Category Archives: writing

Love Hurts: Betrayal in Memoir

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At last month’s reading, someone asked how you protect siblings when writing memoir. It’s a good question and I didn’t feel I had a great answer. When you write about your life in essay or memoir, you naturally lean toward things that have some emotional weight: the people, places and events in your life that have had enough heft to have left a mark. Often these things involve family members—whether siblings, mates, parents or children.

This is where it can get sticky.

I don’t think it’s possible to write good memoir without betraying someone. Memoir requires we put ourselves on the line like no other kind of writing. Here I am not thinking of only the scandalous tell-all memoir, although it’s certainly a fine example of betrayal. But even stories about the most ordinary subjects—parenting, infirmities, relationships (especially relationships!)—require unearthing details that wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of the public sphere.

I first realized this after having a conversation with my nine-year-old son about sex. He and I had sort of stumbled into the discussion, but it ended up being one of the most satisfying parenting experiences I’ve ever had.

So naturally, I wrote it up and posted it to my blog.

I didn’t think about betraying anyone as I wrote. To me, the story was about my reluctance to tackle my fears and inadequacies around being a good father. But to tell the story, I had to mention that my nine-year-old had found pornography on an old laptop computer that I had earlier lent to my oldest son, who had been stationed here in Seattle. I suppose I understood it was a little dicey to link my oldest boy’s possession of the computer and pornography, but there seemed to be enough plausible deniability built into the story (he shared the computer with all his roommates) to cover everyone, so I blazed forward.

When I finished, I posted the story. Friends and family were amused. I was pleased. One night as I read the comments attached to the story, my nine-year-old noticed it over my shoulder. He was reading dialog attributed to him, that he had actually said.

“Is that about me?” he asked.

I could hear the hurt in his voice. We had had a heart-to-heart talk—one of our very first—and I had posted it to the Internet for all to see. I felt so ashamed. I quickly switched the window to something else. It was all I could do not to just tell him a lie: “You? Of course not.” Somehow I held my tongue.

Now parents have been telling humiliating stories about their kids for ages, so that’s nothing new. But this story was different—it wasn’t about getting a cheap laugh. I wanted to talk about coming to terms with my fears around being a parent.

My nine-year-old and I needed to have another little heart-to-heart.

I didn’t try to explain to him anything about fears and inadequacies. I went with how much I love to write. He seemed to understand that I wasn’t out to hurt him. We came up with some boundaries, which mostly involved certain things he would rather I never write about, if they involve him. 

My big lesson was this: it’s fine to write about the important stories, but you have to consider the aftermath. Can you live with it? I know writers who have changed the names of their loved ones to protect their privacy. I have heard of other writers who have let loved ones (and even not so loved ones) vet their pages before publication, with the option to negotiate what details get published. Obviously if you’re writing a tell-all memoir, you’re not going to have the pages vetted, but you must prepare yourself for the potential fall out.

A few months later my oldest son posted to the comments section of my blog denying any knowledge or complicity with pornography, which I had already assumed was the case, anyhow, but his earnest disavowing also made me chuckle. We probably need our own little heart-to-heart, but he already knows how much I love to write, how important our relationship is to me.

He is my biggest fan. Somehow my best stories always seem to be about him. Writing memoir is almost certain to involve betrayal, but that’s not always so bad.

Sometimes it can be the start of something beautiful.

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Seattle Book Fest: A Big Success

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Last night’s reading at the Seattle Book Fest was fun.

I surprised myself by getting nervous about three hours before Matt and I spoke. Holly said you couldn’t tell from listening to me, but I don’t see how that’s possible. The good news: I didn’t faint or throw up.

We were talking about flash non-fiction, so I read I Am and Jimi Don’t Play Here No More. I thought my first story, “I Am,” went really well. Halfway through Jimi, I just wanted it to be over. 

But I kept reading.

Fortunately for me, Matt was there. What a pro! I’ve attended enough of these panels and workshops to know what’s expected, but each time Matt interjected something helpful, it seemed like a revelation:

“Can everyone hear?” “Is anyone interested in learning where to submit their own flash for publication?”

In the end, it seems like it’s the simple, obvious stuff that makes or breaks a good reading. I am pleased I was able to participate. Once I started writing, it took me a long time to start sending things out for publication, but it was an obvious next step, and one I’m glad I finally took. Now I’ve done my first reading. I just need a book deal (and maybe a groupie) and then I’ll be solid.

All kidding aside, I want to thank Matt Briggs for allowing me to read with him. What a great opportunity.

Thank you, Matt!

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Tim Elhajj in Sweet, a Literary Confection

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The latest issue of Sweet has hit the Web. I’ve got a story in this one, so I’m excited.

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In Response to a Writing Group Question About How to Make Real Money as a Writer

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In 1995 I moved to Seattle from New York City, with an unfinished BA in English (9 credits shy) and a promise to send the remaining course work by mail.

I applied for a job with a software company.

Because I had nothing else, I brought a few poems to my first interview for a writing sample. One poem contained the word “goddamn,” and the fellow who was interviewing me said he didn’t mind but thought it might be a bad poem to use on a future interview. I hadn’t even realized.

The hiring manager at the software company asked me how much I expected to earn. I hadn’t given much thought to salary requirements and had only ever held hourly wage jobs. I told her the first number that popped into my head: twenty thousand. She smiled and told me she would give me twenty-four. I was so surprised and elated I had to restrain myself from saying, “thousand?” A year later I learned I was the lowest paid writer in a group that was notoriously underpaid. They gave me a ten thousand dollar raise my second year just to put me even with the rest. As it turned out, I was really good at interviewing software developers and coming up with clever ways to explain how to use the company’s financial software.

Now I work at the biggest software company on the planet. I make more money than I did in 1995 but somehow it’s still not enough. Two years ago my oldest son, who grew up in Steelton, asked me in all seriousness if I were rich. Two months ago my eleven-year-old daughter, who has lived her entire life in a suburb of Seattle, asked me with equal candor if we were poor.

Money is all about perspective.

Do what seems right. Keep trying. One day you end up right where you are supposed to be. Chances are, you will still have to think long and hard before you make certain purchases.

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This I Believe

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The This I Believe website claims their project is an attempt to engage “people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives.”  Based on a popular 1950s radio series hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the series has been back now in various forms for a few years.

Perhaps because of my interest in narrative nonfiction, I wanted to see what I could do with this format. Writing it was an interesting experience. It didn’t really come together until I was able to acknowledge that I have struggled with faith. From there it turned into a little testimony to Mom, which pleases me to no end.

My humble offering to the ongoing discussion, I hope you like it…

Piggyback Belief

I have always lacked faith, believing instead in life’s shrewd certainties. When I went to the Bronx for in-patient drug treatment, I felt my chances were slim. I had been using heroin for ten years in my small hometown in Pennsylvania, and New York City seemed like exactly the wrong place to kick a heroin habit. But I found a challenge and urgency in the Bronx that pulled me through treatment.

Despite my success, I didn’t think I would last long outside treatment. I didn’t want to feel ambivalent, but I was trying to be realistic: I had no family ties to New York City, no job skills, and no education.

I got assigned an AA sponsor, who I eventually went to meet at a busy downtown diner in Manhattan. I told him what I was thinking. Wiping fried chicken from his fingers and mouth, he leaned forward. “Do you believe that I believe you can stay sober?” As soon as he said it, he waved his hand in my face and added, “Now listen here! I’m not asking if you believe any of this. I’m asking, if you believe that I believe it.” He jerked his thumb into his chest.

Read more after the jump

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Modern Love in the New York Times

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The New York Times’ Modern Love is one the best non-fiction venues available today. I call your attention to this week and last week’s columns, both of which are excellent.

When I started to submit my work, I was largely focused on literary magazines. I was not familiar with Modern Love, but fortunately for me someone in my writing group was. Some writers say you shouldn’t submit a story to a big name venue until you’ve amassed some publishing credits, but I think that’s crazy. What makes more sense to me is to look for where your work will best fit, regardless of the publication’s size or prestige.

My Modern Love story prominently features a Yankee’s cap, which (I’m sure) improved its chances for publication in the New York Times. The story explores the challenges an estranged father faces, building a relationship with his son. I submitted the story in January, which offered plenty of lead time for a Father’s Day publication, although I (oddly) hadn’t even considered this at the time.

Modern Love doesn’t appear in my Writer’s Market, which may explain why I was not familiar with it. Sometimes you learn the best place to publish your work by networking with other writers. The only submission guidelines I’ve found for Modern Love were from a Q&A, hosted by Dan Jones (Modern Love editor) on the New York Times blog site.

Here is Mr Jones on submitting:

Modern Love is open to anyone and we welcome unsolicited submissions. You can send submissions to modernlove@nytimes.com. They should be no more than 1800-2000 words in length (final run length is closer to 1700 words) and the essay should be both pasted into the email and attached as a word document.

UPDATE: The New York Times has publisehd an official submission page for Modern Love essays: How to Submit Modern Love Essays. Good luck!

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Rough Beast: Stories of Exile and Unrequited Love

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My story, Jimi Don’t Play Here No More, which appears in Brevity 29, will also be featured in a new anthology titled, Rough Beast: Stories of Exile and Unrequited Love, from Bannock Street Books

Helmed by Sarah Black, Bannock Street Books is a new micro-press that specializes in handmade chapbooks that feature flash fiction and memoir (although flash memoir isn’t mentioned on the site just yet).

I’m delighted.

In other “Jimi Don’t Play Here” news, William Bradley linked to my story  from his blog. Bradley is none other than the Ethical Exhibitionist, which is something I bet we all wish we could say, but we can’t because Bradley thought of it first. 

I found his post this afternoon as I was browsing his site and was pleasantly surprised.

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Scenes That Linger Long After You Finish the Book

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For me, the mark of a good memoir is how much of it I can remember once I’ve set it aside for any amount of time. Last night as I watched Barack Obama address congress, I found myself thinking about a poignant scene from his debut memoir, Dreams From My Father.

Here is the setup: Barack’s father, a native Kenyan, who has been separated from the family and living in Kenya since Barack was two, is coming to visit. The elder Obama is an official for the Kenyan government. His visit home includes a celebrity visit to his ten-year-old son’s school. Barack feels torn: he is reluctant to have an African show up at his school, but he is excited to finally meet his absentee father. The image used to illustrate this ambivalence is young Barack looking up a picture of a Kenyan in a reference book, only to find a man in a loin cloth holding a spear. How perfectly this scene illustrates those first tentative steps a child takes from private to public life. He looks forward to meeting his father but also values the esteem of his classmates.

This scene works because it’s both universal and specific. It captures the specifics of young Barack’s coming of age—a broken home, the quiet longing, an African father. But it also shows the universals—a ten-year-old sensibility, an elementary school milieu, the child’s growing awareness of his own public identity.

If you asked me to characterize a universal trait of growing up, I am not sure the threat of mortification would ride high on my list. Yet two years after first reading this scene, I can remember a good bit of the detail. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the image of a boy so horrified by his own imagination easily reminds me of my own childhood anxiety around being embarrassed.

Here is what I know: If you try to write a universal scene, you can easily end up with something that sounds stiff and self conscious, completely missing the mark. Instead I think we have to learn to trust our instincts to select the right scenes, the ones with the most emotional impact.

And then just let go and let the muse do the rest.

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Brevity Blog Features Tim Elhajj on Writing, Jimi Don’t Play Here No More

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This week the Brevity Blog is featuring Brevity 29 authors discussing the stories they wrote for the latest issue. The idea here is to discuss the “origins or inspirations” for the stories, and the Brevity Editors even discourage blatant car salesmanship from recently published authors (only stealth car salesmanship will do!), so you know this isn’t just another marketing gimmick. It’s the real deal, folks.

My post went live earlier tonight.

Here is a short excerpt:

This story, Jesus.

The end of [Jimi Don’t Play Here No More] takes place in 1988 when my oldest son was three-years-old. I’ve been telling this story for ages now, but only to other addicts and alcoholics, usually at some type of 12-step meeting. I only recently started telling it to civilians, which is difficult because people never know what to say when I get to the end.

Check out the rest of the post.

And keep watching the Brevity blog for more Brevity 29 authors. This is an awesome issue. I am looking forward to reading Beth Westmark discussion of Tenderness, myself.

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