Luanne Castle at Writer Site is a poet and essayist working on her memoir. As she considers the best structure for her story (Scrap: Salvaging a Family—she’s the daughter of a garbage man), she’s reading memoirs by other gifted writers to see how those authors chose to organize their mini-lives between the pages. Best of all, she then turns around and offers us, her readers, thoughtful critiques of what she has read. Her own memoir is sure to be dynamite. Her writing is lovely, and she’s digging deeply into the best way for presenting her unique story.
The memoir featured on her blog this week is our very own Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. If I could, I’d reblog the whole thing because it’s just wonderful, but technical differences don’t allow me to do that (if any of you readers know who to reblog a WordPress hosted site to a self-hosted site, I’d be glad to know the secret.) So here are a few highlights:
If you have ever—even once–looked at a homeless person and forgot that he or she has a whole history of living, relations, emotions, and past belongings, as well as current needs, hop over to Amazon and pick up a copy of this book! If you want to find out if you should give a handout to someone who asks, you will find eleven answers.
Now that I’ve read Writing our Way Home and had time to let it settle into my bones, I feel it’s permanently changed me. A big thanks to Roderick Baldwin, Donna Connie, Cynthia Crawford, Jacqueline Crowder, Veyshon Hall, Tamara Hendrix, William L. Hogan, Jr., Latasha Jackson, Anthony Johnston, Robbin K., Rhonda Lay, Jockluss Thomas Payne, Leroy Scott, WJS, and Master Major Joshua Williams for inviting me into your lives.
When I began talking about a Door of Hope writing group book, people told me the book had to include my voice. Feature my voice, even. This was not what I wanted. Specifically, I didn’t want to be the well-off white woman who began working with those who had no shelter and immediately had the bright idea to write a book about her experience. What I wanted was for people to read the book, get to know the writers, and shift their view of “the homeless.” Specifically, I wanted readers to eagerly approach the authors at book signings and start talking to them as if they knew them. I wanted the book’s readers to love and appreciate the authors as much as I did.
But how to structure the book? I went around the block several times over this but eventually landed on a group memoir: WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS. Chronological chapters tell the authors’ stories: When We Were Young, As We Grew Up, What Sent Us into Homelessness. The wonderful review done by Chapter 16.org noted that this structure gives the full picture of the authors’ lives, not just the “dramatic second act” when they experienced living on the streets. How grateful I am for this insight. Because homelessness is only one part of the authors’ fluid lives, an overwhelming, proud-to-have-survived part, but nonetheless only a part.
As I am in New Orleans recovering from hip surgery, I couldn’t be there in person to accept the award. My good friend and proud homeless champion Marisa Baker accepted for me. And here’s the group photo of all the winners:
I love it that the book is literally standing in for me, accepting the honor. So very fitting. For the award means my decision long ago to focus on the writers’ voices was the correct choice. The Champion choice. The one most supportive of those who have experienced homelessness in their lives. For they, the authors, are the true Champions.
To honor this award, please go to Amazon and buy a copy of the book. Read it, then pass it along to whoever you feel led to share it with. Thank you!
No one owes you anything in this world. Everything anyone does for you is a gift. Some gifts—the gift of love or forgiveness or a trust fund enabling you to graduate law school and make your way in this world for a while—are pretty damn big gifts. Others may seem small, but those gifts are the ones that often bring tears to my eyes.
Chapter 16.org is a service of Humanities Tennessee that creates and strengthens community by talking about books, authors, and ideas. Stepping into an ever-widening gap, Chapter 16 publishes a newsletter offering in-depth (!) book reviews. The organization then provides the reviews to local newspapers. Today, a review of WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS was featured in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, thanks to Chapter 16.
The reviews given by Chapter 16 are precious, in the old-fashioned sense of referring to a limited quantity. Small staff, small budget. Lots of books requesting—and deserving—review. Yet they gave a review to a book written by fifteen formerly-homeless authors who have little to offer in return—no celebrity, no political pull, no fund-raising assistance, no cache—other than the power of their words.
And it wasn’t just “a review.” The book was assigned to a reviewer who himself has written about homelessness. Thus, when the reviewer analyzes, for example, the suitability of the book’s structure for telling the authors’ stories, he knows what he’s talking about. The book received a top-drawer, professional, thorough review. Not the “nickel-tour,” as one of the authors calls the free, truncated tours given by local nonprofits on charity days.
Many of the authors in the book have been writing for years. Before they were authors, they were writers. Every week, they walked from wherever they were staying to the Door of Hope support center to join writing group, writing and sharing their words. Most of the time, folks want to focus on the homeless part of “formerly-homeless writers.” Chapter 16 focused on the writer part. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.
This morning at the church service attended mainly by those living on the streets, one of the guys told me about two recent incidents when he’d been told he was an inspiration. He began the story by saying, “I’m not telling you this to to be bragging.”
I’ve known him for about a year and a half. He wasn’t telling me to be bragging. He was sharing this development because such amazing moments require acknowledgement and respect.
To be minding your own business, going about doing what you feel you’re supposed to be doing, and to have someone tell you your action—or the very example of your life—helped them make a life-changing decision: how wonderful is that? Not only did you have an impact, but the person cared enough to take the time to tell you. In the sharing of such moments I can’t help but detect a certain amount of awe: can you believe I was lucky enough to impact another person in a good way?
Yes, if you’re a first grade teacher or a parent. For the rest of us, it’s a little surprising.
I know the feeling because in the last week, when three members of writing group had the chance to name someone whom they admire or who had a positive impact on their lives, they named me.
I am not someone who hears compliments well. I shrug them off, if they even penetrate my brain. Sometimes I think: well, they probably felt sorry for me and thought I needed a pick-me-up (don’t analyze my psychological (ill) health—it’s shooting fish in a barrel.)
The point is: the third time someone from writing group took the time to claim my influence on them, I heard it. I heard them say I was loyal and nonjudgmental and quietly assertive (how Southern is that?) and a follower of God and (hallelujah!) funny.
I share this with you with the same awe I saw in my friend’s eyes this morning. Damn, he seemed to be saying, isn’t this the coolest thing?
Today as I was leaving the 8:00 church service, which is mostly attended by folks living on the streets, a man stopped me. I was in my car; he was on foot. He stood in the exit to the parking lot, flagging me down. He’d already stood before me in the hall where breakfast is served, asking me to go find the pastor. He didn’t remember that.
When I rolled the window, he tugged his shirt tail from his britches.
“I’ve been sliced down the middle,” he said. On his bare abdomen, a wound ran from belly button to sternum.
I gave him two dollars. He wanted one, until I said two. Then he wanted four. I stuck with two. He began to sob. I told him two is what I wanted to do. He released my hand; the crying stopped. He went on his way.
The wound was yellow, not yet healed. I’d never seen anything like it.
At noon today, I sat with a friend who once lived on the streets. She had quesadillas; I had soup. We talked about her dad coming to live with her. She’d just finished an hour-long presentation to a group of college art students, sharing with them about her life. She told them twenty women were in her group on the street; only three still lived.
In the course of her talk, she pushed up the sleeve of her blouse. “I have scars all over my body,” she said, brushing the skin on her arm.
“God,” she said, when one of the students came up afterwards to interview her and asked how she got off drugs. “You can’t get out of something like that by yourself.”
At 5:00 today, I pulled into my garage and paused, returning a phone call.
The phone had rung earlier in the afternoon when I was involved in a talk with Rhodes College students. We were talking about a new art project for the 8:00 church service that had begun my day. Of course, I silenced the phone. It wasn’t until the drive home that I learned a friend was in the hospital. He’d been stabbed. The knife pierced his lung. He then had a heart attack.
I told the caller, to whom I was so thankful for letting me know of these upsetting developments, that I’d certainly go see him tomorrow.
“Is there anything I can take him?” I asked.
“Flowers,” she said.
Then we talked about how I’d lost weight. “You’ve always been small,” she said. “But I thought you seemed smaller.”
I told her it was the near-constant pain in my hips; I can’t get interested in eating. I asked how she was.
“I can’t complain,” she said.
She’s dying of lung cancer.
I’m trying to be rational here without losing my temper, but this idea of “forming relationships with those pushed to the margins” sounds lovely in theory, but all it means in reality is that your heart will be broken, over and over again. Did I understand this when I began this journey? I did not. Would I go back and change my choices? I would not. If I did, I would lose my friends.
But make no mistake about it: it’s not in your best interest. You’d be much better off never knowing, living in your protected cocoon, la-de-da’ing it through life, enjoying the barrier that money and privilege and ADVANTAGES give you.
I’ve hit the gold standard. I’m not “doing charity,” merely handing out sandwiches. I’m not “merely” writing checks (don’t get me started on this particular condescension: how is anyone supposed to do good without someone writing checks?). I’ve formed relationships. I have come to care deeply about people to whom life has been a true bitch. And my reward? Scars permanently etched on my heart.
So my friend had three polyps; two benign, one malignant. So he had to have another colonoscopy this year to recheck things. So he’s on Medicaid. So Medicaid doesn’t pay for the prep material that you must drink and cannot have a colonoscopy without. So he had to postpone the colonoscopy until a day came when he didn’t have to choose between a colonoscopy and sitting in the dark because he couldn’t pay the light bill.
So my friend needed a procedure done. So he has no car, and he lives downtown. So he’s on Medicaid. The Medicaid provider is in Collierville. So my friend, with no transportation, must bypass the Med and Methodist and go to what might as well be the moon. So he’s trying to figure out how to get there.
So my friend is trying to listen to what I’m saying, but her mind is too full. “I’m worried about my health insurance,” she says. So she’s covered by Medicaid. So they keep switching around doctors on her. So she’s not sure what’s going on with her care. She’s dying, by the way slowly but surely.
So people want to protest “Obama Care.” So they complain, for ideological reasons. So they rail about the poor not doing enough to take care of themselves. So they rant about inappropriate use of the ER, and why can’t these irresponsible people try a little preventive medicine? So they sit on their high horses and JUDGE. So easy.
All wonderful stuff but, for me, stressors. Even now, I am continuing to prepare for the Launch Party tomorrow.
But, thank God, you gotta take a break from whatever is going on in your life and WALK THE DOG!
So, back home, how happy I was to put the dog on the leash and walk the edges of the island where cicadas sing and turtles slip into the murky harbor water; where the mud rises damp and the dog tugs on the leash to get at all the fresh smells; where ‘dappled’ doesn’t begin to describe the shade and the delighted cries of birds fill the air.
One of the Door of Hope writers wrote about how God was so smart to make us critters with long-lasting bones so that millions of years later we can re-construct an image of what once walked the earth. I think God was so smart to make dogs with eliminatory systems that force me into the natural world every day, to enjoy, to relax, to love. To remember that, while I am living on this earth, I need to enjoy it.
After a long hiatus, I submitted a couple of short stories to literary magazines today.
I’ve been working on the new website, mulling over what stories I wanted to include. The website will have a “Photo Bio” featuring a sentence about my life that reflects a dominant themes in my work and a representative photo. Click on the photo and you can read (or listen) to work that engages the theme.
For example, under the “I grew up to be a lawyer and show clothes on the runway,” you will be able to click on a glamor shot and read The Dress, which appeared in Skirt! Magazine, or listen to “Show the Clothes.” where two models get into fisticuffs.
Given my recent proclivities, much of the fiction will be in audio form, but I also want to include PDFs folks can read. I knew I’d use “Held at Gunpoint,” the story that received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses. But what else?
In search of an answer, I wandered through old stories lurking inside folders entitled “Odd Devices” (where the structure doesn’t follow a standard “and then this happened” telling); “Distance Stories” (where the narrator is not as close a point of view as I normally use), and one folder I can’t tell you the name of without blushing.
Inside the “Women” folder, I found two old stories I liked so well I don’t want to “self-publish” them by placing them on the website. Instead, I slipped them into envelopes (yes, no email submissions) and sent other copies to Submittable and other online submission processes.
One story is a post-Katrina story set in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m hoping the topical nature of it, given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the storm, might help with its acceptance. The other is a story about a young woman who had to leave her children and live on the street. Because I wrote this BEFORE I began facilitating a writing group of men and women who live on the street, I shamelessly began my submission letter: “For seven years, I’ve facilitated a writing group of men and women who know homelessness.” I measured the story against that experience to see if it rang true (it obviously did), but I had no fear of exploiting the experience since I wrote it prior thereto.
We shall see if anyone wants them, but here’s the primary thing: they are good stories. Right now, when I’m going through so much rejection trying to get an agent for the novel, it was really nice to run across these stories and realize with the cold eye of not having seen the work in a long, long time—you CAN write.
As I always say, you never know why you’re going from A to B but, most of the time, it’s not the reason you think. I thought I was getting my new website ready for launch, but what I really was doing was laying a balm on my soul.
(Written today at Door of Hope Writing Group)
When I was in junior high, I wanted to be a Viking. A Viking wife, actually, who stood on the deserted beach and threw logs on a blazing bonfire as I gazed out to sea, awaiting the return of the long-unseen ship.
In high school, I dreamed of moving to Maine and living on the pounding coastline where waves crashed and snow fell so thick I had to trudge through the knee-high drifts just to get a carton of milk from the grocery store.
I didn’t do either of these things—obviously, I couldn’t go back in time and as I grew up, my more rational side took me to college, law school, marriage, and a mainstream law firm where the biggest excitement I faced was the time I thought a client was calling me into the lobby to shoot me (he didn’t).
Now when I dream, I see what is already in front of me: the lush ferns waving in my yard, my husband’s smile when his eyes meet mine, the grandbaby’s taking me by the hand because he knows his Gogi will play with him.
The only remnant of my childhood dreams appears when I stand transfixed by the barges plying the river, the seagulls pestering the air above them, the heavy thump of the engines traveling from the island’s soil into my adventurous heart.
How have your dreams changed? What were they when you were younger (we had a 14-year-old write today about her dreams when she was 6)? What are they like now?
Way back at the beginning, I was puzzled about how 15 writers and a nonprofit could publish a book. What would be the arrangement between the authors and the nonprofit? What about the understanding among the writers, some of whom had many entries, some of whom had few? How would we make this fair? The questions overwhelmed answers.
My former-lawyer self said, we need to work this out before we move forward. We need to know what the deal is. We need to be able to describe it and have everyone buy into it. We need to know on the front end what we are getting into.
I tried that for a while. Then, in November of 2012, I realized that the process of figuring it all out would, ultimately, smother the book. If we defined our relationships first, we would never get past the deal-making to the creating of a book. We needed a book first, then we would figure it out.
This concept was a**-backwards, to a lawyer.
I asked the group, are we ready to get started? They said yes. Are we willing, I asked, to move forward trusting that we can work out the details later? They agreed. So we set the Book Retreat and began putting our book together.
This is the moment I quit being a lawyer.
I’d already given up my power suits. I’d told nonprofit boards that I would no longer offer legal advice. I’d even relinquished my law license. But that month, when we put art first, I became a former-lawyer. I became a writer.
William and I began our lessons on “How to Play Bridge.” We established that you arrange your hand by suit; you must follow suit; the higher card in a suit wins; ace is the highest card. The rules called the winning process taking “tricks.” William called them books. We played. We made books. William made more books than I did. Next week, what are trump cards?
* We made tiny books to hand out at church this morning. The tiny books were inspired by ‘Tit RƏx, a New Orleans micro-krewe (the floats are shoe boxes). The folks at church accepted the tiny books. One man, a newcomer to Memphis, chose a book with the word Saint on the front cover. He wrote a poem in the book. He gave me the book. Guess where he’s from? New Orleans.
* The contract with Triton Press to publish our book, “Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness” is (mostly) signed—we have one writer who didn’t make the meeting. We’re tracking him down. When he’s found, the contract will be (all the way) signed. The manuscript will be submitted to the publisher and, soon, we’ll have a book.
The entries are from 2008. I had been involved with writing group for a year. Each week, after we met, I came home and wrote into the journal every significant thing I could remember having happened. The journal helped me process the chaotic hour that was a weekly writing group of men and women who had experienced homelessness. I am reviewing the journal to draft a template for “What Worked For Us When We Did Writing Group.”
The pages are hard to read. I can only read a few at a time. Memories come flooding back. At least three of those who were writing with us during that period are dead. I recorded their dialogue. They, and the times, come alive as I read what I wrote. I loved the group and the process of becoming accepted by them. They each gave me particular delight.
On these pages, I recorded when W. asked me my name. This is astonishing: at one time W. didn’t know my name. We have now been through the terrible period of W.’s arrest; his interminable trial appearances; his incarceration in both jail and the mental facility for evaluation; his release when the DA realized the woman’s physical description of the man who stole her pocketbook had nothing—nothing!—in common with W. But in June of 2008 he didn’t know my name.
Humbling that, six years ago, the Executive Director of the Door of Hope was asking me if we had enough writings for a book. Tomorrow, we hold the final meeting necessary to send our manuscript to the publisher. Six years after I recorded the words. “Do we have a book?” the answer is, “Almost. Almost.”
I’ve had a book published, okay? I went through the fairly tortuous experience of editing and re-editing and receiving a proposed cover and approving the interior illustrations . . . I’ve done all that.
I am beyond thrilled to see the examples of how Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness might look.
This isn’t even our mock-up. It’s just samples of how others have attractively put a lot of author’s names on the front cover. We have 15 authors, all of whom have personally experienced homelessness. I never thought we could actually put their names on the cover.
We have an original painting by a local artist that will grace the front cover. We have a great painting by one of the writers that will be on the back cover. We have a local publishing house publishing the book. We have blurbs from local standouts in the community. The book is going to be amazing before you even open it up.
Then just wait until you read it.
I am beyond thrilled.
That little glimmer of hope that appears like a flickering flame when you’ve been immersed in darkness for so long you’ve allowed the prospect of success to dim, smoldering. Not a giving up—no way!— but a dampening down, a waiting, a refusal to let hope spring into false hope until real tender presents for a true igniting.
That’s where I am. I’ve seen the glimmering.
We may get the writing group’s book published.
After 14 months of trying, a surfeit of words, a tangle of structuring, a brick wall of legality, and now, finally: we may get the book published.
Not “we will.” But “we may.”
That is the flickering of hope.