Sunday, January 18, 2009

finding my spine

Good News!

A structure for my memoir, a spine, as Natalie Goldberg put it, has presented itself to me! Finally. We talked a lot about structure during Marc Neison’s Craft of Creative Nonfiction class at Chatham last term, but I could not, for the life of me, come up with a good one for my memoir. This morning, after reading Prompt 286 in Goldberg’s “Old Friend from Far Away” it came to me:

Waves. The ocean. The beach. The shore. Tides. Bird migrations. Dolphins. Jellyfish. Seaweed. Hurricanes. It’s all there. Primarily, though, it’s the waves – rollers, breakers, cappers. Waves can bring me in or take me back. Gently lift me off my feet or chew me up, spit me out, and leave me gasping for breath.


The beach has been part of my life since the beginning:

My first disappointment? When I was 4 years old and Bobby, a family friend, carried me past the breakers to the rollers… a thrill with no fear; a strong adult held me sure. She tired though, and went back to the blanket to rest, promising to take me out again later. She fell asleep and woke with sunburn … no more rollers ‘till years later.

Best family memories? Yearly trips to Wildwood, NJ. Sisters. Aunts. Long hot walks from our rental to the beach lugging beach chairs and coolers with baloney sandwiches and soda. Mom happy and jumping waves with us. Dad laughing.

Lost virginity? At the beach. ‘Nuf said.

First time living away from home? Long Beach Island. May. Alone. So lonely that I held foil on the TV antenna to get reception, actually said “goodnight” to the newscasters.

Closest I ever came to death? Jumping the biggest waves ever! I was caught in one, took in water, and couldn’t get my breath, and then, weakened, couldn’t fight the current to get back to the beach. Just made it, thanks to the help of a friend. Later we realized it was a ‘rip tide’ day. So that’s what the red flags meant …

The sexual assault that threw me for a loop? The Outer Banks. Avon, NC. While on vacation. While getting a massage. While trying to relax, for cripes sake…

Follow-up legal wrangling? All at the beach, Manteo NC. Three court dates. Interesting weather each time, once in a hurricane. This will come up in the memoir.


So, that’s a structure… at least a beginning of one. Right?


Maybe I’ve had too much coffee this morning, but I thought I’d share this too: here are some photos of, I guess you'd call it art. Believe me, I am not an artist, but I had taken some time off after the sexual assault and while I was trying to sort through the waves of feelings ; ) that kept coming over me I took to journaling, then I tried poetry, then gluing words and yarn together on canvas. I kept trying to depict the circle of thoughts - “the maddening nimbus with twists and turns spinning me dizzy on a center of truth” - (a line from one of my attempts at poetry). Here's the center:


Center of Truth – early


Center of Truth – later layers


The reason I am uploading this now? As I worked on the piece the ocean showed up as my internal strength. Anything good I found within me flowed up from there in the piece of art. The ocean levels everything and helps me find my self again.


So, I think I should use waves, the beach, as my structure. How, exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe that’ll be my next blog.



  1. I'll be interested to see how this structure works out, Janet. I can see potential. One thing I'd suggest is to be open about it and don't try to force it too much. I think structures should be as organic as possible--try not to fit the story you are going to tell into something preconceived. I would encourage you to write a few sections and see what kind of shape they take.

    And I'd love to hear you linger longer on each of the elements you brought up. The fact that the beach is the place where many important things happened to you, seems relevant and may help you in terms of focus and structure.
    I love the artwork. Beautiful colors and movement.

  2. This is a good lead, Janice. I think that the piece will be more affecting if you set yourself up as a character, by mentioning your childhood experiences at the sea. Making yourself into a fully fleshed out character that the reader really cares about will make us feel the weight of the sexual assault, and also understand that your reaction was unlikely without your having to tell us.


Please feel free to jot down your thoughts. I would appreciate knowing your reaction if any, to what I've written, and/or your feedback on how I've written it. I am actively trying to be a better writer.