About litsense

I am a spiritual being who is living, thinking, learning and working to make sense of some of my experiences through reading and writing.

The Memoir Dilemma 


My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

A post worth re-posting

The Power of the Adjective

Maybe it’s the grammar teacher in me that can appreciate a well-placed adjective and the omission of useless adverbs. I enjoy reading books by writers who can use specific language to strike just the right tone and create just the right image. Alexandra Fuller is one of these writers. Fuller uses word choice to make her unique memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even more interesting to read.

Fuller tells the story of growing up in a white farming and ranching family in South Africa during the late seventies and early eighties. Fuller is the observer of the African landscape, her family, and the native African community around her. Her observations are spot-on, especially the ones that appeal to the five senses. She shares hard times, losses, and intimate moments with family members by using just the right words to handle each recollection. There are many beautiful lines in the book that I re-read three or four times to marvel at her seeming ability to describe anything and everything with such precision. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, is Fuller’s use of compound adjectives that display her dexterity with words and her gift for description.

Instead of saying the pale yellow light flickered, she writes, “flickering-yellow light (4).” She remembers as a child she and her sister getting “the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps (6).” She watches her father use his “after-dinner pipe” and observes her mother in a “broken-chicken-neck sleep.” She tells the reader that her mother has “thick, wavy, shoulder-length bottle-auburn hair.” When she arrives back from a trip she is relieved to “climb off the stale-breath, flooding-toilet-smelling plane into Africa’s hot embrace (287).” In one scene she details a visit from missionaries. “The springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves up on the visitor’s laps, and the missionaries fight them off in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way (82).” The word play with hyphenated words turned into descriptive adjectives is a feature of her writing that also adds to this writer’s distinct voice.

When I teach adjectives again with my eighth grade grammar students, I will definitely have fun sharing examples from Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight.

My Happy Writing Detour…

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I write creative nonfiction. It’s hard for me not to write nonfiction, unless I’m writing about Rocko Rocket. I finished the final edits on a children’s book called, Rocko’s Big Launch in 2012 while completing my MFA. My dad was dying, writing my craft lecture felt like it was killing me, I was overwhelmed at work, and my asthma had gotten so bad that my lung capacity was at less than 60%. Ultimately, I finished 150 pages of my memoir, my MFA requirements and had a successful kickstarter campaign to self-publish one thousand copies of the children’s book I wrote and my husband illustrated. I attended my MFA graduation ceremony, and my dad died a week later. I had about three more chapters to expand and complete my memoir about the death of my four-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t seem to write them. I still haven’t. I’ve focused on Rocko Rocket instead. Rocko is a boy with a big head full of ideas, big eyes full of dreams, and a big smile full of the happiness I’ve needed to take a break from reflecting on loss.

When writing a picture book, like writing any book, there must be a conflict. With a picture book, however, the main character generally has a problem that can be solved. Rocko’s persistence gets him to his goal. He has a dream that readers can believe he can achieve, and he has a passion that makes his readers want to reach out for something amazing. This kind of book works on not only kids, but also adults.   Kids need to believe that anything is possible for them. Having that belief early on sparks the confidence to set goals and accomplish them. Adults need something that keeps them from focusing on the things that don’t go right in the world. Picture books remind adults of how it felt to be young and expectant of a happy ending.

I wrote the first few drafts of the Rocko Rocket series over eighteen years ago for my oldest daughter who we will be attending her first year of college less than a week from now. Yet, when I revived Rocko’s story and re-wrote it, I did it mostly for me.

This summer I have had so much fun sharing Rocko’s story with adults and children. It has been inspiring to see how my 48 page story about this little boy can make people smile. It’s been a great summer, and although the best books I’ve read have often brought me to tears, there is nothing wrong with taking a break to read or write something that can put a smile on your face.

 

 

Four Quotes on Love That Can Save Even the Worst Romance Novel

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

 

     The truth is: I’m not a fan of romance novels. My dislike of the genre mostly lies with the fact that the title gives away the plot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading a book that leaves me with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings. I do. It’s just that before I open a “romance novel,” I know it will be filled with “I love you’s,” and a series of clichés to follow. They meet, they fall in love, they’re happy, and then there is a conflict. The conflict is resolved and they are reunited and live happily ever after, or fate keeps them for living happily after, or one or both of them die.
I’ve learned from reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, however, that no matter how predictable the features of a love story, or any story for that matter, it is the writer that makes the difference. Reading about two people truly in love can be thought-provoking and inspiring, and this can happen if the writer writes about love in the way Jan-Phillip Sendker does.
     Yet, it does help that Sendker works to avoid predictability. His story begins with a daughter who is looking for her father, and on her quest for answers, the daughter and the reader are eventually and unexpectedly led into a romantic love story. She finds answers through a man who is shrouded in mystery. He not only tells her about her father’s past, but he tells her a love story. And since the love story is told through the lens of the past, the reader is able to allow for some of what sounds like legend, so nothing appears overdone. Finally, Senker doesn’t have the characters in the story dialogue about their love. He shows what their love looks like through the specific actions of the characters. If a romance writer could incorporate the following four passages or anything like them into his or her story, he or she would win more hearts and minds.
     Sendker makes the reader consider the power of love early on by avoiding clichés about the things that attract one person to another.
     “I have often wondered what was the source of her beauty, her radiance. It’s not the size of one’s nose, the color of one’s skin, the shape of one’s lips or eyes that make one beautiful or ugly. So what is it? Can you, as a woman, tell me?
I shook my head.
I will tell you: It’s love. Love makes us beautiful. Do you know a single person who loves and is loved, who is loved unconditionally and who, at the same time, is ugly? There’s no need to ponder the question. There is no such person.”
      Questions are posed to the daughter and the reader so there is time for reflection.
     “How can anyone truthfully claim to love someone when they’re not prepared to share everything with that person, including their past?”
      The narrator illustrates how this particular love he speaks of in this story is authentic while elevating it beyond the common physical and mental weakness that makes one out of control to a spiritual experience that strengthens both members.
      “Of course I am not referring to those outburts of passions that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person ─a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on what we cannot. No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
      And lastly, he explains how most people lack the understanding of true love and that these two lovers shared an understanding of what most do not.
“We wish to be loved as we ourselves would love. Any other way makes as uncomfortable. We respond with doubt and suspicion. We misinterpret the signs. We do not understand the language. We accuse. We assert that the other person does not love us. But perhaps he merely loves us in some idiosyncratic way that we fail to recognize.”
      This love story was not just about the two lovers from the past but about love itself. I found that after reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, that there were so many levels to peel back and take away. I was not only left with warm and fuzzy thoughts and feelings, but by the end, I was also met with surprise and inspiration.

Marking Time

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

In Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller paints an eclectic collage of her parents’ life in Africa using photos and stories of their experiences, successes, failures and tragedies. All the stories work to reveal the unique personalities of her parents who live as white farmers in different parts of Africa, particularly Zimbabwe when it was ruled by a white minority. They are the last of their breed and are there to see things change despite the violent wars and internal struggles to maintain things as they once were. The story, however, mostly focuses on Fuller’s mother, a colorful and candid character who admits she is not mentally stable.
Besides Fuller’s wit and her vivid storytelling, what works in this book is Fuller’s use of time markers. Fuller is not a linear storyteller, and in writing creative nonfiction, it is sometimes difficult to give readers markers of when certain events actually happened since the writer is dealing with memory and shaping time into meaning instead of into a biography or a historical account. Fuller solves this dilemma by telling specific stories in the order that will achieve her goal which is to show her readers how her parents developed into the people they have become. She does in each chapter by grouping a set of stories with a photo and a date that help to present theme and setting.
The book is divided into three parts, and at the beginning of each chapter in all three parts, she includes a picture with a date and caption. For example, the chapter entitled, “Nicole Huntington Learns to Ride” includes a picture of her Fuller’s mother in Kenya at about age seven or eight in overalls, standing barefoot on the saddle of a white horse. This chapter shares how her mother’s love of horses began. Yet, she doesn’t begin talking about a horse; she begins with a story of a donkey who meets a terrible fate outside her mother’s’ convent school.
The stories jump around weaving in and out of time and place, so the dates beneath the captions beneath the photos help the reader keep track of time and place. When making these shifts in time, it helps to have something to ground the story. The construction of her chapters and inclusion of photos help to do this.
Fuller shares lots of wild and interesting family stories that make up over fifty years and three generations on the continent of Africa. It is easy to get lost in time while reading. Through each chapter, however, the reader is able to navigate the past and the landscape of the continent through the eyes of the Fuller family.

Forty-three Ways to Play with Barbie

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

For over fifty years, the Barbie fashion doll has been put in the hands of millions of little girls and over time, the doll has become a pop icon that has sparked controversy. Barbie is sometimes charged with promoting an unrealistic standard for beauty, but over the years, she has also inspired many creative works. In Denise Duhamel’s collection of poetry entitled, Kinky, the doll is used in parody. What works about this collection besides its obvious cleverness, is that it gives the reader a myriad of vantage points on the same subject. All forty-three poems connect to Barbie, but each takes you in a different direction to contemplate the history, associations, and implications of what was intended to be simply a teenage fashion doll.
The collection is divided into four parts: Lipstick, Powder Blush, Mascara, and Eye shadow, representing all the things needed to keep Barbie’s face and image beautiful. In the first part, there are poems focused mostly on the cultural history of the doll. Duhamel pokes fun at Mattel’s attempt at cultural and ethnic sensitivity. In “Hispanic Barbie”, she writes: “Born in 1980, Hispanic Barbie looks exactly like Black or White Barbie. You can pretend she’s Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Chilean, or Venezuelan. ..” My favorite poem, “Native American Barbie,” is a one-line poem that acts as a punch line: “There is only one of her left.”
The title poem, “Kinky” begins with Barbie and Ken switching heads in an attempt to “spice-up” their relationship. All the poems are free verse. Some employ dialogue while others employ narration. She uses specific details and word play to bridge the real world to Barbie’s imaginary one. Other titles include: “Anti-Christ Barbie”, “Buddhist Barbie”, “Literary Barbie”, “Barbie’s Molester”, and “Afterlife Barbie.”
In this collection, Duhamel does a comedic critique of society. She uses Barbie to cover topics such as sexism, feminism, racism, war, love, sex, exploitation, and religion. Her cleverness with subject matter and language can lend to deep contemplation and discussion, while other poems are just laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the truth of her observations can be arresting, especially in poems like, “Manifest Barbie” where you learn:
In the Philippines
Women workers in fashion doll factories
Are given cash incentives
For sterilization

Facts like these are hard to swallow, so Duhamel makes sure to add humor. Satire works here along with every other connection to the doll and her well-known moveable and detachable parts. After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at the Barbie doll the same.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky. Alexandria Virginia: Orchises Press: 1997.

The End

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Coming to the ending of a piece of writing can be challenging; no matter the subject, genre or word count.  I remember in elementary school every one wrote, “The End” to signal that his or her story was finished.  We learned this from the fairy tale stories we often read or heard. Yet, as I matured as a reader and writer, I noticed that the best books I’ve read always concluded a chapter or the book in a way that made me re-read or reflect for a few minutes. The endings often led to a new connection or a new appreciation of what writers and language could do.

I recently finished Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. It is a story about how Schwalbe and his dying mother maintained a book club of two during her visits to the hospital for chemotherapy.  The book is definitely about the power of books and about what happens for readers at the end of them. In fact, each chapter is titled after a title of a book and includes a synopsis, quotes and sometimes a informal review. Yet, the book is mostly about the journey to the end, in this case, the end of the extraordinary life of Schwable’s mother.

I think each writer goes on his or her own journey to the end as well. Writers must make careful choices about what they want to leave behind for their readers. A writer may choose a quote, an anecdote, a strong declarative sentence, or maybe a combination of styles to connect the reader to the story and its characters. Endings should provoke thought or emotion, allow reflections, spark debate, or echo a theme or idea a writer wants to share. For Schwalbe’s book, he consistently uses a reflective strategy for the end of his chapters.  The end of each chapter is an echo of the beginning or to the theme of the book presented. This works to connect the books being presented to the main storyline and allows his readers to reflect on and connect to the experiences of the main “characters” in the memoir.

In his chapter titled, The Uncommon Reader, named after the novella by Adam Bennett, Schwalbe laments that his mother’s grandchildren would miss out on “the massive quantities of love their grandmother would have given them.” At the end of the chapter, however, he reconciles that he could help them learn more about his mother by sharing the books she read and loved. Then they, like her, “could all become readers, and maybe even uncommon ones.” (130)

Just as the end of a life well lived can lead to a combination of sorrow and admiration, the end of a great chapter or book can sometimes lead to a bit of sadness, but it should always lead to satisfaction and admiration for a job well-done.

The End

 

Schwalbe, Will. The End of Your Life Book Club. New York: Vintage Books.2012. Print

 

A Killer Diet

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

After reading Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I felt as though someone had written my story and changed all the names and places.  It is memoir that anyone who has severe food allergies can relate to, but anyone who has ever had a handicap, big or small, will find common ground.  Sandra Beasley, the author of the memoir, takes her reader through the near death experiences she averts as she navigates a life around what might have killed her.  This includes her own birthday cake. Her guests could enjoy it, but they couldn’t even touch young Beasley after they ate it.

Beasley strikes the right balance in this book by revealing the thoughts and feelings she has about her life with allergies without sounding like she is complaining. In a book like this one, tone is key.  She reveals how it feels to basically live in fear while strangers perceive her as being picky.  She also reveals her need to be like everyone else, so she often tried to hide or play down the seriousness of her reactions.   It is hard not to feel sorry for her, however, when you read how seemingly limited her menu is and how her allergies have impacted her relationships and experiences. But Beasley doesn’t want you feel sorry about the fact that she can never carry a purse that won’t accommodate a bottle of Benadryl.  She wants you to laugh.  Yet, she also wants you to know how serious food allergies can be.  She wants you to consider how even taking communion could cost some people their life. The book is well-researched, so she  includes what some churches are doing, or not doing, to address the problem.

“There is little the Church can do except recommend that the person make a “spiritual communion,” says the FAQ answer issued by the USCCB’s Commitee on Divine Worship. “Why? Because the Church believes that it is impossible to consecrate anything except with wheat bread and grape wine” (51).

In her chapter titled, “What Doctors Think,” she includes the current protocol for dealing with food allergies as well as the research behind them. She also includes the names of organizations created to support people with severe food allergies.   Currently, there are thirteen million children who suffer from food allergies. Some of these children will outgrow them, but Beasley wasn’t so lucky. And she is not alone.  The state of Florida just passed a law that requires all public and private schools in Florida to have an EpiPen (a shot of epinephrine)  available for students in order to prevent death from an allergic reaction.

This  book acts as guidebook for allergy sufferers and their family and friends, It works because the the tone is right, her allergy adventure stories are entertaining, and the facts are startling. It is a book worth reading, whether you have allergies or not.

 

Beasley, Sandra. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

Get it Right

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

Yesterday, I took an online comma quiz on howstuffworks.com.  I couldn’t resist the challenge presented by the question: “Do you know your commas?” I mean, I am a grammar teacher. I should be able to ace a basic comma quiz.  Yet, I have to admit, I was a little nervous about what it would mean if I did terribly. Fortunately, I got all ten questions correct.  Just to make sure my success wasn’t a fluke, however, I took another online comma quiz this morning on grammarbook.com. This time I got nine out of ten questions correct.  I missed the comma after the direct address in the sentence, “Please, Sasha, come home as soon as you can.” I placed the comma before Sasha, but forgot the one after. So, I decided it was time for a grammar tune-up.

Grammar teacher or not, I think all writers should make using good grammar one of their priorities. One book every writer probably owns is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  And although a well-worn copy of this book sits on my shelf, today I decided to re-read, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Trusss. This is one of my favorite “grammar-geek books” because it is laugh-out-loud funny and because it is a great review of punctuation rules. Truss goes beyond the basic reference book by adding witty remarks and humorous anecdotes without losing the main focus of the book.  Her one rule she demands writers follow: “Don’t use a comma like a stupid person.” She goes on to add, “…the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.”

Since Truss is a British writer, some punctuation rules differ from American ones.  For example, in America, the period is always placed inside the quotation mark, but in Great Britain the rules are different. This is hard to get used to when you’re ready, even after the explanation is given.  I also found it interesting that she includes quotes about how specific writers felt about punctuation. Most know how e.e. Cummings felt about capitalization and punctuation, but I remember being surprised to learn that Woodrow Wilson hated the hyphen, calling it: “the most un-American thing in the world.”

Remembering all this has me excited to re-read this book.  I plan to have another good laugh and sharpen my grammar skills at the same time. After all, I have a responsibility to my students and to my writing to know the rules and apply them judiciously.  An added bonus: I’ll be ready for any online comma quiz the next grammar guru posts on the internet.

Lines that Linger

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  It was on his summer reading list. The book is narrated by Death and there are three sentences in the narration that my son was compelled to write down and memorize.  Death says, “In war young men think they are running toward other young men. They are not.  They are running at me. “

Now there are many great lines and scenes in that book, but these are the lines my son wanted to keep.  It impresses me that good writing has the ability to get people to copy whole lines and paragraphs down and memorize them. I love that language can do this. Now, I don’t have the ability to memorize most of my favorite lines from the best books I’ve read, but I do write them down.  They are in pages of letters, old journals, or blog posts.  I, too, am unable to leave some lines behind. I want to reflect on them and share them with others long after I’ve left the pages of the book.

What are the characteristics of these lines that linger, and how does one write them? I think one answer is: If they speak to a universal truth.  If they ring true universally to the human experience but reveal truth in a way that is fresh or unexpected. Another answer is: If the words defy what is commonly accepted.  These are things that make the reader take pause to reflect or re-read.

 After reading, “On Morality” by Joan Didion, I contemplated the idea of morality in a way I had not done before. She writes “good” or “moral” was a “monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.” It aligns with the popular saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”’ We can shape “moral” into anything we choose, including a stone to murder a woman who is accused of adultery.

In Comfort, Ann Hood writes, “Time doesn’t heal”, which is the opposite of the popular quote, “Time heals all wounds.” And knowing that there are some traumas that people do not recover from, the reader understands why Hood challenges it. Her words stayed with me because they were true for me as well.

My son doesn’t know why those three sentences in Zusak’s book stopped him, but I do. He found the truth in them; a truth he didn’t expect to find but knew he wanted to keep.