Memoir vs. Daily Prompt

A fellow blogger whom I like VERY much really liked a post I put up a few days ago about my friend, Wes Kennedy. She said I should post such things rather than responding to the often abysmal daily prompt. I’ll admit, I didn’t like that much. There have been — and are — so many people throughout my life telling me their opinion about what I should do that I don’t take it very well, especially regarding a completely elective activity like writing a WordPress blog. I responded — perhaps curtly, can’t say — that the daily prompt had occasionally put me in front of a good story that I did not know to tell until I was “prompted.” Sometimes I dislike the daily prompt, but I figure it’s a completely voluntary activity that I can choose to write or not, as I wish. Most of the time I do write it and sometimes I bitch about it. However, the good stories I wouldn’t have written make it worth my time to persist with it.

Many people write their memoirs. I guess when you get to be a certain age (I’m a certain age) it’s a natural impulse. I don’t want to, actually, and there’s a good reason.

Back in the day I call my writer apprenticeship period (it’s always a writer apprenticeship period) when I was learning to write dialogue (I know that now. I didn’t know that then), I wrote stories from my life. I actually thought they were stories. Once I wrote a story about a few hours I spent with my friend Madhu and his cigarettes. I showed it to him and he said, “This isn’t a story. You’ve just written down our conversation. Don’t you have an imagination?” I was taken back. I’d put effort into that story which was — yes — our conversation, but controlled and structured so it had a plot line. I extrapolated a story from a rather random series of marginally interesting events to create a character — three, actually, now that I think about it.

But it was not imaginative work. After that, I thought a lot about what I as a writer really wanted to do. I didn’t have an answer ready, but I knew that I did have an imagination and that somewhere, somehow, it would be engaged by something. It was engaged in 1997 (finally!) by the little leper church at Gfenn, Switzerland. That kind of writing was what I wanted to do.

Much of my own experience and life will go into anything I write. Sometimes here I write memoir. However, I don’t really want to focus on my own life in in my writing. Moments from my life, perhaps, but as a whole my life is incomprehensible to me in many ways and much of the past is also very painful. For myself, I want there to be a difference between art and therapy. If some of the knowledge and the pain of my family history and my own bad choices go into imaginative work, then great. It should. I would like to be a crucible rather than a confessional.

This is not to say I think memoir is bad or invalid. I think it’s very important. It’s just not where I — right now — want to go.

In case you’re curious, here’s the story my friend Madhu critiqued so mercilessly and helpfully so long ago. It’s part of a memoir/story I ended up writing about the 13 cigarettes I’ve smoked in my life.

Smokes, 1992

Madhu sits on the step outside my office, a lighted cigarette in his right hand, the next one waiting in his left. I laugh, making Madhu look up. “Where the fuck were you? I’ve been waiting almost two minutes!” he shrieks.
He looks like a prince from a Moghul painting, complete with black, wrap-around eyes, a plump physique and small hands.
“You up to two at once?” Hot, cooling streamers curl above his head.
“Let’s get some coffee,” he jams the lit smoke into the side of the concrete step where he sits.
In the outdoor cafe, Madhu continues in this way, puffing a smoke between gulps of hot coffee.  “I called you last night to go to the new Woody Allen movie. I had passes.”
“You didn’t leave a message.”
“Well, if you weren’t home, you couldn’t go. I called at like 5:30.”
“Always leave a message,” I tell him. “If I’m outside, I never hear the phone, but I can hear my voice on the message machine.”
“You were there?”
“Yeah, I was there.”
“How was your weekend?” He takes another long drag on his third cigarette and he’s lighting a new one from the living flames of the old. “Are you going to see that guy again?”
“Mike?”
“Yeah.”
“You’re a masochist.”
“He can’t hurt me.”
“I didn’t know that. I thought he was hurting you. Well, I guess you’re REALLY not interested any more.”
“Touche.”
“Well, you might as well have a cigarette. Sooner or later you’re going to smoke one with me. I feel stupid sitting here chain-smoking all by myself.”
He shakes a Benson/Hedges out of a gold pack. I put it between my lips. “I wish I had lipstick. I find it aesthetically pleasing to leave little red-rimmed butts in my coffee dregs.”
“I hate lipstick on women.”
“Only on women?”
“Yes, but I like it on cigarette butts.”
I fumble around in my purse, hoping to find a tube of lipstick.
“I’m having dinner with him on Friday.”
“Why? You tell me he makes you feel like shit. Why do you want to have dinner with someone who makes you feel like shit?”
“I could stand him up.”
“You won’t do that. You’re not just a gargantuan brain, you know. You have that squishy, sentimental side, that slimy spot of feeling. I got a nickname for you,” he says, inhaling.
“What?”
“Cerberus. You know who that is?”
“Yes. Thanks.”
“It’s the dog who guards the mouth of hell.”
“I know.”
“It means ‘brain’ because that’s all you are.”
“What are you?” I ask him, wondering what orifice of Hades he imagines himself entrusted with.
“A slug. I told you before.”
“No, come on. If I’m Cerberus, you have to be someone.”
“I thought about it. I’m Charon. I bring the dead to you. God you look funny when you smoke.”
“I know. I don’t know what to do. I’m getting ashes all over the place.”
“Wow. Look at HER!” Across the cafeteria is a petite blond wearing a white T-shirt, faded jeans, motorcycle boots, a black leather jacket, carrying a helmet. “Aesthetic appeal!” says Madhu.
Suddenly she’s standing beside our table, looking at Madhu’s cigarettes.
“I’ve been looking all over for a light.” She cocks one hip, and leans back at an interesting angle, one tit higher than the other, challenging and provocative.
“Here. I have a book of matches. You want it?” Madhu digs around in his book bag, all cynicism gone.
“Give it to me, and I’ll be your best friend.” Madhu is flustered. He lifts the book of matches up to her as an offering. She takes it and walks back to her table.
“I always carry matches in case my lighter breaks,” Madhu inhales. “Shit. I shouldn’t have given her those matches! If I hadn’t, she’d come back again for another light. Damn!”
“Smoking IS a habit and habits ARE dependable.” I grin.
“What’s he afraid of?”
Ah. He’s turned the conversation back to me. “Me, I guess. There’s nothing else there.”
“You should be compassionate, Martha. You can’t make butter with a toothpick.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Smoke!”
“I’m smoking as fast as I can.” Warm strange squiggles fly around inside my head, a half-nauseous buzz.
“Hold it in, dammit! I don’t want to see you sitting there like a chimney!”
“I am holding it in dammit!”
“Yeah. All you do is this.” He puffs. “It should be hurting you, right here.”
“It isn’t hurting me.”
“I forgot. Considering the men you spend your time with, how would you know it hurts?”
Fwippht. “What men? There are no men.”
“Blow a ring.”
“I can’t blow a ring.”
“Have another one.”
“No. One’s enough.”
“I have to stop. You know when I had bronchitis? The doctor found a spot on my lung.”
“That’s great. And here you want me to have another one? You’re telling me it should hurt?”
“You know you want it, you fucking hypocrite.” He shakes one loose from the pack.
“Hypocrite, OK, but with spotless lungs.”
“But you should worry about your soul, not your body.”
I wave the smokes away. He lights another one with his “real” lighter (Zippo!). He sucks the first “hit” deep inside, then closes his eyes. A motorcycle roars off in the distance.

21 thoughts on “Memoir vs. Daily Prompt

  1. Being able to recall dialog and use it creatively — yes, creatively — is a gift. Whoever told you otherwise doesn’t know what he is talking about. VERY few writers — great writers — can write dialog that’s sounds real, has the rhythm and cadence of natural speech.

    Personally, I think it’s brilliant. But hey, what do I know, right?

    • I like it a lot — but it is not imaginative writing. That doesn’t invalidate it. Madhu just brought up something I hadn’t thought of. It made me ask a lot of questions about my goals as a writer — there’s the thing “write what you know” but what do we know? I’ve had people criticize me because, though I am a woman, I have written from the perspective of a man about men. Why not? Men have been doing the opposite (convincingly and well) for years. I thought a lot about Dickens who, I think, used his imagination on his world so very well. It’s not for me a matter of which is better, but of what I want to do.

      • Words like “creative” and “imaginative” are so subjective. I have never actually thought about writing in those terms, neither as a writer or as a reader. Good writing keeps me interested. Engages me. Makes me think or takes me to places I would not otherwise go. Is it creative and/or imaginative? Do I care? I don’t. I care whether I enjoy it. I’d make a lousy critic.

  2. I’m not writing this as a reader, but as a writer. As a reader — like you — I like what I like. 🙂 I suppose that’s also true of me as a writer; I guess that’s my whole point.

    • That’s funny. I don’t think he was wrong but I do think it was more than a conversation. 🙂 Madhu was kind of crabby, yes. I was grateful for his comment because it made me think beyond where I was thinking.

  3. Bugger me. Did I say that ? – I’m a dickhead. I never MEAN to say what someone should or shouldn’t do: I mean only to say what I LIKE. And the fact that I like something doesn’t mean for a moment that I expect it. Sighh … I can only express honest opinion, it’s true – meaning that I will never say something is good if I don’t think it is … and also that I will say things that far nicer people never would … But I promise faithfully that I do not intend to be handing down directives, TRULY ! :-\

    • You could have stayed anonymous… 😉 Don’t worry about it. For what it’s worth, I’m about as stable right now as a CD on its edge. AND I’m surrounded by people who think that because I entered THEIR lives RECENTLY from California that I don’t know what winter is AND I just fell off the turnip truck. I’ve also learned that when you do something other people can’t imagine themselves doing, they think you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s very strange this process I’m involved in. I’m a little edgy…

      • Well … just remember that I admire your work enormously, in spite of its being stuck so often to mindless prompts (because their being mindless has no effect on the result). And I also admire your courage, which seems boundless.
        How are the 12 legs ?

      • They are amazing. Dusty and Mindy now walk with me off leash. What this means is that in only two weeks they went from free-running dogs in a big yard, to being dogs walked on a leash, to being dogs who stay with their person off leash. I’m very proud of them. Lily, the elderly deaf and blind one is in Heaven. As a Siberian, she loves to hunt and in the field behind the cabin there are more smells than I want to know about. I think today we happened on some old bear scat. It’s a small field, but that’s still likely. The only down side to the 12 legs is that it’s impossible to sight-see with a small car filled with dogs… I am beginning to take one or the other with me and leaving two at home. A guy asked me out and since no one has done that in a decade I was really flustered and said yes but I don’t want to go. I think I communicated that after all, but I made him feel bad. He grows gladiolas; he has a gladiola farm, which I think is very cool, but I just don’t want to go out with anyone. The thought makes me shudder.

      • Because you’ve been living off your own resources for a good while. But you might need to refresh them, don’t you think ? 🙂

      • I’m not sure. I don’t think I was ever meant to live in a long-term permanent relationship and that’s what most people think is normal. And, most people see a solitary woman and think “she must be lonely” but I’m not. At any rate, this is not the time.:-)

      • No-one knows your own mind like you do.
        Besides, I’ve lived a completely solitary life for the last 9 years. But then, I’m MUCH older …[grin]

  4. We inevitably show bits of ourselves in whatever we write, but I’m with you – i’m not laying my soul bare and excavating my sorry life (chunks of which I’d rather lose in the mists of time) on a public forum. Or anywhere else, come to that. It would require living it again, and once is enough.
    And regarding the gladioli man – I’d shudder too.

    • There are only a couple of men (I know) who wouldn’t make me shudder. I suppose there are plenty of men I don’t know — but I’m not looking. 🙂

  5. Regarding the gladiola man, that is interesting considering the coyotes and my comment about it. I see more signs but it doesn’t mean that it’s him or that you should necessarily date. Aside from my earlier comment, I would suggest (friendly advice here, I too am not looking and do things on my own terms so I definitely understand your perspective) that you explain to Mr. Gladiola how you feel – what you just shared in this post. I know that there are good men out there, maybe two or three ( 😉 ), and I believe that at some point I might even meet one who’s single. I’m not holding my breath or even looking but it is possible that at some time in the future, I might. Being an independent woman has its perks but so do partnerships of all types, including friendship. I would hate for you to throw away a potential friend simply because you don’t want to date right now, that’s all that I am saying about that. If you do decide to share that with him, his reaction will tell you a lot about his potential as a friend too. It’s possible to have straight male friendso, although you will have people who never believe it, regardless of what you tell them.

    Regarding your writing: you do it all and rather well, in my unsophisticated opinion. Seriously. The first post I read was a short story prompt response. It was so good that I began following you, despite the fact that I normally don’t read “creative writing” blogs. I think the next post was more autobiographical and I was disappointed initially because you weren’t writing what I expected you to write but I read it anyway. And I liked it. I’ve been reading ever since, albeit not every day, but I still find that if I’m going to read anyone’s blog, it will be yours. Write whatever you like; that’s what blogs are for. Just try not to take anything that we leave as commentary as a directive. We’re here more as long distance friends who’ve never really met, encouraging and wishing you well along your journey.
    Enjoy the ride! 🙂

  6. “For myself, I want there to be a difference between art and therapy.”

    I especially appreciate that point. I started to blog, thinking of it as therapy or a place to vent. But really, I’d rather do art than therapy.

    • Not to criticize others who have a different motive than I have and probably different needs, if I wanted to vent my personal things I would not do that on a public blog.

      In fact, for years, I kept private and semi-private blogs on blogger. They were the same as journals I used to keep in books (which I didn’t have the guts to throw out when I moved but should have). They were extraordinarily helpful to me in sorting out stuff in my head and my life because they were private (or nearly so; maybe I had two or three readers — whom I had invited).

      For many people art is therapy (strange but true). And while I’m not going to say that there isn’t value in art therapy, I’m not working at this for my own personal therapy. I see it very differently even if there is some personal therapeutic value to me as a by product. But, I’m just speaking for myself. 🙂

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