Is Reality That Interesting?

They say write what you know but should you write what you live? People ask me why I wrote my book as a memoir and not as a novel. “Why,” they inquire mostly politely, “did you tell the truth and not tell it as a story?” They go on to add it would have been a really compelling novel and then it wouldn’t have hurt anyone’s feelings.

For inquiring minds, here’s why. I think what makes a good true-life story is that it’s reality. Yes, I could have written my tale as a fairy tale of sorts with ugly sisters and wicked mothers but I don’t see that as nearly as gripping or as valuable as reading a fascinating story you know to be true. If I had made up the characters in my story, similar to August: Osage County, for example, they might be compelling to read about but then the reader could dismiss  them as unbelievable simply because they were fictional characters.

Reality well-written is and should be the most fascinating of all genres. Our true stories are what make us who we are and as humans many of us are on a perpetual journey to understand that. Reading about the journeys others are on helps each of us to process our own trip.

So, that’s why I chose reality. I wrote what I knew, what I lived and what I believed to be story worth reading and worth sharing. What do you think? Reality or fiction for your life story?

Breaking Bread With Buddhists

The other night we had dinner with friends, one of whom we didn’t know very well. The conversation was engaging, particularly when two of the people began discussing their mutual interest in Buddhism. Both had been practicing for many years. I have a rudimentary (putting it mildly) understanding of Buddhism, which is to say I know almost nothing but find it intriguing. So, I asked for the basic tenets. Carl said it starts with some “rules.” Keep in mind these are my words paraphrasing his explanations and most likely not doing them justice but you’ll get the idea.

First is impermanence, which is to say, nothing lasts forever and/or everything changes. Everything dies, that’s another rule. So, if you get those concepts, everything else in life falls into a category of, in a way, not really important. When my daughter was 3 she referred to unimportant things as “nevermind.” “That’s ‘nevermind’,” she’d reply if you brought up a topic she considered too inconsequential to even discuss. So, Lisa, the other Buddhist breaking bread, said, for example, the  issues my family has been dealing with for the last year and a half as my mother–in-law was dying and my siblings-in-law were scheming to grab all of her assets for their own , in the view of the average enlightened Buddhist would be “nevermind.” (Or as I might less politely put it, bullshit.) In other words, we should have been able to put it all in perspective and let it go without allowing it to pierce our hearts, our souls or our minds, as we did.

That was an epiphany of sorts. Of course I knew the drama the despicable siblings had generated was somewhat insane but I was sorely lacking in the ability to see it for what it was — “nevermind.” Rather, I took it to heart, I suffered great angst, I worried, I schemed ways to stop them, hell I even wrote an entire book as I processed all they had done.

If I were an enlightened Buddhist, would I have done none of those things? While that looks pretty good to me in hindsight, I wonder. If the only thing that matters is that which might actually kill me and come to think of it not even that because as an enlightened person I’d have accepted my death because I know for sure it’s coming, then what would I write about? If everything but death takes on less importance wouldn’t that also make it less interesting to process?

If I could no longer muse on human drama because none of it mattered, would I be happier? Practicing Buddhists appear to be calmer, more peaceful, and more accepting of drama. They don’t seem to need to process in the endless (some might say annoying) way I do. Maybe I wouldn’t be happier but would I be more at peace?

I’m planning to read more about Buddhism. Yesterday Kindle offered a free download of a book called something like “Buddhism for Beginners.” I’m going to read it but I’m not sure I’m going to be more peaceful as a result. In the meantime, I’ll continue breaking bread with interesting people and I’ll probably follow up by processing what they said.

I may not be cut out for Buddhism. If you’d like to comment and explain the many ways I’m wrong about this, go for it. I’ll probably process what you say as well.

Does Critique of Your Writing Hurt?

Yesterday my new writers group held our first session of slow torture  helpful critique. Since it was the first, members were hesitant to volunteer. I stepped up as I have pretty thick skin when it comes to my writing (or so I thought). One of my editors told me years ago she loved working with me because I was perhaps her only client who was not “married to every word.” I’ve always been open to learning how much work can be improved and never took the corrections personally. I wasn’t even sure why any writer would.

Until yesterday.

The sample I offered was an excerpt from Tales From the Family Crypt. I chose the chapter where my father dies in my house. I felt it showcased the humor, (yes, even at the death scene) poignancy and overall tone/style of the book. Group members had read the excerpt in advance and came prepared to share their feedback. It started well. The first reader said “I love Sid!” Sid is my dad and from the little bit she read, she was enamored with his peculiar and spectacular character. As he’s been dead for 20 years it was lovely for me to know he still had it and I succeeded in painting a compelling picture of him. So that made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Two more members spoke and praised the work overall. Said they completely enjoyed the excerpt and wanted to read more. (I gave them copies of the book on the spot!)

The next reader basically said he questioned the narrator’s (aka me) motivation for being, well… somewhat bitchy in telling this story of family dysfunction in the first place. He said he wonders about anyone who tells a story in which the narrator is sane and everyone else is crazy. I responded I understood his point and perhaps if he had been able to read the entire book he wouldn’t have felt the same way. That’s the difficulty in working only with an excerpt and not a complete work, I suggested. But, then I had to ask, “But what if the narrator (aka me) IS the only sane person in the group?”  I mean I had no control over what the siblings in this story did. It’s nonfiction.

The next person was complimentary about my writing. She said she loved the way I wrote; my style is easy to read and wonderfully descriptive. She asked a plot-related question I attempted to answer graciously. She added she thought I could have developed the death scene in more depth. I agreed to look at it again.

Here’s the thing, I thanked each speaker for the feedback and I thought I was accepting all criticism gracefully.

But then the group moderator suggested I stop being defensive and perhaps wait until all the members had spoken before I responded.

What? I was defensive? I thought I was just responsive. So I’m left wondering what happened to my thick skin? Have I become married to every word? Or is writing a memoir a whole different animal from what I’ve written before — parenting books and children’s books?

How do you handle critique?

Running, Mediation and Writing

This morning I ran a few miles outside for the first time in many months. Running time has often been meditational for me and today was no different. While I try to quiet my mind what usually happens is thoughts that must push their way through the quiet do so and interrupt my meditation. When that happens, I’ve learned to go with it and investigate the thoughts in order to let go of them.

That’s when I had the epiphany. Writing is a meditational process and much the same way as in meditating, you may be writing or attempting to write one thing but other thoughts keep pushing through. There’s a reason they push through; they demand to be investigated.

Years ago I set out to write a piece about my dad who had just died. I meant to write a loving tribute to a wonderful man with a beautiful soul. But here I am, many years later and that same piece of writing morphed into a full memoir about family. I didn’t mean for it to do so, I just couldn’t keep those thoughts, the concept of a family’s big picture dysfunction, from creeping in. I had to investigate them. So I did and before I knew it, it was a book.

And now I can let it go. And pick up where I left off. Back to meditating and musing on love.

If you find yourself writing and thoughts keep crashing in, maybe you are writing about something which needs to be tabled so that you can focus on what keeps bubbling up to the top of your mind. Then, let it go.