Sunday, October 28, 2012

Your Watershed Moment: finding voice through memory with Ianthe Brautigan

"Writing is never easy. If you can engage with your voice, writing is easier. Then you have a place to come from," said Ianthe Brautigan Swensen at September's Writers Forum with Marlene Cullen.

Author of You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir about her relationship to her father--the famous writer Richard Brautigan--and her attempt to reconcile his suicide, Ianthe said writing the book was both "my way of making him whole and having a voice."

Ianthe always believed she could write. Maybe it was the influence of her father's typewriter, which she has passed along to her own daughter. She grew up moving between her parents from place to place and attending 13 schools, but she read a lot and developed a "rich inner life."

She says that voice is a way to enter a piece of writing: "If you can write a memory, you have a better chance of finding a voice that is you." If you write into it, that memory can form the basis for a reflective essay or book.

When I read Ianthe's book, it brought to life her father's character and a sense of place, including San Francisco. I read Brautigan's The Abortion when I was 18 and living with my father in his San Francisco apartment on Green Street. There was a beautiful one-room library across the street (built in 1912 in a Beaux Arts style) that I often looked down upon from our 6th floor fire escape. For some reason I can no longer recall, I pictured the setting of his book taking place inside! (Aha! I looked it up and the novel, of course, was set in a "library for unpublished manuscripts," which Brautigan based on the Presidio Branch described thus: "There are high arched windows here in the library above the bookshelves and there are two green trees towering into the windows and they spread their branches like paste against the glass.") Lovely.

Cow Hollow Branch Library, Green Street, San Francisco

To find your writing voice, Ianthe said to consider a watershed moment in your life.  Keep asking yourself, "How did this moment shape me?" Her exercise went something like this:

Draw a large circle in the center of a piece of paper. Draw four (or more) circles or bubbles from its spokes. In the center, write down a central memory. Keep writing bits of memory in the surrounding circles. Use the senses to describe the place, the actions, the feeling. In the last bubble write your reflection.

Here's mine, slightly edited for clarity:

1. After nine hours with deprogrammers, Marc returned to the Moonie recruitment camp in the northern California woods. "Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he said. I didn't believe him.

2. redwoods; dark shadows; wooden walking bridge; a sense that once my older brother crossed it, the rift would be irreparable

My father, my sister in law, and my brother's 3 lovely boys
3. Sitting against the car window. Silent like so many times I watched outside. My father often misunderstood my sadness, asking, "Are you tired?" I'd nod yes. This time he didn't ask. He shared the same silence.

4. A sinking, sick feeling spreading throughout my body. Years later I would recognize it as despair. It would become a part of me for decades, sometimes erupting in violent bursts, but most often latent, an ever-present grief.

5. Reflection: I always thought that feeling of loneliness came from loss--loss of my brother as I'd known him for 16 years, and the final break of my family. Now I also understand it as a loss of control. It was perhaps the first time I faced the powerlessness of my own life (or someone else's). For years I believed I held the key for getting him back. What does an adolescent know of surrender?

Funny, it was so much easier to write that and it flowed better than my early attempts at 10-20 page essays in my MFA program. Some of my best writing emerges from exercises that allow one to write in sizable chunks. Ianthe said it took an MFA program to feel the permission to write her book, but she wouldn't recommend that route unless you've got money to burn.

(Now that my thesis passed and I'm paying off my student loan, I sometimes question the value of an MFA degree, but I know I wouldn't have written--and rewritten!--the volume that I did without that weekly, disciplined practice--and feedback.)

Ianthe proudly claims to be a journaler, using two favorite fountain pens. And she's got a whole list of recommended reading on "voice" that ranges from Bernard Cooper's Maps to Anywhere to Virginia Woolf's writer's diary ("It will make you want to write") to Joan Frank's Because You Have To--A Writing Life (about writing from the body).

But wait, there's more!

Annie Truett
Madeleine L'Engle
Langston Hughes
Anne Lamott
Salmon Rushdie
Eudora Welty
Anais Nin's journals
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio (oh, how I loved that book in high school!)
Terry Tempest Williams' 54 Variations on Voice
Tillie Olson's Silences (on why people fall silent)
Art of the Personal Essay ("a doorstop" I began last night during a not-so-delightful bout of insomnia, which Annie Dillard helped temper)

Whatever sad and sordid tales you have to tell, may you have happy reading and writing!

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