Lucidité

Musings on language, images and life

Category: Projects

On Writing and Parenthood: Thèmes du Jour

I have something to confess. Each time I sit down to write a blog post on pregnancy (don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any of those for a while), birth, or motherhood in general, I feel a pang of dread. Dread that I’ll be labeled a “mommy blogger” (you know, the kind that reviews strollers or dedicates full blog posts to spit-up) or be viewed as a monothematic writer (let’s face it, I’ve been called worse). Not that there is anything inherently wrong with either of those labels, they’re just not what I aspire to be.

I’ve always written what I know (standard advice in the field), and this blog serves as a receptacle for all of those thoughts that are either too personal or too obscure for the venues in which I typically publish. The very personal lessons I’ve learned from my daughter are what have caught my attention the past three months. In the days I’ve spent with her, I’ve not only learned who she is, she’s also revealed to me various facets of humanity. She’s reminded me of beliefs I’ve always held that had become buried under years of quotidian concerns. Life has become a celebration, and my creativity has flourished thanks to her innocent revelations and reminders.

A dear friend of mine (who also happens to be a world-class writer and editor) recently introduced me to an organization called Pen Parentis. The members of this diverse group don’t necessarily write on parenthood (in fact, most of them don’t). Their commonality lies in the fact that they are all parents and writers— a powerful combination. Powerful because, in my experience, parenthood informs my writing (on a variety of topics) and the perspective required to be a writer helps me to better understand the world(s) of parenting, these intimate microcosms we build and exist in each day.

I’ve decided to cast off the yoke of dread I feel when I sit down to write about the creative fodder—gifts, really— sourced from this awe-inspiring journey called motherhood. I will forge ahead shamelessly, unabashedly, as a writer-mother/mother-writer, since I know that someday I will crave anything that reminds me of these intense, beautiful days. I’ll return to writing about some of my other favorite topics soon, but for now, I’ve decided to dedicate the slim spaces in my schedule to writing about what I am living, feeling and learning today. Art, feminism, literature, politics and education will have to wait for the time being. Or will they? As I’m learning, each of these realms informs the views I bring to parenting.

As I reflect on my first three months of being a mother to a babe outside the womb—the strange smells, new sleep schedule, lack of personal time and my painful, shifting postpartum body fade into a nebulous, low-level hum and a select set of crystalline moments remains in the foreground. These are thèmes du jour that captivate me and compel me to write. I will continue to put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop, as it were) and get them out into the world.

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Snapshot from the 1940s

Since last July, I’ve had the privilege of helping my grandmother write her memoir. A beautiful, strong woman who grew up in a small town in Minnesota, moved to the Twin Cities to work as a nurse, married one of the first neurosurgeons in Minnesota, raised 5 children, and traveled the world, Grandma has her fair share of fascinating tales. As I was transcribing some of our interviews this past week, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Here is a gem from the rich jewel box that is her life:

“I worked as a nurse at the VA hospital for about two and a half years. That’s where I met Paul, a doctor whom I would eventually marry. One day Ms. Oaks, the chief nurse, sent for me. I thought I was going to be reprimanded for something, but what she wanted was for me to represent the nurses in a beauty contest at the Prom Ballroom. Paul agreed to be my date. Back then there must not have been any rules about ‘padding it up.’ My friends and I were having a few drinks upstairs and they kept saying ‘oh, you need more padding,’ so we’d put a few more handkerchiefs in there. We were laughing about that when I got the call that Paul was waiting for me downstairs. So, I came downstairs and he looked at me and said ‘well, we’re putting up a big front anyways.’ Once again, I was one of the shortest ones in the competition and I think I came in last in that pageant, too. But I didn’t get a complex about it, because I knew I didn’t have the biggest asset one needs in a competition like that: nice long legs.”

Creative Diversification

I in the middle of writing a book proposal, well, actually two book proposals. One is for a collection of essays, the other for a *shap inhale* novel (perhaps a novella). I realized a few months ago that most of my short fictional stories are really about the same person/people, so I am going to try my hand at a novel over the next couple of years. The book proposal for the novel is more for me than anyone else (a game plan, if you will), but the proposal for the collection of essays is one I’d like to show to an agent sooner rather than later.

As I’ve been writing the proposal for the collection of essays, I’ve frequently scolded myself for not staying more focused in terms of topic choice. As it stands, the essays I’ve written (some published in various venues) are incredibly diverse in their subject matter, which makes it hard to shape them into a cohesive collection. What I’ve discovered is that I need to select the ones I feel represent my best creative self (and correspond to one another somewhat), and then put the fingers to the keyboard and crank out others to compliment what I already have.

If you follow my writing on this blog, the range of topics here is indicative of the types of things I enjoy writing about. It’s certainly not a “cohesive concept” blog– “musings on language, images and life” is about as broad as you can get. From a business standpoint, diversification (translation, travel writing, editing, academic writing, curriculum writing, etc.) has been crucial to  accomplishing my goal of making a full-time income as a freelance writer. However, lately I’ve been feeling like my artistic self needs to buckle down and choose a topic, or at least choose a genre.

To distract myself from the fact that I felt unfocused as a writer (like how that works?), I decided to was time to read, to replenish, to fill the creative coffers if you will. I eagerly plunged into Patti Smith’s Just Kids. As I entered deeper into her memoir, I became enthralled by passages describing Patti and Robert (Maplethorpe)’s diverse interests and creative manifestations from collage to poetry to photography to jewelry-making to fashion to installation art. The fact that they spent so much time cultivating such diverse skills suddenly made me feel much better. Patti eventually became famous for her music and poetry and Robert for his photography, but the journey they went on as artists was filled with forays into other creative media.

Conventional wisdom tells us to pick a skill (often to the exclusion of all others) and practice it as much as we possible can in order to master it. But creative wisdom often tells us differently. It tells us to let go, to create what comes to us, to play, to branch out, to emerge. I went back and reread some of my favorite essays last night. It’s true, from a marketing standpoint the collection “as is” would never fly. However, I gained a new appreciation for my body of creative work. In my essay on Frida Kahlo I saw vestiges of my personal meditations on the maternal; in my essay on immigrant art I came across phrases that were indicative of my interest in and research on the creative process as it applies to writers. I realized that, in many cases, I couldn’t have written one essay without the other, even if the topics were very different.

When running my business, it’s OK (and desirable, to some extent) for me to dictate my path, to try my hand at a variety of genres (some more interesting than lucrative, some more lucrative than interesting) to accomplish my goal of being a self-funded writer. However, as an artist, I need to allow myself let go and continue to follow where the muse leads. More importantly, I need to accept that this won’t be a direct path. For me, this is the only way I know how to explore, to push the boundaries, to thrive.

Water=Power

Myriad cultures and religions around the world maintain an intense connection to water. As a life source and ultimate cleanser, water plays a crucial role in rituals — whether spiritual or secular.

During the Wudu ritual, Muslims cleanse their feet, legs, hands and elbows before engaging in prayer. Their belief is that just as prayer cleanses the soul, the body must also be washed with water. Orthodox Jews practice Mikveh, or immersion in a ”gathering of water.”  This ritual is traditionally required before ceremonies of conversion, marriage and the Sabbath. Christians of every stripe use water in the ritual of Baptism, during which a person is committed to God and a Christian way of life. In addition to washing themselves before entering the temple, Hindus believe that water from the River Ganges (in India) is sacred, which is why they go there regularly to wash away their iniquities.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2010

Meaningful connections to water do not only manifest in religious practices. My good friends organized beautiful ceremonies for their children, dedicating them to nature with the use of water. My husband, an avid surfer, has always said: “The wave is a living, breathing thing.” Over the years, he has explained unbelievable things that happened to him in the water, events that made him realize more about who he was and his place in the world. I certainly can’t deny the relaxing effect of walking along a Caribbean beach or sitting on a rocky cliff above Lake Superior (thank you, negative ions). From Japanese bathhouses to Arab baths in the South of Spain, I have also engaged in my fare share of cleansing rituals in various cultures — each lovely and meaningful in its own way.

Given the importance of water in our lives and the lives of those around the globe, given the power with which it is imbued, it is horrifying that we have rendered toxic a large part of our world’s water supply. Though it’s definitely fair to point fingers at oil companies and foreign manufacturers, I am also complicit. Whether it’s an excessive use of water bottles, the (perhaps unknowing) support of companies who engage in unsafe water practices, or simply not staying informed about water issues around the world, I know I could do much better. Recognizing the international importance of water is a good first step, but now it’s time to take action.

Revealing

“What do you think of my sexy new nightie?” Grandma said slyly, scooping a heaping spoon-full of noodle salad onto my plate.

“Hello!” I responded as I picked up the brand new purple silk lingerie set that was draped over her kitchen chair. “That’s cute… it’s short!”

“Yes, but still appropriate.”

“Yes, obviously, it’s classy.” I recovered, wondering what exactly she meant by “appropriate,” considering I’m pretty sure nobody sees her in her nightgown (though I guess one should never assume too much).

As we sat down to lunch, I was reminded of the time we went shopping together 2 weeks before my wedding. We picked up the accessories she needed for her outfit and were making our way back to the car when she suggested a stop in the “intimates” department to “pick up a new robe” (or so she said). Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a conversation I never thought I’d have with my (at the time) 82-year-old grandmother.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to wear on the big night?”

“Umm….”

“Think of your future husband. What would he like?”

“Ahhh…. I seem to do pretty well with cut-off sweatpants and a tank top.”

“Suit yourself. But I’ll tell you, I still remember the nightie I wore on my wedding night… it was so lovely…”

To be completely honest, I can’t really remember the rest of the conversation (part of me wishes I did). All I know is I left the mall that day with a silk “pyjama” set unlike anything I’d ever owned before.

We giggled about this memory the other day while finishing up our noodle salad. Eventually, the conversation turned to what section of her memoir we should work on for the next hour.

“I think I want to talk about dating and my wedding,” she said.

“OK, like when you met Grandpa and the period of time leading up to your wedding?” I clarified.

“Well, I dated people before your grandpa!”

“Right, of course, so you want to talk about them, too?”

“Yes, I think I would.”

“Perfect, here we go, pressing record……”

Narrative Choice

“Your mom took me to my friend’s funeral in Minneapolis today,” Grandma said nonchalantly while spitting a cherry pit into her perfectly manicured fingers. “She started crying in the middle of it. She was thinking of me, I would suppose. I mean, she didn’t know the lady who had died.” She glanced off into the distance for a split second before turning to look me straight in the eyes. “That’s why we’ve got to get to work, honey,” she laughed. “Where’s that little iThing you record me on?”

As we recorded the second hour of fodder for her memoir (I love that she’s always referred to the project as a personal “memoir” and never the more straightforward and structured genre of “autobiography”), I began to think about how we choose to represent ourselves, our lives, through narrative. Like it or not, we are defined by the stories we tell and those that are told about us.

Of course, there are some stories we would rather not remember… like the ones my parents bring up at family gatherings with an annoying sparkle in their eyes, the ones that elicit a hand- across- the- throat gesture and a terse “okay, moving on” from me, even at age 31. Then there are other stories we perpetuate ourselves, often times the ones that make us seem grander, quirkier, more sophisticated or more humorous than we really are (or were).

One aspect of working with Grandma that has been particularly striking is her “full-throttle” approach to storytelling. It’s no holds barred; the good, the bad, and the hilarious spill out of her mouth effortlessly, even when I can tell she’s getting tired. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s defining herself as fully and completely as possible, and it’s amazing to witness. Her recordings are peppered with stories of success (told in a very straightforward, non- glorified manner), hard work, and deliberate choices to help others (including many good deeds she rarely admits to having done).

There are also stories like this one, that both evoke a bygone era and round out her life’s narrative. These are the moments that are especially rich.

“Have I told you the story about the American Legion award?”

“Ummm, I can’t remember.”

“Well, I was slated to receive the American Legion award, given to one graduating senior per year. One girl and one boy. My parents were so proud of me. Boy, did I mess that one up.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well, I was caught smoking in the girls locker room. Not many people had access to cigarettes in those days because of the war and rations. But, since I worked at the drug store, I could get as many packs as I wanted. All I had to do was put my name on a slip of paper in the cash register drawer and they would count them up at the end of the week and take the money out of my paycheck. My friends and I loved smoking. That’s before we knew it could kill ya’.” [laugh]

“Anyways, it was after the school play and we had it all worked out. I told my friends to talk to absolutely everybody, all the parents and all the teachers who would have wanted to congratulate us, before coming back down to the locker room. Well, the gym teacher, Ms. Woods –who I liked a whole lot– was on to us. She knocked on the locker room door and said she wanted to congratulate us in person, that she hadn’t talked to all of us. My friends sent me to the door, because she liked me real well– she thought I should go to the U of M and become a cheerleader. Anyways, as soon as I opened the door, she knew. She reported us to the principal and the next Monday 3 out of the 4 of us admitted to smoking in the locker room that night. The one who lied ended up getting the award that they, you know, revoked from me. I was so angry about that. I don’t think I ever forgave her for that. My parents were so disappointed. They were really involved with the Legion. That’s how that went… can we take a quick break now?”

I was in high school when I first heard this story, and she told it just like that. There was no moralizing, no trying to justify what she had done and no overt warning —just straightforward “cause and effect.” I remember loving the story the first time I heard it. I identified with her, the “good girl” with an experimental streak (or so I fancied myself). I remember being surprised by her honesty, and the fact that she didn’t end the story with “so that’s why you shouldn’t smoke” or something condescending like that. That just wasn’t her style. I also loved that she admitted to being really pissed (perhaps still) at the other girl, the liar.

The narrative was–and still is– so vivid, so simple, and I understood much more about my Grandma by the way she chose (and still chooses) to tell it. Does it make her look especially good? Yes and no– it was obvious by the fact that she had been given the award that she was an exemplary student and young citizen who made a choice and suffered the consequences (both not getting the award and of feeling resentful toward the liar, which may have bothered her as much as not getting the award). Does it make her look human and honest? Absolutely. And let’s face it– from a narrative perspective, who really wants to read about the “good girl” all the time anyways.

Time Capsule

“I’m just going to do a quick test to make sure the microphone is close enough to you.”

“What is that?”

“Oh, this is my iPad. I’m going to use to to record our sessions together.”

“Technology is amazing.”

“Yes, it is! OK, here we go, can you just say a few things?”

[blank stare]

“This is just a test. Start off with where you were born, Grandma.”

“I was born in Wadena, Minnesota in…”

“That’s good, let me check to make sure it’s picking up your voice.”

[playback]

“Oh, the sound of my voice is horrible!”

“No, it’s one of my favorite sounds. OK, here we go, for real, I’m pressing record.”

[blank stare]

“Start with where you were born, Grandma.”

“That’s good, Jen, you’ll have to keep prompting me. I was born in Wadena, Minnesota in…”

As it turns out, I didn’t have to prompt her (this will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows GP). In fact, when I turned off the recorder an hour later, the only audio evidence that I was in the room was an occasional chuckle or gasp. During that hour we traveled back in time. She told me stories of growing up in small town USA, working at the soda fountain, smoking behind the bleachers, The Depression, WWII, late nights working at the V.A. hospital, beauty pageants (“I didn’t win either, even though I stuffed my bra [throaty laugh]. I was too short, I guess. Long legs are a real asset.”), love, loss, raising kids in the 60s, caring for ailing parents. As I pressed “save,” she smiled and sighed. We had finally begun the “epic” memoir project.

“I was just rambling. I can’t believe I talked for that long.”

“No, you were archiving. And I can believe you talked for that long. There’s a lot in there. You’re like a time capsule.”

“Haha! Whatever you say. How are you going to write all of this down? How are you going to make it interesting?”

“I was thinking of organizing it around central themes that have run through your life: faith, community, family, travel, etc.”

“I like that idea.”

Last night I was looking for something to read. I have a habit of buying most of my books in French (good intentions…). To tell you the truth, reading in French is the last thing I want to do right before I go to bed (unless it’s Colette, I could read Colette all day and all night). I paced between my three bookshelves for about fifteen minutes, pulling out volumes and shoving them back into their “spot” (“abstract random” seems to be my dominant organizational style). Finally, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies caught my eye. When had I purchased that? I had just finished Bird by Bird, so I was primed for more of Lamott’s evocative, personal prose. I slid it out from its position wedged between two West African novels. Still confused as to when and why I had bought this (I’m typically not a big consumer of spiritual books), I opened the front cover. In her unmistakable script I saw: “To Jen, Merry Christmas. I love you. Grandma Pat.” As I sunk into Lamott’s narrative of her spiritual journey, my mind filled with ideas of how to shape GP’s memoir. Keep it honest, keep it focused, but not too focused. Retain her voice, make it a gift, a tribute in her own words.

As I listened to her stories today, I realized how fortunate I am to be working on this, what a gift it is to me. We are creating a time capsule (both audio and textual), a way to remember not only her story, but the stories of her parents and siblings, her children, us. It is her story, it is our story, and it will live on through our children someday.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend Tuesday afternoons.

Goals

Summer is here, the time of year when I do my best writing (probably because I have time). For better or for worse, I’m a goal-oriented person. Sometimes these goals are rather nebulous– I have a general idea of where I want to go but the concrete destination isn’t exactly clear. I’m typically OK with that. It’s important for me to articulate these directions (as hazy as they may be), both to begin to chart my course and for future reference (when I look back and try to understand myself as a writer and ultimately as a person). So, here are the JWB goals for summer 2010.

1. I am at a point in my creative nonfiction writing career where I need to hone my style. I still do quite a bit of academic publishing, and I find this tone and lexicon creeps into my memoir and personal essay work more than I would like it to. One of my goals is to find my voice and aesthetic range as a creative nonfiction (non-academic) writer.

2. I am also a professional travel writer. Most of the travel writing I do is for tourism or cultural blogs and magazines. I frequently want to include “foreign” or “cultural” elements in my memoirs and personal essays, but I fear these inclusions seem forced or trite. Another one of my goals is to refine the way I address travel and culture in my memoirs and essays.

3. My last goal is a bit more elusive, but no less important.  I hope to nuance my rhythm as a writer. Throughout my years of studying literature and writing, I have always been drawn to the work of authors who (seemingly effortlessly) infuse their prose with a rhythm that drives it forward while simultaneously causing the reader to want to linger on certain passages, to absorb all the beauty, shock or grotesqueness contained in them. It is this dynamism that I seek to master in my own writing.

RE/VISIONIST

RE/VISIONIST is a well-curated blog of multiple feminist perspectives, edited by graduate students in the Women’s History Program of Sarah Lawrence College. Last week, they published a piece I wrote on the installation artist Latifa Echakhch. You can find this and many other compelling pieces at http://revisionistslc.com/.

Forays into Fiction

I never dreamed I’d become a fiction writer. Nope. Not in a million years. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write short stories or novels, it was just that the thought had never crossed my mind (really).

As my writerly identity has become more fluid these past few years, I’ve found myself dabbling in creative nonfiction — essays or short stories based on an actual event, recounted using literary techniques. I’ve published a few, but have been saving most of them for my pet project, a book of short stories.

I pull out this manuscript a few times per month to edit, refresh, refine and add more “literary stuff” to the growing number of pages. Last week, I noticed that some of these “creative nonfiction” pieces had morphed (seemingly on their own) into fiction. I had expanded the scope of the characters, “nuanced” (read: completely changed) some of the major events, and rearranged the chronologies.

Grains of nonfiction still exist, to be sure. But now, instead of germinating into factual accounts, they pepper largely fictional narratives. The authorial voice that was once “mine” (as in the autobiographical Jen) is now an amalgamation of characters I have read or met. Likewise, the story about “my dad” has shifted into a story about “a dad” who happens to share traits or personal histories with 2-3 other dads I know.

I was having coffee with a friend last week (who also happens to be an author I respect very much) and revealed to her that I had been writing fiction. Pleasantly surprised, she asked to see it. Cue my litany of “well, I just dabble,” “it’s really not that good, I wouldn’t want to waste your time,” etc., etc. She looked at me and said “Wait, stop the self-effacement. What are the specific issues with it, what’s the thing you struggle with the most?”

“I never trained to write like this,” I responded (not really answering her question). There it was. I felt like an imposter– I hadn’t set out to write fiction, it happened organically (no, it happened by accident).

“Who cares?” she insisted. “If you are enjoying it, keep doing it. I can’t wait to read it.”

I am enjoying it. I’m definitely going to keep doing it. The stories keep coming, my fingers can’t keep up with the images, voices and truths (not “the Truth”– multiple truths are so much more interesting) in my head. Yes, today is a good day to write fiction.