The Nazis’ Legacy of Silence

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This week an essay by Jessica Shattuck in The New York Times caught my attention. Entitled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi,” it recounts how the author tried to reconcile her grandmother’s connection to the Nazis with the sweet and gentle woman she knew. At best, her grandmother gave stock responses or evasive answers to her many questions about that time. The essay resonated especially sharply with me. Having helped a German born, naturalized American doctor write his memoir, Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon, I recognized in it what I think of as the Nazis’ legacy of silence.

I was thinking about that silence, anyway, in preparing to respond to fellow writer and blogger Charli Mills’s flash fiction prompt this week: to write about an audience. As it happens, there is a moving scene in Backbone, wherein my author, Dr. Volker K. H. Sonntag, is to give a keynote speech in Berlin to a combined convention of German and American neurosurgeons. Like Sonntag, the German doctors had all been born during the war or immediately following the defeat of the Nazis. As Dr. Sonntag explains in the story:

After casting around for a topic I could get my teeth into, I decided to call on my own experience as a naturalized American born in East Germany in the last days of World War II, just as the Russians were massing at the border like a cresting wave. I called the presentation “A Personal Reflection of the Cold War.”

Brochure on the United States Refugee Program, 1950sWhen I first met Dr. Sonntag 4 1/2 years ago, this was the story we set out to tell in his book: how, in the last days of the war, his mother fled the East with her infant son, Volker, and his brother in tow; how, after the defeat of the Nazis, the family languished in an allied refugee camp for 4 years; how their brief postwar recovery was halted by a brain abscess in his father’s parietal lobe that destroyed his career as a dentist; and how they immigrated to the United States in 1957, where the young man overcame further adversities to realize his version of the “American Dream”—and came to grips with Germany’s Nazi past.

Backbone: The Life adn Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon by Volker K. H. Sonntag, MD
Dr. Sonntag’s memoir, to be released May 2, 2017.

While that version still exists, the current book relegates that story to the background and focuses on Dr. Sonntag’s remarkable career as a pioneering spinal neurosurgeon. Certainly the story of his rise in the high-stakes world of neurosurgery is no less thrilling than his immigrant chronicle. But it was that earlier account that came to mind this week.

The questions Miss Shattuck grapples with are those that Dr. Sonntag and his contemporaries have struggled with, at even less of a distance. He was born to educated, bourgeoise parents in late 1944, in the walled city of Graudenz, which was then in East Germany and is now the Polish town of Grudziądz—”a city,” he writes, “that was fast becoming a landscape of bombed-out craters and smoking ruins.” He does not believe his parents were Nazis. But though historical hindsight has filled in many gaps for him, it has also posed questions his parents never answered, among them:

The Nazis roll into Poland in 1939.
Nazi Panzers roll into Poland in 1939.

I don’t know if my parents had already moved to Graudenz when, five years earlier, on September 3, 1939, Hitler’s Panzers rolled down its cobble-stoned streets to cheers of jubilation from the minority German population (and to the horror of the Poles), but it was in this town on the Vistula that had found itself part of Prussia, then modern Germany, then Poland, and now at my birth, Germany again, that my father decided to establish his dental practice and his family.

Like Ms. Shattuck, he wonders about his father’s and mother’s experience. What did his parents feel about the Nazis? Did they witness the persecution of the Jews? Did they know of the concentration camps? Did his father (as some anecdotal evidence suggests) defy the Nazis early on? Were they, in the end and by nature of their complacency, complicit in one of the greatest mass acts of evil history has known?

Those questions and more have not diminished in urgency, as Ms. Shattuck’s essay, and its reach, have shown. And while the children and grandchildren of the generation that brought Hitler to power have gone on with their lives and done good deeds—and, in Europe, become the cornerstone of a pan-European peace-keeping effort—they can never quite escape the stigma of Germany’s great sin.

The issue of the Nazis was a very sensitive one for my client to address in his book. But address it he did in scenes such as the one I mentioned earlier, where, in 2004, Dr. Sonntag delivers his “Personal Reflections of the Cold War” to an audience of stoic German doctors. Seeing their reaction, he concludes:

“It seemed that what had happened to my family, and to me, was a piece of a larger story that many Germans of my generation have been unable to tell, or even to explore for themselves. After all, our stories stemmed from our family histories, and who wanted to hear about the hardships German people faced after the war? Who wanted to hear how the generation of Germans who had brought the Nazis to power overcame adversity, did good work, loved and sacrificed for their children?

And it is that scene that has provided my response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge this week: March 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an audience. It can be broad or small, and gathered for any reason. How does your character react to an audience? Is the audience itself a character. Go where the prompt leads.

So imagine now that generation to which Dr. Sonntag belongs, a generation that inherited both the ignominy of the Nazi legacy and the silence to which that legacy condemned his parents’ generation—and their families. Imagine a cadre of very successful members of that first postwar generation gathered together to reflect on their experience. Here then, named after and modified from the chapter in the book in which it appears, is my flash.

Dresden

When I’d finished speaking, the air in the hall felt like a single, collective breath being held. Then clapping surged, a hard rain on a tin roof.

Several fellow Germans made their way to the podium.

“Very fitting, Doctor,” one said, his voice breaking. “I’ve not thought about those days in so long.”

“Your story is my own,” said another. “No one has talked about what happened to us after the war.”

Last was the distinguished head of a large hospital. Blinking through tears, he took my hand. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

My own throat closed.

 

 

Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay | Bookreporter.com

One hundred years ago, Bohemian author and editor of the radical Masses magazine, Floyd Dell, began a passionate affair with a newcomer to Greenwich Village–the yet-to-be-discovered “girl poet,” Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the years that followed, both Dell and Millay became symbols of early 20th-century feminism, rebellion and literary freedom. A century later, while poring over her grandfather Floyd’s papers at Chicago’s Newberry Library, Jerri Dell discovered hundreds of handwritten letters and an unpublished memoir about his love affair with Millay. Finding him as outlandish, entertaining and insightful as he was when she knew him 50 years before, she chose to bring him and his poet lover back to life within the pages of this book.

Source: Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay | Bookreporter.com

The Higher Power: Transcendence in Rehab and Writing

I’m flexing my own creative writing muscles this morning with a flash fiction challenge from Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch. Naturally the prompt leads me  to experiences in my personal life for fodder. This provides a bit of conflict, since I recently vowed to keep this blog confined to writing topics. Still, I hope to honor my vow not only by falling back on the oft-repeated maxim about writing—write what you know—but also tying in the theme of transcendence, whether in your personal life or your writing life (as if the two were separate.)

One thing I have come to know (against any intent or desire to do so) is the terrible challenges for individuals and their families wrought by the epidemic of opioid abuse in our country. According to last week’s New York Times article, Inside a Killer Drug Epidemic: A Look at America’s Opioid Crisis, it killed more than 33,000 people in 2015. When you count the families and communities affected, the damage goes much deeper.

Today, though, I want to address not the epidemic itself but the related topic of rehab, in particular the idea of the “higher power” invented and popularized by the most enduring drug and alcohol rehab program out there, AA.

Rehab and the Higher Power

I recently visited a loved one in a rehab facility here in Phoenix where he was doing a month-long residential treatment. It was cold outside, so we gravitated to the rather institutional cafeteria to chat. Posted on the wall were the 12 steps, among which 6 mention God or higher power, a key element of the program:

* Step 2—We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
* Step 3—We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
* Step 5—We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
* Step 6—We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
* Step 7—We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
* Step 11—We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

I was struck by the focus on God in the program, though I was aware of the idea of the higher power and that participants could interpret that according to their own beliefs. Yet, tending toward an atheistic view of reality myself, and having raised my children with a more scientific and evolutionary understanding of the nature of things, I wondered how my young man could reconcile his secular grounding with a program clearly designed with a deistic approach to human existence.

We revisited this topic last week when I drove him to a different facility for a second month in residential rehab. He admitted that he was having difficulties with this focus on God, that he had talked to his counselor about it. He understood the idea of replacing what had been his “higher power”—heroin—in the sense that he  had lost control of his life by giving it over to the needle. But try as he might, he could not identify what a “higher power” meant to him outside of the religious sense.

I recalled a conversation I’d had with my philosopher futurist husband, Tom Lombardo, concerning the idea of transcendence, which appears as a major theme in chapter 12 of his forthcoming book, Future Consciousness: The Pathway to Purposeful Evolution. In applying the idea to the struggle with addiction, I had understood it too narrowly. I believed that transcendence, in the case of overcoming addiction or character flaws or adversities, meant simply to connect to a vision of yourself that transcends your former self. Just as our older selves transcend our younger selves, so, I thought, could our future “good” selves transcend  our former flawed selves.

For Tom, however, transcendence is connected to deep purpose in life. As he writes:

Deep purpose usually entails some higher good or reality transcendent to our personal existence or life. Deep purpose is a “calling” toward something greater than ourselves, a holistic, perhaps cosmic dimension to motivation, bringing in the ego-transcendent, above and beyond our individual well-being. Deep purpose is intentionally placing the storyline of our lives within a bigger whole.

Granted, conceptualizing a higher good transcendent to our personal reality is a a task of a high order even for those of us with less challenging struggles than addiction. When each day is a battle with a demon, how do you identify what that transcendent reality might be? And yet, it is a mistake, I believe, to to underestimate the desire in the substance abuser to do just that. While the idea of the higher good may begin on a highly personal plane—good health; job stability; a “normal” life—from there it expands to goals such as improved relationships; marriage; membership in a community…moving beyond the narrow focus on self that substance abuse engenders to a view of how we might contribute to a broader good as neighbors, friends, citizens, humans, inhabitants of the earth and cosmos.

Moreover, the beauty of conceptualizing the higher good in this way is that it in no way sacrifices a person’s individual condition. As Tom adds:

Yet, reciprocally, deep purpose invariably reflects and serves the individual. In identifying a person’s deep purpose in life we find that it intimately connects with that person’s strongest interests, skills, and qualities of personality. Deep purpose seems to emerge, at least in part, through finding activities (and consequent goals) that we love. Deep purpose requires personal passion.

Transcendence and Writing

These passages only skim the surface of the topic of transcendence, but as I applied the message to the theme of rehab, I also thought of how it worked in my life as a writer. Specifically, what do I want to accomplish with my writing? What do I want to write about? What purpose does it serve? Certainly I write not only for personal satisfaction. I would like to touch others with my writing, to provide something of value, beauty, (dare I say) wisdom. On the highest order, I want to improve my craft to improve myself as a person, and thus equip myself to fulfill what I see as my own evolutionary purpose: to in some way contribute to the positive evolution of humanity.

These are the thoughts that go through my head as I enter my fifth year of a life dedicated to writing. What about you? How does your writing connect you to your deep purpose? How does it reflect and/or facilitate your passion? Is your writing ego-focused or ego-transcendent?

And…before I forget, here is this week’s flash fiction challenge:

January 5, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rattling sound. It can be an intimidating sound of protest, a disorienting loud sound, a musical expression or a gentle baby’s toy. Go where the prompt leads you.

The Gettin’ Place

He took a drag and rattled the ice in his cup.

“That Coke’s no good for you,” I said.

“One poison at a time, Mom.”

Our usual exchange.

“Feeling ready?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“We’ll get the apartment packed up. Figure out the rest after rehab.”

He nodded, his beauty piercing and hopeful in the dawn light.

“Those blankets, though, I’m tossing them.”

“OK.”

We’d argued about the overstuffed garbage bag the girlfriend had left behind.

“Where’d she get them anyway?

He smiled, knowingly, sheepishly.

“The gettin’ place,” he said.

He’d come far, but the street was still in him.

 

 

Alt Tag? and 2 More Stupid Questions That Will Make Your Blogging Great – ALWAYS WRITE

Don’t you know what an alt text is? Don’t you hate asking stupid questions? Even if it will help your blogging? Let me do it for you. I mean everyone knows about alt text by now, don’t they? Do you even know where to find alt text? I did not. And who thinks up keywords … Continue reading “Alt Tag? and 2 More Stupid Questions That Will Make Your Blogging Great”

Source: Alt Tag? and 2 More Stupid Questions That Will Make Your Blogging Great – ALWAYS WRITE

Just discovered Marsha Ingrao at the above site. Super tips on blogging, writing and formatting images.

Ghostwriting: Expressing Your Author’s Authentic Voice

I am an American woman with a Humanities degree and a background in languages, literature, and the arts in general. My client is a naturalized German-American, retired spinal neurosurgeon. You would be correct in assuming we do not share a common voice when it comes to expressing ourselves. So, when it came to writing what eventually traveled the trajectory from life story to medical memoir, one of the most critical lessons I had to learn was how to muffle my voice and allow his to ring out.

I was reminded of this lesson today when reading a post by Nicola Krauss on Writer UnBoxed, From Bestseller to Ghostwriter. In describing the art of capturing an author’s voice, Ms. Kraus writes that:

Each person has their own natural lexicon and rhythm of speech. It’s essential to stay confined to that. I will never impose my own way of saying something when I’m editing, because it would stick out. I would advise anyone interested in doing this work to spend as much time with your client as possible so that when you sit down to edit their words you can “be” them.

Such great advice, especially for someone who is naturally a wordy writer, as I am. I tend to throw everything in at the onset and then reduce, refine, and sculpt during the edits and revisions. This is evident in passages from an early draft of my author’s book. As one writing friend pointed out, the overall tone was not only verbose and flowery (another problem to be addressed later), it also struck his particular ear as the voice of a female.

To illustrate just how important it is to develop an authentic authorial voice for your client (something that realistically requires months of collaboration), let’s look at the following passages, in particular the lines in italics. The first one is from the draft that eventually became the first book, a life story:

Sports grounded me in those years. No matter what was happening at home, once I got on the court or the field, I focused my attention and energy on the goal in front of me. And when my mother put the kibosh on football my sophomore year . . . the main thing I did was run. I ran in track and field meets. I ran cross-country. I ran at Central and at competing schools. One spring, I ran up and down the wooden bleachers until my shins burned, all the while trying to outrun dire images of falling through the open spaces between the benches and breaking my neck. I ran the mile again my junior and senior year, but only broke five minutes two or three times and never won a race again, or even came in with the top three. Before every race, I got anxious as hell. I didn’t know which was worse, the butterflies in my stomach or the sense of dread that lodged in my chest and chased all rational thoughts out of my head. The thing is, though, that once I started running, all those negative feelings disappeared. In action, they were transformed into fuel.

In the medical memoir version, the passage was reduced and, in the final line, connected to the primary theme driving the story :

I also knew, inherently, that physical fitness was essential. I had played soccer from my earliest boyhood in Germany, but sports in the US were much more organized and competitive. I went out for the usual athletics: football (my mother put the kibosh on that after my freshman year), basketball, and track. I didn’t know what I was good at in track, but I ended up running middle or long distance and eventually ran the mile. Now looking back, it seems I was running figuratively too, towards my identity as an American, towards my future in medicine.

Now, this is a mild example. I murdered many darlings in the rewrite. Consider the following lyrical waxings:

The scenery we took in on those drives never failed to affect us. When you climbed a low rise and looked out over the land, you couldn’t help but be moved by the immense landscapes, the way the mountain ranges unfolded one after another in the distance; the way they changed from a pale gold at noon to slate blue and finally deep purple in the evenings.

And this, a description of life at sea:

Each day was the same. Each day was a surrender to nausea and monotony, punctuated by brief sorties to the upper deck. My world had shrunk to a thin mattress in a sea of beds. For the others, it was waking up to an icy wind that continued all day and then finding a way to pass the time until evening brought some diversion. Except for the large day room, there was only the deck; the choice was to endure the noise of a thousand foreign tongues reverberating off the bare, damp walls, or brave the raw elements outside.

Admittedly, I was enthralled with my client’s story and the dramatic possibilities. And he enjoyed the embellishments, keeping many of my descriptions in the life story he published for family and close friends. But when it came to the more commercial version, it was clear that my love affair with language had to be reined in.

Enabling your client/author to tell their story in their words while making the text engaging and colorful involves many more elements. A sensitivity to the way your client really speaks is just the beginning. My job also entailed suggestions for changes that would not stray too far from his natural speech but that would replace commonly overused and empty words such as “interesting” and “nice” with words that were true to a particular character or experience. But that requires another post.

What about you? What has been your experience in telling another person’s story? If you write fiction, how have you arrived at an authentic voice for your characters?

 

Working Titles

Having struggled with titling a book (and subtitling it!), I appreciated today’s post by writer Lance Schaubert on Writer Unboxed, and his “quick manual on how to title a work.”

If writing a novel is like having a baby, then titling it is like naming your kid. And parents fret over the names of their children. Big time. Have you seen the sheer number and size of baby name …

Source: Working Titles

The Memoir and Christmas: Finding Meaning in Family Memories

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays all! Following is a post from my “latent” blog, Memoir Crafter, that speaks to the season and to the craft of memoir.

The Christmas season is upon us like snow on North Dakota. With it comes a sleighful of memories. But how to write meaningfully about this most evocative of holidays in a way that engages the reader?

In a first draft of my client’s memoir, I mined a five-page document he had written about the Christmases he remembered from his childhood in Germany in the early 1950s and inserted it into the memoir in chronological order. I found the cultural details colorful and fascinating: the walk through the snow to the Gothic Stadkirche in the center of town; the candles on the tree; the Christmas Eve rollmoepse (rolled herring); the recitation of poems and the small tables of presents for each child. I researched Christmases of the 1950s and found a cache of wonderful photos on the Internet from which to draw for authentic descriptions of street scenes and interiors. My client loved it.

When it came to using the memory in the memoir, however, it was too much. It slowed everything down. It became a “travelogue” of a German Christmas.

I cut the entire section. Later I asked myself several questions: How does this anecdote advance the themes that are emerging in the book? Where is the best place to insert memories about a childhood Christmas (or other holiday or event)? Can these memories be tied to a later event?

In the rewrite, the details that are important to my client reappeared but in much shorter form. And in what turned out to be a second book entirely (a medical memoir), they had shrunk to one single paragraph in a chapter about his mother’s death decades later. Juxtaposed with a description of the mother’s last Christmas, these childhood memories have attained a poignancy that they did not have in the earlier draft. They deliver a message about the importance of family and tradition and the cultural transmission of values and family lore from one generation to the next.

So, now I invite you to think about a favorite Christmas memory and to write it down. I invite you to approach this exercise within the framework of a theme: family, friendship, regret, parental sacrifice, romance…whatever emerges as you think about it. How would you make a memory meaningful to a reader? How would you flesh out the significant people–what details would make them come alive? What reflections from your adult perspective would add meaning?

If you have trouble beginning, take out an old photograph. Nothing stirs our memories better than those glimpses into our past. And while you are mining that photo for details, don’t limit yourself to the visual. What were the smells associated with the scene, the sounds and the tactile impressions, even the taste?

Towards that end, I have illustrated today’s post with a photograph of my siblings and me (and a cousin in the upper left) taken circa 1958. This photo was shot at a time that precedes memory for me, but the simplicity of the tree and the fact that my parents had us kneel says much about the place and time and culture I was born into.

And by the way…I am the impious child who will not kneel. This detail is what I might use as a jumping off point if I were to write a memoir scene of Christmases past, how that little girl, her older, uber-pious sister in the middle, and her prayerful twin on the left would become, respectively, a quarter decade into the future, a free thinker, a lesbian CEO, and a nun.

How have you used Christmas memories in your writing?

Blogging: Purpose, Focus, and Value to Readers

So, what is this blog about? I admit that if I look at my list of recent posts, it’s all over the place. I see posts about writing, memoir, flash fiction, personal challenges, social justice themes, politics. In short, I see a recipe for mental fragmentation and confusion. I am grateful for those readers who have stuck with me through my faltering steps on the blogging pathway, but as the time approaches for New Year’s resolutions, it’s clear I need to bring some focus to this site.

As with any endeavor, it is important to learn from the masters. One go-to resource I use is Jane Friedman, whose blog and newsletter helps “authors and publishers make smart decisions in the digital age.” Jane, a Great Courses professor and contributor to Publishers Weekly and other outlets, has created a blog and website brimming with resources for writers, with links to her publications, classes, and related services. It was Jane’s webinar on WordPress that gave me the confidence to move beyond my first Google Blogspot blog, Memoir Crafter.

Through Jane, I have found other outstanding websites. Most recently, I followed a link in her post from October, “What Should Authors Blog About” that took me to writer, traveler, and unconventional living guru Chris Gillebeau’s blogging guide and manifesto, “279 Days to Overnight Success.” According to the statement on the manifesto page, Gillebeau’s blog is for “Bloggers, writers, online artists, and anyone otherwise interested in creating a new career or expanding their influence using social media.”  What the manifesto immediately did for me is get me thinking about the purpose of my blog and the possibility of threading the topics that are important to me into one cohesive theme. And if you are just starting out with a blog, his post on how to start one is one of the most succinct I’ve seen.

Another useful resource comes in the way of the bloggers and writers I follow regularly, those, for example, whose blogs support writers through the Literary Citizenship Model that Jane discusses in one of her posts. I follow several that are true to the goal of “celebrating and bringing attention to authors, writing, and books—the things you presumably love and want to support”:

Then there are author blogs. Among some I follow are:

And finally, the plethora of writing sites with blogs, such as:

These are just a handful of course, and I’m sure you all follow well-written blogs on topics other than writing that, despite their unique angles, convey a clearly recognizable theme and fulfill their purpose in giving readers useful and timely information. One blogger I follow that participates in the Carrot Ranch flash fiction challenges is early-childhood-educator Norah Colvin. Norah stays true to her purpose of inviting early childhood educators to support children’s learning through the use of her original teaching materials. Most recently, she is using her blog to launch Readilearn, a website that offers early childhood teaching resources.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for me. With today’s post, I plan to return to my original purpose and themes in blogging here. Those include topics related to memory and memoir writing; the craft of writing; and Word of the Week, exploring arcane and beautiful words. I’ll explore flash memoir through Charli Mills’s flash fiction challenges. And I’ll weave in two values in my philosophy of life—the pursuit of EXCELLENCE and the importance of HABIT—as they relate to the craft of writing.

If you blog, what have been your experiences in developing your online identity and themes? Have you found ways to incorporate seemingly unrelated topics into your posts without sacrificing focus?

 

Felons: Free but Still Shut Out

Felon. A word whose meaning seems so at odds with its sound. That soft fricative “f.” That sonic resonance with other lovely “f” words: feline, female, fellow. That rhyme with “melon.” A word whose first use was recorded in the 14th century to denote one who commits “an act on the part of a feudal vassal involving forfeiture of his fee.” Like “villain,” (one from a village), the word has evolved over time in meaning from a marker of societal status relative to a powerful authority to one denoting criminal activity and immorality. Though the original meaning of “felon” (feudal vassal) has gone the way of the feudal societies to which it was attached, the sense of forfeiture has survived.

I have spent a lot of time wrapping my head around the word “felon” this last year. Knowing a young felon intimately who was convicted of a non-violent crime, agreed to a plea bargain, did 8 months in a state minimum security prison, and was released in May, I’ve taken an interest in this growing segment of our population and of the post-incarceration fetters imposed on them by our criminal justice system.

First off, what numbers are we talking about here?  As of 2014, around 24 million people in the US (close to 10 percent of the adult population) had a felony conviction. This number is not surprising when we consider the fact that the US locks people up at a higher rate than any other country on earth.  Our prison population weighs in at 716 per 100,000 people. Alarming when you consider that more than half of the 222 countries with prison populations tracked in one study record a rate of 150 per 100,000 people.

There are many implications of this state of affairs, not the least of which is the very disturbing evidence for racial bias in incarceration rates and the clear connection to political delegitimization of people of color. (Note that state laws barring people with felony convictions from voting date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers worked to neutralize the black electorate.)

But here I’d like to simply address the effects on felons AFTER they have served their sentence. In fact, I wonder why they are still labeled “felon” at all once they have paid their debt to society. As noted in a New York Times editorial in May of 2016, the very “vocabulary of incarceration — the permanently stigmatizing way we speak about people who have served time — presents a significant barrier to reintegration.” On top of this psychological barrier—and the many typical challenges felons face, such as limited family support, a spotty work record, low level of education, outstanding fines, and substance abuse and mental health issues—ex-offenders (note that “ex”) face myriad legal restrictions as well. Among many others, these include:

  • Restrictions on housing (most apartments, especially corporate owned, will not rent to felons);
  • Ineligibility for financial aid;
  • Difficulty finding a job;
  • Ineligibility for some professional licenses;
  • Ineligibility to enlist in the armed forces; and
  • Loss of voting rights

That last restriction alone has received much attention this election year. Consider that in 2016, state laws barred nearly 6 million Americans with criminal convictions from voting in the presidential election. About 4.4 million of those are people who are not in prison but were still denied the right to vote. And if you home in on the rate by state alone, the percentage can be even more alarming. For example, a whopping ten percent of Florida adults can’t vote due to felonies.

So, why does this situation continue when a national survey shows that most Americans think that people who have committed felonies and served their time should be able to vote? I have no answer to that question, but I suspect it has something to do with politics, economics, and a judicial system geared towards punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Certainly there are bad, dangerous, and, arguably, irredeemable people in this world. But too many times we think in black and white about convicts; we fail to distinguish among them; we have no time to consider narratives of how each ended up behind bars. The system is complicated. Just the other night, a friend of mine pointed out what “animals” so many of the incarcerated are. Perhaps this is true. But perhaps our “correctional” facilities have some hand in completing the transformation of a human being into an animal unfit for society.

I don’t think I am naive about the criminal mind or about evil, but I do believe real rehabilitation must be an option for the many non-violent prisoners crammed into our often for-profit facilities. And I believe those felons who have paid their debt and make real efforts to rejoin society as productive citizens should be given a better chance.

Witnessing the obstacles my own young felon faces has certainly raised my awareness of this issue. But Charli Mills’s recent flash fiction challenge prompted me to write about it now. The prompt happened to coincide with a visit I made to accompany my felon to a residential drug and alcohol rehab center last week. Waiting in the dawn cold with a few other early comers hoping to get one of the limited beds that day, I listened to a couple of middle-aged individuals talk about their addictions and about the cascading legal problems and social isolation that has resulted.

Here is that December 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about something or someone not allowed. Maybe it’s about gender, race or other intolerance. Maybe it’s the cat who paws at the door, but not allowed inside. Maybe it’s a trail where dogs are not allowed. Go light, go dark, go where the prompt leads you.

Closed Doors

Her name is Karen. She stands outside in the dawn cold hugging a drab olive overcoat around her. “I’ve got to get this bed,” she said.

“What will you do if you can’t get in today?” I asked. “No family to stay with?”

“They gave up on me. My sister helped, but I burned her out too. Too many relapses.”

“That’s rough,” I said.

“I’m not a bum,” she said. “I’ve got a degree. Got a job with Easter Seals this year. But when the background check came back, they let me go.”

She shook her head. “No felons.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Against Adversity

notebook-and-ballpoint-with-laptop-in-background

I’ve been in absentia again with this blog. Part of the problem was the mania attached to the presidential election. I allowed my mind to be sucked into the black hole of endless headlines, op-ed pieces, Facebook posts, and news feeds. Post election, I went into mourning, battling my anxiety and dread with hefty doses of more bad media. When I did blog in October, the post was a political one, not what I want to use this space for.

Then there was the personal front. Since May, I have been rooting my son on as he struggles with his recovery from a heroin addiction. I could write a book on all the mistakes I’ve made: my failure much of the time to “detach” and live my own life; the unrelenting worry and pressing thoughts of how I might guide his decisions. And that is just one of my distractions. There are other adult children to worry about. There is my relationship with my husband, which has suffered from our sometimes polarized views on how to deal with the tensions. There are health and money issues. And there are our own goals for the good work we want to do together.

All this has provided myriad excuses to not write. I’m fatigued; I’m stressed; my mind is fragmented and I can’t concentrate. The “shoulds” push in: I should be helping my son find resources; I should be focusing on the positives with my husband, and on our shared endeavors; I should be bringing in more money—maybe I should take a teaching job to tide myself over.

Meanwhile, my own future as a writer languishes. And like many of those who dare to wreak out a living by writing, I can’t afford to let that future unfold without some critical planning. After a dream ghostwriting gig that has lasted four years (and resulted in two books), it’s time to capitalize on what I have learned and bring my writing life to the next level. I want to move beyond the editing jobs I’ve managed to develop. I want to get back to my own creative pursuits.

Quieting the Mind

So, what is the  answer when you cede internal control of your life to external forces? One solution is to permit yourself some personal care-taking. In her column, “How to Write When Life Sucks” on Writer UnBoxed, contributing writer Cathy Yardley recommends, first, some TLC: taking the time off to re-ground; relaxing in a favorite way; turning to the “trinity of self-care—water, light exercise, and sleep”; and taking advantage of your support group.

I would add to that list engaging in an activity that feeds your sense of control over your life. Aside from walking my seven rounds in a neighborhood park, I turn to housework; I tend to my plants. Cleaning and gardening are areas where I can impose order on chaos, where the care I bestow pays back with immediate benefits. And the physicality of those tasks relieves the tension in my body without making me worry more about being completely unproductive. Then what?

Ease Back into Writing

Once you’ve stopped the spin, you can ease yourself back into writing. As Yardley suggests:

The best way to do this:  set a small goal to start.  Ridiculously small.  For some, this may be as small as one paragraph.  “How am I going to get a book written if I’m just writing a paragraph?” some of you may ask.  The thing is, you’re not trying to boost your productivity. You’re trying to train your brain. You’re reminding yourself that yes, you set goals and achieve them.  That you can do this.  Once you start getting victories under your belt, you can start to increase your goals, but always within reason.  Slow and low.

That is where I am at now. This post is my “slow and low.” But while Yardley’s advice resonates, the inescapable truth of what it is to really write stares me in the face.

No Excuses for Not Writing

I live with a scholar/author whose unassailable focus sometimes maddens me. Every morning at 7:00, without fail,  after fortifying himself with a first cup of coffee and a cigarette, Tom plants himself at his desk and writes until lunchtime. His prescription for productivity is one I have read elsewhere, but I have seen few individuals who can stick to it. This despite the brilliant simplicity of his strategy, which he attributes to the years he spent weightlifting.

  • Identify the time of day you are going to work.
  • Do not allow any excuses to disrupt that schedule.

Where I give in to the knee-jerk urge to answer my phone when it rings, Tom ignores the jangle. Where I see a “few” chores that it will take me ” just a few minutes” to attend to, he is blind to them. Where I fool myself into thinking I can just scan my news feed quickly to get my brain “warmed up,” or navigate the sucking vortex of social media before starting on a piece, Tom dives right back into his current manuscript, open on his desktop.

The key is brutally simple. THERE ARE NO LEGITIMATE EXCUSES.

But, some will say, what if the house catches on fire? What if a meteor crashes onto your little corner of real estate? What if, what if, what if. Such a response is a shaky step on the slippery slope, one that just opens the door to more excuses. You must nip all such thoughts in the bud.

Modeling Your Writing Practice

So, I have this great model breathing in the next room. When I am not letting small marital arguments dilute the example my husband sets, seeing how he does it inspires me. As do the examples of other writers I’ve seen who have overcome the most disruptive of hardships. I frequently mention blogger and novelist Charli Mills here. In the last year, Charli has experienced eviction, homelessness, and dislocation. She has had to battle the soul-destroying bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration in advocating for her husband, a vet with PTSD. She currently writes from her new office in an old RV perched on the edge of Zion National Park. But write she does. Not only has she punched out one eloquent column after another on schedule during the ordeals of the last year, and made headway with her two WIPs, she has continued to inspire dozens of writers with her regular flash fiction challenges at Carrot Ranch.

So, heading into the last month of an “uncommonly shitty year” that Jon Oliver has encouraged his followers to dispatch with a resounding “Fuck You,” I resolve to carry on. And though presently my plants scream for a drink, and there’s a bundle of laundry languishing on the floor of my closet, I’m planted here at my computer, relishing the writing that is never far from my mind.

And you? What is your strategy for your writing goals as we close the coffin lid on 2016?