About four and a half years ago, when a friend suggested I consider starting a memoir-writing group with her and a few other women, I smiled but politely demurred. “Sounds like a great idea,” I said, but secretly had some reservations.
For most of my life, I’ve avoided being a joiner. As a college instructor I facilitated creative writing workshops, but avoided them myself. I feared that early criticism or too much talk about the work would kill the flow. Eventually, I would find editors who gave me feedback on individual manuscripts after the work was pretty much complete.
The truth is, my writing has always required enormous amounts of solitude.
Though I can be deceptively loquacious, I’m often fatigued by social encounters, having to build up to them and then set aside lots of recovery time afterward. A classic introvert you might say. Yet despite myself I said yes to the group.
Our group became six women of diverse ages and backgrounds, all writing memoir.
We gelled from the start and I think this may be partially because we agreed initially on a set of “protocols” that have served us well. I’ve never been much for rules, but these proved to be consistently observed but flexible guidelines. We meet monthly at each other’s homes and try to be on time. We have five-minute “check-ins” at the beginning where we each speak in turn about whatever is going on in our lives that might be affecting our writing. During check-in we listen, but no one comments or speaks. The space is given for the speaker to use according to her needs. Sometimes when there is a lot to process, we extend the check-in times. Afterwards, each of us has an agreed-upon time of about 20-30 minutes to present from our current work, read, talk about our writing process, and receive feedback. We appoint a timekeeper. We have a short break for a delicious soul food snack. We accommodate each other’s allergies and food sensitivities. We throw in a lot of laughter.
Yet this particular group provides something that goes beyond observing simple protocols. Aretha Franklin called it respect. The Dalai Lama calls it “loving kindness” or compassion, the kind that arises out of a sense of our deep interconnectedness with each other and with the world. My spiritual mentor Olga, the subject of my upcoming memoir through Inanna, simply called it love. In our critical remarks, we can be tough and replete with critical acumen. We certainly don’t feel compelled to be “nice,” or always mothering. However, our responses seem to emerge from some kind of mysterious alchemy uniting honesty and grace.
I don’t wish to stereotype men or women (and certainly men embody loving kindness individually), but I haven’t sensed this quality to the same degree in mixed groups. My husband reports he doesn’t find it so clearly present among his male friends, though they share other forms of rapport. He envies us this giving and receiving of tender, almost creaturely care.
We wept together when one member grieved the loss of her mother, another of her father. We held a third in mind and heart as she struggled through some difficult health issues. We talk frankly about how we sometimes feel like giving up on our projects. Yet we cherish our own and each other’s imperfections (which seem gifts), and hold each other’s profound existential questions and doubts. Ours is not a therapy group, but what goes on among us as writers is not less than therapeutic. Most of all, besides coming together to write and heal, we have learned that it is fine to fail.
When I was in France recently, I received an email from Luciana Ricciutelli that Inanna had accepted my manuscript for publication in the Fall of 2014. Exuberant, since the book has been well over two decades in the making, I lifted a glass of red wine, bought fine fromage, and skipped around the room. Then I emailed the Memoir-Sistas with gratitude for their support.
Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga is the story of my sixteen-year relationship with a mystic, an elderly woman from Port Moody, British Columbia, whose presence transformed my life when I was twenty-one and left me an enduring legacy. It’s about the relationship of female teacher or guru to her young student, a spiritual seeker. The early drafts began in 1987 as a biography of Olga after her death in 1985 and ended as spiritual autobiography, memoir, a mixed-genre work synthesizing poetry, narrative, contemplative poetic prose, metaphysics, and philosophy.
This book would never have reached its present form without the Memoir-Sistas. In the process of writing it, our group had many discussions about how memoir needs to be true to what occurred, but that experience itself is multi-fold, folded into imagination and perception. We talked a lot about how our stories are re-experienced through imagination in the process of writing.
One Sista helped me get past some serious blockages with these words: “You get hung up trying to capture Olga’s Yorkshire accent or replicate exactly what she said. Just write it as you would say it now. Create some dialogue. Make it up if you have to!”
When I’d get too abstract, another peer responded, “Just take us to the cottage, Susan. Help us step over the threshold of Olga’s door so we can meet her for ourselves. Be our eyes, ears, hands, and noses.” My job then became not explaining Olga’s esoteric ideas, but taking readers to meet her and telling my story.
At one point when I began to find my voice for this book there were cheers: “Now we begin to see and hear her!” “I feel I know her,” said one. My tone had gradually shifted from academic and distanced to more grounded, sensuous. My keyboard became the nose of a dog on a scent. I was in. Memories arose as I wrote.
I feel my book has already been wrapped in a warm receiving blanket by five dreamers who are still with me on the journey. It seems to me our call as a group is not just to be kind to each other, but to become fierce and tender writers who in our various ways embody and express the sacred feminine. For me this happens as we reconnect to the soul of the world, its dark/light, material/immaterial forms, its complex, interconnected shimmer.