Friday, February 29, 2008

Understand What I've Become (It Wasn't My Design)

-The Cranberries/Ode to My Family

Working on the "novel" (or whatever it is!) about my family has become too hard. I thought I might reach a point like this, where trying to talk about the history of my family would go from therapeutic to harrowing, and it did. Sherryl, my godmother and mom's best friend from college, came up to visit a few weeks ago, seeing my house for the first time, and her pain and pleasure combined when she saw things of my mom's intertwined into my own. We talked a lot over a bottle of wine - never directly about the novel, but more recounting stories, which, usually, spurs me to writing even more in that story. But somehow the truth of who my family was, each individual person, I just couldn't handle the complexity anymore of fictionalizing them.

So two projects have become of the novel. One is a novel that came to mind late one night, a few steps away, but where I can direct a lot of my pain and energies about the role of family and being an orphan - "Orphano" (working title), a book that, now that I've read Parable of the Sower (thanks Steph!) reminds me a great deal of the gist of Butler's masterpiece. A book told from the perspective of only orphans. Without getting into all the details, as it's too early to recount them without putting the novel in the way of other's interpretations, the only folks alive are not only parentless but also incapable of reproducing, from the same cause. Struggling with what family means, what parents mean and being children - not just young, but coming from someone - has come SO MUCH "EASIER" (read: emotionally) writing in total fiction. The emotions don't feel fictional, but the story, which edges on science fiction, certainly is. I think I needed to write half the "family novel" in order to get to this. And who says the "family novel" won't come back? It likely will, some day when I can get far enough away from it. Right now it's just too close, and the wrong kind of close, a claustrophobic kind of close.

The second project is a memoir. Natalie Goldberg finally put out her memoir book, a fitting "follow up" to Writing Down the Bones , called An Old Friend From Far Away. In an interview in the Shambhala Sun, she points out that younger and younger folk have been coming to her workshops on memoir over the last few years, and that she has gone from believing that only those in their fifties or older can write memoir to believing that, if done right, even a teenager can have enough material for a memoir. If there's one thing I've got, it's material. Jesus.I realized after reading the article how hard it was to keep myself out of the "family novel", and it was killing me a bit to do that. So I've begun a non-fictional memoir, the exact opposite of the "family novel" project. It feels really, really good, very clean and clear, and sure. I am excited about writing again, instead of feeling like it's my "job" to write out my family's history.

This has also lead to me making a mix (it's been years since I've made a mix!) to entertain me and help me ponder how music has contributed to my relationships to my dead parents over the years (this year it will be 18 YEARS since my dad died - I have lived "an adult" amount of years without him). Suggestions are welcome!

Here's the rough draft: (copies available of final draft for those who ask!)
Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World - Johnny Clegg and Savuka
Mommy Says No! - Asylum Street Spankers
Mothers Talk - Tears for Fears
Roses - Kanye West
Kyles Mom's a B**ch - Eric Cartman
Deadbeat Daddy - Alix Olson
Mother Stands for Comfort - Kate Bush
Oh Father - Madonna
(Every Woman I Go Out With Becomes My) Mother (In the End)- The Police
Look Mama - Howard Jones
Digging in the Dirt - Peter Gabriel
My Father as a Guitar - Martin Espada
Ode to My Family - the Cranberries
Angry Any More - Ani DiFranco
I Am Weary (Let Me Rest) - The Cox Family
Tell Your Mama Come - The Black Eyed Peas
Mama, I'm Coming Home - Ozzy Ozbourne
I Will Never Forget - Kimya Dawson

Other potentials - that great Mama song by Phil Collins/Genesis - I need to track down a copy, but ever since the This American Life episode where Starlee Kine interviews Phil Collins, I've been thinking about that song...

Finally, this might sound kind of funny, but for so many years I hesitated to use or think of the word "orphan". There's a lot of history around this, but for the most part I assumed that "true orphans" had two characteristics: both parents died before 18, and that they are only children. The first part got debunked in a study I was a part of a few years ago, which in theory was going to turn into a book, though I have yet to hear of any results. The study's thesis was that if a child loses both parents before THE AGE OF 30 (my age) the results are as deleterious as losing both parents before 18. I was a part of many discussion groups about this, and the results the participating "orphans" decided on were that, yes, in fact, 18 means little in terms of actual adult life, and that 30 is a better gauge of when one becomes a "real adult", so losing one's parents before this age causes just as much confusion as losing them before 18, though, in most cases, fewer "complications".
Second part of the "inner definition" I had made me feel "guilty" about using the word, because I have two brothers, both older, and so I've never really been going it alone. But one of my characters in the Orphano novel is very curious about what it means to *be* an orphan, so she looks up the definition and, lo and behold, so did I, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE.
Parentless. That's all it means. Of course, dictionaries aren't common usage, and are often an inaccurate representation, but somehow reading this validated my feelings of loneliness (maybe a false ground - we all feel lonely a lot, with or without parents!) for a small moment. Not like I'll start using the word more often, but it's good to know some kind of external, "unbiased" authority validates that even though I lost my mom at 19, I can still feel lonely about it, with brothers or not.

Funny how hopeful all of this feels. I described to Dylan that dealing with my parents as real people, especially my father, coming to terms with what it is I actually lost, is hard, not easy, and yet, when one is ready (and I feel more ready all the time to get at the nuances, with time) it feels a bit more like a styrofoam wall than a plastic bag - something I can work with and through, rather than fight against with little success.


  1. I'm glad that you liked it :) Yay! It was just ... it was what I needed at the time.

    And as for music ... I will go through some of my music and see if I can find some stuff for you -- I'll make a copy of the songs, and you can decide for yourself :)

    I missed you guys this week.

  2. I've been thinking about this post a lot in the past few days ... just how honestly you write about the writing process. :) I appreciate it.

  3. Thanks (for offers of music and also for supportive words, continuously)!

  4. Miriam i enjoyed reading this. Of course, i experience the same feelings of being orphaned and the guilt associated with adulthood orphaning (is that a word?)
    Some potential songs to include:
    The Living Years- Mike and the Mechanics
    Mama- Boyz2Men
    Seasons in the Sun- terry jacks (although not really about family)

  5. Michael - I just read this now! It's been a very busy spring. I really am thankful for your reply, your suggestions (living years is one of my old favorite songs) and your presence. I will check out your blog and email soon...


  6. Thanks Miriam.
    This is where i am blogging these days: