Getting Personal. Or Not.

I was doing writing exercises this morning. Starting with one of Marty McConnell’s wonderful prompts. Seems a lot of writing prompts ask you to begin with some aspect of childhood.  Like your “childhood home”.

A while back I tried to count all the childhood homes  I’d had, and I wound up with something like 30 places we’d lived or stayed for a while between “permanent addresses”. What does come to mind is a collage of textures: metal jungle gym bars, porous decorative cinder blocks, loose dirt. My favorite line of poetry has always been from “the sound, the smell of swing set hands” (REM’s  “The Wrong Child“).

I remember lying on the hot floor of the Toyota, my back awkwardly stretched over the divider, pillow under my head, staring at the stars through the car’s back window. Nothing blacker than the velvet sky of the desert between LA and Vegas. This is my image of home, really. Continually moving through the dark.

But I did have my own room at my grandparent’s house. A guest room, but we called it mine – for my sake. I had a drawer with a nightgown that I only wore when I lived with them. It was baby doll nightgown that my grandmother must have worn. On six-year-old-me,  it reached mid-calf, and I felt like a ballerina in it. I would twirl in front of the mirror. Only now, as I’m writing this, do I think about the little appliqué anchor, and realize that she must have bought it with my grandfather in mind: a Navy man.

An odd thought, really. She would have been horrified that I might someday write about it. Allude to her sex life. But I want to write about it.

She’s been dead for several years now, and I’ve taken the liberty of imagining her puritan sense of decorum having softened in death. Instead of her icy anger, I imagine her shrugging and saying, “What does it matter now?”  But the truth is, I just don’t think that hard about it. I don’t think I could really convince myself she’d be okay with it.

It’s a bit like when I took driving lessons and had to drive in reverse for the first time. I looked back over my shoulder, shut my eyes, and stepped on the gas. I sometimes write with my eyes shut.

Right after the birth of my second child, I broke ties with everyone else in my family. I started to write small memoirs. At the time I had a correspondence with a wonderful man who lived in San Francisco. My first book of poems had just been published, and he was a sucessful playwright with a passion for poetry. He had more life experience than I did. He was in his mid-sixties and the only gay Republican I’ve ever met. We had interesting and frank discussions, and he was an excellent mentor for me, in part because of our differences.

picture-of-whyI sent him a little memoir about an incident in one of my aunt’s lives. He wrote back, “Why did you write this? Do you just want me to know you are better than them?”

I stopped writing memoirs.

When I tell people about this, they usually say he was awful to say such a thing. But he wasn’t. It’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received, and it came in the form of a genuine question.

Twenty years later, I think I’ve worked through a lot of my insecurities. I no longer write to have people reassure me that I am a good person. But now there are other considerations. Other barriers.

There are my sons. No longer children-but when your mother is a writer you can’t just leave the room when she talks about something you find uncomfortable. Her books are in the high school libraries, essays can be googled by acquaintances.

There are the ex-husbands. Yes. Plural. Both wonderful people I would never want to hurt.

There’s the man with whom I’ll share the rest of my life.

(Please don’t judge: Margaret Mead said we get three. Someone else said that we are extremely lucky if they happen to be the same person. I have been very lucky with the people in my adult life; I have just not had the skills I needed to transition each relationship through life’s stages.)

Last-and least-there are my students. I’m not concerned about their privacy, but I wonder how much can they know about my personal life and still respect me in the classroom on a daily basis? Forty years ago students would have had to put a lot of effort into dragging their butts to the library to dig up dirt on a teacher. Now they can guzzle Red Bull with one hand, google with the other, and link my name to an article on vaginal prolapse.


I know each essay, each poem has to be considered independently, and there isn’t a handbook with all the answers, but I’m wondering… Anyone out there use a checklist of some kind?

I know you won’t have my answers, but it is nice to have a starting place to draft my own.







12 Replies to “Getting Personal. Or Not.”

  1. The question your friend and mentor asked remains pertinent. “Why did you write this?” It’s a question I ask myself after I write a memoir piece. If you make sure your motive pure and clear, you will resonate with your audience and those people in your life will see it as truth, not spite.

  2. This is a fascinating idea, a “checklist.” So often, I know a thing I can write very well would involve someone else who might not like the attention. That’s the first signpost. Then I ask myself what I want a piece to accomplish. If it’s to provoke thought, or bring humor, or express a frustration I think others might wish to express, or just want others to think about, it’s a go. If it’s to draw attention to myself in a needy way, I resist. It’s too easy and doesn’t last. Self-affirmation is healthier when it comes from more internal sources, I think.

    You’ve brought up a few things here that I’ll think about today.

    1. Yeah – Like I said, I’m no longer worried I write from neediness. That is the easy signpost to stop or pass.

      But no matter my intention, I worry I think something is important/humorous helpful, life-affirming, stereotype-smashing etc., but someone else may have a very different ideas of what is “private”. For example, ost of my poetry books about my bipolar experience include my daughter. I don’t have a daughter 🙂 But it makes everything more fluid without changing the truth. Memoir is different.

  3. I think I need a checklist. I have been writing for a little while now and just beginning to share my true feelings. I don’t want to write from neediness or to make people feel sorry for me. How do you keep from crossing that line? I need to think more about this. Thank you for making me think about it.

    1. Hellion :), I think there’s a time and place for everything. Including writing from a place of neediness. After all, it is human to need. And I think that when we do need – it isn’t really someone to feel sorry for us, it is that we need someone to see us and validate us, don’t you think? I am uncomfortable when people dismiss it with judgement. I believe writing and sharing writing is therapeutic. BUT I think that there is a difference when it comes to literature because the writing should be a gift to the reader, not a request. Does that make sense? I will be interested on hearing what thoughts you do have on this as you explore!

      1. I will definitely be exploring this more in depth. I have had so much loss with the death of my sister and my son and have not shared the “real” stories. I had a dream last night about this. So I’m sure I am supposed to do something with all of this that is still inside me.

  4. Ha!! Finding work on vaginal prolapse!!

    Yes, the issue of loved ones is challenging indeed. I don’t write memoir often, and these are valuable questions to consider on the rare occasions that I do. It’s a terrible analogy–but I can’t help but think of a comparison to writing an email and pausing awhile before hitting “send.”

    Like your poems, mine often seem memoir-based. And sometimes they are imagined memoirs (would we dare call that fictional poetry?), such as your daughter–or Weldon Kees’ daughter, or Sharon Olds’ (imaginary) good mother. What do we keep private, and how do we disguise for privacy reasons that which we can no longer keep from expressing?

    Really good inquiries here. I am interested in how these thoughts develop for you.

  5. I write memoirs all the time. This question made me pause. Why do I write them? After some soul-searching, I’ve formulated an answer.
    Because I don’t want them forgotten. I want my family to know how amazing my parents and grandparents were. I want my kids and grandkids to learn from the past generations’ adventures and mistakes. And my own. Not for aggrandizement. But for connection.


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