Creativity Talks: On Writing a Memoir

Photographic collage of the author with trout.Four days after my father passed away on May 4th, 2020, I began to write about his passing and his life. As I wrote, more memories came out… more about my mother and father meeting, about my growing up in a State Department family, about the loss of my mother, and more about the destruction of my marriage. There was so much about loss in the natural world, and about extinction–a concept that has always frightened me.

And now, a year + later, here is a whole manuscript, a memoir of loss…

I wanted to write here about the creative process of generating the book. But I didn’t want to just write about me, me, me. So I asked a friend and fellow writer who has been witness to the writing to interview me.

She hesitated. And I’m glad she did. Because in the absence of an intelligent interlocutor who had insight into my writing process, I had the opportunity to find a different solution…

And so here we are: Turner (TH), interviewing me (Me) about The River of All Things and how it came to be…

TH: This IS weird. Absurd, in fact. But let’s stop making a scene–as you so often do–and just start with the obvious question: WHY are you talking about writing (on a computer) in a blog about making things by hand?

Me: Yes, it is weird to be talking to myself–but there is a purpose to this approach–and I’ll tell you that later.

And yes, this blog is about making things by hand. But it is mostly about creativity, which is defined as: “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” And since the book necessitated the use of a whole bunch of imagination, it rightly belongs here amongst other original ideas.

The definition of creativity also goes on to say that, “The created item may be intangible or a physical object,” and the book is both. I know; I’ve held the Xeroxed book in my hands. I can attest it is a real, physical object. Plus, the intangible worlds conjured up by the words feel real to me.

So even if I didn’t hand-write this book, my signature is in every word. And the same creative process I use in collaging or painting was used to write the book. It’s trusting yourself, allowing curiosity and imagination to bloom, experimenting with composition, and finally, opening to magic of creation.

TH: I usually ask the creators I interview how they found their way to their form of expression. So, what about you? Can you answer that simple question with a cogent, short response?

Me: Cogent? You’re asking me to be cogent? I doubt you are as brusque and insulting to the other people you interview. I can’t imagine anyone else putting up with your disrespectful manner… I’m not sure why I have to. But, let’s continue…

In response to your taunt, your question, you must know–if you’ve read this blog–that I am so grateful to have been blessed with multiple methods of expression–probably everyone is. But I actually got to grow and use different modes of creative expression in my career. Writing is one form of expression I enjoy using when I need actual words to do the talking.

When I started, I didn’t intend to write more than the one essay about my father’s passing. But writing that first essay was so helpful–such a comfort to me as I tried to “make sense” of my fresh grief that I wrote a bit more. And then some more. And then more.

I was swallowed into the writing like I’m carried away in flow during the making of art. As I wrote, I was out of my body, disconnected from Time, but connected to not just my mother and father, but to places we had been, to experiences we had had, and very deeply to the natural world. I was beside my deceased parents, inside their thoughts. In outer space, inside a trout… All the time, connected to a sort of river of energy. Even though I don’t usually remember my dreams, I began to dream of my parents. One night I had a lucid dream of getting a late night phone call from my deceased father that was so real…

Through the writing of these essays, I came to understand, to imagine and feel what dying had been like for my mother and father. In my vision, death had not been scary, but had been a sort of reunion. A reunion for them, and for me–and with so many other beings in the universe.

For the rest of the pieces in the book, I just sort of broke open and followed the lead of my own curiosity, going to all sorts of places, into other minds, each time, adding another layer of understanding of my past, and another connection between me, my ancestors, and the natural world.

I think–I hope–anyone who has lost someone they loved and who grieves that loss will find the essays to be reassuring and inspiring.

TH: OK, you say this is a non-fiction book. A memoir. And yet you involve characters from the past–including fish, birds, dinosaurs, space capsules, and pharaohs–who narrate at times. Narrate! What in the world was your reason for giving these people and creatures voices–in what you say is non-fiction?

Me: There you go again with that snarky voice… Is this the way you always talk to me? With such condescension? Is this what I hear inside my head all the time—even when I’m writing? It’s very wearing. So corrosive to any creative impulse, any confidence I might have.

You make me question why you exist—did I put you in my head? Why would I have ever asked for such a churlish companion to live inside me?

But, let’s stop talking about you. For now, I’ll ignore your unhelpful tone and continue on the high road to answer your question.

Everything has a voice in the book because everything has a voice in my head (even you, it seems, but hopefully for not much longer). To me, even inanimate objects have stored energy, and therefore, are forms of life–forms we mostly can’t hear over the din of entertainment and news and whatever. I think we can feel their energies, although we probably don’t stop often enough or long enough to wonder what it is we are feeling, and to pay attention to it. And that’s a shame.

When I wrote this book, it was mostly during COVID isolation, so I was very open to understanding my grief, my past, and also to seeing all possibilities. Although I had letters, a diary, and my father’s autobiography to work from, they were like sketches for me. In isolation, I was mostly uninterrupted and had the all the time in the world to think about—and feel—what I was remembering. The river of memory was uncontrollable and took me places I did not expect to go, but I think it took me where I needed to go.

My shorter answer to the question about the presences of all the voices and thoughts other than my own in this memoir is that I believe that we are all energy–our thoughts, our memories, our being–we are, everyone and everything, energy, vibration, life itself. And we are all connected.

I came to believe at a deep level what Albert Einstein said about needing to understand we are a part of something way bigger than just us: A human being is part of the whole called by us, “universe,” a part [that is] limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty...”

What I found when I wrote in this river of memory were my connections to a wider world–to energies I had not had names for before. I could feel in my body the truth of what I felt, and could hear voices across time and space, and I just took dictation. This is a non-fiction memoir written as “magical realism/non-fiction,” a new genre.

TH: Perhaps you just answered this, but who knows in that mumbo-jumbo. I want to ask another, a final question, because I’m the interviewer and in the power position here, so I can do what I want. See if you can reach deep and respond with something intelligent about this: What feelings arose for you as you wrote about “the difficult bits:” your parents’ passing, their past, your childhood fears, and, of course, the traumatic break-up of your marriage to that toad I kept warning you about?

Me: One thing I can tell you right away is that the feelings that immediately arise from your questioning are compassion and sorrow for myself. If you always employ this condescending, unhelpful tone when you talk to me, I can see why I’ve struggled at times to find confidence and to let my voice be heard. (And this, by the way, is why I thought having TH interview Me was a genius trope; it has revealed how totally unhelpful that critical, harping inner voice is–especially for someone trying to express themselves.) You–we–might want to consider some serious couples therapy… And soon.

As to what I felt while writing “the difficult bits,” it was mainly a tsunami of compassion for the suffering of others. I felt huge boatloads of compassion as I wrote and imagined my mother being sent away from home after her mother died… Or imagining her as she disappeared into Alzheimer’s. Or the frantic grief I felt when I was with Laika as she was being strapped into a capsule and sent into space. Or when I was imagining–feeling–what King Tut must have felt like as his afterlife was being plundered. Or when I felt what a salmon must feel like when it can’t return home to its natal river to spawn because we’ve built a dam on its river… Compassion.

The hardest “difficult bit” was writing/feeling about falling to pieces as my marriage came apart. But this time, as I wrote, I was able to at last understand—to feel–that the ruination of the marriage was NOT as the ex- had gaslighted me into believing. It had not been totally my doing. I had not been an irreparably damaged, fragile soul, a weakling, an inattentive, bad partner focusing on my needs and only my needs. No, I had just been naive, trusting, and completely blinded by love for a man who turned into someone totally different from the person I had thought he was.

Writing about, witnessing, and reliving the pain I had gone through during his betrayal and the destruction of our relationship–and me–was crushing. But eventually it was outweighed by awe as I watched/felt/wrote my slow reconstruction. It turns out that by writing about being back there and going through what happened once again–and from the distance of Time and words–was enormously reassuring.

In summary, I was awash with wonder and love as I wrote these stories of people and creatures surviving loss. Through the writing, I experienced love and death, and I felt how powerful it is when we connect to and become a part of a bigger energy, a bigger universe. What joy it is to reconnect with people and creatures and places we loved. Since writing this book, I feel less alone. I feel the support and closeness of my father and mother, and a tender connection with the me of long ago, the little girl I have not loved for most of my life. This was what surviving extinction and thriving turned out to be.

So, Ms. Interviewer, that’s how I felt as I wrote this memoir: Connected. Compassionate. Loved and loving. Part of the river of all things, the universe. I felt like music and light.  I felt like what Einstein once said, that, We are slowed down sound and light waves, a walking bundle of frequencies tuned into the cosmos. We are souls dressed up in sacred biochemical garments and our bodies are the instruments through which our souls play music.”

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