On Writing Memoir, Part 2, “Running Blind”

This is the second in my series on writing memoir. Things have changed radically in the last week because of COVID-19. . I considered suspending any work on this blog for the duration of this crisis, but I decided to carry on—not because I don’t think people already have enough to occupy their lives, but because I think it’s important to proceed as normally as possible as events unfold. For me, maintaining my normal means continuing my teaching by distance for the two universities I work for. Students need to continue their studies, and they need as much support as possible as they do so. It means reading and writing, walking and taking care of my home, all while I support my own family through this crisis.
The piece I’m sharing today is as much about family as anything else. Last week, I posted a piece about my father. This week, my mother has a part. I could not have made it through the very difficult time of adjusting to my blindness without the support of my parents. My mom did everything she could. I was often confused and angry after the accident, but I was also just a kid, trying to figure out my new reality.
“Running Blind” first appeared in The Real Story in 2018. In some ways, it’s a piece about me being angry and trying to understand the changes in my life. It’s also about my mother trying to help, or at least trying to give me a way to burn off some of that anger.
I ran for years and years. I still love to run, especially early morning in spring and fall. My knees don’t like it as much anymore, so I’m more content these days to simply walk and walk, reading my books and enjoying the outdoors.

On Writing Memoir, A Series

The impulse behind writing memoir is sometimes hard to understand. Memoir makes public that which is often painfully private. Sometimes the impulse is to create a narrative that tells a particular story or part of a story; sometimes it’s the desire to gain control of one’s own narrative while making that story available to the world.
In 2019, I taught a class in Literary Nonfiction that examined a range of texts, many of which were memoir. We read excerpts from The Diaries of Susanna Moodie and the first two chapters of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. This is the C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame. His memoir is subtitled “A Spiritual Biography,” which gives the book a very particular direction. However, some of Lewis’s friends and colleagues were so mystified by the book they called it “Surprised by Jack.” The book that most interested students was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed is a fine writer and speaker, and she writes openly and directly about her experiences, which creates a particular kind of vulnerability many of my students found arresting.
I’ve been writing memoir for a few years now, and I think the desire to write my own story began with a degree of vanity. Perhaps vanity is too strong, but it certainly began with the desire to talk about myself. At some point in my thirties I wrote a piece on losing my sight in a car accident at the age of eleven. I wrote that piece because I wanted to be published. I wrote it because I wanted to share the story—in a self-centred sort of way—but I hadn’t yet fully realized how much this incident had altered my life. I submitted the piece for a segment on CBC Radio—they didn’t pick it up. I honestly think it was too soon, anyway. But I kept returning to that accident over the years, each time recasting it so I could try and understand it in a different way.
For me, writing memoir forces me into a position of an observer in relation to myself as a character. It isn’t always about facts, but it is about confronting the events of my life with enough honesty and vulnerability to do justice to the narrative. In that way, I’m writing about myself, while that self becomes a character with whose life I happen to be intimately familiar. It can be an exhausting exercise.
I want to share several pieces over the next few weeks, some of which have already appeared on this blog. However, I think they are worth returning to, if for no other reason than to show them as part of a series.
The first piece is called “On Smoking,” originally published by Hippocampus Magazine in 2017. This piece had several iterations over a number of ears. It’s about my dad more than it’s about the accident that took my sight. But you can find it there—the accident—forming a divide in my experience. My dad died in 2005, but his birthday was March 13, a fact he always reminded us of when feeling particularly unlucky and sorry for himself. But this seems like a good place to begin—with my dad, because of his birthday, and because even fifteen years on from his death I can still hear his voice in my head, offering criticism and giving advice.

World Mental Health Day, Something to Write Home About

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This is a day to acknowledge and raise awareness of mental health issues both in the community and around the world.
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When I was in my late twenties, I was at a family dinner with my kids. I was helping my cousin to wash up after dinner, and we were talking about depression. She told me about her experience of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), something of which I hadn’t heard. I was intrigued but also a little disturbed. The feelings she described were feelings I’d had for years—except during the summer months and not the winter.
That was a revelatory moment for me. I was able to understand my experience of feeling apathetic, sorrowful, and generally flat during the summers. I had been experiencing depression for years and hadn’t known it. Maybe I did understand but lacked the means of doing anything about it, or even the wish to.
I thought about it hard after that evening. I came to the conclusion that the accident that had taken my sight in 1974 was a kind of psychological vortex on my mental landscape that intensified during the summer. Summers didn’t become immediately easier, but I learned, with each successive year, new ways to manage myself from the beginning of May until the end of August.
***
For this year’s World Mental Health Day, I encourage you to acknowledge and even commit to exploring issues of mental health in your life. Most everyone has experience of such issues, and the intention to explore them—with family, friends, or a professional—only results in a healthier mind and body and a more wholesome life.

Here are some links to places where I’ve written about mental health issues on OfOtherWorlds: from fiction and Mental health, to PTSD, to memoir.
Finally, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago as a way to try and describe my state of mind during bouts of depression. The piece is called, “Depression in 4D.” Enjoy!

Depression in 4D

Traversing myself is perilous. I walk the lines of well-worn neuropathways, carved through my psyche like lightning strikes through a forest. I step carefully, aware my foot might not remain secure—one misstep and I’m sliding sideways into another reality.
Slipping—falling. I’m dropping into a hole in a lunar landscape—not visible in this airless, barren world. Now trapped—in a foxhole blasted into this moonscape, where I turn and turn, unable to escape, while words I cannot utter drop singly from my mouth to congeal in the asteroidal dust at my feet. I will drown here, in this sinkhole of words and memories.
Time doesn’t pass. It remains fixed, fixed in the past. It’s a shard, an icicle of experience, reaching down and down, suspended from the air on an invisible hook with me frozen at its heart. I am both past and present—observing and suspended. For a heartbeat I hang—or is it a year and a day.
The world swims into focus with a silent roar, and I am confronted with the painful clarity of a grass blade, a single dagger of green that pierces my sight. It rises like a beanstalk, as I shrink to watch it speared the sky. And I am in an alien world, at the roots of a vegetable monstrosity, the danger for me lying in the carapaced and many-legged creatures I can hear crawling beneath this canopy, stalking with armoured relentlessness through the brome. One move, one step could take me away, but my feet remain fixed. Perhaps I could escape by climbing this beanstalk, but I know what waits for me in the misty heights is a giant who wants to spread my jellied flesh over toast and grind my crackling bones into bread.

New Fiction, This Time a Folktale

I have a story out this month. This one is a fairy tale, “The Bronze Egg.” I’ve written fractured fairy tales, and what I call apocalyptic fairy tales. But this one is an honest to goodness folktale—published this month in a collection of original fairy tales called Fantasia Fairy Tales. You can find the eBook here.

When my kids were small, we told stories at bedtime. I tried getting print-braille books for us to read from the CNIB library, which I did, but they came so infrequently that I needed to find another way to satisfy my children’s appetite for stories. I found an old anthology of stories from my first children’s literature course. I then found books of fairy tales and retold them to my kids. When I ran out of stories I had learned, I made them up; and when I was too tired to make them up, I cobbled them together out of anything and everything I’d ever read.
My interest in fairy tales has never waned. They appear in my courses, and I talk about them with students. I continue to write them, and I love to read them.
They are, even now, a guide to living—at least metaphorically:

1. Don’t wander off the path.
2. Avoid strangers who might want to eat or enslave you.
3. Be weary of seemingly helpless old people who want to lock you in a cage or a cupboard.
4. Beware of those close to you who suffer excessive jealousy.
5. and always—always always—be kind to animals.

Oceans on My Mind

I’m thinking about oceans this week. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited many bodies of water, and I always have a particular feeling near the water, as though my cells are responding to the pull of the tide and the rotation of the moon.

I’ve clambered with my youngest daughter over the rocks of a fallen tower on a beach near St. Andrews, Scotland. Before us, the North Sea pounds and foams, and on the far edge of the horizon, my daughter points to the coast of Norway. I think about Norway, long ago, about the Vikings who came across that sea in their long boats to terrorize Britain and Europe.
I’ve visited Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point of North America, and stood and listened to the relentless pounding of the surf. John Cabot visited here as well—sailing from Bristol in 1497. They say he circled the island and may have made landfall on southern Labrador.
I’ve driven with my eldest daughter along the southeast coast of Australia, where the Tasman Sea becomes the Southern Ocean. We stop the car and climb down to the beach, and I stand and imagine the expanse of water that lies between me and the southern icecap.
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My parents took us as a family to visit the west coast when we were kids. This was one of the biggest trips we did in those days—camping all the way, save for one night in a motel because of pouring rain. We made it out to Vancouver Island and up to Rathtrevor Beach. Because the bay was shallow, I learned about the tide, and watched with fascination as the water washed nearer and nearer in the afternoon. I would come down to the beach in the morning, stopping to look at the flotsam left by the withdrawing tide—driftwood, trailing seaweed, and broken shells. To my eight-year-old eye, the beach simply looked uncovered, as though someone had just drawn back the water like a blanket.
But it was at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park, where the Pacific Ocean runs smack into the island, that I had my first sight of the real ocean. At first I thought it terrifying and chaotic. It was vast and moving and overwhelmed my child’s brain. But as I got used to the beach in all its parts, I began to accept it, if not understand it. We played along the beach, gathering debris to build sandcastles near the water. we would suddenly abandon that work to run into the shocking water, where we felt the huge draw and wash of the waves. Hot sun, wind, and saltwater—it all gathers into that first memory of the ocean, which I find again every time I visit the water.

The Descent of the English Language

Last week, my first-year students looked at George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” In his essay, Orwell argues that the English language is in general decline. Politics, economics, and general usage are, according to Orwell, lowering the quality of the language. He made this argument in 1946.
Orwell writes: “It [the English language[ becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Are we any better off today?
While I agree with Orwell’s argument about this form of laziness, I also think the language has and continues to adapt and change. Politics and economics still have their effects, but so does technology, social media, and climate change. A recent article in The Walrus by Gretchen McCulloch offers a fascinating look at the way the language adapts.
I can make excuses for the English language and how people use it, but I will always come back to Orwell’s six rules of usage:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Apply these rules to anything you write, and it will always get better.