Poetry Seeks the Unknown

Photo of my mother, Theresa Christie, as a teenager. circa 1956.
I never met my mother.

Like many people adopted as infants in the the 20th century, the fact of my adoption was kept secret — from me, from the neighbors, from my teachers. When I was in my 30’s, I found my blood family, but my mother had already passed away.

Poetry is a map of the human heart, a useful tool if you don’t know where a heart came from, what it’s made of, or where it’s going. I map my mother’s heart in my imagination, looking for what she felt about me.

If we’d met, there’s no telling how our relationship may have been twisted by my feelings of abandonment, or her feelings of loss. Sometimes I’m full of regret that I didn’t search for her earlier.

Oher times I wonder if waiting until it was too late spared us both some pain.

The poem below, originally published in Crab Creek Review ( regular submissions open from September 15 through November 15!), is my attempt to imagine this unknown.

Poetry of Resistance

A crowd of protesters, one holding a poster with an image of Princess Leia saying “A woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash
Political poetry is experiencing a resurgence in Trump-era America, and I’m grateful. It challenges our assumptions and brings us together as we speak and act against the injustices and oppressions of yesterday and today.

In fact, a few new magazines specializing in political poetry have sprung up since the 2016 election. One is Rise Up Review, edited by poet Sonia Greenfield. I was fortunate to have the following poem published there in 2017. Since then, Greenfield has expanded the magazine, and it features poems in many different styles, on many different topics, from poets around the world.

 

Poetry and Chronic Pain

Poetry and Chronic Pain

“A black-and-white shot of an elderly person’s hands playing a Lauberger & Gloss piano” by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash
Wordsworth once defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

I like the idea of re-collecting feelings once they’ve passed, like gathering spent blossoms. It’s a bit gothic.

For me, writing on chronic pain is easier when I’m not actually experiencing it. When I’m in its grip, I’m cranky and selfish..

A research group in Lancaster, U.K. is soliciting poetry and personal narratives on chronic pain to better understand pain from those who experience it. The poem below was published there in 2018, and originally published in the print magazine Poet Lore.

 

Writing Memoir: Using Dream Images

“A silhouette of a man holding a smoke bomb on a deserted beach, with a pink sunset sky in the background” by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
Do dreams have a place in nonfiction?

Since childhood, I’ve had occasional vivid dreams — the kind that are so weird, or colorful, or fantastic that they woke me up. When I started writing poetry (also as a kid), I thought those dreams and their images belonged in poems.

The dreams seemed so meaningful to me. So I wrote.

Later, more than one poetry teacher told me to ditch the dream poems — they didn’t mean anything to anyone but me. The teachers were right: without a context, dream images don’t translate very well for an audience. Of course, if you’re writing only for yourself, that’s different.

But dreams can work well for an audience in fiction and in creative nonfiction writing. They work as long as we make clear that they are, in fact dreams, and connect them to our stories and the people in our stories. I’m not a dream-interpreter, but when people reveal their dreams to me in real life, I feel as if I’ve gotten inside their heads a little. I feel I know them better.

Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to know the people — or characters — in the stories they read. Reading a good book, we actually crave that knowledge, especially knowledge of a character’s motivations and how those motivations interact with plot. It’s why we stay up past our bedtimes and keep reading. We’re trying to figure out what will happen next.

Some literary theorists believe we read fiction to exercise the part of our brains that guesses at motivations, and that our brains have been programmed by evolution to want to guess at motivations.

Lisa Zunshine, in her book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, applies this idea specifically to novels, although I believe it can apply to any kind of writing that includes characters. She argues that understanding motivations, and then predicting behavior was an adaptive strategy for early humans seeking to survive and reproduce.

Zunshine’s theory is similar to Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo’s theory of dreams. Revonsuo believed that dreams were resulted from the brain practicing for flight-or-flight situations. In other words, our dreams are simulations of stressful situations we might face in real life.

Human beings have long believed dreams are powerful, either as predictors of the future, as revelations of past mysteries, as expressions of repressed wishes. They seem to come with a built-in significance.

For a writer of memoir or nonfiction, relating a dream can help to communicate something about motivation, or obsession, or desire. Instead of telling the reader “I felt trapped in my lifestyle,” I can show the reader how it felt by describing a dream related to that trapped feeling. Here’s an excerpt from one of my essays that attempts to do this:

Night after night, I dreamed of walking under streetlights in Boston, after the bars have closed, when the streets are deserted. I have trouble walking, but not the kind of trouble I had in the dreams of my twenties. In those dreams, my feet were as rigid and heavy as flatirons, and I couldn’t lift them to run away. In these new dreams, I’m drunk and wobbling. The busses have stopped running, and I stumble and curse, desperate to find a way out of Boston that will take me to the North Shore. I have to pee badly. I’m under the Southeast Expressway, surrounded by concrete Jersey barriers and I-beam steel, and there is no one to ask for directions, no taxis, no traffic. The city is silent. Should I walk up onto the expressway if I can find a ramp? Can I walk over the Mystic River Bridge because there are no cars? In the dream, I’m angry that the city is so hard to leave, and I never find the bridge.

In the context of the essay, this dream excerpt demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than reality could, how trapped I felt, and how frustrated. The dream itself may sound familiar to you — dreams about being lost and trying to find a way out of somewhere are common, as are dreams of trying to run with heavy feet. Perhaps they signal some common fear we share as human beings of being stuck in place.

What are some of your favorite examples of dreams in fiction or nonfiction? And what do you think about using dreams in your writing?

Writing Memoir: Saving Your Life

Writing Memoir: Saving Your Life

“A fountain pen on an open journal” by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
You’ve heard it before: Writing saved my life.

If you’ve wondered about the truth of that, I’m happy to report that there’s a boatload of science behind that saying.

In 2005, for example, British researchers found that short periods of “expressive writing” resulted in better physical and psychological health.

Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.

It makes intuitive sense to me that writing about our tragedies and triumphs can improve our emotional health or bring us peace of mind. But I was surprised at the number of studies showing an impact on physical conditions including rheumatoid arthritisEpstein-Barr virus, and hypertension.

Most of these studies focused on short, guided periods of expressive writing or guided, written disclosures of trauma. The writing practices were standardized as much as possible in order to achieve some measure of reliability for the studies.

But what is meant by “expressive writing”? In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. John F Evans provides a definition:

It is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions, like spelling, punctuation, and verb agreement. Expressive writing pays no attention to propriety: it simply expresses what is on your mind and in your heart.

This, to me, sounds a lot like the “free writing” technique put forth by teachers from New Age guru Natalie Goldberg to university professor Peter Elbow . Not to mention the thousands (or more) college writing teachers like me who advocated free writing in their classrooms.

The idea behind free writing is that inexperienced writers, or writers who’ve been criticized harshly for things like spelling errors, can sometimes be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes. They can be so fearful that their writing muscles cramp up, or they feel they have “writer’s block.”

The free writing technique aims to remove those fears by de-valuing mechanics like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The goal in free writing is only for the writer to move thoughts from the brain to the page. And that, after all, is the goal of all writing: translating our thoughts into words.

For writers of memoir or personal essays, putting aside fears of being judged can be the first challenge to overcome. Many turn to free writing as a way of silencing the internal editor — at least temporarily.

Expressive writing may be beneficial to psychological and health, but is it more beneficial to brain health than other kinds of writing? Is there a neurobiological reason why translating thoughts into words, in a judgment-free zone, has a therapeutic effect?

Maybe, but it’s probably related to writing by hand as opposed to typing. The studies I referred to at the beginning of this post don’t mention whether the writing was done by hand or by keyboard. Other studies have shown, though, that writing by hand improves memory and other cognitive functions.

And, a recent study based in India demonstrated that adults learning to read and write (by hand) rewired their brains.

By the end of the study, the team saw significant changes in the brains of the people who had learned to read and write. These individuals showed an increase in brain activity in the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, which is involved in learning.

Learning to read also seemed to change brain regions that aren’t typically involved in reading, writing or learning. Two regions deep in the brain, in particular, appeared more active after training — portions of the thalamus and the brainstem.

These two regions are known to coordinate information from our senses and our movement, among other things. Both areas made stronger connections to the part of the brain that processes vision after learning to read. The most dramatic changes were seen in those people who progressed the most in their reading and writing skills.

I’ve heard many writers say that writing has saved their lives. Maybe it’s even saved mine. But one thing is certain: our brains need exercise to be healthy, and writing provides it.

Writing Memoir: Using Journals & Diaries

Writing Memoir: Using Journals & Diaries

Two old journals with blue covers. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt

Old journals and diaries kept during a time in your life you want to write about now can provide raw material for more formal, refined writing.

But even if you weren’t in the habit of spilling your guts out on the page when you kept a journal, a journal can still be useful for detecting certain elements about the character you were in the past, and the settings you inhabited.

Never throw away anything you’ve written” is advice I’ve given elsewhere. It’s good advice for journals, too, even though they may be an embarrassment.

When I was in my twenties, I destroyed part of a journal written at seventeen.

It embarrassed me. Not because of actions or emotions I confessed in the journal. Because of the voice. I remember thinking it arrogant and overwrought. But I can’t know for sure if the voice was arrogant and overwrought, and I can’t reproduce that voice now because those pages no longer exist.

The most obvious use of a journal or diary for a memoir writer is that a journal can help you fill the blank spots in your memory with details, the sights and sounds of past events in your life. Physical artifacts — the notebooks we used to record our doings — can also spark memories of details. Look at your old handwriting on an old page, feel the smooth paper with your fingertips, and open your mind to memory.

But even for those of us whose old journals are boring and repetitive, finding value in them for a memoir is still possible. An old journal can give you a sense of your voice during the time in question. Were you using youthful slang or professional jargon that you no longer use? Longer or shorter sentences? Odd punctuation like a row of exclamation points or, heaven forbid, a little heart in place of a dot over your “i”? Did you scratch things out, or underline? All these can be keys to your character in the past, and your voice.

The style of the notebook you used can also be telling. It may say something about style or popular colors during the period in question, or it may say something about your personal style back in the day. As an artifact, it can provide a cultural context for your past life.

The two journals in the photo above are from the 1980’s, a time of shoulder pads and cinched waists for women, mullets and Jheri curls for men, glass skyscrapers, glass-top tables, and lots of teal and pink. But these two journals are very plain. In this case, plain didn’t mean cheap; I remember buying the journals at a bookstore near Harvard University. They were quite expensive, and I’ve always been, well, “frugal.” Those two journals-as-artifacts say something about who I was back then, and they also give me a cultural context, even if it’s really an anti-context.

Finally, a third use for old journals and diaries is to find a sensory door in to a larger story. Why did I want that pair of sneakers so badly? Why did my friend and I construct piles of ketchup and salt to dip our french fries in? When that person held my hand too tightly, how did I react?

You may find mysteries, too, like events you wrote about but cannot recall. Yet there they are, in black and white. Or purple and ivory if you had an individual aesthetic.

Being unsure of reality every so often is refreshing. Every mystery is a lesson in human fallibility, something we writers and artists can’t be reminded of too often as we create and re-create reality.

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

“A large heap of broken antique watches and clocks” by Heather Zabriskieon Unsplash
How do creative people find the time to write? Or do they “make” the time?

Years ago, someone asked me how I managed to do so much. “It’s easy,” I said. “I don’t have kids!” The people who amazed me with their productivity — and who still amaze me — were the ones who parented young children.

Writing a memoir, or even a stand-alone personal essay, requires a huge investment of time, especially for slow writers like me. If it took me less than 40 hours to write a ten page story, I’d be very surprised. This month, I’ve committed to finishing a coherent draft of my 80,000-word, rough memoir draft. How will I manage my time to insure I meet that goal?

Strategy 1: Getting on a Schedule

This was effective for me when I worked a full-time, 8:30 am to 4:00 pm job. I was already on a schedule, so creating another one for writing made sense. Off and on, for months at a time, I got up at 5:30 am and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Scheduled writing has been famously successful for authors like J.K. Rowling, who also had a day job when she began the Harry Potter series. If you are subject to an external schedule, whether it’s related to school or work or family responsibilities, a writing schedule may do the trick for you.

But once I resigned from the day job to work for myself, the external schedule that kept me on track disappeared and I found myself floundering.

Strategy 2: Figuring Out When You Write Best and Write Most

Although I’m not trying to lose weight because that ship has sailed, I know that food journals are an effective way for people to track calories. So I decided to keep a time tracker to see where I was spending my time.

Like many people, I squander time on social media, mindless eating, and passive entertainment. When I’ve squandered enough, I get resentful when those I love interrupt my thoughts about writing or the writing itself. As if those people (and dogs) are the cause of my fribbling.

Decades of working day jobs created a habit of writing at odd hours: early mornings, nights, and weekends. Breaking from that pattern has not been easy, even though I expected to have nights and weekends free once I was “just” writing. But I’ve been writing at odd hours still, and not making enough headway on the memoir to satisfy myself.

Data is powerful. The time tracker showed me I was working on my memoir early in the morning and late at night, for about 90 minutes at a time. Ugh. Old habits are hard to break. It also showed me that I was working on paying writing projects during the day, like that was a day job. Ugh, again.

3. State Your Writing Goals Publicly

This month, I’m writing about writing memoir every day. And I put it on my Medium profile.

Two popular month-long writing marathons, NANOWRIMO and NAPOWRIMO inspire many people to successfully find or make time to write novels and poetry, respectively. I participated in NAPOWRIMO this year in April. Thirty poems later, I think 4 or 5 of them are actually worthwhile.

But, I’m convinced that 30 days in a row of writing a poem, or at least a wannabe poem, was helpful exercise for the poetry part of my brain. I even continued the process through the first week of May. Now, I’m slacking off again.

I heard that you’re more likely to meet your goals if you announce them publicly. Oh wait, I also heard that announcing your goals publicly makes itless likely that you’ll meet those goals.

4. Going on a Writing Retreat

A retreat doesn’t have to be anywhere but your own home; it’s a big chunk of time (a day or more, preferably) devoted to writing. I’ve done stay-home retreats, and cheap motel retreats. Some writers go on organized writing retreats.

For me, these chunks of dedicated time seem to work best when I have a specific goal to meet. That’s especially true if I go somewhere besides my home, where I may be tempted to check out a new ice cream parlor. For this reason, I advise going on a retreat in a place that’s not very appealing to your interests.

But even on a stay-home retreat, I can be distracted by chores that suddenly must be done. I’m not talking about walking the dogs or watering the plants, which really must be done to keep everyone alive. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself scrubbing a toilet instead of writing.

 


The best piece of advice about finding or making time to write is to experiment to find out what works best for you. We’re all different, thankfully.

And if you’re wondering about the right time to begin a memoir, that’s something I’ve thought about this week because two former students got in touch to say they are thinking of writing memoir. They were both curious about “the right time” to start.

My response was “Now is the time.” When an idea about doing something creative pops up, that’s a hint from the part of yourself that’s smarter than the rest of you. Go with it.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Photographs and Images

The boundaries between genres are blurring.

Fence. Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash

Why shouldn’t we include photographs in memoirs? The only reason I can think of is that some (maybe many) publishers don’t want the hassle. Publishing images is more complex, more expensive than publishing text only. Unless, of course, you’re publishing on the internet.

That damn internet. It’s changing everything.

Some publishers are welcoming work that combines text and image. Some of them are here on Medium. Many others can be found in this list of cross-genre publishers curated by New Pages.

Here’s my attempt at a cross-genre piece combining photographs of trees with text about family trees.


Twisted branches. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
Maybe it was me who doctored this photograph, trying to give it an heirloom appearance.

I see a “B” in this tree. Or maybe a “D,” or a sideways “A.”

Or a man, hanging face down with his arms extended, reaching for something on the ground.

Or a lizard with its tail curled up behind it. Or the predictable snake.

Or a tree, twisted by snow and ice, and the deaths of other trees, and by forces I cannot imagine, putting forth the predictable new growth in spring.

Unknown Dead Tree, North Central Florida

I leaned against trees, wrapped my arms around trees, swung from trees and hid in trees, and walked on limbs as if they were tightropes. I prayed to trees, I raged at trees. Far away, the half-brothers I now know cut trees down for very little pay.

In my private forest, which isn’t mine, but belongs to the town, I watch this tree, and the spiral of fungi around its trunk that curves around in question marks and other symbols. It might be my family tree: no hierarchy, no single ancestor, and certainly no single pattern.

Living Turkey Oak, fallen, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree took the earth with it when it tipped over in a windthrow. It is the only tree in this quadrant that fell. Maybe another trauma, like heart rot fungus, affected its anchorage and prepared it to let go.The letting go starts a new creation story: a hole opens in the canopy, and sunlight pours down on the forest floor. Saplings stuck in the pole stage may wake up and start to grow gain.

New stories mean new names. The earth ripped up with the tree is now called a tip-up mound.

Dead Cypress, North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Leavitt
This tree has been dead for so long, you can see right through it in spots. How did that happen? I imagine the branches fell first, then the crown, and then the bark sloughed off like the skin of a snake, and then the core collapsed on itself. What’s left is a suggestion of the strong column it once was, a gesture toward how the column once spun upward in helix fashion.

What’s left of the tree has the pocked and scored look of the karst limestone under the ground around these parts. Maybe the tree has taken on some characteristics of the stone.

Even long dead, and even taking on other characteristics, the tree is still a tree.

 

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit  http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.

For more tips on writing memoir, visit me on Medium.