32. Book Launch: Read It Or Not?

04/08/2021

After delays and confusion and multiple snags, the first book of the trilogy is out, Victory Is My Name, Book One: The Burning Barrel. The Association of  Independent Authors & Publishers and other reliable sources advise me that my job now is to do promotion for it. With independent  small publishers, you don’t get the marketing package that the mega-publishers have. You have to do most of it yourself. It’s not my thing, and not a talent I have.

Nevertheless, I’m following one of the recommendations: sending email invitations to friends and colleagues with a link to an online copy of part or all of the book, to read for free. The plan I think is to spread the word that your book exists. I haven’t had the nerve to send it to any professional connections or hoped-for connections yet, but I’ve begun to send my invitation to a few friends.

One of them, one of my oldest friends, I had sent to this book to before, in its first draft. She is an exceptionally intelligent person, an English teacher, career educator, and retired School District Administrator. In other words, the ideal beta reader. She read the first few chapters and wrote a generous review, then stopped reading and went silent. That was several years ago.

This week I had the temerity (or audacity) to invite her again, to read my book. In the note I wrote that I understood that she had stopped when she got to the painful parts about my family, which had been close to hers when we were children. I asked her to try to read it again, not as a memoir, but as if it were just another novel, and to meet the characters in it that way, for the first time. She wrote back that she would.

For a lifetime I have wondered about how hard it is for all of us to look at the truth without flinching and turning away. What is it that we really fear? So much of the suffering and injury in my adult life, I could have prevented by facing the reality of it, turning away from the circumstance and seeking something else, instead of turning away from the truth that the endeavor had failed or was failing. Change itself is painful and frightening, and so we usually stay with the pain we know, rather than risk the unknown.

I don’t have a neat philosophical wrap-up for this one. All I know is, we do what we can until we are able to do more. We make the same mistakes until we dare to look and see the truth, and somehow scrape up enough courage to try something else. Until we finally see that the progression of life is all about the next something-else, the next chapter. We leave something and we move forward ready or not, without knowing what will come next. Or else we don’t.

We human beings cherish the best of the past and we are shackled to the worst of it, and it’s terribly hard for all of us to release ourselves from ether. And yet the longer we hold on to the past, the longer we are delaying the emergence of the present and the future. The Big Truth, nobody tells you; you have to discover it yourself. Life is change, and the present is always where the future is forming itself. We are choosing it, knowingly or not. 

So I say, be aware if you can, of what you’re choosing, and forgive yourself for the times you could not be aware. Believe me, you did the best you could.


31. Why Does Anybody Read Books?

04/03/2021

There are as many reasons as there are people, I guess. I’m most curious about why writers do. Why should any writer read another writer’s book? Well, I can only say why I do, and it’s because I have loved reading ever since I learned how, at age five and a half. A lot of writers will tell you the same scenario. “When I first learned how to read, I was so wowed by the miracle of it, I wanted to write words and poems and stories too.” At five or six, we are totally unaffected by any fear or even clue that this might not be possible. At this stage, everything is.

But most of us grow up and do something else. Business, art, music, science, mathematics, astronomy, politics, or children. And the option slips away into subconscious unspecified daydreaming for 30 or 40 or 50 years, till something happens that brings it out into the light again. That’s what I did, I thought.

I retired, and when I began to write, I discovered to my utter surprise that I had been writing (in the closet) for decades. On-the-side in journals for no reason I would confess to, and I had built up a mass of work that could potentially be harvested, gleaned,, reconsidered, rewritten and might even become a meaningful story that could in fact share what a genuine nonfictional human life is like, as they say, “warts and all.”

Those first drafts were often angry, tragic, self-pitying, emotional, and very unlovely. Good. The life-blood was still virulent in them. Saner perhaps kinder drafts could be created out of the raw open flesh of them, their wounds, their rages, and their sorrows. Something could emerge that might show those experiences, for someone else to have compassion for their own flaws and failures and come to forgive themselves for their own sincere mistakes. 

At the start, I thought the book was being written for me, about me, to grapple with the devils and angels in my own soul. But pretty soon an unconfessed, denied and hidden urgency of a lifetime emerged: the body-and-soul disconnect between by biological mother and myself. But the story would turn out to be even bigger. I soon discovered it was not so much about myself or my problems, successes or defeats, as it was about the equally imperfect but decent people whose lives paralleled, intersected, and either connected or failed to connect, with mine. People I never really saw until now, looking back from a distance like a disembodied spiritual voyeur, from above and beyond it now.

And I didn’t realize until a few years into the book, that I was only the honest observer, the storyteller, only one part of many complex human entanglements. The stories of a “dysfunctional” family, imperfect loves, and an inexplicable life-event that on one ordinary day could alter all the lives of a whole family and more, forever, and would become “the family secret” that everybody knew but denied, always hid, and never talked about. In the last chapter when I realized the family secret, it changed the perspective and revealed the truth of everything else that had ever been.

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The trilogy, Victory Is My Name, Book 1: The Burning Barrel is available from Internet or brick and mortar bookshops. The e-book is available at your favorite web booksellers. Search by author, Victoria Chames.

If you are interested in being a Beta Readers for Book Two: The West Bank, please contact me through “Victory” at Darkhorse Press. The first draft of Book 2: The West Bank is now in progress. Thank you.


30. To Tell The Truth

03/14/2021

In a few days I will be sending out the email book-launch announcement about my book, Victory Is My Name, a Memoir. The introduction says, “This  book will not be everybody’s cup of tea.”

Most of us who love to read do have a favorite flavor and brew. Maybe it’s romance novels with passion, sex, and reliable happy endings. Or Sci-Fi that transports the mind to another place with different possibilities than this messed-up world we’ve let build up around us here on planet Earth. Or detective mysteries– I do love British period-mysteries like Inspector Poirot, to just enjoy trying to guess who-done-it, knowing that the odd little man will always figure it out. For others, maybe it’s “Thrillers.” They sell like hotcakes. Or murder tales of Blood and guts galore. (No thanks, not my cup of tea.)

This book is not about any of that. Not a beach-book, not a tell-all, not entertainment. This book is a sincere attempt at literature, and this story, at risk of failing to win the approval of a great many readers, is about telling the truth. It’s about making mistakes, and doing the best you can with what you get. Life is not an even playing field. It’s not always fair. But my granny told me “Life never gives us more than we can bear” and because I was innocent enough to believe her, in my life ahead, I did do more than anyone else thought possible.

Even though it must be said that every novel carries some essential truths at its core, only memoir is obligated, expected, and pledged, to tell the truth. I don’t write fiction, not because I disapproved of it, I just have never needed to, because real life is always exploding with stories begging to be told and shared. We learn about life, in the long run, from life. Our own and each other’s, the true stories about real life that we as a social species are usually constrained not to tell.

But I say, Why not tell the truth? You can’t please everybody anyway. Trust me, I’ve tried, for the first 25 years of my life. It never worked. I did that, trying to hide and protect myself, so people wouldn’t hurt me. They hurt me anyway. (But that’s another story…)

If you read this book, you likely at times will be offended, annoyed, or fed up with this person, the storyteller/protagonists/myself, who was so stupid. You might cry real tears when she makes the same mistake you did. But you will likely be inspired some too, and heartened by her courage and her large and small victories that defied the odds, and prove in the end a truth beyond dispute: girls can.

In the last decade, memoir has become recognized as a serious literary genre that can take many different creative forms. Since books like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, authentic well-written memoirs are drawing a new crowd of readers, willing and even hungry for the truth.

I believe the world is ready for some truth. A different choice from the lies we are drowning in now. Many of us, like lemmings that have already gone off the cliff, are swimming in an ocean of confusion, longing for something we can believe in. Most of us have a disturbingly deep need to get our feet on the ground again, like back in the day, when ethics were clear, and we knew what was what.

But those days are gone. We need to start where we are, and meet each other honestly for the first time. That’s what Victory is about.

Victory Is My Name, a Memoir – Book One: The Burning Barrel
E-book available now, paperback available Sept.21, 2020
more information, http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-victory.html


29. Fly-over

03/03/2021

I’m astonished how much I’m learning about life, my own, and Life with a capital L, by writing this book. Looking at my own life stories in a sort of flyover, as a curious neutral observer who looks down upon all of these people who were the cast of characters, including me no more than anyone else, and wondering about it all.

Some things I discovered: My birth-mother was a kind and decent woman, who for some reason nobody knows, got chosen for the role of sad loser, the one left behind. She deserved better. It turned out that she was the key to the puzzle of the many paths my life would take, though neither of us knew it. She was an alcoholic, and as a child I had no way to know how hard that was for her. Since then, I’ve witnessed many real-life stories that either started or ended with this “scenario of 10,000 forms.”

I’ve written a chapter called The Family Circus, but I don’t know where to put it. I may even end up leaving it out of the book. I’m undecided. It talks about each of us in thumbnail sketches, but its real purpose is to express a truth about family and relationships, connections, and failures to connect. 

There’s more than one kind of family. You can have a Family of Origin, or a Family of Choice. A Family of Origin has only one style: blood relations, biological ties. Or you can have a Family of Choice, which can be anything at all, all sizes, shapes, and colors, held together by a choice and commitment to love and nurture and share with each other. My story had both, and I had, in a way, two mothers. A birth-mother who could not love me or much notice, as her mother had been to her. And my true mother, who was simply a gift of grace that I can never be deserving of. She fell in love with my dad, she met me, she liked me, she wanted to know me, and she chose to love me. She rescued me from a hopeless life. That’s how a part of my story went, though it’s much more complicated of course.

My birth-mother never really knew me and I never knew her, until I began to write the book and discovered that her story ran deeper than anybody knew, and I wanted to know. Our severed connection when I was thirteen had left a lifetime of unfinished business of the heart, and that was the catalyst that urged me to seek the truth about us all. 

In the last ten years of her life, we wrote letters to each other as a gesture of mutual respect. The letters were chatty at first, but then she shared a little more, and I began to get to know her. She lived quietly, died 40 years ago, and only a few people missed her. As distant as our connection was, I was the only “family” she had. She named me in her will, and it was my job to return to Texas (after a few life-tragedies of my own) to empty her apartment and clear away the last tangible evidence of her existence. That experience was heart-searing, and I began to realize: Unless I tell her side of the story, nobody else ever will. 

So I began to tell all of our stories, tangled together by invisible forces of spirit and blood. The untruths we’re taught as children “for our own good” that stain our innocence, that forbid us to be who we truly are, and hold us hostage for life unless we find our own way to the truth. Then in the end, the  family secret. Every family has one, but nobody talks about it, and everybody knows it but doesn’t know they know.
__________________________________________________________________________________

The book is Victory Is My Name, a Memoir. This is a trilogy, and the first section, Book One: The Burning-Barrel launched in February and is available everywhere in paperback and e-book. Publishers’s sampler: http://www.darkhorsepress.com/sampler-victory.html


28. Writing as a Spiritual Practice

10/06/2020

If you write, you are a writer. If you don’t, you could. In her book, The Right To Write, author Julia Cameron says: 

“We should write, because we are writers whether we call ourselves that or not.” She says this about everyone, and goes on to say that it is “our natural birthright, a spiritual inheritance.” and she declares for those of us who still doubt, “Higher forces speak to us through writing. “

If you feel called to explore and/or share what you are feeling in this life, write it. In a journal, on a scrap of paper, and old envelope, the little pad you use for the grocery list, or in a simple spiral notebook that you keep “around” for jotting down thoughts.

Publishing, or not-publishing, is not the measure of a writer. Your voice is not less valuable if it is quiet, or even silent. It brings messages from within yourself to your conscious awareness as nothing else can do. You can trust the voice within you, even though, fair warning: it can be painfully truthful sometimes. 

Anything you write, no one else need ever see. It is private, a place where you can safely be completely honest. Write, and then close the notebook. Put it away for a few days without looking. When you open it again and read it with fresh eyes, you will likely be surprised to discover something about yourself that you didn’t know you knew.

This is how we all, writers or not, can open the channel to the subconscious wisdom we all have, our own truth, which is given to no one else unless we ourselves choose to share it.

Write. Publish or don’t. Nobody needs to publish. We may want to, or not, but that is not the essence of this gift of expression we have all been given. That’s just the gravy. A condiment to truth, to life, but not the life itself. So write if you want to, and publish if you dare to, but either way, know that not everyone wants or needs the gravy.  Write anyway. Write for you. Write for the discovery of your deeper self. Write as a spiritual practice.



All essays this website: writertowrite / northberkeleywriters are © by Victoria Chames and may not be republished in any form without written permission of the author. You may use the Contact page on this blog to request permission to republish or excerpt. Please uphold the ethical as well as federal laws against unfair use of another writer’s work. – Thank you.


27. To Tell The Truth

09/17/2020

In a few days I will send out the email book-launch announcement about my book, Victory Is My Name, a Memoir. The introduction says, “This  book will not be everybody’s cup of tea.”

Everyone who loves to read has a favorite flavor and brew. Maybe it’s romance novels with passion, sex, and reliable happy endings. Or Sci-Fi, that transports us to another place with different possibilities than this messed-up world we’ve let build up around us on planet Earth. Or detective mysteries– I do love British period-mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot. I enjoy trying to guess who-done-it, knowing that the odd little man will always figure it out. For others, maybe it’s “Thrillers.” They sell like hotcakes. Or murder tales of Blood and guts galore. (No thanks, not my cup of tea.)

This book is not about any of that. Not a beach-book, not a tell-all, not entertainment. This story, at risk of failing to win the approval of a great many readers, is about telling the truth. It’s about making mistakes, and doing the best you can with what you get. Life is not an even playing field. It’s not always fair. But my granny told me “Life never gives us more than we can bear” and because I was innocent enough to believe that, in my life ahead, I did do more than anyone else thought possible.

It must be said that every novel carries some essential truths at its core, but memoir is the only genre that is obligated, expected, and pledged, to tell the truth. I don’t write fiction, mostly because I have never needed to. Real life is constantly exploding with stories to be told and shared. We all, as human beings, learn about life, in the long run, from life. Our own and each other’s. But these are the true stories about real life that we as a social species, are usually constrained not to tell.

But I say, Why not tell the truth? You can’t please everybody anyway. Trust me, I tried for the first 26 years of my life. It never worked. I did that while trying to hide and protect myself, so people wouldn’t hurt me. They hurt me anyway. (But that’s another story…)

Fair warning: If you read my book, you may be offended, annoyed, even angry with this person, the storyteller/protagonists/myself, for being so naive, and so stupid. Or you might cry real tears when she makes the same mistakes you did. But you will likely also be inspired some too, and heartened by her courage, and her large and small victories that defied the odds and prove in the end a truth beyond dispute: girls can.

In the last decade or so, memoir has become recognized as a serious literary genre that can take many different creative forms. Since books like Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, authentic well-written memoirs are drawing a new crowd of readers who are willing and even hungry for the truth.

Like myself, Author McCourt became a writer late in life. He wrote a different kind of memoir, and when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, he said, “All I had was this story. It took me two years and all my life to write it.” I understand exactly what he meant.

I believe the world is ready for truth, and tragically acutely in need of it. We are in the grip of a humanity-wide need for a different choice from the lies we are drowning in now. Humanity is getting many urgent wake up calls from the techno-sleep we have fallen into. A clear un-distorted, un-photo-shopped window to actual reality, and real life, must open.

Many of us, like lemmings that have already gone off the cliff, are swimming in an ocean of confusion, longing for something we can hold onto. something we can believe in. Most of us have a disturbingly deep need to get our feet on the ground again, like back in the day when ethics were clear, when we knew what mattered, and we knew what was what. We had been introduced into what life was supposed to be by real live people, parents, or early schoolteachers. Now most children of the last generation were socialized by the ethics of video murder-games, casually committing murders and mass-murders mentally six or more hours a day, starting a age five. This was presented as “normal.” And we are seeing the harvest of that on the Breaking News. These are tomorrow’s leaders, but some of them, we can dare to hope, are today’s readers.

I was fortunate to grow up in the 50’s, when things were simpler, and Presidents, businesses, and ordinary people had values and decency. Those days are gone. We need to start where we are, and meet each other honestly for the first time. Tell the truth about what life is, and how it matters. That’s what Victory is about.

This will probably be called a “women’s book,” though its truths apply to all of us who struggle to fit Who We Are into What The World Expects/ demands from us. In Victory there are painfully honest truths that apply to all genders, about the imperfection of human beings, personal courage, the value of mistakes, the inner spark of sacredness, and the flickering but undying pilot-light of faith.

Victory Is My Name, a Memoir
Book One: The Burning Barrel
$4.95 E-BOOK 978-0-9841730-4-4
$15.95  PAPEBACK 978-0-9841730-9-9
The E-Book is available now,
the PAPERBACK will be available Oct.1, 2020
at most online and brick & mortar bookstores.
More information, Publisher’s Page & Sampler

Tags: memoirNew Thought EssaysThe TruthWritingwriting memoir


26. In Defense of Editors

08/17/2018

Editors are a bloodless lot. Ink runs in their veins. Like street paramedics, firefighters, and ER caregivers, the editors are the people whose job is not always lovely work, but it’s the work that must be done to save the savable lives. I spent 25 years in the emergency service and rescue professions, and people often asked me how I could do this, when it was obviously something that’s hard to do. It occurs to me now, that editors might be asked the same question.

I have done a little bit of editing and I have some very modest skills in that, but I’ve got to say, as people have said to me about what I do – “I wouldn’t want that job! It’s not my cup of tea.” The truth of the matter is, life tends to call us each to some path or other, and provides us with the skills and tools and temperament we need for it. If we have the courage to do that thing we’re called to do, even though it’s not always easy or fun, we will be good at it. If we do something else, either because it seems easier or because other people tell us we should, we never are as good at life itself as we could be.

Momentary digresion:  Expunge the word “should” from your vocabulary permanently. Strike-through it any/every time it pops up, and you will find that all of your thorniest decisions become astonishingly clearer and easier.

The editor’s calling is very different from mine, which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable for me. It’s the perspective I can’t see by myself. It’s the reason my editor battles me, to make my work the best it can be. What we are doing, what we are creating, depends on us both.

Dear editor: I hate you and I love you, because for better or for worse, you are my partner on the fire-line and in the trenches, and I know this.


25. What Writers Do

07/09/2018

I wanted to bring something with me to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in August to put on the “consignment table,” where workshop leaders and attendees can put out a few of their books for sale. I looked through my  small personal catalog of works and decided to take a book of poetry called A Space Between Rains, and maybe a little chapbook titled Inchworms.

The chapbook was something I had sort-of thrown together in 2014 as a birthday gift for a writer friend, and never expected to publish. Besides writing, my friend was a full-time student and working part-time too, a very busy young man. His thank you, a few days later, was the best compliment I’ve ever received as a writer. He said, “I didn’t have time to read it, so I decided to just read one story. And then I read the whole book, cover to cover.”

So this year, searching for something “good enough” for the conference, I came back to it. Since then, more stories and poems have been added, and it has morphed into a viable book, with a cover blurb that says: “a lively little flea-market of a book…” A true definition of a chapbook, surely. There are stories that are blithe and happy, but also some that are deeper and dark.

This is not intended to be brilliant literature. Its essence is sometimes sweet and funny, often philosophical between the lines, and wiser than it seems. The title story is about a little girl, three years old, observing and describing an inchworm, a tiny green creature she finds in the chicken yard that is her backyard in North Carolina. She tells us about it, sharing her love of it with us. One page long, the story is simply a very young mind discovering the life around her. In later pages as she grows and sees more, the stories and poems do too. That’s it. That’s all it is.

This morning I realized that this is what we are all doing as writers, no matter what genre. We are observing life, discovering events and meanings, always more intimately, more vastly, and more truly, and we are inspired – no, compelled — to share what we have discovered. We want to shout from the mountaintop: “Wow – Look at this! This is Who We Are! This is what Life Is! Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it terrible? Wonderful, painful, joyous, profound, magnificent? To BE here and be alive, discovering it all?”

That’s what writers do. And somewhere hidden in a deep  place the world can’t pry into, we know that this is what we came here to do: to discover life and share it by telling it. With or without worldly recognition or reward, we write.

 


24. Memoir Snapshot: 3 Women

06/12/2018

There’s a little photograph I keep on my refrigerator door. In it, three women are sitting in a porch swing on the plain unadorned wooden porch of a farmhouse, somewhere in rural Illinois. The women pose with proper grace, smiling for the Kodak camera, with their hands folded neatly in their laps.

The house is quite small, made of clapboard neatly painted white. It’s summer. Emerald green fields of corn stretch out behind the house and seem to go on forever, all the way to the horizon. This is the front of the house, and the two windows that face the road are plain and functional too, and there are no curtains. The porch shade is more than enough from the midday sun, and there are no neighbors near enough to look in.

It’s Sunday after church, and the women are my mother and my two sisters. They have traveled all the way from Dallas Texas to Bloomington Illinois for Mother’s 50th high school reunion. This house is a place where Mother lived a long time ago as a child, and the current residents have welcomed her to the old homestead and invited all of them to stay for dinner.

In this small snapshot I can see through time, to past generations of strong farm women, practical, hard-working and generous. I love this little picture for its sweetness, its honesty and simplicity. Mother has left us now, gone from her place here on earth to a higher calling. Both of my sisters still live in Texas, both have grown children now. My own path has taken me from Texas to the East Coast, to the Midwest, and finally to the West Coast of Northern California where I call home, a long long way from Illinois. I take the picture down from its magnet on the fridge door and hold it in my hand for a moment. I hold these women in my heart forever.


23. Query Letters and Cowboy Boots

05/07/2018

As I write my book, along the way I’m putting together the necessary “query letter” for potential agents/publishers– the first level of approach/sales-pitch to get published. I scribble bits of ideas that come to me at odd times. Today sitting in my little neighborhood church in Oakland, I was not thinking about the book and certainly not the query letter, when a new segment of “my readership” suggested itself:  Gay men…
and everyone else who has a sensibility that’s strong but gentle and vulnerable, who probably has had to be on guard for most of their lives, even ashamed, lest that gentleness at their center might be found out, rejected, or abused.

Though this will certainly be catalogued as a “women’s” book,  the fact of the matter is, all of us struggle to fit Who We Are  into What The World Expects of us instead, and usually demands from us. That’s one of the themes of the book of course, and truth be told, we all spend most of our lives trying to understand who we are, and then find the courage to dare to genuinely be that. The greatest obstacles are the deeply-embedded lies we were taught about ourselves when we were children, either by people who should have loved us but didn’t, or more often by people who did, and lied because they loved us, and wanted to protect us from life.

The book is about a skinny little girl who loves horses and fire engines. She gets repeatedly told by the big people “You can’t have that, you can’t do that, you can’t be that” (about these and most of the things she wants) because you’re a girl. And what’s worse, there is the powerful unspoken mandate: “You shouldn’t want those things,” (because) girls don’t.

“Who says?” She demands, to no avail. Again and again she asks, “Why not?” and gets no reasonable answer. “Those things are for boys,” they say. What the child hears clearly is: Who you are is not okay. It’s not okay to want what you want.

It’s a big fat lie, and somewhere in every child’s heart we know this, but what can we do? We’re just a kid. Some of the same lies are passed along for generations, always  when we’re young and vulnerable and trusting, newly-learning about what life’s supposed to be. By words or actions, many of us were informed, “You shouldn’t be who you are, and it’s wrong to want to be.”  If you’re a boy, you’ve got to like baseball, not art or music or poetry. If you’re a girl, you must like dolls and dresses and tea-sets, not horses and fire engines.

I remember with crystal clarity, the day my brother got cowboy boots. I got all excited and asked, “Ooooh! Do I get some cowboy boots too?” My parents laughed and said, “Oh no honey, cowboy boots are for boys. You can have some pretty ballet slippers…”

I was four years old. “Ballet slippers?” I was stunned. “WHO wants THAT?” I begged for cowboy boots too. It didn’t do any good. Even now I can still feel the ache and sting of being so terribly wronged and cheated. I pleaded, in my own defense, “I couldn’t help it that I was born a girl! I didn’t get to choose!”

For the next decade I was a closet-tomboy, sneaking out to climb trees and roofs and fire-escapes and gallop around the neighborhood pretending I was a racehorse. Eventually I grew up and turned out straight, which made things easier, especially in Texas in the 1950’s and 60’s. I learned to “act like a lady” and I obeyed the rules. I married and worked two jobs, the telephone company and a department store, to put my young husband through graduate school. I was a good wife. I spent the 4 1/2 loneliest years of my life like that, until finally I realized that I had no Life, and I had no Self. I was living in his shadow, and whoever I used to be had gotten lost somewhere in the dark. Not his fault– we both played the roles we were brought up to play. This works sometimes for some people. Not this time, not for me.

Leaving was hard. It felt like more than a failure, it felt like a death, but I knew it had to happen. I got a divorce. I took my life back. I bought myself a pair of cowboy boots.


22. Good Writing / Bad Writing

04/24/2018

I love going to readings at local bookstores, like Diesel on College Avenue, Berkeley. Often there are great people there. The guy who wrote Kite Runner was there, with his wife and son. Maxine Hong Kingston read there, and the godfather of Poetry Flash, Richard Silberg is a regular. One week it was a guy who had a good opening chapter which he read, so I bought the book. The rest of the book turned out to be a rather corny contrived 1950s detective story, crammed with gratuitous violence and cardboard characters, seeded with bits of jargon and dialogue he must have picked up from reading old True Detective magazines. The book was dreadfully boring (to me, with my own tastes and prejudices) so I skipped ahead looking for something interesting. I got all the way to the end of the book without finding that. Hmmmmm… As writers, we are prone to getting so deeply immersed in “our thing” that we forget there is someone else to consider – the reader. 

You could tell that the writer loved his ending, reveling in his own brilliance. It was a long, drawn-out, TV-style scene of meaningless violence, clumsily written in slow motion. (Hey, here’s a thought: When ya write about violence, dontcha think maybe the writing should be sharp, fast-moving, or in other words, violent?) When you slow it down and do a close-up of every punch, every gory detail, and every button on the detective’s overcoat sleeve, it has no power. I would hate to have to write a newspaper literary review for something like this, and have to say “The plot was glacier-like, and the characters had no flesh, no bones and no heartbeat.”

(Okay, that’s awfully harsh, girl. Who died and made you the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Committee?) I actually have no experience or expertise in book reviewing, only that tired old basic principle I heard so many times when I was a young artist: “I don’t know much about art, (literature, music, fill in the blank: _________ ) but I know what I like.” 

Many thoughts this morning about writers and writing, and about how many books get published that are definitely not literature. The publishing business is not about literature, it’s about selling books, and schlock sells better than art or literature. In a group I once frequented, the teacher/leader had two published books. I only recently got around to reading one of them, the most recent one. (It wasn’t in the pubic library so I stalled around for years.) The book wasn’t very good. In fact I was shocked at how weak and unimaginative the first page was. (I’m no expert about professional writing or publishing, but I do know, Ya gotta have something pretty good on the first page, or else nobody’s gonna turn it over and read the second page.)

I might be a snob-reader, it certainly could be justifiably argued. I tend to be too critical, of myself and others. But is there really much point in putting pen to paper for stuff like that?  Unless you do it to make money… well, after all, that is a necessity in this world, to pay the rent, and writing is an honest profession, mostly.  So I admit, shamefully, that I’m a snob (or something equally wormlike) in my tough standards for writing. In my defense, I’m as hard on myself as I am on anyone else. Anyway, I have put the group-leaders’s book into my goodwill collection box. Somebody will love it.

Which brought me to the bottom line of what I think is true.  Whether you write for an audience, or for the benefit of humankind, or simply write for your own pleasure, writing is expression, which is always a good thing. It’s a natural thing, like the wordless songs babies sing in their cribs in the morning that wake you up with a a laugh.  It’s not exactly music… or is it?


21. Plot

04/08/2018

Every good writer/teacher’s chapter on Plot begins the same way: What does the protagonist want? And then, What obstacle(s) stand in the way of getting it? And there it is: your plot.

In my memoir Victory Is My Name, what Vickie wants is what everybody wants, if they only knew it. She wants to be free to be who she really is, and express that real self in the world. She knows, and knew even as a child, that the true Self of Her has value and gifts that should not be hidden, but shared. In the beginning she has no overt awareness of this and no way to express it without breaking the rules, but the urgency of this need will be ongoing through her life.

The core of the book is the hard path of unlearning the untruths we’re taught as children that we unconsciously allow to rule our lives. Becoming aware is step one, not easy, and can only come through life experiences, especially failures and bad choices. (We learn more from failure than from success, and the lessons are profound.)

I had to rein myself in from the need to explain everything important. I had to avoid getting teachy or preachy or psychologizing. Hard for me – to command my ever-intruding left brain’s urge to explain and document the parts of the process. Process, it turns out, is Life itself.  Explanation and dcumentation, though sometimes tasty and even nourishing, are really the parsley.

So I have placed no diagrams, circles and arrows, or dotted lines in the manuscript. Whoever reads this book will find what they are ready to find.  I hope it wil inspire people to write about their own lives, because the experience of looking upon all these events, joys, sorrows, and mistakes as a disembodied observer from somewhere else in consciousness, has been heavily loaded with personal epiphanies for me and simple truths of great beauty.

Like most of us, Vickie, my young self, stumbles toward the dim light of something that’s unrecognized but urgent. Through decades, the earliest rules and laws she was taught hold her hostage like invisible but impassable walls. Brick by brick, with only bare hands, is the only way to break through. Does she succeed? I will let the reader decide.

_____________________________

I’m seeking a few beta readers. If you’re interested, or would like to swap peer-reviews, do get in touch via:  writer2writer.victoriachames.com  Click  BETA READERS  in the header menu.


20. Illegitimi Non-Carborundum

01/11/2018

Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, was the book that sparked my literary/artistic ambition to the point of making a rock-solid commitment to completing and publishing my book. Before that, I was just working on it quietly, privately, as a maybe-someday-author. But after that, I took the pledge, literally, out loud to myself one night before I went to sleep. I told God I would do it.

Well, lots of never-published-authors do that. That was important, but still safe. Then I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and it resonated with my own life and mistakes, the circus-characters of my family and my expatriated state of Texas. (Her town in The Liars Club is a disguised Port Arthur Texas, where Janis Joplin was born and her troubled lonesome soul never really escaped from.) I went to hear Karr in one of those interview/conversations at an old hall at UC Berkeley, and that clinched it for me.

I had been genuinely writing my book, but still on the down-low. Anybody can do that. I realized that I had to take the leap into the abyss. I had to become A Writer, publicly, brazenly, and make myself emotionally bare-ass-naked to the world. OMG. From that moment, things started to change. The lens shifted, somewhere out in the universe a gear clicked, and it was scary as hell. Now I was no longer invisible; anybody could take a shot at me.

I took a few hits. I said ouch. But I had served eight years as a line firefighter a decade before, where I’d learned how to take a hit, get up quick, and get back on-task. But this was different. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t bad reviews that stung, I didn’t get so many of those. What I got was, strangely, entirely unexpected subtle but discernible bad vibes from other writers. Veiled snarkyness.

We writers are a jealous lot. Hypersensitive and neurotically vulnerable, most of us. Perhaps it’s this artist’s temperament that enables us to receive profound meaning and God-sent talents of expression, that also makes us easy victims to insecurities and self-doubts. Sometimes we fall into something less than our truest and best selves.

Lately I’ve been learning and practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. (It does take practice, like a foreign language.) It works like this:  When you feel yourself being snagged and pulled down by an emotion like jealousy, self-doubt, fear (the worst one) or any negative feeling, first, just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel bad/ uncomfortable/ unhappy, and you don’t like that. The action to take to change this circumstance is simple but effective. Admit it to yourself, (yes, I’m feeling like this) and then Let the feeling go. Push it away, and go on to something else you do like.

Easier said than done of course. So I devised a trick upon myself. (You could try it if you like, it might work for you.) I say, out loud, right in the middle of the feeling, “I don’t need this.” And then I visualize myself picking it up with two fingers, (like something nasty) putting it into a plain white business-size envelope, securely sealing the flap, and dropping it into the trash. Done.

I actually do feel noticeably better, lighter, and I feel like a real smarty-pants for so cleverly handling myself and refusing the annoying aggravation. I smile a smug little smile, think to myself, I win. And I go back to work.

The truth of the matter is that in the expression of the gift that has been given to you, no one else’s opinion matters as much as yours.  Every day remind yourself. Recognize, (“re-know”) and commit to this truth: This person may be either trying to help you, or hurt you. It doesn’t matter which, because nobody else can tell you how to be your best you, nobody else knows. You will find the answer inside yourself if you keep on seeking it. Everything else is not “the truth,” it’s an opinion. A perception. A different perspective. These can often be useful and valuable, as long as you don’t forget that they are not necessarily the truth.

When you get a disappointing response to a heartfelt endeavor, the problem is not that there’s anything about you that someone else should or could fix, the problem is that they didn’t know this. What they don’t know, as well as what they think, actually can’t hurt you unless you choose to let it. Don’t choose to let it. Don’t give in to doubts, misunderstandings, or insecure jealousies, and never give them squatters-rights in your mind. Get a big box of plain white #10 business envelopes…
(and be sure to empty the trash every day.)


19. How To Learn How

12/30/2017

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why – it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I got  hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the physical agility tests of first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (At first I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from Brooks, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…   out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

We must expect the same from our writing.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of the process.

Falling down is one of the first things we do in life. It is necessary, inherent, and valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way.

Besides, we never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the hill, again and again. Fall on your butt with determination, and with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down. Get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if writing is truly your path, you will do it.
__________________________________________________

*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
ofcr me w2w

 


#8 Rain Thoughts

09/30/2017

I’m still trying to to break a stubborn habit of sleeping late and missing too much of the morning– my best time to write. I worry that this might be a symptom of my sometimes moods of melancholy and borderline depression, the writers Demon. Today I am up early though, 7:30, and watching the sunrise gradually lighten up the dark sky. Everything is silent now. Nothing is moving except the tops of the trees, heaving in the winds, then settling down again. Rain is coming.

I love to write. Love to have a pen in my hand, just to make marks on paper. When I write in my journal, sometimes I have nothing to say. I write anyway. Sometimes surprising things come. If there’s nothing to say, I write fiddle-faddle, just because I need to be writing something. I’ve had this urge to write ever since I was six years old and first learned how. I never got over the wonder of it, making marks on paper, clean and sharp, that said things. Marks that could make the pictures that were in my mind, and tell the stories.

My book is going slowly. I’m impatient. This is hard. It’s not flowing. This is like cross-country skiing through wet cement. And yet, I marvel at how lucky I am– to be warm indoors, waiting for the rain. Hot coffee, cozy room, silvery sky, and the sweet promise of soft rain.

The rain begins now, very faint and misty, hardly more than a whisper of fog that settles almost invisibly onto everything, refreshing the green living things and making them tremble with wetness and expectation.

I’m grateful for the life I have, even though it’s not all I want. Outside my window the trees sway gently in the winds, first harbingers of good hard rains to come. Gusts are troublng the branches of the little lemon tree, and ruffling the trumpet vine on the fence. That trumpet vine would have bright red-orange flowers, but it does not bloom. Underneath the big oak tree, there is never enough sunlight falling on it, even on the brightest days. But it is beautiful still, it is being as beautiful as it can, where it is. It cannot move out of the shadows.  But I can,  And maybe not today, but soon, I will.


18. Write On

09/29/2017

I’m still looking for a beta reader or two. I never imagined they would be so hard to find. A few  friends began to read the book, but when they got to the hard parts, they just stopped. Admittedly, this book is not for every casual beach-reader, it’s not a romance, Sci-Fi  or a fairytale. It’s true, and there are parts of it that are dark, where people do things that are not kind, and things happen that are ugly.

But no soul is ugly. This is a deep lesson. It’s the one I learned in my years as a caregiver in a hospital emergency room. That’s where every kind and level of human life comes together in one place, sooner or later. To see the Soul  in some of these— lifelong drunks and drug addicts in rain-and-urine-soaked clothes with lice and cockroaches living on their bodies, and the stench was horrible – it was nearly impossible. But what the a 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said  is still true:

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” 

And these wretched remnants of humanity I served and fed and cared for, I finally learned, were the Bodhisattva who have come to teach us what not to choose.

So I write on, as writers do, it’s what we do because we must. Today I still have a ton of work to do and it all seems so impossible. There are times when it flows, but sometimes it’s like turning the crank on the old steel hand-operated meatgrinder my Greek grandmother used, part of the necessary work to prepare the marvelous spaghetti sauce that only she could make.


17. Writing From the Inside

08/11/2017

What I’m writing is a memoir but has become something of an epistle of faith. When I look across my history and the history of my family from the outside now, I see patterns and meanings I didn’t see when I was looking from the inside out. I’m not leading, I am led. It is being written like a letter not from my usual ego view, but more as if spoken from some inner voice, seen by inner eyes, uncontrived and unplanned. Whatever comes to me that rings true and real, I write it down. If it has value, it will stay. If it is meaningless or useless, it will be discarded. These things take care of themselves. All of my poetry came this way – as gifts of grace, never as the product of conscious effort, craft, or intention. I trust the soundless voice that speaks, much more than I trust my own limited and confused intellect.

When I was in my twenties, an artist and a fledgling poet, I said to God “Make me your instrument.” Maybe God will finally do that, or maybe that’s the One who placed the desire there to begin with. Either way, the prayer has not really changed much, for I have learned and relearned: by myself I can do nothing of real importance or significance, but when I’m driven to the page by that unnamed voice, something clear and clean and beautiful emerges into the light of ordinary day. In that moment, the ordinariness, the stories, the simple truths of life become what they have always been, but unseen: they become sacred. My response to this can only be awe, wonder, and gratefulness.


#16 About Writing Your Memoir

06/21/2017

Angelou quote.png
I always tell people, “Everyone should do this.” But with the caveat that you probably should not do it until you’re at least 50 years old, because you might not be able to handle it.

It’s no small deal. Telling your truth honestly and earnestly means time-travel, not just remembering. Being a disembodied observer looking down impartially like a sacred voyeur. You will see things you never saw– about your life, yourself, and the people along your path– truths and revelations you could not have seen with your younger eyes.

This will be painful. It will also be healing. Old wounds you didn’t realize you had will open right before your eyes, and bleed and leak other nasty stuff you never realized was in there. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you will see other things too, that you didn’t notice before: the beauty of yourself and other “imperfect” souls in your story. I promise you, you’ll be astonished, and quite possibly overcome with love and respect for that stumbling, blundering, courageous innocent that you really were.

Emotional wounds,  big and small, are like abscesses, scarred over with guilt and denial. When opened again in a clean place with a good light, they have the opportunity to drain their poisons and finally heal. We all have old wounds, many from our earliest years on earth, because they go with the life-path. A big part of the adventure of life is about managing them, rather than just allowing them to manage you. This takes a mature observer, an experienced blunderer, a sympathetic listener.  This is the heart of my book.

Writing a memoir forces us to re-open the time again, to look at ourselves and others in our story with mercy and compassion that puts whatever regret or guilt we have been carrying into a truer perspective. We can honestly forgive, and be forgiven.


#15 Why We Write

05/01/2017

I believe absolutely that life is inherently and necessarily about adventures, starting out innocent, blundering along, and discovering things. Learning about life, one way or another, is what it’s all about, and we write because we are inwardly compelled to share.

Going off to college in Austin Texas was an adventure that took me out of the shelter of home to another city and an infinitely more exciting and joyful way of life. When I quit school and got married, I went on another adventure, not so joyful, to a cold and lonely East Coast. Life changed completely, irrevocably, when I gave up my life to support his.

When I got divorced, I took my life back. That was the biggest leap of faith, and the most terrifying: to set out alone into unknown territory. I had stepped off the precipice into the abyss, with nothing but an utterly groundless faith and hope that there might be something else for me out there. There was. First the West Bank hippie-ghetto of Minneapolis opened up a different world and a different way of living and believing in Life with a capital L. Five years and lots of adventurws later, I came to California– a new state, a new time zone, and another new life.

All this was jammed full with learning experiences, far beyond anything I could have imagined or ever would have planned. Some were wonderful, some were terribly painful and wounding. But I survived them, and I am, as they say, “still here to tell the tale”

I know for sure that the most valuable thing I learned was that the nature and function of life, the reason we came here at all, is to venture out beyond our beginnings, beyond our safe-zone, and discover. To seek and find our own unique adventures and bring back the stories to share. If it had not been for the blundering rocky path I’ve traveled, I would not have this book to write.

Think about this the next time you stub your toe on the lifepath. At the next rejection form-letter. You are out here in the cosmos for a reason, and no matter what happens, you always fail forward. Nothing can take you backward. No mateer where you find yourself right now, whatever genre you write, your treasure-trove of Life-Experience Resources is growing. Be aware of it. It gives you something more  to say that matters. You’re on your way, your own way. Write on.


#14 Dear Beta Readers

03/10/2017

First of all, thank you for participating in this pre-publication First Read, and helping me to write the best book I can. Some of you have known me at some period in my life. It’s going to be a task for you to step back from that, and read the stories as abstractly as possible, as a group of characters you’ve never met. That’s the way you can help me most, in the writing process.

As you read, or after a chapter, just notice things like “what was my impression of this chapter? What stood out for me? What seems strong? Weak? Too fast or slow? Confusing? Unrealistic? Vivid?.” Was there enough of __(fill in the blank)__ or too much? Those are the things I need to know, that if spotted and corrected, will make the book clearer and better at saying what I really want to say, in a way that is understandable, not phony, not preachy, not fancy, and as genuinely as I can.

In writing the stories, I found it enormously helpful to think of the protagonist/ storyteller as simply a character in a book. Not me. That changed both my perspective and my perception surprisingly. When I stepped back and looked at this funny little girl from a distance, as someone I was observing like a character in a movie, I saw things about her that I never could have seen when I was her.

So if you are one of my friends, don’t take Victoria with you into chapter one, dump her at the gate and leave her out of it. She is someone else, who came much later. The first time you meet Vickie, see her as somebody you have never met before. And in your comments and suggestions, please refer to this character as “the little girl” or “the storyteller.” That will really help you keep a fresh unbiased perspective. For example, write “she was…” Not “you were…” Other than that, just enjoy a free book.

Congratulations, you are now a Developmental Editor. Professional ones make big bucks for this. So please know how much I value and appreciate your participation in my creative process. This will surely bring you lovely Karma. I’ll be blogging more here about the beta reader experience, so y’all come back.


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