Tracking Changes

Tracking Changes

A few years ago I completed a course on “writing away” chronic pain. The workbook, Unlearn Your Pain, asked me to consider: “if there were any particularly stressful or traumatic events in your childhood.” If I answered yes to that little ditty, my next assignment was to: “Describe any of the following: deaths, moves, bullying, taunting, teasing, emotional or physical abuse, changes in school situations, conflicts with teachers, or changes in family situations.” 

Every time I finished a paragraph, pain slipped away not only from the sciatica ripping th
down my leg but also from the stenosis at the base of my backbone that had been squeezing the life out of the nerves in my spinal canal. The pain relief from these writing exercises accumulated, and when I added a daily dose of meditation and weekly feldenkrais (moving meditation), the pain withdrew completely.

No painkilers. No surgery.

The treatment ran its course and I became addicted to writing the way some chronic pain sufferers become addicted to opioids. That was the beginning.

I found myself in a fifty-five and older memoir writing group scared to death that I didn’t belong. I’d assumed everyone in the group was a published author and they only let me join to fill an empty seat. The first day I came with no writing of my own and listened to stories about the family cat, road trips to the West and baking cookies with Grandma. Was this memoir writing? My stories were about an alcoholic family that turned out alcoholic children. I had no fond memories of family vacations or beloved family pets. I slid down the hall out of the classroom. A class member caught up to me and urged me to come back. 

“I can’t write like that,” I said, “my writing is too dark.”

”You can write any way you want. It’s your story to tell,” she said.

I went back, wrote my own stories and heard my words fall loosely on the table in front of me. Shame kept me from lifting them up and out. Pain relief continued at a more dramatic pace as I wrote and shared stories of my distressed childhood. A year or so in, my words managed to reach across the table to the writing teacher, then to Veronica, then down one side and up the other. I created my own blog and posted my weekly writing for public view. Public! Readers wrote important words in the comments, encouraging, wanting more. More! 

“You should write a book,” friends said.”

 “A book? Never thought of it,” I said.

And then I did.

Writing teacher Beth Finke included one of my stories in her memoir, Writing Out Loud. When I submitted a writing sample to Tortoise Books, the publisher emailed, “I heard you read your story from Beth Finke’s book at the Book Cellar. Send me your manuscript.” Manuscript? I had written 500 words a week for four years but I didn’t have a manuscript. I asked for help. 

From. 

Anyone. 

Willing. 

Beth told me to go to a hotel room and spread all my stories out then pick them up one by one and number them in chronological order. “Then you’ll have a manuscript,” she said.

The hotel compilation worked. Using Jerry-the-Editor’s notes, I revised, deleted and rewrote. He’s tracking his final changes onto my pages now. The end is near.

Writing the Body with Beth Finke

Last Friday night author Beth Finke and I participated in an event called “Body Language—Reading and Discussions about Writing the Body.”The event was held at Access Living, a non-profit advocacy organization in Chicago that delivers programs and services to people with disabilities.

As a writer in one of Beth’s memoir-writing classes, I’m included in her latest book, Writing Out Loud. The book tells Beth’s story about teaching memoir to older adults, and I gladly accepted the invitation to get on stage with Beth and interview her about her writing and teaching. After introductions, I asked some of the obvious questions most people want to know:

  • What was it like to get fired from your job when you lost your sight?
  • How did you get started leading memoir-writing classes?

The shocker came when I asked, “What other jobs have you had since going blind?” Beth answered by “reading” a passage from her book about auditioning to pose in the nude for an art class. She pulled out a phone-size gadget with her passage teed up, put in earplugs and flipped the switch that talked the words in her ear as she perfectly mouthed these words out loud to the audience:

My robe was still on when I backed up to the table and hitched myself up. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop’s edges to be sure I wouldn’t fall off, then stood up and unbuttoned my robe.

I’d been told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position. Had I been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with coming up with six different poses that I forgot I was naked.

I posed.

The department must have been pretty desperate for models, especially ones middle-aged or older and willing to work mornings. Most models are students who liked sleeping in.

I passed the audition.

Access Living is a leading force in the national disability advocacy community. The audience included people from their extensive list of volunteers, clients, personal assistants, board members and friends. Executive Vice President Jim Charlton even brought students from his classes at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development.

Next up after Beth’s interview was a reading from artist Riva Lehrer’s upcoming memoir, Golem Girl. Riva read a riveting account from her magnificently written manuscript about growing up at the Condon School for Crippled Children in Cincinnati. A slide show moved from photo to photo behind her as she read. It showed lovely old black and white yearbook pictures of the school, the students and the teachers.

Riva works at Access Living, is an adjunct professor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University, and was born with spina bifida. Her paintings focus on physical and cultural representations of hers and others disabilities. Golem Girl will be published by Penguin/Random House next year.

The most startling part of the evening came as questions from the audience started flying. An audience member said she’d read Beth’s book Writing Out Loud and asked if she was writing another. Jessica said she writes, too and asked if Beth ever would start a class for younger people near where she lives, in Skokie. Then, Kapow! Someone asked Riva how she was able to accomplish so much after being ridiculed relentlessly as a child because of her disability.

“I’ve been called crip, gimp, freak, retard, midget, you-name-it,” she acknowledged. “In the Condon school, because we all had something, I felt safe, not so different. Outside of school I was always scared.”

She said that when she first started working alongside so many other people with disabilities at Access Living, she felt safe at work like she always had at school. “I was afraid to go out the door at the end of the workday.” She credited Susan Nussbaum, her friend and colleague at Access Living, for helping her navigate the outside world. “You just have to rely on others.”

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Jessica, Beth Finke and Whitney

Afterwards I walked around the room to chit-chat. When I returned to Beth she was leaning into Jessica showing her how to work the reading gadget so Jessica, who uses a wheelchair and has limited sight, could read her own stories out loud to her own audience.

Just before we left, Beth’s guide dog, Whitney, uncharacteristically stood up and lifted her head high enough for Jessica to pet her.

 

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.