Tag Archives: women’s literature

What Readers Need to Know

Bushel_MRDeepest thanks to my dear readers for attending the launch of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography at the Boulder Bookstore on August 20. I’ll be reading again September 12 at Wolverine Farm Books in Ft Collins and September 27 at the Tattered Cover in LoDo, with a signing at MacDonald’s Book Shop in Estes Park this Saturday. I appreciate my readers’ support as my book goes out into the world. For those who have asked how they can help, please remember your local library and suggest that they purchase A Bushel’s Worth for its stories of small-scale and community supported agriculture, fresh food, family genealogy, rural history, ecology of the West,  farmland preservation, and women’s farming lives.

Boulder Bookstore

I’m looking forward to returning to Pearlmoonplenty before long, but until then, here’s a guest blog on memoir that I wrote for SheWrites, the on-line women’s writing community.

What Readers Need to Know

“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.”

But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”

All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.

This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.

When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.

Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.

When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.

But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.

And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”

ShortSilos

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under ecobiography, women's writing

Literary Foremothers

Pearlmoonplenty readers: I’m sharing here a short piece I wrote for the “Inspired Books” column of my alma mater’s library publication.  

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel . . . and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

DSC_0093

So spoke Jane Eyre, the fiery heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s book of the same name. Reading the novel as a young girl, I felt the injustice of Jane forced to stand on a stool in the middle of the schoolroom because she had accidentally dropped her slate.

DSC_0085

From the time my schoolteacher grandmother taught me to read, I was drawn to young women protagonists: Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, and Jo March of Little Women were some of my favorites. When I started college at Colorado State University in 1977, I majored in microbiology but pursued the newly created Women’s Studies certificate as well. I took every women’s literature course I could, all taught by wonderful professors who were building this new program. But I thought of these courses as electives, taken more for fun than as preparation for any career.

DSC_0092

Following my sophomore year, I discovered Ellen Moer’s Literary Women: The Great Writers at the small library in the New England town where I was spending the summer. Akin to my Women’s Studies courses, Moer’s book examined writers like Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand as women–for their gender–rather than as members of a literary movement, regional location, or social affiliation. With the Dictionary Catalogue of Literary Women at the back of Moer’s book as my guide, I set myself a course of summer study of whatever women writers the small library offered, taking notes on yellow legal pads that I wish I still had today.

DSC_0086

What began as a passion became the topic of my Master’s and PhD research, followed by 24 years teaching a diversity of women’s literature courses at CU-Boulder. On the first day of class, students always asked me to choose my favorite book from the syllabus. I would tell them why I liked each of the books and, while I could never choose just one, how all the protagonists were in the mold set by Jane Eyre years ago: women speaking against injustice, defending their rights, and insisting their voices be heard.

DSC_0095

Leave a comment

Filed under memoir, women's writing

For June

Dear June,

Tomorrow I’ll have been missing you for 30 years. You would be in your 50s now and we would have celebrated so many important milestones together. Instead, you were taken from us at much too young an age in a way no one should have to bear.

We were students together at Colorado State University in the late 1970s and early 80s, where we joined the CSU Feminist Group to try to make a difference for women on campus. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Fort Collins and shut down a campus Playboy Club. We held Women in Film festivals and published The Feminist Newsletter. You wrote “A Touching Story” about the need for skin-to-skin contact in our lives.

When we graduated in 1981, we found each other on the football field at Hughes Stadium in the midst of hundreds of other graduates to hug and celebrate how far we had come. We stayed in touch during the next year as we began a new phase of our lives in neighboring cities. And then, on June 11, 1982, you were gone.

Thirty years ago, my daughter was only five months old when I turned on the noon news—something I rarely did—and saw the gruesome photos of a young woman’s murder. Although your name wasn’t used, I knew it was you. It took hours to confirm that fear.

I wish I could have been more involved in the investigation from the beginning, but with a newborn baby, I had to depend on others for help. Now I wish I had been the one to ask the questions and I wish fewer mistakes had been made along the way. None of that would have brought you back, but justice might have been served in some small way to offer a healing for those who grieved your loss.

Almost a year after your death, I was in my bedroom while my daughter took a nap when I sensed a strong smell of flowers from a bush outside the window. I’d never smelled it that strong before. And then I felt you there with me, assuring me that you were all right and that it was time for you to leave. I cried because I realized that you had been with me from the beginning, helping me to care for my daughter despite my sorrow and pain.

You had been so excited at her birth, you brought me the flagstone slab you found hiking when you came to see her for the first time. That was so typical of you—supporting others by sharing your life. I carried that stone with me from home to home for years, until I decided it was time for it to stay in one place as I continued on alone. But your memory never faded and when I could face your death again, I began to ask the questions I hadn’t before.

Five years ago, the police returned to your case with new eyes and new methods. They still believe the original suspect is guilty but they haven’t yet been able to find the evidence they need to convict him. Last week I talked with one of the detectives about the possibility for new types of DNA testing to provide the proof necessary for an indictment. A murder case is never closed. We’re still waiting for a breakthrough, but it hasn’t come yet.

I have missed you constantly the last thirty years and will never give up hope for your murderer to be brought to justice. But it’s time to mark your life with something other than your death. We were in a feminist book group together one summer thirty-some years ago; I remember reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Monster by Robin Morgan, books that placed women’s lives at the center rather than the margins of the world. Because you loved women’s writing, I want to dedicate a collection of feminist press-published books to you, my friend, in the Special Collections library at Colorado State University.

These are the books I collected while writing my dissertation on feminist publishing of the 1970s, books that carried forward the work you and I began while students at CSU. I want the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to inspire other young feminists to challenge the limitations they face in their lives as you and I did together more than 30 years ago. The collection is a reminder of how far women have come and a call to continue that activism in these reactionary times.

With these books, I dedicate the memory of our friendship to the joy we felt at the work we did. I will be missing you, June, forever, but I will never forget what a wonderful friend you have been.

Love,

Kayann

2 Comments

Filed under memoir, women's writing

Note to Self: This Is What Beautiful Looks Like

I’ve been busy the last few weeks working with students in the women’s wellness service learning practicum of my women’s literature course on a digital story that challenges the degrading and even dangerous images of beauty found every day in the media. As young women coming of age in a world where competing ideas and values are difficult to evaluate, my students are particularly sensitive to consumerist messages that tell them they’re not good enough. While the students know what beauty really looks like, they have to work hard to shut out constant feelings of not measuring up to superficial portrayals of women.

In response to these negative messages, we decided to use media techniques and communication channels for our own purposes: to create and share a digital story that promotes feeling good about who we are as women for our accomplishments, goals, and relationships rather than just for our physical appearance. We answered the question “How can I feel good about myself when everyone else tells me to feel bad?” by describing experiences that challenge the “you’re not good enough” message with self-affirmations and peer and family support.

For each scene, the students created a “note to self” that illustrated their own positive messages. I then compiled images of these “notes” with personal photos from the students’ lives, joined by thematic photos shot at Rock Your Body Day, a fabulous event organized by our campus’s Community Health that celebrates real bodies accomplishing real goals. As part of RYBD, the students were photographed holding signs stating what they love about their bodies and these black and white images appear in the final sequence of our piece.

I loved working with my students on this project and I applaud the honesty with which they shared their stories. While the students still recognize fashion and body image as part of their young lives, they offer strategies for re-defining beauty on their own more constructive terms. We hope that Note to Self: This Is What Beautiful Looks Like will inspire all of us to create messages reminding each other that beauty is not what we don’t have, but rather what already exists in our own hearts and minds.

I invite my readers to share this video with women of all ages, but especially with younger women who feel their lives are reduced to the way they look, the products they buy, and the labels of the clothes they wear. I hope they’re inspired by my students to create new images and ideas of beauty and “put it out there for the world to see!”

And if you have any ideas for ways to share our story, please let me know! It’s also available at vimeo.com/kayannshort/notetoself



 

1 Comment

Filed under women's writing

The Girl Who Tells

“There she goes again! Why does she always have to be telling everything?” You probably know one of these girls, the kind who not only has opinions but feels compelled to share them. Maybe not even all the time, but when it matters most, this girl is brave enough—or angry enough—to speak up about the injustices she observes around her.

Young adult author Margaret Willey* calls this character the “Girl Who Tells”: “In both adult and young adult fiction, an adolescent daughter is often presented to the reader as the guide most willing and able to travel beneath the surface and into the deeper layers of her household.” Girls Who Tell play a “truth-telling function” in literature because “[i]f there is a weak seam in the family fabric, she is the one most likely to put her finger through it and make it a full-blown hole.” A GWT can’t stand hypocrisy or mendacity, even when she’s told that telling the truth isn’t nice or could hurt someone. She’s self-absorbed, true, but from that narcissism comes the ability to see more than the adults around her are willing to see themselves.

As protagonists, Girls Who Tell initially function as observers from the sideline of the story in what I call the “liminal space” between childhood and adulthood. When I teach this concept, I stand in the actual doorway of the classroom and put my hands on the sides of the doorframe to illustrate this “in-between” place. (The word “lintel” is related to the Latin word limen, meaning “threshold.) Neither still a child nor completely an adult, a GWT has a foot in both worlds, a limbo of ultrasensitivity that leads to impulsive responses, if not downright overreaction.

From this liminal space, a GWT can observe the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the world around her, which leads to a second GWT characteristic: asking questions, particularly about truth and authority. “Why?” is a GWT’s favorite word.

But when a GWT finds her questions ignored or the answers vague or even false, she must speak up and tell the truth from her special—and sometimes limited—perspective. She may not always be right in her analysis but her speaking is always a catalyst for change.

Observer, questioner, and truth-teller, the GWT is the perfect protagonist for literature that attempts to reveal the injustices of family and society. In classics like Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, The Color Purple, and Anne of Green Gables, GWT characters face consequences for their outspokenness but are still guaranteed happy endings. Reality must be faced, wrongs righted, and truthfulness rewarded.

And in movies like Rachel Getting Married or Girls Town or Real Women Have Curves (based on the play by Josefina López) or Precious (originally published as the novel PUSH by Sapphire), we cheer for Girls Who Tell because even when they’re arrogant, obnoxious, or ill-equipped to handle life’s problems, we know they’ve gotten a raw deal.

In real life, however, Girls Who Tell may face parental anger, peer ostracism, social harassment, or even or judicial punishment or mental institutionalization. Memoirs, diaries, and letters like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and the Rachel Corrie’s My Name is Rachel Corrie recount the pain, punishment, and sometimes triumphs of young women overcoming prejudices that limit their lives. In real life, we may not always appreciate girls who tell it like they see it and, because of their youth and gender, their voices are easily ignored. They’re just teen girls, after all, what could they know?

But if we listened to the real voices of GWT as carefully as we listen to their voices in literature, we’d learn something astounding: their truth-telling depends on ours.

I’ll write in future blogs about GWT in works that I’ll be teaching this semester, but I’d love to hear from you. What GWT characters—fictional or real—have inspired you?

*“The Girl-Who-Tells.” Margaret Willey. Hungry Mind Review (Summer 1995): 46 & 48.

2 Comments

Filed under memoir, women's writing