Discovering how to tell the story

Author Dani Shapiro said something in Monday’s interview that struck a chord with me:

The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story.

If she’d told me this before I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t have believed her. Memoir is largely about recounting what happened during a life span. In my case, my travel memoir recounts my experiences over a six-month period. How many ways are there to write about what happened during those six months?

But as I moved forward with this project, the more I wrote and revised, I watched my book turn into something I didn’t expect. The premise — a woman traveling solo through Africa — hasn’t changed; it’s still what I envisioned from the beginning. But where it begins, how it ends and the parts I decided to leave out — most of that was unexpected. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know how I would write the story. I had to get it down on paper to see where it took me.

I remember walking in the woods with a writer named Andrew during my residency at Hambidge. He told me that he had sat in front of his computer the night before to rewrite a chapter, and his character did something he didn’t expect. The surprise had something to do with death — the character had died one way in the first few drafts, and then, suddenly, it seemed he wanted to die differently.

This was all fine and dandy, but Andrew was writing fiction. That will never happen to me, I thought. I’m writing memoir. I always know where the story’s going.

But the next morning — the very next morning — it happened. I typed on my keyboard, trying to figure out how my second chapter would begin, and out spewed a scene that I’d never considered including in my book. It’s about my sister and I, looking at a map of Africa in her apartment, the first time I told her exactly where I planned to go. “What if you get malaria again?” she asked, reminding me of my bout with the illness during my first trip to Cameroon.

That scene works. It still opens Chapter Two. (Although I can’t promise an editor won’t nix it along the way.) And I had no idea it would be part of my manuscript.

Other things reveal themselves through memoir, too — things that are bigger and more important than a scene. While writing this book, I’ve made connections, had realizations and drawn conclusions about my trip, the people I met and myself, ideas I never would have come up with had I not taken the time to reflect with purpose.

Writing a memoir is a journey of self-discovery. You may already know what happened, but in discovering how to tell the story, you’ll also discover pieces of yourself.

What have you discovered through your writing?

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Update on Cooper, the Hambidge dog

Had I waited a bit longer to name Cooper, I might have called him Shadow.

This dog has been glued to my hip since the first day I fed him outside my studio at The Hambidge Center. Now that he’s living with me in upstate New York, he’s on my heels whenever I get up from the chair in my home office. And I mean every time I get up. Literally.

Cooper

Cooper running in his new backyard.

You all offered so much positive feedback when I wrote about how I had adopted Cooper, a stray dog, during my writer’s residency in Georgia, that I figured I should give you an update. My big red dog is adjusting fine. He responds now to his new name. And he gets cuter by the day.

He has his issues, of course, like most rescued dogs. His new vet says he won’t let me out of his sight because he’s coping with a lot of changes, and I’m the only thing he can count on. And who knows what he went through before I adopted him.

The vet in Georgia had estimated Cooper’s age at seven to nine years, but our Albany vet put him between ten and eleven. He has a couple of health problems related to age, including arthritis in his back legs and a tumor on his testicle. Cooper was never fixed as a young pup, so you can guess what fun lies in store for him during the next few months! The vet wants to wait until he’s adjusted to his new environment to go ahead with the procedure, but says it should take care of the tumor.

Here’s my guess on Cooper’s past: He was an outdoor dog, maybe a farm dog, not often on a leash. He certainly didn’t spend much time inside a house. His favorite toy is a stick — nothin’ fancy. He’s afraid of our stairs, and refuses to climb them, which means I’ve been sleeping downstairs with him in our guest bedroom. He rarely barks, but when he does, it’s usually at men, so I’m thinking he had a mean man in his life somewhere along the line. (His bark is so coarse he sounds like a seal.) He also barks at trucks, so maybe he was dumped out of one? He’s housebroken (thank goodness), has a fabulous personality, and — this is unusual for a golden —  doesn’t shed.

As my dad said recently, isn’t it amazing that a dog who probably was treated poorly — he was dumped, after all — could still be so sweet?

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A Hambidge Love Story

I wrote a lot at Hambidge, an artist’s residency in Georgia. I made friends. I reflected on where to go from here. But something else happened that I haven’t yet told you about: I fell in love.

With a dog.

Hambidge puppy.

Hambidge puppy.

I first noticed him, raggedy, soaked and trotting by my studio, during the rains that hit Georgia starting my third week there. The Hambidge Center gets a lot of strays, Debbie, the office manager, told me. Every few days, I’d see the big red dog go by. Sometimes he’d stop near the trees in front of my studio and take a nap. One morning, I saw Ron, the maintenance guy, checking him for a collar. He didn’t have one.

“He’s been wandering around here for days,” I said. “Mind if I feed him? That means he might stick around.”

“Yeah, feed the poor guy,” Ron said. “His ribs are sticking out.”

Let me interject here with my pet history. My family always had a big dog when I was growing up — first a mutt, then a golden retriever. But I’ve been adamantly opposed to having a dog as an adult, at least until I have a family. I don’t want the responsibility. I want to go to happy hour after work, not home to feed the dog.

Back to the stray. He looked like a golden. He was friendly, like he’d been a pet. He inhaled the dog food I bought for him at Piggly Wiggly’s (behind a guy in fatigues who purchased smoked foul). And after he ate, probably the first time he’d had a real meal in at least a week, he lay there for the rest of the afternoon with his paws around his bowl.

Chillin' under a Hambidge studio.

Chillin' under a Hambidge studio.

Then the dog starts following me around. To dinner, waiting outside the Rock House while we ate, then following me home. Sleeping outside my studio. One morning, I ran to the gristmill, a mile and a half down the road, and when I turned around to jog back, I found him a few yards behind me, breathing hard, his tongue hanging halfway to the ground.

That was when I started thinking about taking him home. Continue reading

Goodbye, Hambidge (and a progress report)

A lot has happened since I left upstate New York in late August. I’m several chapters away from completing a draft of my manuscript! I’ve got a new working title (although I’m still not satisfied with it). I’ve read through all seven of my travel journals. And I’ve rewritten my proposal.

Trail to my Hambidge studio. The seasons changed while I was here!

Trail to my Hambidge studio. I arrived here during summer, and now it's fall!

But more on all that in future posts. My experience at The Hambidge Center has been about more than what I’ve produced. As another artist said, it’s not necessarily what you do while you’re here; it’s your state of mind.

When I left for Hambidge, I felt anxious about writing this book. I was eager to finish it, so I could get a job, earn some money and move out of my parent’s house. Even though I was doing something I always wanted to do — write a book — I felt stagnant in a lot of ways, largely because after ten years of living on my own, I didn’t have my own place. That’s a hard transition.

But being at Hambidge has allowed me to enjoying the process of writing. Surrounded by nature, I’ve reflected not only on my work, but on my life. For the first time, I feel like I could make a lifestyle out of this type of writing.

I still think about how I’m going to make money when I get home, whether off this book or through some another job. That’s probably natural; we all need money to survive. But after five weeks here, I feel differently about trying to finish this book so I can get a job. Maybe, I’ve realized, I had it all backwards — maybe that job, whatever it is, is more of a stepping stone, a way to make money so I can write my next book. What I’m saying here is that my priorities have changed. I do need to make money. But my next priority, I think, is another book. (And yes, I have one in mind.)

Another writer might not be have been moved by Hambidge’s rustic setting. An artist’s experience might have been ruined when she ran into a bear on the way to her studio, like the potter here did last week. But for me, there was something about being surrounded by nature, the group of people I was placed here with and the timing, that allowed Hambidge to have an effect on me. I’m not sure I even know fully what that effect is yet. Time will tell.

I do know that I want to come back. I encourage you, too, to apply to Hambidge; the next deadline is January 15. Or check out a post I wrote about how to find and apply to a residency that’s right for you.

Now I’m off. I’ve got a road trip to New York ahead of me.

Becoming part of Hambidge’s history

One of the coolest parts of being at The Hambidge Center is learning about its history. Mary Hambidge (fascinating character) moved to these 600 acres in 1934 with a vision: to establish a place where artists could reflect, create and return to a way of living that was sustainable, good for the land and for us.

I feel that vision whenever I walk through the woods here, and not just because I often come upon stone ruins, old spring houses and other remnants of past life. I can think so clearly when I walk these trails alone. That’s what Mary wanted.

Cutting board in Son's Studio

Cutting board in Son's Studio

But my five weeks here are almost over. So I’ve taken part in a Hambidge tradition, one that allows me to become part of The Center’s history. On the mantle in my studio are several cutting boards, each covered with the names of creative thinkers and artists who’ve spent time here. Each of Hambidge’s cottages has them. I’ve scoured the ones here in Son’s Studio, reading the names and the dates, which go back only as far as 1988.

One guy wrote “first novel” next to his entry. A sculptor noted, “I almost burned the place down.” But most residents just write what they are, what they worked on while they were here. Poet. Visual artist. Novelista. Photographer. Painter. Writer.

What I love about this place is you can be whoever you want to be, create whatever you want to create.

Under my name, I think I’ll write “journalist.” After five weeks here, my identity has blurred – got a little “artist” and “writer” in me now. But journalism is still at my core.

Wonder what I’ll call myself next time I come to Hambidge.

Mantle above the fireplace in Son's Studio at Hambidge

Mantle above the fireplace in Son's Studio at Hambidge

Photos from Hambidge’s creative residency program

I’m still working on my book at The Hambidge Center. Only nine more days left of my residency! You requested more photos, so I’m sharing them today.

Rabun Gap, home of Hambidge, in the north Georgia mountains

Rabun Gap, home of Hambidge, in the north Georgia mountains.

Taking a break to play with clay.

Artists take a break to play with clay.

Visit to Hambidge's grist mill

Visit to Hambidge's grist mill. Grits, anyone?

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Artist’s Residency, Week Three

I expected to write a lot at this residency. I’ve already had several breakthroughs on that front, including producing a new first chapter that I shared with the other artists here. They say it works. I think so, too.

What I didn’t expect from this experience — because I knew it would include many hours of alone time — was to meet such fascinating people. In three short weeks, they’ve affected how I think about my writing, how I see my work, and the importance of combining the two in a way that makes me happy.

Porch at the Hambidge Rock House, where we eat dinner.

Porch at the Hambidge Rock House, where we eat dinner.

I’m going to try to tell you about a few of them without invading their privacy, since Hambidge feels like one of those what-happens-here-stays-here kind of places.

One of my favorites is a writer from San Francisco, a 58-year-old, queer, Jewish, skinny guy with a mustache who I probably would not have picked from a line-up as someone I’d bond with. But he is a fabulous storyteller. The two of us explored a few of Hambidge’s trails a few days ago, and I knew that every time this man opened his mouth he would have something interesting to share about his early career as a glass-blower or years living in Jerusalem or time working in the publishing industry. It wasn’t until we had talked like this for a week and a half that another artist, during dinner, happened to ask him how many books he’s published. He answered modestly, “Umm, eight or nine. Yeah, I believe this will be my ninth.”

When I told this guy about my idea for my next book (I’m not ready yet to share the idea here), he literally stopped in his tracks. “You should be working on that now,” he said. That was the kind of support, the kind of fire I needed to get started on the project.

Then there’s a music composer from Tennessee who must study botany in his spare time. When we go hiking on the weekends, he identifies every flower and plant on the path.

“When I look out into this beautiful green scene,” I admitted to him last Sunday, as we walked to a trickle of a waterfall, “all I see are weeds.”

Last night after dinner, a writer from Montana (who seems to spend more time here writing awesome blue-grass music than her literary nonfiction piece) pulled out her guitar and sang for us some of her music. Then she strummed a few tunes we knew so we could all sing along. The composer slash botanist got a drum-beat going on a piece of Tupperware, and the Jewish storyteller made a racket on a fan with a fork. The rest of us played bowls from the kitchen.

And somehow, it made me a better writer this morning.