Memoir Excerpt: Christmas Choir

This part of my memoir happened when I was eight.  My family had moved to a new town the previous summer and Angela was one of my first and best friends.  It was my brother Billy who was sick that night.  My sister, Laura, was born when I was five, and the twins, Billy and Judy, when I was seven.  My parents always came to my events, sometimes my whole family, sometimes my dad, while my mom stayed home with the little kids.  I always called them the “little kids.”  I didn’t think I was a little kid–that’s for sure!

 

At Christmas time the church has a pageant and anybody who wants to can sign up for the Christmas Choir!  I want to!  So does Angela!  We put our names at the top of the list.

During our first practice, Mr. Dove, the Choir Director Man, decides that me and Angela don’t sing right.  He says we sing flat. Whatever that is.  It’s bad and Mr. Dove doesn’t like it.  I’m more flatter than Angela.

There’s a boy named Charles in the choir.  He’s eleven.  He has perfect pitch.  Whatever that is.  I can tell it’s  something really good.

Mr. Dove hits a key on the piano and tells me to sing the note.

Plunk.

“A-h-h-h-h.”

“No, no—“He hits the key again and sings. “Ah-h-h-h-h-h.  Do you hear the difference?”

He wants the answer to be yes, but it’s no, so I just look at him.

He shakes his head and makes me do it over and over, but it’s always flat.

Next he tells Charles to sing a note in my ear and for me to sing the same note.

Plunk.

Charles put his hands around my ear and sings, “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h.”  His breath feels hot and tickly in my ear and his voice sounds too close and loud.

I sing, “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h.”

“No, No, NO!”  Mr. Dove gets mad.  Every practice he makes Charles sing in my ear and I try to sing the same note.  Everybody has to wait and watch me get the notes all wrong.  I work real hard not to cry every time I go to choir practice.

Billy’s sick on the night of the pageant, so Mommy stays home with the little kids.  Daddy sits with Angela’s parents and grandparents’ right behind where the choir will sit.  We wear Christmas robes and have white Christmas candles.  We get in line, biggest to littlest.  Me and Angela are last.  I can’t wait till my candle is lit and we go in front of the whole church and sing!

Right before we walk out, Mr. Dove whispers to me and Angela that when the choir goes up to sing, we have to stay in our seats. We can’t sing with the choir because we still sing flat.  I guess singing is like a spelling bee at school.  As soon as a kid gets a word wrong, she has to sit down and not be in it anymore.

We walk down the aisle and everybody in the whole church looks at us.  I can hear lots of cameras snapping pictures.  We have to walk slow, like kings and queens, and not look around.  We sit in our pew and wave little waves at our families.

“And now the musical part of the program, under the leadership of Mr. Arthur Dove, will begin,” the pastor announces.

The choir stands up and walks to the front of the church.  All except us.

“Go!” Angela’s mom whispers.

Daddy pokes me in the back and says, “Go! What are you waiting for?”

We shake our heads and whisper, no.  They poke us a few more times, then give up.  We all sit and listen to the perfect pitch, not flat at all, music.

After it’s done, we walk with the choir and give back our robes and candles.

As soon as we come out, Daddy says, “Why didn’t you go up?”

“Why didn’t you girls sing with the rest of the choir?  Angela’s grandpa asks.

“Because Mr. Dove said we’re not allowed,” Angela says.

“We sing flat and he doesn’t want flat singing in his choir,” I say.

Our families look mad.  When we get home, Daddy tells Mommy what happened and she says, “I’m going to call that church and complain!  Telling two little girls they can’t sing!  That’s ridiculous!  If they wanted singers with perfect pitch, they should have held auditions!  The nerve of that man!”

The next day is Christmas and the choir sings all the same songs as the night before.  Mr. Dove lets us wear our robes and carry our candles and this time we get to go up front, too.

“Just move your lips, though, don’t really sing, girls,” he tells us.

Angela does the same thing I do.  We let all the singing come out!  Maybe our flatness hurts everybody’s ears.  But we still sing Christmas songs with the Christmas Choir on Christmas morning and Mr. Dove can’t stop us!image

What About Writing a Book?

Do you want to write a book?  Tell your story?  I am.

It’s scary for so many different reasons.  There are people we don’t want to hurt.  Maybe someone will claim it didn’t happen the way we say it happened.  Say we’re wrong.  Say we’re crazy.  What if we feel we just don’t know how to write?  Don’t have the right to write about our lives since our lives involve so many other people?

Other times writing is amazing, invigorating, strengthening.  It takes courage to say, “This is how I say it happened!”

Everything that happened to you belongs to you.  I got that from Anne Lamotts’ Bird by Bird, an excellent book on writing.  And she’s right.  Every single experience you’ve ever had is your property to do with as you will.  Tell it, make it into a secret—which isn’t always healthy—write it, publish it, don’t publish it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if people want you to write nice things about them, they should have done nice things to you.  If they didn’t, what nice things can you write?  That’s not your fault, it’s theirs. vintage-technology-keyboard-oldvintage-technology-keyboard-oldvintage-technology-keyboard-oldvintage-technology-keyboard-old

Names can be changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.  True events can be fictionalized.  It used to be true that most author’s first novels were autobiographical.  It might still be true.  But with the rise of books like The Liar’s Club and The Glass Castle, memoirs by people who aren’t famous are getting published and becoming best-sellers.  No one has to fictionalize their lives if they don’t want to.

You also don’t have to publish if you don’t want to.  There’s nothing wrong with writing a memoir for yourself.  It’s cathartic, affirming, and healing either way.

In these days of Amazon and Kindle, anyone can publish a book for not much money.  Many Kindle authors don’t even bother with print copies, but print copies can be arranged for not very much as well.  People are doing that as Plan A, or as Plan B, if they can’t get an agent.  This is a different book world than twenty years ago.

Join a critique group.  That is one of the best things a writer can do.  Get your work in front of other people.  It’s better to do it before it’s published than after!  Read books about writing, especially about writing memoir.

And read.  Read, read, read.  It’s been said writers who don’t have time to read, don’t have time to write.  I tend to agree.  Reading books teaches us how to write books.  Read the best books.  The best memoirs if you intend to write a memoir.  Read as many as possible and when it’s time, sit down with pen and paper or at your computer and write.  Tell your story, your one and only story that belongs to only you.

 

Memoir Excerpt: Learning to Add

I have been working on my memoir for a long time.  When I finished the first draft it was 150,000 words.  I got it down to 120,000 and now 90,000 words.  Finally a reasonable length to submit for publication.  But the process of cutting left a lot of scenes out of the book.  I am going to share some of my favorite passages that aren’t in the book here on my blog.  I hope you enjoy them.

Mrs. Potter was my first grade teacher.  I didn’t like her.  I didn’t think she was nice at all, especially compared to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bigio.  I needed a nice teacher and started hating school because I was sure Mrs. Potter didn’t like me.  For some reason, I couldn’t deal with numbers as numbers once we started using them to add and subtract.  I had to anthropomorphize the numbers to deal with them and came up with a complex system to add.

 

 

Mrs. Potter believes in threes, but I don’t.  Shemath_is_easy_poster-re802a45cfcb742638162006324d910c5_wfq_8byvr_324 believes in fours too, and sixes and sevens and eights and nines.  Not me.  ‘Cause those aren’t real numbers.  Only five is real.  All those other numbers are just different fives.  Some are nice fives.  Some are mean and greedy.

Nice fives give me presents every time I use them.  Greedy fives charge taxes when I use them.

When I add, I talk to the numbers, but only in my head so I won’t get in trouble.  I like the nice fives—six and seven and eight and nine.  Nine is the nicest of all.  She gives me four cents every time I use her.  I always say thank you.  The fives hear me.  I know they do.

I don’t like the greedy fives, like three and four.  I keep telling them not to be so greedy.  I tell them they should be ashamed of themselves for charging taxes, but they don’t listen.

Mrs. Potter just says three plus three is six, four plus five is nine.  She never tells us the real truth, what the answers are before we pay all the taxes and get all the presents.  She never tells us about all that.  But I know who those numbers really are.

Now I’m Not

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by Leslie Wells

 

I was mute when we met.

I’d lost my words somewhere.

I hadn’t had them for a long time,

didn’t know where they’d gone.

 

But you saw a letter stuck to the bottom

of my shoe.

You peeled it off and placed it on

my tongue.

 

It dissolved into dictionaries

full of words I could say.

But how to pick the

right words?

 

The words that meant what was

waiting to be spoken.

 

You helped turn the pages,

go through

all the tables and charts,

flip through the letters,

even Q, X, and Z, til

we found the words

that said the truth.

 

Then your face and eyes

and gentle voice

helped me remember how

to speak, what to say.

So many memories and thoughts

and feelings came rushing out

of me.

 

I was mute when we met.

Now I’m not.

The I’m Fine Game

I’ve felt isolated and alone so often in this “I’m fine.  How are you?” world we live in.  What percentage of people who ask how you are really want an honest answer?  Very small, I’m sure.  That’s how it is in my life.  My close friends and family want to know, but so many others ask me, expecting the rote answer.   Sometimes I feel like a fake or a robot when I give it to them.

I’ve often wondered where this custom came from.  We ask each other a question  we don’t want to be answered honestly.  I find it strange.  And isolating.  I’ve told people, “I’m fine.” and smiled when I had tears in my eyes from being so totally not fine.  I felt alone when I did that, very alone.

In the award winning book, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Jonas has been chosen to carry all memories and feelings for his entire community.  A community devoid of diversity and emotion to the point of having no love, and seemingly, no death.  Soon after Jonas has experienced war, he finds his friends playing a game called “good guys and bad guys.”  As they point imaginary guns at each other and “die” as dramatically as possible, Jonas re-experiences real war.  He begs his friends to never play that game again.  But he knows they will.  They don’t even know what the game is about, since war has not existed in their culture for generations upon generations.

Jonas feels alone, isolated, and misunderstood.  He’s had experiences and feelings that others in his community have never had and can’t comprehend.  When I read that scene, I cried because I’ve experienced emotions that most people can’t comprehend.  People who don’t have mental illness.

The lady in the grocery store doesn’t want to hear that struggled all night not to burn myself when she says, “How are you?”  I don’t want her to know about it either.  So I play the game and say, “I’m fine.”

But I’ve become more honest with my good friends and family.  They haven’t had the urge to burn themselves, but they love me enough to offer empathy and caring.  Another place to be honest is a support group.  If you can’t find one, try NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.)  Both organizations have groups all over the country.  And of course therapy—a place of honesty, safety, and growth.   Find somewhere to be honest.  Somewhere  the isolation and loneliness can drop away, at least temporarily.  Somewhere to stop playing the “I’m fine” game. images (11)