here, I am loving life more everyday, I am loving someone more everyday and while that particular story is one that a reader might find somewhat amazing and certainly interesting, it is one I shall never write. I will open my heart and let my own life flood out across the page. I will forever shield those that I love, protecting them like a tigress protecting her young. That is the kind of writer, and woman, that I am.

Finally, something extraordinary has happened to me in this last week. You see, I have been at war with myself for the last few years, and it has kept me from moving forward with my writing. I have a book in me, the book that I am writing, that, as I said, could take 2-5 years to write. I am perfectly relaxed about that. But I have many volumes of my life writings, many old blogs, and more that I think deserve a wider audience, but which I'd like to publish through or another POD (Print-on-Demand) publisher. I have had 3 small presses in my life. The last one, The Contemplative Way: Slowing Down In A Modern World, had a good subscriber basis and 15 women that wrote for me, and we all loved it. It was published by my then Blue Hibiscus Press and was a 100 page quarterly, and like so many other 'zines and small magazines, it was an artistic success and a financial failure. The costs ate me alive and finally, sadly, I quit. But I just ache to do that sort of thing. It would be a series of little books, put together by hand, collagey with quotes, books, flowers, pugs, and the little green tree from just outside my window.

Collections of my writings, perhaps little sketches, doodles and drawings, in other words, these little books would be my heart palpitating on the page. I will write/make them and sell them here on my blog while my bigger book moves along at it's own pace. I am working on it and allowing it to breathe deeply and walk slowly. I am in no rush. I am deeply content knowing that it will become what it will become in it's own good time, and I work on it every day. I had thought that I had to choose between the two, and I so love both. Publishing small 'zines and writing big books. There is so much more time and space in the world than we ever knew, and my heart is so much bigger and wider and wilder than anyone could begin to imagine.

I have been trying to be too many things. I have been trying to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, but I have awakened to the joyous reality that we are not the limited beings we think we are, and I am nearly bursting with ideas, carrying about armloads of books, kissing dog noses and parrot beaks, cleaning out the beta bowls and communing deeply with Vincent (my deep golden beta, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen), and my darling Yeats, whose pearly body and huge, stunning blue fins take my breath away, and Yeats and I recite, "He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven," by William Butler Yeats, his namesake, and sometimes they both just listen when I feel broken hearted and confused. People don't half realize how amazing these fish are.

And so now I think I will take a walk out into the garden, and perhaps do some deadheading and nip off some deadwood. The roses have had their first glorious, abundant bloomtime and are now growing fast into that wild summer place. I will cut them back, pruning them carefully, even as I must prune my own words on the page to make the living word more vibrant and alive, and in pruning and deadheading, in fall, just a few short months away, there will be another festival of roses. We are all so blessed, and we need go no further than the inside of our own four walls, or the perimeter of our own property. Of course we never really own the earth, but she blesses us and takes care of us in abundant and invisible ways. I shall now walk out of my front door and experience the magic, and then I shall bring it back to the page. That's how a writer writes. That's how I write anyway...

Beautiful Bountiful Blessings to one and all...



Dee said...

Maitri, you have pugs!

If you remember, this is Dee from quite a while back. I wish you the best in the future - I am sorry about the ugly mess w/ the group. I don't even know what to say, there are no words. You don't deserve what happened. I appreciate the warm, caring place you gave us to come and be welcomed.

I have not been online very much the past year, but life has been especially hard the past few months. We lost our sweet daughter in a tragic accident. She was to have graduated this month. She was our only child.

Peace and blessings to you. I shall visit you here, you w/ your pugs and parrots and flowers and teacups at the ready.

Be well, Dee

LizzyT said...

I can remember many years ago buying a beautiful blue hydrangea. I put it in the ground and couldn't beleive it when some time later it turned pink! I didn't realise then that the plant reacts to the type of soil you have. I was so disappointed.

Shinade said...

Hi Maitri,
This is just so beautiful wandering through your meanderings relating to Dragonfly Cottage.

"It is a writer's dance, telling a story without letting you see the holes in it."

What a beautiful phrase. I think it is such a lovely descriptive phrase.

My daughter teaches English Literature. She just received her first tenure track position.

She is a Modernist and of course teaches Virginia Woolf. I am a Romantic and Wordsworth is my favorite.

As always I so enjoyed my visit today at Dragonfly.

Thanks for the outstanding piece of writing and also all of the lovely pictures!!

Blessings to you:)

Anonymous said...


You have a lovely blog and I enjoyed my visit. I also write about nature and plants on my blog. Please drop by when you have a chance.
in Canada.

Jackie said...

A belated happy birthday Maitri.

What a pretty hydrangea, I have never seen one with the bigger flowers.

Looking forward to your book in 2 to 5 years as I am sure it will be a wonderful read.

Many of us seem take longer than others to be comfy in our skin. I am now only coming into my own since I retired and I am actually enjoying life doing what I want to do rather than what I was forced to do by circumstances at the time.

Hugs to the pugs :)

Greg said...

Maitri, what a pleasure to stop by your cottage and read this wonderful, exploration of yourself and your life, the reasons and seasons that drive you.

You put on the page many of the things the rest of us only think about...and so I thank you for giving me a place to see some of that in actual words.

The pugs are adorable, and the massing of stuffys cute as heck! I had a beta named Iago, who used to come up to the surface or the front of the bowl when I called him by name. All creatures, including we humans, are so amazing.

Love the Dragonfly Cottage planter--how perfect!!

Shinade said... favorite stop of the day!!

I always take a long deep breath and simply release.

Please don't pey any attention to my peace globe if you drop by.

I made a new one that is much prettier.

I am headed to post it later after dropping around and visiting!!

Leanne Lonergan said...

It has been a while since I have dropped by here and I am so glad I did. It is such a joy to read your posts...I would happily read a novel full of your writings!

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