Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

If you like beautifully-written  books about  unconventional childhoods, put Tarn Wilson’s  The Slow Farm on your reading list.   This is a fascinating book in so many ways: as a memoir,  as a look at the hippy subculture, as a story about memory, as a reflection on what it means to grow into the realization that our parents are imperfect people.  Tarn is a friend of mine from way back, and she’s also one of my favorite writers (check out her website tarnwilson.com for a sampling of her brilliant essays), so I’m thrilled to have her here today for a Q and A.  Read on to learn more about her book,  about writing memoir, and about what happens when you let your two-year-old play in the woods without adult supervision (see what I mean about “unconventional childhood”?!?)

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Give the one-minute summary of your book.

The Slow Farm is a memoir of growing up with my hippy parents on a remote island in British Columbia in the early 1970s.  My father was an idealist, and the story explores what happens when his counterculture dreams begin to crumble.

The story is told from the point of view of a small child, but between each chapter, I include “artifacts” that reveal the larger cultural forces shaping our lives, such as letters, photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and my favorite, excerpts from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.

What are the challenges of writing a book about your early childhood?

I have vivid memories of early childhood, starting from about two years old.  Early in the writing process, I experimented with strategies to access even more memories, such as focusing on the senses, writing about photographs, and drawing memory maps. However, the memories didn’t initially organize themselves chronologically or in a traditional story arc.  It took many years of reflection to discover the themes and shape of the story. It was also a challenge to find a voice that captured the innocent perspective of childhood, but was not limited by it.

One thing I found fascinating as a parent is how “hands off” your parents were — at the age of four they let you go off and wander in the woods on your own!  That’s only one of the many things that made your childhood unique.  When you look back on it as an adult, what parts of “you today” do you attribute to your parents’ parenting styles?

Great question, Ginny.  If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my two and four year old wander in the woods or swim in the ocean without supervision! At the same time, having escaped death and major injury, I’m grateful for the gifts of my parents’ philosophy of childrearing.  I’m comfortable in silence and solitude.  I’m self-entertaining. Most of all, I think when parents give their children some unsupervised free time, they have room to develop their imaginations, to experiment with new skills and interests, to fail, and to try again—all of which develop resilience, self-sufficiency, focus, and endurance. I believe when children are constantly monitored, they focus on the reactions of their parents rather than on the pure joy of exploring or mastering a new skill.

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How did writing this book change your understanding of your parents?

 Before writing this book, I was stuck in my child perspective, which is narrow and limited. Early in the process, as an exercise to broaden my view, I wrote every scene from the point of view of each family member.  It was a revelation to realize how young my parents were. (When I was born, my mother was 20 and my father was 25.)  That alone explains many of their choices. I also saw more clearly how my parents were formed by their own childhoods and roles in their families. Most importantly, I realized how profoundly my parents were shaped by their times—how much we all are.  I researched the historical events that shaped their generation, read the counterculture books and essays my father loved, and listened to my parent’s favorite musicians. I saw the ways in which my parents’ decisions were in dialogue with powerful cultural forces. I began to understand, not just where I fit in my family, but where my family fit in the flow of history.

A major theme of your book is the theme of idealism giving way to reality.  Can you say a little bit more about that as it played out in the lives of your family?

 I have a theory that most of us all come into this world hardwired to worship our parents.  It’s a survival-of-the-species strategy.  As infants and children, we need to learn so much, quickly and efficiently, in order to navigate our new, complicated world, so we absorb without question everything our parents say or believe.  Slowly, as we mature, we become part of a larger universe, develop our reasoning skills, and begin to see our parents’ weaknesses.  This can be a painful process, which we all do with different degrees of graciousness.  If our parents have many faults, we may go through periods of anger.

Becoming a mature adult means, eventually, seeing our parents in their fullness:  understanding the forces that shaped them, accepting their limitations, and acknowledging their strengths and the gifts they have given us. Some people do this naturally—most of us have to go through the process again and again as we fall in love, make a new friends, or learn to see ourselves clearly.

In that sense, my story is everyone’s story.  But my memoir has an extra layer.  The counterculture was highly idealistic: hippies believed they had the power to create heaven on earth, to live in love and harmony with each other and the land, to eradicate war, to bring equality to all.  When the dream didn’t materialize, they had choices to make.  Some hippies I knew changed with the times and become successful business people, albeit with an eco-groovy bent.  Some turned to drugs to escape disappointment or to maintain the feeling of love, connectedness, and meaning—and got lost there. Some tried to continue the lifestyle and lived on the shrinking margins. Most had to find some kind of balance between noble social ideals and the necessary practicalities of day-to-day living.

For the rest of his life, my father seemed pulled between his hippy ideals and his desire to be a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two, so he’d pendulum between the extremes. Both my sister and I are in fields that serve the community (city planning and teaching) but like having a regular paycheck.  The students I teach today seem to have reached a perfect balance: they are neither as naïve as the hippies, nor as materialistic and self-serving as those I graduated with in the 80s.  They hunger to make a difference in the world, seem to have a realistic sense of difficulties, and are committed to the work.  It’s inspiring!

One unique aspect of your book are the “artifacts” that are included throughout — bits of letters, photos, the books that shaped your parents’ philosophies, etc.  Say more about those.

The artifacts allow me to keep the child voice while still providing adult context.  I thought very carefully about where to place the artifacts; however, I don’t analyze or interpret them.  I hope that leaves room for readers to engage with the story and develop their own conclusions.  For example, I place quotes from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (such as ones that advise parents to avoid the enforcement of table matters, let children swear, and expose them to adult sexuality) next to scenes that show that philosophy in practice. I hope readers will arrive at their own complex conclusions about the counterculture lifestyle.

What advice do you have for other aspiring memoir writers?

There are wonderful resources for memoir writers: local courses, online courses, and shelves of useful and inspiring books to encourage and guide.  But, usually the biggest obstacle for anyone hoping to write a memoir is a sabotaging interior voice. It will tailor its message to your favorite insecurities, but will usually sound something like this: Your story isn’t important enough to write. You don’t have time. You don’t have skill. You don’t have a story. Writing your memoir is self-indulgent and narcissistic. You will upset your family. If you have trauma in your life, the message might argue your story is too dark to share.

All these messages are self-sabotaging distractions.  If you have a persistent desire to tell your story (through memoir, poetry, painting, performance, storytelling etc.), honor it. I believe it is a divine impulse, and that impulse is leading you to healing, to understanding, to a greater sense of your own wholeness. If you are like most writers, your process will be challenging: you will have to fight your own self-doubts, wrestle with the language, learn new skills, perhaps re-live uncomfortable memories, and be willing to see yourself and your past with fresh eyes.

Although everyone’s process is different, most new memoir writers benefit from a regular writing practice, in which you generate new material—quickly, without judgment, and without a too defined sense of where you are going. (If you solidify your story too early in the process, you may miss important discoveries.) Once you have a mass of material and, hopefully, some themes which have surprised you, you can begin to discover the organization of your story and refine your language. (A book I recommend to help you craft your raw material is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.)  Whether or not your work is ever traditionally published, your story will polish and transform you, and that will be worth the effort.

 The Slow Farm is available from Ovenbird Books and from Amazon.com.  Be sure to check out tarnwilson.com for a look at Tarn’s essays.

Q and A with Deacon Jim Knipper of Homilists for the Homeless

If you’ve ever attended church, you know the power of a really good sermon.  Well-chosen words can change lives, in ways both subtle and profound.

Someone who knows this firsthand is Deacon Jim Knipper.  A deacon in the diocese of Trenton, NJ, he decided to harness the power of good preaching and use it as a vehicle for helping the homeless.  This vision has resulted in two terrific books: Hungry, And You Fed Me and  Naked, and You Clothed Me, both compilations of sermons for the liturgical year (Cycles C and A respectively).

It’s a pleasure to welcome Deacon Jim back to this blog (you can see my interview about his first book here) and to get his take on spiritual writing, encouraging social justice, and taking kids to church (as a deacon and the father of four, he knows a thing or two about that!).

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For those who arent familiar with Homilists for the Homeless, whats the soundbite description?

Homilists for the Homeless is a moniker used by a group of Christians who are dedicated to spreading the Good News through their ministries, especially in their preaching.  Each Contributor has donated their works to be published in a compilation of homilies that cover the Liturgical Years.  Proceeds from each book go to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.  So far we have published the books for Cycle C and A and will release this October  Sick, And You Visited Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B.

Who is the intended audience for this book? 

These books speak to a wide audience – not only those who preach each weekend  but also to the faithful who wish to enrich their understanding of the Sunday readings.  We are hearing of many who use our books for their weekly meditation as well as those who are using it for their prayer groups.

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What is one unexpected gift youve received from this project?

There have been many gifts that I have received with this project that have been unexpected – but one of those at the top has to be the outpouring of appreciation and love from the contributors as well as the readers.

Homilists for the Homeless combines two important things: social justice, and writing about spirituality.  Who are some of your own personal heroes in these two areas?

Wow – hard to limit this to identifying just a few, but when it comes to social justice both Fr. Michael Doyle in Camden and Fr. Greg Boyle in Los Angles have to be two people who have truly lived lives that show all of us what it means to be there for our sisters and brothers.

When it comes to writing about spirituality…the best?  This one is easy: Fr. Richard Rohr.  Over the past 40 years his books, his talks, his conferences have opened the eyes of so many.  He reminds us that we are not humans learning to be spiritual…rather, we are all spiritual trying to learn to be human.  If one listens to Pope Francis it would be hard to believe that he has not read the books of Richard Rohr, as should you!

What can parents do to encourage their kids to care about social justice?

When parents are present at the baptism of their children, they may be distracted with all that is going on and may miss the prayer that is said over them at the end of the liturgy….when they are reminded that they are the first and best teachers of their children by what they say and do.  You want your children to care about social justice?  Pick a cause and be passionate about it and bring your children into early on in their lives.

Do you have any advice for how to make Mass meaningful for kids?  (the $64,000 question!)

Better asked – how do we make mass meaningful for everyone?!  But to your question in particular, the answer varies from region to region, diocese to diocese, parish to parish, and within each individual.  When I was growing up in the 60′s and 70′s, Mass or Church was a place where people gathered as a community.  There was no internet, social media, email, etc.  While technology is great,  we need to see what is taking place in the building up or the decay of ‘community’.  There is no doubt that many kids do not see benefit in going to mass.  Why?  Mass is longer that 140 characters and requires 60 minutes of attention…..many times the priest/deacon have not given enough time or lack the talent to provide an enriching homily…in some places liturgy is weak….some parishes do not serve the youth well…and so on.

So what to do?  As we heard in Matthew’s gospel on July 13th (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time) the seed falls on the different types of ground but only yields harvest in fertile ground.  So see what you can do to enrich the ‘ground,’ i.e. the liturgies  for kids in your own parish.  If impossible, then go looking for a parish/church that nourishes your child, yourself, and allows the feeding of your body and soul and empowers you to do the same to others.  That is where you will find Christ.

Whats one thing that your own kids have taught you about faith? 

Faith comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors. And in the words of our beloved Pope, “Whom am I to judge?”  Amen!

Naked, And You Clothed Me and Hungry, And You Fed Me are both available at Clear Faith Publishing.  These books are a marvelous way to support the homeless, with the added benefit of providing rich spiritual food for thought.  Thanks to Deacon Jim for being my guest today!

Inscriptions in books = love on a page

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My grandmother wrote the above inscription  in 1975.  It’s on the flyleaf of this ABC book, which is falling apart:

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In case the reading is too hard to read, here’s what the inscription says:

To my dear little Ginny who at the tiny age of two sings the “Alphabet Song” like a real pro — With lots of love, Grandma.  March, 1975.

My grandma died twenty-five years ago, but when I pick up this book and see her handwriting, she feels very close.  I’m touching something she touched; her handwriting, always so distinctive, triggers all sorts of memory centers in my brain.  I think about the fact that she not only chose this book for me, she thought about what to write, and sat down — probably at the dining room table underneath the oil painting of a still life with fruit and goblets — and put pen to paper.  If I think about it, I can see her sitting there, in that house I loved to visit, writing something that her granddaughter would cherish and blog about thirty-nine years later.

That’s the power of an inscribed book.

I have quite a few of them in my library, and they are precious.  This copy of Little Women  was signed by all three members of my nuclear family:

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Years later, when I was a senior in high school, I was obsessed with the idea of having a villa in the south of France someday (probably due to the movie “Jean de Florette” and the musical “Aspects of Love.”)  For Christmas, my parents gave me the just-published book A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, and my mom wrote the following inscription:

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Absolutely, Mom!  You’re welcome anytime!  (I just have to get the house first.)

My mother-in-law wrote this beautiful inscription in the book she sent me before Matthew was born.  She couldn’t be at the shower, living across the country, but these words, written for  her first grandchild, meant so  much:

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As much as I love receiving inscribed books, I don’t always write in the ones I give as gifts.  I’m  never sure if people like inscriptions as much as I do; I’m also afraid that they may have the book already, and re-gifting a book with a heartfelt inscription in it just doesn’t work.

But maybe I just need to get over it and get out the pen and write.  Because while any gift of a book is precious, it’s all the moreso when there is an inscription that charges the book with tangible evidence of family and love and friendship.

When Matthew turned three, his godmother — our friend Mary, whom we referred to as “GodMary” — gave him this Curious George treasury.  She wrote in it, too:

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This book has been loved by both boys.  The last time Matthew ever saw Mary, when she was dying of cancer, he sat next to her on the couch and read to her from this very book.  He was just learning to read, and he was slow and halting and stumbling.  Mary sat there so thin and frail, with Luke cuddled up on the other side, and she stroked Luke’s hair and listened to Matthew read and it was heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time.

With this inscription in the book, there’s a little bit of her there to jog Matthew’s memories of his godmother. A few words in pen are far more than a few words in pen when they are written in a book.  They are love on a page, love that stays.

The Book Pile: Jesus, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and three novels

So my last Book Pile post was in … January.  Oof.  I’ve been reading; I just haven’t been blogging about it.

Let’s fix that, shall we?

Here are some of the highlights of the last few months.

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The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory was – in a word – powerful.  It’s the story of a priest on the run in Mexico in the 1930s, a time and place when Catholicism was outlawed.  You know what’s coming as you read it — you know there’s no way the priest will avoid his persecutors forever — but it’s the journey that makes this book. It’s a journey not only through Mexico, but also into the heart of an all-too human priest who loathes himself for his flaws but still allows himself to be a conduit of grace to others. The tenacious, sacramental beauty of Catholicism is a big part of this book; faith isn’t an abstraction, but a concrete, and it is lived out in every one of the priest’s interactions with others.  I love it when a novel affirms my faith as powerfully as this one does.

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This was a very readable coming-of-age novel about a somewhat awkward teenage girl whose beloved artist uncle dies of AIDS.  What I found striking is that the narrator is fourteen in 1987, and I was fourteen in 1987, so the book was an uncanny trip back into the past for me.  It made me remember that there was a time when you never heard the word “gay” in the media without hearing the word “AIDS” in the very next breath (so grateful that is no longer the case).  The book as a whole is a very poignant story about grief and friendship and the complexity of love, and a testament to the fact that some relationships can’t be neatly labeled or categorized.

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Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon

“Fiddler on the Roof,” is near to my heart, in part because I was in a production of it  in high school.  Wonder of Wonders was a  fascinating and very thorough book about how Shalom Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the milkman turned into the Broadway musical we know and love.  What  I found most fascinating was the process by which the play took shape, such as how the song “Tradition” ended up being the thematic key that made everything else fall into place.   The composer and lyricist also ended up discarding a lot of songs, many of them probably very good, when it turned out that they didn’t fit with the overall tone and flow of the play … a good lesson for any writer  who really loves that paragraph she wrote but has to cut it out for the good of the chapter as a whole.

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The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Saw this one at the library and picked it up on a whim.  Good call.  It’s historical fiction, about a young woman in England who ends up traveling to South Africa, where she finds herself acclimating both to a new marriage and to the brutal world of the diamond trade.   I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but  I think it’s a book that every young woman should read because it is a witness to the importance of sharpening your powers of perception when it comes to men.   The writing is excellent, too, walking that line between being believable for historical fiction yet still feeling modern.

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Under the Influence of Jesus: The Transforming Experience of Encountering Christ by Joe Paprocki

I’ve read other books by Joe Paprocki, and I love his  concrete, accessible way of approaching big concepts of faith.  He grabs you with engaging and funny anecdotes, and before you know it, you’re suddenly exploring the core ideas of Christianity.  This book is eminently enjoyable, but also challenging in all the right ways.  It offered some new angles for thinking about my relationship with Jesus, and I’ll be going back to certain passages for more reflection.  It’s really a book for every Christian who wants a spiritual shot in the arm.

Now it’s your turn!  What have you been reading (and enjoying) lately?

Nancy Drew was then, Mary Stewart is now: An ode to books that keep you reading

Can you remember the last time you were so engrossed in a book that the rest of the world receded?  Can you remember that delicious feeling of being utterly in the thrall of a gripping plot, turning pages rapidly, staying up far later than you should and letting dishes and laundry pile up because all you wanted to do was find out how the story ends?

It’s a great feeling.  It’s one of the highlights of life, as I see it.   And something about summer, with its longer days and more leisurely schedule, makes it the perfect time to acknowledge and celebrate the writers that have, at two different points of my life, provided such beloved reading experiences.

Let’s start with Carolyn Keene, who wasn’t a real person, but who is the name on the yellow spines of all the Nancy Drew novels I loved as a kid.

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It’s probably time to re-read a few of these and see if I can recapture the delicious feeling they gave me as a fourth-grader.  I was forever checking these books out of the school library, and Nancy’s adventures — her travels to various places around the country (and globe), her brushes with serious bodily injury, her fun times with loyal friends Bess and George, her narrow misses — captivated me.  There was a comfort in knowing that Nancy would always solve the mystery, even though my ten-year-old mind was skeptical enough to know that such a track record was pretty unrealistic.  (My friends and I once did the math, and realized that since Nancy was eighteen throughout fifty-plus books, it meant she solved more than one mystery a week.)

 

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But in the end, I didn’t read them for the realism.  I read them for the sheer excitement of following the clues, unraveling a mystery, and biting my nails as the action reached its climax.  I loved them, pure and simple.

Today, my hunger for this kind of reading is sated by the suspense novels of Mary Stewart, who died last month at age 97 (brief overview of her work here.)  The first novel of hers I read was The Ivy Tree, which blew me away, and I’ve since read all her “romantic suspense” titles. (I hate that label.  It sounds so cheesy, when her books are anything but).

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Mary Stewart knew how to spin a plot.  She pulls you along on all sorts of twists and turns, and boy, does she keep you guessing.  I’d comment on a few of her most memorable tricks, but it’s better to refrain because even to hint at them may spoil the reading experiences for those of you lucky ducks who have yet to pick up her books.  Trust me: she’s good.

She’s also a master (mistress?) at evoking a mood.  Whether she’s writing a novel set in an old farmhouse in the English countryside, a chateau in France, the ancient ruins of Greece or a beach in Corfu, you feel a part of the setting, in all its particular uniqueness.    And her heroines are admirable women in their own right; not quite as perfect as Nancy Drew (really, who is?), but smart and adventurous and utterly likable.   Stewart was also a formidable scholar, and her books often feature snippets of great literature and Shakespeare and the classics as teasers for each chapter.

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It was a sad, sad day when I read my last Mary Stewart suspense novel.  I do re-read them from time to time, but it’s never quite the same as that first initial thrill.  Is it wrong to wish for selective amnesia, so I can have the pleasure of rediscovering them?   I wonder.

But when I think about Ms. Stewart’s recent passing, there is one thing I know for certain.  A life spent writing  books that bring such pleasure to others is a very well-lived life indeed.

So what are the books that keep you avidly turning pages?  I’m always looking for recommendations.  I’d love to hear about the “unputdownables” you read as a kid, too.