Archive for August, 2016

Long before I published my first memoir, I started telling funny stories about my family, especially about my mother. To be sure, there are countless things that figuratively and literally get lost in translation between me and my mother. She comes from a rural part of Vietnam and stopped going to school at age 8 in order to go work to contribute to the family income. She comes from a family that has traditions and rituals that seem strange (and sometimes abusive) to me. It’s taken me 40 years to process this beast I call my family, and I’ve found that I process it best through humour, through considering the amazing and random absurdities of life. One of the most common reactions I get from storytelling about my mother is “She’s quite the character.” Indeed.

I do acknowledge that when I tell a story, I am telling only my side of the story, my perception. It’s all I can do, really. But in writing I do have to flesh out the things that I normally take for granted, like someone’s body language, catch phrases, habits, speech patterns—even my own. These are characteristics that we don’t normally think about or observe in everyday life. As a writer it is precisely these “mundane” things that we have to notice, write about, and create a picture for our readers.

Do you have any stories of your family that get told over and over again, by various people, in different versions? Think of all the times when you’ve noticed an epic, legendary story that gets told during special family occasions, the kind of stories that get people laughing and crying at the same time.

It is sometimes helpful to start thinking in simple terms: the meanings of names (or the story of how someone got their name), sentimental trinkets, trademark gestures. The little things that people do and say.

When I start writing about real people in my life, I switch my lens to “movie mode.” I pretend that my mother is a character that I’m just getting to know on the big screen, and she’s fascinating. She’s complex, she’s had a rough history, she’s a survivor. I don’t know where her story (or mine) is going, but it’s going to take me on quite a ride.

Some exercises that I like to do when I’m stuck writing about people in my life are:

  1. “I come from…” (or he/she/they come from): This is a well known, solid writing prompt that really gets the juices flowing. Taking a quiet moment to consider where one comes from, not just in the geographical sense but in the senses of tradition, ritual, language, religion, and so on, can really bring up a lot of surprising observations about oneself and those in one’s life. It is also an interesting exercise that can combine the past, present, and future to display a complex picture of oneself.
  2. Holding a small object of great significance, such as a stone or seashell, a doll, a picture, a necklace, a sock. I like using stones and rocks because they are the simplest object that kids first play with. They are also great metaphors for the passing of time and changes. There is something deeply meditative about holding a stone in the palm of your hand, looking at the cracks and veins, feeling how smooth or rough it is, and contemplating the stone’s journey in the context of your own life, no matter how long or short.
  3. Creating a playlist or soundtrack for the stories I write. Sometimes it helps to bring another medium into the game, and music that strikes a chord is something to pay attention to when creating the characters from the people in your life. What song makes you cry when it comes on the radio, and why? What song makes your parents dance all of a sudden? These are the songs that help narrate your story.
  4. Thinking of the meaning and stories behind names. Naming is a very sacred act that can shape a person’s life from the beginning. Consider the song by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.”

These are a few of my favourite ways to get the people in my life into character for my stories. It’s a tricky process, but well worth it, even if the creations stay in your brain for a while before they make it on paper.

A couple books worth checking out in terms of this topic are Ralph Fletcher’s How To Write Your Life Story and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

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I’ve been hibernating. (Always found it interesting that “hibernation” is related to the French word for winter, “l’hiver”—for me, winter always seems to be coming). I guess that’s a trait that writers have in common with bears. My 2014-2015 book tour took the life out of me, not to mention other deep family issues I’ve been dealing with after the death of my father two years ago. My personal life is messy and complicated and hard—and so is writing about it. That’s the curse and blessing of the memoirist.

Writing as healing—I’ve always thought of writing in this way, even when I was a little girl. Or perhaps I didn’t think of it as healing, but more like comforting, filling up the space around me when I was in isolation. Oftentimes, people are reluctant to start the healing process because it can be daunting and unknown, what the results will be. I’ve been quiet both on the talking and the writing fronts because there’s a lot of thinking going on, and it exhausts me. I tried to rev up and get stuff in motion to try to get back the old me, the pre-cancer me who did a bunch of stuff like a boss (9 YEARS ago). I have to put that old me to rest. That’s not me anymore. I can’t possibly be that person. That person had Red Bull, adrenaline, and youthful ambition running through her veins. This person falls asleep in waiting rooms and snores and doesn’t care.

But this person does need to get back to writing. Writing does heal me, and also others. I’ve done a good job when I can write something, read it, and say, “Huh, I actually didn’t know that about myself before. Now I can move on.” I’ve done an excellent job when my readers can connect to my words and get the feels.

My children are at the age where they are blossoming as writers and artists. So we hung up whimsical education posters we bought at the dollar store about grammar, proofreading, punctuation, the writing process, literary devices, and styles of writing. I’m looking at the poster for styles of writing. Under “Narrative” the rules are simple: 1. Think About It! (did a lot of that, for sure) 2. Just Start Writing! (as if it were that easy) 3. Get Organized! (where’s my pen again?) 4. Rewrite and edit (uh…) Okay, so I’m thinking and writing, and rambling and wandering. Even this blog post is overwhelming me. My inner editor is berating me right now: Are you really going to publish this drivel on your website? People are going to think you’ve lost your mind and your touch.

To my inner editor: yes, I’m going to publish this drivel. It’s the first thing I’ve posted in 9 months. It took me 9 months to cook up this baby, so yeah, I’m pushing it out, okay?  Because it’s stuck. And I need to get it unstuck. It’s so stuck, it hurts. So there. You. Go.

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