Today is April 24. One more catch-up prompt and I’m caught up! This entry is for the word “note.”
Today’s the day you start a diary. Take note of how you’re feeling. As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones, “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. Remember: magnificent, really.
On October 31, 2018, I started writing a memoir. I was in a cigar bar and the words started spilling out. A structure spoke to me, a scene came to my head like the opening of a movie. And I wrote and wrote, and I’ve been working on the memoir ever see, except for a 6-month layoff from Aug 2019 – Jan 2020. I’m about 200 pages in, a new structure has evolved, and I think it could be an important work of literature, not just my clunky little memoir about my clunky little life.
At the time I started, I was still teaching freshman English at Southern Connecticut State University and at Norwalk Community College. Both assignments really sucked. I had an awful commute and a worse director at Norwalk CC, who was no help and one of the most arrogant people I have ever worked with, condescending to students and colleagues alike. The students were not ready for college and the curriculum was laid out in military fashion (surprise – the director had been a military man), completely inflexible and aimed at not helping students improve but exposing what they lacked.
At Southern, I had a hostile student, a veteran who went off the deep-end. Three straight days she had confrontations with me in front of other students, until she blew up. I had to put a desk between me and her. Another student in the class took video because the student was out of control. Two classmates tried to calm her down and walk her away. All of it led to the Student Conduct office, meetings with the Freshman director and Chair of the department and so on. But the student was cleared to return to class, despite that I felt unsafe in my work place. I went to HR and gave a statement. Neither the Student Conduct office nor HR every followed up. The dean’s office said the student could not be kicked out of class because – she had paid for it. I was shocked. So if you pay, you can get away with bad behavior that impacts the rest of the students in the class. Absurd.
That was the end of the line for me. I waited 6 months for a response from administration, and finally wrote them a letter. They never addressed the fact that they didn’t follow up with me. I had a contract to teach one more class, which I did. Then I quit. I quit a 25-year adjunct college teaching career, a total of 33-years in higher education. I would not be a part of that problem.
Those situations led to panic attacks, vertigo, a lot of symptoms that seemed physical. But once the semester was over, I got a complete medical workup and everything came out fine. In short, it was anxiety. Which brings me back to my memoir.
My memoir is about my brother – a hippie turned conservation fundamentalist preacher who then suffered from major depressive disorder and after many suicide attempts and a 13-year struggle, killed himself. We were practically twins, except for our 10-year age gap (I’m younger). So when he got sick, I got worried about when it was my time. It doesn’t work that way. But that’s not the whole story.
I set out to be a writer, but I’ve been constantly interrupted by the people in my lives who have mental illness. My brother, who was followed by two of his children who also committed suicide. And then there’s my 2nd wife, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but her psychiatrist and her counselor never told her – nor me (yay HIPPA!). Imagine having a serious medical condition and your doctor keeping it from you for 5 years. That’s what happened. And then my sister going off the deep end and stealing from the estate after my parents died. It was a decade of loss, continuous loss. Jobs, financial security, everything wiped down the drain.
Until finally, all I have is what I can write.
A 33-year career in higher education, respectable jobs and a 25-year English teaching career – and it took me 6 months to find a Starbucks job! Something is wrong in the state of Denmark and California and Connecticut and these United States of America.
So now I work on my memoir and wonder about my next paying gig.
I know how to write. I studied The Waste Land in school, trained under a professor – who also committed suicide – who was well-regarded internationally for his work. Eliot’s poem serves as the metaphorical structure for my memoir. It fits perfectly, uncannily so.
But it’s not my personal story I’m interested in telling so much as making art from it.
The note at the top of this entry reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s book. I’ve read a dozen books on writing memoir and many memoirs as well while working on my own. I was a writing professor, so I know how to write. But it’s working through the emotions, almost reliving these events that have slowed my writing to a crawl, that and finding time to blog and write articles for Medium and work and have a life, too.
I won’t start a diary today. I write so much every day that it’s already a record of my life. I need to keep better records of my daily work. But what I’m reminded about is that my story matters. The story must be told. I must tell the story.
And in doing so, I must hit all the right notes. Will you read it?