Today wasn’t as bad as the day before, although I’m floating in time like a jellyfish. Revising my memoir again, and I have nightmares often as a result. In the most recent one, I buried a gun in a hole in the woods. Reading Gita’s latest 30 pages last night I had goosebumps often. I was riveted to the page for most of it.
Vinh didn’t have to work until 2 so I went for a run/walk. I forgot my mask. But it’s almost impossible to run with a mask because, well, you can’t breathe with one on. As I ran through the Arboretum someone called to me. It was Samantha, my life coach, barely recognizable wearing a black mask. “Sorry I forgot my mask,” I called as I ran by. I don’t really like running but not much choice now in breaking a sweat and it boosts my mood 90 percent. I need that.
I talked to Michelle and read her some of my new stuff from my memoir and she commented. She’s really good at giving feedback and it encouraged me to keep going. In the morning I shut myself up on the third floor and worked on my memoir. Vinh was in a better mood. He made me some fried rice for lunch. He was there in the morning and therefore in charge of Lily’s “homeschooling,” also known as tracking down Zoom addresses. Then I shifted gears and did a BLOTC post. Fridays are hard because the weekend with Lily looms and there is quite literally nothing to do. If I was alone, I would be free. But with a child you have to constantly think of what they’ll be doing. And right now she has nobody to play with, so it all falls on me 90% of the time. I absolutely hate it. I ordered a kind of artsy robe from an artist and it made me feel better.
After our day was done, we went to the grocery store. Stop and Shop was as usual out of cart wipes. There is nothing else to do but go to the grocery store or Walgreeen’s. I bought Lily a stuffie at Walgreen’s and her other stuffie came in the mail; we found it when we got home. It’s pretty sad when a big event is a delivery on your doorstep. Vinh brought masks for mom and Pat, which was nice. It’s annoying that he’s totally obsessed with our daughter. Ok, love her, great. But every word out of his mouth is about her. I’m totally invisible.
How did your quarantine day go? Mine wasn’t great. I have high blood pressure. I don’t know if I’m going to survive this quarantine. Not because of COVID, but because of my family stress, and because I was on a roll just before life was brought to a screeching halt: going to the gym, taking care of my health. I could go to a cafe to write. I felt I’d barely survive a school cancellation through early May. Now I’m looking at another two months in hell. School closed March 12.
I feel like my body is falling apart. My left arm aches and I’ve gained weight and my hair looks terrible. I don’t dare take my blood pressure.
When I woke up, my daughter was already on my iPhone, my husband at work. Pre-quarantine I was up early to work out, but now sleep is elusive and patchy. I would love to have a job outside the home right now, because I am slowly losing my sanity here. As a pharmacist he gets to escape the four walls, but the downside is that, despite being encased in PPE he’s worried—we’re all worried—he’ll get COVID.
My life coach offered me a free 15 minute session this morning. She’s the first person who has thought to ask me in the pandemic: “How’s your mental health?” I’m ok, but I have few places to vent. Everyone is having a difficult time.
It has become the best way to cope with “homeschooling,” a job I didn’t ask for and didn’t want, dumped unceremoniously on to to my existing jobs: spouse, mother, lit mag editor, alumni board member for my writing program, editor for a website, and writer of a memoir in progress.
Only one of the above jobs I do pays, and so far it’s still paying, although it’s more difficult to do that job now, with my daughter at home. Her morning consists of a ludicrous amount of Zoom sessions. Usually she’s unable to find the right information, so most of my time is spent chasing down Zoom passwords. I’ve been trying to teach her basic computer skills, which I thought she was learning at private school. She was not.
My husband is the world’s worst homeschooling partner. He grills our daughter on math until 11 p.m. He has no sense of humor. Her bedtime used to be a nice 9 p.m. He is constantly cranky. I am never doing enough with homeschooling, despite the fact that I’ve been here all day, every day, since March 12, reading the school emails, explaining things to our daughter, chasing down Zoom passwords, and attending a parent Zoom. When he gets home from work, he acts as if I’ve done nothing all day. Doesn’t the school get it? It takes all our resources to stay healthy and cope right now. School is a luxury.
How am I supposed to do homeschooling, when my basic needs are barely being met? Where is my wellspring of patience supposed to come from? I quit homeschooling last week, but this week I’m back at it. I have no choice. I’ve made my suggestions on the school survey—no school until fall; we’ll catch up then. She’s in fourth grade. We’ll survive.
So my daughter FaceTimes with her friend on my phone. She plays with a drawing app she installed on my phone. She takes pictures and makes movies with my phone. She texts with my phone. There are no more playdates. There’s just me, trying to write.
I tried to work on my book while my daughter went through her series of Zoom meetings on her computer. The book is almost three hundred pages and I need to fix the order of events somehow. My neighbor started power-washing his car or doing something loud and mechanical. It was enraging. I stuffed my ears with silicone earplugs and it helped.
At lunch time I made my daughter a tofu dog and she heated up leftover shrimp dumplings on her own. We ate lunch. I went back upstairs to work on the paying gig. I ate some sour jellybeans, shared some with my daughter. I thought about going outside but I felt depressed and unmotivated. I was sick of being in charge. I texted a friend who is a lifeline but didn’t want to burden her with any of this because she is going through so much.
The time before my husband gets home was just as interminable as it always is. In the evening I went on Zoom to attend a poetry reading. I started to fall under the spell of the words, although I wanted to be anywhere but here. My husband called my phone angrily from the kitchen, where he was preparing dinner. “Lily’s degu escaped and now I’m burning the asparagus!” I’ve had my work day and somehow I’m still on duty. I had to interrupt the poetry to help find the animal. The animal was found. I’d love to protest my working conditions but I have nowhere else to go. Dinner was silent. Sleep will be difficult.
The last place I expected to find a role model for my nine-year-old daughter was on a reality television show.
On a recent night, the central air roaring softly, our family of three sprawled on the couch and watched forty-three year old Frenchman Cyril Chauquet kiss a giant, slimy alligator gar before heaving it back into the water of a remote Texas river.
“Ewwwwwwww!” my nine-year-old daughter exclaimed.
“Ewwwww!” I echoed. Kissing a fish may be a good luck ritual for the fisherman, but it repulsed us.
In each episode of “Chasing Monsters,” now in production with its third season (the first two are available on Netflix), Chauquet travels to a remote location in search of a particular quarry. In Episode 1 of Season 2, “Dagger Devil,” he fished the Mekong River in Thailand for giant freshwater stingrays.
As he searched for shrimp with which to lure the rays, I watched Chauquet bow to several fishermen he met. I listened to him laugh and speak a few words of Thai to a woman selling catfish in an open air market. There are funnier reality television hosts—”Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern’s expression when he tries a new food never fails to make me laugh—but I was struck by Chauquet’s respect for the people he encountered.
The more episodes we watched of Chauquet’s adventure angling series, the move I approved of him as an example for our nine-year-old daughter of a good global citizen. He has participated in ritual ceremonies in remote villages to ensure a good catch, and consulted with a local shaman.
I feel good about watching the show as a family. Left to her own devices, our daughter would watch ASMR, K-Pop videos and pet rescues all day on her laptop. Cyril doesn’t swear (in this way he often sets a better example than I do); there’s no nudity on the show; and the action is just gross enough to entertain my tween without being so graphic its gives her nightmares.
The world has changed radically since I was growing up in the 1970s watching the country smarm of “The Walton’s,” a show set in the mountains of Virginia about a family with seven children. Back then the benign presence of President Jimmy Carter filled the White House. He modeled a culture of kindness and tolerance that now feels sadly distant.
In “Dagger Devil,” Cyril caught a giant stingray. It looked like an enormous tarp and the rippling motion of its body, emerging from the murky river, mesmerized me. The host respects the creatures he captures, teaches viewers about them and their habitats, and even helps with conservation and research efforts.Chauquet collected stingray venom to help a local scientist create an anti-venin for the rays’ toxic stings.
Choquet practices catch and release and takes care not to injure the fish he finds. However, if the village he’s visiting needs food, he’ll offer them his monster catch for dinner. It’s a touching and generous gesture of care for one’s fellow human beings.
“How many languages does this guy speak?” I wondered as my daughter, curled next to me on the couch, tried to mimic the Thai greeting she heard. As we work our way through the first two seasons of “Chasing Monsters,” I’ve heard Choquet speak his native French, as well as English, Portuguese, Spanish and serviceable Thai.
I studied French for eight years and was able to use it on several trips to the country. Speaking the language was a sign of respect for the French people, but also a point of pride. I didn’t want to be an “ugly American,” a person ignorant of a culture’s language and customs. Chauquet’s show reinforces my values.
As she begins fourth grade at a new school, where she’ll learn Spanish and French, her father and I will continue to educate her too. We’re looking forward to watching Season 3 together. Opening her mind to a more expansive view of the world beyond America’s borders; connecting with other cultures where they are; respecting and caring for the environment. These are the big fish I want to teach my daughter to catch.
Last February, I left my three young boys, my job, and the ten thousand things I “should” be doing at any given moment, to put writing first. This was something I had never done. For all my talk of wanting to prioritize a calling that has doggedly pursued me over the years (as I’ve just as doggedly tried to ignore it),
My instructor at GrubStreet had pointed out gently to me and my comrades in the Memoir Incubator that if we were serious about birthing our books someday, we were going to have to commit to caring for them attentively during their period of gestation.
Residencies, she said, were a great way to do that. So, with great furrowing of brow and biting of nails, I applied for one at the Virgina Center for the Creative Arts. After I sent in my application, I checked my email obsessively until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I forgot about it. I have since learned that artists’ colonies of this type have an algorithm that calculates the average length of time the human brain will obsess over something it wants (especially related to its creative self-worth), wait until said length of time has passed, and then spit out an email at the applicant while they’re at the grocery store on a Thursday, causing a massive surge of anxiety and cortisol in the bread aisle while they tap frantically through to see if the email has little balloons floating down it or not. Happily, mine did. So, after two flights and a meandering taxi ride, I arrived at the rolling, sculpture-dotted grounds of VCCA in Amherst, Virginia.
The colony offers retreats of various lengths to writers, composers, and visual artists in a breathtaking bucolic setting complete with circling hawks, antique silos, and red clay pathways. Each person gets their own studio, and is provided with three meals a day. Coffee is available at all times, and it is very quiet. Aside from the coffee, this is unlike life in my regular household in every possible way. As a mother of three, I would apply for a residency just to have someone cook for me for ten days, let alone being given a quiet space of my own where I could sleep through the night without a small human in my bed. On top of all this, I had heard from previous attendees that VCCA was special, as colonies go, for some intangible quality of the artists it attracted, who were apparently totally awesome—but in a charming and humble way—and for the nature of the place itself, which was described as “magical” by each and every former fellow I asked about it. And it was, I found. But why?
Writing is hard. So yes, with all excuses not to write stripped away, sitting at an empty desk in rural Virginia, I had a few moments of sheer panic. But the words came, and some of them were worth not deleting, so I did the best I could and made some headway on my book. But the real exercise was not in writing. Like any shame-driven masochist worth their salt, I can make myself sit at a desk and weep and write anywhere, so doing it in Virginia really wasn’t that big of a deal.
What was hard—in applying, in accepting the fellowship, in leaving the kids and the “real” job and the ten thousand things, in sitting at the Buick-sized desk each morning with the barn cat sauntering by and winking at me—was really committing to this thing I love, but am ashamed to love for reasons that still mystify me.
It was a chance to exit what I have always been told is “the real world” and enter a world that turned out, for me, to be infinitely more real than any other I’ve stumbled into. For my wide-eyed inner girl-child, it was like falling down a rabbit hole into an old wardrobe and then stepping out the back into an enchanted forest. At VCCA, everyone was like me: a terrified, creative introvert posing as a gregarious, confident extrovert (you can imagine how exhausting this is). We sat at breakfast and ate our eggs and hash mostly silently, and then scurried back under our logs to make art. At one point I turned to a composer next to me and she just held up her hand and pointed at her coffee. Now, that is some boundary-setting I can get on board with. For the first three days, no one even asked me what I was working on. It was heaven.
I heard at a writers’ conference last spring that in developing an “action plan,” and creating a “platform,” one should have an answer ready to the pernicious questions people ask at cocktail parties when you tell them you’re a writer. “Oh,” they say first, “what do you write?” and then, worse still, “have you written anything I would have read?” Since the most polite answer I can ever think of in these situations is “fuck you,” self-promotion hasn’t historically gone well for me. But at VCCA, everyone treated their own work, and mine, with a kind of compassionate respect that I had never experienced being practiced at me by a such a large group of people. And they taught me, by example, to practice this compassionate respect toward myself and my own writing. They listened carefully, without interrupting, when I finally came out of my shell enough to talk about my book. They nodded and patted me on the back when I cried through dinner after a rough day in the trenches. They never, ever…not once…asked what I did for a “real job.” The relief and gratitude at having found this tribe—my tribe—to teach me how to take my work seriously, was, indeed, magical. So until I can afford an expensive publicist who will say “fuck you” for me at parties while I go get a club soda, there are places like VCCA. I’ll be back.
Guest blogger Alicia Googins is a graduate of GrubStreet, Inc.’s 2016-2017 Memoir Incubator, and a recent recipient of the Emerson College Full Tuition Fellowship for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Cambridge with her three children.
Memoirist Michelle Bowdler applied for the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc. in January. The fund gives encouragement and grants to feminists in the arts—both writers and visual artists. It grants $500-$1,500 to 20 women biannually.
After she applied, Bowdler did what many of us writers do when we’ve put heart and soul into an application for a fellowship, a residency or a pitch. She hit refresh on her inbox every two seconds.
Bowdler, who works as a health care administrator in higher education, wrapped up GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator in May. She credits its instructor, memoirist Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for introducing her to the world of fellowship opportunities and encouraging her to apply.
“Alexandria told me, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try,'” says Bowdler, whose memoir, The Idea of Order, looks at the crime of rape through a social justice lens. She describes her own activism after learning of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in warehouses and police departments around the country decades after the crimes occurred, and how her efforts led her to revisit her own unsolved crime. Applying for the grant was a huge commitment to believing in herself, since, she says, her memoir is very personal and the material is sometimes difficult to write.
One afternoon in May, while checking email during a work meeting, Bowdler read, “Congratulations!” The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc. had granted her a $1,000 award. Alexandria was the first person she texted to share the news.
“Receiving the Deming award was thrilling and humbling for me,” says Bowdler as she recounted the awed reactions of a group of older social activists she knew professionally who knew Barbara Deming’s work first hand.
These days, Bowdler is writing essays while she revises her memoir. A sexual assault survivor, she recently contributed an essay to the anthology Resist: Women Speaking Truth to Power in the Age of Trump. McFarland Press will publish the anthology in early 2018. The essay is about sexual assault policy and what it means to have a president who acknowledged sexually assaulting women. Alexandria alerted her to the opportunity during Bowdler’s Incubator year, Bowdler pitched two ideas to the editors, and they requested two essays.
She also contributed an essay about LGBTQ rights, which she co-wrote with her 18-year-old daughter. Bowdler has also published several articles that have helped her build a platform for her memoir-in-progress. In 2016, her article “Why Donald Trump’s Words Matter,” appeared in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column. A Path Appears, a blog sponsored by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn, published her post “The Case for Clearing the Rape Kit Backlog” in 2015, the same year The Boston Globe published a story about her, After night of terror, years of anguish, she finds meaning.
Bowdler hopes to use her grant for an unfunded residency, to take another GrubStreet course or toward anything that furthers her work on her memoir.
“**ck the gatekeepers,” said Richard Hoffman, Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. He was one of four memoirists present on June 12 at Trident Booksellers and Café who have written about trauma. Melanie Brooks, Alysia Abbott and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich also shared their writing experiences as part of the event “Writing Hard Stories: Memoirists in Conversation,” presented with GrubStreet.
After cussing the gatekeepers out—those who aim to dictate what should be voiced in memoir—Hoffman went on to describe them. “Gatekeepers have a fear of unwelcome information…they put boundaries on art. They’re censors. We need to hear people’s voices.”
Hoffman has experienced gatekeeping first hand. Editors, he said, tried to remove an episode of child sexual assault from a draft of his 1995 memoir, an episode that, he said, was the book’s linchpin.
Hoffman’s candor made me glad I braved a sweltering Monday night for the event, centered around Brooks’ 2017 book: Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma. I felt ready to storm the gates of the New Yorker, where Jia Tolentino had recently written the article, “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over” (and I haven’t even finished my memoir).
For her book, Brooks interviewed memoirists to investigate how they survived the inevitable psychological turmoil of writing their “hard stories,” and to gain insight and encouragement while writing her memoir. The memoirists she included tell stories about the death of a partner, parent or child; about violence and shunning; and about the process of writing, and attest to the healing power of putting words to experience, she said.
Her memoir, which, she says, is almost complete, explores the devastating impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. In the thorny throes of writing my hard story, I’ve dog eared dozens of pages of her book, so I can return to the passages for a moral boost when I feel discouraged.
“The memoirist must awaken an issue in the larger community,” observed Hoffman. In his case, it caused the arrest of the coach who raped him and at least 400 other boys. “It was never about me. It was about a crime in the community,” said Hoffman. As a result of writing his book, Hoffman now belongs to, as he described it, “a global network of people breaking through the barrier of shame.”
Abbott spoke about writing her 2014 memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. “AIDS didn’t just happen to me. It was much larger,” she said. “That helped me to write it.”
Marzano-Lesnevich revealed that she didn’t want to be held back by her emotional responses, so she learned to have empathy for her “little girl self,” she said. Her memoir The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, debuted in May. In it, she writes in part about the impact of having been molested.
The larger issues raised by Abbott’s book resonate through The Recollectors, “a storytelling site and community for the many children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS,” which Abbott and author Whitney Joiner co-founded. The discovery of this online community, Brooks commented, was how she first learned of Abbott and her story.
I reluctantly went back out into the heat feeling buoyed by the community, grateful for the writers’ insights and looking forward to digging into Hoffman’s Half the House—the only book of the four that I have yet to read.