Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years after my brother’s suicide I’ve found peace

Twenty-two years ago today, my brother Joe died by suicide during a mental health crisis. He was twenty years old. I was twenty-two, the same age as his death. This morning I walked along the road by the writing retreat where I’m spending the weekend so I can finish the first revised draft of the memoir I’m writing about this loss. It’s almost sixty degrees. Every once in a while, the sun peaks from behind the clouds. Peepers, returning geese, and a very persistent rooster fill the air with the songs of nature. Daffodils threaten to bloom. Life goes on, and I go on with it.

It’s fitting that I’m cloistered away so I can write about him today. During the past four months of intensive writing, I’ve relived much of the pain I felt after his death and the challenges of experiencing a loss so devastating I wasn’t sure if I could ever recover. There’s been much snot-bubble crying, but also some laughter and a sense awe, not to mention a deep feeling of connection to him. Writing resurrects those we’ve lost, and in the process, we resurrect the parts of ourselves we lost too.

If I could talk to my brother, I would tell him I love him and that sometimes he’s an asshat (just like me). I’d tell him that I’m proud of him for trying so hard in spite of all that happened to us and the challenges he faced as a person living with a very serious mental illness. I would tell him I wish he could’ve made a different choice and stuck around long enough for me to give him shit about his gray hair or wrinkles or sagging pecks. We would both lament how the music that once defined us is now “classic rock” and how we’re not sure what’s cool anymore. But most importantly, I would tell him that while I wish he was here, I am at peace. My life is a good one, I spend most of my days feeling very grateful. Maybe he would remind me that he’s never lost as long I keep saying his name and continue to put my pen to the page. Maybe he’ll remind me of the thing he said in his final letter to me: You’re doing great and I love ya.

Before he floated back to that space of memory he now calls home, we’d hug one more time and say the precious words that ended so many of our conversations: love ya. In hearing those words, I would remember that love and life are what we’re here for.

Live fully, love each other deeply, and say I love you as often as you can. If you are concerned about a loved one, say something. If you’re not sure how, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273- TALK (8255). They will show you how.

Shanti Namaste, Friends. I love you.


Writing Is Your Gift: How to Share It With Others During The Holiday Season

Writing Is Your Gift: How to Share It With Others During The Holiday Season

The holidays are upon us. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Year’s, the Solstice, or Festivus (for the rest of us), the end of the calendar year is filled with opportunities to celebrate all that is good in our lives. Growing up as a Buddhist with seasonal affective disorder, I’m partial to New Year’s and the Solstice: both symbolize rebirth and the return of the light.

Though I’ll be honest, this time of year hasn’t always been my favorite. While television shows and movies tout the saccharine trappings of the season, I’m very aware that for many people—including me—the holidays can be dark times filled with financial woes, reminders of loss, and family strife.  For a long time, my holiday decorations were limited to the string of lights I’d wound around the six-foot cactus I overwatered or nothing at all. In an effort to be more festive, this year I strung colored lights around my porch and erected a cat-proof Festivus-pole-style holiday tree to remind myself of what’s important: friends, family, our inner light. 
At the 2018 Festival of the Book, UVA Professor Mark Edmundson said to write for one other person. See the written word as a gift and refuse to narrow your definition of great writing to a few simple genres. Consider the poem written as a birthday gift. The card that contains your heartfelt best wishes. The love note penned and left on a desk. 
As we close out the year, I invite you to view your writing as a gift rather than a vocation. Instead of imagining grand pieces you’ll one day submit for publication, let your art have a simple, rich, and immediate effect on someone else. I guarantee you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Let’s face it, the thank you of a friend who enjoys your irreverent holiday card is way better than a Submittable rejection. One makes you soar, the other causes you to flip your computer the bird. Even the elation of acceptance is fleeting. Soon after the victory anthem in your head kicks off, you’re left with the panicky realization that someone will actually read your work. Such is the yin-yang of the creative life.  But the love between two people can last a lifetime. 
A couple of years ago, one of my dearest friends gave me the best possible gift a creative nonfiction writer could ask for: a pile of letters I’d written to her between 1993 – 1997, years when we lived too far apart to see each other and were too broke for long distance phone calls. At the time, those letters were the lifeblood of our relationship. Many refer to a pivotal time in the book I’m currently writing and confirm key events and things I once believed or said. While I was at The Porcheslast month, banging out my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, I read those letters and was transported back in time. 

Letters are a gift for both the giver and receiver. Every year, my husband and I exchange a love letter as our primary holiday gift. I keep them in a special drawer. Every once in a while I reread them and smile. As a closing activity for my Memoir in a Year Part I class, I’ve asked my students to write each other letters of encouragement. When the writing life gets uncomfortable, I hope they serve as tangible reminders of my students’ inherent worth. But letters don’t have to be written just for those you know. During a difficult time in author Reema Zaman’s life, she gave love notes to strangers on the subway as a form of encouragement. Each one contained simple messages like You Are Loved. 
Letters aren’t the only gifts you can give during the holiday season. At fifteen, I gave my mother a poem for Christmas. For weeks, I hid the draft under my mattress and revised it after lights out. The effort made me feel like a real author; her tears the gift of my hard work. I’ve also written poems as eulogies and short stories as parting gifts. When my grandmother passed away, I titled her eulogy Lessons from the Gramosphere and used David Letterman’s Top Ten List as a structure. While it was a bit irreverent, and I did say damn in a Catholic church, we all laughed at the quirky lessons my grandmother instilled in us.  
Lennie Echterling, one of my mentors from the James Madison University Counseling Program, pens an annual holiday newsletter stuffed with pun-filled articles that serve both as entertainment and social commentary. It’s his way of connecting with family, friends, and those of us who’ve long since graduated, while also reminding us that while the world may be troubled and our work may be hard, we don’t have to be serious all the time. During my master’s program, I watched him write songs for his grandson and stories for friends. Last year, he published a picture book titled Good Night Jung
In her new book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott writes, “Truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals . . . The stories we have loved, beginning with our earliest days, are how we have survived, grown, and not ended up in the gutters barking at ants (knock on wood). These stories have saved us, like Jesus and the Buddha, and Martin Luther King have saved our lives and our souls, and Molly Ivins, Mary Oliver, Gandhi, and E.B. White have saved our sanity, our hearts, and our families.”  
As writers, we inherently know that stories will save us, but sometimes we forget that truth comes in small moments shared between one or two people or a handful of friends. For the next two weeks, forget about what you wish to accomplish or why it’s so hard to do this and share one nugget of truth with someone you love. Have faith that this is enough. On January first, you can reacquaint yourself with your neuroses and begin suffering where you left off. 

Harnessing the Fast Draft: Eight Essential NaNoWriMo Tips

Harnessing the Fast Draft: Eight Essential NaNoWriMo Tips

Since 1999, millions of writers have accepted the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. The literary equivalent of a Thanksgiving binge, they work to churn out a 50,000-word book over the course of one month. The challenge is not restricted to novelists. This year, plenty of people (including me) are using the challenge to write their memoirs. We’ll call this offshoot NaMemoWriMo for short. 
There’s something about the end of the year that inspires us to produce more work. Perhaps it’s that extra hour of sleep we gained at the end of daylight savings time or the promise of feasting and family time motivates us to sit in our chairs. Maybe, with time running out, we can no longer ignore our inner procrastination monster’s frightening roar. 

We talked about the fired-up creativity some of my students feel as my Memoir in a Year Part I class winds down. Endings and deadlines keep us focused. Like my students, I’m working to meet a high-stakes deadline. Earlier this year, I was awarded a TA position at the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference. All conference participants receive a manuscript evaluation before heading to New York. As a TA, my manuscript is due in mid-February. Finishing looks to be a nail biter, so I’m tapping into the NaMemoWriMo spirit even if I don’t reach the 50,000-word goal. 
In fact, the word count isn’t what really matters. NaNoWriMo encourages us to treat our time and creativity as precious gifts. By committing to the challenge, we take our work seriously. For thirty days we become the writers we dream about.
My newsletter is reaching you midmonth. Whether you’re late to the NaNoWriMo party (nothing says you couldn’t run your NaNoWriMo from the 15thto the 15th), or your momentum is flagging, here are some tips to supercharge your creative process. 

  • Find an accountability partner STAT: Anything is easier when it’s shared with others. To find an accountability partner, consider friends, family, and colleagues who share your writing goals. Ask social media friends to meet you for virtual writing dates. Those of you who have registered on NaNoWriMo’s website can join their groups, but if you feel like too much of a procrastinator for NaNoWriMo (or you feel too NaMemoWriMo to join a bunch of novelists), this Quora article has a number of links you can check out. 
  • Create a plan: Before you write, loosely outline your process so you have a general sense of where you’re going. Charting your course before you begin will prevent you from getting lost. Even if you’ve already started, take a couple of hours to create a plan for the rest of the month. 
  • Remember less is more: You don’t need unlimited time to be successful. In fact, research shows that those with an abundance of time actually get less done. A healthy dose of pressure is required to work at peak performance. Instead of trying to clear your entire calendar, shut off your computer, stash your phone in a drawer, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Don’t let your pen leave the page until the timer goes off. If you’re stuck, write about how much it sucks to do this, or simply write the words thank you until the next idea presents itself. 
  • Write now, edit later: Rachel Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir, says that writing now and polishing later makes it easier to cut scenes that don’t serve your story. Never forget that your sole NaNoWriMo job is to immerse yourself in your story by creating a quick draft. The pace and immersion encourage your brain to make associations across the arc of your book that may not occur when working at a slower pace. Jot down ideas, sketch scenes, note items for research, and keep moving forward, even if that means skipping around. 
  • Reward every effort: Whether it’s a pat on the back or a Hershey’s kiss, treat yourself for showing up. Simple rewards may include emailing your writing buddy so he or she can cheer you on, going for a nature walk, or giving your favorite furbaby a swift belly rub. When you reach a milestone, do that one joyful thing you’ve been putting off. At a brain level, success begets success. If you don’t believe me, try the alternative: obsess about word count, cry about how far you have to go, and berate yourself for missing any goals. 
  • Adopt a progress, not perfection attitude: Whether you crank out 50,000 terrible words or 20,000 mediocre ones, you’re guaranteed to be further along than you were at the beginning of the month. Not to mention, the act of writing consistently reinforces a consistent writing practice, which will help you meet other long-term writing goals. 
  • Anticipate Your Next Move: End every writing session at the point when you know what’s going to happen next. This is a trick Ernest Hemmingway used to maintain momentum. It will help you spend less time staring at the page wondering what to write.  To maintain the mood of your work-in-progress, Rachael Herron suggests you read the preceding chapter before beginning your next draft. But don’t go back any further, lest you break your momentum.  
  • Retreat Yourself: If you feel like total immersion is required to meet your goal, organize a writing retreat. If you live near Charlottesville, (or even if you don’t), The Porches Writing Retreat* in Nelson County, Virginia offers the solitude needed to help you stay focused. At $65 per night, with limited internet access and a daylong silence policy, you’ll have few excuses to do anything else. You can also check out Electric Lit’s list of retreat centers to see if there’s one near you. But you don’t have to go away to create a writing retreat. Instead of Black Friday shopping, cloister yourself in a room or go to the local library or a coffee shop to write for the day. Ask a friend or accountability partner to join you. If a daylong retreat doesn’t fit into your schedule, consider a few 2-hour mini-retreats to help you catch up on your word count. 

I make time to write every morning. On days when I’m pressed for time (which happens frequently), I set my timer for 20 minutes. Because of my looming deadline, I’m heading to The Porches along with a few of my students for a four-day retreat. The friendly peer pressure of writers working next to me will guarantee I maintain my butt-in-the-chair practice. In the evenings we can celebrate our successes. 
This is my first NaMemoWriMo. It took close to a year to write the first draft of my previous book. In the past two weeks, I’ve written close to 15,000 words. Each day I write, new insights creep into my awareness. I’m seeing my book not as a series of chapters but as a whole project. The intensity is bringing my story to life. That alone makes this intensive slog worthwhile. 

*I am not paid to endorse or advertise any products or services mentioned in my newsletter. Any recommendations are given freely based on my personal experience. 

When Memories Fly: Tips for Engaging Your Involuntary Memory in the Writing Process

When Memories Fly: Tips for Engaging Your Involuntary Memory in the Writing Process

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin my new memoir. There are so many entry points for our stories. In fact, I wrote those words—there are so many entry points for this story—as the introductory sentence in a terrible draft I cranked out for a writing conference. (Insert palm to face!). There are many different ways to begin our stories.  Each entry point lends itself to a different version of the truth.

But which truth are we telling? In first drafts, we often don’t know, and so we go with what’s safe—the voluntary memories and rehearsed stories that are easy to recall. We list and outline and timeline these pivotal moments hoping they will turn the chaos of life into some kind of order. But as we write about these memories, we may find many of them are simply the backstory we need to tell ourselves before getting to the good stuff.

In his book The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts says that involuntary memory is the gateway to the real past. It’s the place where the juice of memoir gets squeezed to create the hidden narrative of our life stories—the ones readers really care about. If voluntary memories are the ones we go searching for, involuntary memories are the ones that come searching for us.

In the most famous scene from Proust’s autobiographical novel Remembrance of Things Past, Proust eats a small sponge cake called a madeleine and is transported back to a childhood moment in his aunt’s house. Each sensory detail vividly rendered, Proust relives the moment rather than recalls it.

As I wrote and rewrote several beginnings for my memoir, an involuntary memory came to me while I walked my neighborhood. Hot and muggy, the hazy sky reminded me of powdered sugar over a cake—the blue only slightly visible. Sweat drizzled down my back. My clothes stuck to my skin. Suddenly I was twenty, dressed in a borrowed skydiving jumpsuit that reeked of old sweat, grass stains, and fear. I could almost feel the fifty-pound pack on my back. I trotted home and quickly knocked out a draft, knowing from experience that my unconscious was on to something good.

That’s the thing about involuntary memory: it’s the unconscious mind’s way of working things out. UVA professor Mark Edmundson calls involuntary memory the most important tool in your writing toolbox—an aspect of the self that deserves frequent rewards if you wish to put it to good use. But how do you activate involuntary memories for yourself?

  • Flip through old photo albums and choose a picture that catches your eye. Study the photograph, look away, then study it again and search for something you haven’t yet noticed. Write about this new element.
  • Eat foods from the period you’re writing about and cook recipes that fill your house with familiar smells.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings—especially tastes and smells which can evoke the strongest memories. It may be the smell in an apartment you visit as an adult or the taste of a dinner party dessert that transports you to a childhood moment. Schools, churches, hospitals, and other institutions frequently trigger involuntary memories because the smells and visuals are so distinctive.
  • Seek novelty in your daily life. This could include activities as simple as starting a walk with a non-dominant foot, eating with your non-dominant hand, or going to a toy store. Novelty forces you to pay attention, and paying attention can lead to big rewards.
  • Select a period in your life. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and list all the things you remember. Conscious activation of memory can prime the pump for the unconscious mind to chip in.
  • Ask your unconscious for help. Write a formal request and tape it to your door. Read the request before leaving your house, and ask your unconscious what it wants as a reward. Whenever you get an answer—no matter how small—offer yourself the reward.

Once you’ve captured a juicy memory, it’s all about what the hell it means. Jot down the scene to the best of your ability then wrestle with what it’s telling you. Make a list of what it could be about. Go for walks. Create some Venn diagrams. Ask your unconscious mind for help.

The book I’m currently writing is about how traveling with a heavy metal band after my brother’s suicide gave me the courage to carry on. Skydiving was something I did in the years leading up to my brother’s death. While it was cool (you should definitely try it), the memory felt very tangential.

Yet the memory persisted. So I went for more midday walks and sweated, and asked my unconscious for help. One day, I was not only back at the drop zone, sweltering in that nasty old jumpsuit, but I was also face down, suspended from the ceiling by a series of straps during a free-fall training class jokingly referred to as How Not to Die. A big fan of gallows humor, I loved that class—name and all.  How Not to Die was the lesson I wished I had taught my brother and the one I had to teach myself.  Finally, I had an opening that framed the story I wanted to tell.

My friend, writer Dana Mich, recently attended Brave Magic with Cheryl Strayed and Liz Gilbert. Their advice was to write fast and bad. I would also add, write open. Had I not written that terrible draft for the writing conference and continued to write new ones while asking my unconscious for help, I never would’ve made the connection between skydiving and a central theme in my book. I’d still be trying to tame the chaos of that time period by working with memories as tired and worn as last year’s running shoes. Instead, I get to explore the skies.

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