Guest Post, Kristen Keckler: The Art of Memory—Writing to Remember

Even in 2019, with trusty devices always on hand to capture my daily existence, most of my life goes unrecorded (thank God). My pre-device life, a Dark Age itself, is only documented by an occasional washed-out photo, receipt, ticket stub, or “remember when?” story passed among family and friends. 

I often lament never having kept a proper journal. Only once, at age eleven, have I ever faithfully inscribed dates and happenings; the diary had a pink, puffy plastic cover studded with rhinestones. Despite the security feature, a tiny gold key, my mother and younger sister broke into it—together! —and when they later admitted it, I was relieved that I hadn’t confided anything private to its pages: no secret crushes or burning questions about my awkward, beanpole body.

In my twenties, I wrote little poems and observations in notebooks—many little notebooks. These musings now seem written in code, as if I was protecting my words from an intruder, who, strangely enough, is myself! Today, I still draft in a random, haphazard way, in spiral notebooks, and keep several going simultaneously. Writing essays, for me, is like journaling twenty years after the fact. I go easy on myself and do not—simply because I now live in a digital age—expect perfection from my memory. I figure, if I only wrote about things I remembered very well, I might never have written anything at all. 

Recently, a former student, Maritza, reached out, seeking my advice for jumpstarting her writing. “I don’t know where to begin,” she confided, a phrase I recognize in my bones. The key, for me, is not a little gold diary key, but to start somewhere—with a moment, or maybe with a song, place, or detail. I write whatever pops into mind, and don’t decide if I remember “enough” until after I’ve given it a go. 

Jumpstarting sparks remembering; you have to get the car running so that you can actually move. For me that means sometimes turning an unproductive writing day, when I’m sleep-deprived, distracted, or just not feeling it, into a semi-productive one by inventing topics and ideas for later, for when the mood strikes. (How DIY of me: a book of handcrafted, shabby chic rainy day writing exercises!) In a blank or mostly blank notebook, at the top of every other page, I write a word or a phrase; each one is a prompt. When I’m looking for inspiration, I flip through this notebook; one of the headings usually calls out to me, and off to the races I go. Occasionally, a prompt even becomes the title for a finished piece, like in the case of my SR essay “A Merry Little Group Home Christmas.”

A few months ago, I came across the words “Memories to Age Six” written atop a blank notebook page, jotted by my own hand a year or so earlier. When I re-discovered it, my husband and I had been speculating about how much, if anything, our two-year-old son would remember about being two. (Would he recall his first trip to Florida, those two-foot long iguanas? Or his Matchbox cars being confiscated, temporarily, by mean Mommy after he clocked her on the head with a Mustang and left a boo boo?) As I started to freewrite about my own early years, I was surprised by how much I actually, truly remembered from my life, especially between ages three and six. Some of my memories originated in stories told by my parents throughout my childhood, but other moments I recalled simply because I lived them: I was there. Whether routines that occurred in a pattern, or one-time events, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more material I generated, until I had a finished essay draft plus pages of extra notes. 

As I drafted a six-year-old memoir, I had to quickly decide: do I comment and reflect on the child’s life, or do I let her experiences speak for themselves? I decided on the latter, to focus on the child’s impressions and lived moments, allowing the adult writer to hang back, quietly choosing language and forming a structure. I find that when writing about a very distant past, concrete details are especially important, as memories need physical objects in which to take root, spreading their shoots into the darkness and reaching for context. My Six-Year-Old Memoir has many such anchors: a sewing machine, a horse track, green shorts with daisies, a tiny tarnished silver cup, a gun, a hospital bed, a two-toned Buick, and maraschino cherries. 

Since writing is remembering, and writing is crafting, you often don’t know how much you recall about your life until you face the blank page (or screen) and dive in.  Memory is part black magic, a deeply intuitive conjuring, and part rolling a tumbleweed through the mind’s desert, gathering what sticks. The more I go with it, the more I think, (a fully focused, meditative-type thinking), and the more I perform other little exercises to jog my recollection, for example, looking at Google Maps street view or texting a family member or friend. 

It is usually not until after I’ve written quite a bit that I figure out what an essay is about, and often that “what” defies summary, is more of an emotional cue than a lesson or theme. For me, the purpose of nonfiction is not to see how much I remember, but to determine what I can do with what I think I remember. And when I’m finished writing a particular piece, I always feel like I remember those events more vividly than when I started—sometimes the writing and memories become intertwined, interchangeable. What has happened is gone, and let’s face it, there is nothing, not even writing, that can ever bring it back. What’s left is the art of memory. And I’m okay with that.

#ArtLitPhx: Faye Hamilton’s ‘Rescue 12 Responding’

Hamilton discusses and signs her independently published debut novel.

David and Jonathan are paramedics who deal with life and death and the consequences of human choice. On Rescue 12, they respond to the tragic drug overdose of a group of teenagers at a high school party. One girl survives to tell what she witnessed during her near-death experience. This encounter results in the spiritual awakening of David and forces Jonathan to confront his own Christian faith, which he abandoned when he came out to his father. What happens when the ambulance arrives? What happens when a patient dies? Why does God allow for sin, death, and suffering? What’s the point of trying? These questions are answered, the emergency rescue calls are shared, and the lives of the two paramedics are forever changed by the spiritual warfare they encounter.

PARKING / LIGHT RAIL

  • Don’t want to drive? Take the Light Rail! It lets off at the Central Avenue/Camelback Park-and-Ride, which has hundreds of free parking spaces across the street from Changing Hands.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

FAYE HAMILTON writes, “I was a paramedic for many years. 25 years ago, while assigned to Rescue 12 in Gibsonton, Florida, I wrote the novel – Rescue 12 Responding. Shortly after I completed the novel, my life went crazy and the book found its way to the back of the closet.

I returned to School, got a bachelor’s degree with a major in Religion then continued to graduate school, and am now working as a Physician Assistant in an Emergency Department in the Phoenix, Arizona area.

Recently my husband died and in that quiet, I decided to pick up this novel and share it with others. I knew when I wrote it, that I would write a sequel to the story. I have recently begun to work on the second book, this time, set in an Emergency Department.”

EVENT INFORMATION

Location: Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix 

Date: Tuesday, August 6

Time: 7 p.m.

For more information about the event, click here.

#ArtLitPhx: Getting That Novel on the Page

The goal of Desert Sleuths, the Phoenix chapter of Sisters in Crime, is to nurture, encourage, guide, and offer fellowship to new writers.

New writers like you! From the Sleuths: “Maybe you’re one of the thousands of people who would love to write a book but your career has been focused in a non-literary field. Here’s your chance to get the lowdown on how to fulfill your dream of becoming an author. Changing Hands is hosting our presentation of beginning and newly published authors who also had writing dreams. They may have been police officers, service workers, lawyers, office workers, or elementary school teachers. Now they’re involved in putting their stories on paper. A panel of newbie writers will detail how they have gone from dreamer to writer, including Deb J Ledford, an author and professional content editor who has worked extensively with the panelists. Get your questions answered, listen to the writers’ stories, then go home and fire up your computer!

PARKING / LIGHT RAIL

  • Don’t want to drive? Take the Light Rail! It lets off at the Central Avenue/Camelback Park-and-Ride, which has hundreds of free parking spaces across the street from Changing Hands.

ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION 
Sisters in Crime, a national organization originated in 1986 when best-selling author, Sara Paretsky and several friends wanted to create more support and recognition for women writers. Desert Sleuths was organized in 1992 and boasts an annual membership of 100+. It holds an annual writing conference in September, and bi-annually, in odd-numbers years, publishes an anthology of members’ short mystery stories.

EVENT INFORMATION

Location: Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix 

Date: Sunday, July 14

Time: 3 p.m.

For more information about the event, click here.

#ArtLitPhx: The Story of the American War with Omar El Akkad

Date: Thursday, April 18, 2019

Time: 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Location:
Ventana Ballroom, Memorial Union, 301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281

Cost: Free

Event Description:

Join award winning journalist and author Omar El Akkad for his talk, The Story of the American War, on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the ASU Memorial Union in the Ventana Ballroom (301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281) at 6:00 p.m. A Q&A and book signing will follow the talk.

In this talk, El Akkad talks about how he came to write his debut novel – the events that inspired it, the references buried throughout the text and the places he visited to research the book. This lecture covers the writing and editing process, the story of how the book came to be published, and the wildly different reactions it has prompted inside and outside the United States.

While encouraged, RSVPs are purely for the purposes of monitoring attendance, gauging interest, and communicating information about parking, directions, and other aspects of the event. You do not have to register or RSVP to attend this event. This event is open to the public and free.

Presented by the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University, a partnership between the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

About the Author

Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Doha, Qatar before moving to Canada with his family. An award-winning journalist and author, El Akkad has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. El Akkad is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. His critically acclaimed debut American War, published in 2017, is a post-apocalyptic novel set during the second American Civil War in the year 2074. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 

About the Book

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself. 

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike. (Penguin Random House)


#ArtLitPhx: Writing Autobiographies and Memoirs with Dr. Duane Roen

artlitphx

Date: 03/09/2019
Time: 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Location: Library Meeting Room B, Tempe Public Library, 3500 S. Rural Rd., Tempe, Arizona 85282
Cost: Free

Event Description:
Learn to use strategies and resources for writing autobiography and memoir to tell your family’s story. Participants will write about a life event, so please bring paper and a pen or a laptop computer.

QUESTIONS? 480-350-5500

FEE: None

REGISTRATION: Not required

#ArtLitPhx: English at ASU Open Door 2019

Date: Saturday, February 23, 2019
Time: 1-6 p.m
Location: Ross-Blakley Hall (RBHL), Tempe Campus, 1102 S McAllister Ave, Tempe, AZ 85281
Cost: Free of charge and open to the public

Event Description:
Please join us at ASU Open Door 2019! All English activities will take place at ASU’s campus in Tempe in or near Ross-Blakley Hall, are free of charge, and are open to the public.

Swords Instead of Quips in YA Fantasy
1-3 p.m.   |   RBHL 196

Join NYT Bestselling Author Melissa Marr to learn how to integrate combat sequences into story. Using primarily Historical European martial arts (longsword and single-handed messer), but touching on kali sticks and improvised weaponry, Marr will discuss and demonstrate fighting as a realistic outgrowth of character, world, and setting. Marr will cover integrating action into story naturally and touch on tricks to stretch out the action in text without relying on historical inaccuracies, gross misuse of weapons, or action clichés like villain monologues.

Making the Star Wars Universe
1-6 p.m.  |  RBHL 101

ASU experts in film, television and literature share their perspective on the secret of Star Wars’ success. Mix and mingle with your favorite Jedis, hear the backstory of those vintage Star Wars toys and action figures, learn about the female heroes of Star Wars, enjoy themed face-painting and get your own balloon creature made by a Star Wars cosplayer. (Face-paint and balloons from 1:30-3:30 only).

RED INK Tipi Experience 
1-6 p.m.  |  RBHL (outdoors on SDFC East Field)

ASU’s Red Ink Indigenous Initiative presents cultural stories from Indigenous communities for children and adults. Each session is facilitated in a traditional tipi setting by tribal storytellers.

Hogwarts Sorting Hat & Spell Casting
1-3 p.m.  |  RBHL 117

Welcome to Hogwarts! Inspired by the Harry Potter books, young visiting wizards get sorted into a “house” and receive a corresponding wand; use the wand to magically correct misspelled words! Teeny tiny wizards can just enjoy learning silly spells. Beware: Dementors may show up! Facilitated by professors Jim Blasingame and Peter Goggin and English Education students.

Hogwarts Wand-Making and Platform Photos 
3:30-6 p.m.  |  RBHL 117

Members of Dumbledore’s Amy at ASU, a Harry Potter-themed student club, coach wannabe-wizards on the art of wand-making (supplies provided). Take a selfie at Platform 9 ¾ in London’s King’s Cross Station!

Giant Crossword and Word Search Puzzles  
1-6 p.m.  |  RBHL Lobby

Interactive word games for all ages designed by Regents’ Professor and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos. Prizes for correct answers!

Writing Takes Place: Your Life in Haiku
1-6 p.m.  |  RBHL 119

Write your autobiography in Haiku, a short Japanese verse form. Take your finished poem with you! Coached by teachers in ASU Writing Programs (who are expert syllable-counters).

 

To learn more about the event, click here.

Contributor Update, Pam Houston: Deep Creek, Finding Hope in the High Country

Today we are happy to share the news of past contributor Pam Houston. Pam’s memoir “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country” was just published by W. W. Norton & Company in January of 2019. Reminiscing about her life living in the Colorado Rockies, Pam discusses the beauty and pain of human life and her ties to the earth, specifically her 120-acre ranch. The memoir not only includes her essays but also 12 of the author’s own black and white photographs.

The book can be purchased here, and information about her signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz can be found here.

Congratulations Pam!

Guest Blog Post, Edmund Sandoval: The Things You Put in Your Head Sometimes Make It into the World

An anatomically drawn brain.
Photo credit on hover.

This much is true: I haven’t been writing much lately. At least not creatively. Or with any kind of fervor or grace. I have been writing, though. I’ve been writing copy. Like that scruffy guy in Mad Men. The one who eventually cut off his nipple. Ginsburg. I’ve been writing ads and newsletters and product descriptions and stuff like that. Content for websites. It pays the bills and then some. It affords a life of minor plenty. But it does not inspire. It’s commerce, it’s not art. Though, sometimes, and only sometimes, I like to joke that it’s the other way around, and that it is in fact art, not commerce, as periodically an occasion presents me with the opportunity to splash a bit of that woebegotten grace around the page/screen. You’ve seen the work I did for that luxury hotel? In Chicago? So I’ve been writing but I haven’t been writing. I’ve been losing writing. Displacing water. Something-something.

In lieu of writing, I’ve been thinking of writing. I’ve been reminiscing. Pulling notes of old harmony from the sticky depths of my glial stew. It has given me that subtle kind of joy that’s so often associated with nostalgia for things gone by: years, cardigans, cross country trips with my brother.

To that end, I have been thinking of firsts. Not those kinds of firsts. These kinds of firsts. First story written; first story/essay published; first book (what book?); and so on. You’ve been there right? Not writing like you feel you ought to be. That self-generated guilt. Rafts of the stuff. Right. So here we go.

First Story: I started writing my first story outside of Orland, California. I was living at the Farm Sanctuary. I was living in a communal home and surrounded by hills and the smell of cows and ducks and pigs and the like. There were three donkeys and no horses. There was a herd of skittish sheep that ran through the hills like dirty laundry possessed of a poltergeist.

I was younger, then. Twenty-two, I think. I was a vegan, then. And strong. And kind of angry. But mainly happy. And careless.

There wasn’t much to do out there. The internet connection was spotty.

Out there, you could spend time with the staff who lived in the communal house and those who didn’t. You could walk the hills. You could run them. You could go into the forests if you could catch a ride or to the Black Butte Lake Reservoir on an old mountain bike. You could suck down beers and smoke a single cigarette while watching the sunset with a woman named Anne. Those are things I did.

Too, there was downtime and alone time. So I read and napped with a cat whose fur was a luminescent shade of gray that trended blue when hit with the sun. I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Haruki Murakami. Toni Morrison. Yukio Mishima. Pearl Buck. Borges. Peter Singer. Whatever was leftover from staff that had come to live in the communal house before eventually leaving. I read magazines. Sometimes the cat would pee on my shirts. The staff who’d been there for awhile said it was because it liked me and didn’t want me to leave, though I, too, eventually would.

It was after I closed the back flap of One-Hundred Years of Solitude that it struck me: I should write a story/I will a story/Let’s write a story! And like in fairy tales of and the lore of writers new and old, the story came to me prepackaged and ready to use.

All I had to do was write it.

Which I did.

In between my chores and after dinner in the communal house. While I emptied feed troughs and mucked barns. It was about an old guy who was friends with a ficus tree. As it goes, the story was called: “Ficus Tree.” It was probably clichéd as all get. But I had to write it. Like a new tooth coming in and shoving aside the old. A tendril pressing through the hull of its seed.

There was a scene I remember liking, the man leaning against a pane of frosted glass in winter and the skin of ice evaporating around his profile as he sat and drank.

When I was through, I printed it out and shared it around with my housemates. It was momentous (for me, at least), as it laid bare the roadmap my life was looking for.

That story, though, is long gone. I’d saved it on a hard floppy but who knows where that ended up. Maybe my mom has a copy somewhere. Probably it is full of typos and tense errors and springs too tightly wound. I’d like to see it again, if possible. I’ll ask her if she held on to it. I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

First Published Story: I was spinning my wheels and waiting to get into graduate school when my first story was submitted and accepted for publication.

I was living with my mom and stepdad in Carbondale, Illinois. It was a good time. I hadn’t a job yet had some money. I drank whiskey with my town friends. I ran fast around the lake situated on the campus of the local university.

The story? Well, it was accepted by the Paris Review!! It was such a shock. Like realizing, suddenly, I could levitate at will. I’m kidding. It was accepted by The Thieves Jargon, an online-only publication. You remember it? I feel like people liked appearing in that one. Like getting something accepted and published by elimae. Like elimae, The Thieves Jargon has gone the way of the ghost. Even its archives are extinct. Scraped from the face of the earth. Like river silt washed into and swallowed by the ocean.

The story was heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by Rick Bass’s “Mississippi.” My story was called “Agnes is Gorgeous.” It was about a guy and a woman named Agnes. I don’t think the guy had a name. I think it was in written in the third person. Or maybe it was the first?

(I’d started working on it New Orleans, on the floor of my friend’s apartment, writing under the swirl of the ceiling fan and caressing the keys of my gigantic Dell Inspiron laptop.)

In the story, the couple were together, though I don’t remember what they did together or what drove the story. My sense memory tells me that they were nice enough to each other, that they were perhaps too dependent on each other, that they had a box fan in the window. Probably they drank iced tea and were familiar with each other more often than not.

Anything else, I don’t know.

What I do know is that when I received the acceptance email from the editors at Thieves, I damn well did levitate up the stairs from my mother’s basement and into the kitchen to tell her and my stepdad that I was to be a published author. It was the most incredible feeling I’d felt in a long while, as I’d already been loved by someone not my parents. It was validation that my work had some merit, however fleeting or thin. While Thieves was still up and running, I’d come to publish another tiny story or two in the magazine. Stories about deli workers wrapping steaks in thick white paper. Laborers. The times I knew when I was between schools and standing on ladders and swinging sledge hammers and breathing in crystalline silica dust and coughing it up at night after hours and hours of drinking.

First Published Essay: The one season of little league I participated in, I tried my best to emulate Will “The Thrill” Clark, first baseman (at least when I was a player) for the San Francisco Giants.

He wore number twenty-two.

His first homerun occurred during his first professional at bat, off of Nolan Ryan.

I admired him because, when in the box, he held his bat like a hobo held a bindle stick, slung carelessly behind the back, its end tipping toward the ground in a careless little wag and dance.

I was living in Wisconsin when The Thrill would come to feature in my first foray into essay.

I was working for the state, at the time.

I was most definitely hating life, at the time, and my own in particular.

I had a cubicle, then, and was checking my Twitter account and in the doing, saw that a literary magazine I followed had a call for writing having to do with baseball. That magazine was Hobart Pulp. I hadn’t any thoughts of sharing pieces of myself through writing or writing of baseball until the moment I saw that tweet. But when I did, I said to myself: Let’s write about little league and Will Clark and being a kid with a younger brother being raised, at that time, primarily by our mom, who was doing her best but who did not, when taking me to the Hibbett Sports Store at the Carbondale mall to buy an aluminum baseball bat and white leather (fresh!) batting gloves, did not buy me a protective cup (I already had a ball glove). And I, being in fifth grade, was too terrified and shy to ask for one, as doing so would implicitly/explicitly imply and foretell that I was growing up, so off I went into the fields and dugouts of the sporting complex with nothing but my reflexes and a polycotton fabric blend to protect me from the potential energy stored within a baseball.

As mentioned, I had a stupid job (it really was) in a stupid department in a stupid state and though I didn’t like to, I did my work and still had plenty plenty of time to sit there in my desk chair, idling with my two screens open, my official work stuff always up, my writing stuff off to the side, always ready, at first, to minimize the page, and always ready, later, to just keep it up.

So when the prompt hovered in front of me in my cubicle area, I pulled up a fresh Word Doc and started typing away about Will Clark and being from a broken home (ha), the only one among my friends with divorced friends.

I wrote about striking out all the time and Will Clark’s beautiful swing, as gorgeous a thing as Ken Griffey Jr’s, and how it was almost more gorgeous than KG’s because Will Clark looked more like a guy who’d just clambered down from a deer stand than an athlete who could loft balls out of the park as easy pressing a glass to the little piece that made ice fall from an automatic ice dispenser.

I wrote it sent it out and it was accepted and published, I think, in 2015, April, the usual month Hobart holds kicks off its baseball theme.

I guess it was a coming of age piece, in a way.

It was so much fun to write while sitting in that drab cubicle, in the sense that it provided a kind of sanctuary from the doldrums I was so often kicking around in those days.

It was a pleasure to think of Will Clark and how I saw his glove and cleats in Cooperstown, a place he’ll probably only ever visit as a guest. In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of having a poem and short story accepted by Hobart and asides from my own personal sense of accomplishment, they’re just a damn fine journal whose staff work tirelessly to highlight excellent writers across the board.

We’re at the end now. This mosey down memory lane is the most writing I’ve done in awhile. It was fun. It felt good. It said to me, as I was writing, stop taking on so many freelance projects, guy. Your job is enough. Writing is more important than a few extra bucks. And it is. So I should. And maybe I will. If I know what’s good for me.

Authors Talk: Joe Bardin

Today we are pleased to feature author Joe Bardin as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Joe discusses the process of envisioning and writing his essay “Trenton into Time.”

Joe reflects how he first realized “that there was an essay to write” during a conversation with his housemates, where he “started talking about this period of my life…And I realized… that the things I was recounting were, in some sense, remarkable.” He affirms that “I think there’s a kind of epiphany that some writers experience, when at different points we realize that… our experience matters, that it has some kind of meaning or substance,” and states that, “That’s what got me going onto ‘Trenton into Time.'”

“We all sort of live ‘on top’ of these stories and experiences that have happened to us,” Joe declares. “We may remember or not remember [them] clearly, or consider or not consider [them] important, but underneath lie these moments in time that are part of who we are.” He calls the exploration of such moments “a kind of archaeology,” stating that “the person we are now is like the city built on top of a hill that’s full of relics of the past.” He emphasizes that “there’s something very intimate about remembering… and making some kind of sense of it now.”

You can read Joe’s essay, “Trenton into Time,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.