The Write Idea


Falling Apart In One Piece

Since my current post on my new blog is a book review, I’m sharing it here as well:

Books about divorce have created a whole new genre of literature, it seems. I plan to review some of them here from time to time and wanted to start with one of my favorites: Stacy Morrison’s Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce. Morrison had recently given birth and bought a house and was in the running for her dream job as Editor in Chief of Redbook Magazine when her husband announced one night that he was done. She got the job and lost the husband.

Her memoir tells the story of the two years after the night that she heard the fatal news and how she coped and didn’t cope. She writes with poignant vulnerability, honest self-reflection and genuine humor of the ways in which her life turned upside-down and inside-out. With a literary symbolism she could not have manufactured, her basement begins to flood and her roof begins to leak the same month that she starts her new high-powered executive position while still reeling from her husband’s unexpected announcement.

Unafraid to describe the nights she lay on her kitchen floor, noticing the crumbs under the stove while flattened there from the weight of her grief, she takes us through the familiar yet exquisitely personal storms, internal and external, of living through a nightmare. In the end, Stacy emerges from the fog with her natural optimism intact. This is one of those reads that feels like a long phone conversation with a friend. If your friend happens to be a well-connected New York magazine editor, that is. But that’s the beauty of this story. Great shoes and a great career can’t save you from bad plumbing or the misery of loss. I laughed and cried and winced my way through it and recommend you do the same.



Dear Mary Karr

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 11:45 am
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Dear Mary Karr,

I take it all back. Well, maybe not all. I did say you create beautiful sentences and so forth. I stayed up much of last night to finish Lit. I sobbed and laughed and stopped again and again, breathless as I read and re-read some of those amazing sentences you can spin. I even fell to my knees in prayer at one point. (When in the world was the last time I actually prayed on my knees?) You have written a fantastically gorgeous story of addiction and recovery–which is to say of brokenness and healing, of insanity and sanity, of sin and redemption. Thank you.

Thank you for your honesty about how ugly life can really be. Thank you for the humility you wrestled so long to avoid. Thank you for the commitment to your craft that makes your story not only true, but also beautiful. Thank you for daring to get sober and get help and then for daring to tell us how shitty it really felt.

I don’t know if I would have appreciated this story as fully had I not read The Liars’ Club, so I don’t know if I should tell folks to read that book first, though it lacks the simplicity and clarity of this one, or whether I should tell them to skip on ahead to the best stuff. Either way, I’ll be sure to tell them to read Lit.

I’m sorry you had to live through it all, from the crazy childhood through the mental ward, but given that you did, I’m glad you turned it into something not simply entertaining, but saving.

Yes, saving. I’ve heard plenty of sermons in my 48 years, but it’s a rare one that sends me straight to my knees. So, thank you.

Your friend,



Memoirs Galore

This weekend I started three memoirs and finished one. First, the two I did not finish: finally getting around to Mary Karr’s Lit. Since I wasn’t wildly in love with The Liar’s Club, it took me a while to get to this one. Skipped right over Cherry. The other memoir is not one I would have found on my own, but I got it at a silent auction recently, along with a pile of other books by women authors, all donated by one of the wonderful local independent bookstores. Noelle Hancock has written one of that sub-genres of memoir where the author does something for a year and writes about it. Think Julie and Julia or the couple who decided to have sex every night for a year. Or Jesus is My Guru. (Oh, wait. That’s the one I’m writing this year. Never mind.) Anyway, Hancock has written My Year with Eleanor, in which she takes to heart Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-repeated quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” She sets out to do just that for a year and write about it. I’m up to her swimming with sharks in month two.

So, the book I did finish is Backwards Off the Curb by Chris McMillan. I was fortunate to meet Chris not long after I moved to Asheville and knowing her sense of humor, her foul mouth and her sincere spirituality, I have been looking forward to this book for some time. What I didn’t know was of her poor Savannah upbringing.

In this touching memoir, Chris weaves together the story of the year she got in a van and took a two-month leave of absence from her marriage, with stories of her Southern childhood, her marriage and her years in business. Moving deftly back and forth between adventures on the trip, such as her first encounter with a convent, and the earlier stories of her life, Chris writes with honesty and humor. From running away to get married in Paris at age twenty to running away from that same marriage 34 years later, she lets us see her vanity and fear and temper and dreams. Determined to find passion and purpose in spite of a childhood that inspired anything but, Chris shows us the characters who shaped her and the struggle she went through to reshape herself mid-life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, a story of spiritual renewal and feminist empowerment, laced with a great deal of humility and plenty of laughs. Chris emerges in her 7th decade of living as a delightful new writer. Congrats, Chris!


Midlife Memoir

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 3:40 pm
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My father, a well-respected preacher with a mellifluous voice, and my mother, a genuinely Christian woman with an unflappably upbeat perspective on the world, raised my brothers and me in a small Midwestern town amidst conservative values. I became a minister, endured a difficult 14-year marriage, moved to be near my parents at age 43 for the first time in my adult life, and got divorced. So perhaps it is no surprise that I could not put down Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen was raised by a Mennonite preacher and his unfailingly cheerful wife, considered seminary before becoming a Ph.D. poet, and when her husband of 15 years left her, moved back in with her conservative parents at age 43 to the Mennonite life she had long since left behind. This book is a side-splittingly funny memoir of that experience.

Janzen, who spends most of her time writing poetry, shows that she is a natural storyteller. There isn’t one of her relatives, neighbors or friends I didn’t wish I could meet after her hilarious accounts of their encounters. The Mennonite Lunchbox Hall of Shame is practically worth the price of the book (especially since she includes the recipes at the end). And being a bit of a religion nerd, I fully enjoyed her short and sassy history of Mennonites in the appendix.

While the book made me laugh uproariously at times, it’s also a poignant and honest telling of the stinging pain of midlife trials and the blessings of family who keep on loving us in their own quirky ways. Janzen clearly loves the parents who took her back in when her life crashed to an undignified halt. And boy, could I relate to that.

I feel almost too connected to the subject matter to say anything objective about this wondrous little book. I’d love to hear from others whose path may not follow hers quite so closely. Did you still relate to her? Did she make you laugh out loud?


The Liars’ Club

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 7:46 pm
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If you read the cover of Mary Karr’s first memoir (she’s written two more installments since), you’d have to conclude that she wrote The Best Memoir Ever. Maybe that first sentence gives away that I don’t quite share that opinion. I started The Liars’ Club at the beginning of the summer and just now finished it. Mostly these days I’ve concluded that life is too short to finish books you don’t love, but for some reason I found myself compelled to pick this book up again and again, trying to slog through it. What I really want to read is her more recent book, Lit, and I decided I’d appreciate it more if I had read the earlier installments of this three-part memoir. At this point I’m ambivalent about Lit, but not the least bit ambivalent about Cherry. I won’t be reading it.

Now, before you conclude that I really don’t like Mary Karr’s writing, I have to tell you that the opposite is true. I love her writing. That is, if by her writing I mean the way she can shape a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph.  Her background as a poet shows up in her gift for metaphor and her dazzling descriptions.  She is dead-on with dialects, creates characters as visible as those on a high-def, large-screen TV, and can be out-loud funny in the driest possible way.

Since I am a big fan of memoir (and am working with several people as they write theirs), I pondered many times over these past months why I just couldn’t get into this book.

Was it believability?  It’s not that I doubt that the events in the book happened (as shocking as some of them were), but I did doubt that her 6-year-old self really had the philosophic, metaphorical responses to the events shown here.  Occasionally, the author owns up to this, as when she describes a picturesque night after a horrible revelation has occurred and she notes, “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only do so now.”  Right. I buy that. But through most of the book, you would think that this small child witnessing terrifying behavior sat around thinking poetic thoughts. And maybe she did. She does seem to be something of a prodigy. Still.

Was it likability? She paints a panoply of wild characters, each with his or her own pattern of speech, carefully drawn. She’s good at it. The main characters are the immediate family:  Mary, her sister, her mother and daddy. Besides finding her own character a little too full of herself to be real, I did have trouble liking these folks. Her dad was somewhat lovable in spite of himself and her sister admirable in her determination to survive the crazy family, but I was bored with mom by page 60. Which means I had another 260 pages to go.

Which may be the main problem.  320 small-print pages dealing with two years in her life, ages 6-8.  An important aspect of memoir is summary. She could have used some more of it. Maybe quite a bit more. In the final section we jump ahead a dozen or so years and finally discover a source of mom’s neuroses. It’s awfully late by then. I realize that the author had to live those first 20+ years not understanding her mother’s insanity, but does that mean we have to suffer with her?

This book comes highly recommended, so I’m open to the possibility that I’m just being snarky here or I was in a bad mood every time I picked it up. For four months. Those of you who’ve read it — what did you think?


1+1=Mercedes Benz

Filed under: Quotes — ljcollins @ 10:41 am
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And now for this week’s inspiration, I give you Natalie Goldberg from her classic text, Writing Down the Bones:

I always tell my students … Turn off your logical brain that says 1+1=2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1+1 can equal 48, a Mercedes Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse. Don’t tell your autobiography with facts such as “I am in sixth grade. I am a boy. I live in Owatonna. I have a mother and father.” Tell who you really are: “I am the frost on the window, the cry of the wolf, the thin blade of grass.”

Forget yourself. Disappear into everything you look at—a street, a glass of water, a cornfield. Everything you feel, become totally that feeling, burn all of yourself with it. Don’t worry—your ego will quickly become nervous and stop such ecstasy. But if you can catch that feeling or smell or sight the moment you are one with it, you probably will have a great poem.

Then we fall back on the earth again. Only the writing stays with the great vision.


Take This Bread by Sara Miles

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 5:28 pm
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A growing stack of partly-read books wobbles uncomfortably on my bedside table.  I start each new one enthusiastically, only to be easily seduced by the next lovely title. Some are intentionally unfinished:  books of essays I enjoy reading slowing over time or devotional books with a page to be savored and pondered before moving to the next. Others are novels I just don’t feel like finishing (I know, they should get moved to a different pile) or nonfiction books that I begin and think, “This is so rich, I’m going to wait until I can talk it over with someone.”  A lousy reading strategy, by the way.

Then every so often I pick up a book and every other book on the table just has to wait until this one is devoured, page by delicious page. Devoured is the just the word for Sara Miles’ Take This Bread, a memoir of feeding and being fed.  Miles was a mid-life, left-wing, lesbian atheist journalist when she accidently converted to Christianity.  This book tells her unlikely story.

Take This Bread begins with the moment Sara discovers Jesus, or eats him as she puts it, in an Episcopal eucharist in San Francisco. That moment, more surprising to her than to anyone else (though pretty astounding to her adamantly atheist mother and her highly skeptical friends) sets in motion a new, previously unimaginable course for her life.  She starts a small food pantry in her new church and soon finds herself feeding hundreds of San Francisco’s poor every week, her faith growing along with her work.  She weaves her understanding of hunger, spiritual and physical, into this beautifully written story.

Writing with humor and self-awareness, Sara tells of her 20s spent in NYC working in the restaurant industry, then her 30s as a journalist covering the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Central America she falls in love, gets pregnant and chooses to return to the United States to raise her daughter. It is a few years later when she happens to walk into a church.

Sara brings her journalistic inquisitiveness and her skeptical spirit to this new enterprise of faith. In seeking to understand her own beliefs, as well as those of the church contemporary and historical, she articulates a gospel based on bread. The bread we share with each other, the bread Christ shares with us, the politics of bread, the joys and struggles of feeding and being fed.

As a life-long seeker of faith and a 21 year veteran of the professional ministry who for several years has found myself outside the institution I once so devotedly served, I read Sara’s story of making her way into Christianity with a hunger of my own. Over all those years of reading theology and sermons (and writing a few hundred of my own), I don’t know if I’ve ever read a simpler, clearer articulation of the gospel than this one. There have certainly been other books that spoke to me as forcefully, books that have made me laugh and cry and shout out in joy. But for a pure, honest understanding of the most basic message of Jesus, this one can’t be beat.

Plus, it’s a good story. A story of change and upheaval and new beginnings and old wounds, told with wit and poignancy.

Mainline pastors love people like Sara Miles. Like Nora Gallagher and Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris, we (I can still say we) find our life’s work justified when these highly intelligent, previously atheist or agnostic women walk into a local Episcopal (Gallagher and Miles) or Presbyterian (Lamott and Norris) church and find their lives turned upside down in beautiful and magical ways.

But let’s be frank. They don’t walk into the typical church — the safe, somewhat sterile ones that most of us, if we’re truthful, serve. They walk into the churches on the edge, the risk-taking churches, the ones that have sided with a marginalized group of people (in Lamott’s case) or have burst the boundaries of their own liturgical traditions (as with Miles). I see these stories as cautionary tales for most traditional, liberal Christians.  Nobody gets converted by a committee.

That said, pastors and church members will love this book. I imagine anyone hungry for community and meaning might love it, as well. Though I wonder, even when told with such passion and clarity, how well the Jesus tale translates to those who don’t already get it. Because, as Miles so wonderfully writes, faith is not a question to be resolved or a position to be defended, but bread to be shared. That’s the only way to really get it, ever.  In the flesh.


This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

Filed under: book review — ljcollins @ 7:42 pm

Last fall I read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff as part of a memoir class taught by the lovely and talented Peggy Millin. Wolff’s coming of age memoir reads like a novel, packed with action, dialogue, and crazy characters.  The story moves quickly, tense with the shenanigans of a boy entering puberty who is moved across country by his divorced mother as she leaves one abusive boyfriend, only to marry another.  We are shown a portrait of a teenager trying to find a self-image that differentiates him from his mother’s various men, while still endearing himself to the mother he adores.  In the background hangs the ever-present hope that he might reconnect with his biological father and brother in this search for manhood.

Set mostly in the upper northwest in the 1950s, Wolff creates scenes of school and scouts and home rich with detail.  We easily imagine the boy and his awkward friends as they find ways to get out of their homes and into trouble.  The author expertly develops a large cast of characters, including employers and stepsiblings and teachers and classmates.  His mother is particularly memorable, written with a love he clearly still holds, but complete with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that lead her family of two into difficult and sometimes harsh situations.

Although I don’t really relate to teen boys determined to get into trouble, quick to lie and cheat and steal, I found this book an enjoyable read.  While I occasionally wondered whether he didn’t exaggerate some of his memories for affect, I appreciated the perspective of a child seeking adulthood while watching the adults around him with both fascination and disgust.  I found myself as repulsed by his stepfather and as forgiving of his mother as he was.

Wolff did a good job of using summary sparingly and well, moving us from one home or city to another to keep the main thread of the story alive.   His believable dialogue put me in the room with the people he encountered.  By the end, when he summarized the years following these stories, I wanted to know more.  How did he get from this mischievous teenager to an accomplished author?  I would recommend the book, especially to men, but also perhaps to mothers of boys, like myself.

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