Monday, February 01, 2010

Finding Voice and Grace

Susan J. Tweit, author of twelve books that “explore the interrelationships that form what Aldo Leopold called the ‘community of the land’” is with us today. Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Audubon and Popular Mechanics to High Country News and the Los Angeles Times - and has been heard on the Martha Stewart Living Radio Network. Her latest book is Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, from University of Texas Press. Susan says her book is about “what nature, Quakerism, and chronic illness taught me about love and life.”

Welcome, Susan!

Difficult Memories: Finding Voice and Grace in the "Hard Stuff"

How do we handle the hard stuff in our life stories? How do we write about the memories that are controversial, painful, or just no fun to remember? We'll practice writing techniques that strengthen our voices and reveal the grace and wisdom to be found even in hard times.

That's the description of "Difficult Memories," the workshop I'll be teaching at Story Circle Network's Stories From the Heart V Conference, in Austin, Texas, February 5 - 7, 2010.

When I proposed the workshop last spring, I was thinking about my process in writing my memoir, Walking Nature Home, and my struggle to find the wisdom in the painful and outright hard parts of my own story. When I wrote the first few drafts of that book, I was still angry and hurt by some of my experiences. Writing out my feelings was therapeutic, but didn't result in particularly good memoir.

In fact, some of the initial drafts are so bad that re-reading them is more than embarrassing. It took me decades--and many rewrites--before I learned to chip away at the narrative to find the gift of gold in the hard stuff, before I found the grace to tell my story in a way that was respectful, honest, and compelling. When I finally did, reading the story was exciting instead of painful. It finally felt right--and I felt good about writing it.

Here's an example of finding voice and grace in the hard stuff, from the first chapter of Walking Nature Home:
That Labor Day weekend, we went backpacking with friends and an early fall snowstorm moved in. All I remember from those three days is a steady rain of wet, white flakes falling silently, muffling forest and lake and rock, pressing down on the roof of our small tent until I felt like I would suffocate. On the long drive out, even the cab of our pickup truck seemed to have shrunk. I looked over at Kent and said,

“I need space. I think we should separate.”

His jaw clenched hard, but he didn’t turn his eyes from the gravel road. “You’ll be dead first.”

I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor.
Those four paragraphs paint a vivid picture of the disintegration of my first marriage, conveying the salient points without portraying every gory detail. The last line shows how dramatic paring events down to their essence can be: "I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor."

There's obviously a lot more I could have said. That chapter did in fact originally include much more material, all of it vivid and dramatic in its own right.

Over time as I worked on the memoir though, I realized that this particular part of the story had come to "weigh" so much that it disturbed the overall balance. Writing out the intimate details of the disintegration of my first marriage may have helped me come to peace with my decisions, but it distracted from the larger point, a love story on several levels: me learning to love myself, the loving bond I found with my second husband, Richard, and the love of nature, the community of species with whom we share this planet, that sustained me through those years and still does.

As I re-visited the painful story of my first marriage, my ability to tell the story well grew as I grew as a person. I can't say which came first: my ability to understand myself or my ability to write the hard stuff with clarity and grace. But I know that we grew together, that memoir and me.

Now I need every bit of that clarity and grace as my beloved husband, Richard, and I walk hand in hand through the "hard stuff" of his brain cancer. I know my practice in learning to tell the sometimes painful and traumatic stories that make up Walking Nature Home [link] is helping me keep my balance today, both in writing and life. Wrestling with difficult memories not only taught me how to write a story that novelist Sandra Dallas hailed in a recent review as "a moving story... filled with hope and joy," it also taught me how to make a hopeful, joyous life--no matter what comes.

Thank you, Susan!

Susan J. Tweit has taught workshops at colleges, universities, and writing festivals from University of California-Riverside and Miami University of Ohio to Wofford College in South Carolina, as well as online. She also coaches writers, reviews manuscripts for university presses, and contributes to "The Perch," the blog of Audubon magazine, and Story Circle Network's "HerStories" as well as her own blog, “Walking Nature Home.” As busy as she is, she’ll pop in over the day to answer questions you might have for her.
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  1. Susan, Walking Nature Home sounds like a great memoir.

    You and your husband will be in my thoughts. Your ability to make a hopeful and joyous life can help you both through the hard stuff cancer brings.

  2. What an interesting story and author. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think it's wonderful that you're able to make a great story out of your pain, and that telling the story has helped you keep balance.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. I truly believe that we have reached the point where technology has become one with our society, and I am 99% certain that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

    I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as the price of memory decreases, the possibility of copying our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's a fantasy that I daydream about all the time.

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]R4i SDHC[/url] DS NetServ)

  5. I guess a lot has to do with eliminating the melodramatic and just focuing on dramatic?

  6. Really enjoyed learning about Susan and what she does. Thanks, Helen, and Susan. And any workshop that coaches with ...

    "practice writing techniques that strengthen our voices and reveal the grace and wisdom to be found even in hard times."

    ... has got to be a very valuable experience.

    Marvin D Wilson

  7. Susan, for me, you've hit upon the beauty and art of memoir, to find the grace and wisdom, even in hard times. It's easy to factually put down the words of an event, an experience, to lay blame or express anger. But to dig deep, to toss away that surface soil and get at the heart of the matter is a true gift, for the reader and the writer both. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Very inspiring story. Susan, you make one stop and reflect that somewhere in all the sadness and pain we feel, there is some good. We just have to shift through to find it. That's is a positive outlook we all need.

    Helen, thanks for introducing me to another great author and a wonderful book that I've added to my wish list.

  9. A wonderful post. Authors often struggle with how to tell their story.

  10. Don't think I could write a memoir - my life's been pretty dull!

  11. I was so looking forward to meeting Susan at the conference (and you, too, Helen). But with mother-in-law in hospice, I would have had to cancel anyway.
    I'd had Susan's memoir on my "to buy" list for awhile. Now it's a must.

  12. Great example of how less is more. I would like to be able to attend that workshop as it sounds like it would be so helpful - maybe one of these days I'll have the opportunity.

    My thoughts are with you and your husband, Susan.

  13. This is very helpful. Thank you Susan. Grace is the note we all wish to sing, the path we all want to walk. Sounds like you've hit that note and walk that path.

  14. I think I have enough to write a memoir, but won't. Too much to bring it all back to the surface.

  15. What a great lesson in paring down the narrative to what is only needed. Thanks so much, Susan,a nd I agree about finding the "grace" in the midst of difficulty. When I was working as a chaplain, I encouraged people suffering with illness or terminal disease, to try to find the grace, otherwise they would spend their days and weeks and months in emotional misery. We need to acknowledge that misery, but then we need to move on.

    Helen, if you get a chance, check out my blog today for something special.

  16. I liked that example from your book; first painting out the background feelings, then giving the brutal action part of it as a punch line at the end. Very good

  17. Thanks Susan for such a wonderful post.

  18. Thank you, Susan and Helen.

    I love the crispness, intensity, and pain in this: I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counsellor. Short three word sentences build tension. I haven't mastered that yet.

    Love and healing to you and your husband, Simon.

  19. Helen,

    Thank you for inviting me to the community of your blog! My apologies for not dropping in on Monday. I forgot to send myself a reminder note, and in the craziness of a week on the road, it simply slipped my mind. I'm so sorry.

  20. Jenn and Lori, Thank you. I loved writing Walking Nature Home. As one reviewer said, "it's a joyous story."

    Elizabeth, Thank you for your congratulations. It's funny, I don't really think of myself as making a story out of my pain because I don't think of my life as painful. Walking Nature Home is a love story on many levels: love of my husband and family, love of nature, and love of life itself. Perhaps that sounds sappy, but it's certainly touched a lot of readers, and that's why I write.

  21. Diane, That's it exactly! Eliminating the melodramatic helps us find what we really have to say. And drama is "heavy" in writing, so finding a way to pare it down to the essentials is often more powerful than going at it full voice as it were!

    Marvin, Thanks for that compliment. I take a lot of satisfaction and, yup, joy from helping writers find their voices and hone their stories. I'd love to have you in a workshop someday (you can see my teaching schedule on my web site if you're interested at

  22. Joanne, You put it so beautifully: to dig deep and toss away the surface soil and get at the heart of the story is indeed what we aim for with memoir. Sometimes it takes a lot of rewrites, but it's worth persevering. Feeling the memoir come to life in your hands is an incredible rush of pride and excitement.

    Mason, Thanks! Let me know what you think of the book when you read it.

  23. Alex, Memoir's less about how exciting your life is and more about figuring out how to tell the story of what you've learned in a way that gives others insights into their lives.

    Karen, My thoughts and heart go out to you and your mother-in-law. Take care of yourself as you walk this journey with her.

    Jane, Less is often more. We tend to be profligate with our words, forgetting that the power is often in paring them down to their essence. Look at the great children's picture books, and learn from their example of how to tell a story in very few, simple words.

  24. Jan, Thanks for that lovely comment! I may have found a way to (mostly) walk a path of grace, but I'm still working on the singing. (In the literal sense--my aim is for my writing voice to sing, but my singing voice needs work!)

    Helen, Bringing the meaning in one's life to the surface is a lot of work, but it's also freeing. Might be something you'll want to do eventually....

    Maryann, you are so right there: We need acknowledge the misery and then move on. You must have made a great chaplain since you're a wise woman.

  25. Simon, It took me a long time to master the crispness and intensity. (Writing IS practice.) But when I did, oh the feeling! Thank you for your good wishes. Richard and I are fortunate in many ways, and we know it. I'm not being pollyanna there--it's true. We understand the value of love and of following your dreams in life.

    Helen, Thanks again for welcoming me. You've built a fascinating blog community here!

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