Category Archives: Memoir

We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

the-more-i-ignore-him

Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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“Inspired By A True Event!”

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Memoir is 90% fiction and fiction is 90% memoir.”*

While I’ve never plugged a real life experience “as is” into a work of fiction, my experiences absolutely inform my characters and story lines. For instance, I recently dug into my own life for inspiration, and struck gold with a shower scene that received rave reviews from my writers’ group.

Let me explain.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

Do you see the faces? Two dogs, and duck for good measure.

I’ve been struggling to establish attraction and intimacy between two of the characters in my novel-in-progress. The consistent feedback from my beta readers is: “I’m not totally sure what they see in each other”. The triumphant shower scene was inspired by the time my boyfriend and I spent ten minutes in the shower spotting dog faces in the granite pattern. I’d done this in private for years, and was oddly exhilarated to share it with him. It was a small moment, but it brought us a little closer.

Most writers reflect on their own experiences for inspiration, but what about when we are inspired smack dab in the middle of said experience?

Just this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were dancing (badly) to bossa nova music – in my living room and in our underwear. We giggled as we stepped on each others bare feet, fully aware of how ridiculous we must look. And as I snuggled into him, I thought, “You know, this could be a good scene to show more intimacy between Alice and Patrick.” But then it hit me: I wasn’t in the middle of a “scene”. I was in the middle of real life. And I was missing it, buried in my thoughts about my novel.

So I snapped myself back into the present, and tucked away that nugget of inspiration for later. Stay tuned on that account.

And in the meantime, I will leave you with that short but sweet shower scene “Inspired by a True Event!”

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I’d always found showering with someone else a little awkward, taking turns washing shampoo out of your hair, standing there naked in the bright bathroom light. The first time I’d showered with Patrick, I stood with my arms across my chest, shivering, until he pulled me under the water, pressed his wet skin against mine.

“Do you see the faces?” he asked, pointing to the granite walls. “In the pattern of the stone. See, two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said, tracing the shapes with his finger. And right before my eyes, the indistinct forms came together into a woman’s face, complete with long wavy hair. “And here’s a dog’s face,” Patrick said, pointing to the left of the woman. “And a cat over here.”

I’d showered every day in that bathroom for two years and had never once noticed the faces looking back at me. But now they were everywhere.

“This one looks like a horse,” I said, my eyes searching over the granite. I’d completely forgotten to feel awkward. “And this one looks like a walrus, if you tilt your head a little. And here’s a bear!”

It was such a dumb thing to get excited about, but I couldn’t help myself.

We spotted faces in the granite until the hot water ran out. And from then on, every morning when I showered, I looked for new faces so that I could point them out to Patrick the next time he was over.

If we were going to break up, I was going to have to move. How could I ever shower in my bathroom again?


* Percentages are approximate

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The Whole Story

I have a minor David Sedaris addiction. I adore his voice (both written and spoken), but most of all, I admire how he filters through the minutiae of life to get to the essential elements while still understanding the bigger story and his own role in it. His writing inspires me to take on different views of my own life stories.

When it comes to storytelling, it is easy to cherry pick the details that will portray a person or scene in a certain light. Exhibit A: “He was at the checkout when suddenly everyone else in line started to yell at him.” Sprinkle in a few new facts and voila! – the story changes completely: “He elbowed his way past the old woman, knocking her into to magazine rack. Immediately everyone else in line started to yell at him.” Now he’s the asshole.

This may seem obvious, but if you’ve been retelling the same choice bits and pieces of a story for years, it can be fascinating to take a step back and look at the big picture. Enter Crazy Candice*.

Candice was my housemate for approximately one and a half years when I was in my mid-twenties. I have not had another housemate since. This is no coincidence.

Clamped-Stools by Daniel Glazman

“Clamped Stool” by Daniel Glazman

For fifteen years, I’ve told stories about Candice’s wild mood swings and her resistance-bordering-on-compulsion to throwing things away, from rotten food to broken furniture. I’ve recounted the time when, an hour after I’d thrown an ant-infested box of sugar into the garbage, she’d pulled it back out, explaining that it was fine now that all the ants had moved on. Or the time she brought home the two-legged stool. For fifteen years, Candice has been a reliable subject of humor and dinner party stories. But it was only when I decided to write about her that I began to think of her as more than a string of funny stories about my “crazy” former housemate**.

Just a few days go, I began to write down everything I remember about her. The collection of broken pottery pieces. The stash of American Spirit cigarettes in the kitchen. The chronic psoriasis on her arms and legs. The boyfriend sixteen years her senior, and the identical twin sister who was four minutes older yet looked ten years younger. The more I write, the more I remember. And the more I am starting to see Candice as a complex person with both good and not so good qualities. Yes, she was prone to emotional outbursts and weeping jags, but she could also be friendly and outgoing, and knew most of the neighbors by name. She’d rescued her dog from the side of a Florida highway and her cat from an abandoned house. She had a green thumb, and sang while she cooked.

Seeing Candice as a whole person doesn’t change the fact that she was difficult to live with, but it does make me feel more compassion for her. And it makes her a much more interesting “character”. David Sedaris would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cherry picking the funniest parts of a story when I’m telling it at a party or over drinks with friends. But as a writer, it is my duty not to define someone by sound bite. Which is what I will now endeavor to do.

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*Not her actual name.

**Okay, I’m not a total jerk. I did have some sympathy for her. True, her quirky behavior perplexed me, and her mood swings and passive aggressive tendencies were often downright distressing. But even in the thick of it, I could see that she was struggling with the fact that her life was not going the way she had planned.

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Emotional Word Vomit aka Writing as Therapy

We all have our go-to stories, the ones we love to tell at dinner parties or over drinks with friends. The time you came across porn on a co-worker’s computer. That time in college when you got drunk and passed out in the laundry room. I have several of my own favorite stories, ranging from awkward blind dates to the roommate who routinely ate spoiled food. While these experiences were somewhat horrifying at the time (i.e. the therapist who referred to his clients as “whiners”, the ever-present smell of my roommate’s rotting produce in the refrigerator), they are some of my favorite stories to tell.

But what about the stories we can’t laugh off, even years later?

I recently came across a call for submissions for personal essays on the theme “It Left Me Speechless”. It sounded like a fun challenge and a good introduction to a possible new writing venue, and almost at once, I thought of the perfect story. The problem was that even thinking about delving into the emotional details of this perfect story made my stomach squirm.

For several days, I tried but failed to find inspiration in a series of lighter but much less compelling experiences. By its very definition, a personal essay is, well…personal. It reveals the writer’s innermost thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities. Sharing our intimate selves with others is part of what makes us human. But it’s also scary as hell. And the requisite self-examination that goes into the effort is often even more terrifying.

So, about that “perfect” story that I am compelled to tell but afraid to face…well, I will say this much: I had a minor nervous breakdown. Not the straightjacket-and-padded-cell kind we usually associate with the term. I remained a generally productive member of society, went to work, fed myself, bathed regularly. But I was broken. Word Vomit

It started off as what should have been a relatively routine break-up. We weren’t a good fit, we wanted different things, etc. But for months afterward, I was plagued by anxiety. I awoke every morning to the crushing realization that I was still alive. My mind was a churning cesspool, and I was afraid of my own toxic thoughts. I didn’t vacuum my apartment for over six weeks because I couldn’t stand to be alone with my brain while the sound of the vacuum drowned out all other external noise. I started smoking again because I needed to do something with my hands. I also started running because I had so much nervous energy, and I couldn’t bear to sit still.

In short, I was a mess.

While I am well over the guy, it seems I am still not quite over the aftermath. And perhaps really digging in to write this piece would help me to resolve that. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence shows that people who write out their feelings tend to be happier, to feel more resolved with their problems. This is of course a form of therapy. Perhaps the best thing I could do for myself is to look my demons in the eyes.

Can you only write about something once you’ve resolved it? Or is writing about it part of the process? And once you’ve written about it, how do you know when to share it with others and when to file it safely away under “Emotional Word Vomit – Do Not Disclose”?

I don’t know the answers. I may discover them by plunging in headfirst, but only if I can find the guts.

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Whose Story Is It?

Writing about real life can be tricky.

I am currently writing a new KQED Perspective that includes less than entirely flattering assessments of several former boyfriends. The piece is not mean-spirited nor does it call anyone out by name, however these men would surely recognize themselves by my descriptions. And although I am clearly telling my side of the story, I can’t help but feel a little prickly about doing so in such a public forum.

I am a product of my experiences. And as a writer, I write about these experiences. I share my stories, my viewpoints. I decide how much to reveal about myself, and have the power to portray myself – and others – as I see fit. Because it’s my version of events.Two Sides

But what about the other half of the equation: the people with whom I’ve shared many of these experiences? How do I walk the line between MY story and THEIR version? If we were both there, whose story is it anyway?

If this new Perspectives piece is accepted, I will record it in my own voice, and then it will be broadcast to thousands of people across the Bay Area, and very possibly to one or more of my former boyfriends. For the sake of the piece (length, tone, etc.), I portrayed each of these complex people and my relationships with them in one sentence; it’s not quite an emotional sucker punch so much as a sharp pinch. But I doubt anyone would be pleased to hear him or herself summed up in this way.

It’s unclear to me how to balance people’s feelings with my version of the truth, and also create compelling work. Do I cross my fingers that none of my former boyfriends ever hear my Perspective (or read this blog)? Or do I kill the piece all together in order to avoid potential strife? After flip flopping on this for a while, I started to wonder how memoirists tackle this conundrum. So I asked my dear friend Mari, who has published two graphic memoirs and has a third in the works. She encouraged me to tell my truth, but also noted:

“If there’s the remotest possibility they could hear it, you should give them a heads up before the rest of the world knows, as a courtesy. Trust me, it’s ultimately far less awkward this way.”

In short, if my Perspective is accepted, I’d better be prepared to send out some slightly uncomfortable emails. And be prepared for some less than favorable reactions.

When it comes to sharing our real life experiences, I think we writers must ask ourselves this question: Is the story worth a potentially awkward conversation? If the answer is no, then the story must not be very good.

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