Are We the Sum Total of Our Life, Theirs, Inside Our Darkest Thoughts?
by Paul Haeder / January 19th, 2022
There is no such thing as an ending. At the conclusion of any work of art, just like at the conclusion of any experience, what we arrive at is a site of interpretation. Every reader commits a creative act at that site. Every reader creates a version of their own artwork within their act of reading. No author can ever succeed at holding a singular ending in place, stable, unwavering. — Lidia Yuknavitch
Telling one’s story is never easy. But it is the staff of life. A story, a memoir, anti-memoir, a story of a people, of a tribe, of a family, of a nation. We can have stories that are collectively anthropological, like Guns Germs and Steel (The Fates of Human Societies — previously titled Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years — a 1997 transdisciplinary non-fiction book by Jared Diamond. In 1998, Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book, and produced by the National Geographic Society, was broadcast on PBS in July 2005)
We can have Debt: The First 5,000 Years ( David Graeber lays out the historical development of the idea of debt, starting from the first recorded debt systems in the Sumer civilization around 3500 BC. In this early form of borrowing and lending, farmers would often become so mired in debt that their children would be forced into debt peonage).
Or, Das Kapital, also known as Capital: A Critique of Political Economy is a foundational theoretical text in materialist philosophy, critique of political economy and politics by Karl Marx. (Marx aimed to reveal the economic patterns underpinning the capitalist mode of production in contrast to classical political economists such as Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. While Marx did not live to publish the planned second and third parts, they were both completed from his notes and published after his death by his colleague Friedrich Engels. Das Kapital is the most cited book in the social sciences published before 1950.)
But we all have read famous and not so famous people’s accounts of their lives, with some autobiographical hitching post, or some life changing event or series of events to define that person as an individual. With that, we hope as writers that we can find audience.
That the reader(s) will infer their own place in the world around what events and what creative expression of those events have done to shape us, the writer.
It is a given almost to a tee that places like Dissident Voice and myriad other places on the Internet or once just in print have facilitated the concept of story, of narrative, of frames. Here, at Dissident Voice, just reading Edward Curtain’s pieces, one can see that narrative for him ties into commentary and philosophical musings in the current societal dynamics.
Story is all we have, really, and memory is what we attempt to reclaim, even though memory is faulty. Forgetting is part of the human condition, or should be, as a way of not going crazy with all the bad and horrible things that have happened to us, that we have perpetrated and that are befalling the world.
We are in our own funhouse, or madhouse. We are the sum total of all events. However, we do not deal with the sum total, that is for sure. I remember the time with John Francis, and I read his books, talked to him on the phone and interviewed him in person as he was brought to Spokane to some of the colleges I was associated with as a speaker.
Planet Walker he called himself, and he decided early on, witnessing an oil spill under the Golden Gate bridge, to stop using fossil fuel transportation and to stop talking, a vow of silence, but that went on for almost two decades. Please, watch below.
Or, if you have bandwidth, listen to some of my old radio shows put up on my personal blog, here — Podcasts, including John Francis.
I’ve been with hundreds of people as a journalist and writer, and many more as a young person who has had the benefit of growing up and traveling around places like BC, Canada, Azores, UK, Ireland, many parts of the USA, before age 13. I took those early days of listening to elders’ stories into my own avocation and beat-up career as a writer. My work may have featured their work on some environmental or social justice issue, or even in in my beat reporting as a newspaper journalist. But the drilling down, and the real conversations were always about “me,” the person in some state of evolution. So many wanted to give life to their previoius lives, to families, to their own trauma and lamentations. They always wanted to frame themselves, and to give me, a writer, some sense of depth to who they are.
Here, some narratives of mine still alive on the worldwide death net:
Real Change News, Seattle.
Only partial list of my magazine beat, “Metro Talk,” Spokane Magazine.
The Pacific Northwest Weekly Inlander. Again, partial list.
I certainly have had great people like Terry Tempest Williams and David Suzuki and Winona LaDuke provide me and millions of their readers collectively their narratives, their own steps in their very multilayered and dynamic lives. Those three are global people, and that adds to the shine of their pedigrees and their own place in our lives as readers and participants of their work, words and sightlines to the future.
Scroll down on my blog here and listen to my interview of Suzuki.
That is it, a future understood by ground truthing the past, and that is gathered through our pasts, “their” pasts, through the connectedness of their own lives, young and now, and with our own collective interconnectivity no matter how disconnected the powers that be want us to live in their own chaos.
Reclaiming the Sacred, Reclaiming the World, Reclaiming Land, Language, History. Reclaiming Ourselves. This is the process of living in the world, living inside the hell hole of Capital, but being part of the world around us, understanding the history of so much dedigration, holding the amazing amounts of pain inflicted by governments, families and societies. Doing that is where story begins, even if it stays as foundational and never ends up in the actual literature of memoir writing.
I am teaching a memoir writing class, upcoming. Here on the Oregon Coast, during a time of the Omega-cron, under the gray clouds of the fear project of Capitalists and the Felons of Profits. It is a community education class, and I get a few shekels for the class of six currently signed up, right now. Below is an Op-Ed just published in the Local Rag, Newport News Times.
I have hitched my own writing to my own life, the journeys, the far off worlds in my mind tied to the walkabouts, the odd journeys I have undertaken to live in the world.
Here, “Bird Stamp,” a short story, but while made up, there is so much memory and memoir-like inflections. It’s won some awards. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Here’s the text from the old newspaper where I worked — Pacific Northwest Weekly Inlander.
I am always collecting people, themes, their words, their lives, and that is through their rag-tag, sometimes, stories. Here at DV, I have had readers take the effort to send me a note, via email, sometimes in snailmail, about something I wrote that triggered their own push to tell, to story-tell. The emails have come from around this continent and the world. Seventeen years thus far.
Here is one that just came in:
Hey Friend! I used to live in Portland. I emailed you once. Thought we might meet up. Never happened. I’ve returned “home.” Frankfort KY. Trying an unlikely reconciliation with my brothers, both ‘trumpetateers.’ Oh well. It’s late. Very late. I’m 77. I’ve not got long, or at least not as long as I had. I haven’t been reading you recently. You lay it on thick, brother. If I may … today, though, I liked the catchy title and didn’t see your name on it. Read it though and thought: shit! this sounds like Paul. And there was your name at the bottom. Pure poetry. I thought hell this should be a pome–poem. You’re a cage rattler. Mine. I owe 1/4 million in student debt; declared bankruptcy 3 times and could another, but I’m so poor the debt collectors can’t seem to touch me (only in america!); a convicted felon (fighting with NYC cops back in the ’70s)–of course if I’d been black I’d be dead or … at least spent my suspended sentences on Rikers; jail bird, nonetheless: a year in military prison for refusing orders to the US war on Vietnam; a sight for sore eyes: a former transwoman–now a non-binary something or other; definetly a member of the 20%.
Ah-ah. The life captured in one paragraph, and if John was here and had the inkling, he’d be one hell of a student writer in the class, someone who could teach me a thing or two.
And, of course, how do we, the Americans, get those people like John above captured in the hearts and minds of us, the citizens, when the media is controlled by six companies, publishing is controlled by even foreign monopolies, and most movies every made now are perverted, broken down things, poor written, and right there at the warped end of things? People with a Hollywood or East Coast bias who see the John’s of the world as, well, useless, never want their real stories. Yet those stories are of us, the 80 percent, and need to be aired, read and discussed. Those elites deeming what is not of storytelling worth. Great survivors who might even not end up as minor characters set on a street, riffraff, homeless, poor and broken.
That is what Studs Terkel fought against, and he went into the lives of the people of his time, of his city, of this country.
That memoir writing is also couched in struggle, overcoming it, and in rare memoirs, not overcoming it. Anti-memoir memoir — fictionalized.
Memoirs are different from autobiographies because they are about specific moments in time instead of offering a look at a chronological period of time. Fictionalized memoirs are different from standard memoirs because of the inclusion of fiction or fictional writing techniques. If the names or places of a memoir are changed to protect those involved, then this would be classified as a fictionalized memoir.
I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.
So writing my anti-memoir meant creating a composition and inventing narrative forms to convey some experiences from my life.
And writing a novel meant creating a composition and inventing narrative forms to convey some experiences—some imagined, some real—from life. The only difference involved the fact that some content doors remained closed in nonfiction, but even that’s a hoax. I opened them anyway.
I’m thrilled the two books can co-exist now. In some ways they complete one another. Fiction multiplies the possibilities of nonfiction. Nonfiction deeply informs the fiction writer’s desires and impulses and limitations. In a way, nonfiction is simply a snapshot of the edges around any given writer’s imagination. — Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water,
My own story collection, fiction, is all about fusing memoir and new journalism with hard hitting fiction. Order it from Cirque Press — keep our press alive. At Cirque Press, you will see 28 books by writers, and many books are poetry collections and novels and some memoirs. All are tributes to finding self.
Building community is so important, especially at this time. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to publish with Cirque. You do so much more than publish books. You support your authors individually and collectively and work hard to create connection. Leah Stenson, author, Life Revisited
The art of remaking-retelling a story
Paul Haeder, Newport News Times, 1/19/22
The last few years on planet Earth have been pregnant ones: People facing existential crises and a world seemingly going to hell in a hand basket. SARS-CoV2 and lockdowns are SELCE’s in all our lives: significant emotional life-changing events!
As a writer on the coast, I’ve found subjects for a column, “Deep Dive – Go Beneath the Surface with Paul Haeder” (Oregon Coast Today) endless. We have deeply interesting people.
That’s my wiring. A young journalist of 17 who “hard-scrabbled” into desert haunts in Arizona and throughout Mexico, discovering people’s narratives — wherever they are in their proverbial walkabouts — highly compelling.
It’s a form of biographical parachuting, and a kind of thievery — entering people’s worlds, getting to know them fast and furiously, and then capturing those facts and memories in creative nonfiction.
I’ve been doing this stealing for almost 50 years. With that eclectic pedigree, I hope to see a few interested writers here in Lincoln County signing up for my community education class, Memoir Writing, at OCCC’s Waldport campus.
The title is just one stone in the cairn of stories I hope we as a class can share.
My first gig teaching the art of creative memoir writing occurred when I was young, 29, with the Center for Lifelong Learning at UT-El Paso. In that community/continuing education class, I helped shepherd amazing life forces of 15 students in the first session:
• a Dachau survivor who ended up in El Paso as a doctor;
• a former colonel in the Army who was in the Bataan Death March;
• a criminal defense attorney who defended rough dudes, including narcotraficantes along the U.S.-Mexico border;
• a female truck driver of over 50 years who saw all of the U.S., Canada and some of Mexico as a long-hauler;
• a young guy who won $1.5 million in a state lottery but ended up opening up two clinics in Juarez to treat the poor;
• a doctor who worked in Guatemala and El Salvador performing cleft palette operations pro bono.
We came together as survivors, and some of the better memoir and anti-memoir pieces flowed from regular folk: a farmer of chilies, a lady who raised seven kids who all went onto college, a construction company owner who learned how to read after he made his first million, at age 50.
For this Tuesday, 2 to 3:30 p.m. class, we will explore how people in this neck of the woods got here at the edge of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. I believe in the Mission Impossible opener as a frame for this laid-back class: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to uncover some of the layers of your spiritual-intellectual-emotional-historical life onion.
I like what Lidia Yyuknavitch says about the process of writing self: “I think our identities — the ones we live in the real world — are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves, necessary fictions, so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these ‘truths’ or ‘facts’ or ‘selves,’ but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called ‘mother’ or ‘wife’ or ‘lover’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘writer.’”
For my premiere long-form column, Deep Dive, I went into the life and aspirations of a great white shark scientist who did open water research of these sharks in waters off South Africa, Dyer Island. Then, the column took off because, a) I was open to any sort of human being living in Lincoln County who had a story to tell. The stories came at me like a tsunami. Not all were of made-for-TV-movie intensity. However, the common theme in these more than 35 pieces is “perseverance under adversity.”
And, b), it takes time to listen in order to uncover. Carol Van Strum is another gem I wrote about — she fought the aerial spraying of herbicides in her Five Rivers’ area and wrote a book, “A Bitter Fog,” to capture this battle.
We will work on each student’s individual projects — some will want book length tell-alls, and others will want a life compressed into a few dozen pages. The best part of this memoir writing course is we will experiment.
There are other ways to skin a cat, so to speak. We can resist the universal desire to uncover a dirty pile of secrets. We can write with a level of frankness, and candidness.
That sort of writing can “welcome talk, but not cover all the personal details.”
The “I” in this form of expression is fluid: we have to discover ways to bring in the reader, and deliver the reader a conversation. Some in the class will want to capture a life SELCE. That’s fine. Others will want to explore the meaning of life through their own eyes.
This includes how we all “get through” by deploying universal truths. For some of us, we need to get that down on paper: an essay, fiction story, an entire book? The goal is the same — writing “self.”
Our mission is to share and wordsmith, so the class gets down to brass tacks — writing ourselves into something others might respond to positively and with a keen sense of their own lives.
For information, go to https://oregoncoast.edu/communityed
Paul K. Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” Cirque Press.