One Value of Memoirs

Just so we’re clear, I’m not usually a big fan of memoir writing. There are so many books out there and a lot of memoir writing is just some dude or lady talking about the mundanity of her or his life.

However, some have excellent writing (as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club are purported to have, though I haven’t been able to get into either—sometimes timing, though, is everything).

Other memoirs just tell a good story. Teaching Lolita in Tehran may be a good example of this. It’s about a woman who sought to introduce more critical thinking about human nature (or something) in a society that oppresses women. I could never get into that one either.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about memoir: A memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence) is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the subject’s life.

Memoirs are just real stories, but they have one particularly relevant value even for people who don’t traditionally like memoirs.

To illustrate part of my point before I state it, read this quote from a recent political rally (you may recognize it): “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (CNN).

A different public official from San Diego publicly posted disparaging comments about Muslims with the hashtag “#SubhumanMonsters.” When confronted with this, he replied, “I’m trying to think of a different way, but what do you call people that treat women like second hand citizens, stone them to death, honor killings, etc, throw homosexuals from the roof… It is not hateful, it is the reality of how Islamic men are raised and they are not compatible with civil society.”

But it’s not just political negativity. Here’s a link to an article called “Five Really Good Reasons to Hate Millennials.” Yeah, someone really wrote that. Apparently, millennials are all not patriotic and news-worth enough. All of them. How dare they?

Noticing a pattern here? It has to do with NEGATIVITY and one of the most destructive human instincts: Stereotyping (and also maybe Fearing the Unknown and saying crap without thinking).

Now if you’re wondering what the hell this has to do with memoirs, remember that memoirs are true narratives and stories from real people. A good memoir has the power to help readers understand the complexities and struggles of a person’s life. This means memoirs can teach you what it is like to be someone else.

With memoirs, you can learn about the helplessness and despair that can be found inside addiction, the longing for parity and justice often found in experiences of Black Americans, the hopeless struggle of the rural American poor, the yearning for a spiritual connection to the land and ancestors of many Native Americans. You can experience the tension in families that seek to American-ize while still maintaining their cultures. You can know what it means to hate welfare and be dependent on it and the awful reality of Section 8 housing. All of these can be found in real memoirs.

Here’s another truth you’ve probably heard before: knowledge is power. But how can you turn that into quick weapons? When you meet people who don’t get you (or someone else) or are clearly missing some relevant knowledge, LEARN WHERE YOU CAN SEND THEM to get the understanding they need.

Look back over those crappy, negative quotes. Can anyone guess what color people Donald Trump talks to? Some people really do think he’s a smart businessman, and he may have had his moments. But he’s not Hispanic smart. He has no idea about the experience of Mexican people, or Hispanics, or immigrants in America. What about that guy from San Diego that thinks Muslims are subhuman? Put aside whatever you may feel and wonder about the fear that drives his language. Do you think he would have written that if he had ever read about the experience of a real Muslim?

So do some homework. Get some real weapons (I’m talking understanding here, not semi-automatics). Go find some good memoirs (including books, blogs, TV shows, and movies) and learn to understand other people.

 

MEMOIR CRAP, WHERE TO START:

Here’s a list of 17 Memoirs Everyone Should Read. This is great because it has Maya Angelou, one of humanity’s best creations ever, and because of Kristen Iversen (a former professor of mine who taught me a lot about running a magazine).

Here’s another page with 10 memoirs that read like a fiction (like a narrative story, I think). Most of these I haven’t read yet, but I loved Rebecca Skloot’s Henrietta Lacks. I will read anything Skloot writes. She is just quirky interesting.

Another link lists Eight Memoirs that Matter. The first one sounds intriguing to me because I have never heard of this story.

Don’t forget about the power of an effective Memoir-Blog. Here’s one blogger’s Blog list, AKA Blogroll.

Or check out the amazing Texan Blogess who writes about life and mental illness with humor, and check out the list of her favorite blogs over to the right. They are worth wasting exploration time.

Lab Girl’s Lonely but Moving Tale

Hope Jahren is a woman who grew up in love with science and lost in the natural world. This is, in large part, because of her father who was a science teacher with a lab that doubled as Jahren’s childhood playground and because of her Scandinavian family’s predisposition to not talk to each other much.

Jahren’s wonderful and funny recent memoir, Lab Girl, is about her development as a scientist and academic and the struggles she endured in a somewhat male-dominated field. Even more importantly, she discusses the world of scientific academia and how starved it is for funding and good research. Most importantly, though, it’s a book about her passion for the quirks of the natural world, especially plants like trees, ivy and fungi, and the seeds from which they come.

This book is immensely readable, and is a must read for anyone interested in how trees think or what it is like to be a woman fascinated with science.

I found the book because of this fabulous list from amazing writer V.E. Schwab of her favorite reads from 2016. I’m slowly moving down the list and loving everything so far.

If you come across any great reading lists, add them to the comments or email. Happy reading and exploring.

 

Here’s one tiny but excellent excerpt (taken from NPR) of Lab Girl:

Chapter 3

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.

A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

A coconut is a seed that’s as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a single paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with root and shoot already formed.

When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago. The hard coat that surrounds a peach pit, a sesame or mustard seed, or a walnut’s shell mostly exists to prevent this expansion. In the laboratory, we simply scratch the hard coat and add a little water and it’s enough to make almost any seed grow. I must have cracked thousands of seeds over the years, and yet the next day’s green never fails to amaze me. Something so hard can be so easy if you just have a little help. In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you’re supposed to be.

After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory. I wonder where it is right now.

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

 

Soul Pancake’s “My Last Days” Rocks

In a political climate where frustration and anger abounds, it is nice to find and celebrate positivity.

Soul Pancake (a YouTube channel and collective of Rainn Wilson and other smart people trying to make the world better) has a series called “My Last Days” about people who are nearing death.

Death happens. It will happen to all of us. Since what comes after is so unknown, this can be scary as hell, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, remarkably, being reminded of death can offer a different lens with which to view life. Remembering death can help people evaluate what it means for us each to live well.

Want a reminder about life and being positive? Want to reframe the way you see everything in your life to make sure that when death hits closer to home you aren’t filled with regrets? Then watch a little of this 22 minute video about Zach Sobiech, a dying seventeen year old diagnosed with Osteosarcoma. What does it make you want to do more of and less of?

Go do it then, and write about it. Go live your life well, and let us know what this means and looks like for you.

Welcome Back! Writing and Worlds!

Change happens and we have to grow and adapt.

After a hiatus, I’m back and with a slightly different focus. Rather than just musings on society and culture (and my own works), I’ll be focusing a great deal on one of my favorite aspects of storytelling: worldbuilding.

Since I’m also a writing instructor/professor these days, I’ll also be sharing some good things to know about writing, both for college and for narratives.

Here’s to exploring with you all in the next few years.

Makin Time for Doin’ What You Do

I’ve been way too busy for my own good lately. Mostly stuff I put on my own plate, so to speak (which is another issue, but not one for today). But the other day, I reminded myself of a great lesson:

We have to make time in our busy lives for our art!

Let’s start with the second half of that first. What is our art? Well, to some in Texas, that means “huntin” (this is similar to hunting, but a little more redneck – and NOT in a bad way). To at least one friend of mine, this means making stained glass. To another, it means writing screenplays. But this does NOT include Facebook games or shopping. There are thousands of things we can do as humans that with effort we can improve at. Learning an instrument or another language. Building furniture. Arranging and decorating rooms. Creating music or writing poetry. Painting wall murals. Assembling culinary masterpieces. Whatever we love to do that we enjoy investing time in and, therefore, getting better at – THAT is our art.

The first part of the statement above is a little more obvious, but more difficult to do. How do we cut time out of our lives to make sure our art is prioritized? However we can, friend. Me? Well, glad you asked. I joined me a choir where I muddle through sight reading and keeping pace with the other singers. It’s sometimes a bit of a trainwreck, and other times (generally out of sheer dumb luck) I hit the right notes at the right times. It kind of feels good to see progress too.

The other night, I really wanted to just relax and boob out (translation: feet up, TV on), but I forced myself through sheer Jedi Mind Will (on myself…) to go to choir practice. Two hours later, after a bit of real focus and work, I realized I felt great. Working at your “art” means investing time in something and recouping experience. Art growth is always a worthy endeavor, and whatever yours may be, it’s often just what is needed to unwind from the stressors of our task-related culture.

So don’t forget it, friend. Make the time to work for whatever art brings you bliss. You’ll thank me later. Or rather, you’ll thank yourself.