First, Do No Harm

Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.

In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…”  What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.

It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.

I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.

Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.

A Few Of My Favorite Books

This is a guest post I wrote for Carla Sarett’s inspiring blog:  carlasarett.blogspot.com

This list includes some of my all-time favorite books.

There is another book I’d like to mention, one that is especially appropriate as a gift from mothers to daughters. Veterans Day reminded me of this illuminating and fascinating read.

Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II by Emily Yellin

What Is A Writer Worth?

What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than monetary reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value: ninety-nine cents has become the norm, and many authors are compelled to promote their books by giving them away.

What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS, my short story collection, includes stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of SURVIVAL SKILLS. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.

Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, marketing is far more onerous than writing: It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.

Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.

I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they fall where I believe they should, until they are as precise and as beautiful as I can make them. As I struggle with words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, sacrificing year after year in search of his best. 

You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. If you think that’s a deterrent, you’re probably not a writer.