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the everyman memoirs

The official blog of author Tali Nay.
JUN
07

Torturing Confessions out of Poetry

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I typed the word "stopping" into google search this morning, and the first thing that came up was "stopping by woods on a snowy evening." Which, incidentally, was exactly what I was looking for. What a tribute to Robert Frost that is. Impressive. The poem has been on my mind since having a conversation with my brother the other day. He's in college and was expressing frustration over professors who insist upon a "right" meaning or interpretation of a piece of writing. I know what he's saying, and I can see both sides of the argument. It seems narrow-minded (and presumptuous) for us to assign a single meaning to a poem or story, but, then again, authors usually do have a particular meaning or theme in mind when they write. Especially these short mediums.

The first poem that came to my mind was Introduction to Poetry (Billy Collins), because it captures this frustrating sentiment perfectly; the idea that sometimes we just want to read poetry, revel in it, delight in it, relate it to our own lives, draw our own parallels. But in an educational setting, it's all about the meaning. The right meaning. I can remember several times in my college years when I suggested meanings or interpretations and was told, "No, he/she didn't mean that." Most times I was probably just wrong, but I also think that we can't assume we know everything about why authors say the things they do. Speaking of Billy, we were once given an assignment in a poetry class to take a certain poem of his and make an assumption based on the contents of the poem. It's the poem with the beautiful description of introducing a child to the moon, followed by the suggestion--if your house has no child--to "gather in your arms the sleeping infant of yourself." The description that follows, that of a sleepy infant-in-arms, struck me as painfully sweet. The assumption I turned into the professor was this: "Billy Collins has no children." To which the professor actually scoffed, claiming it was simply not possible for a childless man to describe so perfectly the limp and lolling head of a sleepy baby. As a childless person myself, I can tell you that this professor overestimates the difference between experience and circumstance.

So back to Robert Frost. I once heard a professor tell of a particularly unique student interpretation of Stopping by Woods which claimed that the narrator might be none other than Santa Claus. There are details in the poem (snow, nearly the darkest evening of the year...think about the timing of winter solstice, the "small horse," miles to go, etc). The poem is not about Santa, but the student got full marks on the paper, which, as I pointed out to my brother, is how I think writing ought to be approached. Your interpretation might be wrong, but especially if you can make a good case, your opinion is still valid and should be heard. These types of dialogues and questioning are healthy, keep us open to new ideas, and make literature that much more accessible. And isn't that the point?

JUN
05

The Teens

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Last weekend marked the 16th anniversary of the little driving mishap that's chronicled in Schooled. It's hard to believe that much time has gone by. It's hard to believe I was ever that young. When looking at teenagers today, in many ways they seem less mature and more lazy. Sometimes I'm sure I was in better shape (in terms of overall head-on-shoulders-ness), but when I really think back to those years, my attitude was far from where it should have been. Wish I would have been less selfish and more appreciative of my parents, for instance. That's teenagers for you, some might say, but I know a few who are making it through those years seemingly unscathed by selfishness and attitude, and I guess what I'm saying is I wish I could have been one of them.

It's also an interesting experience to reacquaint yourself with things you swore by in those days. Daiquiri Ice by Baskin Robbins, for example, which I used to think was heavenly. The. Best. Kind. Of ice cream. At BR just last night, I ordered Daiquiri Ice for old times' sake, and I didn't think it was all that great. It could have been the word 'daiquiri' that had me so enchanted as a youngster, or maybe the frosty green color that  made it stand out from the other flavors. Or maybe my tastes are simply different now. I remember my parents showing me and my sister a movie they had loved when they were teenagers. When it turned out to be much more crude than they remembered it being, they were embarrassed and apologized profusely.

So, see. We change. We improve. Yes, we also regress, but I bet improvement holds the lion's share as we grow older, gain perspective, and hone in on the kind of people we want to be. The kind of people we are. And, in my case, the kind of people we wish we would have been. Shoulda, coulda, woulda is not a productive train of thought, but sometimes I can't help it.

PS - Who knew daiquiri was spelled that way?

JUN
03

The Best Kind of History

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I heard some remarks over the weekend from a woman who specializes in family history. When it comes to the benefits we receive from doing and learning about family history, it's not like I really need convincing, but still, days are full and time is precious and there's nothing I'm actively doing right now to learn about the lives of those who came before me.

Someone in the audience made a comment about looking forward to future generations, and this is the part I'm particularly passionate about. It's the reason I started writing about my life in the first place. Because it hit me several years ago that I didn't know much about my own grandparents (let alone the generations before that). At least not about their pre-grandparent life. So when I was lucky enough to get my hands on some essays written by one of my grandmothers, I latched on and read as if they were chapters in a best-selling novel. Because it's simply amazing the things I learned. It's amazing what I hadn't known. It's amazing the stories that come out of a single ordinary life.

Recent studies have found that children who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being, so start telling them stories. Start encouraging them to ask questions when around relatives. And if nothing else, start writing things down. Even if only to those who come after you, your words will matter.

MAY
30

When Things Break

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That would be my air conditioner. I can't even say anything else. Or even type it. It's too hot in here. At this rate, my manuscript will combust at any moment. It's downright unsafe to have this much paper sitting around an old charming Cleveland home in the summer. Wait, it's not even summer yet? This is terrible news.

 

MAY
29

Hit

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I hit my weekend stretch goal. All the edits are entered, and a new clean draft printed. Everything was overseen by Clementine, who, despite walking over the keyboard repeatedly and sitting herself directly on the piles of papers I most needed access to, considers herself central to these operations. At any rate, a successful weekend.

MAY
25

For the Long Weekend

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Here is my weekend goal: to enter all the edits I've been scribbling on the manuscript into the computer and print out a new, clean draft. I will not reach this goal, but it is, as they say in business, a stretch goal. (stretch goal, [n] 1. a target that is impossible to hit that you are asked to try for anyway. 2. a pipe dream)

So onto page 1.

MAY
22

What's not to like??

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My cousin (the one from this story) texted me last night: "Another #1 pick for the cavs? Must be nice to have three of them in 9 years."

And you know what, it is. Cleveland deserves some loving, and nice is exactly how it feels to win a lottery of any kind.

Er.....except when you realize, as the Denver Post article stated, that the answer to the question of 'What's not to like?' is being in the lottery every year. Because you have to be pretty bad to even have a chance at nabbing the #1 pick. So maybe it's a lottery I wouldn't mind losing out on next year. As long as it doesn't go to Florida. Cleveland's already lost way too much to that state.

MAY
22

Why I Will Get No Writing Done This Weekend

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Early yesterday afternoon I sent a depressed message to one of my fellow basketball-loving cousins in Oregon.

"0 for 1. I picked Valpo to upset. I suck at this."

He offered some comforting words that I proceeded to shoot down in equally pessimistic style, and then in the 5:00 hour he sent me this:

"The Valpo loss would be frustrating. What's the word for a Marquette loss though? Might want to go find your happy place."

I have Marquette in the final four, and at the time he sent me the message, I was in total freak out mode. I couldn't even watch. I was out getting take-out, and he proceeded to send me updates.

"1 min dav up 3 with ball."

*biting nails while in lobby waiting for food*


"mar up with 1 sec left...dav ball."

*pacing, phone 2 inches from face waiting for the next update. Others waiting for food notice I am distractedly wrapped up in something. And possibly crazy.*

"Marq wins by 1....breathe easy."

The "YES!!!" I erupted with at this announcement was very closely synched with the moment when they called my name at the order-up window, and surely no one has ever seemed more excited to be presented with a take-out meal. People were staring, so I offered a simple, "Marquette wins!!" No one seemed to care or think I was less crazy, but to these people, I say this: You are missing out.

Of course, then New Mexico went down. So cousin, you can expect another depressing message from me today. 'Tis the season.

MAY
20

The Office

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This is just to say that I'll miss it. The Office. It's one of those shows that I didn't like as much as the years went on, but I still watched, because I was invested. And it made me laugh. Although those last few episodes didn't make me laugh so much as they made me cry. Openly weep, even. And why? For the not-so-exciting lives of a cast of paper company employees? Yes. Their not-so-exciting lives were the best part.

Speaking of the office, I must apologize here for having a not-so-exciting life myself. My office penpal pointed out to me today in another anonymous note that my posts are so boring (the 'so' was underlined multiple times, so I know she means business), and I can't disagree with her there. I wish my life were more exciting, but it isn't. So this is what you get, and I can only thank my penpal for still apparently reading all my posts despite how painfully boring they are. Loyalty like that is hard to find. Oh great, now I'm thinking about Dunder Mifflin again. I need another tissue.

MAY
17

Heads in Beds

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Here's why this memoir works. Well, it's fabulous. But more than that, it's an ideal kind of memoir to read. It's not so removed or unrelatable as many memoirs today are (I lived in the slums of some third world country for a year, I was in jail, I climbed mount Everest, blah blah blah.) True that those memoirs can be fascinating, but they have nothing to do with us and our lives. Heads in Beds offers both fascination (more like genuine shock and intrigue) AND accessibility. Relatability. The hotel industry affects all of us. Business trips, vacations, get-a-ways. We all stay there, and we all know nothing about what it's like behind the scenes. It's a dynamite combination.

If I were on Goodreads (I know, I've already admitted that I should be on Goodreads), I'd give it 4 out of 5, only because I did find the swearing excessive to the point of being distracting, but honestly, if you like memoirs and can tolerate some irreverence and more honesty than you might be comfortable with about what actually goes on inside our homes away from home, this book will be a treat. And if you don't believe me, here's a baby brick. Which should help you see it my way.

MAY
15

On Chronology

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When I wrote Schooled, I originally had it organized into themed chapters. I thought this would be more readable (or at least less predictable) than chronological, so I lumped the vignettes together into themes. I had a troublemaking chapter, a theater/acting chapter, a teachers chapter, etc. And organizing a manuscript just the way you want it is no small task. So realizing after all that work that I actually did prefer the book in chronological order meant a whole lot of additional work. Not that it matters if it's the right decision, which I think it was, but my point is simply this: rearranging a manuscript is a big undertaking.

Since this second book will not be chronological (I think this is the right decision as well), there are a lot more ways I could potentially sequence it. A couple of weeks ago I had the manuscript spread out across the living room floor as I worked through the night to come up with an order that made sense to me, and I found one. Which I've felt good about. Until Monday night when I had a thought, a little epiphany, and once again spread the pages across the floor and reshuffled their order. I feel better about what I have now. I think I'm getting closer to the one that will stick. But who knows what another night, another spread of the pages will bring. This, if you ask me, is the fun stuff.

MAY
13

To Goodread or not to Goodread

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I want to use Goodreads. People tell me I should use Goodreads. Everyone swears by Goodreads. And still I do not use Goodreads. Because, and I'm embarrassed to say this, I don't read very many books. Probably one of the worst things a writer can fess up to, but there you have it. I don't have time, and reading always ends up last on my priority list. Actually I take that back. Playing guitar always ends up last on my priority list. I still remember (because it was only last year) having to awkwardly tell Jake, my guitar teacher, that I was stopping lessons on account of not having enough time to practice. And yes, it kills me that I've lost some skill at the six string, but I did manage to strum out a song for my nephew this weekend while in town for his 4th birthday. Should've Been a Cowboy, one of his favorites. A boy after my own heart.

But back to the books. And the fact that I should read more, which I fully acknowledge. I should also use Goodreads, because after I read a book, I am filled with the desire to share my thoughts with others (read a deliciously revealing memoir on the plane over the weekend that I can't wait to tell you about). I guess where I struggle is the whole "catch up" aspect. If I joined Goodreads, I'd feel a pull to rate books I've read over the years so people would know that I have in fact read more than 5 books in my life. But what an overwhelming undertaking that would be. And most of them not even fresh in my memory. When (if) I do join, I think it's best to just start with now. Just promise you won't judge the piddly number of books I read. Piddly.

And for those of you who are on Goodreads, I'd be curious to know how you manage it. Do you backtrack and rate books you've read prior (even much prior) to joining? Or only the books you've read since joining?

MAY
09

The Greenest Grass

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Not sure why I always feel such a pull to be in New York City, but I do. I feel this pull pretty much every day when I think about the time I've spent there and the possibilities that undoubtedly exist. There's probably some rose-coloredness going on here, as living in NYC would be hard in some ways, I'm sure, not to mention it would drain my savings. But the pull is still there.

My good friend L lives in the city (she's the one I mentioned in this post who bought a one-way ticket), and every time I talk to her, I hang on every word. She's walking to Times Square, she's just coming up from the subway, she's smelling a street vendor's cart, she's afraid for her life in a sketchy block, she's shadowing a performance of Phantom of the Opera. Even the picture she sent me (now that I have a phone that can receive them) of a flamboyant character jump-roping in the middle of street filled me with a longing to be there. I could see the street in the background, the green awnings of various businesses.

I've had some very real examples in my life lately that completely disprove the "grass is always greener" theory, but why am I convinced that NYC grass is the greenest? Why can't I shake this pull? What I can do is book another trip, so that's exactly what I've done. I haven't been since the week of Hurricane Sandy (talk about a bizarre week to have been in NYC), and I've been feeling the need to get back. Never underestimate the power of the pull.

MAY
07

Perspective in the Cleve

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There's nothing like a trio of girls kidnapped a decade ago being found in your city to put things into perspective. Not that it really matters in what city the girls are found, it's still just as effective at making your problems seem instantly minute. And that's what I've been thinking all day. That I'm so silly to spend time whining about the stressful things in my life. Because I do this. Whine. And vent. And occasionally shake my fist at the sky for all the things that seem unfair, the people I love who deal with things they shouldn't have to, the fact that I for some reason can't just be independently wealthy, or why it has to be so hard to get people to buy a damn book already.

But none of this matters, because instead of spend the last decade trapped in someone's basement, I've been living my life. So, I think I'm good. True that my living room floor is scattered with various pieces of my manuscript right now and I'm still not sure which direction I should go in terms of certain aspects of its chronology, but seriously, how is this a legitimate problem? Pssssh. Today, more than ever, it's clear to me. And I am definitely good.

MAY
05

Brown Penny

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In a college English class years ago, we had to at one point recite a poem from memory. I picked Yeats' Brown Penny, partly because I think it's my favorite poem, and partly (mostly) because it was the shortest one I could find that still met the length requirement of the assignment.

I've been thinking about Brown Penny lately. It's a poem about love that manages to come across as delightfully sweet and hopeful without dripping with cliche or dragging on. It's a poem that I cannot think of without letting out a contended sigh. It's a poem I keep on my fridge to this day. And if you've ever seen Must Love Dogs, it's the poem that Christopher Plummer recites at his birthday party. Find that clip, watch it right now, and I'm pretty sure you'll hear yourself sigh.

MAY
01

Murder Your Darlings

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I finished the Stephen King book, and I really enjoyed it. The beginning section could have been longer (I loved reading about his early writer-life and how it all came together for him...fascinating), but I really did appreciate the guts of the book, particularly the sections focused on revising. King spoke quite a bit about his own processes once he's got a first manuscript draft, and considering that's what I've got right now, a first draft, I'm looking at it a bit differently.

More to the point, I'm trying to cut more out. To murder my darlings, as they say. And it's hard. It's hard when you really like a certain paragraph or page to admit that it doesn't fit. But thanks in part to Stephen King's book, I'm trying to be more generous with my red pen, and believe it or not, what I feel as I slash through various words and lines isn't panic or sadness, it's clarity, liberation even. Never would have guessed that, but there you have it. Murdering my darlings like a pro. And realizing that this book will be shorter than my last one.

APR
29

Anniversary

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It's been a whole year since the book bash. And of course this weekend last year was bitterly cold and stormy out, while this year it was sunny and gorgeous. Oh well. You can't win them all. Plus it wasn't an outdoor party. It was just my bare party dress legs that suffered as the store door opened and shut all afternoon. Not to get ahead of myself, but I'm already excited for the next party. Even though it's still a long way away, the manuscript now being sorted into piles on my coffee table is evidence that I'm over the hump.

APR
26

Thanks...now who are you?

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I received this picture along with the following text message yesterday: "Just thought you would like to see the books I have on display in my office..."

Messages such as this warm my heart, and I do love seeing my book on a shelf. Anyone's shelf. Which brings me to the following despicable confession: This could very well be anyone's shelf, because I have no idea who sent me this text. And isn't that the worst? Someone whose number you should probably know is not even in your phone.

Something similar happened recently while at a production of War Horse (great show, by the way). As the show ended and the packed theater was filing out, I saw a woman who looked familiar. I didn't think much of it, because I couldn't place her, but when she caught sight of me a minute later, she greeted me as if we had once been besties. All I could offer back was a cheery "Hi!! How are you?" and after establishing we were both fine, we were separated again in the large crowd. Who this woman is, I have no idea. I don't have so much as an inkling of her name or the circumstances under which I knew her. How does one handle those situations, and why are we so embarrassed to admit that something has slipped through our mental cracks? I had an answer to that, but it's escaped me.

APR
24

A Few Words About Genre Fiction

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It's a funny thing, genre fiction. I always stayed away due to an assumption that it would be crappily written, and certainly beneath me and my English major tastes. Then one of my roommates in college gave me a John Grisham book, and I read it. Yes, I stooped that low. Here's the thing though...I loved it. I read several more JG books after that, and while nothing like the kind of depth and meaning that settles over me after reading a classic piece of literature, they were damn good reads. Hello, crow. Welcome.

Stephen King though is another matter entirely, because despite any (probably incorrect) assumptions I have about the writing itself, the bigger hurdle for me is that I do not enjoy anything in the realm of horror. I don't like feeling scared or disturbed or grossed out any more than I have to in this world, so the likes of Carrie and The Shining have never appealed to me in the slightest.

Even when given On Writing as a gift (a memoir-ish look at King's writer past as well as his writing processes and advice), I stalled for several months before reading it. Not being a fiction writer (and having never read a single word of any of his books), what could I possibly glean from his advice on writing? The answer is plenty, and I'll share a few gems once I've finished the book. In the meantime, go get yourself a copy of Grisham's The Partner.

APR
22

Honesty: Still the Best Policy.

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I got together recently with some friends, and the husband, who had just finished reading Schooled, asked me how I handled being so honest in the book. Particularly about my own thoughts and feelings. I guess some things I mention are pretty personal, but throughout the whole process of writing and prepping the book (and even in the time since it's been out), it's never really bothered me. I wanted an honest book, even if it revealed the oftentimes ridiculous, selfish, and self-pitying thoughts I had as an adolescent. This man said he wasn't sure he could do that, and several others have made similar comments to me, usually sounding something like, "Wow, it's sure gutsy to basically make your diary public."

The bigger concern to me when it comes to writing about real life is that you have to talk about other people. I mean, it's one thing to embarrass yourself, but quite another to potentially embarrass others. In writing Schooled, I wrestled with how honest to be at other peoples' expense. Not that anything about the book is vindictive, but I'm a nice person, and my desire to be honest has probably harmed a few relationships. It's something I've been reminded of as I'm re-reading manuscript #2. Because it means another list (although this one much shorter) of people in my life who are mentioned and may not appreciate everything I say. My defense (and this is my overall case for honesty in writing period) is that it's simply not realistic to have only ever had positive thoughts about and experiences with someone. In an effort to show a balanced and realistic depiction of life as I've experienced it, I'm not sure you can omit all of the less flattering details. Most of them, sure, but not all.

Yes, I will probably always worry about hurting people's feelings, and I will always feel gutted upon hearing that I actually have. But I will continue being as honest as I'm comfortable being, as I believe it is key when writing. I still think Betsy Lerner said it best...I quoted this passage a year ago in a post and I think it's worth repeating here:

"Let’s face it, if in your writing you lift the veil on your family, your community, or even just yourself, someone will take offense. . . . If you write what is most pressing, you are revealing thoughts, secrets, wishes, and fantasies that you (and we as readers) would never otherwise confess to. Most writers, like most children, need to tell. The problem is that much of what they need to tell will provoke the ire of parent-critics, who are determined to tell writer-children what they can and cannot say. Unless you have sufficient ego and feel entitled to tell your story, you will be stymied in your effort to create. You think you can’t write, but the truth is you can’t tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence. The problem is, no one likes a snitch."