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Writing Tip: Black Sheep and Other Forbidden Topics

lammThere are always topics we can’t talk about. Sometimes these forbidden topics are societal – in some societies talk about sex is taboo, or death, or money (when’s the last time you asked an acquaintance, “So how much money do you make a year?”) And there are familial taboos, like Dad’s drinking or Mom’s pills, or an older brother in prison, or any family member you have been taught to be ashamed of. Even ancestors.

But what you can’t talk about you can’t write about either. Your beliefs about what is forbidden can stifle your creativity. A good exercise to free up your mind is write about the black sheep in your family anyway. (You don’t have to publish it.) You can start with an ancestor, since it may conjure up less pain. Here’s an exercise I often give when teaching memoir writing:

Write the story of an ancestor who is spoken of in whispers, if at all. Perhaps he or she went to prison, or drank heavily, or stole, or was a womanizer, or betrayed his/her country, or was a coward, or a cheat, or a slaveholder, etc. etc. etc. What do you know about this person? How did this story get handed down in your family? Is this person now admired or despised?

I wrote a few pieces about some of these sheep in my own family, although I couldn’t find any truly bad ones, only gray ones. (Most people are gray.) But there was one ancestor who no one seemed willing to talk about. The only thing I knew about him was that his name was Frank and he was my mother’s grandfather, her father’s father. But one day about fifteen years ago I did learn some things about Frank, and found that we did indeed have one of those black sheep in my family. It’s taken this long for me to take my own advice and write about what I learned, but here goes. Finally.

My mother used to have lunch with her cousins every year. Often her mother, my grandmother, also attended these luncheons. Fifteen years ago I went with my mother and grandmother to a gathering of these cousins, who were by then women in their seventies and early eighties. (All the male cousins were dead by then.) My grandmother was the only representative of her generation, in her nineties at the time.

About midway through lunch, the name Frank was mentioned, and suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, stories started tumbling out. (There had been quite a lot of wine consumed by this time.) I listened open-mouthed at the tales these elderly women told, from the fairly innocuous like how Frank told filthy jokes and laughed at their embarrassment, to the upsetting like how he pinched their budding breasts or bottoms, to the appalling like Frank telling my great-aunt Tessie, then 11, to “touch me here” as he pulled his “privates” (her word) out of his stained pants. It was even worse listening to the women tell how their fathers and mothers did nothing to stop him. “Oh that Frank,” they’d say indulgently, while they chuckled at Frank’s cute liking for little girls.

My own mother told of how Frank scared her badly when she was nine. He had come up behind her, pulled up her dress, and tried to pull down her underwear. She tore herself away from his searching hands and ran crying to her mother, Frank’s daughter-in-law, who said, “Oh that silly Frank, just ignore him.”

My grandmother, whose advice this had been, at this point got up and left the table. She spent the rest of the luncheon visit in the bathroom. When we drove home, she sat stony-faced in the back seat of the car and refused to look at my mother.

Later I asked my mother to tell me more about Frank, but she refused. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s dead now.”

I beg to differ. It does matter. What Frank did to my mother, and her girl cousins, shaped their lives. My mother shaped mine. There is quote by Emile Zola, which sums up why it matters:

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”

Haiku Friday: Googling

SpiritualToday my haiku is from April 24th of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Spiritual Seekers, Dreamers, and Other Lovers of Magic and Mystery, one of a 7-book series. The haiku topic for today is “Googling”:

roam through your wonder
googling is not always good
it leads nowhere new

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.

Wet Dogs Smell Like Wet Dogs

shampoo dogAlex Terrgi here. Me and my human live in Seattle. This means that sometimes we may get wet. My human would prefer to stay indoors when it rains here, but this would mean I would not get enough exercise, and neither would she. Besides, walking in the rain awakens some wonderful smells. Not that she would notice, of course. Her nose is pitiful, just pitiful.

However, her nose seems to wake up when we return from one of our rainy walks. She wrinkles it up and says things like, “Phew, Alex you smell like Wet Dog,” as if Wet Dog was the name of some particularly nasty product. (I could name some pretty nasty smelling human products too, like shampoo, for instance. But I digress.)

Well, yes, I agree that wet dogs smell like wet dogs. What does she expect me to do about it? I think she should get over it.

Haiku Friday: Pooh

SpiritualToday my haiku is from April 17th of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Spiritual Seekers, Dreamers, and Other Lovers of Magic and Mystery, one of a 7-book series. The haiku topic for today is “Pooh”:

sprinkle magic dust
drop in on Pooh and Piglet
sit in Charlotte’s web

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.

Writing Tip: Topic Switching

iStock_000004854936SmallI’m pretty sure most writers have weird minds. This writing tip from Natalie Goldberg convinced me that I qualify. Writing fast, without stopping, write a page in which each sentence has a different subject than the one before it. Here is a page I wrote when I tried this tip:

Half of a bean is still a bean. Over the trees are flying birds without home wings. Pay no attention to your nose, for smell will only take you where you’ve already been. Fear is like an itchy sweater; perhaps I should put it away in a dark cupboard and let the mice poison themselves. In the meadow the cows munch and neither know nor care that I’m watching them. The internal life of ants is unknown to us. I hear the voice of an ancestor calling me to prayer. The bells ring and the smoke curls toward the sound. I watch the clouds for answers. Tomorrow the day is old again. Inside any orange is a dirt-brown heart beating slowly to the rhythm of the earth. (copyright 2000, Eating Mythos Soup: poemstories for Laura)

You should try this. Your mind will always surprise you.

Haiku Friday: Leap

SpiritualToday my haiku is from April 10th of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Spiritual Seekers, Dreamers, and Other Lovers of Magic and Mystery, one of a 7-book series. The haiku topic for today is “Leap”:

gods play hide and seek
leaping over patterned squares
you know they are here

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here

Ghostwriting for a Dog: Leftovers

Frosted BrowniesAlex Terrgi here. Last week my human read me a dog haiku because she knows I like those best. I do, too. Especially this one:

oh boy, leftovers!
what humans throw away, and
how wolves became dogs

Leftovers – such a beautiful word. It means surprise treats. The kind that fall out of the sky (or from the table) and land right in front of your nose. Chicken or cheese or hamburger bits, even buttered toast can be good. It’s good for my human too – it means that I clean up the floor really good so she doesn’t have to.

But sometimes …one day she ate something she obviously liked. It was dark and smelled sweet. She dropped a piece on the floor and I thought I’d try it too, if it was so good. But before I could get to it, she shrieked “No Alex!” and dived onto the floor and scooped it up. If you’ve never seen a human dive it’s really something to see, believe me. I didn’t know she could move so fast.

“No chocolate for you, Alex,” she said, after she threw that perfectly good leftover in the garbage. I don’t get it. If she can eat it, why can’t I?

Human rules make no sense.

Haiku Friday: Giggle

HistoriansToday my haiku is from April 3rd of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Spiritual Seekers, Dreamers, and Other Lovers of Magic and Mystery, one of a 7-book series. The haiku topic for today is “Giggle”:

make your own magic
blow laugh bubbles out your nose
giggle through your hair

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.

Art and Analysis

On_the_Waterfront_posterWhen I ghostwrite memoirs, I often ask my clients to tell me the movies they loved when they were young teenagers, say between the ages of 12 and 15. Young adolescents are very impressionable, and it’s at this time in our lives when we start paying attention to the world outside our family, and making decisions about what is good and bad and how we fit into that world. Our decision making ability is in its infancy so we often draw the wrong conclusions, or conclusions that are too black and white, but the movies we’re exposed to during this time often color our personality, beliefs, and even deeds for our entire lives. So when we remember those movies from our early teens, the results are always illuminating and help me to “get” my client’s personality so I can write as them.

This works when you do this for yourself, too, in order to explore who you are. It’s an easy form of self-analysis. When I did this for myself I googled which movies were popular in the years I was 13 and 14 – and discovered that although I did remember some of them, none of them made a big impression on me, so I thought my great insight was wrong. But then I remembered that the movie that did make an impression on me was an older movie, one that was made around the time I was born, but that I saw on TV when I was 13 or so. It was “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando, and it indeed did speak to me and color my development. (I must admit that as a 13 year old girl, Marlon Brando’s hot and sexy looks may have contributed to my admiration.) The movie is about corruption and politics, but what I took from it was how admirable it was to act on what you believed to be right, even if it went against your family and cost you your job, your community, even your life. Because if you didn’t, you would never be a contender. At the time in my own life I was dealing with my own beliefs coming into conflict with my parents’ beliefs, and it was costing me plenty. The movie contributed to my rebelliousness that both fueled me and held me back during much of my twenties.

Good art is so much more than entertainment. What movie or movies furthered (or hindered) your development? If you’ve got a story, please share.

Haiku Friday: Hop

HistoriansToday my haiku is from March 27th of my new book A Haiku Book of Days for Historians, Storytellers, and Other Guardians of Truth, one of a 7-book series. The haiku topic for today is “Hop”:

look at me! we cry
babbling pretty stories while
hopping on one leg

It’s Haiku Friday again. For the past twenty years or so, it has been my practice to write one haiku every day. Every Friday I share a haiku here, about whatever topic I happen to choose. I invite you to write a haiku on this topic too, and share it with me and the readers of this blog. Just write it in the Comments below. The only rules are: 1) your haiku must be about the named topic; 2) you must follow the 5-7-5 syllable format; 3) no obscenities or hate (I will delete those). That’s it.

You can purchase this book on Amazon here.