In March I departed for the Pacific Northwest and the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat; three days spent in the Cascade Mountains, devouring local grub and IPAs, communing with fellow writers and learning from some pretty impressive memoirists. (side note: there is talk of repeating the retreat next year, so aspiring memoir writers take note). Organizer and instructor, Theo Pauline Nestor, led my favorite session: “It’s Not JUST About You”. She introduced me to the concept of writers using memoir to tell a bigger story about the world we live in. I had an inkling of that, but when she explained it in detail, using memoirs by Cheryl Strayed and Joan Didion (writers I admire) to illustrate her point, the proverbial light bulb dinged above my head. This was what I needed — a way to connect my writing to the bigger picture, the shared humanity we all face.
“…jealousy is destructive. It won’t make you a better writer. It won’t make you a better person.”
Sitting 30,000ft in the air, hovering somewhere over the state of Ohio I’m struck by these words, uttered by Cheryl Strayed, in the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction. A timely piece of advice to me, as a not-yet published writer I find it difficult to tamper down the flicker of jealousy that pops up at the most inopportune times.
You know the feeling: you discover a new writer, you devour their work and wonder how can it be that in all your reading you’ve never come across them before. You fight the urge to feel gypped and take comfort in the fact that you’ve seen the light and found a kindred spirit. You finish the book, favorite quotes/passages underlined, and add the book to a shelf of “can’t live without” books.
A few years back when my grandpa passed away I not only lost my last grandparent, but the world lost one cool cat; a man who not only played trombone in the Sooner band, but married his college sweetheart who was, in his words, “the prettiest girl in Norman,” and he had a penchant for saying, “Dear Gussie!” in his measured Midwestern lilt whenever you impressed or shocked him, which delighted me to no end. He was known as a man who had a way with words and he could spin a tale that kept the rapt attention of all his grandkids, especially me.
When the extended Graves family got together to say good-bye to Daniel Maloy Graves II we each took turns sharing a favorite memory. My dad shared several memories, but one in particular made a lasting impression, “He had the best vocabulary and a system to improve it. When he would come across a word he didn’t know, he’d look it up and write down the definition. He would then make a point of using that word in conversation at least three times the next day to commit it to memory. I always admired that.”
Yeah, yeah. I know.
I’m about a decade late to the Dave Eggers party. What can I say? I’ve already explained my extensive “to read” list of books—on my nightstand, the Kindle, the electronic list that grows exponentially and on and on.
Reading “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is just that. Genius. Eggers’ stream-of-consciousness prose reminds me of “On the Road” and I find myself getting thoroughly absorbed in its pages.This passage made me stop in my tracks, dog ear the bottom right corner, grab a pencil and underline:
“…we’re putting something together that will smash all these misconceptions about us, how it’ll help us all to throw off the shackles of our supposed obligations, our fruitless career tracks, how we will force, at least urge, millions to live more exceptional lives, to [standing up for effect] do extraordinary things, to travel the world, to help people and start things and end things and build things…”
I stopped reading altogether to consider the tug we often feel as we go through our lives. This is a common question that I often find I wrestle with—are we doing what we should be doing with our lives? Is there something bigger, different from the norm, off the beaten path that we should be exploring? Something radically different that we should be doing with our lives if we would only be still and heed the call.