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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Weaving a Story

Greetings, Coffee-Sippers!

This is Monica, thoroughly buzzed and reporting to you live from a cozy coffee shop in McCall, Idaho. Kevin and I are in the midst of road-tripping to various mountainous locales - some of which have - gasp! - no Internet connection. This is proving to be a source of faux-frustration. Not only does it prevent me from jumping online at every whim to Google pointless things like "sexy cowboys" and "cupcakes" - but also it forces me to do this thing called "living my life free of distractions" - something Kevin and I used to do all the time.

Last night, for example, we played Scrabble. There are way too many vowel tiles in Scrabble - especially the letter "i." Our balcony overlooks a turquoise blue lake fringed with pine trees. The people next door argue all the time. I have a hangnail on my toe. Kevin looks good when he doesn't shave for a week. I might not have noticed any of these things had I been Googling "sexy cowboys" and "cupcakes."

Oh, there is one big distraction I have that doesn't involve the Internet, and that's putting together the next issue of Exhale. You know, I realized this past week that one of these days, sometime over the next year or so, I won't be suitable for Exhale anymore. I'm already wondering if I'm still suitable for it.

Let me explain. Here's a big part of what "putting together Exhale" involves: kicking back with a cup of tea, reading through the heaps of submissions in my e-mail inbox, and doing something with them. That means either accepting them to publish, or rejecting them. Now, I love that people write things and send them in to Exhale. I believe in writing as a cathartic and teaching tool, and it always makes me feel thoroughly honored and glowing inside that anybody feels compelled to write about such personal things in their lives and allow me to read them. It takes such courage and involves huge risk; I know this because - in my search to put my OWN dead-baby story out there, I've had my share of rejection.

Yet, what I'm finding lately is that I'm having trouble...well...feeling anything anymore when I read these incredibly poignant and sad stories. They don't move me like they used to. More and more of these submissions end up in the "rejection" pile as time goes on, and this makes me feel sometimes like a bad person. I guess when I started Exhale, I didn't realize that accepting and rejecting sad stories would be a part of my job as editor. Not that I knew who on earth would be doing that if not me; it just didn't dawn on me that any rejection would be required.

When I do get a piece that brings tears to my eyes - which in fact happened just a few days ago (and you can bet this piece is going into the next issue) - here's what it has that the others don't: a deeper story.

What I mean is this: they don't just narrate the event in a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour description, without any greater meaning or underlying theme (first I started bleeding, then I started cramping, then the doctor told me, then I started crying. the end.) They don't just tell me exactly what happened and assume that their story is naturally so different from the others, so dramatically and unusually poignant that it will stand out in a readers' mind as particularly enlightening and unique. They dig deeper than that, and look for some great greater meaning or lesson. Or, they provide such a strong voice that they convey that event in a way that moves me, simply by the way that it's told.

The truth is that pregnancy and infant losses - and even infertility journeys - happen in more-or-less the same way. Sure, there are medical and personal details that set one person's story apart from someone else's. But by and large, the physical and biological event itself is not a unique story. Which makes it especially challenging to write about it in a way that's unique and compelling, that teaches us something, that truly makes a mark on the world.

Really, isn't that what we look for in all good writing? Writing about anything? Take describing a battle, a death of a loved one, a bad break-up, a dining experience at a new restaurant. What draws you in as a reader and impacts you is the deeper story you can weave from it, and/or the voice with which you tell it.

That's what I look for in Exhale. The submission that brought tears to my eyes began like this:

One night not too long ago, my brother Dean and I were helping my mother up my front steps in the darkness, jockeying her suitcases, a get-well balloon, and her walker. She had endured a lengthy surgery to correct severe spinal stenosis, a condition that had caused her chronic pain, and would be staying with me for a couple weeks to convalesce. As a Vietnamese woman, she has always been petite, but I was shocked to see that the surgery had diminished her still. She seemed vulnerable and small, curled up on herself like a fern before dawn. I was tired too, nearly 12 weeks into my first trimester of pregnancy, and looked forward to the end of what had been a long ordeal of visits and consultations related to my mother’s care.

Inside my tiny kitchen, my father—my mother’s ex-husband, who had fallen for her when he was a soldier fighting the war—was helping out by preparing dinner. It was the kind of bachelor meal he was always preparing: store-bought rotisserie chicken, canned green beans, and instant rice. We sat and ate, silently. It occurred to me that this was the first time my family had been in the same room in more than 20 years.

Now, I wont tell you the rest. You'll have to read this issue to find out. But I will say that as I began reading this, right away I was drawn in, and compelled to keep reading. That's because - although I knew this story is about miscarriage - notice the total lack of anything miscarriage-related in the entire beginning of this story. That already told me this particular miscarriage story would be couched in something greater and universal. Something about family, about tradition, about food.

And sure enough, by the end of this piece, I was snivelling in the passenger seat of our car going 60 miles an hour down a mountain road as Kevin drove, wiping my nose on my wrist. Kevin reached over and touched my knee. He knew I was reading a doozy of an Exhale submission; didn't have to ask.

I don't know. Maybe I'm getting jaded and cranky in my ripe old age of 33. Maybe I'm reading too many sad stories and they're losing their meaning. If I were a person who really had clout in the world, like a political pundit or a world famous author, I'd put out some sort of "call to action" to all of the writers and talkers and thinkers out there: look deeper than the surface of the thing that happened, and ask yourself what more universal meaning you can draw from it. Spin that story out, because that's what will make a mark on the world. If bad things happen for a reason, there must be something we can learn from it. Find that thing and tell it well.

But, who the hell am I to boss people around - especially given that I'm about the furthest person from a "writing expert" (or an anything-expert, for that matter) on the face of the planet. Actually, I take that back. I do consider myself an expert on HUNKS. Knocked down hunks, that is.

If you haven't voted yet, get over there and do it! The hunk voting deadline looms large! Better yet, get me your picture for the next gallery.


Me said...

Excellent point on that "something" that makes some writing stick out among thousands of others on similar topics. As an English teacher, I read thousands of papers every year, and the ones that are enjoyable (read: good) are the ones that manage to stay on topic without being ALL the topic. Being original and interesting is what makes for good writing, and, therefore, good reading.

I think that is why I enjoy your blog so much--it's a fresh and interesting take on subjects that are covered so many times by so many people, yet your points are interesting, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and heart-lifting.

Viktoria said...

Beautifully written as always. Enjoy the road trip. oxoxox -V

Brenna said...

Sounds amazing! I'm excited to read the full submission in the next issue. Your writing has absolutely inspired to me to reach toward greater depths of honesty. I tend toward trying to make things sound pretty on the page, but over the past few months you--along with several other notable writers in this community--have inspired me to ask myself what I'm really feeling and to try to place that into a broader context from time to time. Not easy, but my writing has benefitted from your advice--or at least from your example.

Monica LeMoine said...

ME: wow - coming from an English teacher, your comment means a lot to me. Thanks for that, dawg. Yes - I think being "on topic" without being "all topic" is key.

VIKTORIA - yes, enjoying every minute of it!

BRENNA - hey, that's awesome news. Good to hear that you've found some literary inspiration. That's how I learn too: from examples.

sharonvw said...

Have a blast Mon!!!

The Gonzo Mama said...

I believe humor writer Pat McManus lives in McCall.

The new issue of Gonzo Parenting is themed "The Great Outdoors." Can you write something brilliant for it? And send it to me, like, today?

Ya Chun said...

That's why literary journals need editors. A compelling memoir is different than a log book. And that's why there is a certain newsletter that I don't really care to read.

I know it is hard on you, but keep it up - or get a staff!