How do I keep sane? I am no longer writing stories about Black issues—a subject for which I’m passionate. But in our children’s literature universe, “Black” stories need to be written by “own voice” writers and I’m white. (And that seems right to me).
I have other passions. I’ve written about Martha Graham, Marcel Marceau, and women’s rights.
I’m a dancer. I’m a woman. You might call these topics “own voice.” But when will those books come out? They seem to be permanently stalled. One manuscript about Ducks and Geese, another about making artists making art, newly in the pipeline are not being snatched up by publishers. It’s a little discouraging.
So what do I write now? I know writing helps me. I’m a better person when I’m immersed in a writing project because I’m a happier person. But what project will hold my passion through the long haul? I’ve been starting and abandoning projects—having a hard time coming up with that right project.
And then I go back to thinking about “own voice.” What is more “own voice” than a memoir? I’ve always wanted ONE DAY to write a memoir. So…that one day has finally arrived.
But who cares? Will anyone read it? I’m not a celebrity. Will my memoir even be publishable? Does it matter? I care enough about publication that I’m directing mine to a specific audience: YA. Young adults might be interested in a character (me) who fights against the odds and makes a career out of her passion. But even if I don’t publish it, I want to write it. I want to have written it.
On what will the memoir hinge? Dance, of course. What do I include? How many tangents do I follow? I mean, a life is a complicated entity. How do I manage the tangents? I’ll be figuring this out for a while. Should I write it chronologically? Or jump around through time, organizing by topic? Or a combination of those ways?
I’m only on the first chapter, so I really have no right to be talking about this, yet. But here I am, being asked to write a blog. Help!
But I do have a draft of the first chapter and a page of possible chapter ideas. Yesterday I hated it. Today I like it. It made me laugh. You know how that is.
So what might I say to help you write your memoir? For one thing: your family—your children in particular—might want to know about your life. But where do you start?
It’s my story, why should I have to research? Here are some reasons. Or examples of what needs to be researched.
My favorite primary research is talking to people. So far I’ve contacted my sister and several friends who have lived parts of my life with me. This is fun.
My sister remembered the Russian ballerina who briefly taught us ballet in downtown Arlington Heights. The aging ballerina spoke Russian and taught in French: plié, tendu, degagé. My sister reminded me that the teacher thumped a cane on the floor to keep the rhythm. A great detail which builds on the fact that my seven-year-old self was terrified by this teacher.
My friend Dawn, now a professional visual artist, was with me when I had an extreme injury in sophomore year at a ski slope. So I ask her about that. She tells me what she remembers. It’s not nearly as much as I remember, of course.
But she remembers going downtown to Chicago with my family and me to see Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was life-changing for her, she says. Fabulous. I hadn’t remembered what we’d seen. My family attended truckloads of performances—theater, dance, symphony. I was lucky. So Dawn got culture with my family and I skied with her family.
P: That was like $1000, which was worth a truck load back then. (The bills were slightly obsolete, but only slightly). You asked your solicitor friend Stephen if it belonged to us, right?
Y: (Laughing) And it did belong to us.
P: Do you remember my father saying, ‘Turn it into the police.’
Y: (She remembered). No way (she’d said). The police will just pocket it.
So I had to write to my father and say, I can’t, Dad. Half belongs to Yael and it just wouldn’t be fair. He speculated that some petty criminal had stashed it away, had gone to prison and he’d just be getting out and would be looking for his cash and would break my legs to get it. Something like that.
No, I thought. A little old lady stashed it away, nailed it under her bureau for safe keeping. She died with her secret stash intact. Her bureau was sold to a local second-hand store where our landlady (who happened to be a witch) bought it.
Okay, I’m giving too much away. But it might be interesting, right? One day I want you to read my memoir.
BTW, I realize I still owe the little old lady who I envision having stashed the cash. And we all know: What goes around comes around. Sure enough. When I was dancing in New York, my roommate stole $500 from me (the amount of my half of the treasure). But that’s all I’m telling you. Well, a bit more. I went to a brothel to find Pauline, by then my former roommate. Did I get the money back? Not telling. But I will tell you this. I was desperate, which seems to be a theme of my life. But the theme of my memoir is clearly going to be determination and perseverance. This girl was going to have a professional dance career!
About that £400/$1000 dollar story—will it be told as part of one long chronology? Or under the topic of money? Or roommates? Or What goes around comes around? Stay tuned.
I’ve asked questions of journalist Burt Constable of the “Daily Herald” in Arlington Heights. I’ve contacted the Harper Theater in Hyde Park to ask about modern dance performances back in the day. I found a website listing historical Chicago theaters and the productions they sponsored that dates all the way back to the 19th C. I don’t need to go quite that far.
But when I saw the name “Harper Theater” I remembered that’s where we saw the dance companies of José Limon, Alwin Nikolais and Paul Taylor. I contacted the present theater manager and she’s trying to set up contact for me with an old-timer who has no email account bt knows about the dance concerts.
I’ve googled the historic Chicago snowstorm of 1967 and realize I injured myself during the worst blizzard in recorded Chicago history. Which created quite a challenge for my parents to get to me at the Milwaukee hospital from our Chicago suburb. That’s a good bit of drama.
So I wonder, which comes first, desperation or drama? Hmmm. There’s a fair amount of drama in my life. Good for a memoir. Maybe.
Why Write a Memoir or Anything Else for that Matter?
Martha Graham answered this question. “…because there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”[i]
I might do spot illustrations as well. Here’s the first one.
So if you’re blocked, you just might want to write a memoir. Maybe. Maybe your kids or grandchildren might want to know about how you came to be you.
Dancer storyteller author librarian Patricia Hruby Powell’s last four books have been Junior Library Guild Selections. Josephine, Loving vs Virginia, Lift As You Climb, and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue have all won various other awards as well. Her forthcoming books are Sunday Before Sundown, Cave of the Heart, and a women’s suffrage project.