Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour: The Four Questions

Thanks to Donna Miscolta for inviting me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. I'm to answer four questions, then tag three more writers to continue the chain.

     1. What are you working on? I'm working on two books of poetry. The first, Driving Home from Mother's House, is about my mom, Anna Helfgott (1899-1996), who was for all of my life (little did I know it) the center of my life. Writing Mother onto the page helps me understand the strengths and weaknesses of our relationship and how that mother-daughter bond informed the relationships I had with my father, sister and brother, not to mention my own children and grandchildren and, of course, my two marriages. 
     I've been writing poems for this work since 1982 when I took classes from Heather McHugh and Nelson Bentley. I happened to have been in their classes because, while I was enrolled as a doctoral student in history, I needed to take a break. I thought poetry would be the best way to relax and have some fun. The poems encompass the various stages of my emotional and intellectual development, that is, from ages four years old or so, through elementary school years, high school, young adulthood and periods of aging and aging some more. Many of the poems have to do with my mother's political activism - her leftist and union activism in the 1930s and her involvement with the Seattle Gray Panthers in her later years. She was in practically every demonstration in Seattle until she was 90 years old, fighting for civil rights, women's rights, and most of all, a single-payer health care system. I hope to include some of Mother's poems in this collection. She was also in Nelson's classes. 

     The second manuscript concerns shadows my family lived with from the 1940s on: 1) the McCarthy era witch-hunts and 2) a hovering but absent much older half-sister - Leah (1926 - 2010) - from my father's first marriage whom I didn't meet until I was an adult. Then she told me "I don't want a sister." She did, however, embrace my brother, thereby reinforcing a class-difference and betrayal dynamic, as well as a woman-hate-woman kind of sexismMy sister Dorothy (1944- 2004) and I were not in our half-sister's obituary, though our brother was.  For me, this led to the devastating realization that Dot and I did not exist in a world that we carried with us (at least I did) since childhood and reinforced the fact that my brother had an extended (and internal) family that my sister and I were never invited into. This second manuscript is called My Two Dead Sisters
     2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? Obviously psychoanalysis informs my work, but everyone's work is different, as it should be. There's no jello mold for writers. We all have different voices and different life experiences, which we write from - or in spite of. I entwine different writing modalities into my work, as I did with Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013). Poets write in a variety of ways, entwining one genre with another. My last book, Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's (Cave Moon Press, 2014), I thought I'd do all in Tanka form, but something inside me refuses to conform and I ended up playing with the form and taking it into a variety of directions. 
     3) Why do you write what you do?I write what I have to write, to figure out what I'm thinking and feeling, to understand and to remember the past. This, so I can better understand its relationship to the present and why the present has turned out the way it has, to a certain extent at least. I'm psychoanalytic in my thinking and the oedipal drama is present in my work, as is the emphasis on the first few years of life, as they were defined by the ethnic, class-driven and sexist nature of my environment. Diary writing tells the truth of my internal experience perhaps more than anything else, and so I weave my diaries and some history - historical facts from my parents' lives and my half-sister's life - into both manuscripts, Driving Home from Mother's House and My Two Dead Sisters.
     Including the Diary within the space of poem and story helps me continue with my writing projects. I never liked compartmentalizing, separating one part of myself from another, as one needs to do when working in engineering, say, or cutting someone’s chest open to perform heart surgery, even writing a traditional biography; fortunately being a writer allows one to invent new forms, entwining pieces of one part of the self with another; so in my work I give myself permission to include diary entries into the whole of my texts.  I'm trying to do this in the history text I'm writing, but it's not so easy.

     4) How does your writing process work? As I mentioned above I write what I have to write. When I was experiencing Alzheimer's with my husband - and it was my experience as well as his, I as the caregiver and he as the holder of the disease - I continued keeping a diary as I have most of my life (the one period I didn't write in a diary was during the eight years of my first marriage). So along with my Seattle P.I. blog Witnessing Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's ViewDear Alzheimer's was born. Both came from my immediate experience, as it was happening. When Abe died, at one point I was having a hard time accessing my feelings. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't know how. So I played around with form; and Tanka helped me. With Tanka and its song-like style I was able to figure out what I wanted to say to Abe. I ended up writing love poems to him, which I hadn't known I wanted to do. That's how Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's came to be. 
     I'll end with this: For years, I've been working on a biography of the Viennese-born Seattle child psychoanalyst, Edith Buxbaum, Ph.D. (1902-1982). I wish I could say I'll finish that work in the next two years, but I need to complete my poetry manuscripts first-- so I can move on with my internal life. As one extended-family member said sarcastically: Watch out for those demons.   I do, by writing in poem and diary. But History is what I got my Ph.D. in after all, and I don't want to leave it behind  Plus, I love doing historical research and writing it up, as I have for example at HistoryLinkour wonderful encyclopedia of Washington State.
     When I finish Driving Home from Mothers House - 2015 projection date - and My Two Dead Sisters - 2016 projection date - I'm set on completing the Buxbaum project.  She was an important figure in Seattle's women's, psychoanalytic and social work history and she deserves her say. My goal is to help her say it by 2020. I won't even be eighty yet.

www.estherhelfgott.com 
MY UPCOMING READINGS
Thurs. Aug. 28 - Couth Buzzard Books
Thurs. Sept. 11 - Ballard Library
Sun, Nov. 9 - Jewish Family Service
I've tagged the following writers to join the Writing Process Blog Tour.

JennyNeill chases stories at the intersection of agriculture, wellness, and business with a keen interest in sustainability. Her career has taken her through a variety of communicator roles in corporate and non-profit work settings. She has also worked as a sommelier, assistant travel planner, and health content architect. Jenny lives in Seattle and loves wine, coffee, film noir, whale watching, cheering for Sounders FC, and crashing a good dance party when traveling abroad.
JosephE. Lerner  I have worked as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, editor, and small press publisher. My poems and flash fiction have appeared in 100 Word Story, deComP MagazinE, Gargoyle, Jet Fuel Review, Matchbook, Pif, PoetsWest, The Prose-Poem, and elsewhere. I'm also an alumnus of the Clarion SF Writers Workshops. 
ElisabethHanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her PhD in 2011 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’.  She publishes in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction. Publications include Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Quadrant and Griffith Review as well as in the journals, Life Writing and Life Writing Annual: Biographical and autobiographical studie. Her work appears in  psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and the United States, including Stories of Complicated grief: a critical anthology edited by Eric Miller PhD, (NASW press); Eavesdropping: The Psychotherapist in Film and Television, (eds) Lucy Huskinson and Terrie Waddell, Guilford Press, (Routledge 2015). She is an adjunct research associate at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.






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