Reading to Write

I don’t read as much as I want to lately, partly because of my compulsive anxiety over current political events. But this past weekend, I picked up a book and got totally sucked into it in the way I used to get sucked in to any story that seemed either like my own or totally different from my own. Preferably both at the same time.

The book is Hunger, a memoir by Roxane Gay. I gobbled it for information, for the pleasure of engaging with the author’s mind, for the elegance of the prose, for the plot. Yes, plot. IMHO, memoirs need a plot as much as a novel does. Without a plot, there’s not much reason for the reader to keep reading. As human beings, we’re wired to chase the future, to crave knowledge of what happens next.

Roxane Gay and I don’t seem to have much in common. She’s young, by my 60-year old standards. She’s Haitian-American, and I’m Irish-Jewish-African-Native American. She’s over 6 feet tall, and I’m 5 foot 3 and shrinking. But we both love reading and writing, and we both pay attention, in our own ways, to American culture. Also, she’s a one “N” Roxane, and I’m a one “L” Michele.

I recommend this book to everyone, but especially to writers who want to see how plot works. Not wanting to give away any spoilers here, I’ll just say Roxanne Gay is very, very good at planting hunger in a reader.

What will my family think?

Memoir writers ruminate over questions like that. We write about our own pasts, and that often means writing about family members and spilling old secrets. Some family members want the secrets kept in the dark. If the memoirist reveals them, she risks losing the love and security of family.


Secrets fuel the plots of many memoirs. The revelation of secrets is often satisfying to readers because the revelation resolves other plot points. Example: Memoirist “A” never fit in with her family; the secret revealed is that she’s adopted. Memoirist “B” is wildy promiscuous as a teenager; the secret revealed is that he was sexually abused by the parish priest.

Some memoirists wait until “everyone is dead” before telling their stories because they don’t want to risk hurting others, but that approach has risks, too. Waiting until everyone is dead means there’s no opportunity to fact-check, or to get the other side of a story.

Waiting in general, though, is a good idea. Most writers need distance from a subject before they can write about it with grace and insight. That seems especially true if the subject is some sort of betrayal. Dashing off a piece when anger and resentment are still burning usually makes for a story no one wants to read. And waiting gives the writer time to make connections between one event and another.

So how to write about family without risking rejection? In addition to waiting for the story to mature, I’ve had positive results from telling people I’m writing about them. I’ve been surprised to learn that a lot of people in my family want to be written about. I don’t ask family members to pre-approve my work — decisions about the work itself are mine — but I do ask if they do or don’t want me to tag them on social media once a piece is published.

About a year ago, I told my niece BeeBee I was writing an essay about her. I’ve witnessed some of her journey from hyperactive kid to addicted, convicted, gun-toting meth dealer to personal salvation and inner peace. Her story is much bigger than me, but I wanted to tell a piece of it.

“What’s the essay about?” she asked.

That was a hard question for me; I never really know what a piece of writing is about until it’s close to being finished. After a minute, though, I said “It’s about how much I love you.” And I knew that was the truth even though I wasn’t sure at that point which events would make it into the story, and what its theme would be.

There’s no magic formula for writing without risk of being scorned or disowned. Everyone’s family is different and has its own rules of secret-keeping. I suspect, though, that the more compassion you can bring to a story, even toward those who have made mistakes or have betrayed you (including your younger self), the lower your risk of being shunned. Also, the more compassion and understanding you write with, the better your story will be. People read memoir to make sense of their own lives, and to make their lives better.

I’ve written a lot, and hope to write more, about my family and our crazy antics and struggles. Many of us are addicts; many are convicted felons. All of us have weaknesses and have made mistakes.

The brilliant James Baldwin said it best in “Sonny’s Blues,” his story about two brothers: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

I’m lucky that my family honors storytelling, and that they know only one way to love: the unconditional way. When I write about my family, I want readers to feel the light in all our darkness.


The Honeybee


New essay in The Rumpus. A story about a loving, courageous young woman, one of many loving, courageous young women I’m honored to call family.Honeybee

“I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.”



Happy birthday, little book!

Last week, Walk Away turned the big one year old. For the famous limited-time-only (until this fall), both U.K. and American Prime members can read it for free. Just click on the “Kindle $0.00 Prime” button next to the book cover. The U.K. page is the same, except the cool British pound sign (£) replaces the dollar sign.

Walk Away Prime

If you do read the little book, please consider leaving a brief review.

Many thanks!

A second life

My essay about meeting my family for the first time, originally published in Guernica, is about to start a second life, having been awarded first prize in a New Millennium contest. New Millenium cover

“Hidden in a Suitcase” describes my deep and instantaneous connection to the family I was separated from by adoption. And through the story of my relationship with one nephew in particular, it explores how addiction has cut so deeply into the life of our family.

When I met my people, I started on a second life, a real life full of love and sorrow. My nephew, whose name is changed in this version of the essay at the request of the publisher, will be starting a second life this year when he’s paroled from his current prison bit.

At least 65% of American prisoners meet the medical definition of addiction. The American criminal justice system is punishing our brothers and sisters, our parents and our children, for suffering from a medical condition.

Poetry and the Paris Accord

cropped-cropped-butterfly311Like many baby boomers, I recall a time when an unusually warm spring day was something to relish, not cause for anxiety about climate change.

My spouse, scientist Stephen Mulkey, is fond of saying, “Weather and climate are not the same thing,” but it’s natural for folks to experience weather as a harbinger of good or bad fortune, or of the weather to come.

The rainbow, the stormclouds, the hurricane, the cloudless sky, the tornado — all these have an emotional resonance for us. Because climate change is so centered on prediction, we can’t help but tie weather and climate together.

The day the American government vowed to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change published a new issue (28.2), which includes my poem, Gift Horse. I admit to being influenced by that science dude!

How Poetry Workshops Work

Last night, a poem on chronic pain (and other things) was published in Heron Tree, a journal I very much admire for its aesthetic and its restraint.

heron treeWithout the feedback I receive as a member of a community poetry group, I’m sure my poems would not be ready for public consumption. Often, what seems very clear to me is not at all obvious, even to experienced poets.

When I moved from Massachusetts to Florida in 2004, I missed the criticism and camaraderie of the incredible Powow River Poets Workshops that I’d attended for ten years. I whined about it to the group founder, Rhina P. Espaillat. She told me to go start a new poetry workshop in Florida. So I put up a notice in a local bookstore and a new workshop was born, almost 12 years ago now.

My deepest thanks to the brilliant women in this “new” poetry workshop who are such insightful critics. Samara Crutchfield, Aliesa Zoecklein, Faith Clark, Corky Culver .