Saturday, May 26, 2012

You and Your Siblings Had Different Parents

For almost three years now I’ve been submitting essays monthly to a print magazine called Black Lamb. ( Some of these articles have been opinion pieces, some book reviews, some humor; but most of them have been memoirs of changing points in my life.

I intend, when the time is right and before I forget, to self-publish a collection of these pieces in a small edition for my children, and for my grandchildren and future descendants. Over the years as a teacher of life-story-writing classes, I have stressed the importance of leaving behind a written record of our times, our choices, our changes, and what we have learned from our successes and failures, our good calls and our mistakes. I wish, and my students have agreed with me, that my own parents, grandparents, and ancestors from generations past had left me books like this to read.

Speaking of mistakes, though, let me tell you about mistake I made last week. This month’s issue of Black Lamb has an essay by me about my father, a man I never knew, because he died when I was two years and one day old. I told of the many fine things I had learned about my father, from friends and family members who knew him well. I also mentioned that he was occasionally beset by lengthy stretches of melancholy, which my mother called his “Welsh moods.”

I made the mistake of sending a tear-sheet of the article to my older brother, who knew our father well, because my brother was fifteen when our father died. So well does my brother remember our father that he wrote back and corrected me. Apparently our father was not moody, but was always cheerful.

My mistake was not that I got my facts wrong. Maybe I was mistaken about my father’s alleged moodiness, but I was only reporting what I had heard. My mistake was not that I chose to include dark news when I talked about my father; as writers we’re supposed to explore the dark side, just as we’re expected to celebrate the bright. My mistake was to send this essay to my brother. What was I thinking? I should have suspected that he would be disturbed to read that his hero might occasionally have been gloomy.

The lesson I learned from this mistake: choose your audience carefully. And remember that memory is a creative, inaccurate record. If you have siblings and you write about your parents, the chances are your memories will not match theirs. No two or more siblings remember the same parents.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


William Doonan’s mystery novel, Grave Passage, is a trip worth taking. I had never been on a luxury cruise before I boarded the Contessa Voyager, but now I feel I’ve experienced it all: the pool and spa, the meals, the drinks, the gambling, the dances and romances—and the murder. Yes, luxury cruises can be hazardous to your health.
This novel is deliciously narrated by Henry Grave, who is helicoptered in to find out who offed a guest lecturer who had promised to reveal a secret that somebody else didn’t want revealed. Henry uncovers surprise after surprise, and each time he is surprised, he expresses his delight thus: “Well I’ll be god-damned.”
This guy has a voice that rings with surprises. Henry is an octogenarian, which makes him an unusual and original sleuth. As an old person, he’s entitled to his eccentricities. Because he’s a “little bit diabetic,” he eats all day long, except when he’s taking naps. He takes naps whenever he feels like it, wherever he feels like it, all over the ship. He never turns down a drink, be it Champagne or scotch or something orange with rum in it. He flirts with women of all ages: piano players, cocktail waitresses, trophy wives, TV stars, and women of a certain age who are traveling alone and on the prowl for adventure. Henry is a master of malapropisms. He forgets appointments.
But author William Doonan does not make fun of old people, and anyone who reads this book will admire Henry Grave for the bright and energetic detective that he is; and anyone who knows this fellow will want him as a friend. And perps beware. Henry Grave may be eccentric, but he gets the job done.
My only regret, having read this highly entertaining mystery? That George Burns isn’t alive to play Henry in the movie. That’s disappointing, and Henry would probably react thus:
Meanwhile, I’m nuts about Grave Passage, and you will be too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

THE KITCHEN FLOOR: thoughts on memory and memoir

My earliest memory is of a green and white checkerboard pattern of linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor in Minneapolis, where I lived until I was two years old. I have remembered that design so often throughout my life that I’m sure it is entirely false.
Every time we remember something, we change it. Memories are photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, all the way back to the first sighting, which we would no longer recognize if we came across it in a magazine.
This flaw of memory is especially acute for us writers, who constantly edit and rewrite, and who at heart believe that a good imagination is far more important than an accurate memory.

For the past three years, I have been writing personal essays for Black Lamb, a distinguished literary magazine published monthly in Cupertino, California. Most of my essays have been memoir pieces, recalling and recounting joys and sorrows, my triumphs and mistakes.
Sometime in the year 2013 I plan to collect a bunch of these memoir pieces and self-publish them in a limited edition, primarily for family and friends. Some of my intended audience will remember some of the same events I describe. Some may, therefore, be tempted to correct my memories for the sake of historical accuracy. To them I will say:

What you’re about to read are the personal and family memories and in some cases fanciful imaginings of a fiction writer. For those of you who were there when any of this happened, please do not feel compelled to correct my memories. I already know they’re inaccurate—just as yours are.
As for historical accuracy, who cares? Nobody’s going to take my word for all this. I just made sure of that. And who cares what the floor in the Minneapolis kitchen looked like?

Note: For quite some time now I have been posting pieces on this blog almost every week. I’m starting to find that a difficult schedule to stick to. I do enjoy writing this blog, and I enjoy connecting in this surreal way with a bunch of friends, many of whom I’ve never met in person. But starting now and until I change my mind again, I’m going to post less frequently. I think that means approximately once a month.